They had made love, gone sight-seeing, had dinner and made love again, and now he slept and she watched him, her book in her lap. She considered the rise and fall of his breathing, his strongly-defined nose, the way he’d fallen asleep with his forearm across his eyes in a gesture that seemed not defensive but wholly undefended, exposing his armpit and chest. She couldn’t tell whether he was good-looking or not. He was both utterly desirable and utterly ordinary.
They’d met at a reception in the museum where she worked and she’d been caught by his charm, the way he had – and this was, when she thought about it, an unusual and very engaging virtue – of listening properly to what was said to him, and answering the question he had been asked. He had more questions for her than she for him that evening, intelligent questions about the exhibition she’d helped curate as well as about her part in it; he made her feel noticed and interesting. The next day he dropped by and took her out to lunch. She liked his voice and what was, to her, his mildly exotic Northern Irish accent. He told her stories of his large Catholic family, but also a little about his work as a political journalist. And now here they were, on this holiday while he had a paint-job done in his flat, ready for her to move into it.
She found that she was full of ridiculously cliché’d urges to cook his dinners (though he was a better cook than she was) and have his babies (she was still young enough for that). She was moved and made grateful by his desire for her, his straightforward delight in her body with all its flaws. She knew from experience as well as common sense that their mutual infatuation would not last at this pitch, but she hoped that the kindness would remain; that they could be for each other a place of safety, where they were, in all their weakness, accepted and known.
Today they were visiting the nearest castle – they were working through the main local attractions, not wanting to go far. They’d climbed to the top and admired the views of the lake, spotting the little towns on the shore and trying to name them from memory: Limone, Campione, Torbole, Riva. It was a clear day. Then they retreated down into the shade of the building. In a dark corner by the stairs he glanced around to check they were alone, pushed her against the wall and quickly, passionately kissed her.
“Declan!” – but now he was all respectability again, emerging calmly into the museum, looking at labels. He could read a little Italian.
“I think someone saw us that time,” she said, as they returned to the street. “Did you notice that girl?” There had been a pale, dark-haired young woman holding the standard English-language guidebook.
“Not really,” he answered. “The one in the red skirt?”
“Yes. She gave me a bit of a stare. I think she was shocked at us, necking like teenagers.”
He laughed happily. “I don’t care, do you? Maybe we livened up her day.”
They bought focaccia from a stall and went down to the beach to eat. The girl in the red skirt was also there, on her own a little distance away, reading her guidebook. When they took the cable car up to the top of the mountain, after a while they noticed her there too.
“That’s a bit strange,” said Jenny. “It’s almost as though she’s following us.”
“Those Germans in the cafe were in the castle at the same time as us as well,” said Declan.
The next day they saw her again as they visited an eccentric house-cum-museum-cum-monument built for himself by a grandiose poet. Declan was amused by the warship embedded in the garden.
“I’m hampered by lack of space,” he said, “but perhaps I can achieve something of the same effect by concreting a rowing boat into my kitchen floor.”
“It’s weird that girl is here,” said Jenny. “I must say I wish she wasn’t.”
“She looks pretty harmless to me,” said Declan. “She does seem to be picking the same places as us, but that’s not so surprising, is it? We’re visiting all the obvious things. Anyway, if she’s a spy she’s a crap one. We keep seeing her. When I found my own totalitarian state, like the guy who lived here, I won’t employ her.”
But when she was also a few tables away from them in the restaurant at dinner, still on her own, still with her guidebook, he had to acknowledge it was odd.
“I suppose in any random distribution you get clustering,” he said. “But I admit this is starting not to look random.”
“I think she was in the Palazzo on Monday as well,” said Jenny.
“I’m not sure. I don’t remember, but maybe you’re right. Anyway, why might a girl in a red skirt be following us around?”
“Your job. You’re about to uncover a great scandal in the Houses of Parliament and a minister has sent some aide to shadow you.”
“It’s definitely not that. Are you about to uncover a great scandal in the world of antiquities?”
“If I were, no-one involved would have the funds to send someone to spy on me. I guess…you weren’t a member of some IRA cell or anything before you moved to London?”
“My father’s a doctor,” said Declan, as though that made it impossible. “But no. Any of these scenarios is ridiculous. Even if someone did want to keep tabs on one of us, why do it that way? And why do it here, when we’re just harmlessly visiting museums and making good use of our hotel room? It’s still possible she merely happens to be choosing the same places. It would be strange, but it could happen. And if she really is following us, she’s probably only some lonely weirdo.”
