Touched by the (Tuscan) Sun

Olga Pavlinova Olenich

There are two flights of stairs to climb before I reach the apartment. The stairs are wide and cool and lost in darkness except on the levels where an occasional window lets in a weak yellowish light which washes across the honey-colored steps, hollowed out after more than a century of use. My new Italian shoes slip in the hollows, and the climb is hard work on a hot Tuscan day. I get to the familiar paneled walnut door with its curious black markings and find it open, but Damian and Peter are not at home. This comes as somewhat of a relief, a bonus, an invitation to throw off my shoes and dance through the spacious rooms on polished parquetry floors, skid near the narrow stairs and then climb out onto the roof-garden, to sit cross-legged among the terracotta pots which for the last two weeks have been spilling over with summer’s gaudy geraniums. Sometimes I lie on the mattress I have put out there while the nights are hot and starry. This roof is more than ‘A Room with a View.’ This is a new horizon. From here I can look out over the piazza where the Henry Moore reclines, incongruous and impertinent on a circular patch of bright green grass, challenging the mellow façades of the old buildings. As I lean over the crumbling balustrade and see the pink terracotta roofs stretched for miles under a cloudless blue sky, I feel that particular surge of spirit that makes me breathless with the realization that I am where I am. In Italy.

This morning I went to Florence. The bus ride is one of my little joys. The local bus takes a willful and unnecessarily circuitous route through the impossibly narrow streets and often gets caught in the crazy Florentine traffic, shuddering and gasping and coming to a stop like some beached whale. However, I love every minute of it.It’s not as if I am a driver negotiating my way, hot and impatient and volatile with deadlines and destinations to meet. I am the passenger, the sponge in the back seat, soaking up the delights of a daily journey that somehow defies the tedium of habit and leaps from scene to scene, from face to face, from sound to sound in an unpredictable kaleidoscopic way. I travel alone.

***

I’ve been living with Damian and Peter for almost four months now and doing very little which could be deemed work except for giving the occasional private ballet lesson that pays extraordinarily well. I think it’s got something to do with my Russian name and the reputation I have acquired in this small town on the outskirts of Florence. At first, the locals were very suspicious of me. A woman moving in with the two Australian gays. Not very Catholic. From under brows furrowed with disapproval, they gave me dark looks as I passed them in the street and they glowered like grey Venetian gargoyles when I came into their shops or ate in their restaurants. In a place where everyone seemed to have a name or designation, and the piazza rang with cheery greetings like “Ciao Dottore!” or “Ciao Carissima!” I remained nameless. Who was I? They were uncomfortable in addressing me. When the word eventually got around via Guido the hairdresser that I actually was a povera signora recuperating from a serious illness in Bella Italia, things changed dramatically, almost operatically, you might say. Where I was once met with the flat and reticent, “Buongiorno,” to which I had become inured, I was now assailed by cadences and trilling accompanied by wild waving and much smiling and the unrestrained gesture of open arms ready to take me in and suffocate me with kindness. Pure Rossini.

The illuminating revelation about my health left an afterglow that hovered over me like a halo in a baroque masterpiece. Once I had been cast as the ailing heroine, it became impossible to stick to the quiet daily pattern I had established. For instance, I began the day with breakfast in the little bar near the bus stop where the young waiter used to try to chat me up under the amused urbane green-eyed gaze of the elegant middle-aged patron. These days when I get to the bar, usually at about 8.30 while Damian and Peter are still asleep, the patron rushes to the door, solicitous and respectful, chats on about the weather and the news, compliments me on my clothing, and pulls out a chair. He is too delicate to ask directly about my health but searches my face for secret signs with the concern of a doting papa.

“A couple of months and she’s everybody’s darling,” says Damian in his bitchiest voice but he is secretly proud of me and far from averse to embellishing the Signora’s story. I hate to think what kind of life-threatening malady he has cooked up for me. Sometimes, I get floral tributes of proportions that make me suspect he has gone a teensy bit over-the-top. He and Peter are quite disarming in the very shamelessness with which they reap the rewards for being the Angels of Mercy, a role into which they have flung themselves enthusiastically, but only in public. Privately, I’m the healer, and they’re the patients. But the public is fooled. Already my two bêtes noir, if you are allowed to have two, are more popular than they’ve been in the seven years of residence they have clocked up here, and the invitations flow in as steadily as the Arno wends her way through beautiful Florence. Every night we have to make decisions about which we can accept.

