The air is bright with sunshine, crisp with a lingering breath of dawn. As Alf steps out of the apartment building, his face tilting towards the clear blue sky, a sigh of contentment spreads through his body, releasing tension he didn’t even know was there. This has become his favourite moment of the day. He has lived in Rome for six months, but the way the morning light gives a kind of beauty to the shabbiest of buildings still lifts him. It’s a walk to the school, strolling past sites that in an hour’s time will be thronging with tourists. It feels like a privilege, like being alone with a free pass in a theme park or something. First, there’s the long slow climb through the posh residential area until the avenue meets a scrubby expanse of field that is the Circus Maximus, then a tree-lined road slopes up between the Palatine and the Caelian, two of the seven hills. Suddenly you’re in front of the Colosseum. It never stops amazing him how it’s just standing there, the colours as crude as the postcards they sell on the souvenir vans that are just opening for the day. He takes a photo and posts it on Instagram with the greeting: Buon giorno! #Roma #Rome #colosseo #bella #beautiful.
Alf scrolls through his feed, pausing as he sees a photo of his grandparents with big smiles on their faces. Cheryl, his gran, is wearing one of her old competition dresses that always reminds Alf of a cupcake, because the skirt has so much netting it stands up by itself without Cheryl being inside it. This one is a deep pink colour, with silver diamanté swirls on the bodice. His grandad Chris is in full white tie and tails. The caption underneath is: Keep dancing! #slowfoxtrot #nevertoooldtodance. Alf’s never been on a cruise ship, but he knows that you stay in cabins. There are thousands of them, all stacked up like a block of flats. He can’t imagine how there’s the cupboard space for their dancewear. He pities the other old people who’ve gone on a cruise holiday fancying a gentle turn around the dance floor, and have the bad luck of finding themselves on the same ship as Cheryl and the dress that’ll swish you out of the way if your floor-craft isn’t up to much. And Cheryl unable to resist teaching as she swirls past.
‘Let the man lead!’ ‘Sharper with your head!’ ‘Flower in a vase! You’re wilting!’
Alf ‘likes’ the photo, not knowing whether his gran will be pleased or annoyed when she sees. He wonders if she ever looks at his posts. She never ‘likes’ them. She probably thinks that doing so would show approval.
Alf wonders what the weather’s like in Blackpool. The default image that comes to mind when he thinks about home is a rain-lashed promenade, the water pewter, the clouds so grey it’s difficult to tell where sky meets sea. But that’s only because it was that kind of day when he left. When the sun shines, Blackpool can be as attractive as almost anywhere.
But not Rome. What he loves about Rome is the surprises. You’ll be walking along a street – pretty enough, but nothing special – then suddenly there’ll be a church with a tower and a tiled roof, so old it looks like a film set, or an even older bit of wall, with thousands of narrow red bricks made before there was technology, that’s stood there for two thousand years.
As he winds his way up through the cobbled streets of Monti to get away from the traffic on the main road, he’s tempted by the aroma of espresso wafting from every bar he passes, but he has to be on time. They give you a test before the classes start to see which one you’re in. You don’t have to write anything, just tick the correct box, the nice receptionist told him when she saw his face at the mention of exams.
Behind him, the hoot of a car’s horn warns him to get off the road, and one of the old Fiat Cinquecentos passes, its engine as spluttery as a moped as it pulls up the hill. The driver has the radio tuned to a bright morning station playing Pharrell Williams’s ‘Happy’ to get the day off to a good start. Jive, Alf thinks, his feet automatically kicking and flicking to the beat, until the car makes a right and the music fades and he’s not even sure whether he can hear it any more.
Alf has no idea about the multiple-choice grammar test, so he just ticks what sounds best to him. Then he’s told to see the director of the school to assess how good his speaking is. The door to the office is closed. Inside, he can hear a man asking questions in slow Italian and a woman giving quiet, hesitant responses. Then there’s the sound of a chair being scraped back and, sooner than Alf expects, the door opens, and the girl who comes out gives him a look that makes him feel as if he’s been caught eavesdropping.
It doesn’t help his heart rate that she is stunningly beautiful and walks towards the staircase with her feet turned out, like a dancer.
‘Buon giorno!’ The director waves him into his office.
Alf thinks it’s all about the gestures with Italian. He’s watched how Italians talk to each other. Even when they’re alone and on a mobile phone, the free hand is moving to emphasize a point, express surprise or despair. Sally and Mike, who share the apartment, have been here much longer than him, and speak much better Italian, but Alf is always the one who gets the compliments, because he puts his body into it. The director of the school isn’t as impressed. He likes Alf’s fluency, he tells him, but his grammar is non-existent. He hands him a piece of paper with the number of a classroom at the very top of the building.
