The Manchester Review
John Banville
The Sinking City (a novel in progress)
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      The young woman when she arrives is called Alba. Her skin is of an extraordinary translucency — Adam thinks of ice, wet pearls, breathed-on glass. She perches on the arm of his chair. Her gaze moves here and there, settling with mothlike inconsequence on random objects, a wine glass on the table, the frayed edge of a floor rug, the god’s big glaring head. She has a look, at once dreamy and expectant, as if she were awaiting the imminent arrival of some as yet unknown marvellous thing. When she shifts her position on the chair-arm and puts a hand briefly on Adam’s shoulder to steady herself he twitches as if a ghost had touched him. The Count beams upon them both and seems mentally to rub his hands.
      The bedroom is bare of all furniture save a large low square bed with a white cover and no pillows; above it on the whitewashed wall hangs an iron crucifix, which instead of a figure has four studs of ruby glass set one into each of its extremities. Adam savours the sudden candour of being with a stranger in a strange room, unclothed, in broad or at least broadish daylight; how cool the air feels against his skin, how poised the stillness, poised and somehow archaic. Alba has stepped out of her clothes in one flowing stylised movement, like a torero trailing his cape in the dust before the baffled bull. She is looking to the side, downwards; her eyelids are so shinily pale and fine that Adam can see clearly all the tiny veins in them, blue as lapis. He takes a floating step forward until his chest touches the tips of her nipples, behind which he senses all the gravid tremulousness of her breasts. She puts her hands flat against his chest and leans into him in the simulacrum of a swoon, making a faint mewling sound. When he kisses her hot soft mouth, which is bruised a little at one corner, he knows at once that she has been with another man, and recently—faint as it is there is no mistaking that taste of fish-slime and sawdust. He does not mind.
      They conduct there, on that white bed, under the rubied iron cross, a sort of passionate dalliance, a repeated toing and froing on the edge of a vertiginously inviting precipice beyond which can be glimpsed a dark-green distance in a reeking mist and something shining out at them, a pulsing point of light, peremptory, avid and intense. When they are wearied at last, and that beacon in the jungle has been extinguished, they lie together contentedly in a tangle of arms and legs and talk of this and that, in their own languages, each understanding hardly a word of what the other says. Alba, twisting a lock of her hair round and round a finger, pauses now and then to explore with the tip of an agile tongue the mauve bruise at the side of her mouth. She is from somewhere in the north—she waves towards the window behind her, showing him an unkempt armpit — Bergamo, it sounds like, hence perhaps her pale skin and paler hair, for he imagines bergamasks as blond laughing types.
      He tells her about Dorothy who has died. He marvels at how easy it all is, suddenly, saying these things.
      In a little while he rises from the white bed and wanders off through the house until he finds himself in what appears to be the kitchen, an odd elongated room, also white, that makes him think of a milking parlour, with a lofty ceiling and a row of frosted-glass windows high up along one wall. Zeno the Count is there, still in his overcoat, seated at a small round table on which stands, appropriately enough, a glass of milk, partly drunk. The Count, who is taking his ease and smoking a cigarette with his milk, greets him with an open-handed gesture, in the papal manner, smiling. Adam is conscious of being shirtless and barefoot. He sees, in the stark light reflected from the walls, that the Count is older than he had seemed at first. His sideburns are grizzled and there are broken veins in his nose and in the pouches under his eyes. Adam senses a large weariness in him, the weariness of an old actor in the middle of a long run in a poor part. Yet perhaps he really is a count, last of a line as old as the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, reduced to pandering to bereft and needy travellers such as this one that he chanced upon today. He goes on smiling; his expression is one of calm and not unkindly knowing. Adam sits down opposite him, suddenly exhausted, and folds his arms before him on the table and rests his forehead on his arms. Shivers pass across his back in spasms like gusts of wind upon the surface of the sea. Bells are tolling slowly all over Venice. He weeps, making no sound. The Count rises and taking off his overcoat comes and drapes it on his trembling shoulders. ‘Povero,’ he murmurs, ‘you are cold.’ Adam weeps on.