The day after I returned from the art show in Bonn, I got an eye test. The opticians called me in; apparently I was overdue for a check-up. It was the look on the face of the woman in the hijab that told me something was wrong. She smiled weakly and left the room, with its awful green walls, and returned with another woman, who asked me to come with her. There was a long conversation then, and many qualifications and a great deal of sympathy; but the long and short of it was that I had aggressive macular degeneration, which is a fancy way of saying: I was going blind.
Such a thing is tricky for anyone, let alone an art critic, to hear. In truth I really didn't hear it. The news sort of bounced off me. I went out for dinner that evening at the local Italian where I often have dinner, and I spoke to Marco, the owner, as if nothing was wrong. He greeted me in the way he always does, and gestured proudly to one of my reviews, framed and on the wall, to a customer. It was embarrassing; it always is. But I appreciated it.
The next morning it hit me. I woke with the phrase "I'm going blind" on my lips. It was accompanied by a kind of numbness, rather than panic. A flatness. I felt nothing. So I did what I normally do when I feel that way: I went for a walk. I went for a walk and I stared at the pavement, and I tried to figure out what to do. And eventually, it came to me.
"I'm resigning. I don't want to work here anymore."
"I'm going blind."
Sam, the Herald's youthful and overzealous editor, opened his mouth and closed it again.
And so I handed in my notice. Sam said all the right things. He offered to throw me a going-away do. I declined; he insisted; and then I told him I'd already booked a flight to Rome, and would be leaving that afternoon. We shook hands, and parted for what I imagined would be the last time.
On the plane I met an American who told me excitedly how he'd never been to "Europe". I'd been to Rome many times, I told him; I was an art critic, I told him; and though Florence was the seat of Italian art, I told him, I'd always preferred Rome. I'd studied there, many years ago. We exchanged numbers and agreed to meet for a drink one evening.
I went out once I'd dropped my things off at the hotel and showered and changed. Rome is beautiful at dusk: it's neither too hot nor too cool and the dying sun bathes the city in gold. I walked to the Piazza Farnese, and I studied the decoration of Constantine's Arch, and because it was the end of April, I went to the Spanish Steps, which were covered in flowers.
I spent much of the next day in Trastevere, and the day after that I used my Herald credentials to get into the Vatican. They were all very excited that I was there; I hadn't written about the museums for decades. But I said I wasn't there to work. I was there just to take it in, and the man I was speaking to — young, with a dark complexion but striking blue eyes — nodded sagely.
And then, one evening, I met Chester, my American friend. It was only really because I felt obliged to. He was a wearing a cap and a bum bag and his cheeks were flushed from the heat. But then he began to speak about the dignity of the city, its richness, and the way it seemed to pulsate with history, and he talked with such sincerity and passion that I was charmed. And despite all my best intentions I felt a sort of longing then, something like the sorrow that the Portuguese call saudade; because it struck me that in his way he seemed to have seen Rome more truly than I had for years. When we made to leave, I held out my hand and he hugged me.
On my last night in Rome, I stood on the Palatine Hill and looked out over the city. And I thought of my first visit to Rome, and I thought of Chester, and I tried to give what I could see all of my attention, all of it. Simone Weil was right. Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.
*My plane was late to depart but it landed at about the scheduled time. I collected my things and followed the signs for the Underground. But I was going through the double doors, something stopped me, and I frowned; and instead of taking the lift down to the Tube I went out to the taxi rank, and got in the next waiting car.
I gave the driver the address.
"Sure? Alright then."
We set off.
Several hours later we arrived. She opened the door.
"I'm sorry I didn't call ahead."
"No, it's … um, come in."
I followed her in and through to the kitchen.
"I just made some tea, actually."
"Would you like some?"
"Same as always?"
My heart stung.
She made the tea with the milk first, as she always did, and put the cup on the table on a square of kitchen towel, as she always did.
"I would have called ahead … I've been feeling more spontaneous lately."
"Is everything alright?"
I said nothing. I looked down into my tea. I spoke quietly.
"I put myself ahead of us."
I looked up. She blinked.
"Michael — "
"I did. I put myself ahead of us." Now she looked down. "I'm sorry."
"It's alright. It was a long time ago."
"I regret it. Every day."
There was silence.
"I spent my life in search of beauty. And it was right there, in front of me. It was in front of me all along." She held my gaze. "I'm very happy you moved on. You deserved a lot more than I gave you. You deserved everything."
She walked me to the end of the drive. My cab was waiting. We embraced, and as we parted, I thought to myself that if what I saw then was the last thing I ever saw, that would be alright.