In conversation with Dante Alighieri, the Florentine
He is older looking than I expect, more 70 I’d say than mid-50s. I hold my silence especially as he has travelled far and clearly tired after the journey. I guide him to a seat, careful not to be seen to be holding him too firmly, suggest a drink (Soave naturally) before instructing the waitress to leave us be. We are in no rush to order even if she darts glances at her wristwatch, her shift to end when the last lunch customers (us) have left. She lingers. Why won’t she let us be? Then I notice: he is admiring her. She smiles. He nods. She giggles. She isn’t older than 17, I guess, with a sensuousness that is palpable and plain.
– She likes you, I suggest when she has gone.
He smiles with the gravity of one who sidesteps centuries.
– There have been few, a very few, he utters. Yet she is pretty, of that there is no question. She is a child.
– But I fear not as innocent.
He sips his wine.
– You speak only of one sort of innocence. To me she is unviolated.
Now it is my turn to smile.
– No, I mean it. He examines the sleeve of his jacket. It is early summer in England and he is wearing Tweed. Perhaps he expected a different season. Perhaps he expected Scotland. The way he pinches the fabric between thumb and finger suggests he is surprised by the choice also.
-You assume she has been violated, he continues, fixing me with his eyes. Of course you do. Every man believes that, hopes too it is not true, that it may be their right. Whatever. She is a child in spirit as much as you.
He shifts his gaze, looks out across the beach that stretches below and far ahead of us, the tide at its lowest.
– Your English beaches have always been disappointing yet I like them for their modesty. They match the people.
I sense he expects a riposte, a challenge, for me to defend my own as he was wont to go into battle to defend his own. In other circumstances, with other people, I would launch my argument, kindly and without malice, building a case as skillfully the poet his canto. But today I do not have the inclination for our time is short.
– Where is that girl? He stares towards the bar, snaps his fingers impatiently. I offer to go find her, though in truth I need a cigarette.
We met quite by chance. I had been in town a few days, keeping myself to myself, purposely avoiding those places where I might bump into someone who knew me from before, someone who’d insist on a drink or two that would lead to heading off to a party and more drink and then a cone or two and before I knew I’d be flat out in some stranger’s bed, a woman, or worse a girl of indeterminate age but barely if at all legal, who’d smell of fags and bourbon and have tattoos on the nape of her neck, a red rose maybe with an italicised love inscribed like it was part of a petal or, and I remember this vividly still, a skull and the word hate etched inside. (I wonder what happened to her, though I have my suspicion she did not last long in that work.)
By day three I was getting disenchanted with this hiding away, this looking over my shoulder, the constant worry that when I turned a corner I’d spot an acquaintance or be spotted. What was I afraid of? I wasn’t a criminal; I’d done nothing wrong, at least nothing of which I could be ashamed. Then it dawned on me. I was scuttling about like this, hiding in dark corners, because she’d made me believe I was in the wrong, that I’d hurt her feelings when in fact it was she who had started the affair. She no longer lived here but many of our friends still did and it was as though her presence remained. I was afraid by association. I decided to abandon my caution and step once again into the daylight, though it was in fact a grey dawn.
That’s when I met Dante or, I should say, saw him. He was walking on the beach, studying the shingle with avid attention as if he had dropped a coin and was trying to distinguish it amid the stones, wearing a plum-coloured beret that matched plum-coloured leather shoes. For the rest he was dressed, that time, in black. From the promenade where I watched (I was some 200 metres distant) I observed him crouch, I could almost hear his bones creak in this uneasy action and, once settled, a finger meticulously pick over the stones. A seagull landed near, then another and another, while others slowly and deliberately circled overhead. He stopped his investigation to examine the birds while they stood still examining him and this is how all remained, locked in study until one of the gulls circling cried out, whether to its own or the man I could not know. Next he lifted his head but not to the source of the sound. Our eyes locked. At that moment I became still as if the waves themselves had frozen, their motion back and forth across the beach arrested. Held thus I smiled which, returned, drew me from my spot to join him. So we met, arranging to meet again the next day.
I do not know if he will keep the appointment, then there’s this gentle tap on my shoulder. He lets me guide him to a table . . . . . and that’s where he still is when I return from my smoke. He is not alone. He is in conversation with the young waitress who has drawn my seat close to his, her legs crossed, the fingers of her right hand caressing her left ankle, her eyes meanwhile fixed on his. He watches her closely as he talks, absorbing the graceful flex of her body as she sits upright, tidies a lock of dark blonde hair that strays across her face behind an ear. She laughs, head thrown back, hands clasped at her bosom. He takes from his jacket pocket a pebble and puts it on the table in front of her. It is smooth and grey, about the size of a quail’s egg whose shape it resembles, but not exactly, with a white quartz band running through the middle. I am too far away to hear what he is saying (I have deliberately kept my distance) yet, as if drawn by an invisible thread that binds us, I move closer.
