When In Rome Part I

First published in The Imp of the Perverse (Santa Cruz: El Camino Press, 2020), pp. 4-14).

There was something peculiarly laissez-faire about my attitude, James commented, after I mentioned Hermione had single-handedly selected Rome for our summer city break. He knew she was taking a degree in Italian, so I don’t know why he was shocked.

‘It was supposed to be a magical mystery tour, but I found the guidebooks in Charlie’s rucksack. I thought we were going to Barcelona, a damn foolish guess seeing as she’s been there three times already, on mad hen nights, racing around with pink wings on, drunk as a bloody skunk no doubt, male strippers’ fluorescent G-strings between her teeth, and all the rest of it.’

I staggered, while James strolled, back into the busy changing rooms, swallowing the heady blend of body odour and Hugo for Men. The match had shattered me, and I wondered why I put myself through this hell once a week. Was it just to boost James’ already inflated ego, or did I have a streak in me that loved self-humiliation?

We yanked our gear from our personal lockers, and I felt a moment of bonding. A long mirror at either end offered the ideal opportunity for voyeurism. I surreptitiously watched James go through his toiletry like a Prada model, as he simultaneously cupped his genitals as a way of reassurance.

Back in the dealing room, I felt far more in control, the excessive exercise loosening my body, my mind now buzzing with numbers and potential deals. James, however, would not leave off his badgering.

‘Are you sure you’re feeling all right, Rupert old boy, letting a little woman take the decisions for you. I hope you’re not losing your touch, hey?’

He barked his jibes ebulliently over his screen, as the whole floor frantically mouthed into phones, simultaneously banging away on keyboards, monkeys composing post-modern versions of Titus Andronicus. I refused to proffer him a glance, desperately involved in attempting to decipher the reasons why stocks in JB Holdings had plummeted for the fourth day running, despite my forecasts to the contrary.

Escaping dirty old London, on what could be interpreted as an educational trip, part of the process to enlightenment, was the perfect tonic, to leave the stinking office behind, James’ annoying puns, and everything associated with that den of rampant iniquity. As we swooped into Roma, cars shimmering on the ground appearing like giant circuit boards, even the suburbs looked possessed with joy, magical.

Rome felt, smelt and appeared like a half-remembered dream, where everything and anything is possible and turns out well; a cornucopia of potential delights. Hermione had selected the flights and destination, the hotel; she had even purchased the Euros. This was our first holiday away from Charlie, who was already two and a half. But it was I who felt like a small boy in the hands of his all-knowing mother.

We both had been working hard and deserved this time away. Over the last year we had been skiing in Austria with friends, where I damaged my left knee, plus to our timeshare apartment in Florida with Hermione’s sister’s family, where Hermione suffered severe food poisoning, but none of this just the two of us. We had lost time to make up, lost lovemaking time, as we had often been too tired, too busy or just too pissed off with each other to even touch, let alone go any further.

The heat in July, the architecture, the temperament, the romance in the atmosphere, the beauty, the language, everything pointed, like the finger of God in that most famous of paintings in the most famous of chapels, to love, so of course, when in Rome…

‘Prego, you are most welcome, sir, welcome madam,’ said the charming man on the doorstep of Hotel Tomasi, as I nearly walked past the small entrance.

We were to stay a stone’s throw from the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, originally titled Santa Maria della Neve, of the Snow, the most important church dedicated to Mary in Christendom. According to legend the Virgin Mary appeared on the fourth of August 358 AD to Pope Liberius and John, a patrician of Rome, telling them to build a church. In the morning, miraculously, snow covered the area where they were supposed to build it, despite the time of year.

I was a cradle Catholic, having a Spanish grandmother from Santiago in Northern Spain. Hermione was a convert to the one true faith; hence she was often a fanatic, insisting Charlie go through all the rites and attend a Catholic nursery, but sometimes she held onto her Protestant roots, and placed deeds above faith. She loved telling me about the three hundred Protestant martyrs killed by Catholic Queen Mary at Spitalfields, London. I gloated over telling her about the persecutions of Catholics from the time of Elizabeth over the next one hundred and fifty years and the still latent prejudice in merry old England.

‘But it’s good to die a martyr for a noble cause, such as one’s faith,’ she would reply, after Charlie was fast asleep, and we would indulge in bouts of drinking to relieve the tension of work. By the sound of it, her awful PR firm was worse than my lot, but I still envied her ability to shine in any company, her chameleon way of getting people to like her, whoever they were.

We entered the elegant hotel room, absorbed the chilled atmosphere, and stripped simultaneously, knowing full well why we were here. Kissing desperately, I felt so relieved to be alone with Hermione in this darkened icebox.

‘Are we allowed to use these things, when in Rome?’ Hermione whispered, as she handed me a golden wrapped condom.

I quickly stood, ripped the packet with my teeth, eased the thing on, and snapped the window shutters shut, total darkness swallowing us.

Part of me imagined this was wrong, maybe this act would lead me to hell, that Dante’s inferno was lurking in the all-consuming blackness, like a weight, but the mechanical nature of donning the processed plastic alleviated any of my fear.

We both abandoned ourselves to this moment of forgetting, and went at it hell for leather, if you’ll excuse the phrase, the pent up frustrations of the previous months dissipated in this frantic activity.

