Excerpt. Published in Ambit 133, 1993
Around 6 a.m. Pentecost Sunday, May 21st, 1972.
Studying the Belgian archaeologist’s photo in her passport, Tony got a shock seeing how beautiful she’d been in her youth. If you took away those glasses that made raccoon rings round her eyes she still looked pretty good and her lower lip stuck out, the sure fire indicator of sensuality. Like a fool he hadn’t made a play for her the moment she showed up, counting on finding something better. When he’d finally made up his mind to have her he never quite managed to cross paths with her; she always seemed to be off sightseeing somewhere. Fixing the ceiling lamp, the globe of which contained a pile of dead flies just distinguishable through a coating of dusk, he wondered if he was going crazy. Here he was surrounded by beautiful girls, girls from all the world, blondes, redheads, raven-haired temptresses with fabulous bodies, not only were they all giving him the brush off, even the old women didn’t want him! There had to be something wrong with his approach, he’d lost his technique for some reason or other. It was agony: the girls arriving at the pensione were nearly always alone and obviously searching for adventure; even the ugliest one of them had some guy in tow after a few days in town and he couldn’t get laid!
A lavatory flushed followed by the thud of an ancient cistern emptying. As it began to stir into wakefulness the thin walls and ceilings of the pensione transmitted all sorts of noises, some distant, others near by. There was coughing, doors opened and closed, taps were turned on and off; from somewhere down the passage female laughter. It had to be the English girl with the see-through blouse, Tony conjectured despondently; she’d moved into a double with Gervasio, the parking attendant from up the street. He realized the only woman he hadn’t tried picking up yet was the Brazilian dancer in no. 7, who had showed up when he was off duty. Pushing the pile of passports into the reception desk drawer, he picked up a magazine he’d discovered in no. 15 featuring pornostars Cicciona ‘The Big Fleshy One’ and Lupita Feral ‘The Argentine Suction Machine’. As he perused the much-thumbed pages Tony slipped little by little into a trance-like state compounded of lust and longing and, ever prevailing, an irremediable sense of loss and desolation, a black pit of depression.
It was as if he stank or something or didn’t know the essential password; if you didn’t know the password you were refused sex. And it would get worse; when one got too desperate one’s sex life always got worse. It was hopeless, there was no point in him even straining his neck to peer under the clothesline crossing the courtyard to see if the shutters of the Brazilian dancer’s room were still closed. If only he’d kept an old girlfriend on as a reserve, at least that way one didn’t lose one’s sexual rhythm entirely and didn’t give off total failure. Women could smell it when you weren’t fucking. If you didn’t exude that special something of a man getting it regularly they just weren’t turned on; you either transmitted this vibration of a man well fucked and satisfied with some other woman or you got nothing. A whiff of your missing out and they turned mean; they were all as merciless and as hard as nails when you dug beneath the surface. Even if you kept an old girlfriend on you usually couldn’t depend on her; he’d had quite a few of them going nasty on him in the past now he thought about it. Ungenerous bitches they never helped a man in need, not even when they were obviously aching for it themselves…
In the courtyard, to the side of the window in front of the reception desk, stood a stand of postcards, images of the Colosseum, the Forum, piazza Navonna and the Spanish steps which guests peeked at when they first arrived at the pensione and which they invariably neglected to purchase because of their ancient and flyblown condition. Normally in the habit of mumbling out loud, Donolla was doing it silently behind this stand of postcards as he watched Tony with profound suspicion. The manager of the pensione either slept in an alcove under the stairs or in whatever room remained unoccupied. Tony hadn’t noticed him emerge from no. 7 and come up the corridor and was completely unaware he was being observed until Donolla stubbed his foot against the base of the postcard stand.
‘Uh!’ Tony emerged from his torpor quickly as Donolla sidled forward: ‘What’s going on here? You sneaking up on me again!’
