When three days later Squat Willers came across a certain heartbroken French belle taking breakfast alone in an Italian hotel, he realized that David Jones had been successful in accomplishing his objective. Squat hadn't seen his friend since Lausanne, and had given very little thought at all to his whereabouts. Arriving at the conclusion that David and Claire were enjoying private time together, Squat had spent his days instead with Jim Tilden and Matthew Brook in Geneva and later with a pleasant Romanian couple in Florence. But now the sight of a brooding Claire Depaul made Squat remember his friend, the Oxford-educated Englishman who two years ago had introduced Squat to his extravagant, woman-filled word.
Squat had met David on the white Oxford campus in freshman Masters Year, but their friendship had grown more in the colorful avenues of central London than in the graduate science laboratories of their university. It had become a tradition of theirs to take buses into London on Saturday mornings while those who'd taken too much the night before recovered in the common rooms from their ugly hangovers. David and Squat, cold-sober, and without any smell of alcohol on them, would wave goodbye to their queasy friends and then leave for the city with a feeling of profound excitement.
London seen for the hundredth time is still London seen for the first. On the streets men and women are all tourists, with a tourist's sense of expectation and a tourist's sense of excitement. Among London's permanent populace there is a respect for everything that stands in their city; the noble abbeys and squares are preserved by this sense of great appreciation. In no other European city can one feel at once in this world and out of it. Paris is rooted firmly on the soil of the Earth--and so are Berlin and Madrid and Rome and Athens--but London hovers gently over it, so that at any moment man may choose the world or choose the stars.
Frequently David and Squat would lunch together in Piccadilly Circus or Trafalgar Square or else in tourist areas where colored faces were the majority, and white the minority. David enjoyed Squat's company for the reason that Squat listened to him without objecting, obeyed without questioning, and agreed without first disagreeing. He was good company for a young man who sought nourishment on excitement and pleasure to satisfy innocent cravings. Squat knew that he meant little to David, but he wasn't hurt by the fact; indeed, he continued to give David the attention of a best friend, and didn't become upset when this attention wasn't reciprocated, which happened more often than not. For the truth was that Squat, fresh out of the womb of America and unaccustomed to British life, needed David for protection, much like a child needs its mother to feel safe in a new place.
It was on account of his total dependence on David that Squat accepted his friend for who he was and tranquilly accustomed himself to David's harmful tendencies with a patience that few possess and even fewer exercise. David, who had developed through his association with aristocracy a sense of superiority to everyone around him, never learned to appreciate Squat's virtue of acceptance. This was hardly his fault, though; a childhood spent in the laps of rich nurses had robbed him of the faculty of discrimination, so that at twenty-four he still had a child's understanding of the difference between right and wrong. When this weakness led him to commit petty sins it hardly mattered, but when it led him to wreck personalities, destroy reputations, and ruin lives, then it mattered very much indeed.
Of all David's notorious habits, his most dangerous one was the manner in which he dealt with women. He was equipped to succeed with them too, which made the matter all the more serious. At an inch over six feet, he seemed to dwarf men who were only a little shorter than him, and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with men who were considerably taller. In crowds he turned the heads of women as well as men. There was something uniquely wholesome about him that people, especially women, noticed and admired, and this made him stand out from the crowd of common people. Everyone who saw him believed he would never whither, and indeed, he wouldn't: even in old age he would be impressively handsome and able, if he so chose, to toy with the hearts of much younger women.
That David Jones was supremely aware of his own good looks was part of the problem itself. Handsome men are less likely to be abusive when they don't realize that they are handsome. Unable to understand the casual turn of attention among women in their direction, they take the stares quietly and humbly. But David Jones, who understood the stares when they came his way, took them with a sense of superiority and accomplishment. To women he presented himself as one who had seen and done all--an idol to be looked up to, a man whose knowledge of the world was just this side of being complete. The bright, keen face that he had presented to the world in his youth was the face that he turned to the world now, the only difference being that it had developed in the years since his childhood a faintly haughty aspect that, if anything, only added to its handsomeness.
It was at the height of his success with women that he began to think himself invincible--after all, he had committed in his entire career as a playboy not one misstep, one error. This belief came at a time when he was beginning to tire of hollow romances with women who were won over easily and who had nothing but a few weeks' worth of stale love to give him. He told himself: "I'm getting sick of superficial romances. I need something more stimulating." After that, he changed his tactics. He started taking more risks in his love affairs. He began chasing women he should have known better to avoid--women who could recognize a cheap flirt when they saw one, women who had no interests in shallow love and who were too profound to be enticed into it. Of course, he never got very far with any of these women, but with one in particular he came very close.
