Maria Pia was fussing, composing the table like a still life, pausing every so often to take a picture with a Polaroid, slung correspondent-style around her neck. She took her time. I wished she would hurry: the sight of the food and the handling of it had left me ravenous; I guessed the same was true of the others too.
‘What can we really know? Do we know anything at all? For sure?’ It was Matteo, proceeding like an evangelist through the troop of us standing ready to descend on the feast. ‘Everything we know or believe comes from our senses – but our senses, do they really tell us the truth? Can we trust them?’ Following in his wake like an altar boy was Casanova, still bearing a tray of drinks that he dispensed as they wended through the group. There was the air of zealots about both of them. The drinks were small shots of brightly coloured syrups (it seemed like); some were vivid red like Campari, some green like mint syrup or blue like sapphire. I guessed this was an idea they had come up with for Maria Pia’s photography. The drinks had been poured into a variety of second-hand glasses, none alike. In the sun the tray sparkled like a hoard of jewels. People were downing their shots; something about the drinks made them smile.
Matteo had reached us. He handed across a couple of glasses. ’Try my prescription – I am nearly a doctor, after all! Give yourself to the unexpected. Experience is stranger than you imagine. Not-knowing is real; not-knowing is the only truth. Open your mind, embrace uncertainty, expand…’ He was almost intoning. Were it not for an ironical smile as he spoke, the whole performance would have seemed ridiculous. Casanova gave his trademark gurn. He was ridiculous: a calculated buffoon in his knee breeches, now complemented by a top hat, a bit like the Mad Hatter. He handed Danny a glass, this one with a chartreuse-coloured liquid.
We hesitated a moment, bilious-looking drinks in hand, then Danny muttered, ‘Oh well…’ and with a toasting gesture drank his in one go. He stood blinking for a moment, then he too began to laugh.
‘Oh, that’s so weird. That’s really weird. You’ve got to try that!’
We were curious now, and took the plunge with our drinks, unsure what to expect. Mine was one of the blue ones. It looked as if it would taste like toothpaste.
The drink was not in the least syrupy, but light like champagne and, once swallowed, the taste lingered on your tongue. And the taste – at first you couldn’t tell what it was, except there was none of the expected minty bite. Then, gradually, a flavour formed. It configured like a shape emerging from mist – into prawns? – no, it was still developing, growing in presence as if it were gas filling a space – chicken? – no – suckling pig? – no – but there was an odour of chargrill, almost – and wild sage – and then it was gone, just the merest brothy scent – the proximity of a girl on a hot afternoon – then, nothing.
‘That’s brilliant,’ said Laura, the delight of a child at Christmas on her face. ‘So many flavours and fragrances, like a pharmacy – aniseed, camphor, pear drops…’ Her drink had been blue like mine, yet it had clearly been different. Unlike the others, I had not drunk mine in one go. I was about to finish it but, when I looked down, I saw a fly had landed on the surface; a large unsavoury fly, recently flown in from Turdville and now fancying to rinse down its last ripe ingestions with a drop of the blue. I wondered what it would make of Matteo’s remedy for uptight normalcy. I put the glass down and left Mr Fly to drink its fill.
There was an atmosphere of festivity as we pressed forward to the table in a good-natured stampede. There were plates, but nothing in the way of eating implements. Much of the food was designed for a buffet, so most simply loaded their plates and either stood around, as at a cocktail party, or found a place to sit. It was the height of the afternoon. The yard was sheltered. The bright chill of the morning had given way to fulsome, gilded warmth, in which we bathed and lolled. Time drifted deliciously.
I found myself sitting next to the quiet-looking girl I’d noticed when we first arrived. I introduced myself.
‘I met Maria Pia at drawing class. I’m Adam. It was me who caught her when she had her fall…’
‘Yes, I know who you are. Maria Pia told me about you. I’m Agata. I’m Maria’s sister.’
‘She did?’ I guessed Maria Pia must have regaled her whole family with the incident: Matteo had known all about it when I met him.
‘Yes, but not just that – other things too.’ I wondered what the other things could amount to but, at that moment, our attention was taken by a confusion of voices, growing more excitable.
