To celebrate their twentieth wedding anniversary, Peter had arranged a weekend trip to the Italian lakes. Against the odds, he had managed to get them a Saturday-night table at Mercurio’s in Sirmione.
‘Mercurio’s,’ he repeated to his wife, Sylvia, in the taxi from the airport, not sure she’d taken in quite what a coup this was. ‘And it’s the right time of year for mushrooms.’
‘Look,’ she said. ‘There’s the pensione where we stayed on our honeymoon. It looks exactly the same.’ She twisted her head round to keep her eyes on the white-washed building. ‘We used to have our breakfast in that courtyard.’
Peter didn’t have a strong recollection of their honeymoon but his wife sometimes invested nondescript moments with an unfathomable resonance and so he dug around for a scrap of memory. ‘Do you remember that trattoria? Where they served wonderful antipasti? Those little fishy things.’
‘Mmh,’ said Sylvia.
‘I hope they have truffles at Mercurio’s,’ said Peter. ‘I’ve never had the white ones. Giacomo Campione’s famous for his white truffle pâté.’
‘Who?’ Sylvia turned to look at him.
‘Giacomo Campione. Mercurio’s.’
‘How do you know his name?’
‘Everyone knows his name darling. He’s famous.’
Peter gave a little laugh and caught Sylvia’s hand in his so she wouldn’t think he was patronising her. She turned back to the window, pressing their hands between her legs and squeezing her thighs together. He resisted the desire to extricate his trapped hand.
Peter went out for a stroll and a pipe before dinner while Sylvia finished getting ready. They’d had one of those unnerving exchanges in the bedroom and he thought it best to give her a quiet moment. Sylvia had accused him of not looking at her as if she were a woman any more. He’d assured her that was exactly how he looked at her.
He’d taken up pipe-smoking as a poetic affectation in his youth and, although it was no longer an effect he coveted, he’d kept it up because it was such an uncomplicated pleasure. The beauty of nicotine addiction, as he explained to Sylvia who was always on at him to stop, is that it is an easily satisfied craving. By smoking you create the need and by smoking you meet it. As a result of his habit, his clothes were peppered with tiny almost-invisible holes where tendrils of glowing tobacco had burnt their way through like short-lived glow worms.
He wandered down through the landscaped gardens to the lake shore and followed the path into a wooded area. As he stepped into the darker tangle of the trees, he could hear a rhythmic plop somewhere ahead as if a large fish were leaping and he began to hum ‘Summertime.’ He soon emerged into a clearing, a shingle beach silvered by the rising moon, where he crunched his way to the water’s edge and filled his pipe. The lake waters were strangely inviting and, on a whim, he pulled off his shoes and socks and stepped in. He puffed on his pipe and stood under the darkening Italian sky, his sturdy body bathed in moonlight and his pale feet bathed in cool lake water.
He became aware that he was not alone. He could hear another’s breath. He felt ludicrously vulnerable standing there as if spot-lit, in his soft bare feet. He removed his pipe and made himself turn round.
‘Anyone there?’ he called into the gloom in a voice pitched higher than he’d intended.
‘Only me,’ replied a male voice in Italian and a wiry, dark-haired boy stepped forward to the water’s edge. He held a large flat stone in his hand so that Peter stepped back in alarm and the lake lapped at his trouser-bottoms.
‘You speak Italian, don’t you?’ the young man asked. ‘I heard you talking in the hotel.’
Peter acknowledged that he did and the boy broke into a stream of chatter in an accent so thick that Peter had to concentrate. He was called Luciano and worked in the grounds of the hotel. He’d been skimming pebbles until Peter had disturbed him.
Peter hadn’t skimmed pebbles for thirty years but as he bent to explore the nearby stones, seeking out a flat oval one, as near symmetry as possible, his hands remembered what his head had nearly forgotten.
The boy grinned at him encouragingly, big white teeth flashing as Peter slung his chosen stone in an uncertain arc. It landed in a lolloping triple bounce that made him chortle with pleasure.
His companion spun his own pebble expertly so that it bounced seven times before sinking.
Standing side by side in the gloaming, they spun one pebble after another across the lake’s surface, not speaking but laughing whenever either achieved a good score. Peter felt he was laughing in an Italian way, a rich fruity Mediterranean sound as if the surroundings had imbued him with some of their exoticism.
Suddenly he remembered he had only popped out for a pipe. ‘Got to go,’ he said, shaking his head and squatting to retrieve his footwear.
‘Yes, my wife’s waiting for me.’
‘You’re married?’ Something in the boy’s tone made Peter look up but he couldn’t make out his expression. The moonlight gave him a silvery aureola. He was a magic creature of the night. ‘I’ll walk back with you,’ said the boy and held his hand out to help Peter to his feet.
‘Are you sure?’ Peter said, but he didn’t need an answer and reaching up to clasp the strong young hand, he allowed himself to be led into the wood.
When he got back Sylvia was sitting at the ornate dressing table contemplating herself in the mirror. She hardly acknowledged his arrival and the incoherent story he’d tried to cobble together about a drowning man and briars wasn’t needed. He shot into the bathroom to tidy himself up, blot the ends of his sodden trousers on the fat white towels, smooth down his hair. What a nice little treat before dinner, he thought. He was hoping for truffles to round the evening off.
Sylvia coaxed loose strands of hair into place and examined the overall effect. She had on a black silk sheath under a bolero jacket, pinned at the front with a vintage silver and amber brooch. Her earrings were also amber, a present from Peter that she had gone with him to choose, amber studs set in curved shells of silver. She pressed the cold metal into her earlobes and traced the line of her jaw with her index finger. Amber, she believed, brought out a glow in her skin and complemented the honey tones in her hair.
Not bad, she thought. If only she could contain this twitching state of excitement. It wasn’t just attributable to being in Italy. No, this carnal lust surged through her increasingly often these days. Out of the blue. She imagined it was primarily a physiological thing, her body crying out for one last go at reproduction before the change. Peter never took any hints. She was oozing pheromones and he would give her a peck on the cheek.
The pheromones she pictured as microscopic feral creatures moaning as they emanated from her, licking their swollen lips and sticking out their purple-red tongues. Peter’s dutiful lovemaking, once a month if she was lucky, came nowhere near gratifying them. ‘Nowhere near,’ she mouthed to herself in the mirror, applying blood-red lipstick and remembering the trainee cook who’d served them at the trattoria twenty years earlier, his eyes black and with silver glints like the lake at night.
Peter and Sylvia joined the queue of customers between the palm trees that stood either side of the doorway to Mercurio’s. Signor Campione himself, an imposing man with a billow of black hair, dressed in a dinner suit with a scarlet apron tied over, was greeting each diner in turn and ushering them in.
Campione was famously irascible although he also had a reputation for devastating charm. On Saturdays, there was only this one sitting and there was no menu. You got what you were given. Since he had shot to fame with his television series on Italian cooking, the great and the good had clamoured to be let in, hot-footed it to this golden piazza and dutifully queued up outside, waiting to be embraced or derided, depending on Signor Campione’s mood.
The man ran his eyes along the line of people and Sylvia had the feeling his gaze had lingered on her. When he took hold of her hand someone emerged from the kitchen and whispered urgently into his ear and as he listened and replied, he kept hold. She observed her own hand clasped in his much bigger one, felt the way his thumb was making tiny circular movements on the back and his fingers were lightly tickling her palm. She could feel the pheromones clustering, their little needy mouths crying soundlessly for more.
When he turned back from the kitchen boy, he bent his lips to her hand and she felt the touch of his tongue. Then he raised his lake-dark eyes to hers and said: ‘I remember you.’