Her name was Margret Helen, and she had been brought up to reject superficialities and pretences. It was on account of her overbearing but well-meaning parents that she had developed into a polite but shy woman who always spoke a little too quietly and acted a little too timidly. But for these two flaws, she more than compensated with her great many virtues-- one of those virtues being a total unself-consciousness, and the other being a complete disinterest in the charms of men. Her latter virtue was also her greatest; at twenty-one, she had never so much as thought of kissing a man. Most men, however, had thought a great deal about kissing her, and a few determined ones had even tried to. They had all been unsuccessful--all of them, that is, with the exception of David Jones.
Margret and David had met at a cafe in central London, and it was there that David introduced himself to her. When he tried initiating a conversation, however, he found her difficult and unresponsive. It is possible that Margret guessed at David's hidden intention, for she tried very hard to demonstrate her disinterest. But David was persistent--there was something about Margret that fascinated him despite her indifference, and he felt that with a few well-spoken words he could convert her apathy into interest. He was right. It took him much longer than the five or ten minutes he usually needed to create a favorable impression on women, but he got there in the end, even with Margret.
Margret had been won over as much by David's persistence as by his charm. And although she had by no means fallen in love with him by the end of their conversation, she had found in David something that promised to take care of and look after her. It is normal for a woman to seek this form of protection in a man, but Margret Helen felt disgusted with herself. She was a woman who had found consolation and support in the works of poets now dead, artists long gone, and to turn suddenly to a new form of protection seemed instinctively wrong to her. Nevertheless, she decided to give David Jones a chance.
Over the next few weeks they met several times. David, who had initially been drawn to Margret by her humility and warmth, quickly grew tired of her. She wanted to discuss things--music, art, poetry--while he wanted only to make her his lover. However, with each meeting it was becoming clearer to him that she would not be seduced, and so he began to consider the whole affair a waste of time. Margret, sensing this, one day announced somewhat mournfully that she no longer wanted to see him. At this David said that he didn't want to see her either, that she had been tiresome company from the beginning, and that he had never been interested in her at all. He said this all not for dramatic effect but because he was truly hurt--it was, after all, his first rejection by a woman.
To take his mind off Margret Helen he met with five different women in five weeks and plunged himself headlong into extravagant debauchery. It had a soothing effect on him, and by the end of the year he had forgotten entirely about his brief and unsuccessful stint with Margret.
It was at about this time that one of David's Oxford peers mentioned to him that Margret Helen was going to be married. The news interested David greatly for some reason or another, and over the next few weeks he kept his ears open for any information concerning Margret's marriage. Soon he learned that she was going to be united within the week to an American whom she had met on a family holiday in Boston. Rumors were that the American was flying to London with half an airplane's worth of relations for the wedding, and would be taking Margret back with him to America after their marriage.
It was because Margret was the only woman who had defied being casually flirted with that David, upon hearing this news about her, suddenly became gloomy and miserable. His friends and peers, sensing a great change, asked him politely what was the matter, but he gave no response, and for the next few days he socialized with no one. Then one morning he left Oxford campus without notifying anyone in advance--he left behind only a note on his pillow which read: Gone to break a heart.
His destination was a quiet suburb in one of London's fashionable areas. He took a bus into the city and from there hired a taxi cab to drive him into Margret's neighborhood. They pulled up into the driveway of a quaint white block of a house with a little garden and a pear tree in the yard. Getting out, David rang the front doorbell twice and, when it wasn't answered immediately, knocked for an unreasonable length of time. Finally a woman opened the door--it was Margret herself, all white and pretty with her golden hair done up for her wedding. She gasped when she saw David, and tried to shut the door on him. But he was too quick for her: he stopped the door with one hand and with the other he pulled Margret out onto the porch. Before she could even scream in terror he kissed her long and hard on the mouth. Margret struggled, but he held her in place and simply went on kissing her.
