Forbes at the Festival

A short story

Allan Massie

Adam Forbes, a Scots writer, unable for reasons he had never defined to live in Scotland, or indeed to write much, was an unlikely person to have been invited to speak about Scottish literature at a festival — itself equally improbable — held in a small town in the Tuscan Maremma. He had never heard of the town, and the region, which he didn’t know, was associated in his mind with a shaggy white sheepdog and with a book — a novel? Short stories? Essays? — by Ouida. He had never read it, but could picture where it had stood, brown-covered, on a shelf in his second wife’s bedroom. It might still be there, though it was he, not Arabella, who had bought it.

He was older, some way older, than the other participants in the festival, except for a Sicilian novelist, said to be famous. Forbes himself, if never that, had once been well known, quite well known anyway, in certain circles, small circles admittedly. But that was a long time ago. So the invitation had come as a surprise. He kept getting the name of the town wrong. Like so many things now. His Italian had once been fluent, if never grammatically correct. Sad to find that, like his linen suit, it was worn out. There were holes in the jacket pockets and holes in his memory. For instance: that girl met one afternoon long ago in the Borghese Gardens, just by the entrance to the Zoo. They had gone back to his hot dark room in a pensione in the Piazza dei Santi Apostoli and made love — “had sex”, he thought they would say now. He had forgotten her name and the colour of her hair, but he could picture her arms, rounded, smooth and glowing in the sunshine of the garden. But how to describe them? There’s no comparison that is right for the colour of skin, it’s a question, he thought, of texture. If that girl returned to him now it was because of the beauty of the waitress last night at the restaurant in the little square in front of the church. Yet probably there was no real resemblance, beauty all that they shared. He had thought it would be the beginning of an affair when she gave herself to him — eagerly? Yes, certainly eagerly — but when she slipped on her knickers and he put the question you always put: “No way, my father flies in tonight and then we are off to Greece before we go home to Seattle.” As for the waitress with her proud Renaissance beauty and her dark-bronzed skin which made him wonder if she had Arab blood — or Jewish or Gypsy? — she was seventeen at most, and Forbes was in his sixty-third year and alert to murmurs of mortality.

He sat at a table outside a bar, fanned his face with his straw hat and lit a cigar. There was a picture of Garibaldi on the packet, and this was appropriate, for the festival sessions were being held in a salon of the municipality in the neighbouring square which was indeed the Piazza Garibaldi. The back of the packet informed him that “L’Eroe dei due mondi è stato un grande fumatore di sigari, naturalemente Toscani…” As for the cigars themselves, it was pleasant to learn that they had been “accuramente selezionati per ottenere un gusto morbido, pur nella costanza della tradizione tipica ed inimitable, più dolce e raffinato.” Just what you aimed for in writing, the accurate selection of words to create certain effects, and the words were well chosen in this advertisement — even if, he reminded himself, “morbido” was what his French-English dictionary called a “faux ami“, the Italian meaning soft or delicate, the English “morbid” being translated as “morboso”. No matter: the thought that he enjoyed the same brand of cigar as the hero of two worlds was oddly pleasing. “Il fumo“, another notice drafted by a less sympathetic hand informed him “provoca cancro mortale ai polmoni” — nothing “raffinato” or “dolce” about that message. Nevertheless he drew deeply on his cigar.

Every cigar or cigarette had become a small act of defiance, not only of the threatened death, but of the world he had survived into. Smoking was no longer only what a biographer of Thomas Mann had called it: the drug of those who are ready to go along with the middle-class game but need compensations to endure it. It was now openly oppositional, rebellion against programmed rationality. “Even if I wanted to,” he would say, “I wouldn’t give up now.” He was aware of having become a bore on the subject.

Now, a girl appearing from inside the bar, he ordered an espresso and a grappa.He took out a notebook which, on leaving home in Gravesend, he had stuffed into his pocket, just in case, here in Italy where indeed he had always kept and used such a book, he might think of something worth recording. It was, he now discovered, an old book, more than half used-up. He opened it at random.

 ”from G Robb’s biog of V Hugo: ‘everyone is a lunatic in the privacy of his own mind’.

That was good, but was it Robb or Hugo himself? Most probably Robb. There was nothing to add; Forbes was conscious he frequently now made little sense, even to himself. Nothing to add, except perhaps “and of course a genius”, though that too is a lunatic delusion.

And, on another page, this: 

“All the girls I’ve ever written were really one girl. She was sixteen and we lay on a bank by a river while our horses grazed. She was honey-coloured and wore a short-sleeved yellow aertex shirt and dark brown jodhpurs. I leaned over and kissed her and she responded. Then when I slipped my hand inside her shirt, she wriggled away and said no. We rode back to the riding-school stable…She was a holiday girl and the next day they left. Later we exchanged letters. Hers were always disappointing, but I refused to be disappointed. Next year at holiday-time she wasn’t there and her parents told my mother she was in France on an exchange. She hadn’t told me. Our correspondence withered and I never saw her again. A long time later my sister told me her marriage had broken up and she had become grotesquely fat.”

