By the time I caught up with Maria Pia again, I had forgotten about her project but the subject came up nonetheless. She seemed anxious to resurrect the idea.
We met in the street. She was with a young man in his twenties, a little older than her. There was a family resemblance: the same almond-shaped face, the same grave eyes. He was her brother, Matteo. As we walked, Maria Pia dived into a shop leaving the pair of us outside and feeling awkward.
It appeared she had told the story of the fall incident back at home.
‘It was lucky you were on hand. She could have been hurt,’ he said, to break the ice. We shuffled our feet as we awaited her return.
‘Maria Pia doesn’t believe in luck.’
‘No, no, we mustn’t say that!’ Matteo laughed. He was more of an empiricist than his sister. He told me he was in his final year at the medicine faculty. ‘Of course, let’s say it was providential. Who knows, maybe it is “all in the stars”. The deeper truth of things is buried below the surface – I think we can all agree on that, at least.’ His own field of interest was Psychiatry, in which he planned to specialise.
~ o ~
The next occasion I saw Maria Pia was at class. She came over to me as I was setting up.
‘I’ve got some of my photographs to show you. I hope you have time afterwards.’
I wanted to explain that I’d made arrangements, I had to be away promptly from the session, but her look implied that if I said ‘no’, the disappointment would be irremediable.
I said, ‘I’ve got to meet some friends. We are going to get lunch at Rocco’s Counter, and eat in the square. You’d be welcome. They’d like to see your photographs. I’ve told them about your work.’ This was a lie. I would have to manage it when we all got together. She hesitated.
‘I don’t show my photographs, except to people who know me. They are personal – it’s difficult to explain. But OK – it’s your friends.’
As she turned away, she darted me a bruised look, as if I’d betrayed a trust. It was time to begin the session. She shrugged the robe off and mounted the podium. The pose she adopted gave me a back view of her, partly obscured by the chair. It was a dull angle to draw.
~ o ~
We were late meeting Laura and Danny. They had already bought their food and were sitting under a plane tree facing the fountain, a hexagonal basin into which a writhing knot of mythical fish spurted water. The midday pausa was falling like a curfew. A couple of restaurants, at the entrance to the square, were in full swing. Residents of the surrounding buildings were drifting back for lunch indoors. One or two groups of men lingered by the herd of parked-up scooters, to argue the toss or maybe haggle over a deal. Danny and Laura had begun to eat. Pigeons were showing interest, trying to calibrate the safe distance at which to prospect for crumbs.
I introduced Maria Pia; I had previously recounted the fall, the accident averted. Laura asked, out of politeness, if that morning had been mishap-free. Danny was tongue-tied in the presence of a girl he didn’t know. He was working late shifts in a restaurant, washing up. It was drudgery but he took it in his stride. The only complaint I’d heard him voice was that he missed going to see the Arsenal, now that the season was underway.
I could see that Danny was fascinated by Maria Pia, even though he remained largely silent and left the conversation to the three of us. She herself was shy, taking stock of the company, but her shyness had a winsome quality to it. Her remarks laid trails of incomplete information; floated quirky opinions that depended on no reasoning for their existence. She invited interrogation, yet met the simplest enquiries with a coyness that suggested she were on the verge of divulging secrets.
After we had eaten I mentioned the photographs that she had brought. She displayed a reluctance, wholly feigned I felt sure.
‘I don’t know (she pronounced the “k”) whether I should let you see, whether you would like them…’
‘Well, the only way to tell – is to show them,’ I said, determined to jolly things along.
‘Yes, I k-know.’ She hid her face in her hands like a child playing hide and seek, counting the allotted time, before calling ‘coming, ready or not’ and going directly to the usual hide-outs, the ones used on many previous occasions. ‘All the same, they are quite…strange…’
‘Well, if you don’t want to show them…but I thought the idea was to do your project, “The Fall”?’
‘Yes…but now I don’t k-know…’
‘But now you’ve said they are strange, we are curious…but perhaps you think we couldn’t handle the strangeness – oh, I get it – you think we are too square!’ I found myself playing her game, even though now I didn’t really care whether she showed the pictures.
‘No, no, you are not square…but these photographs are like part of me… I don’t want you to not like me, that’s all.’
