I am a haunted man. He haunts the streets that I explore. He is normally three to seven paces behind and possesses an abnormal ability to avoid being shaken. Sometimes, he is a few paces ahead. This is true in whatever country I find myself.
The intense feelings once invested in one another have dimmed, mellowed from livid colours to those pastel tones that encrust renaissance stucco and Cotswold sandstone. This eternal game of never losing one another yet never meeting face to face is my life now. Sometimes, I see his ruddy round face and pale hair or a streak of apple-green mirrored in a dull grey shop window or passing through the arch of a crumbling arcade. Sometimes, when my attention is momentarily, blissfully, caught up in a detail of terracotta work by Amadeo or an anonymous iron grille, the patterns of which fix my gaze in their self-contained maze of intricate repetition that folds out and then in upon itself in complacent elegant self-involvement, he creates a mute disturbance in the corner of an eye. And I must move on. To turn and confront him is useless, to remain a fruitless pretense once my concentration with the third object has been disturbed. He will not allow such pretense.
When the piazza is deserted at midday, he bides his time in the humid shadows of decaying doorways. I must sit in the sun to escape his cool breath, the breath of ancient cellars. Pigeons strut about my ankles pretending to peck at imaginary crumbs between the cobblestones. Hinting to me to throw them something truly edible. The worn and unequal pillars that seem to support the arcades sway and undulate in the still heat. I sip a cold coffee and bide our time until the piazza and the little streets will come to life with their accustomed aimless traffic and we can begin anew. Or, rather, continue. It is not enough to be aware of him. Even when I find a moment of distraction, I am aware that he is aware of my unawareness.
That I found this stub of green pencil was no accident. He wants to be named, to be described. But there is a limit to what he can determine! There must be a limit to this eternal reaction. He shall have to remain content, or better, malcontent, with the only apt description, his demotion to “the Man in the Apple-Green Tie.” There is a danger of giving too much, even at this late stage of the game.
For, if not this, there would be another. Perhaps more varied, more interesting … I can begin to imagine it. But, one has chosen, has been chosen. When this stub is worn down, there will be no more to say, no more stalling; even now he is growing restless in the shadows. When he stops, I too shall have found some peace. Let us choose a place for settling the final move … the coup de grâce. Or is this not my idea after all, but his? Is there after all a purpose, an end, foreordained?
I resent this, resent the entire arrangement! For what is to become of us, of the ghost of our past, if these present moments …? No. I’ll not allow it. Do the opposite of his intentions. Move on, aim not to avoid but to confront at every moment. He’ll not force my hand in this. I shall become his pursuer. My free will, after all. Ha. What a joke, what fun to surprise him, force him out of those shadows, harried and harassed by his history!
It was the counting part of art he never liked, never had patience with. Unbridled inspiration—that was his forte. But the counting out, in music, dance, architecture, laying the grid for a large mural … to him merely a necessary drudgery. But his unnecessary failing. If only he’d seen the value of discipline, the pure clear sanity of mathematics in tandem with that breathless wash of emotion … that which washed him onto the bank of the river of life. So to say. Funny he should cause me this late sympathetic extravagance now. After all, he—as the art critic—had no uncertain amount of power to wield with that pen of his.
My calling was the purer one, unsullied by words, the language of paint and form, play of surface and depth. Mute problems to be solved in the endless self-determined game, idea executed through discipline. The guilty hand and eye learned early to love colour and texture, the tension of emotion bursting against the confines of that necessary precision that gave it its being, its particularity, call it what one will: a red apple in a green glass bowl, an oval, a spot of paint.
He it was, of the apple-green tie, who wooed me away from my contentment.
How can one say at this stage of the game whether it was worth it—the change, the loss of privacy, the gain in mutual fascination? For a time. Who can say that he had an ulterior motive? One does what one must, at any given moment, to survive. I give him that. Foresight is fruitless to attempt. The moment is everything. And yet … there are consequences. Each moment a dab of brilliant paint that itself wants to be applied. Then one day we stand aside and behold a composition, an integrity, the wholeness of self-absorbed moments of application.
He came into the studio one day, or one night, it must have been daylight for he carried two fresh pints of bitter and his socks were splashed with mud. He cycled only during the day and wrote only at night, late, until dawn, as I was to learn. My days then were not determined by natural light. He criticized from the moment we first began to exchange words. It was a pear, neither red nor green, a russet, with which I was involved. Not a pear for eating, mind you, but one only I could see, embedded in abstract expressionist fashion in thick moist undulations of pigment. But he saw it too. The shape annoyed him, he said.
He said a great deal from that day on. Perhaps he took my initial silence as acquiescence, mute agreement with his endless theorizing. I in his shoes would have slipped silently away. But he stuck by me. His wet shoes murmured squishily as he paced back and forth. Talking.
I must say, he was useful. Made fairly competent stretchers only sometimes askew for want of proper measuring. And an excellent shepherd’s pie, simmered for hours and then baked. I began to expect his interruptions as a necessary element of life. And when he failed to arrive, the annoyance and anxiety began to erode my concentration. His absences worse than his interruptions. I was, in short, no longer at one with my paint and its necessary resolutions.
Once, when he failed to appear after an unforgivable stretch of time, I was forced out into the streets. I found weak daylight, mediated by a slight mist, yet still light enough for cycling. I then took the train down to London and found him in The French, animatedly speaking with a fat man balanced on the long narrow wooden bench along the front wall. Indignation overwhelmed me; I knocked the man to the ground. There was a scuffle. We went round to Greek Street, then, and calmed ourselves. It was then or soon after that we agreed to live in SoHo. After all, he argued, I could paint anywhere, I was no landscape realist. What did I want with trees or squirrels or the constant tending of the Aga year round in that damp cottage? London was to be more efficient, better suited to serious work, nearer the galleries. And that was that. For a time.