What had prompted him to write that? “Honey-coloured” was vile, sloppy, since honey comes in a variety of shades. All the same, he knew what he had meant and he could still see her slightly damp skin and her wide mouth and snub nose; and, yes, he had imagined himself in love, had perhaps really been in love, first love anyway, therefore never quite dead. But the suggestion that she was all the girls he had ever written about was rhetorical nonsense. 

Or was it?

A few months previously, on what was now for him a rare visit to London, he had met an old school-friend Edward, with whom he had years ago talked books and writers for hours — tired the sun with talking, he now thought self-mockingly. They hadn’t seen each other for years, more than twenty he was sure, but they had had lunch and then, for old time’s sake, gone round to the Colony Room to drink brandy. Breaking off one of these sad “whatever became of old Archie?” conversations, Edward had said, “You know, I’ve had scores of boys over the years, more than I could count, and the trouble with every one of them was that they weren’t Bobby Macrae”; and he had rolled the brandy round in the glass. Bobby Macrae, a blond boy who had played Puck to Edward’s Oberon in a school production of the Dream, not right for the part, Forbes remembered, being round-faced and stocky. “Can’t think,” someone had said, “what Edward sees in that big bum.” Only too obvious really.

“And do you know,” Edward said, “he lives in Australia now and is bald and the father of five daughters. Yet that doesn’t matter. I had lunch with him when I went there for the Adelaide Festival. He bored me of course, nevertheless…I think I’m a little drunk.”

So perhaps what Forbes had written in this notebook about Sheila, whenever, wasn’t so far from being true. First loves stay with you, he thought, as no others. All the more when they come to nothing as may well have been the case with Edward’s for Bobby Macrae.

A girl passed, slowly. She was blonde, long-legged, in a loose flowered skirt that came half-way down her calves. She wore sandals, but walked elegantly. A boy sitting sideways on his stationary scooter called out “bella“. She didn’t turn her head to look at him. 

Forbes re-lit his cigar, which had gone out the way Toscani do. He glanced at his watch. Almost time to go to the next session of the conference, only civil to do so, attendances had, he understood, been disappointing so far, except for the concert of Gaelic music in the castle courtyard the first evening. He paid his bill and set off, leaning on his stick. He was sweating in the afternoon heat. At least it would be cool in the fine reception room of the municipality.

He was early, the platform still unoccupied. He looked over the books laid out on a table. There was an Italian edition of a novel he had written a long time ago; he couldn’t remember ever having seen it before. Still, it was something, he supposed. His own books made a poor show in comparison with the works of other speakers. There were six or seven titles from the Sicilian veteran, and a pile of a dozen or so copies of the novel by this session’s speaker. He was a thirty-something Scottish writer and a card propped against the pile declared him to be the winner of a prize which Forbes had never heard of.

He really was out of things, but then he had known that for a long time and had accepted the invitation to the festival only because it promised him a free, or more or less free, few days in Italy.

People were taking their seats, not in any great number. The chairman began her introduction, first in Italian, then English. Kyle Hutcheon, she said, had been acclaimed as the most talented of a new wave of Scottish writers. His novel, set partly in Glasgow and partly on the West Coast of America, had already been translated into half-a-dozen languages, including of course, she was happy to say, Italian. Kyle would be happy to sign copies after the event. Unfortunately, Kyle himself didn’t speak Italian, but she would translate what he had to say for the benefit of Italian-speakers without English. She smiled, invitingly. The author scowled. He began to speak in a rapid mutter. Forbes, slightly deaf, couldn’t follow. The chairman’s Italian version was more comprehensible.

Forbes soon stopped listening. From what he gathered the subject of the novel was incest. He didn’t think he would be tempted to read it. For a little he leaned back and closed his eyes. When he opened them he was surprised to see that the blonde girl had come in and taken a seat at the end of the row in front of him. She wasn’t apparently listening either, for she now took a book from the shoulder-bag she had placed on the seat beside her and began to read. It might of course be the great work under discussion. Forbes couldn’t see the cover.

At last it was over. People began to drift away. A handful approached the author with books to be signed. The chairman approached Forbes.

“That was good, didn’t you think? It’s going well, isn’t it?”

“Absolutely,” Forbes said. She was a nice woman after all, he had decided.

“Kyle’s quite an act.”

“Hard to follow,” Forbes said.

“Are you all right for tomorrow?”

