Antonio opened his eyes. He stared briefly at the ceiling and the flickering reflections of the early morning sun bouncing off the lake and through the shutters, then reached out his hand and turned off the alarm. He knew, without looking, that it would be one minute to seven in the morning. Every morning he woke up just before the alarm went off. He waited. Ernesta's alarm went off. It took her several seconds to wake up and turn it off. He closed his eyes. She grunted and then pushed her body up and swung herself out of the bed. It was a soft, well-sprung mattress. His body bounced up and down quite vigorously. He kept his eyes closed. He heard her search with her feet for her slippers, then shuffle across the terracotta tiles to the bathroom. The door shut and the extractor fan started. Antonio got out of bed. He would have ten minutes to do his exercises – push-ups and sit-ups, basically, for he prided himself on his relatively flat stomach. When the bathroom door opened, he was back in bed, sitting up, but with his eyes closed.
'Caro,' she said in her gravelly voice. 'Time to get up.'
He opened his eyes and smiled up at her. She smiled a lip-sticky smile back.
'Did you sleep well?' she asked.
'Yes, my dear,' he said. 'And you?'
'So, so,' she said.
'I'm sorry, my dear.'
He got up, pecked her cheek, and made his way to the bathroom.
'I'll be with you in ten minutes,' he said.
He said the same thing every day, whether they were on the lakeside or by the Adriatic or back home in their flat in Modena. And she said the same thing every day. And the mattress bounced in just the same way every day. And he woke up just before the alarm in the same way. When he got to the bathroom, he peed in the same way as he did every other day. He wondered if he peed the same amount every day. He flushed the toilet and gazed at his stubbled cheeks and chin in the mirror above the sink. Not bad, he thought, for somebody nearer seventy than sixty. Lots of grey, of course, but the tanned flesh underneath was still firm. He shaved quickly, showered quickly, got dressed quickly, then walked out of the bathroom.
'Here I am,' he said.
Ernesta put down the novel she had been reading and got up from her armchair.
'Hungry?' she asked.
'A little,' he replied.
She shuffled out to the kitchenette and he heard the hum of the espresso machine. He picked up the novel. There was a lot of pink on the cover and a picture of a young woman on a horse. He put the novel down again.
'Ready,' she said.
'Coming,' he replied.
She had laid the table. Two cereal bowls. Two carefully-measured helpings of muesli. A handful of blueberries. The coffee smelt delicious.
'That smells delicious,' he said.
'Mmm,' said Ernesta.
She brought the two espresso cups to the table. She'd put them on tiny saucers and, although neither of them took sugar or cream, had put a teaspoon on each saucer. They each used their spoon to skim off the creamy froth on the top of the coffee, then drank their coffees, then used their spoons again to scrape out what was left of the froth. Then they ate their muesli, slowly, chewing on every mouthful several times.
'It looks as though it's going to be a lovely day,' Antonio said.
Ernesta grunted in agreement. There was already a faint sheen of sweat on her upper arms.
'We'll walk to the beach again,' she said, 'before the sun gets too hot, and read our books there for a while.'
'Perfect,' he said. They had done the same thing the previous day. And the day before that.
Ernesta washed up the cups and bowls in the tiny sink, then retired to the bathroom. When she came out again, she had changed into a loose-fitting pair of shorts and a tee-shirt and had put on her sandals. Antonio had put on his navy-blue chino shorts and a light blue polo shirt, and a pair of boat shoes.
It had just gone nine o'clock when they set off along the lungolago. A workman in a fluorescent jacket was still emptying the bins on the esplanade. Every year since Antonio had retired they had come to the lake in the month of June, out of the season, so that they avoided the crowds. The weather was generally fine by June and it meant that they had the beach largely to themselves. They got to their favoured spot just as the sun peered dazzlingly above the mountain tops on the far side of the lake. They liked the spot because they could lean their backs against a flat rock wall that had been built as a sort of pier jutting out into the lake. The pier was never used for its intended purpose. Antonio inspected the beach to be sure that they were high enough up to avoid the big waves the hydrofoil made when it sped past, then rolled out their square of straw matting. They placed their towels on top of the mat. Antonio took off his polo top. Ernesta took off her tee-shirt to reveal a polka-dotted bikini top. She reached into her straw basket.
