The whole trip had gone badly. It was her idea to get away for a week in Geneva, but Martin only reluctantly agreed at the last minute when he suddenly announced that he needed to be in Sicily for a few days.
“We could tack it onto the Swiss trip. You might enjoy it,” he said in an unusual display of enthusiasm while searching the downstairs closet of their London house for his canvas walking shoes.
On this morning they sat together, barely speaking, in the dining room of a worn hotel in a nameless Sicilian village. Black rain brushed the window of the overheated, airless, and unlit room. Strips of peeling paint clung to the walls of the small space, and the bare wooden floors groaned and squeaked from any movement. It was as if the room itself was tired after hosting too many glasses of sour red wine and raw grappa, too many platters of capellini pescatore and lifetimes of rough tobacco whose stale odor clung to the space like a haze.
The windowpanes were slightly fogged, and the frayed curtain intermittently danced whenever a gust crept beneath the wooden sill. Yet there was still a clear view across the small piazza. A sudden spasm of wind tore at the green fabric of the awning above a souvenir shop. Without any overhead light, the 10 tables stood in semidarkness.
They were at the table farthest from the window, and Louise was searching for fresh air. She looked at her husband, whose eyes were directed downward at a newspaper. Martin was a tall, fleshy man with threads of red invading his nose and cheeks. Tufts of blond hair were brushed firmly in place. Louise gazed beyond his shoulder and caught her image in the small mirror on the far wall: a tired, yet still attractive face, with dark hair pulled into a bun.
Four men came in dressed in work clothes. They sat comfortably at a nearby table and spoke rapid Italian as they laughed. They smoked and ordered espressos. The waiter, who was dressed in a worn tuxedo spotted with wine along his sleeve, stood nearby and joined in the laughter. Martin periodically glanced sideways in their direction, as if in reproach, but he was ignored. He and Louise sat together in silence and were alone when the four men left except for a lone man at a table across the room.
Martin’s back faced the occupant of that table. Louise saw he was a man somewhat younger than she with a straight sharp nose, even white teeth, and glassy black hair that shone from some gel despite the poor light. He was dressed in a navy blue suit and regularly dipped biscotti into his espresso and then smacked his lips loudly with each swallow. He was writing in a notebook and occasionally glanced in their direction. At one point he caught her eye and briefly nodded when he paused and raised his head to light a cigarette. The man seemed completely at ease sitting in the worn dining room.
At their eye contact she averted her gaze and looked past him and through the window. The low buildings across the piazza were all made from blocks of the same locally quarried grey stone. Rain painted them all a darker grey except for the sheltered entrance to a church at the corner of the piazza. A man and two children walked unhurriedly across the cobblestones. The children’s faces were tilted back and seemed unconcerned by the rain.
Louise looked across the table. Martin was now eating breakfast and still reading the day-old Financial Times.
“Bloody people don’t know how to make a proper breakfast,” he grunted without looking up, but nevertheless resumed his activity. The tablecloth was stained from past meals, and the open marmalade dish was coated with a thin sticky crust.
“I think I’d like to go outside today even though it’s raining,” she said, stirring the remnants of her coffee.
“Don’t believe that’s a good idea,” he said after some delay, but without raising his head. His words burst out in a short staccato as if each of them had been chopped, machined, and polished at a factory.
Louise sighed and leaned back. She started to lift the cup of tepid liquid and then quickly dropped it back into the saucer. It was the only sound in the room. The air was becoming too thick and heavy for her to breathe. She looked again to the window and imagined the fluttering curtains were delivering cooler air, but felt nothing. A movement and a small shout in the piazza drew her attention. The children were standing in the middle of the square, arms extended and palms outstretched, gathering rain into their palms and laughing.
The noise caused Martin to look up briefly.
“Bloody fools,” he spat out. “Serve them right if they all get pneumonia.”
She turned back towards Martin, whose attention had returned to his egg. Then she realized that the man across the room was gone and they were alone in the dining room. Even the waiter in the spotted tuxedo had disappeared. She sighed again and returned her attention past the fluttering curtains and through the window, but the piazza was empty except for the rain.
She looked at him and asked, “When will we be leaving this place?”
Even on their short trip to Geneva, Martin had seemed preoccupied and distant. He had taken her to dinners with his art dealer friends when she hoped for something more intimate. Their time together had been filled with long silences without the animation of their first married years. Louise could accept his clear lack of demonstrativeness, but to be overlooked and ignored was too much. She wanted to go home. Back to her house with its garden. Back to her book club group and their biweekly theater excursions. Even, hopefully, back to trying to make a baby again although his lack of attention in the past few years made that seem unlikely. And Martin would go back to his antiquities gallery. And then things would be the same as before even though there really was very little to be said for that.
