Exclusive Short Story

WHAT’S THE COLDEST THING YOU CAN THINK OF?

Dean was still asleep. Faith stretched out her hand and gently touched the golden fuzz on his chest, curly like his hair. She wanted to push his hair from his forehead – it was dark with perspiration – but then he would wake and she wanted to watch him sleep a while longer.

From the other room came a gentle thump. The cat, Leonardo da Vinci. Not Lenny as she’d once called him. Dean had objected, said he was definitely not a Lenny. He was Dean’s cat, a hefty silver grey tom with starched whiskers, green eyes, and a passion for raisins. Faith could hear him sharpening his claws on the white sofa that came with the apartment and that Dean said had been shabby when he moved in, so why should he care what the cat did.

Through the closed shutters came a distant grumble of traffic.

At first Faith had hated the cars, bikes, buses, the continuous noise. Now she was used to it; it was simply part of the surroundings, like sky and walls. When they went away – once for a weekend with friends in Tuscany, another time to the mountains – she’d found the silence enervating. Besides, the traffic was much lighter at the moment.

“The Romans go away in August,” Dean had said. He was explaining why they should stay put. “Sure there are some tourists about, but they usually stay close to the tourist hotspots.  You have to know where to go. Sometimes – if you’re really lucky – you can even get a seat on the metro.”

Dean knew such things. He’d been in Rome three years, designing motorway service stations, which she found strange considering his reverence for old buildings like this one, his top-floor apartment a combination of leaking pipes, lofty ceilings and fading frescoes. It was Faith’s first August in Rome, in Italy. She didn’t mind what they did, as long as they were together. She was in love.

The shower was a trickle. She stood recalling last night, her soapy hands sliding over skin that still tingled. They’d made love and as always she’d been surprised by his passion, the way he brought her body alive, the things they’d done, things she’d not known about until she met Dean. He looked such a scholarly man, wore specs to read and buttoned his shirt to the collar. He was full of surprises.

You couldn’t make love in the day, of course. Far too hot. Even at night their bodies were soon wet, slithery, making indiscreet sucking noises when they pulled apart.

Wrapping a towel around her, Faith went out through the shutter doors onto the tiny roof garden. Leonardo followed her, wound himself around her ankles before jumping up onto the balcony edge and gazing down at the street far below. Carefully Faith slid her fingers under his tummy and dropped him back onto the tiled floor. Dean said he was the most agile cat in the world and would never be stupid enough to fall off; Faith wasn’t so sure.

Across the road an old woman leant from a window and poured water into a tin in which a single scarlet geranium grew. Soon the few people left in town would be heading for St Peter’s to celebrate mass. Or they would go jogging in the Villa Borghese park. Or make panini, pile into a car and join the crowds heading for the beach.

Though they were both on holiday, Dean and Faith had made a pact to do as little as possible, see no-one, go nowhere. August was for sitting in swing chairs, drinking chilled wine, reading, and making love.

She flipped through the CDs for Sunday morning music, found Poulenc. To his sonata for oboe she made coffee the way Dean had taught her, thick and black. Later she would run down the spiral marble staircase that made her think of a museum, pull open the heavy oak door and step out into the white, dusty sunlight. Keeping to the shade she would walk to the bar on the corner and buy fresh cornetti, the powdery sugar spilling on to her fingers. She liked to do things for Dean. To tidy the apartment, his papers on the old mahogany desk, organise his clothes.

Putting the coffee cup on the floor she dipped her fingers in it, touched them to his lips. He stirred, smiled without opening his eyes.

“Is this a hint?” he mumbled.

He was not a morning person. “It’s wonderful out on the roof,” she said. “Still cool, though it’s going to be another scorcher.”

“Surprise, surprise.”

“I’m not complaining. I’m just not used to it. August back home is usually damp and blowy. Roses go brown around the edges, the cricket is rained off …”

Her mobile was ringing. She had no idea where she’d last seen it. Few people rang these days; they’d even talked about switching their phones off for a month. Hiding them away. Being incommunicado, she’d said, head tilted, thinking she’d discovered an Italian phrase though Dean said it wasn’t, though gave her a kiss for trying. At first she’d missed it, but now the gentle but insistent ringtone was intrusive. Dare she ignore it?

It stopped. Then started again.  Raking aside a pile of newspapers she found it.

“Melissa? Is that you? Where are you?”

She watched herself in a wall mirror opposite; her smile, her enthusiasm looked genuine enough. Maybe they were.

The distant voice burbled on.

“Who’s Melissa?” Dean said when she put the phone down.

“My mother. She’s in Paris, wondered if she could stay for a few days. She’s meeting some friends in Athens, seems we’re en route.”

“You call your mother Melissa?”

“It’s her name.”

“Mine would kill me if I didn’t call her mom.”

“Oh that’s so sweet. You’re a mom’s boy!”

Dean threw a cushion at her.

“Anyway, you never said you have a mother.”

