Like egg whites whisked to meringue the Alps rose up beneath them in splendid clouds of stiff white flame. The city would duplicate this splendour in places whisked differently, with fenestrations and volutes and fluting, said Samuel, Sun’s father, to Sun as they began their descent into Rome. Here was the plan. He would check into their lodgings. Sun would visit the Coliseum on his own, then either the Forum with him or the Trevi Fountain with his mother who’d been living here, ‘estranged’, for some months. He could decide after he’d talked to his mother which he’d like to do first.
A few hours later Sun was climbing to the top of the Coliseum’s highest wall that had looked out over mazes where lions long ago had fretted and paced. He’d looked down and imagined the winch that brought the cage full with animals, up into the arena. Not just lions and tigers. Elephants, hippos, zebras and elks had also fought here in the one thousandth anniversary celebration of Rome’s founding. Erasing and peeling back time palimpsest, the animals came to life before his eyes.
It sent a shiver down his spine. It had also been a ‘Christian theatre’ he heard a passerby describe the arena, exacerbating his unease, an unholy one at that with Christians chucked to their deaths. Sun liked to imagine one that wasn’t. The wooden beams of a church roof for instance turned into the ceiling of an auditorium where Shakespeare got performed. Then he imagined something altogether fresher - the Trevi with air around it full with water vapours floating in shafts of light. He was so looking forward to it. But what had his mother to tell him first?
Emerging from the Coliseum into the twilight he looked back at the huge silhouetted jagged curve of the wall he’d just descended from. Bright stars and hazy galaxies hung there, some piled up, some distinct, like the overlapping divisions of the city itself - its times and tales – and after taking a picture of the wall dropping away behind a large round red traffic light STOP, he was lost to streets like strokes in the layered pattern of this city that would lead he hoped to his mother then the fountain.
It was still exhilarating to toss about with ideas of freedom and not belonging because in his own city where he knew the roads as well as the veins on his hands, everything boiling down to junctions grown familiar with use, with pavements and traffic lights and stinking cars, he did belong. But, his mother had said, familiarity made no difference to your belonging. One day, after a letter, she’d turned into the cobbled corbelled mews she walked each day and they’d looked completely different. The return of an old love had made familiar places look new.
Not so for Sun. When he heard what this meant sitting opposite her at the designated café the places back home might begin to look different, but not better. The unfamiliar streets that had been full with promise, the familiar ones with reassurance of his belonging, would become as strange and unpromising as each other, with him an insignificant, agitated speck scuttling insecurely along their surface.
A freshly squeezed orange juice. An espresso. That was all it took as Olivia tripping over her words tried to explain a thing that wasn’t easy. That Samuel wasn’t his father. That another man she loved was. For a few seconds they sat together in silence, but in his imagination Sun could hear the roars of the lions in the Coliseum he’d just emerged from and the screams of dying gladiators. He could see the darkly masked Charon pouring sand over blood spilt into the ground, carrying bodies off on a stretcher; the emperor from the podium standing up slowly, raising his thumb to spare the life of a gladiator - as if it had been him. But he wasn’t to be spared.
Sun kept pulling his hand out from under Olivia’s placed over his, the coffee machine whirring in and out of his questions, the pit in his stomach opening wider than the Coliseum’s, wider than the crisis of global warming accelerated or the world turned desert. Perhaps if he could feel the flow of fountain water showering his body, the gush he imagined was the Trevi, these aberrations could be washed away, but the Trevi he’d seen in pictures was remote and ornate, it might not be any good now.
How about coming with her to a chapel full of tiny golden mosaics that stood thickly off the wall Olivia suggested lamely. They’d been laid she said - as if Sun could care - by Byzantium artists because Constantine thought the Romans weren’t up to it. “The mosaics of the men from Constantinople were perfect” she’d persisted kissing him a hesitant goodbye, “and it’ll be perfect when you meet your father, a writer, who looks forward to meeting you”, she said as if this could extinguish something just killed in him that had altered his world beyond recognition. No he didn’t want to look at mosaics or meet his ‘father’ he told her. Nor did he want to go to the fountain any more. He’d return to where he was staying with Samuel.
A little stricken Olivia returned to St Agnes Hotel. It was odd to think last night she and Turn had played like lambs and lions turning somersaults on the bed, innocence getting destroyed in the fray, their room the template for an energy that rewrites the world, they said. An empty slated tabula rasa filled by love-making. Carbon, crystalline, their flesh land. And that shearings from the ‘pallia’, the Y-shaped bands worn by bishops on St. Agnes’ Day, had, coincidently, adorned the wrought iron head-board of the bed like the Y of open legs. Poor, pure St Agnes, if she’d had time in her short life, might have preferred analogies that weren’t to do with the body. Never mind. Hers had been protected. When thrown naked under her church into an ancient Roman brothel now a shrine she’d been clothed by her hair and a miraculous garment of light.