“Christ! The ***’s! They own the city! How did you meet them?” Damian is always the most scathing about important people, but he is the first to accept their invitations and puts us through hell when he’s “getting ready.” Once he is satisfied with his toilette, Peter and I get the once-over. “You can’t be serious!’ he groans, looking us up and down with fierce seagull eyes. “They’ll think we’re peasants!”

On one occasion we made the mistake of taking Felicity with us. We made the mistake of taking Felicity, full stop. Felicity was a friend of mine. Before leaving Australia, I had talked Felicity into meeting me in Italy. She was a dental nurse, very charming in a prim Englishy sort of way and very married. I thought the break from her family, not to mention the impact of Italy, would do her some good, widen her horizons. A few weeks ago while I was in Venice, Felicity appeared in Prato. I take my time-out in Venice. When the vases start to fly with the malicious velocity of the accusations and when things get so that no amount of maternal wiping of the brow can bring the boys’ temperatures down, I grab my overnight bag and head for Florence station. A few quiet days in magical Venice at my favorite hotel in the room with the deep bath and the deeper window overlooking a minor canal, a few early morning walks through the piazza before the hoards descend, a bowl of hot mussel soup in the evenings at a little table in the restaurant downstairs, and I am ready to listen to their pathetic entreaties and extravagant promises over the telephone. I usually return to platform five in Florence on the fourth or fifth day when the guards are ready for the spectacle Damian and Peter are so expert in staging at regular intervals. My departures and arrivals on these occasions bring the platform to a halt. The guards delight particularly in the departures when the boys put on a truly gut-wrenching show in the belief that I am abandoning them for good. “Ah, signora! Signora!” intone the guards, wringing their hands but scarcely containing their pleasure. “Che succesoChe succeso?” knowing full well ‘che succeso.’ I settle down in the carriage with a sigh of relief and ignore the curious stares of strangers in the compartment who are being treated to the spectacle of Damian and Peter running alongside my window, gesticulating madly and mouthing wild promises that are, mercifully, lost in the sound of the departing train.

Having traveled across the world to be with “dear Ollie," Felicity expressed surprisingly little regret at my absence and did not, as Damian insinuated she might like to do, follow me to Venice. Instead, she cooked the lads a fabulous meal, showed them many photographs of her “cherubs”—the round-faced boy of about eight and the string bean of a girl a little older—referred to her husband as the “dear old thing," and made herself comfortable in my room. About as comfortable as a Giorgione cherub on a pink cloud. By the end of the week, she had made a good half-dozen of the ragazzi who regularly came to see Damian and Peter pretty comfortable in my room, too, according to an outraged Damian, himself the paragon of virtue whose entourage of local boys drives Peter to whisky and fits of despair as black as you’ll get in any opera.

My homecoming was not a comfortable one. Felicity pretended to be overjoyed to see me but there was insincerity in her eyes, and her eyeliner had taken on a disturbingly bold Nefertiti line. Peter took me aside and asked how long she was going to stay. Damian took me aside and said she was a slut. And then “love” struck.

We had been invited to a wedding, the local doctor’s niece was marrying into a prominent Florentine family complete with a “castel” and famous vineyards scattered over the hills in the Chianti district. With a generosity like flowing wine, the invitation spilled over to our visitor. I was nervous. After two weeks of amorous adventures, Felicity looked like hell. “We’ve got to get her to Guido’s,” said Damian, pulling in air between clenched teeth and releasing it with a threatening hiss. Guido runs a rather glitzy salon just around the corner. He has done wonders with my hair and is besotted with Damian. On this occasion, Guido excelled himself. Felicity’s blonde hair, a great drawcard in Latin climes, was lightened further, puffed and blown and made glorious under the master’s touch. I was ever so slightly jealous but reminded myself that I was several years younger and could afford to be understated. Actually, we made a rather elegant foursome—pastel linens and silk scarves all around. Damian was pleased with us, and we set off in relatively high spirits for people who were not all that keen on weddings.