There are seven others in the class. Six of them are trying to chat using the fragments of Italian they already know, but the girl he saw downstairs is sitting alone, concentrating on an Italian–English dictionary. She is wearing a long-sleeved grey T-shirt that could have cost two pounds or two hundred, because she’s got the sort of body that makes cheap classy, and jeans with horizontal distressing – not tight like the girls back home, their pale flesh bulging through the gaps in the denim, but loose, held up only by her pelvic bones, the slashes giving glimpses of slim bare leg beneath.
The only chair that is empty is next to hers. When he sits down, she shifts slightly away.
The teacher, whose name is Susanna, is holding four lengths of narrow gold ribbon, the type that pasticcerie use to wrap the trays of tiny cakes Italians take along to Sunday lunch with their families. She bunches them in her hand, indicating for all the students to come up and grab an end, and then she lets go, leaving them each connected to another person.
‘Introduzioni!’ she says, pointing to useful Italian greetings she has written on the whiteboard.
The pairs stand smiling nervously, still obediently holding their ends of ribbon, until Alf decides to break the silence.
‘Ciao!’ he says to the beautiful young woman he has lucked out with. ‘Come ti chiami?’
As if given permission, the others peel away from the huddle, echoing his greeting and, amid little coughs of half-embarrassed laughter, the classroom stutters to life.
‘Mi chiamo Letty,’ the girl responds.
‘Short for Violet,’ she says.
‘Piacere,’ he says.
‘Come ti chiami?’ she asks him.
‘Alf,’ he says. ‘Just Alf.’
She asks where he is from.
‘Inghilterra,’ he replies.
‘Two English people! Not a good idea!’ says the teacher.
She tells them to change partners.
There are eight in the class, and they continue swapping partners until they have all met each other. Masakasu is Japanese, Paola and Carla are Colombian, Jo is Norwegian, Angela is Austrian, Heidi is Swiss, and Alf is English. From the North, judging by his accent, Letty thinks.
She wonders if her Italian will ever be fluent enough to discover how these disparate people washed up like flotsam and jetsam in Rome, in April, in a dim classroom, in a virtually empty language school.
What stories brought them here? And will they want to know hers? If so, what will she tell them? It occurs to her that she could construct a completely different version of herself if she wished.
Letty looks towards the window. The brilliance of the sunshine, which has not yet found its way into the classroom, makes the view seem as remote as a postcard: a splash of purple bougainvillea; a soft geometry of slanting terracotta roofs and bulbous black- green treetops; a flat blue sky.
I am here in Rome, she thinks. I know no one here and nobody knows me.
She sees that she has twisted the gold ribbon into a ring around her finger, almost without realizing.
The teacher switches on a recording of random Italians asking for each other’s telephone number. The students have to compare what they hear with the person next to them.
Letty is paired with Heidi, a friendly Swiss woman in her thirties. Letty thinks ahead. Will they have to practise asking each other for their details? She has a new phone, a new contract.
The only contacts in it are her family. She’s not even sure she knows what her number is or whether she wants to give it out to strangers. She could just make one up, she thinks. But making stuff up can get complicated.
Wafts of warm pastry rise up from the cafe in the basement, as the class traipse down the circular staircase for morning break.
Letty orders a cappuccino, checking her watch first as she remembers her grandmother Marina telling her, in that categorical way of hers, that no Italian drinks coffee with milk after midday. Ragu – never ‘bolognese’ in their house – must be simmered for three hours and served with tagliatelle, not spaghetti. Cheese and fish do not go together.
She sees that her class has divided itself by gender. The men are sitting at one table eating croissants. The women have not bought food, only coffee or fresh orange juice. After a few faltering attempts to speak Italian to each other, they revert to English, which they can all speak fairly well.
Back in the classroom, the teacher splits them into two different groups for a discussion about their home countries.
Letty isn’t sure she’s been placed in the right class. Perhaps it’s the wrong teaching method for her? She finds it difficult to form sentences in Italian unless she knows them to be correct. In the level test she will have made very few mistakes in the grammar paper, but she struggled to say anything in the oral exam. She suspects that most of the others in the class would have been the other way round. Masakasu, for example, has a way of holding the floor because he has learned various Italian linking phrases like in fact and however that make it difficult to interrupt.