There is no way to end this agony of recounting. I must go on until this stub of green pencil is quite worn away. A kind of respite, anyhow, from that other agony of hide and seek while I formulate my surprise attack. No, a scheme to lure and to pursue my pursuer. Here among the peeling pastel facades of eternally Italian decaying costruzione—what Oxford did better in substantial if peeling stone.
The papers, the pubs, the increasing streams of his cronies to my studio, now ours, began to affect my paint. I loved my paint, but it began to distrust me. It betrayed me, allowed me to make it please him. It turned itself into his words. My paint became his language and finally abandoned me to the streets. I must shake him in order to return to my paint, to rediscover the paint that was eternally mine, that was my life. In the yellow-grey of dawn I left and began to paint anew, secretly, in another street. But he would cease writing to seek me out and claim for his language my every new beginning. In widening circles I moved to escape his stranglehold, trying as it were to wedge my chin into the triangle of space in the crook of his arm.
Which brings us here after so long to where we now are: in terra straniera. The shortest way home is the longest way round. As the saying goes. Down to the bitter end.
A little humour would not be amiss. I shall invite him to dinner. Let him compare his eternal shepherd’s pie to what the best ristorante can offer: vitello picante alla Lombardia, per secondo, dopo una piata de gnocchi verde alle panne … some such.Vino rosso, Barbaro, of course. One must eat to live, yes, but mayn’t we also live in order to enjoy? Buon apetito! Poi, basta. My life has not been utterly devoid of experiences of pleasure. Even so recent as Venice, where I thought I was sure to lose him and very nearly did. How amusing, the trouble he had to avoid the mirrors in Harry’s Bar. Well, let us prove that even now we have not forgot the necessary refinements. Buon apetito, per due. Il conto, per favore; the man in the apple-green tie will pay. In the meantime, let him join me for a tete a tete, if he dares. Testa contra testa … .
My caffè freddo has grown warm in the sun, attracting bees. My stub of pencil is wearing down to a nub. La donna e nubile… . He frets in the deepening shadow. Mon frère … with that crippled face smiling perpetually. Let us walk, then, into that shadowed place under the eternally crumbling arches. I do so like these ruined buildings, overgrown, crumbled, semi-deserted yet still somehow functioning. They remind me increasingly of something familiar that is necessary for me to figure out. Physical forms of my own uninhabited abandoned life. Chiuso per ristauro. Molto pericoloso.
The lighting in the Ristorante Bixio is dim, absorbed by the cream-pink plaster walls. I make certain that we are seated so that he is opposite the pier glass. The long windows are dull grey, darkened by a long-awaited sudden thunderstorm. I am situated at his left, to avoid the necessity of constant eye contact and to afford the opportunity of sidewise glances as often and as subtly as I wish into the glass which gives a full frontal image of him without his noticing my gaze. His mobile face undulates on the surface of the mirror.
We are seated in the long dining room, rectangular, high-ceilinged, the first partakers of the evening. Due to the largeness of the space and the dimness of the light it is difficult to see, to focus. On inspection, every form seems to hold a mystery of being, of being half-there and half-becoming or fading away from the eye’s fixation. What is it that gives the sensation of familiarity? Across the broad boulevard now obscured by sheets of grey rain sits the Castello Visconteo, self-absorbed and unmindful of its present vulnerability. Or irrelevance? Time has dried up its moat that no rainstorm can fill; the four-lane boulevard now traces the foundations of its once-protective wall. Leonardo stayed there, during his work on the Duomo, as he did in Vigevano and in the Castello Sforza, when he made his erratic visits to della Grazie to paint his Last Supper, when not tying golden knots and intertwining branches on the ceiling in the Sala di Asse, making nature’s forms so otherworldly in that bastion of civilization. For his patrons, “Il Moro” and Bea d’Este who loved nature’s fruits, as did he.
Perhaps it is the break in the weather or my new-found sense of mastery. At any rate, my appetite is excellent. He, however, has toyed with his food all evening; the disapproving waiters remove plate after plate of his cold food. I could have eaten his portion as well, and would have except for my innate sense of decorum. Per dolce, I order bowls of large ripe mulberries smothered in cream. And continue to discourse on what I have learned of Leonardo, his generous patrons, his pretty pupils, his varied talents and interests, his many magnificent works, unfinished for the most part yet perfect in their mystery of half-being. His bicycle, even. And his dreams of flight. The evening grows late and my partner remains sullen. Perhaps due to the storm there have been no noticeable interruptions from other diners. We have had the long room pretty much to ourselves except for the annoying solicitations of waiters. Taking such pride in their profession, they want to be noticed. And why not? One tried to push his zuppa anglaise on us. No thanks.
My enjoyment of the evening grows as I purposely postpone that final moment of triumph when I shall force him into an overt response. After the excellent fruit, one more item to jack up the bill. To make the evening more mellow. A digestivo, the tangy-sweet pale green liquor di Certosa. Perfetto. No doubt he would prefer a pint of bitter at this point, but we are doing things my way.
I drink his off with gusto. At last the time is ripe. I call out “Il conto … il conto, per favore.” My voice seems a trifle too loud in that long room with its confections of plaster and table linen and silver cruets for this and that.
The stupid little man sets down the round silver tray with the bill in front of me, just as I had expected—since I had done all the ordering. I look up in perfect feigned surprise and meet his eye, saying, “Oh, but the man in the apple-green tie will pay.”
“Ma signore,” he whispers, “you have ordered two of everything. However, no other person has been with you all evening. It is you who are wearing a green tie.