***

The newlyweds were a nice enough pair.I did not feel the urge to speculate on their future as they left the church. I suppose I reveled in their moment. There is enough of the romantic left in me, after all. I looked around at the guests and found them staid and disappointing. The priest, however, was young and dangerously engaging. Once I noticed this, I couldn’t keep my eyes off him. However, when he saw me watching him and began to react, I recoiled. Unlike Felicity, I was not looking for love.I was recovering. Unrequited and impossible would be good for me, but this explicit acknowledgment from a man of the cloth would not, I suspected, be at all healthy.

“Damian!” I whispered, “The priest is flirting with me.”

“Luscious, ain’t he? When you’ve finished with him, I’ll have a go.”

We drove to the reception. The sun was setting behind the hills, and soft streaks of its last pink light drifted over the Chianti road. The lines of cypresses were black-green sentinels lining the street all the way to the twelfth-century castel where the wedding banquet was to be held. Like a white cloud left over from the day, the bride drifted out of an impossibly large black car and onto the mellow pink and orange terrazzo in front of the weathered and mossy walls of the old building. We followed her into a dazzling hall where elaborately framed portraits of her husband’s ancestors looked over the festivities with an aloof disinterest painted into their features by artists working in the shadows of the old masters. It was the night of the brilliant chandelier and the living who were unquestionably triumphant. To our delight, it turned out to be quite some night. It must have been quite some night for Felicity too, or so we surmised because somewhere between the speeches and dances she disappeared.

***

Damian and Peter were scathing when I expressed some anxiety the following afternoon. Damian, predictably, had one or two unspeakable ideas about what he thought might be happening to Felicity, one of which involved the gorgeous priest. That night there was a phone call.

“Ollie,” said a weak and tremulous voice, which I barely recognized as Felicity’s, “I know that you’re not going to approve, but I couldn’t help it. You have no idea what it’s like to fall in love.” The object of love, a certain Marcello, had been, as they used to say, “waiting table” at the reception. She told me they were off to Perugia. Marcello was, of course, no ordinary waiter. He was a student at the University. He had an aristocratic background. His family had never loved him. Damian was poking angry faces at me. He was dying to hear. She said that they (already a couple in word as in deed) would drop by in an hour or so to collect her things.

“Love!” screeched Damian, “Love!”

“A student!” chortled Peter, “a student!”

“From Perugia!”

“Why, what’s wrong with Perugia?” I asked, genuinely confused. I had nothing against Perugia.

“Don’t you know anything? It’s where all the foreign students go. There’s a whole army of Marcellos hanging out waiting for a free ride. How much money d’you think the old Felicity has with her?”

Marcello oozed into the door behind Felicity. His eyelashes were that much too long, his mouth that much too full-lipped, his expression just that much too self-absorbed. I loathed him on sight. While Felicity was packing, he hung around the kitchen where I was attempting to make pancakes. Like the large pancakes slipping around the pan, Marcello slid from wall to wall, thumbs in the front pockets of his very tight jeans. His murmured comments weren’t memorable except for their appalling banality. When he slid up behind me and touched my hair, I was tempted to put the heavy fry pan to better use, but Felicity appearedjust in time to save her true love from permanent disfigurement.

“Pretty boy,” commented Damian as I led the lovers to the door.

“Ree-volting!” I hissed. Peter laughed. I hoped that Felicity would remember that the “dear old thing” and the cherubs were expecting a glad reunion with wife and mother in London at the end of the month.

At the end of the week, she was back. She looked the worst for the wear, and her eyes were puffy. The Nefertiti line had lost some of its precision under a cascade of tears. There had been a lover’s quarrel. Afraid of missing the call of reconciliation from Perugia, she refused to leave the apartment, permanently draping herself over the couch from which she could easily reach the receiver. Her ostentatious misery drove me and Peter to drink and Damian to excessive verbal cruelty. But she did not react.

