One of the abiding images I have of our short trip to Italy (and in this case, of the first day in Rome, as there were many more quintessential and just plain weird images connected to other places) was the expression on the priest’s face as he glanced down the Ponce’s exposed and hirsute cleavage. His companion, one of those church-loving women as dessicated as a gutter full of flaking leaves, also recoiled as she walked past, in the same way you might open a seedy toilet door while travelling in some unspeakably unhygienic far away place, and recoil at the bugs, the filth, the stench of untreated human waste. You knew it was going to be unsavoury, but Good God!….
Perhaps it was our unfettered joy and exuberance they found so offensive. Or the fact that the Ponce has long hair, piercings and tattoos and was dressed like an unwashed hippy in green combat pants, massive steel-capped boots, and a dark blue diaphanous cotton top with a very open neck. This on a Saturday afternoon when everyone else in the centre of Rome was dressed for the catwalk. Or maybe it was our conversation at the outdoor café table, sprinkled liberally with semi-hysterical laughter, which went something like this:
‘Italian food…. Oh God, Italian food…. It’s so good to be eating real food again. I mean, you just can’t go wrong when you look at a menu here, can you? What shall I have today? I don’t know…. And guess what- it doesn’t matter what you order because it ALL tastes good! Order what you like! You know it’s going to be fantastic because it’s Italian. It’s all delicious.’ You can guess who said this. From the moment we arrived the day before the Incredible Ponce had morphed into Pacman, roaming the streets of Rome with a gaping mouth devouring everything in his path, every few steps interrupted with ‘I want pasta. I want pizza. I want arancini. I want ice cream….’ The only thing that put him off his food momentarily was when we stopped at a place famous for arancini –breadcrumbed rice balls with paremsan, meat, tomato sauce, a little like eating a whole meal wrapped up in an overgrown meatball- and he caught sight of its advertising board outside, filled with shots of famous people, politicians and so on, indicating their favourite variety. Turning to see a grinning photo, he exclaimed, ‘Jesus, why do they have to do that? That’s enough to put anybody off their food!’ The photo showed the fat, false, face-lifted, false-toothed face of Berlusconi.
He sighed, patted his belly proudly, (a gesture I was to see repeated by Italian men many times over the next few days) and declared,
‘I don’t mean to be funny, but even fried stuff doesn’t smell and taste like fritanga here. And it’s healthier. Not like the cancer on a plate they serve in Madrid.’
Here, holiday silliness took over, culminating in a ridiculous restaurant role-play:
‘Good evening, and how is Sir this evening? Well, I hope. The usual table? So…, how would Sir like his cancer served this evening? Rare? Medium rare? Well-done?’
‘Well, I’m not very hungry, I think I’ll just have a little tumour tonight, thank you.’
‘Very well, Sir, just a small tumour. And for your wife? May I suggest today’s special? Rocketing cholesterol. It’s very good.’
‘I’m actually on a diet, thank you. Could I just have a small portion of pre-cancerous cells and a green salad?’
We carried on like this, laughing until eyes, nose and mouth wept wetly. Grinning idiotically, the Ponce added,
‘I’m so sorry, we appear to be living in a vacuum, we have run out of air. There isn’t anything left to deep fry…no more deep fried air…’
And it was here, slouched over at the café table, water running snottily from my eyes, nose and mouth, grimacing with stupid laughter at the sheer joy at being in Italy and on holiday with my friends, that I looked up and saw it flapping down the street toward me like a faded and very tall crow. The Ponce was unaware of its approach; he was facing the other way, in my direction. Federico, our host, also had his back to the pavement and was watching over us, a bit like the parent of naughty toddlers, happy that we were enjoying ourselves, but a little embarrassed we were doing it so noisily. The priest was walking toward us along the pot-holed pavement, his dry little companion beside him, looking up at him like a rare species of obedient, flower-arranging poodle.
