While they were planning the wedding – while she was planning and he was practically living at the Treasury – Christine decided they both spent too much time staring at screens. They would leave their Kindles behind, she said, packing actual paperback copies of a fat thriller, Anna Karenina, Sea and Sardinia and a dense book with lots of graphs about the application of randomized controlled trials in social policy formulation, which he said might not be electronic but still shouldn’t count, and she said would be interesting. He also questioned Sea and Sardinia, which might be about Sardinia, but was by D.H.Lawrence and would therefore be bollocks, he said, and probably full of mystical drivel about anal sex. He packed a fat thriller of his own, a volume of Proust and a dense book about whales that wasn’t Moby-Dick, plus, at the last moment, Moby-Dick. They would also leave behind their cameras, his iPad and their phones. OK, they would take one phone for emergencies, but it would stay in the glove compartment of the car. There would be no photographs of this honeymoon, but they would look harder at the world around them, she said, see more, remember more. It would make Sardinia new, make them new. They would talk to each other. He bought her a sketchbook with the heaviest paper he could find, a set of pencils and charcoal sticks; she gave him a notebook with a turquoise leather cover and a silk place marker. He remained sceptical, but, on the first morning, after they’d made both love and coffee, he left her by the pool, put the notebook in the pocket of his shorts and began to walk.
The wedding and the reception had made a long day and they’d both been drunk by early afternoon. They’d left her parents and his brother in the hotel bar and gone to their room. He’d said “I love you” and she’d said it, too, and they’d gone to sleep. In the morning they’d been hung over and had to pack. Then there was the flight and all the usual shit involved in picking up a hired car. By the time they arrived they were tired, again. They’d cooked some pasta and drunk the bottle of wine a previous visitor had left behind. They fell asleep in the big bedroom with nothing much in it but an enormous bed, a ceiling fan and a dark, old-fashioned, mahogany wardrobe with a mirror that was mottled and stained in places and gave everything the look of a sepia photograph from the end of the century before last. The way it worked out, then, the first time he and Christine made love as a married couple they were already in Sardinia, which was sort of romantic, he thought now, with the early sun gliding through the doors that opened onto a garden with a gigantic sprawling cactus and a stand of cork oaks, although he didn’t manage to get the angle right, for the mirror.
They had two or three previous marriages between them. He had a genuinely divorced wife in New England, and another he wasn’t altogether sure was an actual marriage, or legal or whatever. He’d only been three months into his Fulbright scholarship and it had happened in Las Vegas, in a Tony Bennett impersonator chapel, which wouldn’t have been his choice. Leonie was nineteen. She was also French (from France French, not that Louisiana Cajun bullshit, and not from Montreal). She’d been smoking a lot of dope, and reading Althusser and Derrida, and would be going back to Paris at the end of the summer, to the ENS, husband or no husband. Tony had said he’d rather plight his troth before an Elvis, obviously, this being Vegas, but so would everybody else, apparently, because the Elvises were all booked through the middle of the following week, and he hadn’t been sure even then that the drugs or the relationship would last that long. She’d said the Elvises were always already booked, as if that meant something. Always already was a big phrase then amongst the deconstructionists, the post-modernists and all that crowd. Pretty much everything was always already itself. She’d said this with the brochure from the casino chapel in one hand, a mojito in the other, wearing a gold lame bikini not big enough for him to blow his nose on, beside a pool shaped like the state of Nevada, apparently, if you looked at it from up high enough.
His second marriage lasted seventeen years and produced three children – all girls – that Tony was pretty sure were his. It had been good, and he didn’t regret the girls. But he didn’t regret, either, that they lived with their mother in Massachusetts.
He was naturally less familiar with the details of Christine’s first marriage. The man was a poet. He had published an actual collection of poems, but spent most of his time writing technical manuals and annual reports for engineering firms and getting miserably drunk on Guinness, which, in her innocence, she had considered bohemian.
“What’s he doing now?” Tony asked, once, before he and Christine had slept together.
“I like that you ask me a question,” Christine said. “Even if it’s only about the other man.”