Donolla was permanently bent over at keyhole level, his hands clutched behind his back. Of late he’d been growing more and more frustrated and dissatisfied with Tony. Instead of attracting clients to the pensione he apparently drove them away! The recent alarming loss in trade wasn’t entirely related to The Pope’s prolonged missions in South American and African nations, as he’d suspected initially. Two women guests had complained about Tony in the course of the last week. One was sure he spied upon her when she left her room to go to the bathroom at night, and a tourist from Minnesota alleged he’d pinched her buttocks.
‘Do your work!’ Donolla said. As he was going to the Stazione Termini to lure people coming off the trains to the pensione, he picked a pile of business cards off the desk and put them in his pocket.
Tony’s face splotched briefly with anger; he remained seated because of the tumescence in his trousers.
‘What d’you say?’ He blurted irately, squeezing his eyebrows together into a truculent line and placing his hands, lumpy and battered from his fighting days, on the desk. Seeing he couldn’t pick up any of the women in the pensione there wasn’t much point in keeping the job, he concluded bitterly. He made better money unloading vegetables at the central market. ‘You call me a dirty name?’
‘Leave the women alone!’ Donolla ordered without much conviction.
Tony bunched up his thick and sloping shoulders. He threw a derisive hand at the pergola which formed a canopy of vines in the summer and raised his voice.
‘Tourists don’t wanna come here anymore, this place is dirty! They want new plastic, they want nice and clean, not grapes and leaves dropping all over the fucking place! Fucking dirt, rat shit everywhere!’
Donolla appeared alarmed. ‘Rat shit! What rat shit? Where?’ He sputtered, his hands beginning to clutch and cling behind his back again. They both fell silent when the live-in servant Angelica, a distant relative of Donolla’s from the Abruzzi mountains, dragged herself out of no.7 and passed by them, a vacuous look in her eye.
Already close, Donolla’s features pinched even further together. Staring down at the floor, he singled out a cigarette butt for a few moments; then his gaze fixed on infinity. Watching Angelica Tony swallowed hard recalling the time he’d made love to her in no.3. It had been his first day at the pensione and, having an opaque recollection of a routine a friend had recommended, he’d succeeded in convincing her to let him have his way by lying to her that he’d been released from prison that morning.
‘Am I the first since you got out?’ She’d murmured.
She hadn’t as much as bestowed him a glance since and seemed to be angry with him for some reason. He suspected she’d fallen in love with him and wanted him to ask her out, maybe even go through the motions of becoming her ‘fidanzato’; but that would be madness. He could hardly go around showing off a village girl even if she had a spectacular body under her black cotton dress. At any rate he didn’t want any woman interfering with his freedom. It was almost as though what had taken place between them had occurred in his fantasy it happened so long ago.
‘Leave women guests alone!’ Donolla ventured completely without any conviction this time when Angelica receded into the gloom of the stairs and, his raincoat flapping behind him, departed for the railway station.
For about an hour Tony just sat there at the reception desk in lonely detumescent blankness thinking about nothing in particular. Gradually an idea seeped into his brain; he sat for another half hour as he mulled over it. Then, having made his decision, he went behind the dilapidated screen where he kept his suitcase, to change into a clean shirt and pad the crotch of his Levis with a meticulously folded handkerchief. Automatically touching his hair to make certain it was in place, and not bothering to leave a message, he left the pensione rapidly.
‘900 laborers, 44 winches and 144 horses were employed in raising the 440 ton, 41 metres high obelisk from Eliopolis here in front of St Peter’s, the world’s greatest basilica.’
