Chiara

 

 

 

 

It was her mysterious quality of fluidity that first drew me to Chiara. That, combined with a sense that she was slightly lost, or slightly out of her depth, or just in need of something solid to grasp hold of. My own life at that time was solidifying in a way I had not experienced before, and which seemed pleasant enough on languid summer afternoons. But I was sometimes kept awake at night, panicky and feverish, by the thought of a future cast in the very same form as the present. Routine combined with moderate success were conspiring to freeze the hitherto unpredictable currents which had dragged me across Europe, from Prague to Barcelona, in pursuit of the first recorded fairytales. Now I was washed up in Naples where, thanks to assiduous monkish chroniclers and a multitude of unemployed dottori of Italian literature, it was surprisingly easy to discover as yet untranslated fairytales. I worked slowly, frequently meeting eccentric professors in rundown piazzas to discuss recondite points of translation over thimblefuls of coffee. I was paid per story and was able to live comfortably on the proceeds.

 

 The project of which I was a small part was entitled “The Encyclopedia of Europe’s Fairytales”; although progress was steady we were still far from completion. My Italian discoveries meant that the collection would almost certainly exceed the three volumes originally intended. Thus my future in Naples was secure. Since I had often dreamt of such a sinecure in the past, my present anxieties made me feel in some ways a traitor to my former self - to that shivering  penurious self wrapped in red army surplus overcoats and eating cold sauerkraut in a freezing Prague attic.

 

My present state of mind was perfectly expressed by the fountain which I walked past every day on my way to the library. The column of water shoots up from between the outstretched arms of the three sirens who attempted to lure Odysseus to his death from their rocky outcrop in the gulf of Naples. These three figures are supported by a platform which in turn rests upon the backs of four stone horses whose frozen movement is the movement of the ocean, whose gallop is the breaking of the waves. Their swirling manes merge by imperceptible degrees into foaming crests and their hooves are lost in the petrified eddies. There is so much energy in the sculpture, so much movement and fluidity, and yet it is cast in stone, the very definition of solidity. All movement is frustrated; the only change possible is a gradual crumbling. It was the image of this sculpture that haunted me by night as I considered the way my own life was solidifying and turning to stone.

 

I think that is why I was so bowled over by Chiara. She was fluidity incarnate.  She had no idea where she was going and could scarcely remember the places she had been. This was remarkable given her youth; she was not yet twenty when I first met her.  She never spoke about her parents and she told me that she had been born in a small town on the North African coast, a town whose name I did not recognise.

 

Chiara spoke beautifully, fluently and musically, though it would be impossible to distinguish the strains of language which made up her speech. Much of it was Hispanic, though she used unusually many words of Arabic origin. Her lilting intonation was Italian, more southern than northern, and she peppered her speech with so many Latinisms that I suspected that as a child she must have had some acquaintance with Church Latin, perhaps as helper to some longsuffering priest in the North African desert. Why did I not ask her to explain these idiosyncrasies? The answer is simple; probing questions made her visibly uncomfortable and she was an expert at swimming out of their reach. And also I suppose I liked her mystery.

 

I first met Chiara in the lift of my old apartment building. I must confess that lifts are a private horror of mine - I find the silence excruciating and my neck prickles with embarrassment as occupants feign interest in the progression of floor numbers. My own vision of hell is of a hell-bound lift that never arrives; arriving in hell would in itself be an achievement, and hell can permit no achievements. This at least had been my view of lifts until I met Chiara.

 

The lift in my building is one of the old-fashioned cage variety. Having summoned its rattling frame from the depths, you have to time the opening of the cage’s outer doors to coincide with the lift’s floor passing by your own floor level. Failure to time this correctly will result in the cage’s continued ascent and your own humble descent by foot down twelve flights of stairs. Through trial and error I had developed a technique which more or less guaranteed success. When the top of the lift was level with an iron bar at the height of my knees I would count to five as fast as I could and would then throw myself, shoulder first, at the double doors. These almost always burst open, stopping the lift and enabling me to enter. If witnessed by anyone within the lift it would have appeared an extravagant means of entry, but the cage-like sides made it possible for me to check whether the lift was occupied before launching myself at the double doors. But when I first met Chiara my senses must have deceived me; on bursting into what had appeared to be an empty interior, I was confronted by her slim figure facing me.