The villa was on a quiet, straight road up from the coast; the owner had told them to follow brown signs for the Santuaria della Madonna, but to turn off a couple of kilometres before the end of the road, where the valley began to curve to the south. There were only two routes possible – back through town towards the coast, or on towards the sanctuary, which he wasn’t looking for, but would make a better walk. It was not as hot as he’d expected, and more cloudy. For a road that went pretty much nowhere, it was smooth and well maintained; lizards flashed like stilettos across his path. To either side enormous sprawling fig trees interrupted bird-filled hedgerows of dense, thorny shrubs with bottle-green leaves and berries like beads of diseased blood on an addict’s arm. That, at least, is what he scrawled on the first page of the notebook, his handwriting worse than ever. He dropped the book back into his pocket and walked on. A single, floating hawk slowly quartered the valley. A little further on he spotted a snake laid out in the road, small, motionless, dead. He bent down and peered at the dark, diamond markings on its head and back. Then suddenly it wasn’t dead at all. It twitched, curled, paused for a second or two and then slinked unhurriedly across the asphalt.
The road curved to the right and began to climb. He caught his first glimpse of the sanctuary, a nondescript building with a white cross high on the hill behind it. He had seen no one since leaving the villa, but was now overtaken by a portly cyclist in lycra who was already leaving by the time Tony completed the short climb. Up close the sanctuary appeared deserted, its doors and windows shuttered against the heat, its walls pale magnolia, like milk left too long in the sun. In front of the building was a vast open square that could have been the piazza of a moderate market town. It was empty except for a row of concrete benches facing back out over the valley, the way he’d come. A stiff breeze had cleared the clouds. It was quiet and bleak in the sunshine. A small car pulled into the piazza and, as quickly, reversed and pulled away again. A faded sign by the entrance assured him this was an Area Videosorvegliata, but he doubted it was true. He thought about climbing the hill up to the cross, from where there might be a view of the sea, but it was already eleven o’clock and, despite the breeze, there were spots of sweat on his shirt. Behind the hill would be another, higher hill. He would not be the Englishman climbing a Mediterranean mountain at noon.
On the way back he noticed a remarkable quantity of that white dog shit you never see in England any more. He paused again at the roadside altar he had seen on the way up. Inside a slope-roofed stucco mini-temple, a crowned Madonna beamed with fat-faced complacency as the Child’s head sprouted like some monstrous carbuncular growth from the shoulder of her Renaissance bishop’s gown. He had already seen another much like it outside the sanctuary; a day or two later, he would point out a third example to Christine in a side-chapel of the church in the nearby town on the coast.
At the wedding he’d made a speech longer than those of either the best man (a colleague who’d been surprised to be asked) or Christine’s father. He knew this wasn’t the way it was supposed to be, that he should just thank the bridesmaids and say “my wife” in public for the first time, but he was forty-nine: there were no bridesmaids and he’d had a wife or two before. So he told a story about how they’d met. It started with a detailed joke about “complex dependency”, which turned out to mean people stuck on benefits, and was pretty much just another way of saying “lumpen proletariat” or “feckless poor”. DWP territory, he said, but Treasury money – it was all Treasury money in the end – so would he toddle off and sort it out? Of course he would. The story took too long to get to the point where he first saw Christine – “one of a bunch of policy wonks at some ghastly breakfast meeting I didn’t want to go to.” He hadn’t noticed her at first, as “she wasn’t the sort of gorgeous that stops conversations dead” – there were cries of “Shame!” from the more inebriated male members of his audience; of “Pig!” from one or two of the women – “though she was beautiful, obviously” – a bashful smile here on Tony’s part – “In the meeting, she was the first to bring up the “feckless poor” thing. She asked if our task was to help them find more feck. Which is why I married her, really” – pause – “just to hear her saying “feck” again” – catcalls, boos, laughter.
Christine also made a speech, though hers was shorter.
The second time they met he suggested, pleasantly enough, and in the course of conversation, that she was not his type. She said, “The very fact you have a ‘type’ proves that you’re not mine.” The third or fourth time, when they had still not slept together, she invited him to dinner, along with two other couples, friends of hers, not his. Two of them – one from each couple – told competitive travellers’ tales about people defecating in the streets of La Paz and Madras respectively, and Tony found himself explaining how he’d taken a dump in the road himself, right here in London. He said it was years ago, although it wasn’t. He said he couldn’t help it. He’d been out one night after work, for a couple of pints or five, and a curry, and coming home, on the walk back from the station, he’d known there was no way on earth, no fucking way, that he was going to make it. One of Christine’s friends, a fair-haired man with political ambitions, who had been to neither La Paz nor Madras, tried to change the subject, but Tony was not to be diverted. He’d found a dark corner between a fence and a car that never went anywhere, dropped his trousers and dumped what felt like the most enormous dump humanity had ever seen. Christine asked if anyone wanted chocolate mousse. The man who’d been to Madras asked what happened next.
