Bill hated the story. And over the years they rarely spoke about it. In fact, it was ten years since it last came up. But he could not forget. The issue was the story’s vivacity. It was not merely a historical fact, an unadorned datum, as was his knowledge of her other sexual encounters – almost entirely with a series of medium-term boyfriends she’d met through school and then art college. No, he’d received this story in full technicoloured detail. The wood panelling and the smell of mahogany, the crash of the waves through the ferry window, the order of events, what was said. It lived in his mind more clearly than any of his own memories.
And the encounter was so unlike her. That was the problem. It questioned so much. That she could have sex with a man she’d only just met, it was reckless, and loose and easy. It indicated an unpredictable nature that terrified and disgusted him.
Now she sat at the end of their bed. Her gaze fixed on the stone floor. She had just brought the story back into their lives by saying, ‘I’ve been thinking of my ferry crossing. Remember? Between Sicily and Rome.’
He’d sat up and snapped back ‘What, why?’
‘It’s just being back here, and everything in the news at the moment –’
‘You know, about those actresses and that horrible film producer.’
He didn’t answer immediately. They’d spent the full day in the heat, and normally around this time they would shower and change – remove their damp, sticky clothes. But she was still sitting at the end of the bed, unmoving. Eventually he said, ‘I really don’t want to talk about it Jane.’
She nodded, ‘It’s just –’ Her sentence fizzled out and she went on gazing at the ground. The sounds of the square outside echoed through their hotel room. The low hum of chatter from tourists at white tables, the wasp buzz of a vespa passing. Then distantly, a man shouting in an angry Italian.
‘Come on,’ he said, ‘just when we’re relaxing. Seeing Rome together for the first time! I knew this would happen. As soon as I retire, something spoils it. I just didn’t think it’d be you.’
‘Are you really so old-fashioned you can’t let me speak?’
‘Not now. I’m on holiday.’
‘Fine. I’ll be in the shower.’
He sat against their bed’s gilded backboard. Jane crossed the room and gathered up her shampoo. She shot him a stern look through bagged eyes. It did not frighten him. What had given her that matronly aspect? Was it age? Or a career spent in the classroom? She’d lost the passion for her art, all that youthful energy. In fact, she rarely painted at all. She lived for the twins now. On flicked the shower in the bathroom and the patter of the water. He did not want to discuss the ferry story. What did she want to do, re-examine it?
It takes twenty hours from Sicily to Rome. And in the 1980s there was a single ferry service. It had a glamour of sorts, a 1930s design, ‘Traghetto di Lusso.’ With an arching central staircase, and art deco features.
Jane had just finished a summer course on Cubism in Sicily. Her parents had paid for it, but she wanted to use her own money to stop off in Rome before she flew back. It was a long, hot bus ride from Palermo to the ferry port in the north of the island.
Exhausted, she wore loose casual travelling clothes. She was not aware she looked beautiful. But she’d tanned deeply in the three weeks she’d spent away. She was leaning against the ferry railing, relieved to be finally leaving, when an Italian aristocrat wandered over. Had she smiled at him, or did he catch her eye first?
Neatly manicured in a silk black tuxedo, he spoke in a calm, confident English. She had to have a drink with him – a red would make the heat easier. She accepted and he bought a bottle from the bar. He told her about the wine, from Tuscany, where his family had a vineyard. He explained about his apartments in Florence and his family’s ancient name.
It was not always easy, after the war Italy nearly voted in a communist government, and the family had to shift their wealth into Switzerland. She asked about Italian heraldry in the post-war republic, and he was impressed. It was unusual to meet someone so well informed about the difficulties families such as his had to go through. He showed her a silver cigarette case emblazoned with the household crest. It sat smoothly in his hand, and he put it back into his pocket with a flick like a dealer at a casino.