Unfortunately for David, Margret's fiancé made himself visible at the door right at that moment. This fiancé had arrived with his contingent of relations in London the night before under the impression that his future wife was a chaste woman who had never so much as looked improperly at a man. And so when he saw Margret locked in a kiss with David, his immediate reaction was to tell himself that it simply couldn't be Margret, for she was angelic as everyone knew. "But hang on," he thought, taking a closer look. "Maybe it is Margret...yes, oh my God, oh Dear God, is!" And when this realization struck him, he lunged forward at the kissing pair. Soon there were screams and shouts and curses and punches flying left and right.
Margret and her fiancé had escaped unharmed but David hadn't: Margret's fiancé had smashed David through the skull, and David had to be bandaged up so that his bones could grow together again. The doctors insisted on keeping him hospitalized, so he passed away his hours reading magazines and watching cooking programs on television while the nurses tended to his tender skull. It would have been a very lonely time for David if his Oxford peers hadn't stopped by occasionally with yellow daffodils and get-well cards. His friends were his only connection with the world, and it was from them that he learned that the American was no longer going to marry Margret. He had already taken a plane back to the States and Margret, heartbroken, had locked herself up in her room, refusing to speak to anyone.
The Helen family took legal action against David but Margret, who didn't want any more drama, begged her family to drop the case. She was on the verge of tears when she made this appeal and so, for her sake, they decided not to press charges. One of Margret's brothers, however, left David an angry and pathetic message in his voice mail, which David listened to several times with amusement. He was not at all apologetic for his misbehavior--what's more, he found the situation laughable. That was the problem with him--he was always laughing at all the wrong moments.
In a couple of weeks, when David's skull had sufficiently healed, he was released from the hospital, and the first thing he did was put on his best suit to make himself presentable to a girl he had met in London some weeks ago.
In all of Rome there was no woman more sad, heartbroken, and lovely as Isabelle Dupont. There was also no woman as lonely, for all the women of Rome had their husbands and their lovers, but Isabelle Dupont had no one--no one at all. Fifteen minutes ago she had been the centre of attention; now, there was no one left to admire her or to stare at her as she walked past. In the quarter of an hour since her exit from Rome's Grand Hotel de la Minerve, Isabelle had come a far way, but behind her she could still see the gold facade of the hotel. From time to time she would turn around and stare at it tragically, as if it were a friend that had betrayed her. Also, she was half-expecting David Jones to come out and apologize, but neither he nor anyone else came, and she knew that no one would come--she had been completely forgotten.
Rome on the night of Isabelle's exit from the hotel seemed unusually full of lovers. There were lovers in the shops, lovers in the streets, lovers walking hand-in-hand through the moonlight and lovers kissing in the city squares. To the lonely single the whisper and gossip of lovers is a sound that rings unpleasantly and uncomfortably in the ears; so it rang in the ears of Isabelle Dupont as the many lovers emerged from their secret hiding places. Fifteen minutes ago her whispers would have counted among the whispers of those lovers, but now her lonely sobs stood in a category of their own. She had never been so humiliated, so heartbroken, as she was now, surrounded by men and women whose total immersion in each other made them oblivious to the unhappiness of the one lonely woman among them.
She was still mourning when a bizarre and somewhat frightening scene materialized outside a shop further down the street. Isabelle heard it before she saw it: there was an "Oof...oww..OOF," followed by shrieks, followed by curses; when the sounds turned into angry shouts she finally looked up. In front of her two men were struggling on the pavement, one on top of the other. The man on top had his victim's face pressed against the pavement, and the victim, lying stiffly on the ground, was trying between sobs to speak.
"Get off me! Oh please!" He was a short, fair-skinned, brown-haired man with a distinctly American accent.
"I won' ha-have you lookin' inapproprially at my w-wife!" his oppressor roared. He too, spoke American English, albeit with difficulty. "Jus' won' have it, no sir!"
"I wasn't looking--oh please, stop, stop, stop!"
Around them a group of timid men and women had gathered with their mouths hanging open as one. Some among them even looked on the verge of fainting--a girl nearly dropped to the ground, but her friend caught her in time to prevent a second diversion.
"You were lookin'!" insisted the first man fiercely. "An' wha's more, you were lookin' inapproprially!"
For some reason these words made Isabelle eye the man more carefully, and it was then that she recognized him: he was Ash the American. She had never seen him, or any other man for that matter, looking so angry.
By this time someone in the throng had decided to intervene. Fifteen or so pairs of eyes watched as a portly little figure detached himself from the group and walked forward with a courage that defied his size.
"But which one is your wife?" he inquired.
