The Meeting: Giovanni Agnoloni
"The Meeting is a story that is 100% realistic," says Giovanni Agnoloni explaining an intriguing relationship between two people that you are about to read. "There is a hint of mystery running through it" continues Giovanni who although usually writing in his mother-tongue, Italian, wrote this story in English: "This corresponds pretty well to the direction my fiction is taking right now: describing reality without (strictly speaking) fantastic elements to which I was dedicated in my previous work, but in such a way as to let emerge the elements of psychological and spiritual wonder that fill up life. I wish to blend the instances of realism and those of the more experimental part of modern literature focusing on intimate life, with streams of consciousness and other similar techniques. Besides, the capacity of the best fantastic literature is to re-accustom us to appreciate the colors and creatures of the real world."
Giovanni Agnoloni (Florence, Italy, 1976) is a writer, a translator and a cultural blogger. He is the author of the novels "Sentieri di notte" (Galaad, 2012; published also in Spanish as "Senderos de noche", El Barco Ebrio 2014 – and in Polish as "Ścieżki nocy", Wydawnictwo Serenissima 2016), "Partita di anime" (Galaad, 2014), "La casa degli anonimi" (Galaad, 2014) and "L’ultimo angolo di mondo finito" (Galaad, 2017), belonging to the dystopian literary fiction series “of the end of internet”. His short story "Il liberto" has been published by Kipple Officina Libraria (2017), and his English short story "The Return" has appeared on no.1 of the New York-based literary magazine “October Hill” (Spring 2017 issue). He wrote three published long essays on Tolkien’s literature and was the editor, translator and co-author of an international collection of Tolkien studies. A 2014 resident at ZVONA i NARI, he also took part in several literary residencies and international readings across Europe and the US. He translated books by Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Amir Valle, Peter Straub and Noble Smith, and essays on J.R.R. Tolkien and Roberto Bolaño. He also translated from English a poetry collection by the Danish poet Kenneth Krabat. His website is giovanniag.wordpress.com.
I took the coach early, as I was afraid I might arrive late. The air was still chilly at eight in the morning. I was no longer used to it, since I’d finished studying. My days consisted mainly of job-hunting, now. This meant I could wake up even at ten a.m., and nobody would complain. Anyway, I had been willing to accept her invitation, after more than a month spent away from each other. On board, there were few people. It was the end of June, and the schools were closed for the summer break. As I took a seat in the right row, I met the eyes of an old woman. She had a questioning look, as if she wondered where I was going. I avoided her glance and embraced myself to warm up a little bit.
The coach had already left. The streets flowed silently, and the city buildings formed a multicolour, endless film. This is what my subconscious part felt as we were going. My mind, instead, was focussed on our forthcoming meeting. Around mid-May, we had gone out together a few times. The place was Leicester. After a show at the cinema and a pizza, lots of questions had begun to arise in my mind. Who was she, in reality? She looked like a polite and pretty girl, who attended the second year at the Law School of a local university. She had a sister back home, in Newcastle. I didn’t know much else about her family.
To be honest, I think she came up to me first, while we were studying in the library. It was a good pretext for a coffee together. My invitation to go out that night followed naturally. The cinema was her choice. I don’t remember much of that movie, as we spent most of the show time taking care of each other – you know what I mean. I thought it was great, and no possible hurdle could impede us. Instead, during the following two dates she turned distant, and I suspected she had changed her mind. I asked her some cautious questions, just to understand what had happened to her, but her answers were all vague. Preoccupation, indecision, shyness: I kept trying to find a possible reason for her change of mood. “Something you can’t understand”, she plainly said. Led by my natural logic, I insisted that, if it depended on me, she just had to speak frankly: I wouldn’t get offended. She replied it was not so. It was something concerning only her. Because of this, she had come to the conclusion that I wasn’t the right guy for her. Quite oddly, the detail I recall best of that moment is the sound of the music going in the pub. Reggae: quite rare, indeed, in such a place. Very soon, I found myself on the street, accompanying her back home. At least, I had obtained a partial confession. Now I knew what expected me: nothing, as usual. I didn’t even try to kiss her or hold her hand, as we walked through the campus, palely illuminated by dim electric lights. When we arrived at her place, I waved at her in greeting. She replied weakly.
Since then, a month and ten days had passed, and I had graduated. It was a great satisfaction for me, but none of the guys who had promised me a job called me or answered my e-mails. My best friend had left on a journey to Sweden, and I felt very lonely. Till the day I got e-mail. Not from an employer. From her. She said she needed to see me again. I deduced she wanted to apologize, or, who knows, start again. If I accepted, it probably was because of the psychological state I was in. She worked in Nottingham, as she wrote, in order to afford a short vacation in August. So I should reach her, if I didn’t mind: she would have some free time before going to her office. I didn’t refuse, but I sensed it wouldn’t be a completely pleasant meeting.