 

I was immediately struck by her peculiar beauty. Or maybe beauty is not the right word; beauty can be timeless, beauty can last. A woman who is beautiful at thirty is likely to be beautiful at forty and fifty. But Chiara’s beauty, or rather her prettiness, seemed intimately bound up with the moment, entirely transient. I could not imagine what she had looked like in the past, nor could I picture her in the future. Her eyes were like the sea; I was later to discover how their colour varied between blue and green depending on the season and on the hue of the sky. She had short, blond, boyish hair which she twirled incessantly. Her skin was very fair; it was a mystery to me how this was possible given her life beneath the Mediterranean sun. She did not tan, but nor did I ever see her burn. The only make-up she wore was the turquoise colouring on her eyelids, almost as if they had been dusted with powdered blue coral. I never saw her without this tint - it was in place even when she woke in the morning.

 

Having burst into the lift, Chiara raised her head to look at me and my mumbled apology solidified in my mouth. I saw that she was laden with a dripping umbrella, bags of shopping, a number of parcels and a medium sized tropical plant with brightly coloured leaves. She was rifling through her pockets in search of a lighter to light the cigarette balanced between her lips; its tip was already drooping where it had been struck by a drop of rainwater. As her outer pockets failed to provide the lighter, and seeing her access to inner pockets hampered by the objects she was carrying, she begun to thrust these objects towards me one by one. I took them from her wordlessly. It was not until the transfer was complete that she found the lighter, lit her cigarette, exhaled the smoke upwards towards the ceiling and then fixed me with her gaze. “Que ridículo”, she said. A few moments later, when the lift came to a halt at her floor, she continued, “Maybe you would do me the kindness of putting those many things to rest in my rooms.”

 

Over the next few days I saw a lot of Chiara. She had just moved in and called at my apartment at all hours of day and night, blissfully insensitive to the fact that other people’s lives have timetables. She came asking to borrow nails or a hammer or sugar, or else looking for the things she had forgotten or lost on previous visits. Her arrival signaled the return of unpredictability to my life. Of course I was attracted to her, as I imagined every man who met her must have been, but I did not allow myself to entertain the possibility of romance. I was almost twice her age and I felt she was, as the depressing phrase goes, ‘out of my league’.

 

About a week after we first met, Chiara asked me to go with her to a shop by the port to choose a tropical fish and a fishbowl for her sitting room. It was raining but the rain was warm and we walked arm in arm through the narrow, winding streets of the Spanish quarter. I told her about my work and about the differences between the Mediterranean fairy tales of sun and sea, and the northern fairy tales of forests and woodland spirits. Possibly it was those tales that had in childhood shaped the characters of the Barbarians who were later to sack Rome. Chiara was enchanted. When we arrived at the shop she insisted that the shopkeeper take each fish outside so that we could observe their colours by daylight. She eventually chose a small yellow fish with a long, trailing silver tail. The shopkeeper gave it to her in a transparent plastic bag full of water and tied shut at the top. As we left the shop she held it aloft and, observing its orbit around the inside of the bag, she said, “It’s so natural”. Then she kissed me.

 

I was fascinated by Chiara’s habits and eccentricities. For instance, she would never taste her food before attacking it with the salt shaker. Possibly because of this she used to drink water incessantly throughout the day. She fell in love with the large, old-fashioned bath tub in my apartment. She liked holding her breath underwater in the bath and getting me to count how long she could stay submerged. She was so good at this that sometimes I wondered whether she might not once have been one of those children who dive for coins at the behest of tourists in far-flung port cities. When she got out of the bath she would sit in front of the mirror and admire what she called her “starfish eyes”; that is how she described the way the water made her eyelashes stick together like the pointed arms of a starfish.

 

Chiara was busy all day, though I never managed to discover quite what she did. Any explanation of hers was so distorted by sidetracks and tangents that it was impossible to reach any sort of conclusion, and I am not the type to press a point. In the evenings we used to wander down to the waterfront and eat in one of the little restaurants overlooking Parthenope’s rock. The tourist season was drawing to a close and most restaurants were empty despite the still balmy evenings. It was at times like these, as the moon rose and the waves lisped on the shingle, that Chiara’s habitual ebullience sometimes faded. Her eyes would glass over, losing their marine brilliance in the flickering candlelight, and she could become withdrawn and perhaps a little sad.

 

It was odd to find myself translating fairytales, which are the human refashioning of an imperfect world, and also living in a world which, almost overnight, had become more perfect than any fairytale I could ever have imagined. But I never could grasp Chiara’s innermost self. She was like the seawater cupped in my hand; perfect and clear and sparkling for a second but ultimately unintelligible, fleeting and fluid. I thought that by taking her away to a place I knew well and that was strange to her I might be able to possess her more wholly. She would be forced to rely on me, would be dependent on me. With this in mind I suggested a visit to Prague. Chiara was strangely unwilling; “It is so far from the sea, it is so cold,” she said. But in the end she allowed herself to be persuaded and even began to look forward to the trip.

