It was a hot summer afternoon and John was free from sentimental engagements. He’d walked into the workshop during a visit to a small, lovely town in the bay of Clevedon. A young lively girl was sitting at the counter, reading a magazine. He exchanged a few words with her and later discovered that she was the artist’s wife, Julia.
He stayed some days in that town and started visiting the shop almost every afternoon, attracted by Julia’s smile. Her cheekbones, cast in that lovely blond hair, showed openness; the eyes were full of life and there was also somehow totally new for John, like some fresh summer air he could feel in his hair and mouth and stomach that made him feel so good, that he couldn’t help smiling back with joy and gratitude.
The third day he met Edward. He was a sturdy man with a tenor voice, extremely fun and always laughing, always making noise, as if he used sound to take possession of his surroundings and feel home in there. His eyebrows were thick and very black, he was perfectly shaved and always wore a white shirt with black braces. No hair disturbed the top of his bulky head and his ideas were those of a free, unencumbered man that had escaped the cubicle life and sucked energy from his artistic endeavors. The pottery with the kiln where he created was right behind the shop.
Edward wasn’t growing in a community but was a man who thrived in his isolation. All he needed was the sun, the sky, Julia, and some friend to speak with. The shop was unique in town. It had solid bricks of rough stone and a few shelves. One statue represented a mother embracing her child, all in blue, only the bust of the mother with the baby in her lap, the eyes closed, calm emanating from the porcelain. Another represented an old gentleman walking with his cane and his mustache and his hat, whose traits were clearly inspired by Anthony, the bar’s owner. Many animals: a majestic giraffe, a mighty lion roaring at the Sahara, a swollen hippo bathing in a river, a sharp hawk attacking another bird; the fight between a dog and a snake. And then deities: sleeping satyrs, a couple of nymphs arguing with each other, dryads yellow and black, red huldras with fair bodies, demons riding wolves. A Venus, green. Athena in typical war outfit. An angel with joint palms, looking at the sky, dreaming gaze. To the bottom, the counter, with Julia, a diet coke, an old gray computer, a few notebooks (labels on them: “Commented photography”, “Ideas”, “Quotes”); a cup made of clay, with pens and a few hairpins and an elastic band, green. One enormous cactus in an angle. And then a few drawings on the walls, mostly pin-ups, drawn by Edward when he needed time away from the kiln.
They became friends, John, Julia, and Edward. The long conversations about politics and what would become of this and that, the barbecues with friends, the sunsets at the bar in front of the beach, the sun crimson plunging into the water and the incredible reflections, made indelible memories for the three of them.
One evening of a few years later – it was the third week of rain – Helen closed the door behind her. A voice from the kitchen asked gently, “Who’s there?”. Rachel was preparing a hot soup and asked her sister, who’d walked in the kitchen if she wanted some. She nodded, exhausted, taking off her wet dresses and looking for something comfortable to wear in the cupboard. “How did it go?”, asked Rachel. Helen made a radiant smile. At that time, the statue of the Green Venus and its author, Edward Camden, had no fame in the world. Helen had just managed to get a small space in the old town, to host a small exhibit in which the little idol would appear for the first time out of the artist’s shop.
Late autumn. John had recently married to a medical student. One night, he walked a long time in the cold, empty streets. His heart was sad. He’d been living almost one year with his wife Aurora, but already something had gone sour. He headed to Gilmore Road, a lateral alleyway in a rich neighborhood known for a brothel for the well-off and the older people. John wasn’t one or the other, but he was still let in because the owner was his assisted at the firm where he worked. Miss Carol greeted him as an old customer. She was very discreet, and, noticing the mood of the man, led him in the parlor where he could chat with the girls who weren’t busy with other customers, before choosing the one with which to spend the rest of the night. Who knows, maybe more than one; it had never happened, but she wouldn’t be surprised.
The morning later, he went to his office. At 5 he left off and went to his old friend’s exhibit. A beautiful woman was indicated to him as the exhibit curator, Helen Gaston. He approached her and communicated his intention to buy the statue of the Venus. It would be a gift for his wife. “You must really be in love”, sighed imperceptibly Helen. “Or you want to be”, she thought to herself. An hour later they were dressing back in her apartment, Rachel eased out with an excuse, the statue in an elegant case on a small inlaid-wooden table.
“She even took the piano,” sighed John, addressing his friend Andy. He was standing in the middle of the living room, almost empty after Aurora had left him and had taken most of the furniture away. Andy motioned his cheeks into a puff and then made a strange noise, like a trumpet, to express disappointment, and sadness, and something more subtle that however his friends would not appreciate: he was used to be misunderstood, after all.
The light was entering the room by the large windows – two of them, that faced the small garden of John’s house – and in great abundance: Aurora had never wanted to put curtains, because, she used to say, we have nothing to hide. She had never been afraid of the world peeping into their resented emptiness. Andy put a hand on top of his friend’s shoulder, who would not recover from his disappointment mixed with astonishment, shaking his head, bewildered. He closed the door behind them and escorted John to an armchair. “I’ll make tea. Is green okay?” John, distracted, gazing in the void, nodded and said that yes, green would do for him.