"Oh...tell him to let me go!" pleaded the victim.
Ash kept the man pressed against the ground. Isabelle could see that he looked somewhat out of his senses; indeed, it was with bloodshot eyes that he surveyed his questioner.
"Tha' one over there," he said, jerking his head at no one in particular.
"I say, tha' one!" He singled out the girl who a moment before had nearly dropped to the ground in shock. At Ash's gesture, her terror doubled.
"Me?" she asked, on the verge of hysterics.
Ash nodded, and the portly man asked her in front of all the bystanders if she was indeed Ash's wife.
"No, no," she said, shaking her head like a bobble-head figure.
Ash screwed up his eyes to survey her more closely. Apparently he realized he had made a mistake, for he corrected himself by saying, "Sorry, not you." The girl, ghostly pale, looked relieved, and she would have fainted a second time if her faithful friend hadn't been there to catch her again.
"But then who is your wife?" asked the portly little questioner.
Ash colored up fiercely. "Wha' does it madder to you! Who are you, anyway?"
Before she could stop herself--indeed, before she even knew what she was doing--Isabelle suddenly spoke up. "Darling, I'm here," she called in a cooing voice.
Ash, so out of his senses that it took him nearly half a minute to locate the source of the voice, finally found Isabelle in the crowd of bystanders. He surveyed her doubtfully.
Still not knowing what had compelled her to speak, Isabelle continued, "Yes, me. Darling, please get off that poor man. ‘Ee wasn't looking at me at all."
Ash had by this time made up his mind that he was indeed talking to his wife. "But...but he was dear. He would'a made a grab at you too if I hadn' tackled him."
Isabelle shook her head. "Dear, darling, sweetie pie, oh please let him go and follow me. You're creating an unnecessary scene."
Ash had every intention of beating his victim into a pulp, but at Isabelle's request he slowly let the man go. The victim, now free, got up and scurried away like a frightened animal.
"He's a lunatic!" he said shakily. Then he darted down the street and vanished before Ash could make up his mind about pursuing him.
"Thank you, dearie, darling," said Isabelle, now advancing towards Ash. She didn't know what was making her act the part of Ash's wife, but deep down she was enjoying it. "If you take my ‘and and follow me, I'll forgive you and pretend like this never ‘appened."
Perhaps it was because Ash had never imagined his wife to be so pretty that he gave her his hand without any hesitation. "Alright, alright," he mumbled. "Le's go."
They walked unsteadily away, Ash's hand in Isabelle's hand. The crowd of bystanders gradually thinned behind them; the last to leave were the hysterical girl and her friend, who vanished down a narrow alley into the warm darkness. Soon Ash and Isabelle were walking alone through Rome among the many unseen lovers. Isabelle caught the strong smell of liquor on Ash's person, but it didn't seem to bother her--at that moment, she was conscious only of the warm pressure of Ash's hand in hers. When the realization that a man was escorting her crystallized fully, Isabelle couldn't help but eye Ash like a little girl who furtively eyes the pretty boy next door to see if he will look back.
Isabelle liked looking at Ash. He had a hard nose and clear, clean blue eyes, and although he was not as handsome as David, his person had the same sturdiness. Isabelle wouldn't have minded walking down into Rome's grandest club with Ash at her side--he was, after all, not that inferior to David.
When Ash staggered and nearly fell to the ground--which he did on a number of occasions because he was so drunk--Isabelle patiently helped him up and drew him closer to her so as to not let him fall again. Every time this happened Ash said "Thank you, Nicole," which made Isabelle cringe and want to say that she wasn't Nicole, but someone infinitely prettier and more important than the plain, ordinary woman to whom he was referring. Nevertheless she restrained herself from correcting Ash, knowing well what would happen if he found out that she was not who she claimed to be.
"Where're we goin'?" asked Ash after some time.
As if in answer, the gold facade of the Grand Hotel de la Minerve emerged from around the next corner. Actually Isabelle had not meant to bring them back here--in fact, the hotel was the last place she wanted to be in all of Rome. This was partly because she didn't want her girlfriends to see her with Ash, but mostly because she just wanted to enjoy Ash's company while he was still tipsy with liquor.
"You've brought me back to the hotel, Nicole," he said.
"Yes, I ‘ave, but we're not going inside," she replied. And she promptly turned him around before he could object.
