‘Five for Robert to see Bollani,’ Robert notified the manager.
‘Lovely! Will you sup tonight?’ asked the manager. He smiled with warmth and familiarity.
‘We will,’ confirmed Robert, reciprocating the manager’s joviality.
‘Wonderful. Gabriella will show you to your seats.’.
‘Gabriella,’ called the manager, ‘please show this party to their seats. Sono qui per Bollani.’.
‘Splendido!’ Gabriella cried, ‘his dinner show was sensational! You’re in for a great evening.’
‘Is that so?’ responded Rosalyn, ‘it seems we owe you more thanks Robert!’.
Robert grinned. The intimate room was in the basement down two flights of stairs and a hazed romance lingered in the air. Of the few tables there, most were occupied by romantically entangled guests.
‘I adore this room,’ Olive shared, ‘it feels as though Love is hiding in the walls, artfully prompting Romance to whisper its subtle coo to the guests.’.
‘How amatory, Olive!’ jested William, ‘Rosalyn, darling, hear you any whispers?’.
‘No, I—hold on a moment, I think I do!—Yes, yes, I do! Romance is trying to express something to me, but she speaks faintly. Oh, I hear her! Speak louder, signora! That’s better. Yes. Okay. Really?! She is telling me to reach over to you William. What’s that? Undress him?! I couldn’t! But she prompts me still! Allow me remove your blazer, William, perhaps that will assuage her momentarily!’ Rosalyn played along like a seasoned veteran of the stage.
‘Oh, you two!’ cried Olive, ‘you quash my hope for later romance!’.
‘Oh, darling, we’re only humouring ourselves. Though as each year passes, Romance’s whisper grows fainter. That’s the true reason for the sophisticated hearing aid market! The consolation being that Love leaves the walls and sits with you, reminding you of just how lucky you are to have somebody who loves and respects and admires you through the hardship and vagaries of this unpredictable life,’ consoled Rosalyn, glancing at William affectionately.
‘That’s quite lovely, Rosalyn,’ remarked Henry after a brief hiatus from conversation. He had grown inward and was thinking of his and Robert’s conversation.
‘Thank you, Henry. Though, both of you have always been Romantics, plucked from a Byron or Shelley epic, whilst William and I have always had the irreparable stain of Pragmatism. It may have been the age we lived through; things at times were dreadfully pragmatic. Who knows, perhaps your whisper will grow louder. How long have you been with each other now?’.
‘Twenty years. Sixteen married in March.’
‘They have passed in a flash! I remember your wedding vividly. It was breathtaking. How you managed to keep the number of guests so low is still beyond me. William and I desperately desired an intimate wedding, but his family tree had endless boughs, with twigs to match, that it felt we had invited half of Holland.’
‘I remember your wedding very well, Rosalyn,’ smiled Olive, ‘it was terrific. I still can’t believe you managed to have Jarrett play a few numbers. He was mesmerising!’.
‘Did I ever tell you how that came to happen?’ Rosalyn asked.
‘Not that I recall.’
‘He and I had met in Madrid when he was Miles’ pianist. He was playing a club before the concert dates and when he went to the bar, I introduced myself and we ended up speaking passionately on our mutual agreement that classical and jazz had a truly symbiotic relationship and that we hoped a true genre would be born of the fusion. He was a pioneer of that exact fusion. We were very lucky to have him play those songs. He has had chronic back pain for years and it had flared up that evening. In fact, if I remember correctly, The Köln concert almost didn’t happen as a consequence.’.
‘Really? What a shame that would have been. Henry and I adore that record,’ Olive responded, ‘as for him playing your wedding, I am unsurprised. You have always had an uncanny capacity to actualise your desires.’
‘That capacity is simply a response to kindness. We respond to kindness—of the genuine type—very well.’
‘She’s right,’ joined William fondly, ‘I’ve never been able to say anything but yes to her; kind request begets kind response.’
Gabriella had skipped over to inform the group that they needed to confirm their choice of supper in a few minutes and to take their drinks order. A welcome, anticipatory silence hushed the room. The manager announced that Stefano would be out shortly.
He waltzed onto the stage effortlessly. His unruly, frizzy hair insouciantly tamed into his signature ponytail. His beard struggled to contain his hefty smile. He was unquestionably Italian and carried that revered air of sprezzatura that is oft imitated and rarely achieved.