They kept talking as the sun set over the ocean. When they had finished the bottle (criminal not to – given its cost), she explained about her stay in Sicily and her dream of becoming an artist. He acted the gentlemen, offering to put her in touch with his contacts in the creative industry. He knew the curator of a gallery in Naples. She hesitated when he suggested going to his first-class accommodation. But then he explained that he needed a pen for her contact details. They went together to the prow of the ferry and into his large personal cabin. He made notes in a leather notebook and then they proceeded to have sex.
Here was where Jane paused when she had told Bill the story, to go into more detail. She said, ‘It was the sound of the water, the faintest crash of breaking waves. And the lighting – it was dim lit in a warm ochre. The room was cool, and beautiful, with wood panelling and Chinese paper screens.’
It was these sensory impressions she was keen to recall and explain, and they left an ink stain in Bill’s mind. To finish the story, she threw her arms outwards as though cleaning a mirror, ‘Zero strings. Two people. One night. Just sex!’
She told him all this in a student bar on their teaching course. In those days Bill thought himself liberal. He played the guitar and wore a beard. And he voted Foot rather than Thatcher. But as the months wore on the story irritated him more and more. Until one evening he lost his temper. He demanded the other details of her love life. Was this a usual sort of encounter for her? He forced her to recall everything she’d done, every man she’d been with. And she did so dispassionately, factually, until it was all out, and then he tried to forget.
Years went by, he moved them both to Shropshire, close to his parents. They both took teaching jobs at their local school and she gave birth to twins. He never again asked her about the encounter, but it crept up on them in certain ways. Sometimes a news bulletin reminded her, or some anecdote involving a mutual friend. She would go to speak, and part mention it, but then stop herself remembering who she was talking to.
Bill took this as evidence the story was on her mind. That she had not moved on. That part of her was always back, between Sicily and Rome, listening to the faint crashing of the sea. Of course, the idea of this was intolerable. She was his. No one else’s. He wished she would forget the encounter rather than dwell on it. And worse, the idea highlighted its counterpoint, that somewhere, possibly right then, an Italian aristocrat was having intimate thoughts about his wife.
It settled in the end as a fractious topic, one they both knew to avoid. Or risk repeating the same tired arguments. And for the last ten years neither of them brought it up.
Jane pushed her way through the alleyway. ‘Wait, will you?’ Bill called after her. ‘Seriously.’
This last he said with a downward tone. Plumbing the vocal depths, trying to find his bass tenor. She was well accustomed to it. He was trying to assert himself.
‘I mean,’ he said, changing tack, ‘At least you’re navigating for a change. Guess I can just relax then and follow you. We’ll end up at dinner, will we?’
She kept walking without a backward glance. They were heading east and passed Largo Di Torre Argentina. Here, huddling refugees mixed with weather-beaten ruins, ignored by the tourists who bustled past on the way to cafes or the forum. A broken plastic board explained that Brutus and thirty colleagues stabbed Julius Caesar to death at the steps of one of the temples.
The sun was low in the sky and they both wore evening clothes. News-stands bore the printed images of the day. Men in smart suits, frowning, pointing, delivering speeches. Then the gossip magazines – bikinis, cellulite, sunglasses, jewels. One magazine had a photograph of an actress – one of the film producer’s victims. The picture was taken years ago, and she was laughing over champagne. Above her were the words in bold red letters: ‘First they give it away, then they whine and pretend to repent’.
Jane and Bill were drawing closer to the restaurant. It was their daughter who had insisted on booking it before they left. She’d used an app on her phone. The view was famous she said, overlooking the palatine hill. Bill was silent now, tying and untying the buttons on his blazer. He said, ‘Look, Jane. I shouldn’t have closed you down. I can see its bothering you.’
They began climbing narrow tufo steps. A few flights up and the forum appeared in a jumbled panorama. The Temple of Vesta was visible. Here the vestal virgins once tended the fire representing all the hearths of Rome. Jane and Bill had spent part of the afternoon learning about them. It was a solemn role, indeed sacred. And sexual misconduct was punishable by death, according to tradition the unfortunate women would be buried alive near the Colline Gate.
