Harold rings the bell, the only one without a name attached. It isn’t the first time he’s had a taxi bring him to this building on the outskirts of Palermo, this eight-storied concrete block, the undersides of the balconies falling away to reveal the metal bars that hold the whole place up. He waits until the door clicks open then takes the stairs to the second floor. He’s sweating. It’s early June, but the weather’s been humid for days, storm-brewing weather. Pausing at the last turn of the stairs, he takes off his Panama and wipes his forehead on a spotted handkerchief, tucks in the sweat-damp flap of his shirt, and breathes deep the warm, closed air. His feet have begun to hurt these past few days. He needs to lose weight.
There’s a window on the landing. Between the peeling walls of similar buildings to the one he’s in he can see the slope that rises to Monreale, a sliver of green dotted with houses, a shimmer of heat. He was up there a couple of days ago, walking around the cloisters of the cathedral with a friend of his passing through on his way to a film festival in Taormina, talking about the mosaics, how insignificant fragments of no intrinsic worth can be combined to form a whole, timeless, sublime. Now, as he climbs the last few steps, slightly breathless, his stomach grumbling after too long and too heavy a lunch, the fried antipasti they do so well here sitting like a dead child on his belly, he wonders why he didn’t think to bring his friend here, to show him these fragments and how they too can be assembled. He presses the bell beside the door and waits.
The man who runs the place is from somewhere in northern Africa, but he calls himself Papa Giovanni, without the slightest apparent sign of irony or malicious anti-clerical intent. He’s been running the place for as long as Harold’s been coming, at least five years, and is the only constant, apart from the over-ornate gold and yellow velvet sofa and armchairs in the entrance and the locker-room smell, a mixture of cologne and something muskier, not exactly, or not only, semen but not too far removed from that.
Papa Giovanni spreads his arms to welcome Harold. He’s wearing an off-white robe with an embroidered edge, and Turkish sandals. Harold saw him once, down near Piazza Marina, wearing a suit and moccasins, looking like a local businessman, which, in a way, is what he is. He was seen back, but they made no effort to acknowledge each other; quite the opposite. The heavy robe, made of something soft and heavy that looks like curtain material, is open in a deep V at the neck, the man’s skin dark and unnaturally smooth beneath it. He could be as old as Harold, or even older, in his early sixties, but his face is unwrinkled, his hair strong, glistening with scented oil. Harold asked him once what his secret was, in one of those unguarded moments he tries to avoid, and Papa Giovanni smirked and said, the company of the young, caro mio. His English is good, his French better, his Italian perfect, with the accent of the place. Harold prefers not to use his broken Italian here; it’s better to keep a distance.
The boys, as they’re known – although none of them are younger than seventeen, Harold is assured – are sitting in the room to the left, what must have been the living room when this was a home. Some of them are naked, others in shorts or tracksuit bottoms, despite the heat; their chests and backs, their shoulders and arms, some dark, some pale as milk, are glazed with sweat. They look like athletes gathering their strength between events, thinks Harold, watching a quiz show on television or playing cards. They glance up when he walks in and smile, automatically tensing their muscles to show themselves off to their best advantage, lifting their hips, displaying. Harold surveys the room. This is the part he likes best, knowing that he can have whichever one of them he chooses, or all of them at once if the mood takes him; knowing that they are his for as long and as often as he wants and can afford to pay, which is forever. He recognises a couple from his last visit six months before, staring across at him with what might be hope, but his eyes glide past them until he sees the one he immediately knows he wants, a dark-haired sullen-faced young man with a pallid adolescent’s body; he’s wearing football shorts that are too large for him and trainers, and he’s sitting apart from the others on a straight-backed chair beside the window. Harold nods at the young man, who nods back before turning his face towards the world outside with an air of indifference, and then at Papa Giovanni, who smiles and clicks his fingers. Billy, he says, as Billy crosses the room to a half-closed door. An excellent choice.
