A Condom Won’t Fix This One
Robert makes the association. Each morning as he takes his pills. Swills them down with Ribena. This cocktail of drugs that has kept his viral load low enough for long enough for him to become an old man. And he recalls his youthful lover Terry Clapham who died on 13th November 1989. Thirty years, Terry. Where has it gone? I survived one epidemic – the papers called it plague then; the Gay Plague – will I survive a second?
He is thinking this when his weekly Sheltering Person’s survival food package arrives. When he has retrieved it from his doorstep he goes out onto the balcony of his flat on the third floor and waves – rather like a member of the Royal family – to the woman who has delivered it. Her name is Martine.
The only other visit he gets this week is from a boy called Martin – strange that – from the LGBT centre. Martin rings occasionally to check he is okay. Would he like a chat? To pass the time. Would he like a book to read? I can bring one round. Or two, if you like? No. One will be enough. It will have to be a random choice, Martin explains. It will be in a sealed plastic bag. Sanitised. I’ll leave it at your door. Open the bag with scissors. Without touching it let the book fall from the bag onto a surface like a table or chair. Dispose of the bag. Wash your hands, and the scissors. Then you can enjoy your book. When Robert has successfully completed this procedure he goes out onto his balcony and waves to Martin to let him know all is well.
The book chosen for him is called Falling Star and is by Alan Hollinghurst.
Robert isn’t a great reader. Terry was. Falling Star is alright. He is quite enjoying it. It will at least keep him away from the television – and all those terrifying statistics. Statistics that make him angry when he looks out on to the street below and sees people too close together, not crossing the street to pass one another. Runners panting past people. He wants to go out on to his balcony and shout: A condom isn’t going to fix this one.
Sometimes Robert puts the book down and thinks of Terry. His favourite book was called Giovanni’s Room. And is by James Baldwin. Robert read
parts of it to him during those last grey days in Charing Cross Hospital. To pass the time. Robert remembers looking into Terry’s skeleton face. Time passing. Can you hear me? But still he read. Words. Words. Giovanni’s Room. His life. His love. Words.
When Terry’s mother came, she tutted: Oh don’t read him that stuff, Robert.
Giovanni’s room in Milan is empty. At lockdown he fled the city for Mantua. His sister Eleonora phoned. Cara mia, devi venire da me. Metti in quarantena con noi. La tua salute non buona. L’HIV ti rende molto vulnerabile. Sarai più sicuro qui. Sii qui Purim. Per favour vieni – My darling, you must come to me. Quarantine with us. Your health is not good. HIV makes you very vulnerable. You will be safer here. Be here for Purim. Please come.
So. He drove through the night. There are three of them here: Eleonara, her mother-in-law Allegrezza Gonzaga – and Giovanni. All of them have lost their men. Two husbands and a lover. Three cancers – all different. And all of them think about those men during these heavy quiet days of quarantine.
The holiday of Purim – a festival of Jewish deliverance – passes. There are just the three of them.
Each week Eleonara’s daughter arrives with food boxes: pasta, polenta, beans, a melon, tomatoes, chicken, a lemon, maize, bananas, bacon, (for Allegrazza only) bread, 2 bottles of wine, all of which she leaves at the gate. No polenta, Eleonara mutters. As Giovanni and Eleonara store the goods – in cupboards, in the fridge - Allegrezza sits beneath a pear tree in the courtyard; shouts across to her neighbours now and then. In the mornings she chops vegetables on a small tray on her lap.
Eleonara is always on the computer. Talking to her daughter, her grandchildren, her friends. Even her friend in New York. Each evening she follows the progress of the disease on the radio. Assiduously writing down the daily figures as one might record football results. On Thursday in their Lombardy region there were 15,113 confirmed infections and 1,016 confirmed deaths.
They discuss the figures over dinner. The catastrophe. Then. Fall silent.
Giovanni takes a walk each morning – very early. Exercise in his banishment.
He can think at any time of the day. There is nothing to stop him, nothing to intrude on his thoughts. But it is easier to think – rationally at least - in the early morning.