“Nothing. I pulled up my trousers and went home,” Tony said. “But the thing is, I had to walk past that corner twice a day, and I couldn’t help looking, like, a quick sideways glance, every time, and it was definitely a pile. More than a pile, a whole shit castle. The tarmac all around it was stained dark, like a moat. Eventually someone cleared it up. But the stain was still there, like the ghost of my shit, like Jesus’ face in the Turin shroud.”
The other couples had stopped looking at each other, or at Christine, and were looking instead at their empty plates. The would-be politician swirled wine in the broad bowl of his glass; his partner, who had been to Bolivia before they met, ran her thumbnail up and down the seam of her heavy linen napkin. Christine said, “You’re disgusting,” but not as if she were disgusted, and he said, “That’s why you love me.” It was the first time either of them had used the word, to each other, although they’d both already said it to other people, obviously.
Later that night, when they had finally slept together, he asked her why. She said she’d been intrigued. It was hard to join the dots between the Treasury mandarin and the drunken oaf who crapped in the street and married teenagers on a whim. He quoted Proust: “we are all different people at different times.” She asked if those had been Proust’s exact words and he said no, obviously, Proust’s words were French, but it was pretty close. She said that didn’t make it any easier and he suggested she come back to bed, even though it was her bed and not really his place to ask; but she did, anyway.
There was no real twilight in Sardinia – it was light and then it wasn’t – which he sort of missed. But the flipside was it didn’t get light at four in the morning like it did at home. You could have a decent lie-in and a blast of espresso and still congratulate yourself on that sense of being up and about before the rest of the world was awake (even if the rest of the this world had in fact been at its desk for hours). At nine the light was still liquid on the hillsides, the road silent but for birdsong and the occasional sound of passing bicycle tyres pressing thickly against the road. The morning walk became a habit, and he made fewer notes. Sometimes he turned right, towards the coast.
The third or fourth time he walked to the sanctuary, it was Saturday, the middle of their fortnight. Christine went with him, which made it new again, and old at the same time: he found himself on the lookout for all the things he’d seen before, and recorded in his notebook, so that he could point them out to her, which she allowed him to do. He pointed to the cock-eyed rusty bedframes that seemed to be the Sardinian farmers’ field gate-substitute of choice; to the power cables slung along the valley, perches for songbirds, and how they looked black on one side of the road and white the other, like three pencil-fine contrails against a swimming pool sky. She said he sounded different, more relaxed, that the holiday, coming somewhere new, doing something new, was good for him.
The moment she said it he knew it wasn’t true. All that stuff he’d noticed, and scribbled down, and was pointing out to Christine? It wasn’t new. The snake and the heat and the birds and the roadside altar weren’t new, or even new to him, just the atmospheric effects of all those novels he’d read where cultivated English/American gentlefolk experienced troubling, exotic, un-chaperoned epiphanies in countries where it was too hot to walk at noon. The world he saw wasn’t new, it was always already Lawrence’s world, Forster’s world, Henry-bastard-James’ world. He knew that. Even Leonie had known that.
When they reached the sanctuary there were, unusually, several cars and a motorbike parked in the piazza, four or five people looking out over the low walls towards the sea. The doors of the chapel were open and, from inside, they could hear a violin being tuned. More cars arrived. A singer joined the violin, running up and down arpeggios. Perhaps there was going to be a concert?
“It’s a wedding,” Christine said, and linked her arm through his.
It was obvious, once she’d said it. The men wore uncomfortable suits, the women Sunday dresses on a Saturday, and hats that, although for the most part black, were still somehow too light-hearted for a funeral. An organ sounded. He suggested they leave before the inevitable Mendelssohn, but Christine wanted to stay.
