You say that ten years into our rapport we can take other lovers. You say you will wear an intaglio ring on your smallest finger, with a bloodstone and a whispered woman’s profile which will represent our weddedness, despite our never having officially tied that knot. I think you are humouring me, on the planks of a seafood restaurant with the cliffs of Sorrento roaring behind your shoulders, as you eat with vigour and ask for more wine. I have not thought of other men in my arms, nor women in yours.

After our meal we move out onto the deck for coffee, watching sunbathers and a couple going in circles on a paddle boat. We delay our return. The town comes to a brink above us, where a frill of tourists stands watching, so that being visible below, foreshortened between striped awnings, makes our presence feel staged, as though greater powers are orchestrating our motion and design. The sea drags over stones at the foot of the cliff.

When your hand comes to rest on my thigh, I feel the pause of each digit. You say you did not mean to disturb me. That there is no need for us to set upon this course.

I say I wonder who will benefit the most, realising my voice is curt.

You say it wouldn’t be betrayal. It should not feel as such. Would it?

You call to the waiter in Italian, a young man whose family you know from Positano, nudged further along the coast. The man stands above, scanning the other patrons as you speak, until his attention returns to us, and in the refraction of his eyes I can see he has an unfixed opinion of you, who have taken a foreign wife and live abroad. You discuss the health of the young man’s father, who used to preside over this place. But those days are over now, he says. The old days are gone. The waiter strides away in quick black pants.

For the moment, we remain at our table until two loungers are freed directly over the teal water, and a waitress urges us to take these lavish places. Through the long afternoon the sea fades, becoming a gleaming milk.

I have little wish to speak, as though the range of our minds has narrowed to those few words. You now make an effort to rouse other rough-edged or amusing thoughts. You point out a couple all but making love in the shallows. You video-message your brother, lounging by the same sea in Marseilles. You suggest we recall the Roman emperors who came to these shores to host orgies, to devise executions, to watch the undoing of their bodies in surrounds of beauty. There are admissions behind your meanderings. You are speaking of trust, its colossal and minute forms, its perforation and its neat transfixing pearl. You clasp my forearm, our bodies roll towards zone another and I fight my slovenly wish to spit on your face and sit plumb on your swelling. I imagine a black-haired Roman wearing garments with no fastenings, the arse, cock and balls in gentle freedom.

On the climb upward from the shore we rest by a stone wall before continuing our ascent. We look down to where we had been pressed upon the shoreline with its awnings and loungers, scattered paddleboats and swimmers. The azure blue turns creamy at a distance, lifting into a yellowy sky, a culmination and firmament. The rocky surface grazes our hands. I feel an ancient presence that holds us in poor regard, looking at our crudeness, our zippers and phones and keys. I see that your neck is sunburnt, and the scalp beneath your hair. My thoughts turn to the distracted waiter, all bustle and business, to the cradle of his pelvis, the tangled fuzz across his belly, his crevices, with a fine anger towards you, that this contemplation has been unspooled. At the top we meet a trio of ambulance workers carrying a stretcher and we look back. There is a man now flung out where we had been, a woman folded beside his wide torso, the same waiter with arms outstretched, holding back a small crowd.

We collect our son from his grandmother’s and drive up the hillside to the house we have rented for these weeks. Any length of time with my mother-in-law is asphyxiating, so we are as traders, it feels, passing the child between us. Her face ignites in the boy’s presence, where I realise mine becomes burdened, or suffering. By nightfall the boy is asleep, bamboozled by food. I wash our plates, sensing your decision to approach.

We had a beautiful day, did we not?

Not quite, but yes.

Ten years is a very long time. Do not take me too seriously.

I don’t.

My intention is for us to endure.

I give you wine and fresh glasses to take out onto the terrace, where later you fit yourself around me on the divan. It is high August and the evening of San Lorenzo, the night of shooting stars. Our eyes skate between galaxies planted in pre-history, issuing their faint light. The meteorites hammer across black skies in extinguished silence.

You pull away from me. Stand, leaning on the balcony, there are no neighbours here. You undress. I am familiar with your compulsions. What had at first seemed devilish has been grafted onto me, sweeping aside my own wants. You beckon me over, remove my shorts. With arid hands you outline the shape of me so that my body becomes a set of confines, tissue, triggers. I wait for the slap or the dark-scented finger. There are nights here when we lunge into each other, four-legged creatures with wet pelts, a murdering. Instead you drop down to the stony tiles and I feel the landing of your knees there, the muted bone crack. The planes of your face flatten into me, a sightless crushing.

In the bedroom I find you naked, standing, holding yourself, still soft. Your chest is reddened and in the half-dark seems to pulse. I see that we will lose our power over each other, that this will peak and wane.

We take a boat to Capri, site of Emperor Tiberius’s Villa Jovis. It is the first time in several years that we have ventured to a tourist site, so your mood fluxes with the push of rucksacks and children’s cries. Never again, never this, you say under your breath. You scowl, will not leave off, you smoke despite a notice prohibiting this, you keep saying the day will be a disaster. You scan a woman’s body on the boat, she is not Italian and I watch her unease, her eyes alert. On land, you present yourself at a bar to drink an espresso, and are unrecognised by the new barman in charge. I stroke your arm, used to this irreparable moodiness, the inverse of yesterday’s lover. I’m too old for this, you say. You should have saved me from myself.