‘Tokyo is beautiful but it has a lot of motorways.’ ‘Japanese food is good.’
Everyone seems very positive about their home country, Letty thinks. Perhaps it’s just because they don’t know each other yet. It wouldn’t feel polite to say that she doesn’t like her country very much at the moment. And it would be beyond her linguistic capability to justify the statement, should anyone attempt to ask follow-up questions. So, when it is finally her turn, she contributes that London is beautiful. There are lots of museums.There is a big river.
‘Are people in London friendly?’ Paola asks her.
Letty doesn’t know how to say, ‘Not as friendly as Italians.’ So she just says, ‘Yes.’ She wonders why Paola giggles at this response, then realizes it’s because she doesn’t sound very friendly. She’s aware that people often think she is stand-off-ish even though she doesn’t mean to be.
At the end of the morning lessons, the English guy, Alf, takes his time collecting his pencil and notebook, pulling on a jumper over his white T- shirt, and picking up his backpack from the floor. Letty senses that if they are left alone together he will want to speak to her, perhaps even suggest lunch. He is about her age and oozes confidence with his tousled- surfer looks and open smile, but his attention is the last thing she wants. She gathers her stuff together quickly, looking at her watch as if she has an appointment to get to, then hurries out of the classroom and down the stairs.
It’s gloriously sunny outside, although there is a bite in the air. She has been in Rome just a day, but she has already been told three times – by her landlord, the reception staff at the school and her teacher – to beware of bad people in Termini station. As she crosses the concourse, she is offered tours by two unlikely looking guides, and is approached by several gypsy women clutching babies and holding out their hands woefully. She doesn’t feel good ignoring them but, alone in the city, she knows she must take care of herself. They back off when she walks determinedly by, possibly mistaking her for an Italian.
Outside in the square, buses and trams seem to chase her from all directions, but the side street she chooses is suddenly, almost scarily, quiet. She passes several restaurants offering a menu of the day for a reasonable price, but she doesn’t want to sit alone and be fussed over by too-eager waiters, so instead she buys a banana and a bottle of water from a fruit stall, feeling a little flip of triumph at making the transaction in Italian, including handing over the correct coins.
Vittorio Emanuele square is flanked by once-elegant colonnades, now spray-painted with graffiti. Where rich people used to promenade in the shade, the homeless now sleep on flattened boxes and filthy sleeping bags. Letty crosses the busy road to the park in the middle, where there are tall trees with lime-green leaves fluttering against the pure blue sky. A dilapidated bit of Roman ruin fenced off in one corner has become a campsite with bright blankets draped over rocks to catch the sun; groups of teenage boys perform clattering skateboard tricks on the steps and paths. Letty sits on a bench and peels her banana, then eats it slowly, sipping her water, alert to everything going on around her.
In her pocket, her mobile phone buzzes. She knows that it will be a WhatsApp message from her mother wanting to know how she is, but she doesn’t want to send back the two blue ticks that show she’s seen it yet. Not until she feels more settled. She glances at her watch. Not yet three o’clock. Two o’clock in the UK. She’s surprised Frances has managed to restrain herself for so long.
Time passes slowly when you are alone, and it feels much longer than thirty hours since she arrived in the city. Letty can’t decide whether that is a good thing or not. A whole month stretching ahead seems like a sunny eternity in which to sort her life out, and yet she dreads happy solitude turning into the cold ache of loneliness.
At the end of the square she chooses a route back to her apartment down a tree-lined residential street. Having lived most of her life in London, she’s alert to a city’s sudden changes in atmosphere. The street is quiet but it doesn’t feel threatening, though she glances occasionally behind to check that no one is following her.
In a small supermarket, Letty buys an individual chicken breast clingfilmed to a yellow polystyrene tray, a bag of salad and a lemon. She thinks she remembers seeing a bottle of olive oil when she arrived at the apartment the previous evening, and her landlord gave her a cursory tour of the kitchen, opening cupboard doors and saying, ‘Here, everything for cook, yes?’
The end of the avenue intersects with a busy dual carriageway. Opposite stands the imposing Baroque frontage of a church, set back from the boulevard. There is a tour bus parked outside. Letty hovers on the edge of a group of Americans listening to their guide telling them that this is Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, one of the seven pilgrimage churches of Rome.
