Silent argument

I used to own a small copy of an etching by Piranesi. Black and white, fine lines, with a slim dark-red border and a black frame. The Bernini fountain was in the centre and the wide Spanish Steps led up to the church of Trinità dei Monti. The building where Keats and Shelley rented their little suite of rooms was on the right, almost out of view.


As is the way with dreams it was my house, yet it was not. The Piranesi was much bigger than usual, taken up entirely with Keats’s house. The frame
was matchstick-thin and threatened to break. It was so flimsy that it was difficult to hold.

Mother was helping me put things into place. Packing cases filled the floor behind me. Crumpled yellow paper was heaped in the dining room and barred the way into the kitchen.

I’ll do that, Mother said. She took the Piranesi and went to hang it in the living room, where it didn’t belong. I was annoyed at the way she spoke, her implication that I couldn’t manage something so simple. The frame contorted in her hands. The etching tore at the edge and flickered loose. I made myself keep still and quiet.

She fixed the picture to the wall, but as soon as she removed her hands the frame tilted. The paper flopped out of the frame. She’d used a long piece of brown packing tape to fasten the etching to the wall, and had stuck the frame over it afterwards. In my house. Brown tape, stuck on my wall. I couldn’t think what I should say to her.

I held the etching carefully while I peeled off the tape. The frame was on the floor now, leaning against the wall, askew.

Mother disappeared somewhere near the packing cases and the kitchen. Her annoyance was a pressure on my back.

Somehow the picture appeared back on the wall, just the etching itself now fastened on with needles. They’d been pushed deep into the wallpaper, only their tiny gold eyes showing. I pulled them out. It hurt my fingers badly but I had to keep quiet. She was meant to be trying to help. How can you tell your mother you don't want her?

If I were to hang the Piranesi properly, I needed a chair. Mother banged one down on the floor beside me, her resentment wrestling in the air. On the seat of the chair lay all the needles. Her set face showed she waited for me to object, to move them in order to stand safely. But if I did, her lips would thin with disapproval. I left the needles and climbed on the chair. They were slender and cold under my bare instep. Sooner or later, I would slip. She was waiting for me to hurt myself.

I stepped down again. I brushed the needles into my palm and stood up. I handed them all to her.

I don’t want to fall, I said.

Then, without needing the chair, I was tall and straight. I could reach as high as I wanted. I hung the picture, perfectly and easily. Mother was gone.




Once, I visited the house where Keats died. At a desk inside the door was an Italian guard. He seemed bored and lonely. He pointed out a large copy of the Piranesi high above a bookshelf. When he heard that I knew Keats’s poetry, he gave an enthusiastic smile.

I went through to the room where Keats died. The light was dim, faded books and carpets, dark, old furniture. The bed, little and narrow, was under the window. Outside, the sun was brilliant. In the Piazza di Spagna, flower sellers rested under white sunshades. They chattered, and called, and laughed. Huge tubs of blossoms spilled up both sides of the Spanish Steps.

Contents | Previous | Next | About this Author