I didn’t see Danny again until later that evening. My life was growing complicated at this time; a far cry from earlier days in the city when, as summer students, he and I had shared a room. I lived now with my girlfriend, Daisy. We had a flat. It was meant to be wonderful but things were not going well between us. Daisy was nocturnal: she had a job in a club, where she worked until the early hours. In the meantime, I was teaching English, working regular hours. The result was that our encounters were becoming more and more infrequent.
My habit was to seek out Danny for company; we would stay up and talk when he came back after his shift. Usually he had stories from work: the fellow plongeur who had tamed a rat; the romance between Annalisa, the waitress, and one of the regular customers. That night, we began in that vein and then, suddenly, he said, ‘Y’know Maria Pia – d’you think I’ve got a chance?’
‘What sort of chance? Romantically, you mean?’ It was a dumb rejoinder, because that was obviously what he meant, but I was trying hard to think of an answer that would not be an absolute crusher. He had no hope at all, as far as I could see.
‘Yeah. It’s daft, isn’t it? I mean, what would I do? Ask her to the flicks? See if she wants to check out my record collection, well, Robin’s collection, that is…’
‘Maybe she’d like to hear you play the guitar? You’re getting good now…’
‘That’s a good point! I could tidy up some of my pieces.’ He brightened at this idea. After a moment’s reflection he resumed, ‘The thing is, I’m no good with girls – just too bumbling around them. But, y’know, I get where she’s at, with her photos I mean. It’s what we’re like when the lid comes off – what we’re all like, that is. I feel I could talk to her…’ He fell silent again. I felt awkward. What he was saying seemed implausible and yet – I could see Maria Pia lapping up the mooning devotion of which I guessed him capable.
He began again. ‘Sometimes unlikely blokes pull great women, don’t they? Like, if it’s really important, if they are determined, if they can show them it’s important, the women I mean…’
I didn’t respond. I was of the belief that his scenario only came true if the unlikely bloke in question was rich.
He went on. ’…the thing is, I think this is important. I’ve got this feeling, this kind of certainty. It’s ridiculous just talking like this…it’s just that I think – I mean, I know – something is going to happen with this girl…’
Some people describe love at first sight like this. They say, ‘I knew straight away this was the woman I would marry’. Usually, it seemed to me, these annunciations of the unconscious arrive after many other, more typical encounters with women; edited from such stories are the part where the woman in question says, ‘drop dead’.
We decided to call it a night. When I got back home, I lay in bed finding sleep elusive. Danny’s confession had left me unsettled. Since the incident of the fall, I had been at pains not to confront a new feeling I had; the notion that in time something would develop with Maria Pia. It had taken up residence as a piece of secret knowledge, subterranean and separate from my daily existence. I preferred to avoid a bald acknowledgement of it; it meant I was ‘looking around’.
As I lay there, I began to replay recent conversations with Daisy, or rather the continuous, rolling conversation that now seemed to surface — whenever we went to the palace gardens opposite our flat, to idle on a shaded bench as tourists laboured up to the panoramic terrace; or to the nondescript church that housed a fresco sequence I never tired of (it was more my thing than Daisy’s); or to the Lido where we spent our Sunday afternoons, sunbathing on the grass, Daisy in a white bikini like Ursula Andress (the Lido was definitely her element). This conversation picked up at times and in places where we’d once been happy to simply abide. It seemed to me that we were prospecting for a way to end things. For example, we had aired, in very hypothetical terms, the idea of an open relationship. Once launched, the topic leads quickly and inevitably to other questions, too promptly denied – ‘So, is there anyone…you know…anyone you could be attracted to?’ It felt as though, having set up home in our flat, we were chafing against the fixity proposed by our situation.
The year was 1969, the year of Woodstock; the year after the Sorbonne students took over Paris; eighteen months after the Prague Spring. In principle, both of us thought exclusivity a stifling bourgeois construct (albeit our love had been a conventional boy-meets-girl romance). We venerated openness, spontaneity and self-expression; these were the dues you paid when you swam in the stream of radicalism. As Daisy said, ‘Just because you’re with someone doesn’t mean you can’t make connections...basically fancy other...women in your case. I understand that.’
I understood that she was referring to herself; she received a lot of attention from men at the club. It was her job to encourage free spending with calculated flirtation. Although she referred to the guys as “creeps”, I knew she enjoyed the work; not all of the guys were creeps.
Unlike Danny, I wasn’t smitten by Maria Pia, except in that literal fashion, when she tumbled and we had collided. I had nevertheless grown used to the expectation that we would have further tumbles, further explorations of the horizontal. But now that Danny had made his declaration, such a view of the future needed an overhaul. The idea of vying for Maria Pia’s affections was grotesque. Danny was a novice as far as women were concerned. Also there was the matter of his being my mate – I wasn’t going to queer his pitch, was I? I would stand back, let him make his play, whatever it might be. But his gauche calf love irritated; it niggled that Danny hadn’t stopped to consider whether I might have designs – prior designs, since I had known Maria Pia for some weeks…and he had just met her…thanks to my introducing him… OK – as far as he knew, Daisy and I were set…but he could have asked…
Inner voices chattered on in this vein for a while. Something else then struck me a hammer blow: when, I wondered, had I become someone who sets out to sleep with women who hardly interest them?
~ o ~
I dozed, only to be awoken by Daisy’s presence. It must have been 5 o’clock: daylight was seeping through the shutters of our room. She was moving with extreme care in order not to wake me. Perhaps she was desperate to get some shut-eye, or – I lay wondering – was her stealth in order to avoid questions? She was late home.
I maintained the pretence of sleep and watched as she removed her clothes, laying them to rest over a wooden chair. Last of all, she looped her knickers lopsidedly over the chair back, where they hung like a wilted leaf. In the dull, pewter light she looked sleek, as if having emerged from water. I noted, almost in surprise, her womanliness: the vigour in her hips, normally hidden by loose clothing or rendered banal by the cocktail dress she wore to work. She stretched, both arms reaching upwards, her back arched, until, abruptly, she let go of the tension and her whole being slackened; she rounded herself and scurried under the bedsheet.
I moved to give her room, making clear I was now awake. Daisy’s back was towards me. I touched her shoulder, wondering whether I should let her feel my erection. Proposing love-making, when she came back from work, had a chequered history; fine in the early days but unwelcome more recently. I brushed against her rear. She tensed for a moment before relaxing and half turning her head. We kissed. Perhaps, like me, she’d calculated the time since we’d last had sex. She rolled back on her stomach, knowing I liked to fuck her from behind. Perhaps she’d reflected that repairs were in order; she also knew that way we’d be quick.