The Autumn Of His Charm
The Autumn Of His Charm.
There was a taste of brackish water in his mouth. Sea-salt acrid.
Maurizio opened his eyes and tried to remember what he'd been drinking
the night before. Cheap wine. A little Pernod. There'd been food, too,
of sorts. All those oysters. He groaned and shifted in the bed. His
head was pounding and the sheet clung unpleasantly to his body. At
least he was alone. It made a change.
The clock ticked loudly towards nine. He turned over, curling into a
foetal position to quell the nausea. The curtains were drawn but a
milky daylight seeped through. The floor of the room was covered with
scattered things: hats, empty wine bottles, tangles of discarded
clothing. Memories crowded his mind, drunken snap-shots: dressing up in
the small hours, cracking open another bottle, the two of them dancing.
He closed his eyes and dozed. The bed was warm and he was exhausted. He
Sounds broke into his dream. The door opening, keys jangling and dumped
on the table.
'Come on, wake up. It's midday.'
Audra, her voice soft and gently ironic. He half-opened his eyes and
smiled. She put her books down and switched on the radio. Then she
stood over him, glossy brown hair falling over her face. He pulled her
down onto the bed but she resisted, laughing.
'You look terrible.'
'Come on. Come back to bed.'
'I've got things to do. The gallery doesn't run itself, you
'A little extra sleep won't hurt you and - '
'I thought you had a date...'
She kissed him, lips parted, tongue probing gently.
'I do, but I think I could find the time to...'
'You should save some energy for little Sophie. I don't want to be
She pulled her jumper over her head and tumbled into the bed.
'You're amazing.' His voice was lost in their kiss.
The day was beautiful, the October sunlight clear and golden, the blue
sky, flawless. . Hardman Street was busy. The cafes were hectic and the
pavements crowded with students rushing to lunch. Maurizio ambled into
town, full of the contentment of recently fed cats and just as sleek.
His shirt was fresh and Audra had pressed the creases from his suit.
His reflection, caught fleetingly in the polished shop windows told him
he was looking good, despite the booze, despite all those cheap
cigarettes. He passed a hand through his still damp hair and turned the
corner. Sophie would be waiting.
At the end of Bold Street, near the Caf? Tabac, a ravaged man peddled
the local paper. Broken teeth gleaming in his mouth, he bawled the
latest tragedy: News of bombing, things burnt on the other side of the
world. Maurizio shuddered as he crossed the road. The shadow was
everywhere. The suffering. He cleared his throat, chased the darkness
from his mind and walked into the Tabac. Sophie glanced up from her
book and caught his eye. She didn't smile.
'Am I late.' He used his most jovial voice as he sat down next to
'No more than usual. I know I'm no more than a footnote in your
'You're such a cynic.'
'You give me good reason.'
There was a pause. The caf? was crowded, a fug of cigarette smoke
hanging in the air. An ancient woman at the corner table painted her
lips scarlet. Maurizio threw himself down next to Sophie and gave her
his best James Dean.
'Shall we have some coffee? I could do with a little caffeine.'
'Late night was it?' Sophie eyes him suspiciously, running pale
fingers through even paler hair.
'What is this? Aren't you happy to see me? I thought we-'
Her face softened into a gentle smile.
'Oh, I'm sorry. I think sometimes I want to see you too much. And then
'Let's order something. Do you want another cappuccino?'
He gestured to the listless waiter. Sophie took hold of his hand.
'Will you come to my flat today? I want to be alone with you. Will
He felt his ego swell and decided to tease her a little.
'I'm not sure. I have a few things I need to do and - '
'Please, Maurizio.' Her lower lip trembled.
'Well, ok.' The waiter returned with their coffee. 'What are you
'Simone's 'The Woman Destroyed''
'Yeah, really. But I'm not sure you'd like it.'
The made small talk while they drank their coffee. Sophie talked in a
quiet voice about her music lessons, how it felt to be in her final
year. Maurizio smiled at the appropriate moments, all the while
rejoicing in his talent for love. His charm was a drug. He watched her
mouth and thought about undressing her. They left caf? without paying,
heading out into the sunlit street, laughing at their audacity. The air
was warm like a southern summer. Sophie took his hand, smiling.
'The weather's strange, isn't it? It's not like autumn at all.'
'Does it confuse you?'
'Yeah, but you know I like a little confusion'.
