Roma


She says she has noticed he has not unpacked his bags from Portugal. It has been raining in Portugal for three days and nights. The cold marble floor. A shack restaurant in the poorer part of the village. The cook throws bloody fish onto smouldering charcoal. She does not tell him that she has been standing outside the city of Roma, watching and talking to him over the wall. Returning to London. There are no mosquitoes, no humidity, less pollution. Her eyes and hair are black. The letters carved into the green soap told her it was called M-e-d-i-m-i-x and it was made in a factory in Chennai. Her skin is tanned. The river is full of stars in Roma. Their bags are packed. As they open their presents in bed, her husband wishes her a happy Christmas but she interrupts him. That night they eat in the Cafe Emigrante. Their hotel room is not a place that invites intimacy. She says she understands he is in love with someone else but does he think there is a chance they might make it through the coming year? The same old bus routes. She says, ‘You’ve broken my heart,’ in the way an actress might say it. ‘He is in love,’ she thinks.     She puts her hand here and there on her husband’s warm body and tells him nothing about her dream. She says she knows he wants to leave her. When she holds his bag for him he comments on how pleasant her hands smell. She invites Mr Patel to join them for Christmas lunch. The siren from the factory on the other side of the river calls people to work. The shutters are down. A radio in the room next door announces that the Federal Reserve has dropped interest rates in the USA and European markets are expected to follow suit. Varnished bamboo poles line the crumbling walls inside. He tells her this is true and he doesn’t know what to do and he was waiting to tell her but he could not find the words. When she wakes up from this dream about her husband betraying her, the traitor is lying by her side. Her husband who is going to betray her sits at a table with his admirer eating almond Easter cakes, iced white in the shape of small bells. She tells him it’s the Ayurvedic soap that Mr Patel gave her and that he should try it too. They pack their bags and make off to the coast and mountains to swim in lakes and recover from the knocks and disappointments of the year.  
Photograph ©   Piero Fissore
Roma is excerpted from   Black Vodka,   Deborah Levy’s latest collection of short stories, available now from And Other Stories. Standing by the fountain in the centre of Roma is the woman who admires her husband. A slab of Ayurvedic soap made from eighteen herbs. In the morning they dip sweet sponge cakes into milky coffee in the Cafe Emigrante. The radio in the next room describes the current peace talks, an American initiative in the Middle East. It is August in her dream. Outside it is raining again. The Christmas trees glimpsed through windows of London houses. Tears fall from his eyes and arrange themselves on his cheek like Man Ray tears. A stork stands in the mud. His wife knows what she must say to her husband from the other side of the wall. This reminds her of the paper the Ayurvedic soap was wrapped in. It never snows in Roma. Her neck and cheeks are flushed. On Christmas Day she kisses her sleeping husband and opens the window. Baroque water flows over rocks and stones. Her husband takes a photograph of the two storks. They break bread, scoop up white cheese and shrivelled, sour olives. They will spend four days in Portugal and then return to the UK for Christmas. Her husband who is going to betray her is standing inside the city of Roma. She stares into the shallows of the salt lagoon. The dirty old roads. Two single beds pushed together. Women run out of houses clutching carrier bags and sandwiches wrapped in wax paper. It is snowing. The drenched succulents and rotting fishing boats have the same atmosphere of betrayal she experienced in her dream. She walks past him in jeans and trainers. The lodger in the room next door, Mr Patel, the man who listens to the radio all day long, has bought her a present for the trip. The thin blankets that are not warm enough for December in the Algarve. She sees her husband waiting for his admirer at a cafe that is closed for summer. His admirer is strong. The tables and chairs stacked up. She walks down to the sea with her husband. Desire has made her strong. She looks down at a scrap of paper in her hand. Again he tells her how much he is enjoying his stay in the United Kingdom. Romans leave their stifling city. And another. It tells her to buy a turkey. She finds Roma once again in her dreams and it is a warmer place to be. A cab will call for them. In five hours they will be out of the British weather. She is talking to him over the wall because she is not invited inside. She shakes the three green bracelets on her wrists and says, ‘I have thought about what you have to say and it’s interesting.’ His wife watches from the other side of the wall. Blue lights glowing through the pine needles. She says, ‘You totally enriched my life.’ His face is impassive but he cries. She knows he is trying not to be in love.