Bill said, ‘Look – tell me about it. Over dinner okay? I can hear about it. Whatever it is. We can’t go on like this all evening.’
‘So, I ignore you and now you want to have a conversation? Because you’re bored?’
‘I tried to talk to you about the scandals in the news. About this film producer… How he was a serial offender… Coercing actress after actress… and you shut me down.’
‘No – you wanted to reminisce about that damn ferry!’
‘You just don’t care about these sexual harassment stories.’
‘That’s not true.’
‘Well have you seen the news? Have you read anything about these exploited actresses? I don’t think you have. You’ve just ignored it. Like it’s a broadcast from a faraway country.’
Bill didn’t answer. They’d reached the restaurant, and the waiter greeted them with a nod of his head. He had dark hair, greased backwards with a comb, and wore a crisp white shirt with faint vertical stripes. ‘Of course. Of course.’ He said, as they explained about their booking. He led them to a table on the terrace, overlooking the city behind an iron railing.
Bill reached out to touch her hand, but she pulled away. What was it about that guise? When his eyebrows formed an arch like Tower Bridge. It was his way of looking concerned. He was playacting, she wasn’t ready to let him in. And it wasn’t his only guise – his suede blazer, the silver goatee, belatedly evoking his favourite 70s musician – it was all a way to signal that he had not changed. That he was still young and easy-going.
They remained in silence as the waiter brought them bread and a bottle of water. Bill asked, ‘What is it you want to tell me?’
Jane sighed. But the question probed her ideas, which were forming and reforming, like a frontal cumulus. She needed to talk. ‘I can’t get this memory out of my head – from the ferry.’
‘I’d woken up alone the next morning in the first-class cabin. I walked out into the corridor and there was a steward waiting for me. He came and took me by the arm and led me towards the staircase. Like you might guide some vulnerable, elderly person. Up on deck there was another first-class steward who held the door open for me. The thing I remember is the look they gave each other, this weary half smile. Something passed between them. As though they were both in the know, that this was something they saw often, and I was just another silly girl.’
Bill looked away and didn’t say anything. He took a deep breath and then a sip of water.
She went on, ‘That next day I realised it was probably nonsense that he was an aristocrat. I mean, who has a cigarette case with their family’s crest? Of course, I was embarrassed not to have seen it at the time. It must have been the fatigue and the alcohol. But then I told myself there really is no way of knowing. He could have been telling the truth, so I might as well assume the best. And just believe that he was who he said he was.’
The waiter tried to take their dinner order, but she sent him away. She said, ‘And what was that business about the smile? Did I catch his eye first, or was it him that smiled at me? Why did I ask myself that question? It seems pretty obvious now. I wasn’t on the look-out for men. I was exhausted.’
Bill said, ‘I really don’t want to know.’
‘But it’s curious no? That I was so intrigued by that question.’
‘I don’t follow.’
‘And everything about the cabin. The sound of the waves, the wood panelling, the Chinese paper screens –’
‘Jane – please.’ Bill grabbed her hand now. But his tone was pleading, he was playing the suppliant. ‘I’ve changed my mind, I’d rather not go through this.’
‘I mean, what ferry is that glamourous? Sure, it was first class, and a little art deco. But there was this constant vibration from the engine. And it was cool, but only because they’d just installed an air conditioning unit. Which was a giant white box against all that mahogany, and it hummed like you wouldn’t believe. Aren’t you interested why I gave you so much detail?’
‘I hated it. I hate it.’
‘I didn’t talk about my other boyfriends. I didn’t feel the need. But this one encounter –’ Bill stood up suddenly and leaned against the iron railing. A couple at the next table watched him over their ice bucket, but then returned to their drinks. ‘I was persuading myself. I knew it at the time but pressed ahead anyway. I was trying to sell the encounter. Not to you. To me. I had the same conversation with a couple of my friends, and I told them all the same things.’
‘So what?’ Bill asked, his back still turned.
