By Vita Forest
Sean trundles along with the herd, following the signs to the Sistine Chapel. He has lost the others. He glanced away for a moment and when he turned back, they were gone. They must have been pitched away from him on the tide of tourists they are travelling in. Too late to even throw him a life line. He supposes they will meet again at the exit, when they are all spat out some squalid hole in the wall like the rest of the waste products. Why didn’t they make a plan? They should always make a plan. There are so many people here. He feels giddy. If he really needs to stop, he will have to fight his way to the side, cling onto some statue and get out of the pull of the current.
Every surface seems to be busy. The clashing colours of the clothes of the tourists pressing onwards, the paintings smothering the walls. The noise too! It ricochets off every surface. He is being pelted with syllables from all sides. He can’t understand most of it. He would just like to rest. They swing out of a gallery and into another corridor, but even in this between-space there is no relief. The walls of the corridor are decorated too. Can’t even rest his eyes before the next room! There are fat babies balancing on towers made of fruit and veg – not how Phoebe would describe it, but it about sums it up for him. Pattern crawling over everything like a disturbed ant nest.
The floors in these places were so hard. He should have worn his hiking boots. Tomorrow he will wear them. He can feel each step jolting all the way up his spine. Hiking boots… Not for walking over peaceful, green fields, but to cushion the blow his heels make when they slam down on hard, city surfaces. Both inside and out. If it wasn’t marble floors, it was cobblestones. What were they thinking? All very impressive, as long as you didn’t have to walk on it.
Green fields… He liked what they did in Austria. Climbing up from the lake, walking through the arch of the trees, balancing on boulders to cross the streams, the smell of crushed pine needles prickling their nostrils. There was still snow on the peaks of the mountains and the water stung their feet with its iciness. He and Phoebe had paddled barefoot into the stream, shrieking. Later, they sat looking down over the valley. He cut thin slivers of apple, passing them over to Phoebe as she leaned back against a tree.
That had been a good day.
He sighs and treads water in the bottleneck at the narrow doorway at the end of the corridor. If he loses his footing he will probably drown. He glances out the window and sees the Papal gardens. He would prefer to be out there in that soft greenness. He could snooze under a tree and wait for Phoebe. They should have arranged a time to meet. They could be waiting all day now. The others wouldn’t mind arranging a time, setting a limit. He knows their interest in museums is minimal. The Vatican is just one of those things you have to see. When in Rome… ha ha. He wonders if they were as bored by his suggestion of bush walking? (or hiking or whatever it was called over here.) Possibly. They are all being so polite. It wouldn’t last. This gentility. They should set times to meet up. If they had done this earlier, say in Austria, he could have climbed just that little bit higher and seen what was making that sound they were hearing. Bells? Was it goats? Bells hanging from their necks as they strolled through the long, wet grass?
He’ll never know.
He supposes he could just get out of here, have a quick coffee and sit on the steps in the sun to wait. Close his eyes. Shake his ankles out. They would all have to come out the same exit surely?
The crowd spills out into a huge open room.
And suddenly he is there.
This is it. He thinks flatly as he glances up. The Sistine Chapel. Woo Hoo.
First things first. He looks about at ground level and spots some bare wood – a space has opened up on one of the benches that line the walls. He makes a dive for it and sinks blissfully down, leaning back on the cool, hard wall. So there is the ceiling. There is the altar painting thingy. Yes it’s good. He can see why it’s on the list of things to do in Rome. His feet hurt. He can feel the blood descending to his toes, pooling there as if his feet were made of stone, like Jesus and his mates out on of top of St Peters. He will have to rest there for a while. He can’t move. He looks at the ceiling and then folds his arms and looks at his watch. He wonders where the others are. Maybe they aren’t too far behind him. Mike and Louise anyway, he can’t imagine that Phoebe would get here this quick. He leans his head back against the wall and closes his eyes. He can’t block out the noise. The whispering. The oohing and ahhing.
All these people from all over the world. He is one of them. One of the multitudes. These all-devouring tourists. It is making him queasy. Going to a place where they can’t speak the language and trying to have the right experience. Sucking it all in during their three or four days. What he would really like to do, if he is honest, would be to go on a three or four day bushwalk, by himself. Take a tent and camp beneath the stars. Alone. He needs some space. He needs some time.
He is still not sure what was happening with Louise. That time on the train to Sorrento…
They were sitting two across, facing each other. Louise and Mike on one side and he and Phoebe on the other. Phoebe was asleep, her head leaning on his shoulder, her jacket worn backwards over her chest like a blanket. She felt the cold, that girl. He had the window seat, looking out at the scenery. Mike sat across from him, reading some book or other and Louise was there beside him. Sean had glanced away from the view and back into the carriage. His eyes had flicked over Mike and were on their way past Louise, when he realised she was staring at him. She was sitting right next to her boyfriend, studying him. If Mike had glanced up, he would have thought she was just looking out the window. But he didn’t. He was engrossed in his book. Sean had let his eyes pass over Louise and down the train, as if he was counting the passengers, as if he was looking for an old friend, as if the blood wasn’t rushing to his face. His eyes drifted back and there she was, still staring at him.
What? He wanted to snap. What are you looking at?
But he didn’t of course. He looked out the window again and stared grimly outside, as if he was being dared. Which he was. She was sitting over there, staring at him, laughing at his discomfort. He rubbed his hand over his chin and willed his vision to stay outside the train. He was intensely aware of Phoebe’s head on his shoulder, of the gentle little puffs of her sleeping breath that only he could hear, of her hand resting in his. He must have moved. Phoebe stirred and opened her eyes. He had pulled her close and kissed her rather passionately on the lips.
And that was that.
He had tried not to think about it too much. What was the point? There was enough friction on this trip without thinking about that, without reading anything into that.
But here he is, momentarily alone and thinking about it again. He is sitting in the Sistine Chapel with very, very heavy feet. He opens his eyes and runs them over the crowd. The place is packed. There are people standing in the centre of the room, craning their necks back, mouths open. There are people walking to and fro, trying not to collide with those who have stopped. There are others sitting on the benches that line the walls.
And there she is.
He catches his breath sharply. In a sudden break in the crowd, he had seen through to the benches on the opposite wall. To Louise sitting on a bench on the opposite wall. Staring at him again. Is he simply being paranoid? His vision is blocked again as a tour group leans into the tide of people and forces their way toward the exit. The leader holds a yellow flag above her head as if going into battle. They move on and he can see her again. No, he is not being paranoid. She is leaning back on the wall, not looking at the ceiling. Ignoring the ceiling, staring over at him. He has the solitude to test her this time, to really make sure. He holds her gaze. He holds it as it is crossed by gaping teenagers, retirees, parents dragging kids, people of all nations. The whole world. The whole world rushing past. He looks through them and finds her staring still.
They sit across from each other, their gaze stretched tautly from wall to wall. They sit and look as they have not looked at the ceiling, or the altar, or the statues, or anything else in this museum.
Then all at once, Louise slowly leans forward away from the wall and rests her elbows on her knees and clasps her hands. Moving in closer.
Closer to him.