It was true, she never talked about her crazy, globe-trotting mother. She rarely saw her. They kept in touch through her father; even though her parents were divorced, they still had something going, some soft spot for each other that Faith had given up trying to understand. She’d always taken her father’s side. He was wasted on her mother.

“Listen, if you don’t like the idea, I can say it’s a very small apartment, she should forget Rome. Or we could book her into a pensione.”

Did she want him to give her an excuse?

“Of course she must stay here. She’s family, right?”

“Right.”

“Like Leonardo,” Dean said, scooping the large bundle of fur off the floor, hugging him close, pressing his face into the animal’s neck. Faith loved the way he loved that cat. It showed a tenderness that men rarely felt, or admitted to feeling. Dean didn’t admit much either. But she didn’t need words to know what went on inside his head.

And to think she’d thought she was in love before. This was different. She was different. He’d transformed her into a beautiful, sensual, grown up woman.

But now… Melissa was coming.

Faith felt odd. She was looking forward to her mother’s visit, of course. It would be good to see her, to talk, to go to the market together to buy aubergines and peppers, or to the park. Was it because she wanted Dean to herself that she felt put out? But Melissa would be around for only a few days, a week at most. She shouldn’t be so possessive, it wasn’t healthy.

When the bell rang Faith pressed the buzzer, opened the apartment door and leaned over the bannisters to watch her mother’s progress.  She could hear heels clicking on the stairs, glimpsed the brim of a black hat.

“Darling!”

She wore a wraparound skirt and a blouse the same orange as her short frizzy hair. She looked like a hippie which was ridiculous at her age. Then again, she didn’t look anything like her forty six years. Or was it forty seven? Faith, with her long hair pulled back, her straight and serious mouth, her sharp bones, looked older than she was. People said they could be sisters. They hugged. Melissa smelt of French cigarettes. She circled Faith’s waist with her hands, said how thin she’d got.

Behind them Dean stood waiting.

“So you’re the young man Faith’s been raving about,” Melissa said.

Faith wished her mother wouldn’t talk like that, as though she was a silly teenager. Besides, she’d told her father about Dean, not her mother. Melissa knew nothing about how she felt, never had. Hadn’t wanted to.

Dean stepped forward, gave her a quick kiss on the cheek, took the fat Aztec patterned holdall from her – was she ever going to throw that thing away? – and turned back into the apartment.

“And this,” he said, waving a hand towards the sofa, “is beautiful Leonardo. My soulmate.”

Faith felt a twinge.

This week wasn’t going to be easy.

That evening they dined on the roof. Faith cooked omelettes, Dean found cutlery and candles. Melissa dug in her bag and emerged with a bottle of pastis.

They ate slowly, talking softly, Melissa mostly, about Paris, and a possible new man in her life who had a house in Cork and two racehorses, and what a sweet child Faith had been, so unobtrusive.

“Sometimes we forgot she was there,” she said.

Dean went inside for more wine. “But it’s so hot,” Melissa said, unbuttoning the top of her blouse with polished nails. Beneath a sky streaked pink and grey the city lights were coming on; there was the smell of other meals being prepared, pans clattered.

Faith wore shorts and a halter neck top, no bra, no shoes. Dean liked his women natural looking. He filled all three glasses and then stretched out on the tiled floor. Faith took some grapes, sat crossed leg beside him and fed them to him one at a time.

“OK, you two. So what’s the coldest thing you can think of?” Melissa said.

Dean sighed.

“Easy. December in Vermont. Some mornings you wake and it’s like you’re inside an igloo, everything white and brittle. As you breathe your nose tingles. There are loud cracks like gunshots as the weight of the snow breaks branches off trees.”

Faith’s turn. For a moment her mind went blank. “I know. That cave. D’you remember it, Melissa? When we lived near that quarry and there were deep crevices in the rocks. And that one cave. The air at the mouth of it was always icy, no matter how hot and sticky the day. It was as though you’d opened a fridge door. I didn’t like it. It scared me.”

The sky was dark now, the stars glittering. From a window somewhere below they could hear a television blaring, a quiz show.

“What about you, Melissa?”

“Easy. Going swimming in the sea on Christmas Day. In Brighton. Running into that water was like dying. Everything stopped, including my heart.”

“You did that? Honest?”

Dean’s voice held admiration. Faith couldn’t remember hearing about it before. Was Melissa lying, just to impress them? He laughed, that low chuckle that caught Faith somewhere deep inside. He didn’t laugh often.

In bed that night they did not make love.

Morning. There was no milk, no coffee. Faith edged past Melissa who was sleeping on the sofa and tiptoed out.

Finding herself hurrying, she made an effort to slow down. What’s the rush? she asked herself, knowing the answer.

When she got back, Dean and Melissa were awake, talking again. They seemed to find so much to talk about. Dean was sitting leaning forward, elbows balanced on his knees, chin on his hands. Melissa was wrapped in Faith’s towelling robe, legs tucked beneath her.

“Hi you two. Coffee’s on its way.”

“Great.” Was that the same look Dean gave her when he was engrossed in some complicated diagram, and she interrupted?