'Come here,' she said.
He let her rub the sun cream into his chest and his arms and back, and then she dabbed some on his nose and the tops of his ears. He hated the smell of it, and the greasiness.
'Could you do me, please, love?' she said.
She let down her bikini straps and turned her back and shoulders to him. Reluctantly as always, Antonio squeezed some cream onto her fleshy shoulders and rubbed it in.
'Enough?' he asked after what seemed to him like a decent period of rubbing.
'Here,' she said, turning and reaching out for the tube. 'I'll do it myself.'
Too late, he said to himself, as he said it to himself every day. His hands were all greasy now.
They settled down on their towels, then fiddled around until their backs were comfortable. They had reached an age when they could afford correcting sun glasses and these they now found in the basket that she had placed between them. Ernesta took out her pink novel, found her page, sighed happily and started reading. Antonio pulled out a slightly less pink novel. It was one she had recommended to him. She had adored it. He was making his way slowly, very slowly, through it. He put it on his lap and gazed out at the lake. A regatta of small sail boats was already out in the middle – probably a lesson before the wind picked up. The old steam ferry was chugging across the lake to the south. It wasn't a bad place to pass the time of day.
'Don't you like it?' she asked.
'Don't you like the book?'
'But of course I do. I was just having a gaze out at the lake before I got back to it.'
He picked up the book, found his page, and started to read a now familiar paragraph that he hadn't been able to finish already several times. The sun had climbed high enough in the sky to send warm rays towards them now. Antonio felt a little dozy…
'She doesn't look old enough,' said Ernesta.
Antonio woke up.
'That girl. She's a slip of a thing. She really doesn't look old enough to be having a baby.'
He followed her gaze. What had caused that tone of disapproval? A young girl in a bright red cotton dress had joined them on the beach. Despite the early season, her arms and legs were beautifully tanned. She was about ten metres away from them. She had come with a baby girl. She certainly behaved as though she were its mother. They watched as she followed the same ritual they had been through; straw matting against the pebbles, then two towels. She tied a white cotton sun hat onto the baby girl, changed her into a tiny costume, then rubbed sun tan lotion onto her arms and legs. The child gurgled happily. Then the girl started to look after herself. She looked around and Antonio instinctively sucked in his stomach. But the girl barely registered their presence. He watched, fascinated, as she fiddled around under her tee-shirt, she brought out her bra and then her hands disappeared back under the tee-shirt. He knew he shouldn't gaze for too long, so he looked back down at the novel and turned a page. When he next looked up, she seemed to be completely naked. Then he realised that she had donned a minute bikini that was almost flesh-coloured. He couldn't help but watch as she bent down from the waist to fiddle around with her child. She was like a filly, all lithe long limbs.
Antonio looked back down at his novel, turned the page back to where he had really been and tried to read the wretched paragraph again. And again. When he had waited a decent period he found that if he moved his head slightly upwards and then strained his eyes up into their sockets he could just about watch her over the top of his sunglasses. After a while, the effort began to hurt. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. He sensed that Ernesta was watching him. He put his glasses back on and attacked the offending paragraph again. But there was something irresistible about the presence of the girl. His eyes started to roll upwards again.
'I forgot!' she said.
'Forgot what, love?' Antonio asked, glad of a momentary distraction.
'It's your saint's day. We should go to church.'
'Yes, and light a candle.'
'We always do. You know that. We should have gone to church before we came to the beach. Besides, the sun is starting to get too hot for me. You know I have to be careful with my skin.'
They packed everything up and walked back up onto the esplanade and towards the town. Antonio didn't dare to look back.