They had just walked a dozen paces when the sound of footsteps clattered loudly behind them. Isabelle heard them but didn't turn around; she didn't want to be recognized by anyone at present. However, the person behind them had already recognized her, for he said in a startled voice, "Isabelle, is that you?"
She recognized the voice as David's, and her heart faltered. It was only with the greatest determination that she continued to walk forward as if she hadn't heard him.
"Isabelle Dupont? Who is that with you?" His voice had taken on a tone of paternal concern. "Isabelle? Talk to me, darling."
At the word "darling" Ash turned around fiercely, and because Isabelle's hand was in his, she was turned around too--against her will.
"Hey you prick, watch what you say to my wife!"
David regarded Ash with squinting eyes to better see him. When he saw that it was Ash, he gave out a short laugh.
"Isabelle, oh darling, darling!" he said, still laughing.
Ash was in no mood for comedy. "Hey! I'm warning you..." he trailed off. For a moment it seemed as if he had been struck dumb, but then he was suddenly speaking again. "It's you!" he said sharply. "You, the Italian prick who wouldn' fight me in Swizzerlend. You thought you could get away with flirting with my wife, didn' you?" His words were coming out hot and fast--the alcohol had brought him to this flustered state. "You thought I wud jus' let you go on, didn' you? You're sick, absolutely sick!" he finished dramatically.
Then he took two steps forward, dragging Isabelle with him.
"Ash, this is a mistake!" she cried.
"Quiet, Nicole. You shud be ashamed of flirting in front of me with this man."
"But Ash, please, listen to me."
"No, you listen to me. If there's one thing I won' stand, it's men who think they can get away with their crimes."
"There was no crime," Isabelle said simply.
"By God, there certainly was! He was flirting with you!"
David hadn't moved a muscle all this time. "Listen to your lady, Ash" he advised. "We don't want to be creating a scene here."
"Oh, yeah?" cried Ash, completely beside himself. "I could knock you down right now if I wanted to."
Sensing that trouble was soon going to develop, Isabelle tried one last time to make Ash see reason. "Ash, ee's completely innocent! Don't ‘urt ‘im."
But whatever protection this would have conferred to David, David ruined with the following remark: "I didn't make love to your wife, I didn't even kiss her. Surely I don't deserve to be treated so cruelly?"
He had at last crossed the line. Ash, with another roar, lunged at him. Soon Isabelle was shrieking, the two men were struggling, and then just as quickly as it had started it was all over.
There wad David, lying unconscious on the ground with Ash standing over him.
The tiny waiting area was full, and Squat Willers was forced to stand in a little square of space at the head of the room, which meant that whenever someone entered in a hurry, the door was thrown into Squat's face. It had already happened twice and Squat had taken it good-naturedly, but when it happened a third time he lost his patience.
Several people jerked their heads at him in irritation, as if he had just shattered their peace. One among them said "American" under his breath, which caused a number of people to snigger.
"Sorry...sorry," Squat said, raising his hand in apology. "I'm just a little tired."
It was true. Squat Willers hadn't slept much at all last night--not because he hadn't been able to, but because he had been so sick with worry that even the thought of sleep hadn't crossed his mind. When last night the police cars and the ambulance had arrived at the scene, Squat was among the first people outside. But the paramedics and police officers wouldn't let him near, and when Squat insisted on at least having a private word with his friend, they had turned him down. The few other guests who had come outside last night were talking about David, and Squat had caught snatches of their conversation: "...was hit hard...Do you think he's seriously hurt? Paramedics didn't wait...he's definitely hurt...dunno how seriously though." But, as the wailing ambulance and the police car drove away, the guests' conversations had ended and so had collective interest and concern for the casualty. As a group, the guests had all walked back into the hotel, some among them still shaking their heads. Only Squat Willers hadn't immediately left the scene; he had stood there for some time, watching the red and yellow lights twinkle away into the unquiet darkness.
At that moment a nurse came around, and Squat's attention was brought away from the events of the night before. He straightened up automatically as she approached him, like a subordinate before his general.
"S-Scott?" she said unsurely. "Scott Wheeler?"
"Squat Willers," he corrected. He had gotten used to mispronunciations of his name and was humoured by the various renditions of it he had heard lately in his travels through Europe.
"Yes, yes," said the nurse, with an impatient wave of her hand. "We will call you when your friend is ready. Right now he is taking his meal."
She said this all very fast and walked away through the next door with great haste.
