“I Vicini” | A ficción by Dean Kyte

824-8 Lygon Street, Carlton North, a typical example of nineteenth-century Melburnian row architecture.  Beyond it, to the left, is the hall of the Società Isole Eolie Melbourne, an art déco gem dating from the period when Carlton was the Jewish, rather than Italian, enclave of Melbourne.  Photograph by Dean Kyte, the Melbourne Flâneur.
824-8 Lygon Street, Carlton North, a typical example of nineteenth-century Melburnian row architecture. Beyond it, to the left, is the hall of the Società Isole Eolie Melbourne, an art déco gem dating from the period when Carlton was the Jewish, rather than Italian, quarter of Melbourne.

When Alizée turned north into Lygon Street out of Fenwick, she saw him wandering slowly in the opposite direction past the Eolian Hall.  His head was turned towards the creamy déco pile, evocative, in its Mediterranean blancheur, of her homeland as it shimmered faintly in the midday heat.  The bottlegreen brim of his Fedora described a gloomy arc of shadow which just veiled his eyes, further occluded by the bluish haze of smoke from his Candela, as he tacked past the hall in a not altogether steady drift, whether dreamily attracted by its magnetism, or faintly oppressed by the rising heat, it was difficult to say at that distance.

He had adjusted his wardrobe to the weather and was wearing the limegreen dress shirt, its French cuffs folded back and cinched together by gold links which matched the garters hitching up his sleeves.  The skyblue waistcoat hung open, exposing a suggestion of suspender where the book, hugged loosely to his breast, pushed back the edge of his vest.  The dark green patterned bowtie was a little askew, its jaunty angle mimicking the rakish slant of the Fedora’s brim.  He wore the checked, mustardcoloured slacks, the breaks of which bounced gracefully over the tan, brogued wingtips of the derby boots along with his slow, loping gait as he sauntered past the hall, regarding it abstractedly and yet with a set to his mouth, around the butt of the green cigar, which implied contentment with life.

Alizée quickened her pace until just before he passed the Eolian Hall completely and turned his head back to twelve o’clock.  When he seemed on the verge of noticing her, she slowed up abruptly to match his casual saunter, raising her right hand, encumbered, as always, with the iPhone, and waved it at him.

—Buongiorno! she greeted him enthusiastically as they closed the distance.

He took the Candela out of his mouth and saluted her with it as he approached.

She came on with her habitual onslaught of high energy, running into him just before the triple row of terraces under the creamy, partly mutilated cornice which dominated this block of Lygon Street, its mascarons, jutting from corbels, projecting from ends of plaster, gazing fixedly into the green wastes of the General Cemetery across the street, stoically ignorant of the exuberant display of affection to their collective left.  For Alizée did not hesitate to kiss him fully on the lips as she flung her arms around his neck, rocking him back a little in his centre of gravity with the collision of her lips as he returned the embrace more equivocally, resting the free fingers of his right hand lightly, briefly on her flank.

—Una bella giornata, vero? she enthused.  Che sole! che cielo!  For once, Melbourne seems like home—though not, I should say, a Natale!

—Sì.  I think we’re past winter now, he admitted coolly as he stepped back from her embrace, returning the green cigar to the corner of his mouth for a quick drag.

He turned his head a little to the right, blew a plume of smoke politely to one side of her, but his hard grey eyes remained firmly fixed ahead, on Alizée, as they took the measure of her very quickly through the veil of smoke.  In an instant, his cool manner had softened a little.  Though the eyes lost none of their probing, assessing quality, they seemed to smile at her.

—You’re not in your shop today.  What are you up to? he asked with amiable brutality.

—Faccio del shopping, she said, holding up the green Woolies bag depending from her left hand.  The bag was very light—empty even.  E tu?  What are you reading?

Without waiting for a reply, she grasped the book, a slim paperback, not rudely, but with a certain proprietorial familiarity, the fingers of her left hand curling around the pages until they were against his shirtfront.  His face wore a faint, wry expression which might have signified amusement or annoyance as he let her take it away from him.

She flipped her wrist back to reveal the front cover.  It was a French giallo.  The cover showed a young brunette, slim with attractive, pointed features—not entirely dissimilar to Alizée herself—in a silk slip with spaghetti straps—rather like the green cotton playsuit she was wearing—squeezing her small tette together and regarding the graceful shadow between them with the proud absorption of feminine possession.  The photograph had been solarized so that the lowlights of the brunette’s skin were weirdly purple and the bronzy slip had been rendered garish and fauvistic.  The title was Le facteur fatal, by an author—a Belgian perhaps—calling himself Didier Daeninckx.

The left corner of Alizée’s mouth made a small reflexive moue.

—Tu lis d’trucs comme ça?

He shrugged Gallically, the end of the Candela sketching a volute of smoke—like a question mark—with the sprezzatura of the gesture.  He gave an impression of being bored by the conversation.

—I just found it in an opshop in Brunswick Road, he said, jerking his thumb back over his shoulder, indicating the direction he had come.  With the vertical movement of the cigar, the question mark crossed itself out.

—Je l’ai acheté pour lire du français.

With a slight inclination of his head,—like a very reduced bow,—he proffered his left hand, palm upward, to her, his eyes, fixed on hers with a polite insistence which seemed, simultaneously, to mock the courtliness of the silent request for repatriation.

Alizée returned Le facteur fatal to him.

There was a brief vacuum in the conversation filled only by the circulation beside them as they regarded each other for a moment of doubtful comfortability, their eyes palpating faces that were still inscrutable to each other even after six weeks.  Alizée broke the pause cautiously.

