by Fiona Whyte
The day was very still. The plants that lined the crumbling walls drooped in the afternoon sun. The birds that had awoken her with competing choruses had now fallen silent and the neighbours who had shouted greetings to each other across balconies had gone to work or gone indoors. A rustling in the foliage startled her and before she could move, something shot out from the hydrangea, over the flagstones and into the ivy that meandered along the wall. She didn't catch its sise or colour but she had definitely seen something, a live something. Prickles of apprehension crept along her skin. She sat up and stared at where the thing had gone. For a few moments there was no movement. And then, a shiver in the ivy leaves as a head popped out, followed by a squirming body. A smallish worm-like creature. She drew her legs up to her chest and coiled in on herself, too petrified to move. He darted across the paving. An instant later he was half way up the opposite wall, his legs splayed out from his wormy body, clinging to the stone, his tiny head twitching, whether alert for prey or predators she couldn't tell. Ripples of nausea ran through her stomach. A lizard. There was a lizard in the courtyard.
They were in Italy, renting a house in a tiny village, whose name she couldn't pronounce, hidden in the mountains surrounding Lake Orta. She had suggested Tuscany but Julius said that for the price of one week in Tuscany they could do two at Lake Orta. And she needed a break, he said, not a frantic dash through the tourist infestations of Florence and Siena, but a complete break in the stillness of the hills and the water. It was what they both needed.
The house was over 400 years old, an appendage to a villa, perhaps a guest apartment or servants’ quarters. No one seemed sure. The windows and doors were screened by wooden shutters which might have been as old as the house itself. They were thick and dark, almost black, studded with large nails and long gaping cracks which let in streaks of the sunlight they were meant to repel. The shutters had black keys which were huge and heavy and refused to turn in the locks, but the gate to the courtyard was secure and the surrounding walls were high.
Inside the house the walls sloped at awkward angles and there were uneven steps to trip over at every turn, including a winding staircase, not easily negotiated after a bottle of Barbera d'Asti. The antique setting was completed by a scattering of domestic objects about the house: enamel basins set in stands of wrought iron, copper pans with holes burned in the base and soapstone irons so heavy that even Julius struggled to lift them.
There was a well in the courtyard, hollowed into the two feet thick wall of the kitchen. It was dry now, gated off and padlocked.
‘In case of children,’ said the agent. ‘We don't want to lose any little child.’
Catherine felt Julius’ arm loop around her, holding her tight, his long fingers clenching her bare white skin. She fixed her eyes on the agent and asked where the nearest shop was.
The day after the lizard Catherine insisted on an outing. They took the short boat trip to Isola San Giulio at the centre of the lake. The early morning mist was lifting and the light that fell on the white-washed buildings doused the island in silver. They moved quiet as ghosts along the serpentine Via del Silenzioso. The Via surrounded a Benedictine convent and the nuns had placed signs at intervals along the path. ‘Silence is the language of love,’ read one. Catherine ran her hand along the walls of the convent, displacing flaky bits of plaster and grinding them with her fingers. She thought how it might be good to be a nun in there, secluded behind the walls, breaking silence only now and then to sing Gregorian chants.
They had coffee in the island’s only restaurant and read about the legend of San Giulio from the guide book. In the 4th century the island was a rocky wilderness, inhabited by hideous dragons and venomous reptiles, the perfect location it seemed for San Giulio to build his 100th church. Unable to persuade any of the local boatmen to ferry him across, the saint spread his cloak over the water and, using his staff as an oar, glided across to the island. The dragons and reptiles were no match for him and were quickly dispatched. Catherine wondered what the creatures were.
‘Representations of sex, probably,’ said Julius. He was leaning away from the table, one arm slung over the back of his chair, his right foot dangling over his left knee.
‘Or possibly pagans,’ he added.
‘But,’ Catherine said, putting the espresso cup back on its saucer, without drinking from it. ‘Well, I suppose it's just mildly possible, isn’t it, that maybe it was something else, an actual dangerous animal maybe, or some other nasty thing, and he killed it?’
‘Maybe,’ he said. ‘You must be tired. Let’s go back once we’ve seen the basilica.’
In the basilica they climbed down into the crypt to look at the remains of San Giulio. Catherine peered in the dark at the finely robed skeleton sleeping behind the glass. His staff and cup lay next to him. Long after Julius had gone to explore the rest of the church, she stood staring at the saint. When she finally moved away, the echoes of footsteps followed her about the crypt and back up the steps to the church. She glanced back at San Giulio. He was still sleeping.