‘Buona sera a tutti!’ he exclaimed with panache.
He was greeted with tender applause.
‘Thank you for joining myself and my band this evening. And thank you to Giuseppe and the team for having us, you have been wonderful. Grazie. Before we begin, I would like to say a few words on this record. This is my 43rd album and after forty albums, originality is difficult to maintain. I’ve found myself disillusioned by lack of originality at times, wondering whether I am creating or simply regurgitating. What I have come to realise is that I will never truly know. All I know with certainty is that I love music; composing it, playing it, hearing it. So why complicate matters? Why not have fun and forget these grand, unanswerable philosophical questions? In light of that, I decided to create a record that fused the Italian jazz that I have enjoyed for decades with the sunkissed, carefree sound of Brazilian bossa nova and collaborated with some of the best to do it. To extend my pursuit of lightheartedness on this record, I chose an instrument called the cuica. It is Brazilian percussion that adds a dimension of unadulterated joy. Now, miei amici, to the music!’.
He sat on his bench to encouraging, appreciative applause and began his first song.
All listened with care and admiration. He had that mystical quality to render the complex fun and accessible and seemed to enjoy immensely his time on stage. Drinks and supper were light and delectable. When the show finished, Henry excused himself, explaining that he wanted to speak to Stefano if he could catch him.
Stefano was speaking to the manager, Giuseppe, on the side of the small stage. Henry lingered, waiting for a moment to interrupt. Giuseppe, noticing him, asked if everything was okay.
‘Wonderful, thank you, Pepe’ Henry assured, ‘I just hoped to have a moment with Stefano if it weren’t any trouble.’ He looked at Stefano apologetically. He had spoken at universities and had been on the other end of that hopeful statement when all he desired was to return to his hotel and decompress. Stefano, seemingly sensing Henry’s curiosity, obliged.
‘I’ll meet you at the bar in a few moments,’ Stefano confirmed.
‘What are you drinking?’ Henry asked.
‘Cognac, thank you.’.
Henry took a stool and ordered two cognacs. He waited, swirling his cognac in its balloon. He always enjoyed the grandiosity of brandy balloons. He could hear Stefano bidding goodnight to Giuseppe.
‘You look awfully curious, mio amico, or perplexed,’ Stefano commented from behind Henry, pulling out his stool.
‘Do I?’ Henry responded.
‘Sì. Are you a musician?’.
‘I see. Do you want an interview?’.
‘Oh, no. Not a journalist. I write novels. Though, in the interest of transparency, I do have a question.’.
‘I am curious to understand how you have managed to disregard your concerns about lack of originality. How is it that you stopped worrying and simply enjoyed?’.
‘What other choice did I have? Either I was to stop making music, or I was to pacify my worries. I didn’t want to stop making music and the rest I leave to the philosophers.’.
Henry laughed heartily. ‘And what if you were a philosopher?’
‘Thankfully, I’m not.’.
‘But if you had to venture some idea on how to placate the concern that every artist faces. What would you venture?’.
Stefano knitted, then raised his brow, took a sip of cognac and inhaled deeply.
‘Perhaps we are not supposed to be original. Perhaps we are simply supposed to keep originality alive through interpretation, through rendition. To be patrons of the arts, as a friend of mine once phrased it, by ensuring it endures and thrives.’.
‘To be patrons of the arts?’.
‘Yes. But our patronage comes through our interpretation and rendition rather than donation. Or we donate through our interpretation. Or some variation of that.’.
‘I see. That’s a wonderfully poetic perspective, Stefano,’ Henry sensed the conversation had drawn its conclusion, ‘your music is captivating by the way. I heard your rendition of Gershwin. It was enchanting.’.
‘Thank you. He was iconic. It was an honour to record his work. E tu? What do you write about?’.
‘On us. Our relationships. Our thoughts. Our feelings. Our actions.’.
‘Anything like Hemingway? I enjoy Hemingway.’.
‘I try not to be,’ chortled Henry, ‘but perhaps a little.’.