Harold is lying in his tub, the water scented with bath salts custom-made for him in Jermyn Street, essence of bergamot and vanilla, the edges softened by Sicilian orange, spiked by lemon verbena; he’s been using it so long he thinks it’s the natural scent of his skin. He is listening to his broker in London, who is worried. Mistakes have been made, the man is saying, and Harold, moving his mobile from one ear to the other, is wondering by whom as he lets in a little extra water, as hot as he can bear. While his broker reminds him that times are difficult, Harold lifts a foot from the water and marvels at the colour of it, pink and gleaming, like something boiled, one of those plump pink sausages they eat in the north with lentils, for luck in money matters. These are difficult times for everyone in business, the broker is saying again, and Harold’s foot slides down once more into the water, seeming to bend and flatten out as it does so, as though it belongs to some cartoon character, the kind Billy likes to watch on Disney Channel. He rests his head on his little inflatable heart-shaped cushion, his free hand idly lifting his balls and easing the loose sac from between his thighs, where Billy’s attention has irritated the skin. His broker is suggesting he buy and sell, sell and buy, and normally he’d be concerned, concerned as hell, but today, this afternoon in early September in central Italy, he’s still in the air-conditioned bedroom upstairs, Billy’s head bobbing up and down between his legs. He’s looking down at the cowlick of coal-black hair as it falls across his face and at Billy’s eyes watering as they strain to see up to where he’s staring down and he’s filled with something that, if it isn’t love, he doesn’t know any longer what love is. Because something more potent than this, this thing that has simply opened him up and drained him of everything else, besides which nothing else matters, neither money nor art nor friendship, something more potent than this surely can’t be allowed to exist unnamed, allowed to exist and wreak its wonderful havoc and not be banned forthwith. Love like this could destroy everything, he thinks, and remembers a poem he read once about having love enough to give a city power, and how he’d been scornful, and envious, and put the book down.
He’s almost asleep, lulled by the monotony of his broker’s voice, when he feels a presence behind him. He turns his head to the door. Billy is standing there, holding his skinny ill-tempered cat to his chest. He’s staring across the room as though all he can see is the tub, as though the tub is a mirror and he is seeing himself. He is wearing a linen shirt Harold gave him that morning, unbuttoned, and nothing else, and Harold notices for the first time the beginning of a paunch, more man than child’s. Billy puts down the cat, then walks to the tub and picks up the jar of bath salts and tips it until the scented granules cascade into the water, staining it green-yellow as they dissolve. Harold wants to stop his hand, too much, too much, but doesn’t; he feels as though Billy has wiped him away. In his ear, the educated English voice of his broker, a man he has known and trusted for thirty years, says, We’ll need to rein ourselves in. Caution is the word. Then, after an anxious pause, Are you all right, Harold? And Harold wants to say, he doesn’t know why, Saturation. That’s the word for it. Saturation. When the jar is empty, after a final shake to make sure, Billy wrinkles his nose and leaves the room.
Harold and Billy are seated at their usual table outside their usual bar. Harold has begun to feel the cold – it’s mid-October – and glances towards the row of similar tables in the bar’s interior in what he hopes is a wistful way, but Billy, who wants to smoke, ignores this or simply hasn’t noticed, his shoulders hunched a little, his eyes on the headlines of a newspaper he has bought but not yet looked at. He’ll do that after lunch, spreading the paper out across the table, while Anna tidies and Harold chooses something to read. They’re waiting for the waiter to bring their order, American coffee and muffin for Harold and beer with a brandy chaser for Billy. He’s drinking too much coffee but he’s sick of the alternatives, fruit juices, diet Coke. He’s been tempted to drink, he can’t deny it, but the hardest thing isn’t alcohol, it’s watching Billy light up after sex, watching his eyes close and the smoke trickle out from between his lips before being sucked back in, like a ribbon forming itself into a loop from which he’s excluded. Once he leant over and tried to catch it, pretending, or possibly not pretending, that this was a gesture of affection and not the desperate act of a man needing nicotine more than his life. Billy twisted away with a look on his face that Harold didn’t catch quickly enough to understand, but that left him shaken, a curl of the mouth that could have been nothing more than an attempt to retrieve the smoke from the air between them. But it didn’t feel like that.
Harold hasn’t risked seeing it since. He closes his eyes and waits for the need to pass, opening them only when Billy pads across the Kurdish kilim to put on some music; he lies there with his hands behind his head to watch the younger man’s skinny haunches and smooth pale back. It isn’t music Harold would have chosen, but that doesn’t matter, not now. It’s a joy to watch Billy dancing his odd, ungainly dance, both juvenile and old, his dick still half-stiff, slick with Harold; dancing to Lady Gaga as though what Harold might want were beside the point, miming the words as though they were holy gospel.
‘Bit too cold for this by now, surely?’
Harold feels a hand fall heavily on his shoulder, sees Billy raise his eyes, then lower them .
‘Mind if I join you?’
