I told Susan that Keats was buried in Rome. It was a line of course, factually true but nevertheless a line. She was already captivated by what she supposed was the romance of the eternal city when I met her getting off the train from Naples at Termini Station on a sweet spring morning and I thought something to do with poets would help her fall for me; it seemed to work. Over and over she made much of Keats’ name with her soft, pouting lips as we had coffee in the station bar, turning it this way and that. She quoted him wrongly and got him mixed up with Shelley but I let her go on just to hear her voice and see her eyes moisten and her mouth move around words that excited her.
“We must go see his grave,” she declared with a firmer, less attractive mouth. I wanted to tell her that she should say “go to see’, not ‘go see’, but I knew that would be rude and might kill off the prospect of an interesting few days in Rome with a pretty American girl so I said nothing, but I think I may have said it to myself. I know I did, and it bothered me.
Instead of correcting Susan with the pretty mouth I tried to edge my plan along a bit. “And take flowers”, I said as a suggestion, and her mouth went soft and wet again. I was good, better than I thought I would be.
“Roses. We’ll take roses”, Susan affirmed. Now she was back to her determined, businesslike manner with dry, hard lips. I played along hoping to find the key to keeping her lips soft and red. “And we will go at sunset. Tonight.”
It had been decided and declared and there was to be no more discussion so I bought roses from a flower seller near the restaurant we had lunch at. It was off the Piazza Navona. Ecco Bomba it was called. We ate in the room out the back and I got to impress her a bit with my Italian.
Susan insisted on going back to her hotel before going to the Protestant Cemetery and I found a small, quiet piazza not far away and had a beer at a shaded table outside a café. I know Keats, and it was refreshing to sit quietly and remember him correctly, to imagine nightingales and draughts of vintage that were undiluted by stray thoughts from Shelley and Byron then Susan came back, ready to take on this delicate pilgrimage with the brute force needed for a military assault.
She had showered and changed and prettified herself but the glamour she brought to the proposed expedition was all wrong. She was beautiful, there was no doubting it. But it seemed to me that Keats was nothing more than an oversight on her itinerary for Rome, and my mention of him had been intrusive, a slip-up on her part that had to be rectified and we were going to rectify it straight away, and with roses. Roses I had bought.
The thought of this insensate woman trampling the grave of Keats suddenly appalled me. I began to tactfully suggest that it might be a bit late for the trek out to the cemetery, she might be tired after the trip from Naples, but Susan was having nothing of it. Aesthetically insensate she may well have been but stupid she was not. She wanted to know why I had changed my mind. Was it something she had said or done? Did I not want to be with her? Rebuke and invective tumbled out of that mouth that had not long before seemed so soft and seductive. Her lips faded from red to grey in seconds, the colour transferring across to her previously pallid cheeks.
I was soon left on my own in the piazza that was now filling up with people, on my own holding a bunch of roses with a pretty American girl storming off away from me in a swirl of skirts. It didn’t take long to realise that this was a fairly good outcome, that Keats had been spared at least one indignity thanks to me, and that I was free to enjoy whatever.
I sat on in the warmth of the late afternoon sunshine in the little piazza, the roses on the table. I had another beer and waited till the next pretty girl came along and gave her the flowers and told her they were from John Keats and left.