Clive was in his car, carefully overtaking lorries and slowing down when he drove through puddles. The squeaking of the windscreen wipers muted the music on the radio.
Holding the wheel with one hand, he drew up a lapel of his jacket, sniffed it and sneezed. It smelled of mothballs and the suit must be the oldest one he had, worn more regularly in his younger and slimmer years. The waistcoat was tight around his stomach. He had decided not to visit Anne in his grey weekday tweed. It bore Maurice’s scent – his citrus fragrance and his natural perfume of pine needles and wild sweat.
The rain grew heavier, prompting Clive to slow down to a snail’s speed and to try and banish every thought of the previous nights at his flat from his mind. Yes, it was only a fifteen-minute tube ride from Chelsea for Maurice, and he had pledged his word. They had made love without penetration, but it had been delicious and fulfilling and invigorating for both of them.
No, not now, not now, Clive thought as a road sign indicating Turnbridge Wells came into sight, we shall meet again soon anyway. This is what I have to concentrate on: I won’t tell Anne about Josie’s metamorphosis, nor about how she took up smoking and drinking and wearing trousers, and certainly not about how grotesque she looked, our pretty princess, like a nun at a fancy-dress ball. Anne would be shocked and there’s nothing she or I can do about it anyway.
Dear Mama Anne read. First of all, I would like to apologize for not writing sooner, but I have been rather busy. Of course, I hope that you and Grandmama and Grandpapa are well and that you had a safe journey back to England.
My hours at the Ospedale are nothing short of those of a nurse: arriving at seven in the morning, dressing wounds, administering injections, talking to physical therapists and of course, assisting in theatres. I had the honour of participating in the removal of excess tissue from an aorta that was about to become restricted. The patient is on his way to recovery.
My room in the nurses’ lodgings is charming and it overlooks the hospital park. The concierge and his wife look after Boris and he has become best friends with them!
Professor Carriera is a very nice man. He reminds me of Dr. Freud in those famous portraits, with a short white beard and dressed in English suits and always holding a cigar. He invites me to his house for supper very often. His children live there, too, that is his daughter and her husband and his son, who is a seminary student, about to be ordained. Mrs. Carriera never dines with us. She has meals brought up to her rooms and she is not very mobile (onset of necrosis in the right leg, due to diabetes). Professor Carriera suggested that I check her wounds, but she refused, saying that it was unsuitable for a young English lady.
The professor even took me on a visit to his mother, who is ninety and very deaf and who speaks no foreign language apart from a little German. She was ever so nice to me, calling me Giuseppina.
The family own a summer house in the hills. Professor Carriera wants to take me there for a weekend. I offered to drive him, which he liked. His son is coming, too, but he will probably stay indoors to study for his final exams. Mrs. Carriera will remain at home, for she does not want to leave the city.
Boris is well. He loves the leftover ice-creams he finds in the Parco Sempione when I take him there for walks, but I’m afraid he’s gaining weight now. Perhaps he should join the Ladies’ Dieting Club in Mayfair!
It’s so sad that I have to leave for England in a few weeks. Of course, I shall be back in time to stop in Turnbridge Wells on my way to London before the start of autumn term.
Please give my love to Grandmama, Grandpapa, Aunt Pippa, Uncle Archie and the cousins. I’ll write to Papa yet.
With all my love and sunny greetings from lovely Milan – Josie.
The stationery was slightly crinkled as if some liquid had been spilled on it and smelling faintly of fermenting wheat. The handwriting was blurry, quite characteristic of a doctor.
Now Anne took another letter from an open envelope with a London postage stamp, written as if by a printing press, the lines expressing sincerest apologies and about having to leave for Ireland with wife and children on account of urgent family matters and that it was definitely better this way. The name at the bottom of the vellum sheet, Robert Dawson, was jotted down carelessly and joyfully.