And he tripped in the gutter when she looked away for a second as though it was her devotion that had been keeping him upright. He tripped, stumbled, with a flamboyant flap of sleeves and skirts, then righted himself, all the while with a pious and self-satisfied expression that said,
‘I meant to do that. God meant for me to do that.’
He smoothed his surplus down with one hand, and turned to resume conversation with her. They walked alongside us and behind the Ponce (it was a narrow pavement, and he had to pass with a little delicate sideways trip-step like an airhostess manoeuvring a packed aisle, shoulders and head back, stomach in, arms raised at the elbows a little effeminately).
And here, at this angle, poised for a second as if in an action replay, he looked down the Ponce’s lush, hairy cleavage. It would have been pretty hard to look anywhere else, come to think of it, given his position. He was pressed up behind him for a second, though not actually making contact, leaning as close as a hairdresser. If that priest’s nostrils had had a spare set of eyeballs inside them, then that’s what he would have been looking down at my friend with.
There were other memorable snapshots as we hurtled around the city for two days either in Federico’s squashed-arsed yellow car, on foot or on one of the buses between the centre and his flat: Three immaculately suited businessmen, for example, in a piazza somewhere near the Pantheon, resting elbows on a railing, standing a in a row, watching a digger furrow the earth of a small construction site. They were lined up like sparrows on a branch. Their suits evoked board meetings, pension funds, designer labels and important lunches, but their faces were the faces of six year olds, beaming with delight. As we wandered around we came across many Harry Hill Italians: a brilliant reminder that if you happen to be squat, bald, shiny-headed, with a large nose and in need of glasses, you’d better wish you were born Italian, because there is a niche for you here, and a very fashionable one at that.
Strolling through the streets in the centre I spotted an incredibly camp young man with his arm slung around his girlfriend’s neck, the other arm bent at the elbow, his moped helmet dangling coyly from his middle finger.
‘There are no gay men in Italy of course.’ I reminded Federico as this couple minced past.
‘She must know. Doesn’t she know? I mean, look at him.’ Federico is straight, a laid back product of the clubbing years, times when straight dolly birds are palling up with dikes, bisexuals rubbing shoulders with the gay community, camp boys hanging around with strutting, scrapping straight lads. After all, who cares? Who’s threatened any more by these kind of differences? The only taboo these days seems to be lying about it.
‘Ha! Then who was I sleeping with all those years before I left?’ queried the Ponce, though he didn’t use the term ‘sleeping with’. ‘Hypocrites!’ he declared, glancing into the window of a shopfront covered entirely with false ivy. I couldn’t see if the display shelves inside were lined with silk ties or cakes, but they went by in a pastel coloured, elegantly presented blur.
‘Come out of the closet, darling, we all know you’re in there.’ he commented to nobody in particular, ‘… and stop making everybody else’s lives a misery. Rome is full of poofs anyway. Crawling with them.’
We drove past a freshly-crumpled car angled by the side of the road next to a moped on its side, a figure lying in the pavement in the middle of a circle of onlookers, with an older woman crouched over her, gently stroking her hair. At the drinking fountains all over the city the three of us stopped to bend over, block the end of the spout and drink deeply. It was a hot day so we stopped at almost all of them. Every time the Ponce laughed at my inept attempts to angle the water into a thin stream and into my mouth, and not as a hosepipe blast in my face. I was aware of people, tourists sitting at café tables and restaurants nearby watching us, smiling as the Ponce splashed me yet again and we horsed around in the dust and the cold, clear water. Everybody watches everybody else, and somehow even more so in Rome than anywhere else.
Evening and night-time were equally packed with people watching. At the bar we went to that night, at the outside terrace, a full table overturned with a mighty crash as a waiter passed it, spilling about ten cocktails, glasses, and two bottles of wine. People moved aside, carried on talking, swivelled to look then turned away almost at once. The debris, shards of glass, melting ice cubes and squashed lemon slices were left where they fell for the whole evening, people stepping over them in their label trainers or vertiginous heels, and there was something about this lack of care, this flash of brittle drama in the midst of all these people, left to be tidied up later, that was characteristically Roman.
