We were due at Maria Pia’s the following afternoon. Danny told me he was nervous with anticipation, so much so he’d almost been sick. Maria Pia had made a point of saying that she needed him to be there; I guessed she’d rewarded him with several touslings when he agreed to juggle his shifts to make it. We’d brought some food and wine at our hostess’s behest. Sitting on the bus, our carriers jiggled on the floorboards. We could almost have passed for a family on a picnic excursion: watching the unfamiliar surroundings spool by, slightly anxious should we miss our stop.
The house, sole survivor of what had once been an elegant neighbourhood, was a stucco building rising four stories to a shallow-pitched terracotta roof of the kind characteristic in older parts of the city. To either side was open ground, disused since the post-war clearance. The doorway was a coaching entrance. Above the usual signs – Polite Notice, No Parking and Cave Canem – someone had graffitied, A bas le travail and Tune in; perching on top of the ‘T’ they had painted a red cockerel. One of the pair of coach-house doors was slightly ajar.
I had gone with Daisy. The séance would be a welcome distraction for both of us. We walked in silence through the gate, following Laura and Danny into a courtyard behind the house. This weekend was Danny’s chance to press his suit: ‘get the ball in the net’, as he put it. Daisy and I were here to give support – and to see if this love story would turn out better than our own.
I recognised a number of our fellow guests from Maria Pia’s photographs: there was ‘Actaeon’ of the toy bow and arrow, and the chorus of ‘Nereids’, like perennial bridesmaids, and one or two faces from the drawing class. I noticed her brother Matteo, and a slim, diffident girl, whom I later discovered to be Maria Pia’s sister, Agata. There were a number of others I’d never seen, including a short man with an oversized head and a mane of blond-streaked hair; he was tendering a tray of drinks. Perhaps in keeping with his butling duties, he was wearing knee breeches but, in acknowledgment of the warm afternoon sun, he was shirtless and wore flip-flops on his feet. Seeing us he came over with the tray.
‘Hello, I’m Casanova,’ he announced, rolling his eyes like a ham actor.
‘I’m Adam,’ I said. The others were still trying to decide what to make of him, so I introduced them. ‘This is Laura, and Danny.’
‘The Original Sinner, and...the Muse, most welcome...and,’ he looked at Danny, ‘…the Troubadour.’ Apparently we could not just be ourselves.
‘...and this is Daisy.’
For Daisy, he effused an ‘enchant-ay’ and attempted a kiss of the hand, which she turned back into a handshake. Daisy was not fond of ‘smarm’.
Undeterred, Casanova made a courtly gesture indicating the goings-on behind him. ’We are preparing a mise en scène. Come and see.’
Across the yard, I noticed Maria Pia for the first time. She was moving lights around, powerful ones on stands, the kind you might expect in a TV studio. Meanwhile a construction was taking shape under the biggest tree in the courtyard, a Mediterranean pine with distinguished trunk and undulating boughs. A long table had been placed there, with an assortment of seating: formal dining chairs, camp-stools, plastic chairs and a unicycle, propped at a chaotic angle like a wasted drunk. There was a lot of drapery around, some suspended from the branches to form a canopy, some shrouding an arrangement of crates behind the table, crudely representing the geometric topography of Renaissance paintings.
‘The project is to make the “Five Senses”. It’s a traditional subject; there’s a Rubens series, for example.’ Laura, evidently au courant, offered this information. The ‘Fall’ idea of early days seemed to have been discarded.
The tableau in construction was obviously going to be ‘Taste’. The table was covered with a cloth, a fine piece of lace-bordered linen; it properly belonged in a chest of best things, reserved for the festivities – unions, christenings, homecomings – that marked the progress of solidly rooted lives, as well, of course, as their final passing.
Food was starting to be laid out. In fact someone had gone to a lot of trouble: plates of pastries, cuts of meat, quiches, tarts, crostini, frittatas, sauces, earthy stews, vibrant salads, all issued from the interior of the house. We pitched into the work of transporting the feast from the kitchen, where it was mustered in readiness, joining in with the gang of volunteers who formed an improvised but efficient human conveyor into the courtyard. Our own offering – a couple of baguettes and some cream cheese – seemed footling beside the rich board being assembled. We contrived to leave it indoors, apologetic and half hidden behind a cluster of wine bottles.