I’d never had an affair before, and I’m not likely to again, not at my age. Well, I suppose technically I can’t, now Billy’s died. You have to have a husband to have an affair, don’t you? But every time I hear the bells chime four, I’m back in Florence. Even now, thirty-odd years on, I can still see that sunbeam creeping closer on the bedside table.
Begin at the beginning, I suppose. 1982. Billy had been given a trip to some conference in Italy and it was coming up to my fortieth, so he suggested making it my birthday treat – a long weekend in Florence. I was dead excited. Well, if you’ve hardly been out of Macclesfield all your life, Florence might as well be Shangri-La.
All I knew of Florence was what I’d seen in books. It had that famous statue, that one of David. Standing there, all cold and aloof, lost in his thoughts.
Florence just took my breath away, I can tell you. It was like God had right let rip. Colours I couldn’t begin to describe and each building flaunting itself, saying ‘look at me’ with arches and pillars and balconies all shouting for attention. Not like the Macclesfield terraces huddled together against the cold or the big silk mills glowering by the canal. You don’t get much call for a balcony in Macclesfield in winter. Nor in summer, to be honest.
But truth to tell, it wasn’t much of a birthday treat. Billy was working every day, and every evening we had to have dinner with his colleagues. I felt like a piece of luggage, I did. And one evening, when one of his colleagues got a bit fresh with me and he seemed to think it was all a big joke, that was the final straw.
I waited until the next morning, then I gave it to him. Both barrels.
He was meant to be treating me proper, making me feel special and here I was having to look after myself and getting none of his attention. Then he got a bit sharp, saying as how I didn’t appreciate how hard he was working to bring the pennies in and that, and how ungrateful I was, and before you knew it, the door was slammed and I was sat on the bed crying.
Well. I’m not one to feel sorry for myself for long, so I decided to pop out for some fresh air. As the door shut behind me, I realised I’d locked myself out.
Now I could either go to the hotel desk and act like a silly housewife who hadn’t got a brain or I could go looking for Billy and look like I wasn’t capable of looking after myself.
Then I thought, no. I’m here in Florence and I’m not beholden to anyone in the world. I’ve got my purse with me, I’ve got a free day in the city and I could be anyone I wanted to be. I could leave Karen Frankton crying on that hotel bed, waiting for someone to come and be nice to her, or I could go out and have an adventure.
With that decision, I felt a weight fall from me. Suddenly I was alive, the air was… I don’t know, more transparent somehow, I could see things twice as clearly.
I wasn’t forty years old, I was two twenty year olds strapped together. You know how Italians walk, with their shoulders back and that louche stride, like they don’t care tuppence? Well, that was me. Wandering round like I owned the place.
I finally found that statue of David. It was glorious. So smooth and eternal. So perfect. Suddenly there was a warm voice in my ear.
‘You know Michelangelo made ‘is penis small so the men who asked ‘im to make it would not feel threatened.’
Well. That was a bit fresh. But I wasn’t going to be flustered today. I turned round and there stood a lad of about 25 with dark eyes and a confident grin.
‘And do you feel threatened by it, young man?’, I said in my most superior voice. Men would have quivered back in Macclesfield. But you know what he said? Well, of course you don’t, but I’m going to tell you.
‘Not threatened, no. But ‘is balls… they are a lovely shape, no? Imagine Michelangelo and his chisel. So careful, ‘e must have been.’
And that image of the great sculptor, kneeling at the foot of the statue – it must have been the last bit he carved, surely – carefully tapping away, not wanting to risk anything breaking off – well, I laughed like a drain. And he laughed. He laughed like the sight of a middle-aged woman hooting in a square in Florence was the funniest thing he’d ever seen.
Lorenzo, his name was. Well, that’s what he told me. I wasn’t born yesterday, and his name could have been Michelangelo himself for all I knew. Soon he was acting as my private tourist guide and I was having the time of my life.
We were in yet another glorious piazza when my tummy made the biggest rumble you’ve ever heard. Lorenzo laughed again.
‘We are so close to my flat. I will make you lunch.’
I knew what he was after. I’m not daft. Karen Frankton would have made her excuses, said something about her husband, scuttled off back to her hotel room. But not me. Not today. I threw my shoulders back and held my chin high and said in a voice I barely recognised,
‘And are you planning to seduce me? If so, I would like that very much.’
I couldn’t believe I’d said that. Nor could he. His mouth twitched for a second, then he smiled a deep, warm smile that made my knees go weak, where a second before they’d been knocking like I was a giddy schoolgirl.