They heard it before they could see it: horns – one deep and blasting, like a ship in a foggy harbour, the others answering in shorter, lighter yelps, like excited dogs. Then they could see a truck cab, sans trailer, leading a procession of a dozen cars, each with ribbons tied to wing-mirrors, to windscreen wipers and radio aerials. The hooting, honking, blaring cacophony continued up the hill and into the Area Videosorvegliata. The driver of the truck stepped out, a cigarette in his mouth, the sun glinting on the shorn hairs of a head as fat and round as a pumpkin. He was followed by an older man with skin the colour of teak, a red tie around his thick neck screaming for attention against his black shirt/black suit combination, who handed a bouquet of small sunflowers to an equally rotund and tightly-trussed woman.
Tony said, “Who do you think is marrying whom?”
“The woman is the mother of the bride.”
The answer came not from Christine but from a man who had appeared at her elbow. He was tall, Tony noticed – or tall for Sardinia, where few men his age stood any higher than Tony’s shoulders – and elegantly dressed.
“She is marrying her son well.”
At that moment a second stream of cars pulled into the piazza, the leading vehicle almost invisible beneath a frosting of ribbon and tulle. From it stepped a woman in white with a red sash that matched her bottle-bright red hair.
“He is marrying into my family,” the man said. “The young lady in question” – he nodded towards the bride, who was broad and barrel-shaped and looked, Tony thought, like a cartoon soprano – “is my niece.”
“Congratulations,” said Christine.
The man nodded, contriving somehow to acknowledge her comment, without necessarily accepting the premise that congratulations were appropriate.
“Allow me to introduce myself,” he said, in a way Tony thought – even allowing for the language barrier and the old-fashioned precision of his tutored English – was altogether up himself. And when the man let them know – as politely and as modestly as such facts could ever be made known – that the land they could see, all of it, belonged to his family, but they had another estate, far more picturesque, which he begged the opportunity to show to them, an hour or two’s drive only into the interior, with a house that was amongst the oldest and most elegant dwellings on the island, and in which they were welcome to stay for a day or two, Tony realized he’d known all that already, that it was obvious; just as it was obvious, from the sharply-trimmed Renaissance beard, if nothing else, that the man was the scion of some ancient family, a family with a history of contested wills, murderous vendettas and papal politics, that he was undoubtedly a count, or the son of a count, and that later, when they were back in the villa, he, Tony, would make a thin resentful joke about there being one too many vowels involved, and Christine would point out that the joke didn’t work in Italian, and that she, for one, was going to accept his offer to visit the castle, or whatever it was, in the mountains. And when she went, he would go too, because, after all, they were married now, they were on their honeymoon. It would not be entirely clear if the Italian nobleman was married or not, or widowed, but in either case there would be no wife visible in the castle and he would entertain them with perfect, almost obsequious, propriety until, one day, Tony would have had enough and would decide not to accompany his wife and the count on a visit to the local grottoes, with their ancient stalactites and fossilized thumb prints from forty thousand years ago; and when they returned everything would be different, and nothing would change because that was the way these things worked, wasn’t it? Leonie, his first wife, the wife he’d never divorced, would reappear – perhaps the count would produce her with a flourish? – and Tony would be unmasked as a bigamist, his marriage to Christine legally annulled. That was it, wasn’t it? The way the story ended? He’d read the books and that was what always happened.
The count, if that’s what he was, excused himself for a moment: he really must speak to his aunt and uncle.
On the walk back to the villa Tony pointed out the silver-green olive leaves that shivered and flashed in the slight breeze like a school of tiny fish. He pointed out the stripped trunks of the cork oaks, where the brick-red wood beneath the bark was soft and exposed to shoulder height, like small girls who pull their dresses over their heads to make themselves invisible. He did not point out the white, desiccated turds that punctuated the edge of the immaculately smooth, recently re-laid road.
He was married, again. It would last or it would not last, but for once he knew which he would prefer.
He asked if she’d made any sketches in her sketchbook yet.
Guy Ware is the author of two novels and many stories. His collection, You Have 24 Hours to Love Us (Comma, 2012) included the story ‘Hostage’, subsequently anthologised in the Best British Short Stories 2013 (Salt). His first novel, The Fat of Fed Beasts (Salt, 2015), was chosen as a ‘Paperback of the year’ by Nick Lezard in the Guardian, and described as “Brilliant … the best debut novel I have read in years.” His second novel, Reconciliation, will be published in September 2017.”