A girl threw herself at my feet. Or rather, she tumbled to the ground where I stood, her nakednes evoking the original sinful fall. The event, like the passage of a comet, seemed to presage something.
She fell without warning from the all-too-collapsible chair, on which she had struggled (and failed) to remain immobile for fifty dawdling minutes. It was not the first time she had fallen asleep, to the annoyance of those in the group – the life class at the Academy of St Francis – whose procedure involved careful measurement. Her head would sag with slow reluctance towards her breastbone, only to spring back on first contact with the sternal hollow of her throat, the terminus of its slump where slumber threatened. A jolt then returned her to the original position, wearing an expression of unfeasible alertness: eyes wide open, interrogating the middle distance — and the clock located there. But this original set of the pose was if anything more disruptive to the measurers. It would be maintained only for a matter of seconds, before the eyes drooped and her head set out again on its path of decline, like a full moon that has overstayed the sunrise.
There was a lobby to fire Maria Pia from the life class. So far it had foundered on the inertia of the Head of the school. Umberto Pierangeli – Professor of Anatomical Drawing, to give him his title – was not one to shift, unless a deluge were lapping his feet, and then only with an elegant sidestep.
‘But, boys and girls, she is so beautiful. For beauty we can forgive – a great deal, no?’
I was inclined to agree, but as a newcomer and extramural guest, my status in the class was probationary. I kept my own counsel.
The silence of the room – though not in truth silence, for there was the mechanical click accompanying each judder of the clock’s second hand; there was the squeaky scratch of charcoal on paper; there was the vibration of a drawing board, as someone made urgent, wholesale erasures – this atmosphere of concentrated endeavour was ruptured (as I have described) at precisely seventeen minutes after midday.
The harsh scrape of chair legs and the sound of its collapsing weight, clattering the bare boards of the rostrum, caused me to look up: just in time to see Maria Pia still in mid-air, ungainly as a drunk, with an expression of bewilderment on her face. Her nudity was comical, undignified, like a soul judged and condemned for eternity to the circle of the absurd. And like those cascading deities that empty from baroque ceilings, she fell, coming to ground unstably and surely temporarily, on the very edge of the dais. I stepped forward, briefly fascinated by the compression of flesh on the angle of the podium. Her body, all akimbo, was offering to roll off its temporary ledge and fall the remaining distance to the floor. My intervention was untidy. I couldn’t seize hold of her but I grasped the arm nearest to me, causing her to slew round and ground her feet, before the rest of her could follow. She regained some balance and dropped back, into a sitting position on the edge of the platform. I was still holding her arm, making sure she was steady. Her breast jammed against my hand, its touch warm and without resistance. Self-consciously, I let go.
Now there was a crowd around her – the whole room had been sucked to where she sat. Maria Pia looked dazed. She was trying to speak. Her utterances were fragmentary
‘Such a stupid cow… I don’t know what…did I faint?…’
Someone had a hand on her brow, feeling her temperature. Her nakedness now seemed improper and pleaded to be covered. Her wrap materialised and was draped around her shoulders.
Time was called on the class, with ten minutes left to go. There was still a melee in attendance. I picked up my belongings, and went out into the sun.
After the enclosed atmosphere, the sensation of heat and the strong, sharp light were welcome, even delicious. I noticed my hand was shaking a little. It was still early. I decided to hang around and set myself down on the kerb.
The street was narrow, populated, at pavement level, by artisans’ workshops and small shops. Opposite me, where I sat, was some kind of metal worker’s. The interior, to my view, appeared almost pitch black; there was probably someone inside that I couldn’t see, labouring at a bench.
‘I have to thank you. I don’t know your name.’ The voice came from behind me. I turned to respond.
‘Adam,’ I said.
‘Adam. That’s significant, don’t you think?’
‘My mother thought so…’
‘Yes, but that’s not what I meant…’ Maria Pia still looked pale. Her face was an oval, like a Modigliani woman. Her hair, between blond and brown in colour, was down now, as she normally wore it when not modelling. She parted it down the middle of her head; it was long, hanging in ringlets, well below her shoulders. She sat down next to me and, in an automatic sort of way, extracted the elements to roll a cigarette from the blanket bag slung across her shoulder.
‘What I mean is…well a fall…it’s something particular. Out of the ordinary. I looked for it on my life line.’ She held up her palm so I could see it. ‘See, there’s a little line that crosses it. There!’ She pointed with her other hand. ‘Can you see? It means something…’ She shrugged in a way that implied an infinity of interpretations.
I looked, but I could not see. I am an unrewarding subject in matters spiritual and I was probably looking at the wrong line. Her hands had a delicacy that I had always enjoyed when I was drawing her. Her fingers were fine, a quality accentuated by her nails; these she maintained long, painting them turquoise.
‘What does it mean?’ I asked, not sure whether she was serious or making some sort of roundabout joke.
‘It means a change. And you are called Adam. That is important on a symbolical level…or is it symbolic, I don’t know…’
‘Symbolic, I think. You mean ‘the fall of man’ and all that…’ This wasn’t the first time in my life that my name had provided material for double entendres. I was resigned to it.
‘Yes. You see! You do see…’ Her tone was more animated now that she felt I was getting on her wavelength. ‘But…’ She paused and looked directly at me. ‘But you were the one who prevented the fall, not like in the Bible when…you know. It’s all upside-down from the way it’s supposed to be. You get that, don’t you?’
‘You were the one upside-down.’
She flushed slightly, perhaps considering her inversion. ‘Yes, I was the one upside-down. And it was fallen Adam that caught me and turned me the right way. It’s the opposite to the way you’d think…’ She detected that my willingness to comprehend was faltering. ‘It means something important, anyway. It means a change,’ she said, finishing on a categoric note.
Maria Pia had rolled her cigarette by now and lit it with her Zippo. We sat on the kerb, absorbing the sunlight, squinting into the dazzle of the sky. She took deep drags on the cigarette. Its smoke drifted tantalisingly my way. I had recently quit, part of my reappraisal of myself since I had begun a new job. A man in a buff storeman’s coat emerged from the black void opposite, the place that made metal fixings: Vulcan summoned by Apollo. Lunchtime was approaching.
‘I want you to help me with one of my tableaux. I want to do “The Fall”. It would need you. You would have to be in it…’
She went on to explain that she liked to take photographs of groups of friends and members of her family, in staged compositions. She had a Rolleiflex and lighting equipment. It was evidently quite professional – not the casual snapshot photography I was versed in. There was something about Maria Pia that was hard to turn down. Her way of asking made you feel as though you had been entrusted with her entire happiness. I said I would like to see some of her pictures.
‘I’ll bring some next class. I’m modelling again then. But you will help me, won’t you? It’s necessary, for you too, I think…’ She gave a smile that was winning and, at the same time, had a hint of fairground guile to it. ‘My photographs are like journeys, to find things out…truths that we keep hidden…’ She smiled again, a smile that seemed certain of itself. I hadn’t a clue what she meant, but I was getting used to the idea that much of what she said was off my frequency. I was remembering the touch of her breast. We stood up, exchanged friendship kisses, and went our separate ways.