After Henry bid goodnight to Stefano, he joined the group, who had opted for an evening stroll over a taxi. The night was mild and would be pleasant to walk in. There is something in the Florentine air after midnight that animates the air and colours the buildings, smoothing everything into a picturesque and antique canvas.
‘Shall we head home?’ Olive asked the group.
‘I think so, darling,’ Rosalyn said sleepily.
‘Where are you staying?’ Robert inquired.
‘Oh, Villa Cora! Isn’t it spectacular?’.
‘Does your room overlook the gardens?’.
‘It certainly does.’.
‘One of the most sensational views in Florence.’.
Silence fell upon them and they walked quietly for a few moments. The evening was heavy with the stillness that grips its experiencer, rendering time a pleasant afterthought.
‘Night is a curious time, isn’t it?’ Olive rhetorically asked, breaking the tender silence, ‘it diminishes sight, yet we can see so much if we adjust our paradigm.’.
‘How so?’ William questioned.
‘I’m not exactly certain, but I have felt this way since childhood and understood it implicitly.’.
‘Explore the notion for us, Olive, you’ve piqued our curiosity, certainly mine.’.
‘Well, do you remember the scene in The Great Gatsby, when Nick is in the debauched apartment in Manhattan with Tom and he muses: ‘I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.’ I felt an instantaneous connection with that idea, and felt it held particularly true, more true somehow, in the evening than it in the day.’.
‘I see. So the inexhaustible variety of life is more animated in the evening?’.
‘To some effect. There is something mysterious and romantic and unknown about the evening. It veils us and we, in turn, can veil ourselves.’.
‘Yes. A shroud of anonymity, however temporary.’.
‘There is something enchanting, intoxicating even, about pretence. To allude to the person we desire to be, rather than the person we are.’.
‘Would you rather be anyone else?’.
‘Who?’ Henry inquired, his curiosity heightened.
‘I don’t know. Therein lies the excitement. Anybody, everybody, nobody. Just different,’ Olive spoke tentatively, but without secrecy.
‘What do you make of this, Charlie?’ Henry asked his brother, ‘have you written any papers on the topic?’.
‘I haven’t, though I believe I understand Olive’s contention,’ responded Charlie, who practiced psychiatry at his clinic in Boston, ‘evening is charming. It has mystique. The dim lights and unnoticed, but felt gestures; the exciting, confusing glances; the anonymity that she alluded to is a wonderful feeling, much studied in fact. We have strong desires to be individual, but, seemingly, equally strong desires to be lost in the crowd.’.
‘I know that feeling well. Intoxicating is certainly the right word. Do you recall when I used to be exceedingly perturbed by the evening,’ Henry asked Charlie.
‘I do,’ corroborated Charlie, ‘but that was a lifetime ago.’
‘It was, but I remember the feelings vividly. There was something about the evening that drained me. I felt helpless and alone, even when surrounded by others. Often most alone when with company. Enveloped and lost in the negative space.’.
‘Did you ever come to understand why?’ Rosalyn asked.
‘Not then, but I have contemplated it over the years. I think it is because I felt that as dusk fell and evening approached, the day was coming to an end. How obvious, I realise, but it wasn’t simply that the literal day was ending, but that this day, its joy, its sorrow, its jubilation, its suffering was ending too, never to be repeated, never to be seen again, only remembered, and our memory stretches and fades and dulls over time. There was something in the relentless, uncaring finality of it that disconcerted me.’.
‘Finality is our only certainty,’ Charlie echoed.
‘Do you lend much thought to the idea of what happens after we pass?’ William inquired, speaking to the group.
‘Henry and I were recalling a conversation we had with our father years ago on the very matter. Henry, as you know, was precocious and unwilling to accept anything without first giving it ample consideration. We were at home, and our father was explaining to us the concept of the afterlife. He attempted to entice us by way of the eternal rewards we could reap in heaven if we remained pious. Henry and I listened attentively and excitedly at how we could have anything we wanted, however and whenever we desired. Suddenly, Henry’s expression grew dreadfully dour. He later explained to me that no matter how hard he tried, he could not understand how there could simply be no time. We would speak about the notion of timelessness for years after. It irritated and perplexed us. Neither Henry or I could fathom timelessness. To this day, grasping it eludes us both. Right, Henry?’.
Henry nodded in agreement.