Later, in the courtyard, the lizard appeared again, shooting over the paving and onto the wall. Catherine was alone. Julius had gone to the supermarket. She drew her knees to her chest and tried to breathe her way through the nausea but her eyes were frozen on the lizard. She saw that his scaly body was covered in tiny pale green spots and that his tail was long, longer than it had seemed before, and that it gradually tapered off to a needlepoint end. She wondered if the thing was growing. She began to ease herself off the chair. At her first movement the lizard shot up to the top of the wall and out over it, his tail flicking behind him. Catherine got herself inside and shut the door.
In the days that followed, they began to explore the mountains and villages which dotted the edges of the lake. They set off in the mornings to discover the region’s abbeys and churches, then swam in the lake in the afternoons to rinse the heat away. In the evenings Julius insisted that Catherine sit in the courtyard while he cooked supper. The lizard always let her know he was there. First, she would hear the rustling of the hydrangea leaves, then, just as the sickening dread overtook her, he sprang out. She moved the sun lounger away from the bushes, right up to the wall of the house but she couldn't escape him.
‘It's disgusting,’ she said to Julius, when she could finally bring herself to talk about it. ‘Absolutely disgusting. And I think he changes appearance. Like, he's a bit greener, or his spots are larger, or he's a bit fatter-looking.’
Julius laughed at her.
‘I think you might be imagining that. Interesting creatures, lizards, actually. They can shed their tails. It distracts predators. Then they grow another to replace the lost one.’
They began to venture further afield. They made an excursion to Stresa and took a boat trip from there to Locarno.
‘Just like in A Farewell to Arms,’ said Julius enthusiastically.
Catherine pressed her hand against her stomach and grimaced.
They went to the cathedral in Turin and saw a copy of the Shroud. In Milan they avoided the crowds at The Last Supper and sought refuge in the Pinacoteca di Brera instead. But as they moved through the gallery, Catherine saw that the rooms were full of Madonnas, Madonnas with heads bent over ugly babies tearing at milk-laden breasts or leering out at the viewer; or distraught Madonnas collapsing over the scourged and lifeless bodies of their sons. She scurried to the exit, Julius in her wake, her eyes fixed on the floor, away from the walls which seemed to be getting narrower and closer the nearer they got to the doorway.
On their final evening Julius prepared some Pasta Puttanesca. He said he was looking forward to going home, looking forward to seeing some rain and eating potatoes and, well, having a bit of a fresh start. Catherine nodded and took her book outside. Within moments, the lizard had popped his little head out of a crevice in the wall and slid onto the ground. He flicked his head from side to side and flitted along, apparently unaware of Catherine’s presence. He had grown smaller now, she noticed, unaccountably small, so much smaller in fact that he seemed more like a baby, a little baby lizard. Catherine sat upright. And now that realisation was dawning, she saw squirming out of the wall another longer lizard which lunged itself at the baby. The baby fled back to the crevice in the steps and soon she could see heads and tails popping in and out of gaps in the stone in a dizzying game of lizard hide and seek. A vision of whole families of lizards flashed through her and she sprang up and fled into the kitchen.
Julius was draining pasta at the sink. She sat at the kitchen table and poured herself a glass of wine from the open bottle.
‘I want to eat in here,’ she told him.
‘But it’s still warm,’ he said, without turning round. ‘Let’s eat outside.’
‘Did you not hear what I said?’ Her voice was louder than she intended. ‘I’m not eating out there.’ She went to bring the glass to her lips but it fell from her hand and the wine spilled into a large red puddle which spread across the table and dripped onto the floor. Julius wiped it up. The wine seeped into the cloth, its redness bleeding through the fibre.
Afterwards, he sat down next to her and put his hand on top of her head. He ran his fingers through her hair down to her shoulders and along her arm. Catherine pulled away.
Julius’ face reddened. He slammed the wine-soaked cloth on the table.
‘It was my loss too,’ he said. ‘You forget that.’
‘No, Julius,’ she said. ‘I don't. I don't ever forget that.’
As if she could forget. The pregnancy had thrilled Julius. She was thrown by his reaction. She couldn’t find a foothold to pull him back to her path, their path. They hadn’t planned on children, she reminded him. They had planned on freedom, careers, travel. They were too busy, too inexperienced, too old. He smiled at her and put his lips to her forehead to kiss away her doubts. He would take on the bulk of the baby care. She needn’t worry about anything. All she had to do for the next few months was look after herself and carry the baby. And after all, they didn’t really have any other choice, did they?