The church interior was dark and pleasantly cool. A vacuum cleaner hummed somewhere out in the sacristy. An old man was cleaning the candle sticks on the altar. Antonio slipped several coins into the collection box, making sure that they fell individually, so that the clinking noise would indicate the size of his generous contribution. He chose a long, thin, tapering candle, lit it, placed it on the rack, where it burned alone, then joined Ernesta, who was on her knees and praying audibly. He knelt beside her, joined his hands together, closed his eyes and listened to her murmuring… 'Oh, Holy St Anthony, gentlest of saints…' The prayer went on for a while, and then she repeated it, several times.
'Did you pray, Antonio?' she asked, as they stepped out of the church.
'Of course I did, my dear, but you know I don't like saying prayers out aloud.'
'What did you pray?'
'Oh, you know, the usual things. To look after you, to look after us. Shall we head back to the beach?'
'No, Antonio, we shall not. The sun is far too strong now for my skin.'
'Of course. Sorry.'
'Whilst we're in town, we may as well do some shopping.'
'Of course,' he said, his heart sinking.
The shopping took a long time. Antonio had never managed to understand how Ernesta could spend so much time in shops without buying anything. Fortunately, she didn't expect him to come into the boutiques – not unless something had taken her fancy, so he could stand outside and watch the world go by. The inevitable finally occurred. He accompanied her into a shop and made enthusiastic noises about a blouse that she absolutely had to have, then paid with his credit card. The purchase had put her in a good mood, and she took his arm and squeezed it affectionately as they left the shop. An idea occurred to him.
'Why don't we go to a trattoria?' he asked.
'But we've already spent money today, Antonio.'
'I am inviting,' he said. 'Forget about the money. It will be my pleasure.'
'And you know you have to be careful about your weight.'
'My weight is fine, my love, and I'll be careful what I choose.'
She made a good pretence of having to be convinced but gave in soon enough.
'Where would you like to go?' he asked her. He knew where he wanted to go.
'Oh, you choose,' she said, obligingly.
The manager of the trattoria was always happy to see them. Several tables were already occupied. Now, Antonio thought, came the lottery of who would serve them. The manager suggested they take a table by the window. Antonio's heart lifted. The pretty waitress always served the window tables.
'No, thank you,' said Ernesta. 'I don't want to sit in a draft, thank you.'
The manager showed them to a table at the back of the restaurant, far from the windows. It wasn't a complete disaster, he reasoned. He manoeuvred himself so that he was sitting looking out towards the windows and towards the aisle between the tables where the waitresses walked back and forth to the kitchen. There was something about that particular waitress. He couldn't explain it. She had black hair, tied up in a bun, and always wore a loose, white blouse and a sharp, tight navy blue skirt and dark tights. Her arms were tanned and there was a faint down on them that he found attractive. He snatched discreet glances at her as they ordered their meal. Ernesta opted for a pasta dish. He chose a grilled fish and spinach.
'Would sir like French fries with that,' asked the waiter – a swarthy man with pitted cheeks – 'or would he prefer roast potatoes?'
'Neither, thank you,' Antonio replied.
He and Ernesta shared a half bottle of water.
'It has turned out to be quite hot, hasn't it?' he said.
'Too hot,' said Ernesta.
Her pasta dish – spaghetti alle vongole – arrived first.
'Go ahead,' he said, and watched as she speared the tiny clams with her fork.
By the time the waiter brought Antonio's fish, Ernesta had almost finished. Antonio didn't complain. The waiter didn't apologise.
'That was delicious,' said Ernesta. 'But the cook used quite a lot of pepper.'
She mopped her brow with her table napkin, then beckoned the floor manager over.
'Would you mind turning the fan on?' she asked.
'Of course, signora,' he said.
'How's your fish?' Ernesta asked.
'Delicious,' Antonio replied.
His lake trout was indeed delicious. It was also disappointingly small. He thought wistfully about the potatoes, but he knew that Ernesta would never have let him order them. There was still the pretty waitress, though. He pretended to gaze out of the window, as he chewed on his fish, and watched her passing from table to table.
'Antonio, my darling,' Ernesta said.
'Would you mind swapping places with me?'
'It's the fan. There's a draft. I can feel it on my shoulders. You know how I don't like drafts.'
'Of course, my dear.'
