The first time I watched Paul carrying out restoration was before Tim was born. He was working on a wooden statue of Saint Dominic riddled with wormholes. I watched him hold surgical pincers lightly in his wide fingers, dipping swabs in white spirit and stroking them over the black surface to reveal traces of brown – a Saint Francis?
‘How do you know what to clean and where to stop? Why don’t you just wipe the candle smoke off Saint Dominic and leave it at that?’
‘It’s the starting point that counts. People want to see the original; to be singed by the fire of creation, I suppose, and then follow the work’s miraculous survival through time.’
‘Where do you start? On the surface, with Dominic? Is there a lot of grime?’
‘You mean discoloured varnish? Yes,’ Paul explained, ‘and that’s why it’s taking me such a time!’
Sitting beside him as he wiped away the black friar, I had fun inventing a story.
‘In a church somewhere in Italy, the brown robes of Saint Francis were painted black. Why?’
‘The parishioners decided to change their patron saint, and the church’s name, to Saint Dominic,’ Paul continued.
‘Why not another Dominican saint?’
‘That’s all they could think of.’ Paul spread his hands palms up on the gritstone. ‘There was no space just to be.’ He hesitated. ‘Mike too held me between pincers. He found me the studio and works to restore. I owe a lot to him. But he ignored me when I repeated a painting had to be X-rayed so I could restore it truthfully. He insisted the owner or dealer would not pay for one, or it would make the work too expensive. He went on about his gallery rent being so high. So was the rent of my studio. I tried assistants. They all did what Mike or the owners, wanted and refused to listen to me. “Buyers like ‘em bright. Status baubles on their walls,” or so Mike said.’ Bright is beautiful: subtlety, dull. That’s what Paul used to lament when we talked in his studio.
‘So I tried to work for museums who did X-ray the paintings. A few works came, famous but not well paid. Not for the time it took. The Fra Angelico, you remember? The Sassetta, and a Perugino, all with landscapes I loved. Then came Titus. He was the first of the Rembrandts’…
…’Restoring Titus came at the right time professionally, the wrong time personally… I took one look at Rembrandt’s son and almost refused the offer. Mike warned me that such a refusal would set people thinking I couldn’t cope with more work. Vital commissions would go elsewhere.
‘You know how we have to write a report: the painting’s history, its condition, paint loss, discoloured varnish, frame and so on. What needs to be restored and how. It was the historical bit that hit me. Titus’s mother died when he was only a year old. When in 1657 Rembrandt painted that portrait of Titus, aged sixteen, he was bankrupt. All the pictures and etchings still in his studio were sold.’ Paul’s words wavered in the faltering lamplight. Better just to hear, not to see him.
Sitting down at a café in the Piazza della Repubblica, I leant back, and a generous cappuccino appeared. Tutto bene. I closed my eyes in a moment of relaxation. On reopening them, to my astonishment I met Mike’s jubilant grin. He bent down to give me a kiss.
‘I’ve come to lend you a hand.’ I had forgotten that, without a telephone, one had to frequent Montesasso’s main square to find out what was happening.
‘I felt like a bit of fresh air. It’s impossibly hot in Naples,’ Mike continued, settling at my table and ordering a Martini. ‘Paul’s given me names of people there wanting to thin out their collections – unsavoury ancestors are stealthily leaving the walls!’ He laughed almost too loudly, pushing his hair back from his forehead.
Mike was blithely unaware of the complications stemming from his unexpected appearance. I wondered whether Ada might let him use the makeshift bed on the ground floor; Gianni would be less keen.
So I’m fair game. Like the thrushes, partridges, hares and wild boar, here for the trying. If lucky, for the taking. I ruefully suppose I must have caused some entertaining gossip over the years, much speculation, even rivalry and some wagers. At last I understood why Gianni sulked, refused invitations and tried to be so possessive about me. He was staking his claim; Mike, Paul and Joe had together revealed I was, as far as the locals could see, literally up for grabs! I suspect that Gianni let rumours of our relationship kindle, burst into flame and then rampage round the valley so he could bask in the glory of his supposed triumph. Carlo, and probably others I hadn’t even noticed, tried to challenge his apparent supremacy. He fought back. Gianni’s death and Paul’s absence released me to a potential valley free-for-all. Later the grapevine began to give contrary signals; the situation might not have been all Gianni had made it out to be, but suspicions still lurked.
‘Cos’è successo a quel giovanotto?’
‘He’s not so young now,’ I laughed in reply. ‘Mike’s just a friend and he sells paintings.’ Perhaps, at long last, Carlo could see I wasn’t a perfidious ‘daughter of Albion’ playing fast and loose with men in the valley! Whose fantasy was that anyway?
Dan found stones sticking out of the retaining wall to serve as footholds up to the field Wolfgang had invaded at the top of the drive. We’d lie there and pick leaves and flowers from as many different plants as we could find. There were faces in cloverleaves, luck in ladybirds that ran over the back of his hand, honey bees in the clover flowers and nasty wasps crawling over the fallen plums. Butterflies, from handsome red admirals to run-of-the-mill cabbage whites, were there for us to chase around the olives, plum trees and mulberry, while moths fell into your glass of water at night or dropped dead on the table, immolated on electric bulbs.
We sat in Maria Pia’s kitchen and she told us how hard-earned cash had come from silkworms living on the leaves from our mulberry tree.
‘Cocoons sold well until nylon was invented after the war. In less time than it takes to think about it, no one would buy them. The silk industry was finished. One less way to find ready cash since landowners, for some reason, didn’t demand half of the cocoons as they did for everything else in the mezzadria system.’
I asked her to identify the flowers for us. She pronounced, I wrote the names down but couldn’t find them in my Italian botanical dictionary.
‘Is she making them up, Mummy?’
‘No. They’re probably dialect words.’
‘What’s dialect? Do I speak it?’ He did, picking up words heard about him in the valley.
Dan and Olivia entertaining each other: two figures fading into a distant landscape. I became peripheral, my story of the ruin rebuilt inconsequential, all part of an unvaried pattern of change from chrysalis to bug to moth to eggs to death and rebirth. Everything waiting for the next act, outlines prescribed, details indistinct. Something would happen and there was nothing that mother and child, bent over wild flowers and insects, could do to change it.