“Yes, but, if you don’t mind I’ll skip the next session this afternoon. I’m feeling a bit tired. The heat, you know. Not accustomed to it these days.”

“That’s all right. We’ll see you at dinner then.”

“Is it the same restaurant as last night?”

“No, the other one in the piazza. It’s essential to move them around. For goodwill, you know. See you then. I know Kyle wants to meet you.”

Forbes doubted this, nevertheless returned her smile.

Back at the bar in the other piazza the waitress greeted him as if he was already a regular customer. He asked for a beer and lit a cigar. Late afternoon was a sad time, but he felt all right. Melancholy, yes, but still content merely to be where he was, back in Italy and in the shade of the parasol erected above the table, watching life go idly by and the sun striking pink on the tufa stone.

“You’re Adam Forbes, aren’t you?”

To his surprise it was the blonde addressing him. The accent was American, but he could no longer tell one American accent from another.

“Mind if I join you?”

The waitress brought him his beer, and the blonde asked for an ice-cream.

“Strawberry,” she said. “What’s strawberry in Italian?”

Fragola,” he said, but the waitress had already understood.

The blonde took a book from her bag and placed it on the table in front of him. It was an old edition — actually the only edition — of his first novel written almost 40 years ago. She opened it at the page where he had dedicated it to his mother, and pointed to words written there:

“And for Lindy, in memory of the Borghese Gardens and what came after. Love, Adam.”

“Surprise you?” she said.

“An understatement.”

She shook out a cigarette and held up the packet. KIM, it said.

“My name,” she said, “kind of cute to find a brand with your name on it. Sorry, I haven’t introduced myself. I’m Kyle’s wife, that’s one reason why I’m here.”

He was disappointed. The young man didn’t deserve her, he was sure of that.

“You were at his session. What did you think of it?”

“I’m a bit deaf,” he said. “A lot of it passed me by. Over my head perhaps.”

“You want to know what I thought? I thought it stank. But that’s the stage we’re at.”

Forbes drew on his cigar.

“I see,” he said, meaning I don’t, and I don’t care.

“I guess you haven’t read his novel either. You should. It’s nasty but I have to admit it’s good. It’s why we’re breaking up, only he doesn’t know that yet, so don’t split on me. I’m not embarrassing you, am I?”

She was, of course, but he said: “Not at all. I hope you’re doing the right thing.”

A meaningless remark.

“Oh, I know I am.”

The girl brought the ice-cream. She took a big spoonful and held it, spoon and all, in her mouth. She tapped Forbes’s novel.

“So tell me about Lindy. And the Borghese Gardens. That’s in Rome, isn’t it?”

Lindy? The name meant nothing to him. But the Borghese Gardens and what came after? It was, surely, an absurd coincidence. “No way, my father’s flying in tonight.” They were sky-blue knickers, he remembered, noonday Roman sky-blue. Had that all but explicit inscription embarrassed her? He picked up the book, which had meant so much to him when he was writing it, and only a little less on the day of publication, and now had nothing to do with him. He hadn’t seen it in 20 years, he told her. Where had she found it?

“I brought it with me,” she said. “I made sure to bring it with me when I saw your name on the programme. So tell me about Lindy and the Gardens and what happened after. I hope you don’t think me rude or importunate.”

He did, actually, but then he liked her for bringing out the word “importunate”, which belonged to an earlier more decorous century, and she was really very pretty.

“It’s a long time ago. I’d forgotten she was called Lindy.”

Maybe, he thought, I didn’t know her name till I came to give her the book and write in it.

“She came from Seattle,” he said.

“I know that. Go on. Please.”

“It’s difficult,” he said.

“You fucked her, didn’t you? That’s what ‘came after’, isn’t it.”

“It was a long time ago,” he said again, and drew deeply on his cigar which was on the point of going out. “Why are you interested?”

She didn’t answer, but took another spoonful of her ice. She really was very pretty. “Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait,” he thought.

“I’m not embarrassing you, am I?” she said. “But it’s all connected, that’s what’s so strange.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t follow.”

He experienced a sudden hope that she had read that old novel, not merely its dedication. A ridiculous hope. What could it matter if she had? But one of the last things to die is an author’s vanity. And if she had, might he not inscribe it to her in turn? “And to Kim also, years later”. But — again — nothing of what had happened that long-distant hot afternoon could happen again now.

“Lindy was my mother,” she said. “I should have started with that. She remembered you. Even in the Home she remembered you, and kept this book by her, as if…as if I don’t know what.”

What could he say?

“You speak of her in the past tense.”

“Oh sure. She was happy to go. It was maybe the first thing she’d been happy to do in years. It was Kyle killed her. In a way. That’s why I’ve made up my mind to leave him. Or not him precisely, but his book. You haven’t read it, have you? You should. It’s her story.”