The swarthy waiter helped them swap places. Antonio now had his back to the window and the aisle leading to the kitchen. He gazed out at a poster with an overhead view of the Duomo in Milan. His bald patch, he realised, would now be visible to anybody, including the pretty waitress, who might pass behind him.
'Would you like something else?' he asked Ernesta, once he had finished his spinach.
She said she was tempted by a small tiramisu. Antonio asked for a small coffee.
'Would sir like a little something in his coffee?' asked the waiter.
No, thank you,' said Antonio. He stared at the poster and started to count the number of pinnacles on the cathedral.
He had got to twenty-three when the waiter brought their orders.
Ernesta tucked into her dessert with gusto.
'That looks delicious,' said Antonio.
'It's very naughty of me,' she said, 'but I just couldn't resist.'
The bill was reasonable, though Antonio thought the fish to be a little over-priced for what it had been.
Back at the holiday flat, Ernesta insisted that she had to take the weight of her legs for a while. But she said she was worried about Antonio.
'Perhaps you should take some exercise,' she suggested, 'after such a big meal.'
'All right, my love, he said. 'You take a siesta, and I'll walk up to the floating chapel. I'll take that novel with me and maybe I'll be able to finish it.'
'That's a good idea,' she said. 'I am tempted to come with you, but you know how my knees hurt, especially on the steep bits'
'Of course, my love. Don't worry. I'll come down again in the early evening.'
The floating chapel was Antonio's favourite spot on the lake. An alleyway behind their flats wound through the old village then turned up the steep hillside. The old muleteers' path emerged between olive groves and gnarled old vineyards before climbing through a hamlet perched on the mountainside. Beyond that, the path flattened out for a while, already affording stupendous views of the lake below, and then it turned and climbed steeply again. At times, the steps were carved into the stone, at others the path was rudely cobbled. The path was also an old pilgrims' route, punctuated by small shrines with faded naïve frescos where the faithful would pray before continuing their way up to the chapel of Santa Maria. The chapel, perched on a rocky promontory overlooking the lake, had once served a castle that had stood on even higher ground behind it. But the castle had long since been ruined and now Santa Maria stood alone. Antonio called it the floating chapel because at night, when it was floodlit, it seemed to float in the night sky. In front of the chapel was a small cobbled courtyard and beyond that the land dipped down to a grassy clearing with a few picnic tables dotted about.
It took Antonio half an hour to reach the chapel. He gazed out at the lake far below, where the boats and their wakes seemed like comets arcing across a glittering sky. Then he walked under the portico of the chapel and stared through the barred windows at the dark interior. Above the door was an ancient script; 'Sancta Maria ora pro nobis' – 'Santa Maria pray for us'. Antonio sat down on one of the stone benches that ran along the façade and pulled the novel out of his jacket pocket. He opened the book to the offending paragraph and tried once again to read it through, but it was no use. He would have to skip it. There was no other way. He felt suddenly drowsy.
He lay down on the bench, using the novel as a mini-pillow, and closed his eyes. And then he heard laughter, girlish laughter, tinkling on the hot afternoon air. He sat up and looked around. Nothing. Probably girls playing in the ruins above the church. He lay down again. Now there were voices, close by. He opened his eyes and turned his head. Two teenage girls, dressed in tee-shirts and shorts, were standing at the edge of the courtyard, gazing down on the lake. They seemed oblivious to his presence. One of the girls was tall and long-legged. The other was shorter, and slightly plumper. The elasticated bottoms of her shorts nestled into the soft flesh at the tops of her legs. Antonio closed his eyes and turned his face to the wall. He heard the laughter again – this time more distant. And then they were gone. He sighed.
After his snooze, he decided to walk back down to the village through the giardino della contessa. The ornamental gardens had been laid out on the steep mountainside in the nineteenth century by an eccentric countess. Theoretically, entrance was only from the lakeside below and cost several euros, but the fence at the top of the gardens was riddled with gaps and holes. Antonio squeezed through one of the gaps and made his way down the zig-zag path, through the lush vegetation and the palm trees and the banana plants. The countess had built bowers and niches at every turn in the path, and sometimes enigmatic trails led off into small clearings with fountains and benches and grottos. It was still too early to return to Ernesta, so he started to explore some of the more curious clearings. In one he found a cool grotto, decorated with scallop shells and white pebbles, where a constant flow of water dripped off a series of false stalactites. There was a bench at the entrance to the grotto. He sat down and enjoyed the cool air.