At the same bar there was a woman who stood a short way away from me, in a crowd of friends, her back arched and one foot in front of the other like a dancer. She was attractive, but what was noticeable about her were her amazing breasts, which were accentuated by the folds of the top she was wearing, in a dove grey jersey material. It looked like a halter neck, and was heavily draped around the front, reminding me of the delicate pleats of a Grecian or Roman gown. She had long, high breasts, was obviously not wearing a bra, and the whole structure of the top seemed somehow to be hanging off one perfect nipple.
Next to us was a group of young people sitting in a large circle on the floor. Sitting on the ground here was de rigeur, as the bar was ‘alternative’. Finally I saw the Ponce’s tribe, his fellow pack members. Here, in this bar in Rome, at least, he was among his own species. Everyone was dressed in black. Pretty young punk girls with glamorous haircuts sat cross-legged, wearing t-shirts meticulously slashed by fashion designers to reveal smooth backs and slender arms. Equally pretty boys sat beside them, one of them with a cleanly shaven head and a Mohican drawn back in a pony tail, heavily plucked eyebrows, black liquid eyes, and a faintly lipsticked mouth. There was something bird-like about him, New Romantic and half drag queen.
A beautiful boy joined the group later and there was an interesting sociological moment as he went first to greet a platinum blond girl who held onto him tightly as he hugged her, her face glowing with love and possession. This girl pouted like a French film star when people were looking and also when they were not. Their embrace was watched by the other members of the gang with fixed grins as they waited their turn. Then the boy went to kiss other people, other boys and girls, before slipping into the group. All eyes followed him even when he had settled, cat-like into his place in the circle. He was stunningly handsome and had a very high cock’s comb haircut, He was all angles as he moved, easy, loping angles inside his casual black clothes. I watched them watching him and it was like following the mating rituals of a strange pack of animals or birds, almost as though the cock’s comb quiff, the fact that he had the highest and the most carefully-tended hairdo, was as important biologically and as likely to land him a mate as the bright feathers on a bird of paradise. I couldn’t work out if he was gay or straight, but suspected gay, despite the fierce inter-crossing glances of the girls.
That’s the trouble with getting older: you want to go over and say,
‘Listen, girls, a quick word of advice. Don’t bother being faghags. You’ll be a handmaiden for ever and you’ll probably end up single. Ok, you get to hang around with lots of beautiful men, but none of them is ever going to go home with you at the end of the night. And whatever you do, don’t fall in love with a gay man, because it will end in tears, and they won’t be his.’ The other problem with getting older is that you know the likely response would be a sneer and,
‘Fuck off, Grandma.’
As I was mulling this over, another boy turned up, a skinny, skinny thing in baggy clothes, chunky trainers and a baseball cap. This one was all elbows, knees, shoulders, very expressive and energetic. There was nothing to him, really he couldn’t have been more than 6 stone soaking wet, and his clothes seemed to move without him, move for him, prompting me to think that, more than any other nation, the Italians sometimes are their clothes. However can they function naked when clothes are so important to them? A friend of mine who is American-Italian, or Italian-American depending on the day, once commented that all young Italians move and behave as if they expect a crowd of paparazzi to leap out at them any minute and start snapping fashion photos.
‘Even in the shower,’ he said, ‘they’re posing, turning around, checking out to make sure their own arse looks good from this angle. Just in case.’
At the end of the night I rolled up the shutter in the bedroom at Federico’s flat before going to bed. It was the last view of Rome for ten days or so. The next day we were going to Federico’s villa at Sperlonga, a couple of hours down the coast. There was a sickle moon, and the hills of the city were laid out illuminated beneath it, glittering with lights as fiercely as flames, like a view obscured by waves of heat. The hills flickered, could have been made of smoke, or dust, or the smoking ruins of another city. Rome looked like a blazing, shimmering disaster, equally something imminent, or that had already happened a long time ago.