There was an argument about what to do and how to do it. Around the table, Maria Pia had arranged a group of eight or ten banqueters. They were her regular players whom, in most cases, I recognised from her photographs. Several wore items of costume – uniform hats, capes, shifts – but since others were wearing kaftans, or patchwork jackets, and a lot of beads, distinctions between fancy dress and regular attire were impossible to draw. Casanova was among the group. I noticed Daisy had joined them.
A girl was climbing onto the table, encouraged by urgings – ’Go on, get up, forza, hup…’ Helping hands steadied her on the flimsy rush chair she was using to ascend. A practically minded guy was trying to fix a wobbly table leg. He was wearing a brass helmet that slipped every time he looked down, impeding his work. This struck me as extremely funny indeed.
‘That’s Mariuccia,’ I heard Agata saying, an edge of disapproval in her voice. ‘ You could bet she’d be the one getting up there – she’s an exhibitionist.’ Her assessment seemed accurate. Mariuccia was taking clothes off, though not like a striptease but more in the way of an athlete shedding track-suiting. I turned back to look at Agata. Her quiet demeanour was deceptive. She seemed to have a toughness to her and a practicality. I wondered what she was thinking about the happening getting underway around us.
Someone struck up a guitar. I recognised the guy. He was a regular busker around the city; he did a passable James Taylor. Mariuccia was in her knickers, moving loosely to the music, arms swaying above her head. The other players were configured around her in a Last Supper kind of formation, although Actaeon had now joined her on the table. I found myself observing Matteo who was patrolling the perimeter of the table group, taking no part but absorbed in the action, like a football coach on the touchline.
As I watched, Daisy climbed onto the table with the others. Her face was flushed.
‘Those drinks were crazy. Who came up with them?’ I felt curious to get to the bottom of something; there were things I was missing. Agata was a straight talker. Perhaps she could help me figure out the thing, whatever it was, that was passing me by.
‘The drinks? That was Matteo. He likes to mystify. When we were smaller, he used to entertain us with magic tricks. He was really good at them. Maria Pia used to like to dress up, to make theatre, you know – and Matteo was the conjurer, the illusionist. They were always putting on little shows, like now – this is their show, we are all part of it – but...’ she gestured to the table crowd, ‘they don’t all realise.’ Some of them were eating from the dishes that were set out, wolfing the food like starving pets. Maria Pia was beginning to take pictures, standing behind the Roleiflex on its tripod.
‘So the drinks were one of his tricks?’ I was watching Daisy dancing. The (now) three women on the table were making moves as if they were performing in Hair. Just like Mariuccia, Daisy had stripped down to her briefs and was laughing. I wanted to get her to come down, but I had never seen her happier.
‘Yes, they are his party piece, you could say.’ Agatha was answering me. She gave a hard little laugh, then continued more matter-of-factly. ‘He is a chemist. Before he transferred to the medicine faculty, he studied Chemistry. He likes to play around. He can get flavourings and colours – you know – always to mystify, to mystify…’
The busker guy was bashing out a driving rhythm on the guitar. A girl with maracas had joined in. The sounds seemed to hang in the air. It was only a battered acoustic guitar but the music echoed and accumulated, layer upon layer until it was overwhelming like an avalanche. I wondered how he did it.
Some time passed.
~ o ~
The antics of the crowd around the table grew wilder. Casanova had smeared himself with tomato sauce and face-painted some of the others. Daisy was in there, somewhere. They were now licking each other down and food was being thrown. One of the girls had custard-pied herself with a flan. Mariuccia lay on the table like the centrepiece of the banquet.
Danny having cast himself as first grip, was busy helping Maria Pia loading and moving the camera. Between shots they stood face to face in an embrace, foreheads touching. He had obviously made his move. It was Maria Pia who terminated these interludes. I guessed she wanted to get back to the camera. The players of the tableau were getting progressively more carnal in their theatrics. Casanova was mugging for the camera, slobbering food from Mariuccia’s surfaces like a cannibal. She had turned into an over-excited child, laughing and squealing uncontrollably. Her breasts – or they could’ve been Daisy’s breasts – jiggled. The rolling, shifting mass of bodies filled the entire frame of my vision; their movements slowed and, as I watched, appeared to synchronise with the dirging note of the guitar, which strangely was playing just one chord: strum stram, strum stram, wham bam, wham bam, whip whup, hup, hup, hup…