Eventually, a call did come for her.It was the “dear old thing.” Surprise, surprise, he had managed to get away from work early, and at the very moment, he and the cherubs were safely ensconced in his sister’s home near Oxford and simply dying for mummy to join them! They would not take no for an answer and were quite prepared to join her in Italy if that was what she wanted. The wailing could be heard in the piazza until Damian threatened to hit her in the face with a wet towel. To this, she reacted. Quite a sensible thing to do, I thought. For a few minutes, there was an uncomfortable silence. “I just have to see him.” She burst into wild sobs. We gave her a glass of gin and promised to take her to Perugia the next day.

Damian woke up in a foul mood. He did not want to go to Perugia, but he didn’t want to miss out, either. Felicity took the front seat with Peter who was driving the 2CV, borrowed from Guido. It had green plush velvet covers on the seats. Guido had been an upholsterer before he turned his hand to hairdressing. It was hot. The velvet stuck to the back of my knees and gave off the odor of old hairspray. Damian sulked and stared out of the window. I wished I had never persuaded Felicity to join me in Italy. A bit late.

“I was meant to live in Italy,” she was saying to Peter.

As we neared Perugia, Peter asked for directions. “Where exactly does Marcello live?”

“I don’t know, exactly.”

“What do you mean, you don’t know?”

“We weren’t staying at his place.”

“Where the hell were you staying, then?”

“In the Brufani Palace.”

“The Brufani Palace! How much did that set you back?” Damian was aghast and jealous. Nobody had ever shouted him a room in the Brufani Palace. “Honeymoon suite, was it?” I decided to intervene.

“Felicity,” I said in the firmest tone I could muster, “how on earth are we supposed to find Marcello? Don’t you have a phone number?”

“Not really.” Damian nudged me in the ribs. We began to giggle. Felicity sniffed. “He’ll be easy to find. He’ll probably be in one of the cafés near the university. It’s not such a big place, you know.”

Perugia was a lot bigger than I remembered. It was teeming with foreigners, and the Italians all looked like Marcello, or so I decided an hour after we had strategically separated to scour the city for Felicity’s lost love. I went back to the piazza and found myself an outside table in one of the more popular places. My search was over, and so it seems was Peter’s.

“Hey, Ollie!” His familiar figure emerged from the depths of the café.

“How long have you been here?”

“Oh,” he said smiling quietly, “I came here immediately. Couldn’t see the point of rushing about. We’re just as likely to spot him here.” We ordered coffee, and Damian turned up barely ten minutes later. He had been looking up an “old friend," but it was not an auspicious day for reunions. Occasionally, we thought we could see Felicity in the milling crowd, but it was hard to tell. There was no lack of fair foreign women “of a certain age” in Perugia, and there were legions of Marcellos.

The day was ending. Having consumed too many cups of coffee, mountains of gelato and several lunches, we were suffering from a peculiar form of hysteria brought on by the tedium of playing “Spot the Marcello” non-stop for the better part of a day. The waiters who had been quite amused at the beginning of our game were getting pretty sick of us. By five, we were the only ones who thought it screamingly funny to identify every passing man as the lost Marcello. It was time to leave. We had decided to meet Felicity on the steps of the university. To our surprise, she was there and had been for over an hour. She was very quiet. There had been no romantic reunion, not even a sighting.

I received a letter from Felicity yesterday. She is attending Conversational Italian classes at some school of languages along with a whole lot of other Australian women who are hoping to return to Italy and reclaim their Marcellos. Could I be cruel enough to write back and tell her not to bother? Marcello has reappeared in Florence. For the past week, he has been seeing more of Damian than he should. The rows here have been earsplitting. My overnight bag is packed.


About the Author

Olga Pavlinova Olenich is an Australian writer whose work appears in local and international publications. Her prose and poems have been broadcast on national radio and have featured in national newspapers, and her memoirs included in the collection Best Australian Humorous Writing (Melbourne University Press, 2008) and The Best Travel Writing Volume 11 (Travelers' Tales Series. Solis House Palo Alto, 2016). Her poetry appears in several anthologies, including Australian Poetry Anthology V 2006 and Best Australian Poems (Black inc. 2015).