Martin was handed back his ticket by the inspector. He kept it in his hand and began playing with it, gazing as he did so out of the window, glazed eyes and rhythmically catching the edge of it beneath his finger nail. It made a clicking noise. A distinct sound against the low rumble of the train as it passed along the railway track, rocking Martin gently in his seat. It was a sound so penetrating the old woman who Martin had shared the carriage with for the last part of his journey, who had got on-board the train two stops previously, looking at Martin with narrowed eyes and a down turned trout-like mouth.
Martin, however, was oblivious to this. He continued looking out of the window, hunched forward in his seat because his big frame was too large for the small Italian train seat. The old woman made a tutting sound, and when she finally managed to catch Martin’s attention, he simply looked at her and even though she narrowed her eyes and scowled at him, he simply smiled at her and said, in his best Italian, ‘Buongiorno.’ And then looked again out of the window.
Martin’s thoughts were too preoccupied with Valentina, who would be waiting for him at the next station, to be concerned about the old woan. No doubt she was there already, ready to pick him up and take her home to meet her family.
Martin was in love with a girl called Valentina. She was tall for an Italian girl. in fact, that was what Martin had first noticed about her, she stood almost a full head above some of the other girls, and she had large eyes, deep and so dark a shade of brown it was impossible to tell apart her pupil from her iris.
Martin remembered her eyes now. How soft they had looked the last time he had seen her – in the pale light of those over-head bulbs, bare and strung low above the checked table cloth in a courtyard of a cheap restaurant in one of the backstreets of budget Rome (as his guide book had called it, the area near the train station).
‘Come to the south.’ She had said, commandingly but in her usual soft voice, and for the first time since he had met her, only two weeks before, he had agreed that he would.
‘Yes.’ He had said, he was unsure if it was the sensible decision, but knowing, in his heart (if he believed in such things, his common sense told him he didn’t) that it was the only possible choice. Valentina had immediately clutched at his arm, her eyed flickered in a spasm of disbelief.
‘Really?’ she had said, ‘You will come?’
Martin felt his arm now, as he sat in his seat on the train in the late morning sunlight, hot now compared to the chill first thing this morning when he had caught the train at Rome’s main station. He felt the skin where she had touched him and felt a tingle as the hairs stood on end. then he felt cold suddenly and rubbed the skin. He looked at his watch and saw that it was only minutes now until he saw her again.
One full week, he thought back, since he had last seen her. One full week and although he had missed her, phoned her every day from the hostel payphone or from one of the payphones in orange booths in the subway beneath the station, time had passed quickly.
There had been so much to do, starting with phoning his new employer in Milan and telling them that he wouldn’t be working for them anymore. They hadn’t been pleased that Martin was leaving his job before even starting, but Martin hadn’t cared. He knew it would be easy to find another job, Valetina had told him so.
‘There is a language school in my town.’ She had told him on the very night they had met. ‘It’s where I learned English.’ and Martin had immediately fallen in love with her accent, sweet and heavy, thick like tiramisu, but she spoke quietly and her voice was soft, not loud and brash like so many of the Italians he had met since arriving.
‘Come and work there.’ Valentina had told him, whispering, her voice barely audible above the throng of noise, music and voices, the clash of voices in the Campo di Fiori, where Martin had gone that night, his first night in Rome, with a group of American college students.
Martin would never have gone out that night if the American’s hadn’t persuaded him, befriended him in the hostel common room and convinced him to join them.
‘Oh no, I don’t think I’ll come out tonight,’ he had told them politely, clutching a copy of The Woman in White which he had set himself on finishing during his stay in Rome, ‘I’m very tired.’ He had lied, secretly relishing the idea of going out, but being naturally shy, needed to be persuaded by the group of strangers.
It took a lot more persuading for him to agree to move south with Valentina. At first Martin had laughed at the idea, ‘I have a job already.’ He had said, although perhaps not convincingly, because to him it hadn’t seemed a proper job. He had secured it with a telephone interview and although he had a contract, which had been faxed to him, it didn’t seem quite real, it seemed too easy as his only qualification for the job was a four week TEFL course in a sweaty upstairs room off a busy street near Victoria Station in London.