He walks from their gate along the lane beside the beet fields. He is still there - sometimes counting crop-heads, a peaceful, if pointless activity – when the bells of the Basilica Sant Andrea sound seven. A death knell? The bells reach Giovanni softly; if he were sleeping they would not rouse him. His boyhood alarm clock was the bells of the nearer Palatina di Santa Barbara silenced now since the earthquake of 2012 that destroyed so much. 29th May. 8 Sivan 5772.
At eight he is circling the orchard of their neighbour Guido Barella and thinking of the earthquake. Giovanni escaped it entirely. He was still in Paris. That day he was reading Samuel Beckett to Julian as he lay in Institut Curie. Eight days left. Eight days of reading. Molloy. Murphy. Malone dies. Words. Words. Words. Giovanni hadn’t read a novel since. Just newspapers and occasionally factual books: politics; economics, sport. He had brought with him from Mantua a book about Ayrton Senna.
Julian liked Giovanni to tell him about feast days. You know them all he told Giovanni. And you aren’t a catholic. You can’t grow up in Italy not knowing festival and saints days any more than you can live in Israel without knowing when Hanukkah is, or Yom Kippur. In the hospital Julian lost track of days and dates. Today is Tuesday, Giovanni told him. The 29th May. The feast of St Bonas of Pisa. Julian made a joke about the Saint’s name. It was good to see him laugh. No, no, no, she was a woman. Very religious. She had visions. Constantly. Jesus suffering on his cross. She is the patron saint of travellers, and – you won’t believe this – flight attendants.
He was still at the hospital when he received the text from Eleonara: Terremoto questa mattina. 6.1. Danni locali ma siamo al sicuro. Resta con Julian. Telefonami quando puoi – Earthquake this morning. 6.1. Local damage but we are safe. Stay with Julian. Call me when you can.
When he returns from his walk around the beet fields Allegrezza is listening to Puccini on the radio: the intermezzo from Manon Lescaut. She tells him she will boil him some eggs for breakfast. She will make coffee.
As she cuts bread the music finishes, and is replaced by the morning news bulletin. Allegrezza pauses. Rests the knife and listens. And so, the quiet morning is spoilt. Things are very bad. The figures are bad. Hospitals are struggling bravely. Lombardy is still the epicentre of the epidemic. The epicentre. The crisis is devastating the economy. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has announced the allocation of another twenty-five billion euros to help businesses stay afloat. Epicentre, Giovanni thinks as he eats his eggs. Like an earthquake. We are the epicentre. Can one stay afloat in an epicentre?
There is nothing in Falling Star that directly causes Robert to think of Terry. But he is in Robert’s mind all the time now. In the afternoon he reads. In the evening he plays Blondie and thinks about the old days. Touched by Your Presence, Dear. And again, Touched by Your Presence, Dear.
When the novel is finished Robert lays it aside. He has nothing else to read. Martin will replace it next week. He might ring him and ask if he has Giovanni’s Room. It is a long shot, but he may have it, or be able to get it. He could explain why it is suddenly so important.
Until Falling Star arrived he hadn’t thought of Giovanni’s Room for years. Now he sees again – so clearly - the book from which he read each day in Charing Cross Hospital. On the cover a drawing. Two good looking young men. One wears a yellow shirt; the other is bare-chested. Yellow shirt smiles – grins even; bare chest is pensive. Each time he picked the book up to read to Terry there they were, staring out at him. And something else comes back to him now. The empty page – empty but for two words: For Lucien. He told Terry. The author has dedicated this to someone called Lucien. I wonder who he is, Terry. A lover do you think? Terry made no reply. But Robert was sure he heard him. He would not have been able to continue if he thought otherwise. Reading. Reading.
Yes. He would ring Martin. He would like to read the book again.
Stupid. Stupid. What is he thinking? He goes on line. Amazon. It is there of course. A different cover now though. But that was a long time ago. Everything has changed. Now there is a picture of James Baldwin. The author. Robert thinks he looks like a young Garth Crooks. And beneath the picture of the book’s cover there is a quotation from the novel. Robert reads it on the screen of his computer. Then again.
Until I die there will be those moments, moments seeming to rise up out of the ground like Macbeth’s witches, when his face will come before me, that face in all its changes, when the exact timbre of his voice and tricks of his speech will nearly burst my ears, when his smell will overpower my nostrils...