Harold stands and turns, stumbling as he swivels to hold the man slightly away from himself, an affectionate distance. Keith, his old friend Keith, habitué as Harold is of this small Italian seaside town, kisses him on both cheeks, nods briefly at Billy, then sits down between them, turning to catch the waiter’s eye, ordering a bollente cappuccino in his loud, exaggeratedly American accent.
‘I thought you’d have left for London by now,’ he says, as the waiter brings their drinks. ‘Don’t you have shows to put on?’
‘I’m not sure I’ll be going this winter,’ says Harold. He doesn’t say that his Chelsea flat is on the market. That’s the sort of news Keith would enjoy, and interpret, too much. Everything in its own good time. ‘The shows can look after themselves for a month or two.’
Keith picks up Billy’s newspaper.
‘You don’t read this bullshit, surely?’ he says. His eyes fixed on a group of boys across the square, boys Harold recognises but doesn’t know, Billy reaches over to take the paper from him.
‘Oh,’ says Keith, letting go of it at once. ‘It’s yours.’ He sounds surprised, as if he doesn’t credit Billy with the ability to read.
‘I read it as well,’ says Harold, lightly, easing the wrapper from his muffin, which he no longer wants. It isn’t true that he reads this paper. Since he cancelled his sub to the Guardian Weekly some time ago, he’s barely read a word that isn’t classical history, or memoir, or collections of letters by the dead; all the books he’s been meaning to get to for years and has suddenly found time for. What news he has of the world now comes through Billy, his wingéd messenger, bulletins of film stars and pop stars and the very rich and football transfer fees that make even Harold flinch and cars, new models of cars no normal road would hold, and appalling misdoings by left-wing governments around the world.
Harold has always thought of himself as liberal, but listening to Billy’s authentic rage – authentic because Billy has lived in his angry, unwell-meaning way – has left him with no real faith in anything other than the day-to-day business of coupledom, the love-making, obviously, but not only that; the breakfasts and the bathroom etiquette about who does what first, and all the delicate rituals that seem to have formed around him without his knowing or even, quite, wanting. He never imagined how good he’d be at all this, this domesticity, this trust. He remembers such jealousy in the past, with other men, such jealousy that he’d feel the bonnet of his partner’s car to see if he’d left the house while Harold was out. That affair didn’t last – the candid treachery of bonnets – and Harold has learnt his lesson; that one, at least. Living in a small town, as he now seems to be doing, has its advantages. Anna will tell him if there is anything he needs to know. What would he do without Anna?
He’s distracted from these thoughts by Billy. Billy is talking about politics, Italian politics. Harold, who has spent half his time in Italy for the past two decades, can imagine nothing less engaging than Italian politics but there’s a pleasure to be derived from Keith’s discomfort as Billy harangues him, every liberal shibboleth overturned. Keith’s used to being listened to, and harsh though it is – because Keith is someone he’s known for years, an ex-pat like him, a connoisseur of things Italian, its food, its beaches, its boys – it’s not unpleasant to see him lost for words as Billy outshouts him in the bullying, brazen manner Harold has observed on television here, a politics of brute force he wishes he could summon in himself. Only last night, for instance, when his broker was talking again about crisis and cutbacks and how he should listen more and spend less. Over and over, Billy is shouting the same few words, like a curse, a voodoo curse, until Keith simply gives up and looks to him, to Harold, for support. Which he doesn’t get. Maybe it’s true that honesty is brutal.
He doesn’t stand or say goodbye when Keith leaves, although he’s aware of his old friend hovering beside his chair for a moment to see what Harold will do before turning on his heels to leave the square, and, as the man’s heels ring on the cobblestones, he can’t deny he feels a twinge of guilt. They wait until he has gone, in silence, their eyes averted from each other, with Harold suppressing an urge to giggle and Billy looking smug and inflamed, because everything passes if you let it, and perhaps guilt is too strong a word for what he feels in any case; perhaps what he feels is relief, the stripping-away one step closer to its end. He stares at Billy, as if he is waiting for an answer, and Billy finishes his cognac, looks away from the table and spits on the pavement, then takes his newspaper and slips it beneath his arm. Andiamo, he says. Harold nods slowly, as if this is the answer he has been expecting, and goes into the bar to pay. When he comes out Billy has moved away from the table and he experiences a sort of panic, as though for a fraction of a second he doesn’t recognise his surroundings, but Billy has simply crossed the square and is talking to the youths he was looking at earlier. They’re a mixture of races, as far as Harold can tell as he walks over to join them, two, maybe three Italians, East Europeans, an Arab. Billy moves away from them before Harold can hear what they’re saying.