Shall we leave? Shall we head off?

No, I submit. I submit to the ghastly Tiberius.

There are sketches imagining the sumptuous, reclusive Villa Jovis that the ageing emperor had constructed at the head of an ascending peninsula, culminating in dramatic cliffs. We have no way of knowing whether Tiberius was the hungry pederast it has been claimed, who trained an army of boys to nuzzle his genitals under tables, at the baths, but the audacity of these clinging remains – the bricked labyrinths scoring the earth, the columned avenues now marble stipples in grass – somehow point back to us as crass voyeurs. We have come here to verify this, to feel the skin on our necks crawl and the flare at our groins. We stand in the shade of sea pines, disabled by the silence, the rankness of death, the ants crawling and the blackening of blood, the bones strewn in the far-off sea below. After my wander you are sitting on a smooth rock waiting for me. There is a snap in my belly, some filigree of energy that peals into relief. I still love you. It is here, it is within me. I rub my mouth over your cheek.

Shall we walk? you say as we are surrounded again.

Let us walk.

For most of the year we live in my cold-hearted country, where our bodies are cooler and there is less strife in our touch. But here this latent force comes out in a tumbling, a chain of rewards, perhaps, for having been so dormant, so functional. This is the island where Godard brought Brigitte Bardot onto the dry defining steps of the modernist Casa Malaparte, wearing yellow. On the cement rooftop, a stage over the Tyrrhenian Sea, BB’s sun-heated body is offered to all with dated largesse – the viewer installed within Godard’s film, the nasty American with whom she will die in a car wreck on the way to Rome, her trilby-wearing, vapid screenwriter husband who concedes to a desecration of Homer’s text.
I think of pouty BB and the worn cracks of Jack Palance’s face, as the low sloop of Casa Malaparte with its spine of red steps comes into view. The house belongs to the heirs of the writer who bought the sliver of land in 1930, the same fumy light incinerates the villa’s hard lines. As we walk, our faces are the slow frames of a faded film. They say, now you see me, now you do not. You tell me it was Jack Palance who later said on an American talk show that he did a film with “some French director”. He and Godard had bickered. You have told me this more than once.

Your mother prepares us a seafood meal, after which I spend the night throwing up. Each time I return from retching you place a hand on my belly, with a pressure that hurts. I know that illness attracts you, that clammy skin turns you on, that you like to behold the breaking of a fever, that the interior of my body is a place you visit, wide-eyed. Through my pregnancy you were unmoved by the growth in my womb. Several times you wanted me to terminate, driving to the other end of the country on one occasion, saying you would not return to become a father. Until you were on my doorstep again, in my bed. When you saw images of the skeletal creature twitching and rolling, you were overcome by our son’s pre-birth limbo. At the peak of pregnancy, when you knew the child’s head was less that a hand span from your mouth, you were crazed for the swollen tissue and my acidic, honeyed odour.

You slide into me, bold and abrupt, emptying. You exhale along my spine. When our son calls out you rise, go to his room, fall asleep with him. You are not a natural father. You are a son, a man. Fatherhood makes you timorous and you are relieved when your unworthiness is confirmed, usually in a scolding from your mother. We are not yet selfless parents. In the morning I find you lightly snoring, our son’s tangled golden hair against your chest.

Our closeness, we have always said that it is old. Older than our other lovers. We are older parents, there are memories we do not share, long fissures, enclaves. When I awaken at night, there are times I am not drawn to you. When I want to walk into the night, onto the earth. This house is tall amongst flat-topped sea pines, the air passes in marine drifts, citrus flares, the warm reek of stone.

In Sorrento you pull me across a street to an antique dealer where there are charmed necklaces, icons, a bed of intaglio rings, each stone prised from a lode of mountain terrain, fractured and smoothed; the settings are dark rich gold. You tell me this shop has been here for decades, that the rings are original, surrendered by families or bought at auctions, often in faded cities – Ravenna, Tbilisi, Constanta – where empires swept through or were once anchored.

Look at these beauties, you say. You hold my elbow, watch my eyes.

Each gem has been incised with a faint image of a woman, or a hound, or a man; each ring slipped onto a finger, worn until the hour of death, bearing its course of love and capture, devotion, revulsion, all of the high human notes preceding extinction. You want me to choose one that I might like, among the blood-soaked carnelian ovoids, the round Murano glass, the dark bloodstone that pulls energy from the air.

There is an orange carnelian disc with a sketched couple braced together, the ring is a frame of gold spurs. I choose this one. You tell me it is a relic from ancient Rome. You choose an Elizabethan ring with a plum-red male portrait, not unlike yourself.

We walk on, your arm through mine.