His attention entirely taken up by the chest of the blonde foreign girl, Tony wasn’t interested in the guide’s explanation. He’d almost forgotten breasts with such muscle tone existed; bra-less they stood straight out from her chest, the nipples proudly outlined by the fabric of her pullover. They were exquisite, agonizingly exquisite; not even Lupita Feral had breasts that full and taut. With a surge of desire he imagined exposing them and running his hands over them; his imagination blazed. He caught his breath, sucking the air in between his teeth so forcefully that a group of nuns near him exchanged frightened glances and effected an immediate departure. The next moment Tony was shaking his head in an attempt to clear it and running his fingers through his hair. His heart thumped away, brimming over with feeling, a mixture of exultation, excitement and pure fear. He felt weak at the knees; he couldn’t remember a woman ever having such an immediately devastating impact on him. Mentally rehearsing the phrases he’d prepared he started forward.
‘Hi beautiful! Haven’t we met some place before?’
He said in English and amazed himself with his voice’s new depth and resonance. He felt a violent stirring in his trousers; a long wait was over, he was on to a good thing, he just felt sure about it.
She stared at him in frowning bewilderment. ‘Please, I do not understand…’
Tony’s mouth stretched back in a grin that threatened to split his face in two.
‘You and me! I can show you real old Rome! Maybe Roman pizzeria after. You like pizza?’ Tony spread his hands; he was never successful at St Peter’s but he remained obstinately blind to this. ‘Via Veneto’, ‘la dolce vita’! You like to see special catacomb place full of monks’ bones? Many tourist they like it, take photographs! I show you round for free! No money! Colosseum, Mouth of Truth!’ He laughed as if he’d just thought of something startlingly original. ‘If you tell a lie it eats your hand!’
The girl drew back.
‘What d’you want? Who are you?’ She demanded, and briskly: ‘Olaf!’ There followed a sentence in Danish, then: ‘Leave my wife alone!’
Perhaps the man had been standing there all the time. Tony realized he probably hadn’t noticed him because he was so short and insignificant looking.
‘Leave my wife alone! I call police!’
A vast quivering emotion welled up in Tony; his palms began to ooze, a violent expletive came on his lips. People were beginning to stare at him and discerning a patrol car not far away he regained control over himself with a prodigious effort and shambled off, vowing morosely to stick to the Trevi fountain in future.
Entering the basilica of St Peter’s and turning to the right, one arrives at the Chapel of the Pietà which contains Michelangelo’s masterpiece and the so-called Colonna Santa against which Jesus is said to have leaned in the temple of Solomon (probably a Roman work of the IV Century). Milky and diffused, a sheen of light bathed the marble statue of the young mother and her murdered adult son, making it seem as if it was sweating or was modeled out of wax. Removing the guidebook found in no.17 from his back pocket, Tony gazed over the top of it. Surfaces of marble floors and columns shimmered and shone like water; one instant shapes appeared as solid, the next they were cloud-like, rippling and billowing, percolating like dust through shafts of light. After about five minutes of surveying interweaving streams of tourists and pilgrims his questing eyes suddenly made out the Belgian archaeologist. Wearing a green loden and sensible shoes she was coming down the aisle from Bernini’s altar, where mass was being performed, with an entranced air about her. Furtively continuing to follow her approach in his peripheral vision and resolving to employ special tactics, Tony in turn scrutinized the Pietà and his guidebook while feigning complete absorption. ‘The expression of a mother with a newborn child in her arms…’ He read haltingly, and skipping a few pages: ‘Michelangelo’s signature is on the breast of the virgin mother on a fold of cloth.’
Stopping in front of the Pietà the Belgian archaeologist examined it in shortsighted rapture.
Tony reached up automatically to assure his hair was in position, he cleared his throat; his pulse was beating hard.
‘The signature’s on her breast,’ he murmured obsequiously when he arrived by her side, and with a diffident smile: ‘You remember me? I’m the manager of the pensione.’
‘Ah yes…’ She blushed, or did he imagine it? ‘Can I be of any service?’ As if it had a will of its own his hand reached out to touch her, managing to contain it he scratched the tattoo on his wrist instead. He noticed her proturberant lower lip was trembling slightly.
‘I’ve heard there’s a lift up to the dome. Can you tell me where it is?’ She asked; her eyes swam round like goldfish in her glasses.