Squat sighed. He was twenty-four years old--four years too old for mushy sentimentality but still six years too young for unfeeling rigidity. When the people close to him suffered Squat suffered too--as yet he had not learned to distance himself from the difficulties of others. He still subscribed to the idea that a little heartfelt sobbing on his part was the best antidote for the immeasurable pain of a suffering friend. His duty, he believed, was to make himself vulnerable and in the process convey to his friends by the sincerity of his gesture that he would be there for them whenever they needed him. But he failed to realize that he wasn't offering anyone meaningful support by simply crying with them--but this was excusable, because he was still a young man with a head full of nice, pretty ideas about what it meant to be a good person.
Yes, in many respects Squat was still very naive--you did not have to look very far back in his history to find examples of this. Indeed, just two days ago, he had stepped outside with Matthew Brook during the commuting hour while office-bound men and women were rushing into the city. Watching them, Squat was struck by the fact that none among them looked happy. That made him unhappy--unhappy because he had thought that a general enthusiasm for work and life characterized the outlook of people in this part of the world. He felt unhappy because a bright, hopeful part of him had imagined that in some places people still lived peacefully in a way that he had never seen people in big American cities living.
His let-down had been like that of the young child's who realizes that there is no substance behind the theory he has naively cherished for so long. He didn't understand it. He didn't understand why the Romans were unhappy. Rome was beautiful, Rome was magical, Rome was nobly ancient--didn't people appreciate these things? Maybe they once had. Maybe people had once stood on these streets with the awe and fascination of children. Maybe men had touched the rough edifice of the Coliseum and realized how grand, how supremely majestic, it was--and how small they were in front of it. And their wives had stood with them, and their children too, and the whole family had become breathless with wonder in the shadow of this world's greatest monument.
Squat sighed again. "What's happened to people?" he asked himself. But the question would remain unanswered, for at that moment the same peremptory nurse entered the waiting area and signaled for him.
"Your friend is ready for you."
Squat nodded and followed her through the next door. David's room was at the end of the hall; Squat had seen the nurses entering and leaving it in rotations.
"Be careful with him," cautioned the nurse. "He is still not feeling absolutely healthy."
Squat looked concerned. "But it's been three days. Shouldn't he have recovered by now?"
The nurse shook her head. "His case was serious. He fractured a rib, which nearly punctured his heart. The doctors had to operate on him right away."
Squat didn't know that the situation had been so grave. He thanked the nurse and walked alone down the corridor, his heart beating fast.
Squat heard his friend before he saw him: "I'm tired of auto magazines. No thank you, I've already read that one twice. For God's sake, don't you have anything else? How many times can I read the same edition of Auto Italia without becoming physically sick?" This was followed by the sound of something being thrown across the room. Squat smiled to himself and opened the door, thinking, "Oh, David," as he did so.
He stepped into a small, brightly lit room. David, garbed in standard blue patient attire, was lying on a bed and a flustered nurse was hovering about him like a perennial moth. Neither had noticed Squat's entry until he cleared his throat. Then David jumped up, but almost immediately he winced in pain and sat back down again. The nurse, looking around and seeing Squat, seemed for some reason relieved at the sight of him.
"Are you his friend?" she asked hopefully.
"He's all yours." And without any hesitation she walked out of the room, feeling grateful for the ten minutes of reprieve that Squat's visit guaranteed her.
David grinned when she was gone. "She stood me longer than the rest," he said. "I drive all the nurses mad--I bet they share ugly stories about me among themselves." He made an attempt to get up to shake Squat's hand, but Squat pushed him back down onto the bed.
"Don't get up. I heard what happened to you from a nurse, and frankly, it's a wonder you're even sitting upright at all." Squat looked concerned. "They said you almost suffered damage to your heart."
David laughed; he found Squat's concern pathetic. Squat was an overgrown child with a child's heartfelt sincerity and a child's misplaced sympathies.
"I'm fine, Squat. I'm rollicking."
Squat smiled weakly and sat down on the lone stool in the room. For a minute he neither spoke nor looked at David. Outside their room several nurses were conversing in rapid Italian, and somewhere down the hall a doctor was rudely ordering around his juniors. In the waiting area men and women were speaking and their children were crying petulantly. It was all very chaotic, and Squat's silence wasn't long-lived.
"I saw Isabelle Dupont a couple of days ago," he said. It was the first thing that had come into his mind.