Aurora and John had been married for sixteen years, before becoming sick of each other. They had met at a rock festival, where Aurora had volunteered to get in for free. Both of them had grown up in the guts of Derrington, a gray industrial city on the banks of the Thames. At the time, Aurora was still studying in college; John had a more stable career in some firm and had traveled around and seen a few places that made more interesting his conversation. He found Aurora terribly beautiful. She was only 20, and he could feel the penchant she had for him, and that little insecurity that comes sometimes when a student, in extreme uncertainty about her future, meets someone slightly older who already commands a little money in his own pocket. He was 26, but looked far older; never took care of himself. They got an affair in the first times –Aurora had a boyfriend, Gustav, that played and taught oboe in a private school in London; but then, after two years, she managed to break up with Gustav and got married to the older man she’d met at the festival.
Andy came back with the teapot and two porcelain cups, finely depicted with hunting scenes, with men dressed in white trousers and black boots, wearing red jackets, and black hunting hats, holding rifles and followed by hunting dogs. One of them showed the hunter and the dog hidden behind a florid bush, waiting for a fox to be at shooting distance; the other showed the hunter on a horse, followed by his dog, the tongue out for fatigue mixed with excitement. They sipped their tea, John seeming to gain strength and resolution. “But the piano, good God, Andy, I hadn’t expected so much greed, my friend. What have I done her to cause such reaction?”. “John, John, don’t blame yourself.” John was not listening very attentively. He had always been a very self-centered person, and he was too much absorbed in analyzing his own situation, to be receptive to other people’s interpretation. And Andy never understood a thing in his life, he only thought of himself as a great psychologist, and every occasion was good to patronize his friends, especially the oldest ones, especially when they were having a hard time. John invented an excuse and pretended to need to finish signing some papers, begging his friend to excuse him. “I’ll need to sort things out,” he lied.
When Andy was out of the door, he sighed heavily. Emptiness. He walked through the corridor on his right, took a flight of stairs, and landed on a passage that, on the left, conducted to the bedroom (how happy they’d been there! And later, how desperate!), and on the right, to the restroom. A door was in front, which opened to a small room.
There were photos of them both. On a sideboard lay a green statue of the goddess Venus. Aurora hadn’t taken it. In slightly more than a decade, Edward had become a world-renowned artist, and his creations were considered of the highest artistic value. Their market value had sky-rocketed. Didn’t matter to John. His friend did. The man looked at the idol intently for a long time, some minutes or maybe an hour; he thought about Julia and smiled, then about Aurora. He couldn’t help crying. Then he took it in his hands and smashed it on the floor. I’m sorry, he imagined telling Edward. In the chaotic regularity of the porcelain fragments scattered on the floor, he recognized himself and his misery.
The night was fresh and very dark, with a gentle breeze blowing over sizzling bodies clinging to each other in the void. In the dark, the signboard of Mrs. Carol’s bar. Partially asleep, but actually profoundly lost in her thoughts about one of her paramours from back in the day, with which she’d fled her alcoholic father and her mistreated mother’s house, Mrs. Carol stood on her stool behind the register. She was a shabby-looking woman of fifty-two years, with heavy make-up and unbearable perfume, bought at the small Sunday market in front of the train station. Her eyes were of a deep green, with small black stains inside the white part, that seemed to float around, never standing still even when her gaze remained fixed and her mouth slightly open, which happened quite often, as Marina, one of her nieces (the one that went with her to the Sunday market), said once, in a moment of confidence, to Michelle, her friend and colleague at the accountant’s office, where they both worked, underpaid, with a one-year contract.
Sat at a table at the bottom of the bar, two big men stared at their mobiles’ screens. Hakeem and Mel dealt with the security; Rita, one of the waitresses, knew that both were armed, but she only saw them in action once, and they hadn’t needed the guns. A poor bugger had drunk too much and had started harassing her, and had ended up with a knee and the mandible broken.
A man entered. He was dressed in formal attire, with a hat that removed immediately, addressing a big smile to Mrs. Carol, an old acquaintance. Rita got distracted, bored by the conversation with Abe, the cook, and recognized Mr. John Perr, a habitual customer whom she never spoke with for long. She remembered that he always sat at his table sipping his Negroni, and came to see Kathy, her colleague.
John had a dark skin, the shoulders narrowed by some ancient and incommunicable oppression, the waist once athletic but now condemned to roundness. His face was ruddy, shaved, clean; the way he moved the arms and the way he walked betrayed a nonchalance and a confidence that must have come from the habit of having to impress customers. Every woman, even when she had a sad story behind her, irradiates some form of beauty; and John recognized Kathy’s. Her marriage was broken, but she couldn’t escape from it: the moral, the family, her fiber, tried to discourage her from doing it. Somehow, as a wounded man, he loved her and wanted to help her, but didn’t, because he was irresolute and selfish. She couldn’t hide her sympathy for that gentleman, either; but in her heart, she saw his weakness and didn’t like it. She was a fair tall blond girl in her twenties, and many a man had been conquered by her beauty, no one ever being explicit, of course. To her, the coming of John had become yet another duty to carry out with a fake smile, hoping that it ends soon.
One night, John left the bar and didn’t come back. Seven years passed. He’d become older, but felt none the wiser; had progressed in his career, but was deeply unsatisfied. When he returned to the bar and saw Mrs. Carol again and asked her about Kathy, she said that the girl had found a rich old man and got married to him, quitting the job at the bar. (She’d done what Rita had been trying to do, without success.) At that moment, a woman came close and smiled at John. He thought he recognized her, but couldn’t tell who she was. Do you remember the exhibit? ── Helen asked.