‘I was trying to legitimize it.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘I wasn’t comfortable with it Bill. I was trying to make myself think it was romantic. That it was the setting that won me round. But I was never comfortable with it.’ The waiter came around again, and again Jane apologized. ‘We’re still taking in the setting.’
They paused as the waiter retreated to other tables. Now they were both looking out across the city. Neither looking at the other. The view was mostly apartment blocks the colour of burnt umber. Jagged television ariels on the rooftops formed a leafless silver forest. They could just make out a corner of the coliseum, that ancient venue of everyday slaughter. It was lit from below, and its arches threw wide shadows. That’s the thing about Rome. These things just live side by side. And everyone quickly forgets and accepts because its normal.
She spoke into Bill’s back, ‘This guy persuades me to drink a bottle of wine, and then lures me into his cabin –’
‘Jane, are you trying to suggest-’
‘He had my London landline, and of course he never called about the gallery in Naples. I told myself that’s normal, that he could have forgotten. But now… With everything in the news. Hearing all these other women’s stories. And the patterns of these things… I mean this guy might have been doing it on a half-regular basis. It was all well practiced. He wasn’t an aristocrat – he was probably a serial offender. That’s not ok.’ Chatter and jeers sounded from partygoers in the street below. Jane stood up against the railing with Bill, her glass of water untouched on the table. Just up the road was a student bar. A crowd stood against the road talking and smoking. Directly below them was a group of teenage girls, swaying towards the bar in high heels and short skirts.
Bill said, ‘This is all guesswork. You don’t know any of this.’
‘I know how I felt. I was exhausted and followed him to his cabin thinking he’d help with my career. Then when I was inside, he started pulling off my dress.’
‘I wasn’t comfortable with it. But I felt I couldn’t — I just wanted it over with.’
Jane sat back down at their table and opened the menu, gazing unseeing over the appetizers. Bill followed her slowly and took his seat. ‘Really, it was –’ She paused. She was on the verge of forming the next word. But she couldn’t bring her incisors to her bottom lip.
Bill said, ‘Did he force you? Did he stop you getting away?’
‘That’s not the point!’ She said this too loudly and the family on the next table turned around. They stared for a second, but then satisfied she was just a harmless eccentric, went back to their meals. She had never brought these ideas together before. They lived as certain seeds, acquired over time, and supressed. They had not, until then, made the coherent whole. A new story.
‘Why haven’t you mentioned this before?’
She did not answer. He went on frowning. It was the same expression he wore in the hotel room. He was tapping his foot and staring straight past her shoulder. What did all of this mean to him? He was unlikely to quite believe it. He’d wonder how her story could change so much. And after such a long time. Besides, it would not change how he felt about it. The damage was already done. The circumstances of it, the extent to which she consented, it didn’t especially matter. He hated the story because she went to bed with a strange Italian. Nothing had really changed.
And why was she with Bill? They’d met only a year after the encounter. On their teacher training course. He knew what he wanted, he was safe. But why was she on that course? She’d wanted a stable career. Her dream, the life of the artist, none of that seemed so important. She’d lost interest in it. Her priorities changed. The encounter had not especially traumatized her, sure. She’d retold it, recast it, normalized it. But she was beginning to detect its subtle patterns. How it had laid its soft fingers on her life.
Jane started to cry. It was silent, but the tears made wet streams across her cheeks. She knew her eyes would be red by now, that her lids would start to swell, but she couldn’t stop. A white figure made its way towards them, through the tables and the diners. She blinked to clear her vision. The waiter paused before them, flicking out his notebook with a smooth practiced motion. He looked up, ready to take their order. Jane reached for her napkin. The waiter glanced across to Bill who held up his open palms with a weary half-smile. The waiter caught the signal and gave a half-smile in return. It was a knowing look that passed between them, as if to say —
George Ayliffe graduated from the University of Warwick in 2014 and lives in London. His stories have featured in Meat for Tea: The Valley Review, and Dreamers Creative Writing. He is an active member of the Leather Lane writers group, founded by Kit de Waal. He was longlisted for the RSL short story prize in 2018.