The ride wasn’t long. Just forty minutes, more or less. We had decided to meet in a pub near the castle. While the coach was running the last metres before the station, I wondered if that month’s events might have changed her also from a physical point of view. I knew it was an absurd thought, as so little time had elapsed, yet I feared I wouldn’t recognize her, or at least that I wouldn’t be able to look at her in the same way as before. Ours had been a quick relationship, but from the very beginning I’d had the neat impression it would grow very solid, if we had got over the first difficulties. Perhaps it had been only my wish. Her blonde hair, her light-blue eyes, her plain raincoat made her appear like a poor and defenceless thing. Probably that was the reason for the spell she had cast on me.
I got off the bus. All other vehicles had apparently just left. But it rather seemed they had never arrived. The bus station looked like a hollow space. A sort of cave, adapted to become an oversize garage. I walked through it towards the street. My only company consisted of my beige jacket. The city appeared to me gloomy. I wasn’t particularly impressed by the shopping avenue. The remains of a sort of feast were being taken away from it. I entered an alley to climb up the hill that led to the castle. This implied walking along a short tunnel underneath the main road. I got out right in front of a gift-shop. Faces of wax warriors and puppets depicting Robin Hood welcomed naive tourists. I walked on.
It was 9 a.m., and I knew she would start working at 10. Therefore, once I arrived at the pub, we would just have one hour to talk. I stopped a minute. People were already gathering in front of the castle’s entrance. I remember the building didn’t look very charming. Frankly speaking, it didn’t look like a castle at all. I realized it had been re-built over the centuries. I resolved not to waste any more time watching and continued my route to the pub. I skirted around a corner and few more steps led me to the pub’s entrance. It had the appearance of a small cavern. I mentally associated it with the bus-station, and deduced it must be a characteristic of Nottingham’s public places. The walls, by the irregular surface, invited visitors to get in and try some of the food and drinks available.
I stepped in unwillingly catching my breath. Even though I was trying not to think about it, I knew it wouldn’t be an easy conversation. At first, I didn’t make out the shape of the tables and the few people sitting, as it was quite dark inside. After a second, though, the dim electric lights overcame the sense of blindness that the sun had left upon me. A veil of warm life enveloped both living and inanimate things. I found that in front of me there was a room with four or five tables. The bar was on the left. I went straight to a couch in a corner. Evidently, I hadn’t observed very well, as only at that point did I realize that she was already sitting there. She wore a black jacket, so I hadn’t noticed her, in semi-darkness.
I didn’t know what to say. She smiled at me. I nodded in greeting and sat down across the table. “How are you?”, she asked. “I’m fine, thanks”, I answered. “What about you?” “I don’t complain. I’ve passed to the third year…” “Oh, brilliant!”, I exclaimed, although without much conviction. “And you?”, she went on. “I imagine you have graduated.” “Yes”, I confirmed. “It was pretty good. Now I’m ready to enter the world of unemployment.” “Don’t be so pessimistic”, she mocked. And then, as if trying to delay the moment of our confrontation: “Oh… forgive my manners! Would you like something to drink?”, she offered. I then noticed she had already ordered a cup of tea and a slice of cake. “Don’t worry… A black coffee will work, thanks”. She called for a waiter’s attention. Her gestures revealed uneasiness. She was surely as nervous as I was. But at least she was doing her best. The waiter took my order. The people around us weren’t talking anymore, so an electric silence wrapped us up. “Listen”, she started. “Yes?”, I encouraged her, relieved at seeing I wouldn’t have to take the initiative. “I’ve just called my office. I’ve unexpectedly obtained a leave for today. If you wish, we could go somewhere together.” She looked straight at me, as if she hoped I would give her a positive answer. Then, since I didn’t reply, she went on: “It would make things easier”. And a shade of sadness passed over her eyes, like an invisible curtain. I was hurt by her last words. I felt they might mean something serious regarding her. Yet, I understood she needed time to confess me her problem, so I didn’t insist to know it straightaway. She continued: “I would like so much to see Leicester again.”, And then, sensing my surprise upon hearing this, she added: “If you don’t mind going all the way back, of course…” I took a second’s pause before answering. Despite my early waking up to come to Nottingham in time, I was strangely amused at her proposal. But I was also intrigued and worried about her tone, especially because she had referred to something hard to confess. I just smiled, and said: “It’s no problem, I don’t like this city too much…” My comment didn’t apparently offend her. She smiled back. Then the waiter arrived with my coffee. “Just give me a minute to finish this, OK?”, I teased her. “It’s fine, take your time”, she answered, now looking comforted. “There’s a whole day ahead of us”.