‘Yes, but you can have a better one. Don’t you see? Don’t go to Milan, it is ugly and overcrowded. Come to my town. It is beautiful. It is never cold, we have the best wine in Italy.’ and she had gone on, talking endlessly about her town, her region of Italy – the mountains, the lakes, the sea.
Over the next two weeks she had slowly convinced him. Not that he had admitted as such. He had resisted all he could, telling her each time she brought up the subject that he already had a job, that he was obliged to honour the agreement and couldn’t back out now.
Although eventually he had agreed, knowing deep down that it was a foolish thing to do, to make a decision on such a whim, but finding a new job had proved easy. But of course, Valentina had already told him it would be easy. ‘Just call that school.’ She had said, ‘I promise they will give you a job.’
And, indeed, the school had given him a job, and all it took was a phone call. Yet not everything was the same as Valentina had told Martin it would be.
‘The owner is called Frank,’ she had said, scribbling the phone number onto the back of a paper napkin in the courtyard restaurant beneath bare lamp light on their last night. Martin was impressed that she had been able to commit the number to memory.
‘Call him and tell him I gave you his number. He will remember me, he is sure to give you a job.’ She had said, placing the napkin carefully into his hand, ‘He is English like you and it is such a small town where I am from that he cannot ever find teachers for his school. He will give you a job, just call him.’
Martin called the next day, immediately after he had called the school in Milan to say he wouldn’t be coming. But when he called and asked for Frank, he was informed by a deep voice on the other end that Frank no longer worked there.
‘Oh, really?’ Martin had said, dismayed, and feeling instantly foolish because he ought to have found this out before calling Milan, and the awful realisation came to him that he now had no job at all.
‘My name is Martin Clarke.’ Martin had said, ‘I’m sorry, I think I’ve made a mistake, I was told this was the number of a language school. I’m sorry to bother you…’ he had carried on, intending to end the call and put down the receiver before his coin ran out.
‘Wait.’ The man had said, sensing that Martin was about to hang up. ‘This is still the language school.’ He paused, ‘Il Instituto della lingua. I am the new owner.’
‘Really?’ Martin had said, feeling a sudden relief, and he put another coin into the slot. ‘I am a qualified teacher,’ he began, then corrected himself ‘I mean newly qualified.’ He laughed politely and then went on to explain that he would be arriving soon and that he needed a job.
They spoke for about twenty minutes. The man, whose name was Alessandro, explained that he had recently bought the school, only weeks before, that he was looking for teachers and that it was difficult, ‘nobody want to come here,’ he had said, ‘This is just a little town, there is no colloseum here.’ He had joked, ‘people, they just want to stay in Rome, to work in the big city.’
It was true, Martin had thought about the man’s words in his last days in Rome. On every corner it seemed, as he wondered by himself about the city, there was a sign offering language lessons – Mother Tongue Teachers they boasted, or learn a language in six weeks.
To Martin there could be nothing worse than staying in this hot and lonely city and working for one of these schools. He was even glad, as the time for his departure got nearer, that he had turned down the job in Milan.
His mind was continuously filled with thoughts of Valentina. He thought about her so much that he was at times unable to remember what she looked like, a realisation which filled him with panic and made him frantically scrabble though his pockets for the one photograph he had of her.
A picture now battered, creased so that the ink had come off in parts. It was a blurred shot of Valentina and himself taken with a Polaroid camera that first night they had met. It had cost five thousand Lira to have the picture taken, which at the time Martin had thought as a huge extravagance, but now thought as nothing and he wished he had paid for at least seven such pictures, one for each day he had remaining in Rome without her.
It didn’t matter though, not now, he thought, sitting on the train with only minutes before being reunited with his love. He looked at the picture now, although not lovingly – slightly neurotically, thinking that he needed to be reminded one last time of what she looked like. He looked at her eyes, her thick lips, the lips he longed to touch, to feel on his cheek again, perhaps to feel on his lips for the first time even.
Martin was in such a daze at the thought, that he didn’t hear the announcement that they had arrived. He only noticed when he felt the train slow and through the window, that was tinted dark with dust and grit from the track, he saw the sign San Campo Civernia. He had arrived.
