Love in the Shadows
Luisa Summers, October 13, 2023
Anna walks hurriedly along Parks Roads towards Radcliffe Square, weaving in and out of crowds of tourists that fill the streets of Oxford in late summer. She keeps her pace, until she reaches the cobbled roads around the iconic Radcliffe Camera. Breathless from rushing, she purposely inhales steadily as she slows her step. Anna looks straight past the imposing building to the discreet wooden doorway of Brasenose College. And there he stands. Francesco.
Anna watches Francesco grow restless waiting for her to arrive. He appears self-conscious in the busy square with hordes of tourists meandering by. He pulls his phone from his pocket and looks at the screen. He lifts his left foot behind him and leans his tall body against the sixteenth-century wall, resting his back against the uneven stone. He scrolls through social media as a distraction.
Anna feels her stomach flutter. Francesco looks effortlessly cool in dark blue jeans, and a crisp white shirt. It has been almost two years since their last meeting. She hesitates, filled with fear and doubt, before she walks purposefully towards him.
Anna arrives and stands before Francesco. He pauses before looking up, hiding his eagerness in feigned concentration. Hello, she says softly. Francesco grins widely, and immediately roughly kisses her on each cheek. A gesture which overwhelms Anna’s British sensibilities. Come inside, he says, as he moves towards the small wooden gate and holds it open for her.
The Old Quad is an oasis of calm. The noises of the city recede behind the tall rooftops and Anna is immediately overcome with the beauty of the ancient college.
It’s good to see you, Francesco says, opening his arms wide to embrace her, more gently and calmly now than his initial greeting. She steps forward and lays her head on his chest. He immediately engulfs her.
Francesco holds Anna in his arms tightly. She wonders what he is thinking at this moment. The physical contact is too much for her but his arms do not loosen. He continues to hold her tightly as she becomes increasingly uncomfortable, overwhelmed by the eagerness of his touch after such a long absence. Francesco allows himself to become lost in the moment before slowly, reluctantly, releasing her.
Francesco leads Anna to the Senior Common Room. Tea? he asks, reverting to learnt behaviour from his British university days. Yes please, she replies politely. They carry out the ritual of making tea in silence, side by side. He looks at her awkwardly and smiles, while fumbling to open a tea bag sachet. Each holding a cup and saucer, they move inside the Senior Common Room. The battered, green, leather chairs all stand empty, and the air is permeated by a loud ticking clock. Francesco and Anna sit either end of a sofa and place their cups on the nearby coffee table.
So, tell me, what you have been up to since I saw you last? Anna says.
Francesco talks about a book he is writing. An investigation into a new quantum paradox which throws the foundation of observed reality into question. Anna notes this is the same one that he was writing last time. She has no idea about quantum physics so she smiles and nods to cover up her lack of knowledge. Francesco sees Anna doesn’t understand, but he has begun a conversation as if talking to one of his academic colleagues and he cannot stop. He speaks for too long, almost on autopilot, while carefully watching her eyelashes blink underneath their thick layer of mascara. She brushes her hair from her face. Not one of her gestures goes unnoticed by Francesco.
And what about you? Francesco asks.
Anna says she has finished her MFA in Curating at Goldsmiths. She got a distinction.
Brava Bellissima! Francesco says beaming, and leans forward to touch her shoulder.
I knew you could do it.
Anna smiles, proud of her achievement, but angry that she seeks his approval.
I’m looking for work, she says, curating opportunities to start my freelance career.
I have a friend in Rome, Francesco offers immediately. Of course. She smiles at how little he has changed.
She is curating a huge exhibition in London, I will contact her, he says.
Anna wants desperately to believe him but he has made many promises before.
And will you be coming to Italy soon? Francesco asks.
I would like to visit the Venice Biennale.
Ah, Venice, I have never been. Can you believe it? We should go together.
Anna is confused. She has been in love with Francesco for seven years. Never during this time has he been so forthcoming. She studies his face as he grins. His angular nose spoils his beauty but his eyes and smile sparkle.
Francesco begins to massage Anna’s bare shoulder, his fingers rubbing long and deep underneath her thin sundress strap. So tense, he mutters. He knows this is Anna’s weakness and she knows he wants this control over her. He often thinks of their most intimate times. Few in number but each intense enough to last the empty seasons that follow. The years of flirting. How exciting and fresh her messages are to him.
Please don’t, Anna whispers. Not your magic fingers.
Let’s go upstairs, Francesco says. They have acted out this situation before.
Anna rises from the sofa. She follows him up the spiral staircase to his guest bedroom. Francesco swipes the key card. The door beeps and swings open. He steps inside.