– What do you want of me? he asks directly.
At first I think it the waitress he is addressing.
– See, I have flummoxed him, he adds.
Now it is her eyes that meet mine. They are not friendly.
– You must go with the flow, he continues, this to her like I’m invisible.
I note this unexpected phrase. It jolts me, makes me ask myself: Is this man really who he says he is or am I mistaken, have I been deceived or, more honestly, am I deceiving myself?
– Do not determine the day. Let the day determine you. Go with the flow.
– Cool, she says.
She takes hold of his hand. He squeezes gently, lets it go and I stand immobile, watching as he walks away, walks away, walks away and is gone.
Two days pass. I’m not that busy and the time drags. I keep watch for him, returning to the café, retreating quickly when the waitress notices me.
– You friends with that guy? she yells. Well, he owes me big time. You tell him…
She raises an arm, bends it at the elbow as if about to throw. I’m running now, hear something hit the road, half-turn and see a pebble the size of a small egg roll into a drain. I dart down a side-turning, pause, gather breath and head back to the beach. Perhaps he will be there, searching among the stones but there’s only a woman flying a red kite with a snaking tail that dips and darts enough to alarm the seagulls until a sudden gust sends it crashing nose first to earth. A small child nearby screams with delight before collecting the shattered toy and running to her mother in expectation of another wild flight. I turn my back and head to the harbour in need of lunch. Fish and chips is on my mind and I know just the place. Fortunately it is still early and I take a seat near the window where I can observe the comings and goings, hopeful I will spot him still.
– I was wondering where you were, he says. I’m hungry.
He sits and examines the menu carefully. I haven’t seen him enter but my surprise is smothered by my admiration for the cut and fabric of his suit. Not Tweed, nor black, more appropriate to the climate or even anticipating warmer temperature: jacket and trousers of a cream coloured, lightweight material.
– A friend of the family, he remarks. The finest Milanese cloth.
– An old friend?
– Old enough for a tailor. The best cuts never go out of fashion.
– And those shoes, I noticed them when I first saw you. Such a distinctive colour.
– Same cobbler who makes footwear for the curia.
There’s also a scent about him, a sweetness reminiscent of the juice of passionfruit.
– It too is specially prepared, he answers my unasked question.
-Another family friend?
– More of a neighbour.
– Have your days, and nights, been fruitful? I ask.
– She was a slut, he spits. There is a pause. It annoys me but you were right.
He picks at my chips, licks his fingers, such delicate, slender fingers: loving fingers, a touch from which arouses echoes of aching passion. They glue time to a sticking point as I think of women he has loved and of Beatrice who I sense is nearby.
– I fancy some fish, he says petulantly.
– You can share mine.
He tears a portion free, nibbles, the hollows in his checks accentuated. He pulls off another, larger, piece and flicks it to the floor beside his chair where it is pounced upon by the owner’s ginger cat. He takes another, then another (I have hardly any flesh left on my plate), letting the cat eat from his hand, before he bends and scoops the animal under its belly and places it on his lap.
– Wine, he snaps.
– Excuse me?
– A glass of wine with the meal.
– This is unlicensed.
He grunts, returns his attention to the cat and tickles it vigorously under the chin. I hear the cat’s murmur of satisfaction in contrast to Dante’s unsettled mood.
– Coffee then. Double shot.
– This is a fish and chip shop not a restaurant. They have cans, Coke, Fanta. Or water. Tap water. It’s free and very cold.
The cat leaps nimbly to one side as he stands and strides off. By the time I have paid and followed outside he is already far distant, the plum-coloured beret barely visible as he glides through the holidaymakers promenading. He stops, looks around, descends to the beach where he remains, arms crossed, starring out to sea. There I join him, my coming guided by the sharp crunch of stones underfoot.
– What do you want of me? he says. Why do you follow me?
– I thought it you who were following me.
The exclamation startles some gulls nearby as if a pistol has been discharged. They rise squawking like nervous schoolchildren alarmed by their teacher’s outburst.
– Even the seabirds detest me now.
He picks a pebble and tosses it underarm with such feebleness the stone drops a few metres away. I go and fetch it and when I look back he has gone, gone completely, gone away, and I holding in the palm of my hand a stone, smooth and grey about the size of a quail’s egg.