—I haven’t seen you around for a couple of weeks, she essayed hesitantly;—not since the day we went to Williamstown together.  I thought you must have gone somewhere to see your family—per Natale, perhaps?

His face lost none of its pleasant inscrutability, his eyes seeming to glitter as they squinted through the last puff of smoke he took from the Candela.  He took his time dropping the fuming butt to the asphalt and heeling it out with his derby.  He toed the flattened cylinder towards the bluestone gutter with what seemed a thoughtful bunt of his boot.

—I had to go to… Sydney per una settimana – o giù di lì.

—Ancora una volta?  You were in Sydney last month as well.

Alizée’s eyes acquired a cautiously roguish twinkle.

—Ton métier de flâneur te porte loin.

His eyes searched her face for a halfbeat, and then:

—We never sleep.

Their eyes smiled at each other and her face flushed attractively beneath the Mediterranean tan, although the smile, on his side, did not quite reach his lips.

He broke eye contact with her after a circumspect interval.  A southbound Route 1 tram was passing them, slowing with a screel of its wheels. It braked in the long perspective of Lygon Street under the petrified falaises of the City skyline erupting through the green amoncellement of trees that stood sentry along the fenceline of the General Cemetery.  He watched as it drew to a stop at the corner of Fenwick Street, the train of southbound traffic pausing deferentially in its wake, and three passengers alighted from the B-class, going their several ways with caution.

One of the typical denizens of Yarra, this one an arts student who fancied herself a feminine John Lennon, with dark, round, silverrimmed sunglasses, a loud, mannish shirt and thin black jeans, the hems of which were rolled up to reveal her Doc Martens, passed them bearing a canvas tote over her shoulder, an obnoxious slogan against the government stencilled on the side of it.  He looked down at his brogues and let the girl pass before speaking.  When he did so, it was with an experimental essay at confidence that seemed scrupulously mindful of not appearing too forceful in pressing its suit, too inconsiderate of the manifold reasons Alizée might have for rejecting the proposition.

—Look, he said, I know you have no family in this country, but I understand that you might have other… engagements on Monday.

He paused momentarily.  Alizée declined to take advantage of this fenestration in his speech as an opportunity to rise to the bait it implied.

He went on a deal more softly, and his eyes, though still sharp, still probing, still assessing her visage minutely as he spoke, almost gave an impression, as they narrowed slightly, of having hit upon a happy inspiration couched in the proposition his voice was rehearsing, one he himself had not previously divined.

—Would you perhaps like to take a cheeky avventura with me on Christmas Day? un picnic, perhaps? to an undisclosed location to be advised when your eyes are looking at it?

At the word ‘avventura’, the blue jets in Alizée’s silver eyes flared up appreciably.

—I don’t think it’s going to be as hot as this on Monday, he added as an afterthought, an additional justification to the good; an exculpation of Melbourne’s unbankable weather, of the debatable antipodean pleasure of passing a blazingly hot Christmas Day outdoors more generally—if she needed it.

Alizée did not.  Her face broke into broad enthusiasm at the idea.

—O, un’avventura sounds brilliant!  And if the weather isn’t fine, we will adventure anyway!

A soupçcon of roguish sidelight entered her eye briefly once again as her bangs shook with the enthusiastic upward movement of her head in a jerkish nod—or perhaps it was the sun alighting on her forehead as those parenthetical twin curtains moved briefly aside from their usual halfdrawn position occluding her features.

He seemed a little taken aback by how well this proposta had been received and watched her access of enthusiasm from those removes, the cool depths of assessment, with the wry indulgence of a parent giving a delightful child its head.

—Buono, he said in the next second, when she had settled down.  Then I will make i preparativi.  I’ll go to Rathdowne Street now and pick up a few things.

—Hai bisogno che porto qualcosa?

—Del vino, perhaps.  I’ll leave it to you.  Whatever you like.

—Allora…

—Allora.

His voice had acquired a seductive firmness and his mouth now joined his eyes, as they held hers gently in parting, in a very definite smile.

—A lunedì, he said softly.

—A lunedì—Ciao, caro!

She launched her lips at him again and he took the collision more gracefully this time, though he still demurred to linger long in her embrace.

—Ciao, he said, giving her one gentle pat on the derrière en passant and slipping smoothly past her to continue his southward flânerie, with more purpose in his stride this time.

He made the corner quickly, and when he had rounded it into Fenwick Street, he stopped abruptly just inside.  His eyes were turned down to the pavement and, with the gravity of his reflections, his face slowly resumed its habitual cast of dour pensiveness as his eyes scanned the asphalt for something that was within himself.  His posture seemed to relax of its own accord and he leant his shoulder to the white plaster wall of the house on the corner as he thought.

The persistent passage of traffic and trams behind him did not seem to reach him.

Then, rolling suddenly around, he turned, voltafaccia, towards Lygon Street and the grille of the General Cemetery.  He moved stealthily forward two steps until he presented the narrowest possible profile to the street and, transferring the book to his other hand, reached into the left pocket of his waistcoat.  He produced the small rectangular hand mirror and, holding it down at his hip, angled it back up Lygon Street until, in its arc, it caught the profile of the Maltese ragazza in the olive playsuit with the embroidered bodice.

Alizée had not advanced very far from where he had left her.  She was standing in front of the Eolian Hall and was studying it intently.  Her head turned from left to right, not in the big movements she had used with him, but in small ones, as if she were looking for something—a clue, perhaps, or something she had lost.

Then, as he watched her in the angle of the mirror, his face devoid of expression, she raised the iPhone and took a photo of the pile.

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