Melissa suggested they eat out that night, insisted – it would be her treat. They must choose the place. Dean knew a restaurant at Campo di Fiori, not exactly elegant, but it served the best pasta in town. When they arrived they had to wait for a table.

“So Rome’s empty in August?” Faith teased.

“Not the best restaurants,” Dean said.

They were served by a waiter with a moustache who commented on how lucky Dean was, having not one but two beautiful donne. They drank too much. Walking home, arms linked, the pavement still hot under their feet, they stole flowers from a tub outside a boutique, yellow roses. Dean placed one behind Faith’s ear and tucked one into Melissa’s cleavage.

No, but really, this is fun, Faith thought.

While Dean was in the bathroom Melissa took Faith’s hand and told her how happy she was. She’d been a hopeless mother, but Faith had survived, was a clever, sensitive girl with a full life and a charming lover.

“I couldn’t ask for more,” she said, tears in her eyes.

But she did. She asked them to take her to the Colosseum, to Vatican City, to the Trevi fountain. One day they went to the beach at Ostia which was crowded. The smell of ice cream was everywhere and the sea so polluted Dean said they’d be crazy to swim in it. Melissa insisted on paddling though, lifting her skirt and splashing water on her tanned legs.

Faith watched, aware of perspiration trickling between her shoulder blades, not wanting to be there. She was sure Dean didn’t either. So why didn’t he say?

When Melissa ran back and splashed Dean, wetting his book and speckling his glasses, Faith held her breath. He looked up and laughed.

There was to be an outdoor opera concert, a singer Melissa had met in Milan was performing. They must all go. Afterwards, she would introduce them to her friend.

“We don’t much like opera,” Faith said. “Do we?”

It was a challenge. Dean shrugged.

“Oh do come – he’s got a superb voice and the setting…”

“I really wouldn’t enjoy it” Faith said.

“You’ll come, won’t you, Dean?” Faith turned away, picked some shrivelled leaves off the basil they were growing in a pot on a window ledge.

“I’m not …”

“But you must. Otherwise I’ll have no-one to go with.”

Very clever, Faith thought. She scrunched up the leaves.

“OK.”

Faith refused to change her mind. She would watch some television, there was a film she fancied. As they went down the stairs, Melissa chattering on, her voice getting fainter, Faith closed her eyes. Then she poured herself a Campari and stretched out on the sofa. The film was about a woman whose husband dies, and then returns as a ghost. It was sad and yet funny. Faith blinked back tears.

Dean was being taken away from her. Melissa was a witch who’d cast a spell, and he couldn’t fight it. He was changing in front of her eyes.

Then again, Melissa was a lot older than him, not at all his type, and besides, she would be leaving in a few days. Faith poured herself another Campari, added a slosh of gin.

Suddenly she longed to hold the cat. She called but he didn’t appear. Strange, he usually came to her voice, not because he was in any way fond of her but she’d because taken over the job of feeding him. After Dean, food was the biggest love of his life.

Even he had abandoned her.

It was well after midnight when Faith was wakened by what she at first thought was traffic, then realised was thunder. Dizzy, sticky with perspiration, she went to the kitchen and gulped some water. As she replaced the glass on the draining board it slipped, fell on the tiled floor and smashed.

“Shit.”

She was sweeping up the pieces when she heard the front door open. Someone whispered shush. Faith hurried towards them.

“Where the hell have you been? “

She could hear that she was screeching, couldn’t stop herself.

“It’s so late. The cat’s missing, I was worried sick…”

Melissa dropped down onto the sofa. Dean ran a hand through his hair.

“Missing? What d’you mean, missing? He can’t be far…”

Without waiting for an answer Faith spun round, ran into the bedroom and slammed the door.

Dean followed her, held her in his arms, rocked her. Melissa was going to make them some tea, she must calm down. Then there was a cry from the kitchen. Dean said he’d go, he’d be right back  – why didn’t she splash some water on her face?

She did as instructed. She brushed her hair. Then, quietly, she went to the kitchen and peered in. Melissa was perched on the table, Dean in front of her, her foot cupped in one hand. In the other he held a piece of cotton with which he was dabbing at what looked like a cut. There was blood. His gentleness made Faith turn away.

“You’re an angel,” Melissa said.

Despite the heat, Faith felt a chill. It was as though a splinter of ice had penetrated her heart.

So much for Dean and his declarations of undying love.

She edged around them and out onto the roof. And now she saw Leonardo emerge from behind a cluster of pots, not his usual place, goodness knows why he’d hidden away there. Silently, effortlessly, he jumped up onto the edge of the balcony. He hesitated then starting licking a paw, though stopped and pressed his head into her hand as Faith reached to stroke him.

She looked down into the street where a small group of revellers were jostling each other, laughing, so far down she couldn’t tell if they were male or female, young or old.

So far down.

Nothing could survive a drop like that.

Nothing.

Faith ran her hand gently down Leonardo’s spine, and he began to purr.

 

 

 

 

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