I head straight for the bar as soon as we come in. “Buona sera,” I say to the barman: hair slicked back, not one crease in his black cotton shirt. I tell him I very much hope he’ll be able to find a home for the red rose in my hand. I was harassed into buying it on my way here by a pedlar in Piazza del Popolo, and don’t know what to do with it. It’ll wilt in the late-June Roman heat before I can put it into water in our hotel room, later this evening. Such a magnificent rose – can’t he save it? The barman is easy to persuade. Of course, it would be a pity to waste such a beautiful flower. He takes it from me and places it into a tall, gleaming glass he’s filled with equally crystalline, cool water. I thank him and comment on how elegant my rose now looks, standing on the marble counter.
We are shown into the garden. H.’s writer friend stands up to greet us. L. is a stocky man, with slow movements, weary. His eyes are heavy from all they’ve seen and feasted on, in this city where pain and pleasure are equally demanding. He’s watched, absorbed and written about the world for six decades: not much surprises him anymore. His heavy eyes slowly follow the designer waitresses as they flow past in their long black skirts or trousers. Not surprised, no, but enjoying the confirmation that the world is still alive and beautiful. He wears a sand-coloured jacket, padded with several bulging pockets; he yearned to write after reading Hemingway, as a boy. His prose is immediate, gritty, intense, crafted to sound as though it doesn’t care about approval. His characters don’t shy away from diving into life headlong; the leap from the cliff into the sea – the deep, all-embracing sea – is the thrill they need to feel alive. He takes a packet of cigarettes from one of his many pockets, wedges it between his lips with grace: the cigarette is an extension of his very being. He cups his hands, lights it and takes a deep drag, his eyes half closing with pleasure, then throws his head back to blow the smoke upwards, away from H. and me.
I peruse the menu. H. and I could have dinner at a good trattoria for the price of a cocktail here. I know we are L.’s guests but, just in case, order a fruit juice and decline his offer of an accompanying snack.
He and H. discuss L.’s latest novel. The critics are full of praise, but the sales are slow: it’s a stark, uncompromising book, not for the faint-hearted. People these days are too lazy to think, too eager for easy entertainment. For bestsellers.
I smile and nod, then frown just enough to look as if I’m absorbed by what he’s saying, but I know he is mainly addressing H,. so I can safely let my attention wander. The staff, male and female, look like they could moonlight on a catwalk. They carry trays with designer nibbles and fashionable drinks. At a table not far from us, a man and a woman, both in their sixties, are discussing business – or so their body language suggests. They are friendly towards each other, but there’s some stiffness in their posture. He has jet-black hair – a contrast with his grey sideburns – and a large, gold signet ring on his finger. She has bright blonde hair against an perfectly even suntan. She keeps toying with her Valentino handbag, lying on the empty chair next to her. Both are wearing dark sunglasses even though the bar garden is in the shade at this time of evening.
A little further, on a wrought iron bench with cream cushions, two middle-aged men are engaged in a lively conversation. They smile, nod, express surprise, sip their colourful cocktails. One of them has a naturally dark complexion and black hair streaked with silver. His eyes are quick, his expression falcon-like. I smile at L., apologise for interrupting. “Look, darling,” I say to H. “That’s G. over there.” As though he’s heard me across the garden, G. catches my eye then notices H., next to me. He smiles, waves at us, gestures an apology to the other man, stands up and walks over to our table. His stride is elegant, feline, his manner fluid. “Ciao,” he says warmly, surprised to see us in Rome.
After a brief chat, the time comes for introductions. Naturally, G. knows L. by reputation and is visibly delighted to meet him in person. He stoops towards him and holds out his hand. L. swivels minimally in his chair, just enough to take G.’s hand and glance up at him, accepting the younger man’s tribute.
A few more pleasanteries, and G. returns to his companion across the garden.
“Of course, his books are doing very well,” L. says.
“Have you read any?” I enquire.
“Once, on a train, I saw a man with one of them,” he replies. “I asked if I could take a look; I was curious. I read a couple of pages… The writing is… well, how can I put it? It’s a bestseller.”
* Inspired by – but not remotely faithful to – a true event.