They’re almost home when Harold’s mobile receives a text. It’s from Keith. He opens it later, in the bathroom, while Billy is watching cartoons. It says, Let me know if I can help.
Harold is reading a book about Hellenistic pottery when he hears Anna’s voice raised in the kitchen. He thought Billy was in his den, playing computer games, but now he can hear his deeper voice as well, overriding hers. He puts down his book to listen. He wishes his Italian were better. Billy has a gift for languages, he’s discovered, but one that stops short at English, at speaking English anyway, although he seems to understand enough of it. One evening Keith came round for dinner and began to talk about a weekend they’d spent together in Trieste some years before, a weekend Harold’s mildly ashamed in his newly domesticated state. Later, when Keith had gone, Billy wanted to know why he didn’t live with Keith if they were that close. I don’t know what you mean, said Harold, flushing, and Billy had started to quote whole chunks of their conversation in a sing-song mimicking fashion. Now, to Harold’s admittedly cloth ear, he seems to be doing the same with Anna.
He’s about to go and see what’s happening when Anna bursts into the living room, teacloth in hand. She’s crying and what she says is hard to follow but it sounds as though Billy has accused her of stealing. She’s standing beside his chair, a large woman, young enough to be his daughter, her dark eyes swollen with tears, her arms in the air as she proclaims her innocence, teacloth waving aloft like a flag of defiance at the barricades. And dirty, she’s saying something he can’t quite get about dirt behind the fridge, her anger leaving her like air through a vent, to be replaced by an effortless wail from her very depths. For a horrified moment he thinks she’s going to fling herself onto him, hug him to her for comfort of some sort. She’s been with him for almost six years, cleaning and cooking, ironing and, more often than not, sitting with him in the kitchen to share the lunch she’s prepared each day, without fail. Most of the Italian he speaks, such as it is, he’s learnt from her, although maybe that’s no longer true. Not now. Now Billy is his only teacher. Now Billy has said she’s a thief and Harold doesn’t know what to do about it. He sits there in his favourite armchair, its legs scratched raw by the claws of Billy’s cats, one hand dangling down towards his book on pottery at the fag end of a culture, staring up at Anna until she leaves.
That evening, Harold and Billy are lying together on the living-room floor, watching a DVD of a film that seems to be an animated feature but has real actors in it. Our World Will Be Transformed, the trailer said, but all Harold can see is heaps of brightly coloured metal falling apart and reassembling themselves while people scatter like ants being sprayed. Billy is slumped against him, his heartbeat barely perceptible. At one point he takes Harold’s hand, it seems unconsciously, and holds it. Harold lets it be held, not wanting the moment to pass, as a child wanders into a dark garden alone, with a doll in her arms.
It’s the details of it all he’s finding difficult. The bureaucracy of coupledom, of love, he supposes, or the way love finds itself translated into bureaucracy in order to have material substance. He’d have done the whole business in London, where surely it would be easier, and more complete, but Billy has reasons for staying in Italy, he says, though Harold can’t quite understand what they are. But we can get as good as married in London, he’s told him, but Billy doesn’t want to get as good as married, or says he doesn’t. Harold’s shaken by this, although he tries to hide it. Marriage is bourgeois, he tells himself, as though living on a substantial – still substantial – unearned income wasn’t; marriage is for those who need certificates to prove they’re in love. And so he fills in the forms and makes the necessary phone calls, and suggests that his broker minds his own business, and makes an appointment with the notaio about the house, and when the first credit card arrives it’s all worthwhile, the look on Billy’s face is reward enough. Reward enough to watch him as he runs into the kitchen and shows the card to his sister, who’s putting together some sort of lunch for the three of them. She lets herself be held by the waist and whirled around the room, staring across Billy’s shoulder at Harold as she’s spun with a look he can’t define, of pity almost, or complicity.
He hasn’t heard from Keith in weeks.
Billy comes into the living room with a plastic bag. Harold, who thought he was still in bed and was wondering whether to wake him for lunch, assuming there will be lunch, is surprised to find him up, and slightly annoyed. But he smiles and watches Billy extract from the bag a large cardboard box and, from the box, a video camera. It’s small and silver, and sits in his hand like a toy, like a tiny version of one of the robots in the film they watched together, but Harold can see at once that it’s more than that. It’s more than a toy. Billy is flicking open the screen on the side and pressing buttons, babbling like the excited child he can sometimes be. He darts around the room, the camera pointed at Harold, who waves him away in mock-irritation and then, when Billy continues, with genuine exasperation. He hates being photographed or, rather, he hates being forced to look at what he is, the proof of it, loose-fleshed, the colour of putty despite his hours in the sun. In photographs, he’s still the awkward, unlovable child he was.