The trip back to Leicester was the realm of silence between us. We had taken one step forward and two backwards. It’s not easy to define the feeling you have when a bit of your past returns into your life. She definitely was a different person from the one I knew. She looked relaxed and nervous at the same time, as if she had become aware of a crucial change in her life. Although she didn’t speak, she looked like one who is dealing with profound thoughts, as if communicating with somebody else only in her mind.
Maybe I should have taken our meeting as a meeting and nothing more. Instead, I rather felt it as a new beginning. Not that I hoped so, but I figured it should be so. The fact that I found myself beside her was as evident as the distance dividing us. In other words, my presence on a coach bound to Leicester together with a young woman resembling my ex-girlfriend had lost all meaning. Still, I hadn’t been able to decline her invitation. I was not just curious. Probably the most appropriate adjective would be “needy”. I actually needed to talk. And know. Because in the depths of my mind the doubt had lingered that our breaking up could be my fault. And I hate making this kind of mistakes.
We arrived in Leicester at eleven. The bus-station was pretty crowded. I remember four or five coaches waiting along the platform. I tried to focus on any possible detail, just to avoid looking at her. I had done so on the bus, and the few words we had exchanged over the last kilometres hadn’t softened our tension more than much.
We got on the bus to the campus and sat close to the exit door. She kept watching outside for a while. The streets were as neat as the colours of the buildings’ façades. Students and clerks walked up and down, in a sort of endless motion. Even the life of a relatively small city can be busy. She touched my elbow. I turned to her and saw her smiling. “You don’t speak a lot, do you?”, she said. “Have I ever?”, I joked. She snorted, pretending she was suffering me. It seemed to me a good chance to catch her off-guard. “You used to like me for this, didn’t you?”, I asked. She looked embarrassed. “Well… yes”, she muttered. I felt like a teenager trying to find the right way to impress a school girl friend. That is, like an idiot. Ice came over us again. Sometimes it’s better to keep silent. If you speak, you may hurt somebody. But should I have cared, at that point? Apparently, I still did. The bus had just turned right into the long avenue that went up to the campus. I glimpsed a course-fellow of mine skirting along a corner and, without really meaning to, I whispered: “Sorry…” “It’s OK”, she answered. Then I found a courage I didn’t imagine to possess, and attempted one more question: “Would you like to talk, now?” “No, let’s do it later”, she replied. “But don’t feel upset about this”, she added with a weird assertive tone, like that of someone who’s taken an irreversible step. “It’s precisely to talk that I got in touch with you again.”
We reached the intersection by the Common Houses’ entrance, and got off. The air was cool, but the sunlight burnt on skin. It was a typical early summer day: ideal for a walk. I felt compelled to invite her to drink something in my block. However, she guessed my wish and answered: “Let’s walk around first. I need to see this area again. It used to make me feel good.” “OK”, I replied. “Do you know the golf course near the converted houses?” “Those where your block-mate once lived?”, she tried to recall. “Yes.” “I remember it. All right, why not?”. She looked optimistic now, the shade of depression disappeared from her face.
We crossed the campus and the park. A few runners were training, and two or three kids were kicking a ball, imagining to call it football. She unexpectedly started talking about her new job. She said it basically consisted in surfing the Net to find certain websites promoting various categories of products. She didn’t dislike it, yet she found it rather boring. As she was speaking, I grew more and more interested in her life experiences. I hoped they might contain a clue about her secret.
By then, we were proceeding on the street that from Victoria Park led to the converted houses. Quite unusually, I ignored the shops along the side. They didn’t exert their normal attractive power on me. Her voice was magnetic, and despite all my diffidence it sounded very charming. During our short relationship, she had never said anything particularly elaborate. Despite this, I had always listened to her with lots of interest. So was I doing now.
Leaves of rotten salad had fallen onto the pavement in front of the grocery store, and our feet made a chirping sound, when we stepped on them. It’s curious how you pay attention to tiny details, when you don’t care about time. Maybe it’s just a sort of secondary consciousness, which urges you not to overlook the basic rhythm of life. However, most of her intimate world was still escaping me. She was walking beside me, but energetically I perceived her as an iceberg, whose emerging part was in truth the tinier. Underwater, there must have been a whole submerged spiritual universe that I’d never been able to approach.
