At the fork in the road where Costa Scarpuccia begins its twisting descent down towards the river, the dome of the Duomo, the tower of Palazzo Vecchio and the hills that cradle Florence appear like a postcard of themselves. Zinnia takes Felix’s hand and runs with him down the slope of the road until they reach the gravelled forecourt of a church. Next to the church, covered in jasmine and wisteria, is the high outer wall of the palazzo where she once rented an apartment.
The church is now some kind of pristine business centre. It has an automatic sliding glass door. Her shoulders stiffen as she walks past it. She suspects a ten-year-old boy would prefer an automatic glass door to a heavy wooden one. Is the world becoming more childish?
She remembers sitting on these steps outside the church, watching the rain slide down the old door, how its downward course was directed by the grain of the wood. She and Felix’s father often sat here at the end of a night, before they separated. They sat on the top step with their hips touching and she would smell her scent as it would smell for him and there was a dusting of arousal on her fingers as they talked in the dark, a softening of her body’s resistance as if it were half persuaded to shape itself into an embrace.
These two stone steps, she realises for the first time, are a pivotal part of her history, one of the most haunted places in the world for her. The silence of the past is almost a physical presence, a rustling current pinpricking the skin. Then the moment passes, the spell breaks and she sees things as they appear again.
When she rings the bell, Giuseppe, the gardener, appears holding a large cardboard box full of bits of metal and plastic. He still looks as though he sleeps in a field at night.
“Ma che bella sorpresa! Come stai? Quanti anni sono passati…”
He has forgotten her name but his smile is at full stretch and glows with recollection; it’s exactly how she remembers it. He puts down his box and gives her a spiky-chinned kiss on either cheek.
She tells him she wants to show her son her old home.
“Ma certo. Ci sono sempre ragazze inglesi in quell’apartamento. Anche adesso.”
The magnolia tree is still there by the gravel path. She caresses the peeling bark of its trunk while looking out at the enclosed secret garden, the lawn where she read books while the sun trailed lover's fingers along her thighs and over her stomach. Then she descends the uneven steps down to the French windows. It feels wrong that she no longer has the key to open these doors. She peers through the glass into the large sitting room. The furniture is the same but it has been arranged into a different pattern. She feels like a ghost, keenly aware of the betrayals that are perpetrated against the departed. She walks further down the steps to her old window. It is too high in the old stone wall for her to be able to see in to her bedroom, even on tiptoes.
“This is where you were made, Felix.”
She grins at his discomfort.