Adam Forbes, a Scots writer, unable for reasons he had never defined to live in Scotland, or indeed to write much, was an unlikely person to have been invited to speak about Scottish literature at a festival — itself equally improbable — held in a small town in the Tuscan Maremma. He had never heard of the town, and the region, which he didn't know, was associated in his mind with a shaggy white sheepdog and with a book — a novel? Short stories? Essays? — by Ouida. He had never read it, but could picture where it had stood, brown-covered, on a shelf in his second wife's bedroom. It might still be there, though it was he, not Arabella, who had bought it.
He was older, some way older, than the other participants in the festival, except for a Sicilian novelist, said to be famous. Forbes himself, if never that, had once been well known, quite well known anyway, in certain circles, small circles admittedly. But that was a long time ago. So the invitation had come as a surprise. He kept getting the name of the town wrong. Like so many things now. His Italian had once been fluent, if never grammatically correct. Sad to find that, like his linen suit, it was worn out. There were holes in the jacket pockets and holes in his memory. For instance: that girl met one afternoon long ago in the Borghese Gardens, just by the entrance to the Zoo. They had gone back to his hot dark room in a pensione in the Piazza dei Santi Apostoli and made love — "had sex", he thought they would say now. He had forgotten her name and the colour of her hair, but he could picture her arms, rounded, smooth and glowing in the sunshine of the garden. But how to describe them? There's no comparison that is right for the colour of skin, it's a question, he thought, of texture. If that girl returned to him now it was because of the beauty of the waitress last night at the restaurant in the little square in front of the church. Yet probably there was no real resemblance, beauty all that they shared. He had thought it would be the beginning of an affair when she gave herself to him — eagerly? Yes, certainly eagerly — but when she slipped on her knickers and he put the question you always put: "No way, my father flies in tonight and then we are off to Greece before we go home to Seattle." As for the waitress with her proud Renaissance beauty and her dark-bronzed skin which made him wonder if she had Arab blood — or Jewish or Gypsy? — she was seventeen at most, and Forbes was in his sixty-third year and alert to murmurs of mortality.
He sat at a table outside a bar, fanned his face with his straw hat and lit a cigar. There was a picture of Garibaldi on the packet, and this was appropriate, for the festival sessions were being held in a salon of the municipality in the neighbouring square which was indeed the Piazza Garibaldi. The back of the packet informed him that "L'Eroe dei due mondi è stato un grande fumatore di sigari, naturalemente Toscani..." As for the cigars themselves, it was pleasant to learn that they had been "accuramente selezionati per ottenere un gusto morbido, pur nella costanza della tradizione tipica ed inimitable, più dolce e raffinato." Just what you aimed for in writing, the accurate selection of words to create certain effects, and the words were well chosen in this advertisement — even if, he reminded himself, "morbido" was what his French-English dictionary called a "faux ami", the Italian meaning soft or delicate, the English "morbid" being translated as "morboso". No matter: the thought that he enjoyed the same brand of cigar as the hero of two worlds was oddly pleasing. "Il fumo", another notice drafted by a less sympathetic hand informed him "provoca cancro mortale ai polmoni" — nothing "raffinato" or "dolce" about that message. Nevertheless he drew deeply on his cigar.
Every cigar or cigarette had become a small act of defiance, not only of the threatened death, but of the world he had survived into. Smoking was no longer only what a biographer of Thomas Mann had called it: the drug of those who are ready to go along with the middle-class game but need compensations to endure it. It was now openly oppositional, rebellion against programmed rationality. "Even if I wanted to," he would say, "I wouldn't give up now." He was aware of having become a bore on the subject.
Now, a girl appearing from inside the bar, he ordered an espresso and a grappa.He took out a notebook which, on leaving home in Gravesend, he had stuffed into his pocket, just in case, here in Italy where indeed he had always kept and used such a book, he might think of something worth recording. It was, he now discovered, an old book, more than half used-up. He opened it at random.
- Two New Poems
- Three New Poems
- Freedoms We Risk Losing
- The Legacy of John Maynard Keynes
- Was Crucifixion a Jewish Penalty?
- Sweet Crude
- Four New Poems
- Two New Poems
- My Five Husbands
- Spain (With Apologies to Auden)
- A Ballad of Bo-oz and Ruth
- The True Origins of the Royal Academy
- Three New Poems By Ruth Padel
- A Sequence of Seven Poems by Blake Morrison
- Annunciation: A new poem by Anthony Thwaite
- Irwin Isaac Meiselman
- An Open Letter to Günter Grass
- Pauline Maria 1965-2008
- The New Intolerance