Jenny visited the bathroom while Declan settled the bill. As she came back out to join him he was walking towards the door, and the girl was staring after him with a troubled expression. Could he have spoken to her? But his next words were on a completely different topic.
“There’s a festival of rock climbing that starts here on Friday,” he said. “Would you like to watch some of it? I did a little climbing myself in my twenties, before the survival instinct kicked in.”
Later Jenny found herself once again wakeful when Declan had fallen easily asleep, and the thought of the girl returned to her. It itched at her, that impression that he had gone to her table. He had argued away the problem so decisively, and then – but Jenny had to admit that she hadn’t really seen anything. He was right that, if the girl was a spy, she was a very visible one. But what if she didn’t mean to hide? Did he know something he wasn’t sharing?
Jenny had talked with Declan for hours, she’d been told childhood memories and the names of all his relatives and his views (vehement) on art, physically she knew every inch of him, but it had only been a couple of months, there were places she hadn’t been to. His ex, for example – she knew it had been a painful breakup and the woman’s name was Anna, but she’d never met Anna or even seen her picture. Suddenly Jenny felt vulnerable to all the years Declan had lived without her and the hours they still spent and would spend apart. She reached carefully over him to his bedside table and picked up his phone.
A quick scroll through the pictures. There weren’t that many – he wasn’t one for selfies – some of herself against various backgrounds, a couple of shots from the past few days – that warship in the garden, a stall selling lemon-themed souvenirs – photos of notices, labels and other bits of information he wanted to remember. The text messages were a bigger archive, though he seemed to be quite disciplined about deleting things. There wasn’t anything from Anna. Her eye was caught by a recent exchange with someone named Michael.
The next day they decided to venture further afield and caught a coach to Verona. Dutifully they went to the Casa di Giulietta and Jenny recited as much as she could remember of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, which she was pleased to find was quite a lot.
“I’m impressed,” said Declan. “You know, if I were Romeo, I would have kept my head, not killed Tybalt, made friends with Mr and Mrs Capulet in one of those completely impenetrable disguises Shakespearean characters are always acquiring, and taken Juliet off to wherever-it-is to start a printing business.”
“You’re not very romantic,” said Jenny.
“No, I am romantic,” he replied, “but I strongly prefer sex to death.”
“Romeo and Juliet were both so extremely young,” said Jenny, agreeing with him.
Hand in hand, they turned to leave the courtyard; and Jenny, through a knot of people – for there was rather a crowd – suddenly met the gaze of the girl from the previous few days. She looked frightened. The next moment she was gone.
“What’s wrong?” asked Declan. “Your hand went tight.”
“That girl again. She’s here too.”
“That is strange. Where is she?”
“I can’t see her now. I only glimpsed her for a moment and then she ran away.”
Declan looked at her thoughtfully. “Are you sure it was her? No, silly question, of course you are,” he said. “I can tell this really bothers you. How would it be if we go and sit in that cafe, have a drink and watch the street for a bit? We can sit in the corner where no-one can get behind your back. That might make you feel calmer.”
They didn’t see the girl from their cafe table, or later in the day as they visited the amphitheatre and took the coach back, but Jenny couldn’t recapture her balcony scene mood and they had less to say to each other than usual. She could sense her lowness making him irritable. Back in the hotel they lay on the bed for a bit, she with her book and he writing something on his phone. Then he tossed the phone aside, said he was feeling sticky and went to take a shower. Finding transgression easier the second time, Jenny picked up the phone to see what he’d been writing. This time it was an email to email@example.com.
I’m having a great week, thanks. The highlight so far is the Vittoriale degli Italiani, but today I saw the Arena in Verona, which is more magnificent though less mad. What’s best about it is that, although it’s two thousand years old, it’s still in use, though for opera rather than gladiatorial combats.
I think Davis can safely wait until I get back. I don’t want him to feel too important. I appreciate you keeping quiet about it – and thanks very much for your help.
So who or what was Davis? Nothing he’d mentioned to her. And, conversely, bensonj, whoever that was, could easily assume Declan was travelling alone. She supposed this was discretion; plainly he kept his life in compartments and avoided talking about personal topics at work. Her colleagues meanwhile were probably sick of the sound of his name. Hearing the flow of water cease, she replaced the phone.
“You look sad,” he said, taking her in his arms. “We haven’t had the best day, have we? Let me kiss it better.” But as he began his gentle ministration to her she thought of James, who’d been her boyfriend very briefly when she was twenty – James, who had bought her huge bunches of flowers and once, absurdly, painted her name on a wall (and then left to go travelling in Thailand). She reached her climax, still defiantly thinking about James.