She had taken the photographs out of her bag before she had finished saying this. They were in a small portfolio tied with a leather thong. It would have been easy, after the preamble, to show just me: after all, that had been the deal originally. Laura and Danny had taken Maria Pia at her word and struck up their own conversation. However, she repositioned herself in the middle of the three of us, and opened the folder. After the show of reticence, all constraints now were gone, it seemed. She systematically laid the pictures in a group on the ground. There were ten, each mounted in a black card frame.
Despite her tiresome shilly-shallying, as soon as we saw them, we were enchanted. The compositions were, in a sense, what I had been led to believe: Maria Pia and an ensemble of young people, posing. Yet, her tableaux, whilst enacting classical or baroque subjects, had the air of being clipped from reality. The moments could have equally been the aftermath of a party: young bodies languid from recent waking; blank expressions guarding private thoughts, whilst holding station in attitudes that Maria Pia had devised. In a way, maybe, the compositions were a window on the reality of the life model: the human prop, mind otherwise engaged. Among the players, I recognised Matteo.
For all their protagonists’ dead-panning, or because of it perhaps, the pictures were ravishing. The lighting was expert, lingering over the texture of skin, describing features, defining physiques; and the colour was rich, like nothing that ever came back from Boots. The company was attired in a motley of fancy dress, evening gowns, old corduroy pants, velvet bits and pieces, chosen it appeared for the sumptuousness of their colours and surfaces. Often the actors wore drapery like classical deities, whimsically combined with burlesque undergarments. Maria Pia most frequently appeared like this, except in one or two compositions where she was naked.
One tableau presented a reworking of Susanna and the Elders: Maria Pia plays Susanna; she stands passively, clothes discarded, at the mercy of four men, young men in this case, who form a semi-circle around her. They appear to be engaged in a ritual dance; their forms blurred and they are making lewd, hostile-seeming gestures. Their concealment, traditional in the treatment of the subject, comes in the form of caricature masks: a Devil, a Frankenstein, a werewolf and a Richard Nixon.
Not all the scenes were as frankly menacing as this one. One was a Pietà. Maria Pia lies horizontally, her head angling downwards, across the lap of Matteo. He looks the man of science: he is wearing horn-rimmed glasses, and a dark suit. Maria Pia is naked in this tableau too; the lighting has contrived to illuminate her torso and leave her features in shadow.
Laura was looking intently at the photographs. ‘These are wonderful,’ she said. It was clear from her voice that she meant what she said. ‘Is that Diana and Actaeon?’ It was a set-up in a grandly dishevelled bathroom. A group of girls are ministering to Maria Pia, towelling her hair, painting her nails. They look quizzically at a boy who has entered, carrying a comically small bow and arrow tipped with a rubber sucker.
Maria Pia seemed glad of the good notices, though I guessed this was not the first time her work had garnered plaudits; her photographs were impressive beyond any dispute. Laura began picking out details and asking how she had realised them. Maria Pia told us that she had the run of an old house that belonged to her grandparents. In the past it had stood in countryside, but the peripheries of the city had expanded and enveloped it. Later, even these newcomers had given way to the modern apartment buildings that now surrounded the place. The grandparents had raised their family in it and, later, Maria Pia and her siblings. Now they had moved out and gone to live in an apartment. Maria Pia used the place as her Petit Trianon. It was the location for her pieces; lights and camera were always set up.
As we continued to look at the photographs, I noticed Danny. Maria Pia’s photo-compositions appeared to be an epiphany for him: they held his interest as no art in this city of art treasures had managed to do. Part of his fascination was undoubtedly Maria Pia’s nudity. When we had roomed together, I’d discovered him to be quite puritanical. I had never asked him directly, but I surmised he was a virgin. He didn’t have a stash of Mayfair and Penthouse in his bedside drawer, still less the Danish material that Luca passed around. I guessed he found her nakedness in the photographs perturbing. All the same, I think what mesmerised him most of all was the assurance of Maria Pia, unabashed at allowing us sight of her alter self.
After a time we broke up. I had a lesson to teach. Laura and Maria Pia, I noticed, went off together, still deep in conversation. I realised that Maria Pia was now part of our life here.