I’m not going to show your letter to your Papa, dear Josie, Anne thought. He wouldn’t understand. But I do, my poor, precious princess.
She got up from her chair, took a bottle of brandy from the drinks cabinet, poured herself a glass, drained it in one swig and then heard the slamming of a car door outside.
‘Clive Durham speaking.’ – ‘Hullo, old sport.’ – ‘Maurice, oh Maurice, are you at home?’ – ‘I am, dear. Listening to the wireless and having a cup of tea.’ – ‘Are you coming tonight?’- ‘No, I’m afraid not. I’m coming down with a cold…Just checking if you made it back safely from Tantalizing Turnbridge Wells…How is Anne?’ – ‘She’s well, thank you. It’s odd, but she was quite pale, as if there had been no sun in Deauville. She told me many times over how good I was looking, healthy and tanned and relaxed…Her parents were out, so we spent all afternoon in each other’s arms on the sofa, leafing through old albums with pictures of Josie.’ – ‘How lovely! By the way, is she all right, too?’ – ‘Oh yes, she is…I got a letter from her this morning. She wrote about the operating theatre, which was rather disgusting, and about the dinners she has after work. Spaghetti, bistecca alla fiorentina, pasta in brodo, which was lovely to read. Anne told me she had gotten a similar letter. Our princess is doing really well in Milan.’ – ‘I’m happy to hear that, Clive. You and Anne must be worried. Italy is not exactly a safe country now.’ – ‘We know, but Josie’s internship is for a few weeks only, and she is visiting on a student visa…She’s utterly medical, which means she has no eye for politics anyway.’ – ‘All her stories about surgery and the lovely food may also indicate that she’s deliberately omitting things, even to her parents. Letters can be read by others than the addressees.’ – ‘Come on now, Maurice, she’s just too busy, and she’s got Boris to fuss and cluck over. He's her best friend…Tell me, what are you wearing now?’ – ‘A grey flannel dressing gown and a silk tucker.’ – ‘Anything underneath?’ – ‘Cotton pyjamas, you rotter.’ – ‘Did you have supper yet?’ – ‘No, I couldn’t be bothered…As I said, I’m having tea now, and some treats to nibble on…I got a delivery from Rotterdam for my own use at my warehouse this morning. Cinnamon cake, tamarind sweets and jars of ginger in sugar syrup. All the ingredients are from the Dutch East Indies, of course…And I got some things sent up from a Tunisian wholesale company in Paris. Almond biscuits, pickled olives, sheep’s cheese in tins, and boxes and boxes of Turkish delight. Come over as soon as I’m feeling better and I’ll feed you these delicacies in bed.’ – ‘Will we be naked?’ – ‘No, we’ll be wearing winter coats…Of course we’ll be naked, you fool.’ – ‘Do you miss me, my beautiful Maurice?’ – ‘I do, sorely. In fact, I hung that tartan plaid over the sofa as soon as I got home from France. It’s got your smell in it. Arabian Nights and lavender and sweat…I sit there, drinking tea and smoking and musing and burying my nose in the fabric and conjuring up the moments we spent lying on it.’ – ‘When we made love on the beach at dawn, before we would go for a swim…God, I don’t know how I can get through the night without you beside me, even though the bed smells of you.’ – ‘My goodness, Clive, resort to yourself then…I learned you some tricks, didn’t I?’ – ‘You did, and you were a heavenly teacher.’ – ‘You were a very apt pupil, I must admit…But being together feels much more wonderful…How I’ll miss you tonight! Come to me, Clive, in a few days, when my cold has gone. We’ll be happy, so happy…But my voice is wearing down now, I’ll take an aspirin and then I’m going to bed…So would you please hang up, my love?’ – ‘No, you should hang up.’ – ‘Oh no, you should.’ – ‘Kiss me all over.’ – ‘Pleasure me through the receiver then.’ – ‘This is getting sordid. Let’s hang up now.’ – ‘One more kiss…’