Later that day, when Billy’s sister is closed in her own room with her television on full blast, watching some quiz show in Italian, Billy gives Harold the video camera and tells him it’s his turn. They’re in the bedroom, Billy has put on Lady Gaga and, as the music plays, he takes off his clothes and dances. Harold can’t see him. What Harold sees is the glowing square in which his lover dances, like someone he has never been allowed to touch, his skin bone-luminous in the light of the room like something on TV. He’s Nijinsky, a malignant imp from some northern fairy tale, a boy showing off to his parents, to charm and spite them. He’s reduced and distant, and the only heart of Harold’s world.
When it’s Harold’s turn, he’s hesitant at first, but then he dances like someone on one of his stages.
Harold is on his way back, alone, from the bar when he stumbles upon the scene. The woman is sitting in overall and slippers on the door step with a weeping boy, pasty and overweight, trapped squirming between her legs. He can’t be more than three years old. She’s holding a spatula, the kind you use to turn food over in the frying pan, and beating him with the blade of it, the flat piece of metal against his wriggling fingers. When he manages finally to pull away, screaming with pain and rage, she holds her free hand out and tells him to put his own hand in it, the child’s hand in the mother’s hand, so that the beating can continue. The crying has turned into a blubbering, the boy, still held by his mother’s knees is shaking his head, but Harold, who has just turned the corner into the courtyard, can see him weaken. Dammi la manina, the mother says, Dammi la manina, and the diminutive manina brings tears to Harold’s eyes as he watches the boy slide his hand back into the trap of his mother’s, offering itself up to be beaten. Give me your tiny hand. At one point the woman, without interrupting the punishment, if that is what it is, turns her head from the child and glances at Harold, who is standing there, barely breathing, who can bear neither to look nor not to look, as though he were a stray dog wandering past.
He wants to talk to Billy about what he has seen but when he gets back to the house he finds the living room filled with the youths who hang around the square. They’re sprawled across the floor, with their ashtrays and beer bottles and scraps of plastic bags and broken cigarettes; they barely notice his arrival. They’re watching the television, where a semi-clad girl is running from a man in a white mask. Billy’s sister is carrying in a tray of his best glasses, bought in Murano one summer, years ago now. He asks her where Billy is, in English and then in Italian. She shrugs and glances towards the stairs. Harold puts down the white bag with the chocolate muffin he has bought for Billy, and the copy of the paper Billy reads, and stands there for a moment, watching the woman run and the man in the mask, a cartoon version of Munch’s Scream he realises now, and of course that’s what it is, he’s seen the film before, one evening some months ago, with Billy, except that Billy was watching the film and he was watching Billy. He sat beside him and marvelled at the intimacy of it, the face so close to his, allowing his gaze and yet almost oblivious to it, each once mysterious detail open and known.
He leaves the building. He’ll come back when they’re gone. It’s all right, he tells himself, Billy will understand. He’ll find the muffin and paper where Harold has left them, and understand. They will talk about friends, and the role of friends, and his special glasses from Murano, which he chose with someone Billy will never know, and Billy will understand.
He’s standing in the street, uncertain where to go, whether to take the car and drive down to the sea, the window of the living room wide open above his head, when the sound of the film, the running and screaming, is suddenly muted. The film has come to an end, or been brought to one. In the silence, he hears Billy’s laughter and his heart leaps. Now, he thinks, we’ll drive down to the sea together and talk about all these little irritations until they’re gone.
He turns back, his hand reaching into his pocket for the key. And then he hears another sound, a music he recognises immediately, a song that rhymes design and mine, and he sees himself dancing, ungainly, in the half-light of their bedroom, as they must see him now, as their laughter overrides Billy’s in the otherwise silent house. He sees his wobbling belly and spreading hips, and he falters, his hand uncertain what to do.
Charles Lambert was born in 1953 in England but, apart from brief spells in Ireland, Portugal and London, has lived and worked in Italy since 1976. His most recent novel is The Children’s Home (Scribner, US; Aardvark Bureau, UK). He is also the author of an autobiographical fiction, With a Zero at its Heart, three novels (Little Monsters, Any Human Face and The View from the Tower), a collection of prize-winning stories, The Scent of Cinnamon and Other Stories, and a novella, The Slave House. You can follow him on Twitter at @charles_lambert