You announce that your brother and his wife will join us for a couple of days. It’s not what you would have wished but they are on the verge of a separation and you have invited them to drive here from Marseilles, you say we must help them sort it out. Your brother has had an affair, discovered a month ago, when his wife checked through his phone. Your brother and his wife have been sweethearts since they were fifteen.

The couple arrive in the evening. Taut-faced, your brother parks their jeep and brings bags inside. Our son at once follows around his cousins, who delight in his ponderous amber gaze.

The adults barely speak. I can see you are jostled. You don’t want your brother’s family to fall apart. This is a facet of you I have not seen, so why do I feel unkind, stirred?

You take your brother’s wife on walks through the lemon grove, arm around her shoulders, head close to hers. You are gone for hours. I know you will take her down to the pebbled beach and seat her at the bar there. Allowing her to tremble and recount and hate. She will protest that a chance should not be given to him, that she will never give him a chance. You appeal for your brother, collecting her hands, ordering two beers that are brought sloppily to the table. This is how you are. Then you will advance up the steep hill home, past the lime-washed tree trunks and glossy foliage, the dangling lemons, your shoulders brushing as you remind her of the times we went away together – Mont St Michel, Prague, Antwerp – before children were conceived. When you return you are hungry, ready for lunch, but she will not join us yet, she returns to the room where she sleeps alone.

Through those hours your brother passes in and out of the kitchen, smoking, checking his phone, not knowing what to say to me. He watches the children from the balcony, says we should go swimming, chops onions with his oversized hands. Cries, wipes his face, half-laughs at himself. He tells me that if they don’t get back together he is going on a desert trip, somewhere, anywhere. Then his motion subsides and he sits on the terrace, head thrown back, blowing smoke.

There is a night when he climbs the stairs to his wife’s bedroom and lightly knocks on the door, whispering her name. Over and over. He is admitted. We lie in bed listening to their love cries, our own limbs and tongues still.

The stricken French word for betrayal is trahison, which seems to have an intake of breath at its heart.

All your talk fails and your brother’s wife departs. One morning we awake and her bedroom door is open, the bed made, the front door ajar. There is a scrawled note on the kitchen table which I fold away before the girls come downstairs.

Ne me contacte pas.

When the end of our time here approaches, you start your daily run again. You set off each morning and I see your hurtling body pinned to the curves up the hill. Thighs in motion, long strides, like an athlete etched on a rust amphora. You are trained and fast. For the first time I imagine your death. I imagine you struck by a vehicle, and in my heart I uncoil this scene. Little blood, a sprawling and twisting. Some sort of flux in your breathing. Internal injury. Your beauty. After your run you pass by a bar of sorts on the main road through the village, where you drink lemon spremuta with an old friend of your father’s, speaking the language you will revert to when these last moments arrive. This language will slip into our son’s being, as a code between you. When you come home your body is seamed in sweat, your thigh muscles still vibrate, your force fills doorways.

I eat a peach at the sink, recalling the car smash on the highway to Rome that kills both Jack Palance and Bardot’s character, Camille. Godard engaged the almighty Fritz Lang to play the director of Palance’s film-within-the-film. Lang oversees the unwieldy story, stands paunched and remote as the dolly rolls behind Palance’s greased Ulysses standing high above the sea. Slow, sunburnt Lang is the enigma of the film.

On our last day we swim. Gliding into the sea, alone together, a casting away from the coast, all the way beyond the last moored boats. We watch a family dining on deck, and you say that next year we will go sailing, we will not be tied to the land. The sea is satin grey, engulfing your cranium with its thin hem travelling across your ears, in and out of your mouth. The cliffs reel back as we float, all sound airborne in slight compressions, negligible words; there is a bird of prey far above us on glazed blue.

At the restaurant afterwards I realise our eyes are both upon a woman several tables away, who rises. Called by a child perhaps, towards the beach. I feel how you are alerted. You watch her glide away from her table wearing a faded bikini. A broad, used body, low scar on her belly, boobs in pouches. Nothing that should pull your eyes towards her, but she does. Reddish hair, cropped in a bob, unusual for this land of blond highlights or black locks. As she advances she senses your stare and is drawn across, chin lifted, a pivot. Even after a waiter has passed, her eyes return to you.

You call for more wine just as our son cries out, as our eyes fold together then dart over to where he is tussling with another child.

I’ll go, you say.

You are moving down to the beach with your unhurried, considered, even bandy-legged walk. I see this trajectory will end with the woman, now crouched beside the two fighting boys. I watch this occur. I am so heavy in my chair that the woven rattan feels like cords sewn into my skin. Is our worst behaviour when we injure our beloveds, or when we liberate them, allowing them to injure us?

When the wine arrives I walk away. Back up into the lemon grove, into the still citrus air, the dust and quiet. I hear the sea. Perhaps the cries of my own fractious son, perhaps not. I reach a sustaining wall built along a tier of trees where I sit down, dappled and breathing. At my feet is a worn circle pushed into the earth where some animal has gathered its form and found respite.

Catherine McNamara grew up in Sydney, ran away to Paris to write and ended up running a bar in Ghana. Catherine now lives in Italy

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