Martin stood up and pulled his bag from the overhead rack. The old woman who had glared at him earlier was already waiting at the door and eyed him again before pushing down the handle and stepping off.
At last, Martin thought, Valentina, he thought. He checked his reflection in the dark window of the train carriage. He looked awful, dusty hair and pale skin, but it didn’t matter, no it didn’t matter at all. He was meeting Valentina, he was about to see her again and nothing mattered, nothing at all in the world.
He had told Alessandro not to meet him when he arrived. ‘No don’t come and meet me at the station, my girlfriend,’ Martin had paused before saying the word, had paused after saying it too and then continued, ‘my girlfriend will meet me at the station.’
‘Ah.’ Alessandro had said friendlily, ‘you have a girlfriend in San Campo Civernia. Now I understand why you want to come here.’ And he had laughed, a deep hearty laugh, a friendly laugh. In the twenty minutes they had spoken Martin had got on well with the man, had looked forward to meeting him, but not until tomorrow when he arrived at the school. Now it was only Valentina he wanted to see.
‘At last.’ He said to himself as he entered the station building, ‘at last, at last, at last.’ He even said it aloud as he passed through the empty ticket hall and then pushed open the thick green wooden doors of the station building, so battered and old that the paint was peeling from them, revealing different shades beneath, an archaeology of paintwork.
She wasn’t here. Martin looked up and down the covered walkway in front of the station, across the square that the station led onto, with its dusty grey tarmacked surface and old fountain, dry and its centre piece cracked, sitting crooked on its base as if any moment it would slump to the side and die. She wasn’t anywhere to be seen.
In fact no one was here at all. The square was deserted, completely deserted and Martin was suddenly struck by a disappointent so strong that he slumped to the floor, overcome by a sudden realisation that he had been tricked into coming here, that Valentina hadn’t planned on meeting him at all. She had changed her mind and he would now need to go back home, back to the north, back to Rome to find a job in one of the schools with garish signs he had hated so much.
All these thoughts poured through his mind, irrationally, stupidly, but then he had a thought, checking his watch he saw, with an immediate and overwhelming feeling of relief, that he was early.
Of course, he thought, of course she is not here. He looked at his watch again to make sure. It was five minutes to twelve. Valentina was never on time, he reassured himself. In Rome he had to wait for her on almost every occasion they had arranged to meet.
In fact, she had always seemed preoccupied by the time, had apologised profusely every time she was late, blaming it on some reason or another, different every time and she had promised him how sorry she was for making him wait, but Martin had never minded, how could he? He was so happy that she was spending time with him, so happy despite not knowing if he would ever see her again once he had taken his job in Milan.
As the two weeks in Rome drew to an end, he knew that he would never be able to leave her, that he would have to take the job in her town in the south, because every evening when she left for her nunnery, the cheap accommodation that came with a curfew of nine o’clock, he had felt such sadness, such despair, that he knew, long before he had told Valentina that he would move to her town in the south, that he would do it.
Martin waited. He waited until it was twelve, until it was past twelve, until the minute hand of his watch had reached almost twenty past, twenty-five past, and he reassured himself every minute that she was never on time, that it meant nothing that she was late and the longer he waited, sitting on his bag with his legs stretched before him in the shade of the covered walkway of the old station building, the more bored he became.
At least at first he was bored, bored looking out across the dusty square, at the houses opposite, the mountains behind, in fact the mountains all around, crowning in on the town like a gang of angry boys, school yard bullies giving out beats, but his boredom soon turned to worry.
Martin thought of more reason why Valentina might be late. In his mind he made excuses for her, excuses that ranged from simple to absurd. He thought perhaps she might have changed her mind, a thought which filled him with sadness, he thought that perhaps she might have misunderstood what time they should meet.
After an hour Martin began to despair, he lost hope, realising that it was time to stop waiting, to give up. She wasn’t going to come.
People began to appear in the square then. At first the black speck of a man on the far side came out from a side street. He was old and dressed in black. He walked with his hands behind his back on his head an old fashioned hat. Martin had never felt lonelier.