‘Of course it eludes you, it eludes us all,’ William expressed affectionately, ‘all we know is Time. Its linearity, its irreversibility, its incessantness. It ceases for no one. Every caesar, king, tsar, sultan or pasha who wielded boundless power yielded to Time. Time is equitable, it gives no more to one than another. Fortune, however, is not. She spins her wheel blindly and bestows misfortune on some and prosperity on others. Thus, let Gratitude sit with you always, for we know not how Fortune’s wheel spins; she gives and takes carelessly.’
‘Wonderfully said, William, thankfully, you have grown wiser and not wizened by Time,’ Charlie jested.
‘You haven’t seen him first thing in the morning,’ mocked Rosalyn.
‘I haven’t had such luck,’ responded Charlie with a wink.
‘Well, this is you,’ Olive gestured at Viale Machiavelli.
‘Why don’t you all join us for brunch tomorrow,’ offered Rosalyn, ‘William’s friend is coming down for the début tomorrow evening. He’s insufferably well-read and a confirmed philologist.’.
‘Do you mean Alain, the one who did the brilliant translation of Les Liasons Dangereuses?’.
‘I’m sure he and Henry will get along splendidly. Would you like to go, my love?’.
‘Absolutely,’ Henry confirmed, ‘what time, Rosalyn?’.
‘Lovely. We’ll be here! Buona notte!’ Olive kissed them both.
‘Buona notte!’ Henry and Charlie chimed in unison.
Olive, Henry and Charlie continued walking in silence. The night had held its pleasantness and they walked calmly under the shroud of the night.
‘I’m torn, my love,’ Henry expressed while undressing. They had arrived home from seeing Charlie to his hotel. Henry had spent the walk deliberating the decision to fly to Paris to meet Gallimard. He thought of the depths of moroseness and disillusionment and purposelessness he had fallen into and the grief he had caused for his loved ones. He was bitterly disappointed in himself, though in his despair, he had not fully understood the anguish he had inflicted upon those he cared the deepest for, such is the myopia of the wounded.
‘Why is that, darling?’ Olive asked affectionately.
‘This opportunity to meet with Gallimard is wonderful, but I don’t trust myself to remain buoyant after sinking so low…’.
‘I understand. What exactly concerns you? The task of finishing your novel or the ramifications of attempting to finish it?’.
‘If I commit to continuing the novel, I genuinely fear I may grow embittered again. I know it was not the sole reason for my horrible behaviour and I do not wish to scapegoat, I wholly accept responsibility for my actions, but retrospectively, I don’t feel I was in control. It was as though an unnamed, uninvited darkness had seized and occupied me, dictating my thoughts and actions and outlook...’ Henry’s speech was laced with acerbic chagrin. This experience had severely injured his sense of self and crumbled many of his long-held beliefs; beliefs that had informed his perspectives, those perspectives had informed his writing, those novels became the summation of his life; the contribution he was to make to humanity now tainted by crippling uncertainty.
‘Why did this novel vex you so, Henry? None of your other work had a tenth of the affect, even when they did trouble you. What was it about this work that plunged you into such melancholy?’.
‘I don’t know… I really don’t understand the nature of the darkness that consumed me, I only know that I felt powerless against it. As trivially and quickly as it dominated me, it absconded. Though I am uncertain whether it would have come had I not tried to write this novel. My incomplete conclusion is that in trying to create something eternal, I destroyed my present. Have you any thoughts? You know me better than anyone, better than I know myself.’.
‘After seemingly infinite thought about exactly what happened to you, I now realise that it may be glaringly simple. We all thought that, given your erudition, your despair must match your disposition. When I first noticed your turn, I thought that you had finally reached it.’.
‘The insurmountable, disconcerting truth of fleeting perfection.’.
Henry sat in the armchair in the corner of their bedroom. They had found it at a market in Palermo somewhat weathered though salvageable. They both spent many late afternoons lazing, reading or sleeping ensconced in the voluptuousness of the infinitely comfortable armchair.
‘You saw that too?’ Henry inquired gently.
‘How do you mean ‘too’, sweetheart?’ responded Olive.
‘Charlie expressed he same sentiment. That I had been chasing the uncatchable.’.
‘Did he? And what did you say?’.