They walked towards Sophie's flat past the abandoned church. The trees
in the graveyard were blazing, leaves flaming red and gold. A soft
breeze blew along the street as they climbed the steps to the front
The long shadows of the afternoon made her room photogenic, the
atmosphere serene like Kertesz image. Maurizio kissed her gently as
they lay down on the narrow bed and the soft hum of the traffic in the
street retreated. Afterwards, they lay in the quietness and for a long
time said nothing. Then Sophie turned over and gazed into his
'I bumped into Audra.' Her tone was casual.
Maurizio tensed, wondering if his skin carried traces of Audra's
'Oh yeah? Where?'
'At the market. We were buying fruit at the same stall.'
There was a pause. Maurizio listened to her soft breathing, felt the
blood throb in his body.
'Did she say anything interesting?'
'No. We just chatted for while. Would you like some orange juice? It's
She threw back the sheet and got up, wrapping a thin robe around her
pale body, and giving him a geisha smile. He got up too, rifling
through his discarded clothes, sliding a hand into his jacket pocket to
ensure that he still had his invitation the opening.
He arrived late and was disappointed. The 'Open Face' gallery was
empty. Plastic cups of wine stood untouched in pristine rows on a table
at the edge of the room. The lights were stark and unpleasantly bright.
The scene was so unlike the warm, softly-lit picture he had imagined.
Irritation made him jumpy so he grabbed a drink and gulped it down,
thinking about moving on. A group of students arrived, laughing loudly.
One of them threw him a look, provocative, blue eyes bright and empty.
The atmosphere warmed and Maurizio felt himself relax. The evening
might bear fruit, after all. Others drifted in with notebooks and
cameras looking bored. The local press.
There was music, avant-garde and discordant and the artist, Elizabeth
van Dooren, appeared in dark glasses. She stepped up onto a small
raised area and approached the mic.
'It's so good that you've come to support me tonight.' Her voice had
an Eastern European cadence. 'And not just me. My work, my vision. I'm
There was a ripple of disinterested applause. Maurizio shifted his
attention from the young student to this creature on the platform. He
hair was copper coloured and flowing. Maurizio imagined how it would
look tumbled against the whiteness of his bed sheets. The woman was
talking a little too loudly.
'This collection of images represents the crowning achievement of the
last three years of my life. Here you can see my suffering, my desire,
the pain of my bloodlust...'
She raised her hands skyward as if in supplication. The lights
glittered on her lacquered nails. Maurizio could see the firm contour
of her body and wondered if she was looking at him from behind her
shades. She stepped down and the journalists moved forward. Maurizio
moved with them.
The hacks gathered around her, making statements laden with clich?,
asking questions devoid of curiosity. Elizabeth laughed and removed her
glasses, flashing flirtatious glances at each of them. Her eyes were
deep blue and fake. Her soul was invisible. Maurizio knew she was
watching him. He moved closer to her and he could smell her perfume: a
heavy sweetness with a sprinkling of bitterness. He smiled into her
geometric face and thought about introducing himself. Then something
glittered in the corner of his eye and he turned.
Audra was smiling maliciously at him, her lips curled and gleaming.
'You didn't mention you'd be here.'
Adept at dealing with all kinds of awkwardness, Maurizio was
'Audra, you get everywhere, don't you?'
'I don't thing my influence is a pervasive as yours.' She ran her
fingers gently across his cheek but her voice was cold.
'Let's get drunk?'
'I had the impression you had other plans.' She shot a glance at
'You're not jealous, are you? After everything we've said?' Audra
examined her scarlet nails. 'We could get out of her and drink the last
of that Pernod.'
'I can't, I'm afraid. I'm expected somewhere else. But I feel sure
you'll find someone to entertain you.'
She swept towards the exit, her hair flying behind her. She did not
look back. Maurizio took a gulp of wine and notices with a pang that
The artist had also moved away and was locked in conversation with a
boy with ragged dreadlocks. He found himself alone with his plastic
cup. Audra had enraged him so, of course, he thought of Sophie.
Her room was warm and amber-lit. Candles burned on the mantle and a
paperback lay open on the bed. She wore an oriental robe tied at the
waste with a twisted cord. Curling herself into the armchair, she gave
examined him speculatively.
'I thought I'd drop in for a chat. A drink maybe. The evening's been
dull so far and -'
'You can't stay. I'm expecting someone.'
Her lips were a deep red, moist like bruised damsons. He could imagine
wasps hovering drunkenly around them.
'Oh, I see. Well, if it's an awkward time then...'His eyes strayed
over her white throat, the vein pulsing delicately beneath the skin.
For a few moments they did not speak. 'Is everything OK? You seem a
'Everything's fine. Now if you don't mind, I have to get ready.'