Friday was their last full day in Italy. They attended the regular lunchtime concert in the church, given this week by a visiting choir. Declan deferred to Jenny’s opinions on choral music, indie rock being more his thing, and asked her about the singing she had done herself. Then they strolled up to the foot of a rock face where climbers had congregated. Now it was his turn to be the expert, and he pointed out the easier and harder lines and commented on equipment and technique. She realised that he was showing off to her. She had noticed the girl at the concert, sitting a few rows in front of them, and again at the cliff very briefly, but this time she said nothing about it and neither did he. It was becoming almost normal to have this distrait shadow.
He was restless in the evening after a day spent largely sitting.
“Why don’t you go for a run?” suggested Jenny.
“Good idea, I haven’t gone out all week. Do you want to come?”
“I didn’t bring my running things,” she replied. She wanted to know who Davis was.
Subject: Morrison feature
thankyou for your help with contacts for my feature on Morrison. It looks like Sorensen and Ellis will be the best ones to give the story some variety and balance. Emma says the man himself has a slot for an interview on the 24th – I’ll keep you posted with how it goes!
Subject: Re: Favour
I’ve finally had a chance to check and the date is 20th May. You’ve got to be right about Davis. Do you want me to get in touch with him? Make him feel important and wanted so he doesn’t go to anyone else? Though I guess they are all used to ignoring him… And of course not a word to N.
Hope you’re enjoying your holiday,
> Dear Jim,
> please can you do me a favour? I’m off to Italy
> tomorrow but I need you to check something in the
> archive: the report on the Manchester tunnel contract.
> I need to know the date that was announced. If it’s
> before June 2010 I think I’m onto something. This man
> Davis – well, he’s a nutter, as you know, and he bears a
> grudge, but he’s kept every last email he ever had
> from Morrison and he swears the bid was only made
> in May. I think he can give me evidence of insider
> dealing, if I handle him carefully.
> For God’s sake don’t say anything to Nesta. This is a
> chance of some real investigative journalism for a
> change – remember that? She would fuck it up. I won’t.
So, it looked as though he was about to uncover a scandal after all; though it did indeed seem impossible the girl in the red skirt could have any connection with it. And he was keeping it from the person whose story it was apparently supposed to be; he clearly viewed that person with contempt and dislike, maybe with rivalry. She put the phone back, careful as ever to return it to the right starting screen; she wouldn’t read any more. What had she learned? That, in addition to being kind, clever and a good listener, he could be secretive, sneaky and arrogant (not to mention unpleasant about fat people). Then again, she had also learned something not so different about herself.
Half an hour later he bounded into the room, sweaty, happy and panting slightly.
“I need to do more of that,” he said, “I’ve lost fitness. But it was great. It’s pleasantly cool now and the mountains and the end of the sunset are reflected in the lake – so beautiful. I wish you could have come too.”
They were checking out of the hotel; Declan as the Italian speaker was arranging to leave the suitcases at reception for a few hours until it was time to catch the bus to the airport. Jenny, waiting for him in the lobby, spotted the girl again, standing nearby on the street with her own case. Suddenly she was angry at the way she had been made to feel by this weird, persistent attention. She went outside, stood directly in front of the girl and addressed her.
“Everywhere we’ve gone this week, you’ve been there. I wanted to ask why you did that? It was really strange and creepy being followed around like that.”
The girl cringed back as Jenny spoke but then pulled herself upright.
“What do you mean? You’ve been following me. In Gardone I thought you must be after me and then in the restaurant on Wednesday evening I knew you had to be. I don’t know what you want from me but it’s horrible – everywhere I looked there you were. Even in Verona. I didn’t see you in Sant’Anastasia but I could feel eyes on my back all the time. I’ve had a really horrible week.” She wrung her hands as she spoke and wouldn’t meet Jenny’s eyes. She was very thin, and older than Jenny had thought.
“I’m sorry,” said Jenny. “I think it’s all been an awful mistake.”
“You were behind me at the concert so I couldn’t get to the door,” she continued, not listening. The words were tumbling out now. “You’ve completely ruined my holiday and I don’t have the faintest idea why and I hope you feel really, really bad, I hope you find out how it feels to feel like that. And the worst thing was how whenever I spotted you you’d pretend to be in love and go all – all kissy. And you can see I’m on my own.” She was beginning to cry now.
“No, we weren’t following you,” said Jenny, gently and with pity. “We don’t know who you are or anything about you. And we weren’t pretending. It’s all real. We really are in love.”