Hadn’t someone said it was about incest? “My father flies in tonight, and then we’re off to Greece before we go home to Seattle.” There hadn’t been anything ominous in the words.

“She used to talk to Kyle. He can be a good listener when there’s something in it for him. She gave him her ruined life and he made use of it. That’s what I can’t forgive him for.”

He wanted to say: it’s what we do. He thought of Edward and Bobby Macrae and a novel Edward had written which they hadn’t talked about that afternoon in the Colony Room. Now he wondered if Edward had given the bald man with five daughters a copy of that book when they met after so many years in Adelaide. Probably not. Edward was malicious only on paper, not in everyday life.

“Would you like a drink?” he said, and when she nodded, beckoned to the waitress and ordered a Campari-soda for her and a grappa and espresso for himself.

“She married,” the girl said. “Married my father but she couldn’t get away from her one. Do you understand? And Kyle took my father’s role in his novel — the sympathetic boy from Glasgow — and told how the marriage foundered — ‘got fucked,’ he says, ‘foundered’ is my word — because of how she was trapped. I don’t know if she told him directly or if he divined it but he uncovered her shame — that’s how the Bible put it, isn’t it — uncovered it to the world, and she couldn’t live with that. She’d been emotionally fragile for a long time, but now she couldn’t cope with life any more. How do you remember her?”

He couldn’t say: “Only her arms and her sky-blue knickers” — and the decisive way she zipped up what he had hoped — hadn’t he? — might be more than it was. 

Or that he hadn’t thought of her in years, not till last night when that dark young beauty had smiled at him as she took his order and somehow, for no reason he could be sure of, jolted his memory.

“It was only one afternoon,” he said and told her how she had asked directions outside the zoo — this itself a sudden stab of memory — and how he had gone with her to the American Express offices in Piazza di Spagna, and then after a glass of wine and chicken sandwiches and a granita and coffee in the Caffè Greco back to his room. 

“She was sweet,” he said, “and I think she was happy.”

It sounded to him as if he was excusing himself. She hadn’t been a virgin, he remembered that, but she wasn’t a tramp either, he was sure of that, a nice girl really.

“She was always sweet,” the girl said, “but not often happy.”

Which of us is? he almost said, but that would have been the lunatic in the privacy of his mind speaking.

There were always happy days, or at least moments in days. Curiously this was one. 

“Kyle makes him out to be a monster, my grandfather I mean. I never knew him, but I’ve read his diaries, which Kyle found in Lindy’s desk when we cleared her apartment after she went into the Home. I don’t think he abused her, physically I mean. But he couldn’t let her go. Kyle decided different. I can’t forgive him. Do you mind that I’m telling you this? Does it embarrass you?” she asked again.

We’re thieves, he thought of saying, scavengers, you can’t trust us, that’s what both my wives discovered, so they left me. My first, Hildegarde, was German: what did daddy do in the war? He’d written an answer to that question. 

He felt a surge of empathy with Kyle, though he had taken a scunner at him, and felt tenderness for this bruised girl who sipped her Campari-soda and looked fragile. 

He would have like to take her in his arms and kiss her, but Kyle, he knew, was a sort of brother. Strange discomfort afforded by the profession.Two middle-aged ladies in tight-fitting dresses were eating cakes at the next table. Fragments of their conversation drifted in Forbes’s direction. A long complaining story: “Dunque,” said one, forking cake into her mouth, “e poi,” she added as if to deter interruption. What, Forbes gathered, was she to do with her son-in-law who refused to work, all positions offered an offence to his dignity? Or had he got it wrong, with his deafness and patchy Italian? 

“I shouldn’t have burdened you with this,” Kim said. “I’m sorry, but I did want you to know that she kept your book with her right to the end, and it mattered to her. That’s why it matters to me now, in a different way.”

“And your husband’s? Kyle’s? That matters too.”

“Yes,” she said. “It’s abuse, you see. You do understand that it really is abuse, don’t you?”

It’s what we do, he thought again of saying, and might indeed have said so this time, but he looked up and saw her husband, Kyle, turning into the piazza. 

She saw him too and put Forbes’s novel back in her bag.

“I haven’t spoken to you about this,” she said. “About any of it.”

He tipped his grappa into his coffee and drank it.

“This is Adam Forbes,” she said to her husband.

“That was fucking pathetic,” the young novelist said. “If they’re going to drag you half-way across the world, you’d think they’d make sure there was an audience. Fucking waste of time.”

Forbes put a match to his cigar.

“Have a beer,” he said. “Or something else. It’s a beautiful day and we’re in a beautiful town and your wife tells me I should read your novel. She says it would interest me. Not many do these days, but I’ll take her advice. You’ve had quite a success with it, haven’t you?”

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