This is a true story. Improbable, but true.
It was a few years ago. My husband, Ray, and I were staying in central Rome for ten days. It wasn’t our first visit, but we did many of the usual things – going to churches and galleries, having a very memorable trip to the Vatican at night, and just walking around.
One day, we had gone out for lunch at a local restaurant – a rather old fashioned place. It had been in the same location for decades, perhaps with the same classic menu, and there were numerous waiters in black uniforms. I can’t remember now what it was called or what we ordered, but the food was reasonably good.
The tables were close together by English standards. Our two-person table was next to another, with only a small space in between, presumably so that they could be easily joined for a group of four. As a result, we became increasingly aware of a man, probably a little older than us, sitting alone at the table just to the side of ours. He was well dressed, with a confident air and an intelligent face. He seemed to be known to the restaurant staff.
We had been married for years and had a very easy way of chatting about all kinds of things, from what we had been seeing in Rome to our grandchildren, the current news and much else besides. I wondered how much this man could hear of what we said, but nothing was so confidential that it mattered much.
Sometime around the point when we had finished our second course and were ordering coffee, the man made eye contact with us. He made a comment about the food or the restaurant or something similar of no great importance. He spoke in good English, although it was clearly not his native language.
But this had broken the ice. He asked where we were from. When we said London, he told us that he loved London, especially the gentlemen’s clubs around St James. This was not part of our world, but we smiled to be agreeable. He mentioned that one of his sons worked in London and he liked to visit from time to time.
He then told us he was from a country in South America (which shall remain unnamed to preserve his anonymity) and was a former Supreme Court judge there. I wondered briefly if I should believe this, but decided why not. It seemed an unlikely detail to invent. He had apparently been forced out when the then President came to power and had moved hurriedly to Europe. Most of his time was spent in Rome, but he travelled around to England and other countries.
There was some mention of a wife and four or five grown up children, but it did not sound like he had much contact with them, even his wife. Indeed, he seemed a slightly forlorn figure, eating alone – perhaps frequently – in a foreign city.
He asked about us. How long had we been married? Did we have children? What were we doing in Rome? All reasonably innocuous. Most of this was directed to Ray, possibly because he was more comfortable talking man-to-man or perhaps simply because the configuration of our seating meant that he was more within direct eye-contact.
And then suddenly the conversation took a very different turn. He said it looked like we loved each other and stopped briefly to check for confirmation. Ray, although normally reticent like most Englishmen, said yes, we did. I think I nodded or murmured some agreement.
Would you mind my asking, said this stranger, but what do you mean by love?
The atmosphere shifted. This was not a light-hearted question, but a serious question from a serious man. We knew it, he knew it and he knew we knew it. Perhaps he was trying to work something out in his own mind.
I could see Ray beginning to reflect, to search for an answer. That’s a difficult question, he said, buying a little time. Yes, was the quiet reply.
Ray is a thoughtful man and not afraid of difficult questions. As an academic, he is used to them. But this was definitely not part of his lunch plans.
Well, he began, looking back I’m not at all sure that I was in love when we first married. Of course, I was strongly attracted for many reasons, but I didn’t understand then what love was. I was much too young and un-formed. And my mind was on other things, mostly myself and where I was going. Had I been asked what love meant, my answer would probably have focused on my wife’s special qualities.
But now, he continued, I feel that love is something that develops slowly over time. It requires a period of growing into maturity. It’s something to do with wanting what is good for my wife – to be willing, if necessary, to sacrifice my own interests in order to help her. Of course, I may also benefit from doing that, but I would do it even if I didn’t.
I want –very deeply – for her to be happy and fulfilled. It’s in this same way that I also love my children and grandchildren.
All of this was said over some time in a slow and thoughtful way.
I’m not a weepy person or a sentimental one. I don’t weep in the opera or when watching a touching movie. But here was my husband trying to explain his love for me, right in the middle of a public restaurant in Rome. My eyes definitely misted up. There was nowhere, anywhere, except these two small tables.
Ray said later that the judge’s eyes were also moist. He had looked lost in thought, perhaps seeing what might have been absent from his own marriage.
The table became rather quiet. The judge said something to the effect that he wasn’t sure he had ever experienced this. We slowly went back to more normal conversation.
At some point, the waiter came for the bills and they were paid. This has been a very interesting discussion, the judge said. We could have taken contact details and continued the conversation elsewhere – after all, he said he came to London from time to time. But I made a calculation that we were not likely to have that much in common and a future relationship was unlikely to thrive. Perhaps he thought so, too.
We shook hands and left the restaurant separately. We did not even know his name.
I am currently writing a series of short stories based on meaningful moments in my life, to be published as a book in early 2019 (or sooner). This is the first one to be published in any way. It won Stevie Turner’s Short Story contest at the end of April 2018. For further information, see my website www.annrichardson.co.uk.