She stood up and moved toward the door. He followed her down the stairs
and she kissed him coolly before ushering him over the threshold. The
door closed quietly behind him and he was alone. It was misty and the
air smelt of smoke. The autumn night was muggy. He walked towards the
corner then glanced back. The light from her room was muted and golden
in the dark. He imagined her inside waiting for her visitor and was
full of disquiet.
In the early morning, his head still aching from lack of sleep, he
thought he saw them together at the Tabac. Audra and Sophie. Two pale
figures at the back of the caf?, heads together, talking like lovers.
He couldn't be sure. The sunlight glittered on the window panes and
made the shadowy interior even darker. He couldn't linger for a closer
look for fear of being seen so he hurried on in the direction of the
library. The world was overturning, summer breaking into autumn, seeds
germinating in earth that should, by now, be dormant. Someone tapped
him on the shoulder.
'I thought it was you.' Sophie was bright. 'We're in the Tabac. Why
don't you join us.'
'Yeah, Audra and me.'
'You look exhausted. Coffee might be just the thing you need.'
She said nothing about the night before and he wondered if he was
getting paranoid. Or worse, infected by the jealousy he was so keen to
condemn. He could feel perspiration forming in little drops under his
'Ok, coffee sounds good. How long have you and Audra been meeting. I
didn't know you were close.'
'Oh, you know what girls are like, always gossiping.'
Her voice was airy but he felt sure there was an underlying
Audra rose as they approached. She passed a pale hand through her long
hair and smiled.
'Maurizio, baby. So good to see you. We've got very sharp eyes you
know. We saw you scurrying past.'
They sat down and Maurizio ordered an unwanted espresso, uncertain why
he had agreed to come. The air between them was charged and yet they
seemed relaxed. Sophie laughed. Audra smiled affectionately.
'And we've got so much to talk about. We're planning a party. A little
dinner. Would you like to come?'
Maurizio felt his heart subside. Whatever was going on it couldn't be
good. He was sure that Audra was playing one of her games. He
remembered her face at the gallery the night before, the cold glitter
in her eyes. Jealousy was not green, it was a hot white light in the
'Well? Would you like to come or not?'
' I think I'll pass...'
Sophie leaned across the table, laying her hand across his. Her skin
'Oh come on. We can drink and dance.'
'Well...'Audra was re-applying her lipstick. She looked beautiful,
like something from Man Ray. 'Ok.'
He felt the caffeine in his blood, was sure he'd made a mistake.
'Anyway, it's a kind of celebration.' Audra smiled at Maurizio across
a makeshift dinner table in Sophie's flat. 'It's not often I get to see
you in a social situation like this. We're usually alone.'
Candles flickered in a crystal bowl. There was a delicious smell of
cooking from the kitchen.
'I thought you liked to be alone with me.' He kept his voice low,
scared that Sophie might hear him.
'Well, I like to do other things, too. In that respect I'm not so
different from you.'
Sophie came in with a bottle of wine and opened it, splashing into
their glasses. Her cheeks were glowing and it was clear that she'd
already been drinking.
'There we are. And I've got lots more in the fridge. We can really
'Let's have a toast.' Audra raised her glass. 'To freedom.'
The rims of their glassed touched in the candle-lit air. Maurizio began
to relax, sure suddenly that his apprehension was unfounded. His girls
were the best of friends as well as his lovers. He should have trusted
Audra more. The idea that she was full of destruction seem ludicrous
now the evening was unfolding in it's warm candlelit way.
'The table's set for four. Are we expecting someone?'
Sophie ignored him and grinned at Audra.
'It's time to eat.'
Sophie retreated to the kitchen and returned with plates of Quails,
their little eyes open and staring. Maurizio gulped a little more of
'This looks wonderful.'
'I thought I try something unusual.'
They talked as they ate. Audra gossiped about life at the gallery.
Sophie laughed and flirted with both of them. Feeling the effects of
the wine, Maurizio eyed each of them, wondering who he would choose at
the end of the evening. The clock edged towards One and Sophie opened
There was sharp knock at the door. Sophie rose unsteadily, folding her
napkin and taking another mouthful of wine.
'At last.' She seemed pleased.
'So you are expecting someone else?' Maurizio was curious.
'Well, yes, the guest of honour.' The knock came again. 'Excuse me,
you two. I'll just get the door.'
'Who is it?'
Audra looked surprise.
'Sophie's new man. Didn't you know? All this, tonight, it's really for
She popped a quails head into her mouth and crunched. Her lips were
wet, her eyes glossy and mocking. Maurizio heard voices in the hallway
and then Sophie came in with a young man.