‘I agreed with him.’.
‘But you had not thought of it?’.
‘Sadly, one may know the nature of their ailment and pretend still that the prognosis is inconclusive.’.
‘I see. And now, do you think you may be using your novel as this paragon of perfection to defer progress?’.
‘I think that seems to be glaringly true, though I still feel, I still know, that it wasn’t only that I had bequeathed the novel with some esoteric fallibility. Something seized me and I was frozen in its grip. I thawed enough sporadically to experience some semblance of myself, but always felt that it crept around the corner, waiting insidiously for my guard to drop to remind me of my futility, of my purposelessness. I felt I had stagnated, dew slowly forming its icy layer and moss settling between my muscle and bone, trapping me within myself.’.
Olive tarried a moment before she continued.
‘You once told me that novelty was your lifeblood. Consequently, you had always sought to progress your whole life, never settling for fear of precisely what you are describing. But, finally, you reached a juncture wherein novelty grew scarce and life began to grow stale and you, for the first time in your life, felt you had nothing novel to think, nothing novel to say. That must have been devastating…’.
‘It was devastating. For decades that notion sustained me, truly sustained me. I wholeheartedly believed that if I continued to seek new, unexplored territory, I could preserve that intoxicating feeling of being alive. It always worked, until suddenly it didn’t…’.
‘And then the novel begun to represent your life, or life itself perhaps… You attempted to undertake the insurmountable task of distilling everything you had come to know into a masterpiece, but Knowledge and Beauty by their very nature cannot be condensed. Who can write or paint or compose anything that can capture everything, darling? Not Proust, nor Da Vinci, nor Chopin every created anything that remedied the human condition wholly. The best they ever did, and we can ever do, is hope that we can understand it, and ourselves, one modest step at a time.’.
Olive had never sought to be thought of as sagacious for she did not think herself to be. Contrary to this, she had served as an intellectual and emotional barometer for Henry since they met. She possessed that maturity which cannot exactly be learnt or taught. The maturity that spoke without speaking and lead without leading.
‘Olive, my darling…’ Henry began, his eyes brewing tempestuously, ‘it has to be my magnum opus! It represents my life and life’s work and life itself. It can be my In Search of Lost Time or Last Supper or Études. Not to capture all, but to stoke the fire of my existence in posterity. Not for fame, legacy or conceit. To know that my life—my meaningless, fleeting, futile life—was perhaps not as meaningless or fleeting or futile as I thought. For, at the very least, I had left something behind that may, and all of my hope lay squarely in that term—may—serve to the betterment of us collectively in some small way. Instead I have waged a war within myself that devoured me and collateralised you and all those I cherish more than anything. What kind of man am I? To have lived a rich life, surrounded and supported by those who love and care for me, and this is how I repay them for turmoil they are not responsible for…’ He spoke fervently, remorse fortifying his words.
‘I… I am so sorry. I have tainted life and lives with darkness. The darkness has a name and was invited. I treated it as a stranger, but I am the Stranger…’ he stopped suddenly and sat on the edge of the bed, ‘I am the Stranger, or rather, he lives within me. I cast him aside, but we cannot ignore ourselves, and he returned. I did not know how to understand him, how to speak with him, how to reassure him that there is meaning and I needn’t have shown him anything beyond your soft, gentle, hazel eyes…’.
Olive waited patiently for him to continue, but he spoke no more. After twenty years of marriage, she had learned of Henry’s sensitivity and tenderness. She would often remind him of how gentle he was. He had a gentle soul and gentility reverberated within the words he spoke, the gestures he made, even the thoughts he had, as Olive would jest. She could see that he was in pain and it pained her. She had been standing at the doorway. She walked over to him and sat beside him, resting her head on his shoulder.
‘I love you, Henry,’ she whispered, ‘I have loved you since the day we met and more since. You are strong and bold and have ventured deep into the jungle of your mind and that is admirable. Now you can rest.’.
He breathed deeply and began to cry softly. Years of protracted rumination on nature and the nature of self and the nature of the collective had culminated and he could no longer cast out the Stranger. Olive held him as one would hold something that was disappearing. She was powerful and statuesque and he was nurtured by her vitality. They loved each other fiercely and, at that moment, their love became his lifeblood.