The part of the city that began with the converted houses was surrounded by trees and filled with pleasant shade. The students’ residences formed an independent quarter, open to the outer world but at the same time closed up in its rules. We walked through that area, talking about various people that we both knew. Some of them had graduated like me, whereas others were still struggling to pass their finals. Few cars were parked on the sides of the street. Probably many people were already on vacation. We passed the house where my block-mate had lived. There had been a party one night, there, and almost all the students of our two departments had come. There hardly was enough room to walk, let alone dancing. Smoke everywhere. A mix of languages that sounded like tribal music. We didn’t know each other, yet. I remember inviting her to dance. She refused. After that, I picked up an African girl and went upstairs with her. Most bedrooms were open and freely accessible, so we just got into one. I tried to kiss her and she didn’t resist me. When I insisted with my approaches, though, she stopped me. She said she knew I had a girlfriend, and didn’t want problems. I protested it wasn’t true, but she didn’t believe me.
“You must have been drunk”, my ex commented, after hearing the story. “Yes, you’re right”, I answered. “But sometimes you need to do crazy things in life…” “…or you might explode”, she completed my sentence. I laughed. It was one of my favourite mottoes. Recently, my vision of life seemed to have changed quite a lot. I desperately needed to work, as I was getting short of money. “Normal things are often as necessary as the crazy ones, aren’t they?”, I observed. “Yes”, she answered in a whisper, bowing her head. I had probably touched a secret string of hers. It had something to do with crazy and normal things. Gradually, the merry atmosphere evoked by the remembrance of a student party left room for the sombre shadow of the present problem. It was as if, pressed by my words, she had retreated into her private sphere, where she found a secret inspiration that was somehow prohibited to me.
The area immediately around the converted houses had finished, and we’d accessed the open space occupied by the golf course. Its surface was rather rough. The grass was uneven, and many bumps were visible. I thought the moment had come to urge her to talk: “Are you all right?”, I asked. A guy was shooting a ball just a few steps away. “Yes…”, she hesitantly answered. Then she corrected herself: “Or perhaps not too much…” A father was playing with his young son, as a yellow frisbee flying in the air made me notice. “Do you feel like talking about it, now?”. The words had got out of my mouth very naturally. She probably sensed my sincere interest. “Maybe I should”, she finally said. We kept walking for about half a minute. I understood she was collecting the necessary courage to reveal me her secret. We passed by a little pond. Two ducks were swimming through it. “When I left you”, she started abruptly, “I’d already begun experiencing new feelings.”
My heart jumped. “What do you mean?”, I asked. Mine wasn’t jealousy. Not at all. It was fear: fear that it could be something bad.
“I’d noticed something different in my way of looking at the others… and myself, too”, she went on as if she hadn’t heard my question. “I couldn’t help feeling in the same way about you.”
Meanwhile, we had reached a lonely graveyard by a little church. A noisy gate closed the passage that ran around it. I tried opening it, and it gave way. I couldn’t help seeing that, at the moment of entering there, she’d had an almost imperceptible moment of hesitation, as if she found it inappropriate to discuss certain matters in a sacred space.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t see your point”, I said, trying to ignore that impression. “Are you referring to the night when you told me it was something I couldn’t understand, which kept you away from me?”
She looked surprised when she heard this. I deduced it from the way she suddenly turned to me. And then, taking my hand in a gesture that six weeks before I would have considered perfectly normal, she replied:
“Yes, but at that time I wasn’t sure you would take it positively.”
I was getting worried, thinking that maybe she was trying to tell me that she was pregnant. “And now?”, I could only ask.
“Now I’m ready”, she plainly admitted. She saw a bench close-by and invited me to sit down next to her. Then she laid her head on my shoulder. The voice came out of the deepest part of her body. But probably it wasn’t even that: indeed, it was her soul. It must have been it, as her tone sounded very unusual. For an instant, I suspected that someone else might be hidden behind the bench, speaking for her. But it was precisely her mesmerizing timbre that introduced me to the heart of her secret: that was the access door to her hidden universe, which for some reason during our relationship had been locked, to me but probably to her, too. It evoked solitary meditations and an intense proximity with otherworldly presences. And, most of all, the close adherence to an immeasurable source of love, which made me suddenly realize how small and stupid I was. I felt dizzy and incomprehensibly enthused, as if no fear whatsoever counted any longer. Because I’d just caught a glimpse of her bare soul, and something huge beyond it.
Then she said:
“I’m becoming a nun”,
All I could do is just to hug her tight, inhaling the fragrance of her hair one last time.
I was ready to let her go.