Letty follows the group in, then sits down alone in front of the altar and gazes up at the almond-shaped mosaic of Christ in the dome of the apse. She wonders what adjective would best suit the brightness and clarity of the blue background. Is this cerulean blue, a description she has only ever seen written down? Celestial sounds better, but is that even a colour? An image of her grandmother’s face, on hearing that the first thing Letty has done in Rome is go to a pilgrimage church, crosses her mind. She pictures Marina sitting up in bed in her silk dressing gown, with her four beloved Victorian prints of Roman ladies on the wall behind her.
She wonders if her grandmother ever came to this church when she was a child, whether there is some minuscule fragment of her DNA left here in the wooden pew, a relic of her visit. Did Marina’s eyes gaze up at golden Christ in his blue Heaven? Or does she seem somehow present only because Letty is thinking of her?
The phone vibrates in her pocket again. She does not look until she is outside.
There are now two messages from Frances. The first says simply, Well?
The second, Are you OK?
She texts back.
Fine. I’ll call later.
The apartment Letty has rented looks better in real life than the photos on Airbnb. One entire wall is glass with a far-reaching vista to the west. In the foreground stands a stretch of the ancient Aurelian wall, and beyond the cathedral of San Giovanni in Laterano.
If Letty opens a window and cranes her neck to the right, she can see the dome of St Peter’s in the far distance, and to the left, the soft purply shadows of distant hills. But she’s tentative, standing a foot back from the glass, not quite trusting it as a barrier to the ten-storey drop to the street.
Letty lies on the sofa and gazes at the sunset. Stripes of duck-egg blue and grey intersperse with shades of pink, from the fiery coral of the horizon to the palest candy floss of the highest cloud.
Finding herself in near darkness, she realizes she has been transfixed by the changing expanse of sky, lulled by the incessant hum of the city’s traffic, for almost an hour. She is suddenly aware of a low thump of bass, and the clatter and sizzle of cooking emanating from a neighbouring apartment. She likes the sensation of being alone, but with the knowledge there are people around her. Wafts of garlic remind her of the need to eat. She fries the chicken breast in olive oil, empties the bag of salad onto a plate, then squeezes lemon juice over it. She eats her meal slowly, chewing and swallowing methodically as she watches the last embers of light disappear from the sky. Then she washes up. Finally she calls her mother.
‘I’ve always hated the term empty nest,’ Frances declares, as if it’s a phrase Letty has greeted her with, when all she’s said is, ‘How are you?’
‘I never was that cooing, clucking sort of mother, was I? Although, of course, it was me who paid for all the feathering.’
A lifetime in advertising has made Frances arch with words, as if she’s testing copy. Or maybe she was always like that, and that is why she chose it as a career. Letty’s never known.
‘I’ve spent all day trying to make the place look presentable,’ Frances goes on. ‘I’ve got a viewing tomorrow. Ivo’s done f-all, of course. So much bloody stuff. I’m honestly thinking of buying a new-build, all glass and nowhere to store anything. What do you think?’
‘Can’t see that working for Ivo,’ Letty says.
‘No,’ says Frances.
Is her mother’s tone bitter or wistful? Would she actually like to live in a glass tower? Letty can’t tell.
Her parents are selling the house that they have lived in all their marriage. It had been informally agreed that when Marina died, the house would be left to them. But it turns out that her grandmother never changed her will, and Letty’s father Ivo, Marina’s younger son, shied away from raising the subject with her. So the house, which has always been their family home, now half belongs to her father’s older brother, Rollo. Or what’s left of it after inheritance tax, as Frances often remarks. There must be quite a lot left, Letty thinks, because one-bedroom flats in the area are selling for over a million and their property is big enough to make five of those, but it does nevertheless seem terribly unfair that Frances has to leave the house on which she has paid all the expenses for years, including a new roof and underpinning.
The constant tension between her parents is one of the reasons that Letty needed to escape.
‘Anyway,’ says Frances, with a prolonged sigh. ‘What’s it like where you are?’
Her mother sounds so uncharacteristically defeated, Letty doesn’t dare tell her that she has a great glass window, with a view that makes her feel happy and free.
‘OK,’ she says.
There’s a long pause.
‘I’ve just had supper,’ Letty finally says. ‘Chicken with lemon and a bag of salad. There’s a supermarket quite near.’
‘A bag of salad. In Italy! Who knew?’ Frances says. Then, slowing down: ‘Good you’ve found somewhere easy to shop.’
The effort to keep the conversation going is suddenly too much for Letty.
‘I’ve got some homework to do,’ she says.
‘OK, I’ll let you go, then.’
Letty tastes a familiar bittersweet cocktail of guilt and relief as she presses the end call button.