 

When we arrived at the airport we were not allowed to board the plane because Chiara did not possess a passport, a fact she had omitted to tell me. However, in the taxi on the way back into the city her consternation gave way to enthusiasm as she began to consider how we could spend the money which we had set aside for the week. We decided on an indulgent weekend on the island of Capri and took a boat across the bay that very afternoon.

 

I was very moved by the boat trip. I observed the blood red sun set once behind the promontory of Posillipo before emerging again as we rounded the headland, then finally sinking like a dying thing into the flatness of the ocean. I thought to myself how strange it was that this should be the very same sun that the ancients saw. This was the view that Tiberius would have enjoyed from the pool of his villa on Capri, where he swam around blithely while young boys nibbled his testicles. This was the view that young lovers, fresh from the baths and smelling of scented oil, would have shared at nearby Pompei, where no one suspected the fury of smoldering Versuvius. Did they ever consider that the sun would set, not just on Naples and not just for a night, but on the whole Roman Empire and for ever? And do we really think that all this can continue for ever?

 

As my thoughts turned towards the great sadness that is the past, Chiara became increasingly excitable. My quietness did nothing to stem the tide of her conversation and she began to fidget intolerably. Before long she had succeeded in dispelling my melancholy. As our boat manoeuvred into its berth at the quayside she began to skip from one side railing to the other. We disembarked and made our way slowly to our hotel, stopping for Chiara to admire some little silver fishes that darted about the posts which supported the quay, or test the strength of the nets which the fishermen were repairing. Everything captivated her attention, even the film of oil which was floating on top of the water and which must surely be the same in every port everywhere.

 

 That evening, as we dined in the restaurant on the roof of our hotel, there was no glassiness in her eyes, no sadness in her manner. Chiara told me more than she ever had before: how she never spoke about her parents because she did not know who they were, and how as a orphan  in Tangiers she used to dive for the large pink shells so beloved by interiour decorators in that city. These revelations created an intimacy which allowed me to feel closer to her than I ever had before. We walked along the quayside once more before going to bed, but when we made love that night her frenzied thrashing once again placed a divide between us. Again she seemed different to me, and unreachable.

 

The following morning the slatted sunlight insinuated itself between our two bodies like a third bedfellow. The airy white curtains were rhythmically sucked into the room and then exhaled as if the room itself were breathing. The occasional deep breath would permit a glimpse of the ocean shimmering with blue intensity. On this particular morning it was not shrouded by the habitual sea haze. The movement of the stripes of sunlight on the bed indicated the passing of time between periods of dozing. When eventually I could doze no more I felt across the bed for Chiara. It was not unusual for her to get out of bed before me but her absence affected me strangely. I was suddenly afraid that I would never see her again, but a few seconds later I caught sight of her leaning against the balcony on the other side of the white curtain. With a sense of relief I climbed out of bed and went to join her on the sun-drenched balcony.

 

Chiara wanted to visit the island’s blue grotto, a cave inside the cliff at water level famous for the blueness of the light which is reflected off the ocean floor. We arrived at midday, having crossed the island on winding hillside roads in a little orange bus. We descended the cliff using a staircase hewn out of the rock face. On reaching the level of the water we rounded a slight corner and saw dozens of little rowing boats hovering around the entrance to the grotto, waiting to ferry in the tourists from the larger boats moored further out. We did not want to visit the grotto by boat - the cost was exorbitant and the tourists had to sit bunched between each others legs so as to be able to lie back flat in order to pass through the tiny tunnel which was the only access to the grotto. However, just as we were lamenting this arrangement the head boatsman announced that it was time to break for lunch and the rowing boats turned as precisely as a shoal of fish and ferried the tourists back to the larger boats. Taking advantage of their departure, Chiara and I stripped off and dived into the water which was black and uninviting owing to the shadow cast by the overhanging cliff above us.

 

The cave leading into the grotto was just wide enough for a small rowing boat, and no more than a few metres long. Nevertheless, it felt eerie to be swimming into the heart of the island in this way. I followed Chiara whose joyful splashing indicated that she did not share my apprehension. The tunnel opened out into a vast vaulted room like some sort of marine cathedral. Most extraordinary was the light which, by some remarkable trick of refraction, rose from below us and encircled our bodies in pure rays of deep aquamarine. It played patterns on the arched vault above us, it shimmered on our skin and held us like mites of dust suspended in sunlight. Chiara looked at me; her face was suffused with happiness. Her eyelashes were stuck together like a starfish, her eyes themselves had the same sparkling blue intensity as the light. She blew me a kiss and then dived elegantly down into the light below. The last thing I saw was the silver flash of her tail which sent rays of light bouncing off the domed roof. I never saw her again.

 

 

 

 

Claus von Bohlen und Halbach © 2001