In the morning a metal bucket outside their window had dropped from the third floor and landed with a clatter in the square courtyard outside their room as irreverently as the cackle of the maid’s laughter, as irreverently as the sacred turning profane, even the old - like Olivia and Turn, who’d known each other before - to the new. While Turn stood overlooking the courtyard Olivia had told him that thirteen years ago she’d got pregnant with his child, but hadn’t known until after Samuel had taken her in, until after he’d disappeared into an unreachable nowhere and she’d heard nothing from him. Until his letter a few weeks ago. The time in Samuel’s cottage, yes red roses growing round its door, was easy she said, idyllic, the child she held in her arms her little god. I didn’t know Samuel would vanish into his own shadows. By the time I got your letter I’d left him.
Turn hadn’t moved away from the funneled courtyard he looked out on. When he finally spoke he said he would like to meet his son.
While Samuel, who now wasn’t Sun’s father, sat in a bar, Sun went up to his room and turned on his computer. He clicked on Marvin Gaye’s ‘Heard it through the Grapevine’. His screen filled with images: Ambience. Random, Swirl, Warp, Anon, Falloff, Water Bubble, Dizzy, Windmill, Niagara, Blender, X Marks the Spot, Down the Drain, Thingus, Bars and Waves, Bars, Ocean Mist, Fire Storm, Scope.
Still more kept coming: Spike. Spike. Amoeba. Then musical colours. Night lights, Colours in Motion, Aurora, Rhythmic Colours, Star Power, Electric Green, Soft Fire, Sky Wave, Cut Out, Rolling Fire Water Spray, Acid Rock, Hard Rock, Hot Spray, Yellow Swirl, Blue Flame, Critter Rock, Electric Rainbow, Neon Highway, Ice Crystals.
Sun’s mind spun. To calm the chaos he put The Trevi Fountain in the search engine instead and came up with: Tritons, Oceanus, Seahorses, Amugdale, Hippocampus. Things not frantic he could print out, hold in his hand, read about and learn.
Then he turned off his computer and went out. Samuel followed. They walked down the Via Sacra, the sacred route that wound its way through the western side of the Roman Forum through confusing patchworks of ruined temples and basilicas towards the Capitol. The Arch of Septimius Severus and the columns of the Temple of Saturn, a guide told them, had laid half buried here till the eighteenth century. There’d been water clocks in the law-courts of the Basilica Julian, marbled columns, floors, statues and glittering tiles of gilt bronze in the huge barrel-vaulted ruins of the Basilica of Constantine.
Together in their imaginations Samuel and Sun restored the columns, reguilded vanished roofs, replaced statues on plinths and filled narrow lanes with crowds as noisy and jostling as ones of today, but with tunics and togas of imperial Rome. It was an eerie but wonderful graveyard they agreed, the Forum always changing, the buried heart of ancient worlds still coming to life. So why did Sun seem edgey Samuel wondered. He couldn’t know Sun was thinking of the Romans who as fathers of us all came and went, while Samuel no father at all, stayed, as if he really were. Or that he was wondering what would happen when he learnt he wasn’t.
That evening he switched on his computer. Alchemy was: Random. Ambience also was: Random. And Battery was: Randomization, Brightsphere, Dance of the Freaky Circles, Cottonstar, Dandelionaid, Drinkdeep, Electriarnation, Event horizon, Hizodge, Gemstonematrix, Sepiaswirl, Illuminator, See the Truth, Kaleidovision, Cheminova, Lotus, Green is not your Enemy, Relatively Calm, Sleepyspray, Smoke or Water, Spider’s Last Moment, Strawberryaid, the World, my Tornado is Resting, Ball to the Groove. Then he turned it off. And on.
Drinkdeep appeared on the screen again. Sun took a deep breath, turned it off, then on. On his screen now was Plenoptic, Random, Smokey Circles, Vox, Flame, Fountain, Spyro. Particle was: Particle, Rotating Particle.
Images kept coming like spume-riden jets from a fountain or flames from a fire, water and fire, splashing and sizzling. But the flow of pictures had been programmed and short of a power cut, Sun could manipulate the random universe on his screen. The image Drinkdeep remained for a second or two and then he was ready, he decided, to take that long awaited trip to the fountain. Now he could imagine the gladiators in the Coliseum or the priestesses of the sacred fire passing through the Forum in their snow-white robes, keeping watch over the flame, giving him the courage he needed to tell Samuel what Olivia hadn’t.
Usually Samuel took everything in his stride but after this revelation he was speechless. He locked himself into his hotel room where a Dore print of the tortured lovers, Francesco and Paolo, themselves locked together in the fires of hell by a love which wouldn’t permit them to part, hung inseparable from the wall. That was how he’d felt about Olivia. But worse he’d loved Sun as a father who’d always loved his son. What could Sun say? If blood goes deep it might not go deepest? It was you gave haven to my mother and I?
