‘I don’t ever want to lose my wonder at this place, this beautiful island of green, white and blue’
Extract from Dancing to the End of Love
By Adrian White
Published by Black & White Publishing
I live in Pisa with Maria. She’s the reason that I’m here. Maria Gabriela Carbone – an Italian Scot, or a Scottish Italian, depending on her moods, which are many and extreme. Carrier of a gene that will kill her sooner rather than later, so I forgive the mood swings. I forgive her because she is what she is – everything to me and everything that I’m not. No doubt she’d tell me that she’s not mine to forgive and I’d agree; but I’d forgive her anyway.
So I’m back in Pisa, staring again at the Leaning Tower. It leans. It’s not wasted on me that I’ve returned here, but I gave up long ago being amazed at where my life might take me. It doesn’t really matter to me where I live and I try not to draw any conclusions or comparisons or circles. I’m here because Maria is here, and she won’t be here forever and neither will I.
Of all the Italian cities Maria might have chosen in which to study, Pisa wouldn’t have been the first on my list. Bologna, I think, I like the feel of above all others. Before I lived in Pisa, Bologna was my idea of an Italian university town, perhaps because the tourism isn’t so blindingly in your face. Bologna’s appeal reveals itself to you gradually and it gets to feel more personal. You can believe you’re part of a select few who appreciate its beauty. Pisa, on the other hand, is a city of instant gratification when it comes to tourism – it does exactly what it says on the postcard – but it also has one of the best hospitals in the world and so, for now, this is where I live.
Don’t get me wrong; I like a lot of things about Pisa and the longer I live here the better it gets. It’s the opposite of Bologna: Pisa reveals its mundane reality over a period of time. People live here and work here, study here and die here. The white marble of its public buildings is a temporary distraction, conveniently packaged together in the Campo dei Miracoli so Pisa can point and say, ‘si, all that is over there, that’s where you want to be’. And, if truth be told, it’s where I go just about every day. I love the grass around the Duomo; I particularly like the contrast of the grass and the marble. And the blue sky, of course, I’m forgetting about the cornflower blue of the sky. The green, the white and the blue – what a combination. I can be at peace here, sitting alone in the shadow of the Baptistry, and it never fails to blow me away.
If I’m not in her room when Maria finishes her lectures for the day, she knows to come and find me here. It’s quite a walk from where we live and more often than not she’ll get on with her studies first – we share a desk and she has essays and a thesis to write. Early evening, or late afternoon, is Maria’s desk time. She also has a job in a local bar and this means she has to grab what opportunity she can to get her coursework completed. It’s a little intense for my liking and occasionally a little tense too, but this is Maria; she’s never going to change and I wouldn’t want her any other way.
We do okay. I thought at first we’d be too much on top of each other but it hasn’t been like that at all. I do most of my writing early in the day while Maria’s at college and I can go over my work again in the evening. Also, she has the use of the university library and this leaves me free to work or to not work; whatever I feel like doing. She worried about me for the first week – would I manage on my own in a strange city, or would I get lonely? I think she forgets sometimes who I am, or else she blanks out how I lived my life for most of the past three or four years before we met; whether she does so sub- consciously or deliberately, I don’t know. Perhaps she just has a natural concern, or a determination to be normal in abnormal circumstances? I let it go and smile; it’s nice to have someone care for you, even if the cause for their worry doesn’t actually exist. Lonely – how can I be lonely? Look at all these people, thousands of them, every day, holding up their arms to support the Leaning Tower for their photographs. Families, lovers, strangers, tourists. Some argue over nothing, made irritable through tiredness and the heat, while others flop down on the grass beside me and just enjoy. I love it here and I’m happy.
I used to leave Maria a note in the room – gone for a walk, gone to buy groceries – but the notes soon became redundant. We live along the river and my walks usually take a circular route along Via Santa Maria to the Campo and then back through the side streets to the Piazza del Cavalieri, stopping off at the market to shop for tonight’s dinner. My rests at the Campo have become longer and longer, partly in recognition of Maria’s need for space – work space and personal space – but also through sheer contentment. After everything – this. I know how to count my blessings and I count them every day.
Maria came looking for me one day, early into my routine, and neither of us was surprised when she found me on the grass between the Duomo and the Baptistry.
‘You’re such an English tourist,’ she said.
And I am. I don’t ever want to lose my wonder at this place, this beautiful island of green, white and blue.
So sometimes now when Maria comes to join me in the Campo, she walks in the opposite direction, through the market, glancing in the shops she knows I like to frequent. I am that predictable, but I also like to wait to see her arrive in the Campo, among the crowds of people, and watch for the moment when she switches from her thoughts of whatever to her thoughts of finding me. It’s good to see her from a distance, but only because I get to see her up close too. That girl there – she’s looking for me, and when she sees me, her walk changes from an unconscious swing of happiness to a very deliberate come-on. She knows what she can do to me, and even though I know she knows it, I fall for it every time. I play my part; I sit back, resting on my outstretched arms, and I stare. I’m lucky and I know it. She’s smart and she’s sexy, and she’s with me – or rather, I’m with her.
‘Am I in heaven?’ I ask.
She deliberately stands where I can see up her dress, so I shake my head and smile.
‘What?’ she asks, all innocence.
‘You’re the one doing the looking.’
‘I’d be crazy not to.’
‘I’m starving. I’m at college all day and I have to come looking for you if I want something to eat?’
‘You could always try shopping and cooking for yourself.’
‘Yeah, right – that’s not the deal.’
‘We have a deal?’
‘You know we do – you feed me, you get to have sex with me.’
‘Which would you like to do first?’
‘Very funny,’ she says. ‘You know the rules – you don’t do one, you don’t get to do the other.’
I miss Maria on the days she doesn’t come to the Campo, but once it gets to a certain time and she still hasn’t arrived, I know she must have some college work to finish before heading out later to her job at El Greco’s. I also know she’s avoiding me. She’s been avoiding me for days, which is no easy thing when you share a single study bedroom. She has a secret she’s keeping from me – which isn’t that much of a secret, all things considered – and the consequences of it are worrying her. I understand why she’s nervous about telling me but I hope she’s not scared; fear like that can sit in your belly like a cannonball.
Tonight, perhaps, I’ll talk to her about the baby.
The sun dips behind the Duomo and I stand to brush the grass from my clothes. Maria might joke about the cooking and the eating but she has to cram that food inside her, so I head off to shop for tonight’s dinner.
Adrian White is an English writer who has lived in Ireland for over 20 years. His first novel, An Accident Waiting to Happen, was published in print by Penguin Books – as was his second novel, Where the Rain Gets In. Dancing to the End of Love is his third novel.