The administrator of the block of studio flats was profusely apologetic for the state the tenant had left her room in for that morning's viewing.
"Questa ragazza che vive qui," he said, throwing his hands up in a Latin gesture of despair, "This girl who lives here… twenty eight years old… party, party every night…"
The flat was indeed in shocking disarray: dishes, clothes and books were strewn across every surface, and there was a distinct tang of cigarettes and booze to the general fug of unaired room.
"Che casino, che casino," muttered the administrator.
The young Englishman viewing the apartment had recently learned that casino — little house — was Italian slang for both a brothel and a mess. In his susceptible, early-morning state he had to fight off a vision of a queue of male tenants, their hands clamped impatiently around hundred franc notes as they waited their turn with the fun-loving girl at number thirty-two.
The administrator switched the light on — yellowing more than lightening the gloom — and began an exhaustive list of the apartment's features. At first the young man blamed his lack of concentration on the administrator's blend of rapid Italian and pidgin English; then he realised that he was simply more interested in the inhabitant of this dishevelled female nest than he was in the workings of the fuse box, or the right way to open and close the built-in cupboards.
The picture of her that had already begun to form in his head was intensified by every discarded object and garment he saw. She was reading The Flowers of Evil, The Little Prince, The Story of O and one of those pink, embossed novels that women laugh at on trains. She (and her many guests) drank a lot of wine, a little beer, and the occasional shot of Tequila. She smoked, and not just tobacco. She mostly more jeans but sometimes liked to tart herself up in trashy skirts and knee-high boots. She scribbled when she was bored.
Noticing the young man's abstraction, the administrator broke off from the intricacies of the telephone bill to tap the side of his head in the international gesture of lunacy.
"È pazza, questa ragazza, pazza. She say to me, I want to leave my room, I say, Fine, when? Tomorrow. Tomorrow? Where you go tomorrow? She say, I don't know. I don't know!"
The young man raised his eyebrows in disbelief; but inwardly he was delighted to have his impressions reinforced. She was clearly someone who didn't care for social conventions, for other people's expectations. Someone, perhaps, a little like him? After all, hadn't his friends shaken their heads when he told them that he had no intention of completing his postgraduate degree, that he had only accepted a post in this secluded Alpine town for the sake of a year or two somewhere else? But then, the fact that he had bothered to feign a legitimate purpose — one his mother would accept — proved he wasn't as bold as all that. Maybe it was truer to say that he wanted to be like her.
"She travel everywhere," said the administrator, vaguely indicating the mirror on the dressing table, "And she don't even know where she go tomorrow!"
At first the young man didn't understand what the administrator was pointing at; then he saw the array of photographs around the mirror. He crossed the room a lot faster than he had to inspect the radiators. Dozens of faces appeared in front of the mountains, deserts, cities and temples; but the same dark curls and brilliant smile shone from every one.
"Bella eh? Bella?"
"Si si," answered the young man, trying to keep the tremor out of his voice, "Molta bella."
"But she is crazy. Crazy!"
The young man sensed something paternal in the administrator's attitude; no doubt she was one of those women who through a combination of charm and reckless vulnerability create fathers wherever they go.
When the administrator looked away to explain something about the light fitting the young man returned to the photographs like a released spring. The hair. The smile. The swimsuits. At first he didn't even notice that almost all the grinning young people beside her — an arm around her shoulders on the Tokyo subway, a double hammock on a tropical beach — were male. Suntans, taut stomachs and white teeth predominated. He glanced at his own image, mercilessly large after the neat little snapshots around the mirror, and decided that although his skin and teeth were regrettably British, and his physique was more angelic than heroic, the intensity of his blue-eyed gaze was undeniably attractive. The administrator turned back to catch him adjusting the blond streak dyed into his angular fringe.
"You are beautiful. Beautiful. Now listen to what I say you about the lights…"
But the young man found it even harder to concentrate than before. Now that he had seen her face (and a fair part of her body too) it was all but impossible not to visualise her in various poses around the room. No sooner had he dispelled her from the tatty old armchair — smoking a cigarette and reading a novel — than she stretched out on her bed to listen to music, or appeared in front of the mirror, fixing her hair for a night out. Nor was he helped in these circumimaginings by the pair of light pink panties draped across the alarm clock. How would those look against her olive skin? As the administrator continued to bore him with trivialities — the rent, contractual obligations etc. — he caved in and, behind a shield of affirmative noises, abandoned himself to fantasy. She was lying on her bed, wearing pink panties and a loose tee-shirt and nothing else. No, they were on her bed, lying on their sides, gazing into each other's eyes (Yes yes, he told the administrator, Three month's notice). They were lying on their sides, she was wearing pink panties and nothing else, they were talking as they gazed into each other's eyes (Yes yes, two year contract). They were lying on their sides, completely naked, they were talking, like characters in the French movies he was so fond of, about important things — love and sex, and art and sex, and death and sex (No no, no pets). He was lying on top of her, gazing into her eyes, his hair was looking very nice, she was telling him, your hair looks really nice (Yes, yes, direct debit)…
The administrator seemed to have another appointment to keep; he glanced at his watch as he herded the young man into the tiny and not very clean bathroom. The sink, the taps, the mirror, the shelves behind the mirror; even in his agitated state he seemed unable to leave any detail off his itinerary. He was probably more frustrated by his own pedantry than by the tenant's slovenliness when he exclaimed "She never clean! She never clean!" The young man certainly thought so. In any case it was absurd to expect such a free-spirited young woman to spend her time scrubbing toilets and bleaching shower curtains, like some dreary hausfrau.