With a sudden surge of wild hope a strategy came to him: he would take her up to the dome then, he calculated, there being a lot of stairs as well as the lift, she ought to be ready for a relaxed drink somewhere and one thing would lead to another.
All at once, a few moments before the celebration of the mass reached the last ‘Ite’ of the ‘Agnus Dei’, there was a terrible scream, a hysterical throbbing flare of sound which reverberated, seeming to echo on and on with insensate force in the huge domed space of the temple. Tony spotted an attractive woman to his right, her face convulsing in horror, pressing her hand against her mouth in an effort to hold back another scream. The next instant, his hearing a commotion from the direction of the Pieta’, his eyes focussed in disbelief on the figure moving frenziedly over it with a hammer in his hand. Even though he wasn’t able to distinguish him clearly Tony’s memory pitched back to the babyfaced bearded man with the raincoat and black bow-tie he’d glimpsed lingering suspiciously by the statue’s protective railing earlier.
The Madonna’s arm was smashed off, it crashed to the ground. Peering over bobbing heads in a confusion of emotions, Tony watched the hammer rise and descend with nightmare slowness, striking her head, the eggsmooth veil, her nose; with terrible corrosive clarity he watched her left eyelid pulverize like sugar. And, like everyone else looking on, he couldn’t move, he couldn’t speak! For an eternity he stood there with his mouth open, seized by a dreadful inability to make proper sense out of what was going on.
‘I am Jesus Christ! I am the new Messiah! Christ is risen!’
Like a film which has stuck and which suddenly starts rolling again with a jerk the crowd finally broke free from its inertia. Two uniformed men pushed their way roughly forward, leaped over the railing, dragged the yelling man off The Madonna and flung him violently to the ground.
‘Jesus Christ, you see that!’ Tony exclaimed, only to realize the Belgian archaeologist was no longer at his side. The atmosphere became drenched with intense excitement. For a few hurtling seconds it seemed the whole colossal building was in movement around Tony, then he too was sucked forward like everyone else, converging on the vandal who continued to shout in insane defiance even though he was immobilized.
‘Kill me if you want! I’ll go to heaven! Kill me!’
Staring over a group of Japanese, Tony caught sight of him for a split second before he was rescued from the crowd by the police.
‘Kill me if you want! I’ll go to heaven!’ The man’s skin was transparent, his eyes overflowed with a supernatural fire Tony had never witnessed before.
Using his shoulders, Tony thrust his way through the jam by the door and, passing through it into the huge and opulent ‘portica’, moved diagonally to one side of it. The sun scintillated over the piazza with its obelisk and columns. The back of Tony’s neck untensed, the breath he’d been holding back expelled. At first he felt very still, very empty as he waited in vain for the woman who’d screamed. Gradually a familiar sense of depression and failure settled over him; the atmosphere was spoiled as far as he was concerned. His heart wasn’t in cruising anymore; enough was enough, he might as well return to the pensione and check out the Brazilian dancer in no 7.
Some time later His holiness Pope Paul VI left his apartments upon being informed of what had taken place. He descended in a lift of the cathedral accompanied by a number of advisers, including his secretary for public affairs. Illuminated in the lights of T.V. cameras which had been rushed to the scene the pontifical group examined the mutilated work of art. The applause which customarily greets The Pope’s appearance was absent; with spontaneous respect for the profound pain and suffering on His Holiness’ countenance, the faithful remained in reverent silence.
‘Madness!’ Newspapers reported The Pope murmuring as someone reenacted the vandal’s behaviour and what had happened was described to him in detail.
Church bells tolled, startled birds flew up from the banks of the Tiber, wheeled and soared over the Eternal City and were borne upwards by the quickening breeze. Lazlo Toth, self-proclaimed Messiah, was locked up in a cell of the Queen of Heaven prison; he was delirious, confused, it was his thirty-third birthday.