David started, which made Squat instantly regret the remark.
"How was she?" asked David. But then he made a sour face and said, "Oh, but who cares about her. Let her go to hell..." David pretended to be disinterested, but his tense expressions betrayed his curiosity. Noticing this, Squat decided to continue.
"She wasn't alone. She was with her friend."
David looked angry. "Not Claire Depaul?"
Just then, there was a knock at the door and a nurse said, "Ten minutes only, remember that."
"Fine," said Squat to the nurse, and to David, "Yes, Claire Depaul." The angry expression had not abated from David's face, which made Squat ask what the matter was.
"Oh it's nothing!" snapped David. "I just don't like hearing their names, that's all. But tell me," he said, unable to check his curiosity, "did they look normal? I mean, they didn't look gloomy at all, did they?"
"No--actually, they were giggling together. You could hear them from halfway across the hotel lobby."
"Oh." He seemed disappointed.
There was silence again. David smoothed out the sheets of his bed and fell back against the headrest with a loud, dramatic groan. Squat wished he had never mentioned Isabelle's name; it was his fault that David currently felt so miserable.
He got up to leave, for he had already done more harm than good to his friend.
"Where are you going?"
"Back to the hotel," said Squat. "I leave for England tonight, and I must get packing. I've overstayed my time in this country."
"Stop a bit," said David. "I want to tell you something before you go." He sat up again, and Squat could see that he looked excited.
"What is it?" asked Squat.
David leaned over confidentially. "Guess who came over to see me yesterday?"
"Viviana Adriani," he said, a grin breaking across his face.
Squat gasped. "Of all the people! I knew she had a thing for you."
"But how did she know you were here? Who told her? Did she come alone? What did she say? How long did she stay with you?" The questions poured out of Squat's mouth, one after another.
"Easy Squat," said David laughing. "She said she had heard from someone about my injury. She stayed for five minutes and left me some flowers." He motioned to a vase of white roses on his bedside table.
Squat knew David too well to believe that it had ended just there. "And...?"
"Well, Squat, if you must know, she gave me her number. We have a date booked for next week. My intention is to bring her back to England with me sometime. She says she's never seen London, but would like to one day."
"I...well...con-congratulations," said Squat, not knowing if this was in fact good news.
David was on the edge of his bed, hardly aware of the pain in his chest or of any other physical sensation for that matter. "She's a flaming beauty," he said excitedly. "Oh Squat, I'm really looking forward to this. When she walked in yesterday, I knew..."
And for the next five minutes he talked of Viviana Adriani. As he spoke, his face grew radiant and wholesome again, and he was once more the richly handsome Englishman who commanded your attention whether or not you felt he deserved it. He was David Jones as Squat had known him from Oxford, a man without a conscience to reprove him when he had done wrong. He didn't care who he hurt or how many people he hurt so long as there was pleasure involved, and in this respect he was very much like a child who takes and takes with the sole intention of satisfying a savage lust. When he spoke, it was like hearing the same child speak, for there was no hesitation or doubt in his voice, but a confidence that was complete and unshakeable. He believed in himself, and he made you believe in him too--there was simply too much that was glorious about him for you to resist giving him your loyalty.
Squat had known these things about David from their college days, but it never ceased to surprise him to learn them again. And among the qualities that struck Squat most was David's total and sincere immersion in women. Women were and always would be David's primary interest in life, and if he wasn't spending his hours flirting charmingly with them then he would be passing away his time lost in a romantic daydream, oblivious to all feelings of time and place. David launched himself into love with the belief that it could cure him of some momentary depression, or fill some small void in his soul. His addiction was love, and it was a dangerous one, for it had all the qualities of the addictions we know and recognize as dangerous; indeed, it was no less harmful than a substance addiction, for the signs and symptoms were the same between the two.
Squat sighed--it would be the third and final time that morning, for the nurse came in some time later and shooed him away. David was still talking about Viviana Adriani when Squat left, but Squat had stopped paying attention to his friend's exact words a long time ago. His thoughts were still on David Jones, who to this day Squat didn't fully understand. This was not to say that he hadn't tried--he had, and on a number of occasions too, but something in David resisted being understood. Squat felt he knew him, yet at the same time he felt he didn't; David was at once a friend and a stranger to him. Perhaps the best Squat could do was to accept that his friend David Jones would never change.