'This is Otto, everyone. Some wine, Otto?'
'That would be great, thanks.'
He was tall and thin, his face sun-bronzed. Maurizio felt something
unpleasant move within him. Otto sat down next to Sophie and the two
chatted like old friends. Then they kissed.
'Let me give you a refill, darling.'
Audra was solicitous. Maurizio felt the blood rush to his cheeks. His
sipped a little wine and noticed that his hands were shaking. Audra
caught his eyes.
'Well, I think I'd better get going. Maurizio, care to share a taxi
She turned her attention to Sophie.
'Listen, darling, we 're going to make a move. Leave you two together.
They said their goodbyes. Outside, the night air was cool. Maurizio
rounded on Audra.
'Why the hell didn't you tell me?'
'Tell you what?' Said Audra, lightly.
'You knew about it, didn't you?'
A group a drunks passed them, jeering, weaving away from them into the
road. Audra threw them a contemptuous glance.
'Don't be so primitive. We're all free after all. Free to
'You're setting me up. You know it.'
'If I didn't know you better, I'd say you were jealous.'
He imagined striking her, bruising her pale smooth skin. The reached
the corner and turned into Hardman Street. The bars were neon bathed
and crowded. Audra threw her arm around his waste.
'One more Pernod before bed? We could call into Caf? Magnet or...' She
paused, 'You could come back to my place. I know a way to calm your
'No, I'm going straight home.'
Then he left. Glancing back as he crossed the street he saw her pull
her phone from her bag and key in a number. The coloured lights from
the flashing sign above her head made her face seem strange. She was
It was dark in the morning in his room. He struggled from the bed and
pulled back the curtains. Rain streaked with windows. He yawned and
something caught his eye: A red admiral butterfly was trembling beyond
the pane. A broken thing, clinging to life. It's jewelled wings were
blurred and ragged. Summer's end. He stared into the mirror. His face
looked as it always did but he felt something had changed. He picked up
the phone and called Sophie.
'Can I see you?' He tried to sound calm.
'But you saw me last night. We don't see each other everyday. You
always said you needed space.'
'But I'd really like to see you today. Now.'
'We could meet in the Tabac.'
There was a pause. Maurizio could hear her breathing softly on the
other end of the line.
'No, I'm sorry. I can't see you today. I'm having lunch with Otto and
I don't want to exhaust myself with too much smalltalk before
'Small talk? We always -'
'Someone's at the door. I must dash. Bye.'
The phone went dead. Maurizio replaced the receiver. He could here the
rain rattling against the window.
'Oh, its ridiculous.' He held his cup out and Audra filled it with
Lapsang Suchong. 'I actually experienced jealousy. Just for a few
minutes. But it was real. A genuinely unique experience.'
Audra smoothed her eyebrow.
'Jealous? You? Surely not. And over little Sophie, too. Would you like
She offered him a plate on which slivers of cherry cake were
'No thanks.' He sipped his tea. 'Yeah, I really was jealous. But now
I've worked it through. We're free after all. I have you. Sophie has
me. And she's free to see who she likes provided it doesn't interfere
with my plans.'
Audra gave him a bright but slightly stiff grin.
'Reading Sartre has really helped you. You're such an evolved human
being, darling. Shall we talk about something else?'
The mist was thickening in the late evening, laced with a smell of
fireworks, of fields burning in the distance. He knocked on Sophie's
door, more himself than he had been in days, a bunch of lilies cool in
his hand. He hoped for wine and lovemaking. His heart was light again
and the evening was full of promise. He knocked again and waited but
still no one came. Then he noticed that the door was ajar. He pushed it
and it swung silently open. He could hear music drifting from the upper
rooms. He began to climb the stairs.
'Sophie?' He could hear laughter, light and ironic. 'Sophie, is that
He stood on the landing. Golden light seeped from under her door. He
waited for a few seconds and knocked.
The door bust open and Sophie stood silhouetted. Her cheeks were
flushed and she was naked under her robe.
'Oh, Maurizio, it's you. What do you want?'
He peered past her into the room. The music was loud and frenetic.
Clothing lay in little heaps all over the floor.
'I'm interrupting. I'm sorry.' He thrust the flowers into her
Muffled sounds came from the bedroom. Then a voice, languorous and
'Darling, who is it?'
Maurizio gasped when he saw Audra emerge into the sitting-room wrapped
in a sheet. Her lips looked swollen from kissing but her expression was
as impassive as ever. That cold light glittered in her eyes.
'Come in, baby. Let's get drunk.'