The trip he’d anticipated was taking on a peculiar slant, but the following day, the next meeting having to take place, he and Olivia approached the solitary roar of the Trevi Fountain from a timid distance. As they neared it through narrow twisting alleyways the sound might have been of an untamed waterfall beckoning through mountain passes, but when they turned a corner and came face to face with white spume tipping out over rocks, it rose incongruously from the sedate, formal façade of a Renaissance palace. Tritons and horses in contrasting mood and pose rampaged on each side of Oceanus’ shell chariot with balanced symmetry. In niches behind Abundance spilt water from her urn. Salubrity held a cup for a snake to drink.
Turn sat singularly before this tumbling-forward, voluptuous rococo that mixed water and rockwork. Like in Shakespeare the spume mimicked nature in court, the untamed in the tamed. Guiding Oceanus’ shell chariot one Triton, whose job was to train the ‘hippocampus’, tried to master an unruly sea-horse flanked by Neptune, while the other led a more docile creature.
On seeing the seahorses Sun said precociously to Olivia, and loudly, above the roar, ignoring the moment and the man who sat there “A hippocampus is a mythological sea-creature with the forelegs of a horse and the tail of a fish, but it’s also a sea-horse at a cross section on the floor of our brain. It represents the double quality possessed by the sea in all of us that allows us to lie”, he said looking directly at his mother. “And it lets information into our memory. ‘Amugdale’, almond, controls the levels of emotion that enter it”.
“The seahorse as memory can play havoc if the almond chooses” answered Olivia hesitatingly, coolly, she’d also done a little research, “but the amount of emotion entering memory varies like the size of a river entering the sea”. Sun not in the mood for being outsmarted wondered what that or anything mattered when those who you thought blood- relative turned out not to be, and the ones who were let you down. ‘Belonging’ seemed to have nothing to do with either. Only with ‘almonds’ moving through time.
“As the next generation” Olivia continued walking away leaving him to face the stranger, his father, sitting on the wall beside him, “you’ll be able to control the unruly or docile almond and let emotion flow into places unknown, like fountain water down gullies and out into the earth”. Privately she took heart the left over wool on the bed at St Agnes was from a lamb sheared but not destroyed, innocence trodden under foot not killed, experience still drawn out to the possibility of feelings unlimited.
Sun had time to swallow pain-killers for a headache he’d blamed on the turbulence from his screen and wondered when these pills would ‘kick in’. Other words followed from the jumble on the screen like ‘kick off’, ‘kick start’, something his new father, the man who wrote, might give him, he thought as he made his way towards Turn, risen from his seat. Would they walk the streets, he wondered, window shop or stop for melba gelatti?
The Trevi burbled foam more effervescent and eloquent than the words Sun hoped would spill out but didn’t, his tongue tied by a chill inner wind that blew with savage tugs and shoves and beat him down, the foam too ‘classic’ to express wild unruly thoughts. Turn would have to give it time.
Should they take each other’s hands Sun wondered wishing his ‘almond’ would close down, be switched off. He ought to be able to do that. He was, after all as his mother said, the next generation. For them, as for each new generation, the secret of not belonging which was first to belong, must surely be within reach.
Bold Olivia now walking well out of ear shot of the Trevi, and having overcome one hurdle, was flagging. Mortified by the crime of her own silence she was feeling the screeching treachery of narrative right here in the city’s risings and subsidings. Each patina or strata, concrete, stone or mud, would replace another as we’d be replaced, it yelled, bury it under dust or puncture it like buoys drowning on the ocean’s surface. Powerless to protect those she loved from time’s fierce current even the strongest emotions would be ransacked till they vanished like Romans into the mists of history. Splashing time forwards, the fountain no more encouraging, emphasised that all her jugglings, buoyed and bobbing up, up, up like a ball on its jet, would fall down, efforts bombarded by heavier splashes, dashed and bouncing in its futile puddle of a little pool.
Sun couldn’t know of Olivia’s fear for him but if her last stand that day could be his first step, Olivia’s horror would be his reprieve. If for her the action of waters that couldn’t be tamed was the time that couldn’t be stopped, Sun beside water or in cyberspace could embrace impermanence before it embraced him. Be mesmerized by the burbling Trevi. Liking the way the fallen water rose in clouds of stiff white flame. Liking, he decided, Turn.
The kaleidoscopic waters, even the fickle, flickering screen, could outshine us all he saw with relief in the fragile balance of the firing, falling fountain. Turn who’d taken his hand in his, let it go again, quite gently without dropping it. Emotions as images that kept splashing and spilling in on Sun - all this stuff about fathers, even mothers - could pass away like water from the fountain. Arti-fice. Wild-ness. It didn’t matter. Emotions drunk deep, time’s absolutions flung up and flushed out, needn’t last, unless you wanted them to.