Valerio’s Flat – excerpt from novel Indigeston
Once inside his friend Valerio’s flat in Highbury, Romano put a few coins into the metre box near the door, took Isabel’s coat and hung it on a hook on the wall. He then showed her into the small but spotless living room and sat her down in an armchair near the gas fire that he then proceeded to light. He went out to get a couple of glasses. Soon they were sat facing one another sipping the warming and sickly sweet aniseed firewater that he had brought back from the restaurant.
“Valerio is not coming here tonight. He will stay with Carlo. I sleep good on a chair like this. Are you tired?” He asked her with a slightly worried look.
“A little yes, now.” She replied, shivering despite the heat from the fire, the flat felt cold.
“So it will be peaceful. You can sleep. You will sleep on the bed, I stay here and then in the morning I take you back to the Bedford House ok?”
“Ok. Excuse me Romano but please where is the bathroom?”
“Yes. Sorry, I show you.” He took her to the corridor then returned to the living room.
On her way down the hallway, through a half open door, Isabel caught sight of what must be Valerio’s bedroom. It was a small, plain room that contained a tiny double bed covered by a pale candlewick spread. She walked on and went into the bathroom and sat down on the toilet.
What was she doing here? And what should she do? Would she curl up and sleep somewhere in the living room? Would she make sure that she and Romano talked until the early hours and then find her way back or would she…..? She knew there was a decision to make here. And that it was probably a good idea to have a plan about what was going to happen or else things could get even messier but she was still feeling woozy from the drink and thinking things through properly didn’t come naturally to her at the best of times. Weighing things up sort of thinking. Imagining different outcomes. It wasn’t thinking that had helped her to take action in her life so far. That was more down to a pressure in her head and her stomach. The pressure would build and build until the notion of what she should do or the action itself would explode out of her and next thing she knew, the thing was done already. It wasn’t like that here though. She wasn’t yet feeling that sort of pressure. She was feeling more like a sleepwalker. It was quite a pleasant sensation but also a confusing one. She’d never been in a situation quite like this before, in a strange man’s house in the middle of the night…..well not quite like this and that didn’t count anyway. What would that dirty-minded aunt of hers have to say about this? If only Dolores and that uptight Mrs Sovini….if only they could see her now! Wasn’t it funny how things turned out? Her aunt would certainly have something to talk about now wouldn’t she…and what the hell was that about Valerie? What had that pathetic girl been saying to her mother….? The girl was probably like that because of her mother’s priggishness…and it certainly didn’t help that the girl sometimes still slept in her mother’s bed …… Her mind was rambling, maybe she would feel better if she washed her face? She stumbled over to the washbasin and now that her eyes had got used to the darkness she could see that the bathroom had been recently decorated in an ugly, avocado colour. Why would anyone choose such a dirty-looking shade for the bathroom? She splashed herself with cold water and dabbed herself dry with a towel. It was cold in here. She shouldn’t be giving her stupid aunt any, what was it Rita had said? Any, “rent-free space in your head” yes, she’d said that to Isabel when Isabel had come back in such a state from that terrible lunch. No, she mustn’t give any negative thoughts or negative people rent-free space in her head, that’s right.
“Isabel? Are you ok? Is everything alright in there?” Romano had tapped on the door.
How long had she been in there? “Yes. I’m fine. Just coming.”
As she entered the living room he looked so pleased to see her that she couldn’t help putting out her hand to him and saying, “Please Roma I want to lie down, come with me I don’t like to be alone.” Back home sleeping alone had never been an option. There had never been the space for it and while she had often resented her brother and sisters’ kicks, as Paqua, Tony or little Elisa pulled on the blanket or took up too much of the hot, square they bedded down in, Isabel had got used to the warmth of other bodies beside her in the night. Even the discomfort itself had often become a useful distraction from the noise of her parents fighting in the other room. Since arriving in London, having her own room and her own bed were both, welcome and difficult adjustments that she was still getting used to.
“Ok……are you sure?” Romano seemed embarrassed.
“Please Romano, I am scared of the dark and…..I need to lie down.”
She could see he was far more nervous than she seemed to be feeling. There was something about that that made her feel safe, that made her feel that whatever happened now would be ok. They felt their way into Valerio’s bedroom in the dark and Romano hung back waiting for her cue. She lay down on her side on the bed and signalled to him to lie behind her.
“It’s ok like this….it’s ok for you?” He said once they’d found a good fit and the fidgeting had stopped.
“Yes, this is good.” She said.