“Probably later today or tomorrow morning on the outside,” he said with his face rising up from the paper. “I have to confirm an appointment with a local dealer. This could be really big. He’s got a number of pieces that have never been shown before and they’re all licensed for export.”
Louise could see his eyes widen as he spoke. It was the same enthusiasm that had originally overpowered her initial reluctance to date him. That was 12 years ago when she lived in London. She had been doing research on a fictional narrative she was writing on the history of the removal of the Parthenon friezes from the Acropolis to the British Museum. It was on one winter morning there in the museum, when they found themselves alone in a dark corridor near the Rosetta stone, that he had said he loved her. And she knew that in that time and place he had meant it. Now a second unfinished draft of her novel still rested in a shoebox on a closet shelf.
They had rented the car at the airport the prior afternoon. It was a small green Fiat that smelled of stale tobacco and air freshener. Martin insisted on a car with a stick shift despite the available automatic models. The storm greeted them driving down the coast road, and there were frequent turns and dips, which caused him to shift gears with growing frequency. With each unfamiliar combination of clutch and stick the engine released increasingly distinct sounds which alternated between crunches and shrieks until the car began to shudder slightly until he brought it to a gentle stop on the far side of the piazza in the small town where they planned to stay.
“I think it needs a rest,” he announced to the dashboard as he turned the engine off.
They had carried their luggage across the piazza and away from the low sea wall above the cliff that was battered by a black sea. A warm rain washed them in gusts. The town was small, and the one hotel was nearly empty, as the tourist season had been over for more than a month.
Martin was working the crossword. His thick fingers clutched a pen poised over the paper.
“What’s a five letter word for finding fault without good reason?”
“Cavil,” she answered, unable to completely hide the light shake of her head. But it didn’t matter. She knew he’d never look up.
“I’m going upstairs,” Louise said. rising in the deserted dining room and piercing the silence with the scraping sound of her chair on the floor as she slid it backwards. In the hallway she realized Martin had not followed. The clerk at the front desk was speaking quietly to the man from across the dining room, who was now wearing a broad fedora and holding a large black umbrella. She needed to pass the desk to reach the stairs and the man eased himself forward as she approached. The desk clerk retreated through a door behind the counter and they were then alone in the musty hallway.
“Buon giorno, signora.” The man tipped his hat, smiled, and spoke in a low voice that made her think of cool water.
“Inglese? Are you English?” His voice was barely accented as if he had spent considerable time abroad, either in England or America.
“No, American, but my husband’s English, and I’ve lived in London since our marriage. His business, you see.”
“May I ask what brings you to this tiny villagio? I mean, this is a bit out of the way, and the tourist season has been over for nearly two months.”
“Oh, it’s very simple. My husband has an appointment with someone who lives near here. We drove west down the coast road from Messina. The car started to give us some problems so we were lucky to make it here last night.”
“Is it the green Fiat? The one parked just across the piazza?”
“Yes. My husband said the clutch was giving him problems on the wet roads.”
“I can’t seem to stop babbling,” she thought. “This simple conversation is the longest I’ve had with anyone in two days. I don’t want it to end.” And then a spasm of vanity rushed through her and she wished she had done her modest makeup more carefully that morning, combed her hair out, and worn something other than a formless gray shift.
“What brings you here?” she said, grasping at the first stupid question as an excuse for talking.
“My business,” he said. “This village is in what you could call my territory.”
Louise stared at his even white teeth. His eyes seemed as black as his hair.
“Please forgive my bad manners,” he added. “My name is Corelli. Fabrizio Corelli.”
His stretched his hand out slowly and she gathered it into hers She detected a faint hint of some cologne. She looked at his hand, which was tanned, and felt the calluses.
He continued to hold her hand gently as if it were a bird and then finally released it.
“And what does your husband do?”
Louise was still looking down at her hand. It felt suddenly empty.
“He’s an art dealer in London. Mostly ancient art. That’s why we’re here. He plans to visit a local antiquities dealer who has a large number of important items to sell.”
Corelli paused for a moment, his black eyes seizing hers. Then he broke into a wide smile.
“Ah then you both should take some time to explore the area around here. There are many fine ruins. Almost every civilization in the Mediterranean has visited. The Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Africans, and Turks, they all came here. They built their temples and forts and then melted away. Now the tourists come every summer but they leave their dollars and euros before they melt away.”
TO BE CONTINUED
Allan Retzky’s mystery, “Vanished in the Dunes,” has made the Amazon best-seller list two years in a row. He is a previous contributor to The East Hampton Star and lives with his wife in Amagansett.