The mosquito-buzz of a dozen languages sandpapers the afternoon street; the far-off scrape of a badly-played fiddle offers it a sour soundtrack. The cries of onion-sellers fly towards the sea; shadows and half-people slip through a fog that has covered the city for a week. The cathedral and the citadel are barely visible as the furiously-smoking man turns the corner, though he knows they are up there, ancient and, as ever, watching with amused disapproval. A tram crawls past him; a small dark child - Greek, probably, he thinks - leans over from the running-board at the back, shouts something at him, giggling and pointing, then disappears quickly back into the swarm of people inside the tram as it heads up and out of his city, out towards the East and the Jew-haters.
The fog is thickening now as he walks out onto the dockside; spots of rain are starting to fall. The swoosh of the sea overwhelms the bustle of the streets behind him, as it always does. He’s been coming down here every afternoon for a month or so, hiding in that noise, in the Adriatic’s vastness, in its fierceness and promises. One day, perhaps.
Two huge men - Montenegrins, by the look of them (though he is unsure: London seems to blunt his Triestine senses a little more with each visit) - are carrying a huge wooden crate, scrawled Cyrillic lettering on its side, up a rickety-looking ramp towards the deck of a green-rusted fishing-boat. He stands and watches them for a few seconds, then coughs, the sudden convulsion punching out of his chest and angering him, as it always does. He turns quickly from the virility of the sailors and walks away along the Riva, his breath quick and shallow now, the trading smells of fish and perfume and olive oil discomforting and maternal. This is still home, now. This is home.
The Englishman watched him shuffle away and smiled a twinkling smile.
He came to me last Summer, while I was sitting, top of my head burning, on the Brighton stones, as my thoughts were drifting out to sea and the fish-chip smell was doing its best to outstink the exhaust fumes from up on the road. He came and sat down beside me and I knew, immediately. Dark, a Jewishness or a Mediterraneanness about him, thin and tall and hook-nosed and blank-eyed. He didn’t say anything for a while. I could hear my own breath, felt my heart quicken and strengthen a little.
‘Ever been to Africa?’ he said, a warmth and a sympathy in his voice that surprised me.
‘No. Never. This is hot enough for me.’ I smiled and turned to him and his mouth smiled and his eyes stared and I turned away again.
‘You should go there. You’ll never find anything here.’ The warmth was gone.
I knew what he meant and it scared me. A picture came, a black-and-white cine film of a Christmas when we were still in London, around the first time it all started to go wrong. We were all sitting at the dining-table, Budgen’s Christmas pudding polished off; I looked around at their conversation, looked at their faces and their hair and their lips, found myself becoming focused on words and syllables and individual letters. I started to play with them, making anagrams from my Mum’s ‘No, I don’t think so’, twisting Nan’s ‘He was very nice, really, considering . . .’s into new shapes. Someone said ‘live’ and I noticed how it was ‘evil’ backwards and I smiled to myself at the banality of that and how they’d never understand if I tried to explain. Which I wouldn’t. They weren’t coming into my bedroom and they weren’t coming into my mind. I nodded when Mum asked me if I wanted a coffee.
The sea-breeze grazed my face here and now and there was no-one next to me any longer on the stones. There was a brown envelope in my left hand.
Ryanair fly to Trieste. Well, not Trieste, really, but close (for Ryanair). I was there at eleven the next morning.
‘No, no, no.’ Jim stood there for the sixth morning running, stood there in front of thirty expectant pairs of eyes and wished he was back in the flat. Even with Nora and the kid there. Even with the noise from upstairs and the racket outside the window and the baby smells. And the little notes through the door from the people he’d borrowed money off.
‘‘No. ‘Desperate’. Not ‘Desperate.'’’ L’Osteria alla citta di Parenzo. Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Absinthe and beer and bloody anarchists and two whores. An hour’s sleep and stand up here again in front of a dull sea of eager Italians and bored Serbs and The Brit. What a life.
There was a knock at the door and a simultaneous burst of tiny rushing feet and a moustache and braces and absurd green hat. Schultz. Shit.
‘Darf ich . . . may I see you for a minute?’
‘Yeah. OK.’ Jim smiled at the eager, gentle rows of foreigners, mumbled ‘Um . . . just get on with your verbs,’ and followed the little German to his office.
Schultz gestured him towards the little chair and closed the door behind them. Jim watched him walk slowly round the huge oak desk, stand for a moment, stare out through the small round window over the city, and then sit himself down, eyes, as ever, staring just over Jim’s head.
‘It’s Frau Wiesling. It’s her I want to talk about,’ he said, his English reluctant and bitter.
‘Frau . . .?’
‘Frau Wiesling. You know her. You know her . . . well.’
‘Yeah. Nice woman.’ And a grand fuck.
‘Her husband came in to see me just now. He was angry, very angry with you. He said you should be hung. He said you were a Jew-loving slimy alcoholic Irish bastard.’
‘No, no,‘ said Schultz, his eyes higher than ever above Jim’s head, ‘in Italian.’