More people appeared in the square and in the distance the sound of cars, small engine Fiats, the fly-buzz of a scooter. A train pulled into the station and a few people passed out through the station doors, a woman with a grown up son got out of a taxi and passed Martin into the station.
All these people, it was as if the town had woken from a midday sleep and the square came to life with movement, slow though it was compared to Rome, the bustle of a busy city, but still no sign of Valentina.
Martin stood up. On the far side of the square, from where he stood, he could see the glass front of a bar. A broken sign hung lazily above the door and next to it a man stood smoking. Old and short, he watched Martin as he approached.
It was easy enough to remember Valentina’s number, Martin had called enough times in the last week. He spotted a phone on the counter of the bar as soon as he entered, and picking up the receiver he dialled her number. He listened to the sound of her phone ringing through the ear piece and with each ring, each note of confirmation, he realised that it was no use, she wasn’t going to answer. Martin hung up and left the bar.
For hours then, he roamed the streets of San Campo Civernia. The hot streets that seemed only filled with the slow movements of the old, each dressed in black and each watching him as he passed. None smiled as they passed Martin, none said hello, although Martin tried speaking to one old woman.
‘Ciao.’ He said, ‘Valentina Bianci?’ He had asked, hoping that the woman might recognise the name, tell him where she lived. Instead the old woman muttered something, turned her head and spat on the ground.
‘The people of San Campo Civernia are the friendliest in the world.’ Signore Alessandro had told him on the phone only days before, ‘It is beautiful there.’ Valentina had said too, but Martin could see nothing of the kind. Still their voices rang in his ears as he walked the streets.
It was an ugly town, and as he walked he felt the sweat on his back make his t-shirt cling to his skin. It felt cold, not pleasantly so and there was no relief from the hot sun, unforgiving in its fury, its hate for him.
It seemed as if all the world had turned against him. Soon he felt sting of sunburn on his forehead the ache of the hard ground beneath the soles of his feat. With each road he walked down he felt more weary, more sad for the loss of his Valentina.
Twice he had thought he had seen her. The second time he had actually called out her name. But when the girl turned, and Martin realised it was not her, the girl smirked, Martin was sure of it, the look on her face, a suppressed laugh, amused eyes.
‘You will come.’ Valentina had said, that evening a week ago when they had said good-bye. ‘You will come and I will meet you at the station.’ She had seemed so happy at his decision, so pleased that Martin, thinking now as he walked, wishing that he had listened to his common sense, becoming ever more weary beneath the hot sun and the dusty dry streets, how could she not want me here, how could she have changed her mind? Why would she do that? Why, why, why?
Martin kicked at a stone and it ricocheted off a stone wall, clattered down some steps and then thudded against a wooden door, which Martin was surprised to see, when he read the sign discretely screwed to the wall next to it, printed on blue plastic, read Il Instituto della Lingua, and it even made Martin smile, perhaps at the uncanniness of it, that he should find the school so easily, but not find Valentina at all.
It was impossible, it seemed so impossible, she loves me, he thought, tried to persuade himself, but with every stray dog that he came near, the town was full of them, every stray dog that barked and gnashed its jaws at him, he realised how wrong he had been.
He wasn’t wanted here. People stared out of windows at him as he passed. A group of children laughed at him, gathered round him and tugged at his clothes. ‘Inglese, Inglese.’ They chanted when Martin had said ‘hello’. ‘Hello, hello,’ they mimicked, ‘Hello, Mist-ah Inglese.’ And they laughed and then threw tiny stones at him when they had got bored of following him.
Towards evening, when the sun had dimmed and Martin could smell the hum of his dirty clothes, could see white rings of salt staining his t-shirt beneath his arms, he tried calling again. This time from a phone booth opposite the police station, but Valentina still did not answer. He then tried the train station, tried asking the train guard if he had seen her, but the train guard spoke no English and hadn’t the time to listen to Martin’s poor Italian.