A few minutes later, he heard voices, a man's, a woman's, in conversation on the main path. Then a young woman appeared at the entrance to the clearing. She looked around her but didn't see him. He watched, transfixed, as she turned back as though to leave, then suddenly unbelted her jeans, pulled them down and squatted to do a pee. Antonio froze. Not for the first time that day, his heart raced. What should he do? A discreet cough, perhaps? But was it not too late? He could not take his eyes off the sight just a few metres before him, a milky-white shapely bottom and the hint of the beginning of her waist. And then she was finished and pulling her jeans back up and walking back onto the main path.
'Santo Dio,' Antonio mumbled.
He waited a good five minutes to be sure that the young couple were far away, then emerged from the grotto and set off down to the village…
Ernesta was feeling better. The siesta had done her good.
'We'll stay in tonight, right, Antonio?' she said. 'We ate a lot at midday, after all.'
'Yes, my love,' he said. 'But we'll have a little nibble of something, won't we?'
'If you insist, my darling.'
'Shall we play patience?'
Card games in the early evening were one of their many holiday rituals. Antonio dealt the cards and half-watched as Ernesta cheated. She always cheated when she thought he wasn't looking. They played three rounds. Ernesta won them all and then she said she'd prepare the supper. She shuffled out to the kitchenette. Antonio watched her broad beam and remembered the beautiful bottom he had been privileged to gaze upon for a few moments that afternoon. He sighed.
'It's ready,' she said.
Antonio joined her. Their frugal supper was a mixed salad, an insalata mista, that she had bought already prepared from the supermarket. She whisked up a sauce with some vinegar and olive oil.
'It was quite hot today,' he said.
'Perhaps that's why I felt so tired,' she said.
Antonio munched on a mouthful of grated carrot and looked around the kitchenette. The bin was full to overflowing, with cellophane wrapping peeping out from under the lid. Poor Ernesta, he thought. Never able to lose weight. She had not been a great beauty, but she had been an attractive, statuesque woman and he was suddenly sad for her, and for them.
Afterwards, he washed up their plates and placed them on the draining board. Ernesta meanwhile settled in the sofa in their drawing room and turned on the television to watch the news. There was always news, Antonio thought, as the announcer's name started to boom out, and he was glad for that. After the news, Ernesta switched between various channels in search of something interesting to watch. Antonio tried hard to get beyond the stubborn paragraph. Thank God for television, he thought. Thank God.
And then it was time for bed. Ernesta always went to the bathroom first. Antonio changed into his pyjamas and waited patiently, sitting on his side of the bed. She came out and got into bed. Antonio bounced up and down and then stood up.
'Don't be long,' Ernesta said. 'Or I'll already be asleep.'
'I'll be quick,' Antonio said, as he always said.
He inspected himself in the mirror. Not bad, he thought. Perhaps even a little bit more tanned. When he came out, Ernesta had already turned out her light and rolled over onto her side.
'Good night, my love,' she said. 'Sleep tight.'
'Thank you, my darling,' he replied. 'You too.' And then; 'Amore, would you mind if I continued reading for a bit? I'd like to finish the book.'
'Of course, my darling,' she said. 'Are you enjoying it?'
'Very much, my love,' he said.
Ernesta soon fell sleep. Antonio put the novel down on his bedside table. He leaned over and gave her a peck on her forehead.
'Goodnight, my love,' he said.
Antonio lay down and rested his head on the pillow. He gazed up at the ceiling, then closed his eyes, fervently hoping that oblivion would take him before the snoring started. The words of the prayer Ernesta had kept repeating in the church that morning came back to him: 'Saint Anthony, Performer of Miracles, please obtain for me the blessings God holds in reserve for those who serve Him.'
'Amen,' Antonio mumbled.