It could be said that I had or I had not had a sexual experience before. I didn't know how to evaluate an incident that took place a year ago. A connection of Alessandro's, a cousin much removed, was staying with us for a few days at Les Cyprès. He was a handsome fellow, older than Alessandro, tall, with curly brown hair and a noble face, and he was one of the dullest and dumbest men I've ever met. He could outdo mute Englishmen in talking about the weather, which where he came from did not give much scope. He was stupid and obstinate and single-minded to boot, and much teased by family and friends. They called him Tempo-Bello, because his stock phrase was Oggi fa tempo bello. Today the weather is fine. It was a pity: with his looks he ought to have spouted Il Tasso.

He asked me to go for a walk with him after mass. He was able to assemble that whole sentence. I told him I never went to mass. Then agreed to meet him afterwards at the church. It was an autumn Sunday shortly before my return to England, and already a bit cool on the beaches. We could walk on La Cride, a promontory where one sometimes had picnics, then climb down to the sea for a quick swim off the rocks. I knew every inlet.

When I arrived at the Place de Sanary I saw Tempo-Bello lounging outside the church. He had, as was the custom of Italian men of his caste, not joined the congregation but loitered at some paces from the door for the duration of the service. (When they hear the sanctus bell, they approach, stand in the doorway, genuflect, cross themselves, presumably say a prayer. After the elevation of the host, they are free to stroll away.) Tempo-Bello and I drove to La Cride and set out for our walk.

Flung over his shoulder was the white and scarlet cloak to which his family was entitled. It was a stylish thing out of a Carpaccio painting or the bull ring. When we came to a fine-branched ilex, he flung it on the ground. La Cride on a Sunday noon is an isolated place. I thought he wanted to rest and smoke, and sat down beside him. There ensued, at once and in complete silence, what I had read about as heavy petting. I was too surprised to be taken aback and almost at once surprised again by entirely unexpected and delicious sensations.

When we stood up again --- he did hold out his hand to help me --- Tempo-Bello picked up his cloak with a swing and resumed our walk as though absolutely nothing had occurred. He was his smug self and entirely composed. I was not, but concealed this, waiting for a lead from him. None came. No word, no smile, no caress. Up to this I could have taken what had happened as natural and friendly. His silence made it into something appalling. Shameful, furtive, wrong. I became wordless myself. We went back. (I did not want to bathe with him from the rocks.)

When we got to Les Cyprès I was struck by panic. In a few minutes I would be sitting down to lunch with my mother and Alessandro. What if they suspected, what if they guessed? How would I be able not to give something away? Now I felt fear as well as guilt. I was unable to look at Tempo-Bello; if only he would not come in, find some excuse... He did come in, leaving his cloak in the hall.

The teasing started at once: Did we have a nice walk? I turned to hide my face. "What did you talk about? What was the subject of conversation?" "He told me che fa tempo bello." How did I manage to trot out the old joke? How did I manage to sit through the next hour? How did the others not notice my state of acute embarrassment? Embarrassment, that was it. That was what remained.

The next day Tempo-Bello again asked me to go for a walk. Passeggiata? he said. He'd got it down to one word. Like Walky to a dog. So had 1. I turned away with a flat No. The day after he left. In spite of the terror at that Sunday luncheon, I soon got over the incident. It had not, I told myself, invalidated the seductive ethos of the Kislings': if one is friends, it's all right to make love. Tempo-Bello was not a friend and what we did was not making love. So that was that. I told nobody; but that was because I didn't know anyone suitable to tell.

It could be seen as a comical story, what with the cloak and the insistence on mass. (Years later I did tell it to someone. To two people in fact. First to Maria Huxley who said, Do tell Aldous, it's the kind of thing he likes to put in his books. I did, and he was much amused, and I did another volte-face --- I was rather annoyed: I thought he lacked feeling and did not see all the points.) When my younger self had reflected on the episode, which was seldom, there remained only, as I said, that residue of embarrassment. There was also the faint memory of those delicious sensations.

--- From Jigsaw
Sybille Bedford
©1999, Counterpoint
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