I had the dream again last night. Not Italy this time, but London. I was a stranger, barged by the sightless crowd, with the greasy pavement under my shoes and my nostrils red-raw in a young woman’s face blanched with cold.
I turned from my reflection in the tinselled windows, along a narrow mews where the warm smell of horse vied with the stink of petrol, to emerge in a square. Brass plaques reflected a bruised yellow dusk. To my left, gated greenery, a blackbird on a railing, trees turned to velvet shadows against the dimming sky.
The office was comfortable, in an old-fashioned sort of way, with creamy gaslight and treacle panelling. A girl with a scar on her upper lip wetted a cloth with methylated spirits and dabbed at the hammers of her typewriter. She glanced at me, and quickly away. I knew then I had done something shameful, but the old man was kind, exclaiming at my icy handshake, seating me by the glowing coals. When I brought the teacup to my lips, it smelled faintly of meths.
There was a tap at the door.
My heart lurched in terror and, more terribly, with a sort of gladness.
I knew you at once, although your hair was white and your boxer’s body stooped and frail. You had shaved off your moustache, but your eyes were the same.
At last I found my voice to say, ‘But you’re dead.’
And you said, ‘Am I?’
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