Catherine felt sick all the time. Nausea invaded her body and the only escape was through sleep. There were days, quite a few days, when she couldn't go to work. Julius looked up medical encyclopaedias and websites and assured her that this was perfectly normal, that in fact it was a clear sign of a healthy baby. He made her cups of tea with slices of dry toast and brought her ginger ale with crackers. He said plain, low-fat food was best for women in her condition. He banished her from the kitchen, lest the smell of cooking would exacerbate the nausea. Women suffering from morning sickness could be hyper-sensitive to the smell of food, he informed her.
But Catherine was overwhelmed with a sickness that she didn't think had anything to do with food. She tried not to think about the little thing wriggling and squirming inside. She tried not to think about it getting bigger and bigger and pushing her insides out. She tried not to think about it ripping her body open and squealing and thrashing its little arms and legs up and down. She tried not to think about blood and excrement, placentas and membranes, men with masks and scissors and knives. But visions, coloured in red and dirt, of the creature inside, plagued her and steadily sickened her more and more.
She tried to talk to Julius.
‘I don’t want to do it,’ she said. ‘It's making me sick.’
Julius was kind, always kind. He put his arm around her.
‘What you're feeling is normal. Of course, you're afraid of childbirth. Who wouldn’t be? But we've got the best doctors. You’ll have plenty of pain relief and I’ll be with you for every second.’
‘I’m telling you I can't do it. I can't stand the thought of it.’
‘Look, you're in the second trimester now. The morning sickness will ease off soon and you'll feel much better about everything.’
But the nausea intensified. She tried to pray it away. She thought about hot baths and bottles of gin. She dreamed of flights to England. She called up images of the little wriggling thing being washed away, leaving her clean and cured. She stopped talking to Julius.
Then came the pain. It came gently, in the night. She kept it quiet, nursed it in secret, afraid that if she fell back to sleep it might disappear. When the first red spot trickled into her underwear the following morning, she still said nothing but told Julius she was taking a day off work. As the day went on, more and more red spots drained out of her, bigger, darker and wetter and the pain too became bigger and darker and stronger. It was only when Julius came home that evening, when she was quite sure it was too late to do anything, that she told him. He cried in the hospital when the doctor shook her head and patted him on the arm.
‘But it was a miracle,’ he kept saying. ‘We didn't plan it. It was a miracle.’
Catherine closed her eyes to avoid looking at him. When he touched her she edged away. The doctor said to allow plenty of time to grieve and then they could try again. Julius nodded. They wouldn't need another miracle. When the time was right they could try again, he said.
She woke in the night. Moonlight was dripping into the bedroom in Italy. The air was hot and humid and damp patches were breaking out on her nightdress. She threw off the blanket. She rolled onto her side and located a cool patch on the sheet. She sank into it, wanting to wrap herself in it like a shroud. A tender and familiar ache was sprouting in the pit of her stomach. It was almost nothing, just a seedling of pain pressing against her insides. Really, it was nothing. Catherine pressed her knotted fist against the twinge. She didn't know what the Italians called it but she had learned the German medical term long ago at school. Mittelschmerz. She had started ovulating again.
She eased herself out of the bed. Julius didn’t stir. Downstairs would be cooler, she thought. She poured herself a glass of water in the kitchen. It cooled her but the pain inside was a constant hum. Mittelschmerz. She'd always suffered from it, except suffered wasn't exactly the right word. It had been her friend, really, a timely reminder about when to be extra careful. She opened the door to the courtyard and stood in the moonlight. Something green flicked along the ground. More than one. Lizards were scooting up the walls and over the flagstones. One shot into the kitchen. Catherine pressed herself up against the doorframe as another and yet another reptilian invader burst through.
Catherine screamed. The lizards scattered. She screamed again. She heard Julius’ feet thumping down the stairs and smacking against the tiles in the hallway.
‘What the..? What's happened?’ he said.
‘It's the lizards. They're in the kitchen now. I can't stand it.’
Julius looked around the kitchen. He checked in the corners and behind the bin. Then he closed the door.
‘Well, there's nothing there now. They must have run out when you screamed.’ He reached out and put his arms around her. He kissed her neck very softly.
‘Come back to bed.’
‘No!' She jerked away from him. 'I think I’ll stay here and read for a while. You go on ahead. I’ll be up soon.’
Julius stood there in a pair of faded boxer shorts. His face suddenly seemed crumpled and worn. Then he slumped out.
They ate breakfast in silence the following morning, looking out at the courtyard with its brittle stone and withered hydrangeas. Afterwards, Julius washed the dishes while Catherine wiped the table and swept the floor. While he put their suitcases in the car, she pulled tightly on the drawstring handles of the bin bag and brought it outside. She hesitated for a moment, expecting to hear a rustling in the leaves or to spot something scurry along the ground. But all was silent. The courtyard was empty and still.