Rome amazed me, more than I ever could imagine or describe. Shelley, Byron, and Keats had all fallen in love with the city, and you would have to be a Philistine not to see why. After a siesta, we strolled by the Forum, a romantic testament to Rome’s past greatness, then over to the famous Coliseum, the largest amphitheatre ever built by the Romans, copied all over the Empire.

Laughing, we watched tourists take photographs of men dressed up like gladiators and Julius Caesar, and at last managed to enter this evocative building, one of the most magnificent on or off the planet. Inside, at the second level, it was easy to envisage the arena, Latin for sand, soaked in the blood of animals and criminals. I imagined them now, knives gouging guilty and innocent eyes, axes cracking skulls, swords buried between shoulder blades, fifty thousand people of Rome roaring at the slaughter, lusting for more. Hermione wanted to take notes for her next essay, but I told her to put her notepad away and just enjoy the moment.

We crossed the city to the Pantheon, the largest single standing dome in the world. Here we indulged in rich chocolate and pistachio ice cream and a bottle of Geographico Chianti, the smoothest wine I have ever tasted. James would be envious, I thought. I even considered texting him! He would probably take it the wrong way, show it round the office, and then where would I be? After this indulgence, we raced back to the hotel for more frantic lovemaking. It was as if these were our last moments on earth, and we both were yearning for final pleasure.

Surfacing in the late evening for a meal in a street side café, we were serenaded by boys with bongos, receiving many delicacies, ‘from the home’, as the waiter put it. Behind us a drunken Englishman, who I at first had mistaken for a local because of his dark skin and thick black hair, berated his shattered looking wife, raising his thumb at the waiter constantly for more wine and beer, making me feel ashamed to be his countryman.

Day two of the three-day trip consisted of entering and ascending St Peter’s, marvelling at the view of the city, and the gardens that surrounded the Vatican, imagining what it must be like to live in this private world. Inside, hordes of tourists received talks on how the bones of the founding leader of the Holy Roman Church were buried a mere thirty-five feet below the altar, the largest bronze sculpture in the world that could fit into the highest point of the dome. The scale of the church was staggering.

‘Are you supposed to drink Holy Water?’ asked an American mother with a gaggle of kids wearing hats with solar powered propellers on top, as I filled my plastic bottle from a fountain within the Vatican.

We ate an early lunch, cramming in the mozzarella and caper smothered pizzas and a salad of artichoke, olives and bitingly fresh tomatoes, washed down with more Chianti, and then roamed the streets of Rome, feeling the heat burrow into our bones and thaw the repressed Englishness. This had consumed us over the years; a way of being that had felt necessary just to get on in life, to have a home in dirty old London, to become people worth something.

Hermione was becoming more enlivened by the minute and went on ahead, gabbling to beggars with their plastic bags for shoes, patting dishevelled and flea-bitten dogs, becoming the mad woman of Rome, with an authenticity Michelangelo would have admired. This was the greatest education she could have.

We crossed by the Trevi fountain, threw change over our shoulders, and scurried about the small streets, letting fate guide us, and in these unfathomable moments I realised that this was a time of perfect freedom, that anything could be done or said or thought, or even believed.

I came across a large screen in a wall of a baroque building and admired the incongruity of the ancient meeting the contemporary. Blood red three-dimensional shapes made up of lines like arteries metamorphosed into each other, supposedly suggestive of particular feelings, such as deep horror, joy, sadness, the whole gamut of emotions connected to the viewer via sight and touch in technological art. I shouted up ahead and told the disappearing shape of Hermione to wait.

We moved into the cool art gallery and Hermione began a discussion in Italian with the curator, while I hung back, the ignorant tourist, watching her gesticulate wildly as she began to become enthused by the innovative nature of the place. I knew this was perfect for her dissertation on contemporary Italian art.

‘This is for you, inner beauty. He’s given me outer beauty,’ she sniggered, handing me a key with a small blue picture attached, as the eyes of the young curator caressed us.

‘We must enter a room and go to the lockers in the centre and find the doors that match our key and feel inside the boxes, but not remove what is there, and this will reveal to us the emotion on the key-ring.’

I felt this was particularly appropriate, given I had deadened my emotions over the years. Could this be my salvation? Quickly, we passed through four corridors, containing minor modern pieces, and found the large room. Nine enormous screens surrounded an onyx box with innumerable doors. Four circular couches were positioned to enable the viewer to watch the screens. We heard footsteps that interrupted our almost religious contemplation.

‘I forgot to tell you that the theme today is inner beauty. You see the man’s key here will open most of the lockers. Please feel free to stay here as long as you want. I believe this is the best piece of installation art we have had so far in the gallery.’

‘Grazie, grazie, grazie,’ we both exclaimed simultaneously to the young curator, impressed by his deep enthusiasm for the work.

A pink ball appeared on the first screen and then elongated into a shape that crossed to the next screen, and then moved around all nine, twirling and twisting, with more colours, growing as it went, green and blue and orange being added, all to the accompaniment of moving contemporary classical music. We stayed in this room, chilling out as they say, for what felt like an hour, and then slowly moved out, like an animal, after the kill.

End of Part I

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