Francesco stands in the centre of the room and Anna walks to the window. He watches her. The back of her head and shoulders form a silhouette against the light. Her hair falls softly over the straps of her summer dress. Anna looks at the flowerboxes underneath the lead-paned windows. She looks at the perfectly manicured, vibrant grass in the Quad. The afternoon sun transforms the triangular pediments into impossibly tall, shadowy mountains imposed upon a sea of green.
How long are you here for? Anna asks.
It is easier when you are far away.
I know, he replies.
The thought of you, so close to me, and not being able to see you. It hurts.
Anna turns from the window and a crown of light shadows her sad features.
Come here, Francesco says. He sits upon the sateen cover of the double bed and gestures for Anna to sit next to him. She reluctantly walks from the window and cautiously sits down.
I’m not making love to you, Anna tells him.
No, he says.
She is surprised by his easy acceptance.
He looks intently into her brown eyes.
So beautiful. So smart. So pure.
Why have you never chosen me? Anna asks, breaking his gaze and looking at her lap.
You had a boyfriend.
I did, she replies. You know it was over after you.
I have been foolish, Francesco says. Timing. Circumstance. I don’t know…
Anna is frustrated by his ongoing lack of commitment. She feels his answers require more effort.
I’ve never meant to hurt you.
But you have, Anna replies. So much.
I want to be a better man. I know now, he says.
What has changed? Anna asks.
My father dying, he replies. Getting older. It put things into perspective.
Anna remembered his father dying. The text message from miles away. She wanted so much to comfort him but he was silent for months afterwards. It is painful for her to think about. When contact resumed, he told her he had slept with a friend who wanted to comfort him. Anna feels sick thinking about it. She knew that if she had wrapped her arms around him and caressed his hair, then that would have been all he needed.
No one can take away your pain, she had said at the time. They can only love you while you experience it yourself.
I want to be a father. I dream of creating a family, and giving a child what my father gave to me.
Anna looks at him. He seems sincere. She draws breath sharply at the prospect.
I’m seeing someone, he says. It hasn’t been long. You would like her.
Anna is silent. It forces him to continue speaking.
She is 11 weeks pregnant.
Anna feels as if she is falling. Oh. She falters.
Francesco looks in pain. Apologetic for his happiness.
I’m sorry, he whispers.
Anna fake smiles. Congratulations. I’m thrilled for you.
He smiles in return but knows the sentiment isn’t true.
I must go, Anna says, standing abruptly. Francesco doesn’t stop her.
I miss you, he says, when she reaches the door.
She half turns. I miss you too, she says over her shoulder.
Anna closes the door behind her.
Several days later Francesco messages Anna.
I need you.
Are you ok?
No. Can I see you?
Anna steps out of the taxi into the dusk of Radcliffe Square. The Radcliffe Camera casts a huge shadow over her from the reflective streetlights, as she opens the wooden door to Brasenose College. The Night Porter looks up from his newspaper and nods at her arrival, clearly expecting her. She walks across the silent Old Quad lit only by a slither of moonlight peeping over the top of the vaulted rooftops. She reaches the spiral staircase and walks up to Francesco’s room.
He opens the door seconds after she taps lightly upon it. His eyes are red and puffy. His hair is dishevelled. He pulls her in by her hand and shuts the door behind her. He flops on the end of the double bed, and runs his hand through his hair while looking at the floor by her feet.
What is it? She asks.
She lost the baby. 12 and half weeks. We thought it was safe.
Anna is flooded with shock and relief. Her cheeks flush as she realises her reaction and is consumed with guilt. Still looking at the floor, Francesco reaches for her hand and starts to cry silently. She cradles his head in her arms and pulls him towards her stomach. She caresses his hair as he grips her tightly around her thighs. Until he stops crying.
He pulls her onto the bed and lies back. She lies next to him. She leans over and caresses his hair again. She gently wipes the tears from under his eyes with her thumb. He smiles sadly at her. She caresses his face. He reaches up and touches her cheek with his thumb. His magic fingers sink into her hair behind her ear and send shivers down her spine. He looks at her intently. She looks at him. He lifts his chin and brings his lips slowly to hers. She closes her eyes and parts her lips ever so slightly. They rest their lips against each other, breathing each other in. Before kissing each other passionately, and urgently. Over and over again. Until they make love for the fifth time.
Anna awakes to early daylight creeping into the room through the window. The decorative leaded-panes cast a shadow of bars on the carpet and start to creep over the bed where she lays. Anna takes a second to realise where she is. The room is silent. She turns and looks over her shoulder. The other half of the bed is empty. The duvet is thrown back and the sheets are rumpled. Anna quickly looks to the large wooden chair by the desk. No leather holdall. No watch on the desk. Nothing. He is gone.
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