Finally, when it became dark, Martin decided to give up. He saw a sign for a hotel, the town’s only hotel, and for an unreasonable high price he was able to secure a room, an ugly room, with a window that looked out onto the railway track. It smelt, smelt stale and the sheets were specked with yellowed stains, the smell of sweat, old tobacco smoke and disinfectant from the bathroom that had a door which didn’t shut properly and a tap that clicked water into a rusted metal sink.
Martin took a bottle of wine from his bag, the bottle he had brought for Valentina’s family, not that he knew anything about them, if they even existed. He opened it by jamming the cork down inside the neck and then poured glass after glass into a misted mug he took from the shelf above the bathroom basin and fell asleep to the distant sound of Piaggios and little cars, shouts in the night and the scuttle of cockroaches on the floor.
The next morning, as the sun spilt bright morning light into his hotel room, Martin stirred with a heavy head and fuzzy eyes. He felt sick and had no water to quench the awful thirst in the back of his throat, but somehow he felt optimistic.
In the bright morning sun and the fresh cool air that blew down from the mountain tops, Martin decided he didn’t care. He had made a mistake and it was with a heavy heart and sore head that he walked to Instituto della Lingua to meet his new boss, hoping, hope upon hope, that Signore Alessandro would prove more trustworthy than Valentina, more likeable than any of the people he had met in this town so far.
He promised himself that after yesterday he would accept whatever fate had in store for him, whatever happened today, he didn’t care.
So it was no surprise, not really, that he met Valentina on his first morning in Instituto Della Lingua, but not immediately. It was Signore Alessandro who opened the door and greeted him.
‘Aha! Buongiorno, Martin!’ he said, recognising Martin immediately and beaming a broad and generous smile.
‘Buongiorno.’ Martin replied, although not as enthusiastically as he might have, had the situation been different.
Signore Alessandro, as he ushered Martin inside with a thick paw-like hand and a look of concern in his eyes, said, ‘Martin, what is the matter? You had a problem finding your way? You arrived yesterday, no?’
‘Yes,’ Martin replied, ‘yes, yesterday.’ He said, not being one to cry openly to strangers about his problems, he assured the Signore that everything was fine, ‘I’m just tired,’ he said, ‘yesterday was a long journey and the hotel I stayed in was awful, absolutely awful.’ And he went on to describe the unfriendliness of the staff, the dirty room.
‘Well you are here now.’ Signore Alessandro said and shook Martin’s hand, put another hand on his shoulder. ‘You are here now and you can relax, but what about your girlfriend? This Italian girl from San Campo Civernia, is this not the reason you are so tired today?’ he joked, winking at Martin and laughing again and then slapping him on the back.
He was a massive man, exactly as Martin had imagined. He was fat, but it suited him, he had a huge head and thick black and oily hair and he wore a shirt that was open at the neck and old, faded to an olive brown colour, so that it almost matched his skin, which was sun-rich-dark and warm, as friendly as his smile.
‘Now, please,’ he said to Martin, ‘go into my office and we can make all the official arrangement we need to make.’ The signore pointed to a room on the opposite side of the reception. On the door in brass coloured letters were the words Signore Alessandro.
‘Turn on the light.’ Signore Alessandro called out as Martin walked across and pushed open the door. ‘I am afraid the only light that works is on my desk.’ And so Martin fumbled clumsily for a lamp on the desk and when he found it, turned on the switch, he saw Vanentina.
She sat in the big leather chair opposite him, stared at him with wide open eyes. A perplexed look on her face, a look of fear, an open mouth and she didn’t look in the slightest that she was sorry.
Martin was so surprised that he didn’t notice, not for a full second at least, that she had a gash across her neck. Her t-shirt, that at first sight anyone would have thought was supposed to be red, was in fact still sticky with blood that hadn’t yet set.
It was a relief that Martin felt then, as he stepped back, shocked, not scared. She still loves me, he thought, how could she have met me at the station? Of course she couldn’t answer her phone. She was already dead.
He turned round and with a smile on his face that didn’t disappear, not even when he saw Signore Alessandro in front of him and swiping at him with a long thin knife that caught him in the neck, he realised how lucky he was.
He fell to his knees, clutched at his throat and gargled something that sounded like, ‘Valentina, I love you.’