I’m assaulted by the afternoon sun as I step out of the airport and wait for a taxi. I’d forgotten how hot the European sun is at midday; can practically feel the freckles bursting across my nose.
A taxi pulls up and the driver leans out of the window, stereotypically Italian, black slick-backed hair and 5 o’clock shadow. I name the hotel in the best accent I can manage and climb into the backseat.
We speed through the centre of Rome, always aware of the looming Colosseum, seeming to pull the city towards it. The driver occasionally toots an impatient horn.
At the hotel, I take out my sparse belongings and place them on the double bed. I don’t bother to put them away. Leaving the hotel, I walk, feeling hot tarmac beneath my pumps. After a few false turns, my feet find a coffee bar. I take a small table under the relief of the awning and order cappuccino from a slick waiter who doesn’t smile, and finally breathe.
Our marriage started on a sultry day in late May in a fusty back room Registry Office that reeked of rank carnations, more reminiscent of a funeral parlour.
The plump, kind-faced woman Registrar rattled through the vows, and I wondered whether she placed bets on which runners and riders would make it.
I wonder how long she gave us.
I wore a pale blue shift that skimmed past my knees. A posy of large white daisies chosen quickly from the florists on the corner of King Street. Flat Mary-Janes.
You had on that pale grey suit you wore for interviews. You’d got your first job in that suit, at the bookies, the week you turned 18.
Matt and Carly were our witnesses, both of them in their work gear (they’d come in their lunch hours). I don’t remember much more than that, other than it was boiling hot for a northern late spring afternoon, and the way your eyes met mine when you slipped on that cheap silver ring that was way too big. I lost it on the honeymoon.
The ring, that is. I’d already given you the rest long before.
We had drinks afterwards at Henry’s Bar and ate bowls of chips, laughing hysterically at nothing, before returning to your flat to get our bags and hitching a lift to the airport.
The Catholic Church opposite my seat on the sun-warmed boulders has a huge green door. Ancient priests must have been especially tall and wide. It has stone pillars flanking the frontispiece. A small carving of Mary and Child above the door has a pebble-dash of bird shit above the crib. A row of Fiats line the pavement outside. The bride and groom emerge, arms entwined.
A man with a huge video camera mounted on his shoulder walks in front of them, like a member of the paparazzi at a celebrity wedding. A white open-top sports car pulls up to the door, wheels skidding to a halt, the driver wearing dark sunglasses. The bride clambers into the back seat, her multi-layered white dress frothing down her back, and trails her veil out of the car so that it flies up in the breeze. She pulls the pin holding her hair and it tumbles down her back in a black waterfall. They kiss, lingeringly. I feel like a peeping Tom.
The bride tosses her tiny bouquet of flowers out toward a group of fat old Italian women by the roadside; one catches it, to much laughter. As the car pulls out into the busy road and heads off past the Colosseum, the sun setting behind it, it’s like the scene from a film.
I return to the hotel, tired and hungry. I order a sandwich, a pot of tea, and then run a cool bath.
Later, eating my food in bed and watching TV, following the mouths of the Italian actors whose words I don’t know, I think I feel your presence beside me, but when I turn, I’m alone.
After a late breakfast, I wander through the Campo dei Fiori market picking fruit for lunch. Blood-red tomatoes like haemorrhoids dangle from green stalks and wonky shaped pears like a nude silhouette from another.
A street artist hustles lazily leaning against a wall, his landscapes spread out on a paint stained sheet on the floor, a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth.
Painting, Bella? He flirts idly, mixing languages, hardly putting in the effort. I smile and shake my head, walking on.
The ochre and russet facades of buildings surround me and I remember that public executions used to take place on this spot. I shudder, despite the heat, and leave the bustling market behind.
Heading north of the centre, I visit the Santa Monica in Cosmedin Church, recalling our amusement at the Bocca della Verita inside the church portico. The Mouth of Truth. The legend goes that liars will lose their hand if they enter it into the mouth of the carving. I stroke the carving’s face, its mouth gaping in an endless gasp.
I remember you laughing while I’d cautiously pushed my hand inside the mouth, feeling the cold stone emptiness inside.
I hadn’t noticed the ring had gone until we got back to the hotel that afternoon.
I visit the Trevi Fountain, sitting to eat a hazelnut gelato from a kiosk on the stone wall surrounding it. Squeezed in between a group of Japanese students and an old couple with white hair and sunburned faces. People throw coins over their shoulders in the old tradition, ensuring their return to Rome.
I wonder how the crowds would react if I waded in and recovered one for you, cheated, as only one of us returned. It doesn’t work, I want to tell the tourists’ scrambling for Euro’s.