They stayed like that for some time. Soon their breaths joined up in a wave that rocked them both to sleep. It must’ve been a few hours later when she woke up. In the dark and in the comfort of their shared heat she couldn’t help but turn towards him. He too was awake. They started kissing. They hadn’t kissed like this before in a way where she felt so free and so private, where she felt like kissing him back. Coming up for air she said, “It‘s too hot. I am too hot. Help me.” So they undressed one another in stages, in the dark to a muffled laugh or two, as they maneouvred with effort in the narrow bed and Romano kept saying, “Is this ok? Are you sure?” Somehow though, even with his anxiety interrupting things the thread of something stayed between them and led them on.
Yes it is ok. Isabel thought. He likes me and I like him what could be more natural? It’s not wrong to be like this. How can it be wrong? This Italian man smells like warm bread and has soft eyes. He waits. He gives me space and looks at me. I cannot see his eyes because it’s dark but I know they are looking at me and that there is still space.
The heaviness of his body pressing against hers pushed her loneliness away. She liked the way he touched her, like he was asking her permission. Not rough or over-confident like the cocksure guy she had known in Tangier who, when he kissed her got lost in his own kissing so it was like he was kissing himself and not her. No, Romano was definitely kissing her and he tasted faintly of the Polo mints they had shared before falling asleep which she liked too. Their kissing felt clean. He said again,
“Is this ok, are you sure?” As he fondled and kissed her breast as though it was
a delicate bird he must not harm.
“Yes, Romano…it is ok…..but….I want you to know….I don’t….I haven’t…..I’m a virgin.”
“Yes. Of course……and….me…also…” Romano replied.
“Oh? Oh….Really? But you are quite old….. and Italian…sorry…” Isabel tailed off as Romano pulled her back towards him.
She wasn’t in love with him of that she was sure but through his tenderness she could tell he loved her a little already and maybe if she let him love her, maybe she could learn to love him back?
The thing they were not meant to do was all over just as soon as it started as Romano spilled into her with a push and a gasp and an embarrassed. “I’m sorry.” And then a, “Dio mio, you’re so beautiful….I…”
“It’s ok. It’s ok.” She said bringing her thighs back together and putting her hands between her legs instinctively. Not quite sure why she’d said what she had. She suddenly felt strangely sober and filled with a great need for water. To drink but also to wash. She got up.
Making her way to the kitchen down the narrow corridor she had walked down earlier she now noticed that the shadows from the window were casting elongated bars on the thin, grey carpet underfoot. The shutters here too? Still now, even after this, which should have exorcised the shutters forever? Why were they still here? She needed to fill herself up with water, to wash and go, to be away, to be on her own but she knew too that she didn’t want to attempt the journey back to Bloomsbury in the dark alone, her legs felt weak, thin. Like they could not carry her away now. That familiar feeling too, back again.
She didn’t want to make a scene there had been too many scenes in her life already. She went to the bathroom to wash herself. That always helped. It helped even if it didn’t make it all right again. She would wash well in the stranger’s bathroom where the water was hot, there was good soap there she’d noticed it before, a brand new bar of Imperial Leather, she liked that soap even more than Palmolive. It smelt better quality. It smelt elegant. She would use that. Although she’d seen too that the towel was not so clean, not as clean as she needed it to be. In any case, the whole thing was over so quickly nothing could’ve happened. Not really. Could it? No. She was sure she could wash it all clean away. It didn’t much matter anyway, hadn’t that doctor told her mother that after what had happened to her she was unlikely to be able to have children?
When she came back into the room Romano was already asleep. She couldn’t face getting into the messy bed again and so lay down next to him on top of the covers. She was so very tired. As her head touched the pillow he turned and gently kissed her hair. She lay awake for the rest of the night keeping very still so he wouldn’t know that she wasn’t all that she seemed, that she was awake, that she couldn’t sleep and that she didn’t want to be there.
He got up just before five to make coffee and toast out of bread he found in the kitchen. Isabel sipped the coffee but didn’t touch the toast. Everything was grey this morning. The toast was a dusty, unappetising grey on the plate. The sky, dim outside was leaking a washed out glaze into the colourless room. Romano looked as tired as the ashes of a fire that had burnt out a long time ago. She felt grey and cold like early morning sand.
“Let’s see if we can find you a bus?” He proposed as cheerfully as he could and she replied, “yes,” pleased to be leaving. But they couldn’t find a bus straightaway and so decided to start walking back towards Bloomsbury. The light changed as they walked, streets and buildings warming up into more definite shades of browns and plums and greys once they got to Islington where they finally found a no. 38 to Holborn. They hadn’t spoken for most of the journey although Romano had wanted to hold her hand so she let him. He said goodbye to her just around the corner from The Bedford House, so no one would see him, as she’d asked him to do. “I will pass by this afternoon, just to make sure you are alright.” He’d said to her hopefully. Isabel nodded and turned away setting her sights firmly on the entrance to Bedford House.