He held my hand like we were silly lovers in a film but I didn’t care two brass knobs what people thought. I was having an adventure and I was going to swallow life whole and damn the consequences.
His flat was small and neat and lunch was probably delicious, but I couldn’t taste a thing. I was hiding my hands to stop them trembling and I had a bit more wine than was good for me.
And then we were in bed. You don’t want details, of course. Well, you might want them. You aren’t going to get them, except that… well, let’s just say that even with my glasses off I could see perfectly well why Lorenzo didn’t feel threatened by the statue.
I don’t know what happened to Karen Frankton. This other woman just threw herself into it like all the life she was ever going to get was that afternoon, and she was a whirlwind. She was saying things I’d never say, and God got quite a few calls that afternoon, I can tell you. I hope he didn’t answer any of them, though. I’m not sure he’d have approved.
Then it was afterwards. In the silence the nearby church bells rang four times, deep and solemn. Without opening his eyes, he murmured ‘Four chimes. Once for each time you…’ and I put my hand over his mouth. I didn’t want to hear that word out loud. It was naughty.
But did I regret it? Not a bit. He folded me into his body and I grasped every moment, memorising his breathing, watching his chest rise and fall. Imprinting the sensation of his hairy chest tickling my breasts and his taut stomach muscles next to my wobbly tummy. Most of all, making sure I never ever forgot this feeling of being desired.
I hadn’t thought of Billy. Not once. As Lorenzo slept, I watched the sunbeam cross his bedside table, slowly coming towards me as the afternoon waned. Like my real life trying to catch up with me.
Finally I heard the bells chime five. Billy would be back from work soon.
‘Lorenzo,’ I whispered, ‘I have to go.’
‘Five o’clock?’ He stretched himself. ‘Just once more…’ and he kissed my neck. His hands ran over me, like he was measuring me up. Like Michelangelo running the rule over David. Only I do hope that Michelangelo didn’t do to David what Lorenzo did to me next. That would change the way I looked at that statue forever.
Even as we dressed, I knew I knew I’d made a mistake. Well, I say mistake, but… well, it was right hard to think of it as a mistake, really. I just hoped that stubble hadn’t given me a rash on my lips. Or anywhere else.
He insisted on writing down my address. Oh yes, young man, I thought, make it look like you’ll keep in touch. I know I’m just another conquest but thank you for going through the motions.
I got back to the hotel to a bombshell. Billy was near tearing his hair out wondering where I was – no mobile phones then, of course. It turned out he’d had a call from Manchester. His dad had died. Before you could say jump, we were on a flight back to England and then we were in the humble-tumble of arranging the funeral, writing to relatives, dealing with banks and solicitors.
Billy took it hard. He threw himself into his work, like he was trying to hide or forget something. I kept my little secret and I suppose I didn’t help either, but it was hard making the effort when he was being so difficult.
About a month later the letters started. Beautiful, hand-written letters about how much he missed me and how much he longed to hear my beautiful voice again. Beautiful voice? With my accent? He must have had cloth ears, that muppet. I didn’t reply. I wasn’t going to make things better by getting his hopes up, was I?
Well, to tell you the truth, I replied to one or two. I couldn’t help it. I’m only human. He wrote poems, sometimes, that didn’t quite make sense because his English was a bit… a bit not English. Like he’d swallowed the wrong dictionary. But I loved those poems.
I can’t tell you any of them. I didn’t dare keep them; I burned them all. I watched all those pretty words, all those thoughts and dreams… I watched them all disappear in smoke up the chimney. And a little bit of me went with them.
After about a year his letters stopped suddenly. I was relieved, really. I kept thinking Billy was going to get to the post first one morning, and open them. I wonder what happened. I like to think of some beautiful señorita – is that the right word? – stealing his heart and the two of them making beautiful babies together. I imagine him calling his daughter Karen, and her always getting teased in school, and his wife never understanding why he insisted on her having an English name.
I hope that’s what happened. Sometimes I think of other things, but then I shake my head and get rid of them and then that’s that.
When Billy died, I left that big old house and found this little cottage in a village where nobody knew me and nobody knew Billy and nobody would ever have guessed about Lorenzo, but the main thing is, I’m just two hundred yards from the local church.
Every afternoon at four o’clock I listen to the bells. Four chimes. Once for each… well, I still blush to think of it. I pour myself a glass of wine and sit for an hour and wait for the bells to strike 5. That sunbeam crept closer but it never reached me, you know.
So I suppose I’m still being unfaithful to Billy, if truth be told. But I’m being faithful to the first time I really heard the bells ring.