‘Ah. And what else did he say?’
‘He said I should remove you from your position.’
‘And what did you say?’
‘I said nothing would give me more pleasure.’
‘Right.’ Jim pictured the scene when he got back to the flat: Nora, hair unwashed and eyes tired with housework and pregnancy, biting her lip, trying, in that pathetic way of hers, not to be angry, not to dive into a whirlpool of whatwillwedo’s and whycan’tyoukeepafeckingjobformorethanamonthyeeejit's . . .
‘But I said I wouldn’t. I said I needed you. For now.’ A millisecond’s eye-to-eye contact and Schultz’ stare returned to the ceiling.
Jim looked at him, wondering how often he trimmed his moustache.
‘’For now’?’ Don’t push it, Jim my boy, don’t push it. ‘Thanks,’ he said, a deep breath containing his rage. For now.
‘Get back to your class.’ Schultz waggled his right index and middle fingers in Jim’s direction and stood up, turning his back to Jim and beginning once more to stare out of the window.
When he got back to the classroom, they were all still there, expectant still and just as fresh and eager. He found fault with every sentence, every word they spoke for the next hour.
Hector lit another one. He stared up at the top of the obelisk, the sharp sun behind it forcing his eyes closed, forcing him finally to look away. He could hear the Slovenian voices of the border-guards, their coarse laughter. He took the cigarette from his mouth, looked at it for a second, then dropped it, trod on it and started walking back down the hill. After a minute or two, he sat himself slowly down by the side of the road, his right knee giving the now-familiar crack. He took the small knapsack from his back and pulled out Livia’s parcel, the one she’d got the maid to make up for him this morning. He unwrapped first the bread and then the Gorgonzola, breaking off and eating a tiny piece of the damp, harsh, sharp cheese, then a slab of bread, then another piece of cheese, feeling the tastes merge and take him away for a few moments from the fears. He thought back to last night and he wondered how much longer he could keep going out to those bars with the Irishman. And yet . . . and yet his talent, that joy in words, that passion, ah . . .
Ah. What was the name of the Frenchman? Soyer. ‘Fucking Soyer,’ Jim had called him. ‘Sent the starving Paddies a recipe. A fucking recipe, Hector, can you believe it?’ Hector could believe it, but he shook his head with a wry smile and looked round the vast mirrored room at all the bearded, drinking, smiling revolutionaries and lit another cigarette.
He’d had another wine then and left, the taxi pulling him back up the hill to Livvy and her snoring. He’d lain there for an hour or two, no more than usual, then finally drifted off. When he woke this morning, his stomach was hurting, the knee was stiff and he wished, just for a second, that he was in Charlton. The knapsack was already on the table when he went downstairs. He was going to call out to her, but he didn’t.
And now he was here, alone with the sun and the after-taste of the cheese and of last night. He stood up, put the knapsack on his back, and walked away from the East, down into the foggy city by the sea.
Jim left Nora in the little park across from the railway station. He wandered into the new city, his new home, smiling to himself in the sunlight, listening to the chatter in Italian and German and something like Russian, laughing inside as each of what seemed like hundreds of beautiful, dark-eyed woman passed him, each with parasol in hand and mustachioed, brown-hatted man beside her. The streets were bracketed by tall, strict buildings, four, five or six stories, well-built, sensible but with just enough grace to proclaim them more than Austrian. The small plaques by their wide, solid entrances announced, quietly but assertively, many-lettered dentists, bankers and jewelers.
As he moved further from the station, the universal smells and noises of poverty grew, the buildings became smaller and greyer and thoughts of Dublin appeared for the first time for weeks. The air felt colder. He heard a shout from across the street. He glanced over and saw a woman - small, around twenty, light-haired and swathed from head to toe in flapping, flowing brilliant reds and yellows and purples - jabbing a finger up into the face of a tall, thin, blonde man. Jim let a tram rattle past, crossed the road and pushed through the little expectant gaggle of people standing around and watching the show, stopping next to a muttering, tutting old woman. Hands in his pockets, he settled himself back with a grin as the multi-coloured young woman slapped the man across the face and the man shoved her and turned, spat on the ground, started to stride away, off the pavement and out into the road. The woman ran and leapt at the man, jumping up and grabbing him round the neck, alternately yelling and trying to bite him, clinging on to him as he shook his shoulders in an irritated attempt to rid himself of her. Like two dogs, Jim thought, smiling.
There was a shriek and the woman fell to the ground. The man glanced down at her, aimed a half-hearted kick at her, then walked off in the direction of the ghetto, the woman now slumped, breathing fast, moaning and muttering as the crowd dissolved back into the midday streets.
Jim walked up to her, dropped to his knees.
‘You OK, love?’
A stream of Italian. The language of Dante, mangled, torn, ripped. Then, to his surprise, she smiled up at him, her big-lashed eyes twinkling, and she said, in an English that could only have come from Cork:
‘I am. Dublin’
She struggled to her feet, her eyes still shining into his and she opened her right hand. It was a man’s ring.