An excerpt from Rupert Thomson’s Katherine Carlyle
Another beautiful September. The sun richer, more tender, the color of old wedding rings. Rome filling up again, people back at work after the holidays. I ride through the city, over potholes and cobbles, the sky arranged in hard blue blocks above the rooftops. The swallows have returned as well, flashing between the buildings in straight lines as if fired from a gun. I park my Vespa outside the station and walk in through the entrance.
It was spring when I first started noticing the messages. Back then, they were cryptic, teasing. While crossing Piazza Farnese, I found a fifty-euro note that had been folded into a triangle. A few days later, at the foot of the Spanish Steps, I found a small gray plastic elephant with a piece of frayed string round its neck. I found any number of coins, keys, and playing cards. None of these objects had anything specific to communicate. They were just testing my alertness. They were nudges. Pokes. Nonetheless, I felt a thrill each time, a rocket-fizzle through the darkness of my body, and I took photos of them all and stored them on my laptop, in a file marked INTELLIGENCE. The weeks passed, and the world began to address me with more precision. In May I stopped for a macchiato near the Pantheon. On my table was a scrap of paper with a phone number on it. I recognized the prefix — Bologna — and called the number. A woman answered, her voice hectic, a baby crying in the background. I hung up. The scrap of paper was a message, but not one I needed to pay attention to. In June I entered a changing cubicle in a shop on Via del Corso. Lying on the floor was a brochure for a French hotel. “Conveniently located for the A8,” the Hôtel Allure offered a “high standard of accommodation.” I borrowed my friend Daniela’s car on a Friday afternoon and drove for seven hours straight, past Florence and Genoa, and on around the coast to Nice. At midnight the hotel’s neon sign floated into view, the black air rich with jasmine and exhaust. I spent most of the next day by the pool. The hot white sky. The rush of traffic on La Provençale. In the early evening a man pulled into the car park in a silver BMW. He stood at the water’s edge, his shirtsleeves rolled back to the elbow. His name was Pascal, and he worked in telecommunications. When he asked me out to dinner — when he put that question — I somehow realized he wasn’t relevant. If the Hôtel Allure was a mistake, though, it was a useful one. I’ve been imagining a journey ever since.
The station concourse smells of ground coffee beans and scalded milk. I stare up at the Departures board. Firenze, Milano. Parigi. None of the names stand out, none of them speak to me. Voices swarm beneath the high sweep of the roof, footsteps echo on the polished marble, and then a feeling, sudden yet familiar — the feeling that I’m not there. It’s not that I’m dead. I’m simply gone. I never was. Panic opens inside me, slow and stealthy, like a flower that only blooms at night. The eight years are still with me, eight years in the dark, the cold. Waiting. Not knowing.
I deliberately collide with someone who happens to be passing. He’s in his early thirties. Black hair, brown leather jacket. He drops his bag. An apple rolls away across the floor.
“I’m so sorry,” I say.
“No, no,” he says. “My fault.”
The moment he looks at me, my existence comes flooding back. It’s as if I’m a pencil sketch, and he’s coloring me in. I go and fetch the apple. When I pick it up it fits my palm perfectly. The shape of it, the weight, makes everything that follows feel natural.
I hold it out to him. “I think it might be bruised.”
He looks at the apple, then smiles. “This is like a fairy tale.
Are you a witch?”
“I just didn’t see you,” I say. “I should be more careful.” I’m breathless with exhilaration. I’m alive.
“Are you waiting for someone? Or perhaps you’re going somewhere — ” He glances at the Departures board.
“I’m not going anywhere,” I say. “Not yet.”
Something in him seems to align itself with what I’m feeling. We’re like two people running side by side and he has fallen into step with me. Nothing needs to be explained, or even said. It’s understood. His eyes are dark and calm.
“Come with me,” he says. “Do you have time?”
His fingers curl round mine.
We walk to a small hotel on Via Palermo. They have a room on the second floor, at the front of the building. I hear the muted roar of a vacuum cleaner. There’s a coolness about the place, a feeling of suspension. A hush. It’s that hidden moment in the day, the gap between checking out and checking in.
On the stairs he’s behind me, watching me. My hips, my calves. The small of my back. I can feel my edges, the space I occupy. We reach the door. He steps past me with the key. He smells of wood and pepper. As soon as we’re inside he kisses me.
The room has a high ceiling and surprising lilac walls. From the window I can look down into the street. He pushes me back onto the bed. I tell him to wait. Lifting my hips, I pull the apple from my pocket. He smiles again.
We take each other’s clothes off carefully. We’re not in any hurry. One button, then another. A catch. A zip. The TV watches us from the top corner of the room. The curtains shift.
When he’s about to enter me I hand him a condom from my bag.
“You’ve done this before,” he says.
“No, never,” I say.
He looks down at me. He thinks I’m lying but it doesn’t bother him.
“I carry them to stop it happening,” I say. “It’s the opposite of tempting fate.”
I don’t answer.
The noise of the traffic shrinks until it’s no louder than the buzz of a fly trapped in a jar. There is only the rustle of the sheets and the sound of our breathing, his and mine, and I think of that place in Brazil where the rivers join, two different kinds of water meeting, two different colors. I think of white clouds colliding in a sky of blue.
I cry out when I come. He comes moments later, quietly. When I turn over, onto my side, he adjusts his body to mine. He lies behind me, fitting himself against me as closely as he can, like a shadow. I feel him soften and then slip out of me. This too is part of the coloring-in.
Afterwards, I follow him downstairs. Out on the street I’m worried he will tell me his name and ask if he can see me again but all he does is put one hand against my cheek and look at me.
“Mia piccola strega.” My little witch.
He kisses me and walks away.
Later, I think of the apple we left in the hotel room. Lying among the crumpled bedclothes, its red skin glowing.