He noticed as they were leaving the bathroom that the showerhead had no mount; it dangled on its ringed tube into the grimy bath. When she showers, he thought, she must hold it above her with one hand, letting the spray soak her hair, straightening her curls, as the hot rivulets course around her—
"Porca miseria! She leave tomorrow and she don't even make the dishes!"
The administrator lifted a pot smeared with Pesto from one of the hobs. His displeasure intensified when he realised that he had not described the operation of the oven.
Again the young man found himself defending the tenant in his head. Her life was too exciting to be wasted on dirty dishes; her hands were sensitive to hot water; they would have so much fun together he wouldn't mind doing the dishes for her. The last of these arguments struck a discordant note. Was he really so willing to give up his hard-won independence and become a domestic skivvy? For a woman he hadn't even met? He would have to be tougher than that if he wanted to get on in the world. He resolved to see the apartment through more objective eyes.
He agreed with the administrator that the room stank; that the bed should have been made; that the empty pill-packets on the bedside cabinet should have been thrown away (what did she need so many pills for anyway?); that the greasy, fingerdrawn heart on the mirror above the sink should have been wiped off.
He wondered who she had been thinking of as she traced that childlike icon of human desire. One of the himbos in the photographs? Or another lover, closer to home? A younger man perhaps, twenty two like him, eager to learn from her six extra years of experiment and adventure? His own heart — ventricled and raw — beat faster as he thought of the pleasures she could unfold for him…
"Che scemo che sono! I forget to show you the view!"
The administrator winched up the blinds on the big windows at the end of the room and all the glamour of the Alps strode in, dressed in green, veiled with mist.
"Bella vista eh?" He said, stepping out onto the balcony. "Bella vista!"
The young man followed him in a kind of trance, drunk on promise and beauty. He was so intoxicated that he almost missed the pad of paper on the desk by the window, its top leaf covered in frenzied handwriting. He paused, checked the administrator wasn't watching, began to read. It was hard to discern anything in that loopy, elongated scrawl; and most of the words he could make out were beyond his rudimentary Italian. But he was fairly certain the verb amore appeared in various conjugations — or maybe tenses. He glanced again at the administrator, who was still facing the other way, widening his hands as if he wanted to hold the view between them. The young man returned to the love letter (for that was clearly what it was) and noticed that the text broke off in the middle of a word. Who had inspired her to such unbearable passion? He realised — with horror — that he was scanning the page for his own name. This was madness, they'd never met, if his name was there it belonged to someone else. But hope hummed so strong inside him that, as a high enough voltage can jump the gap between two wires, it leapfrogged the very laws of causality and time that his thesis on quantum teleology was supposed to explore.
"Santa Maria!" cried the administrator, "She even leave clothes out here!"
It was almost a relief for the young man to leave the giddy intensity of the letter and join the administrator on the balcony — where there was indeed a complete outfit heaped up on one of the chairs: trainers with socks still inside them; wadded up jeans; a red vest top; a pair of panties — white this time — whose diaphanous frills shivered in the breeze.
"Che casino, che casino."
The young man could not suppress a smile. It was obvious to him she had not dropped her clothes out of negligence, that she and her lover had torn them off — perhaps that very morning — to enjoy the youth and beauty of their bodies with the Alpine panorama before them. But no doubt the administrator knew that too, and was only embarrassed by her lack of inhibition, as a father is embarrassed by the revealing outfit his daughter insists on wearing to the pub.
The administrator glanced at his watch again.
"So you take the room? You come tomorrow?"
"Yes," the young man murmured.
After his earlier turbulence, a profound calm was spreading through him. He knew it made no difference what he said, whether he took the apartment or not. He was going to find this woman — whose name he didn't even know — and travel with her wherever she went, over these mountains, over deserts and jungles and seas. It was simple, he had no choice. He looked out across the lake, up at the misty sky, down at the lawn in front of the apartment block. Everything was simple, everything was clear — except one patch directly below the balcony, where a naked corpse lay crumpled on the grass.