It was Lire back then.
I finish my gelato, wipe the cream from my lips with a tissue and set off again in search of the Tiber.
When we returned from Rome, I’d moved my stuff into your cramped flat on the top of the hill. Life had gone on pretty much like before. I raced around town in my lunch hour, buying food to cook for us later, finishing work early so I could get home before you.
I’m embarrassed now by how naïve I was. I thought if I cooked for you, and loved you enough the other things would go away.
Your gambling was one of the other things.
I never minded not having any expensive nights out, despite you constantly moaning that you couldn’t give them to me. I would have been content to spend every night on the sofa with you, fooling around and watching lame TV. I just wanted things to be like they were before, easy and fun and light.
The day I returned home to find you’d been beaten up by those thugs sent by the loan sharks, my heart broke a little. Your battered and bruised face was so sad and crumpled, you actually cried. They’d taken the TV, my grandmother’s jewellery, everything. You promised you’d make it up to me. I hugged you, too upset to speak.
Perhaps I should have gotten angry with you instead.
I sit on the cool grass beside the Tiber as the sun is setting. I’m tired from the unaccustomed walking. I slip off my pumps and rub aching feet. The Roman workers are packing up market stalls and taking goods in from storefronts. Some wave as they pass, Ciao. I repeat the same back to them politely.
The water flowing under the bridge is brown and ugly. I expected it to look nicer. Now that I’m here, I’m not sure what to do. I thought I would feel better, getting away. But I feel the same as at home; the gnawing sense of guilt in the pit of my stomach that never goes away.
You stopped the gambling for a while. A whole year went by without any more bailiffs. We replaced the TV and you got a promotion at work. We couldn’t replace my grandmother’s jewellery, and I made sure not to mention it to my family. They had already warned me against marrying you. But I was young – we both were. I thought I knew better.
The next time the debtors caught up with you, they put you in the hospital. Baseball bat to the kneecaps, and one to the groin for good measure. I ran down the halls of that hospital, frantic, searching for you.
I cried when I saw you; they’d taken the bat to your face, as well, turning it aubergine. I got angrier that time. Told you I couldn’t cope with this a third time. Told you to get help.
What I didn’t tell you that night was that I was two months pregnant. I’d been planning on telling you that weekend.
The flat was a total mess when I returned: they’d turned the place over. They hadn’t taken the new TV this time, just smashed it to pieces instead. Somehow, this seemed worse.
I didn’t need to make a decision about the baby; the decision was taken from me. I sat on the bathroom floor one Tuesday morning, bleeding a large circle around myself, like TV cops do when they’ve been shot. I didn’t bother calling anyone. I just sat there, alone, ashamed.
You didn’t return home for almost a week, that time. I think I’d just learned to stop asking questions.
You never knew about our baby, the one that we never got to meet. I didn’t see the point in telling you then.
I sit by the Tiber until it’s almost dark. When I stand, I realise its dropped cool and fish a cardigan from my bag. I slip my feet back into my pumps and look out across this ancient city that has endured so much.
The other women took me by surprise. I hadn’t seen that one coming; had thought it was just the horses and the casino’s you couldn’t keep away from. I’d had the first suspicion when you returned to our bed with that unfamiliar smell, like somebody else’s bed sheets.
The doctor said it was Chlamydia. He wrote it down in biro on a post-it note so that I could see the shame in ink.
I moved my stuff out of the flat the same day. I left the post-it stuck to the mantel piece for you. I hadn’t seen you in days. I knew you would have changed my mind.
I was sitting in my car in traffic on my way to work a few days later when I heard the news. A big raid on a flat at the top of Park Hill. A tip off the police were saying. Found drugs in the toilet cistern. They’d known exactly where to look.
I tried to imagine how your face looked; whether you wondered how the drugs got there.
I’ve finished writing this letter now. There’s really no more to say. I’m going to fold it small, to fit into the envelope. My therapist thought it would help to write to you, try to explain why I had to put a stop to it all. To try to stem the guilt gnawing at my insides like a cancer.
But I know I won’t mail you the letter.
I’ve come back here, to the place it all started, back to when we were happiest, instead. I’ve come back, in part, to find out if I still exist in this place, if I can start again.
I throw the letter into the westerly wind, and it picks it up and sails it high, then drops it into the flowing Tiber. The white envelope becomes swallowed by the brown water, but I don’t see it. I am already walking away.
Kate Jones is a freelance writer based in the UK who has a passion for flash fiction, with pieces in various publications including Spelk, The Nottingham Review Open Pen and Sicklit, who nominated her for a Pushcart Prize. She’s currently an editorial intern with Great Jones Street and Essayist for The Short Story.