I make my way down the stairs, careful not to overtax the joints. Small, deliberate steps are the rhythm of my days: slow and steady, unexciting and painless. But as soon as I sit down at the piano, everything changes. I am mesmerized by the fluid movement of my hands as they race over the keyboard, following the intricate patterns laid out on the note sheet. They seem to be the hands of a younger man, full of vigour and unaffected by the ravages of time.
I am playing Bach’s Second English Suite, a piece of splendid exuberance and boundless energy. It is music like a mountain stream or the smile of a pretty girl, inexhaustible in its charm and irresistible in its allure. My fingers know the pathways through Bach’s labyrinth without fail. Despite the piece’s audacity and speed, its sudden jumps and reversals, they execute it flawlessly, leaving me to sit by, dreamily following the raucous outburst of the music.
I first listened to the piece more than fifty years ago when I was studying in Rome. It was a mad scheme, pursuing a degree in a language I did not speak, in a city I did not know in order to prepare myself for a future that seemed entirely uncertain. And yet, I could not resist the idea of throwing myself into that magnificent city, leaving behind the frustrations and the pettiness of my upbringing and immerse myself completely in the bustling life of Italy’s glorious capital.
At first, my plan seemed to flounder. I did not know anyone in Rome and spent long afternoons walking along the city’s avenues by myself, impressed by its splendour and yet isolated. During lectures, I sat apart from the other students who were too busy with the intrigues in their own cliques to pay much attention to me.
That changed when I got dragged into a debate with our lecturer one day. He was a conceited fellow with a nasal voice, always impeccably dressed and eager to impress us with his brilliance. “The individual is worth nothing”, he asserted, raising a finger to emphasize his point: “Its only function is to ensure the stability and the well-being of the group.”
The other students dutifully took notes, apparently indifferent to the inanity of his discourse. I raised my hand: “What value does the group have if not to ensure the well-being of the individual?” There was a surprised silence. Some students turned their heads.
The lecturer looked at me with disdain, then replied: “The value of the individual – with its insignificant plans and ambitions – is a modern myth, an ideological mistake, a dead-end street of history.”
“If the individual has so little value,” I replied: “then surely it does not need to dress up every day as though it were going to a fashion show.”
Someone laughed, but I regretted my words instantly. The lecturer looked at me incredulously, then shook his head, as though saddened by my lack of civility. He turned and, after a pause, continued his monologue.
As I packed my things after the lecture, a girl sat down next to me.
“Non si dice: ‘show di moda’”, she said.
“Excuse me”, I replied.
“Non esiste: ‘show di moda’. You have to say: ‘sfilata di moda’, fashion show. If you use the right words, your jokes will get a lot better.”
She was making fun of my Italian, but with such obvious good will that it was hard to be upset.
“Okay,” I said: “That’s another word I have learnt. If I keep going at this pace, I will be fluent in a hundred years.”
We walked out together into the sunshine of the plaza. The girl – Angelina – seemed unsure of what to say and yet was unwilling to let go of our conversation.
“When you say linguaggio, the ‘g’ is a soft tone, not a hard one” she admonished me.
“If you correct all my mistakes, we will be stuck here for a long while,” I replied.
“That’s fine,” she smiled: “I have time.”
We spent the afternoon together, first on the plaza, then in a café nearby. We talked about my decision to study in Rome, the chances of getting my Italian in shape for the exams, and finally about the differences in our lives, me coming from a poor family in a small town, but free to roam the world, she from a well-to-do background, but feeling constrained by her family’s codes and expectations.
“I wish I could be like you,” she said: “Leaving everything behind and simply going out into the world, drinking in its marvellous strangeness.”
“I wish I could be like you,” I replied: “Living in a villa on a hill overlooking this splendid city, with a butler serving me breakfast and a private tutor doing my homework.”
I was surprised how much I enjoyed talking to this girl, who had seen nothing of the world and yet revealed, underneath her shy surface, a vibrant imagination and a boundless appetite for life.
As we walked back to the university where a car was waiting for her, she said: “I think we will be friends,” as though she had decided the matter and I had little say in it.
Angelina asked me to visit her the next day.
It was only when I walked up the broad stairs of her family mansion that I grasped the extent of her family’s wealth. The house was a five-storey marble fairy tale, breath-taking and intimidating in its opulence: “You don’t belong here,” the broad gate and the manicured rhododendron bushes seemed to whisper as I rang the bell.
I was led through a reception hall and into a wide room with high windows. In its middle stood a grand piano, where Angelina – her body straight, her face concentrated – was playing. She smiled when she noticed me.
“What are you playing?”, I asked her.
“It is Bach’s Second English Suite”, she replied: “Do you like it?”
She played it again, the exuberant melody whose notes seem to topple over one another in pure joy and yet following a perfect mathematical order, enchanting and confusing the listener to equal degree.
“Come here,” she said: “You try to play it.”
“I cannot play,” I protested: “I would not even know how to move my fingers.”
She pulled my sleeve to make me sit down. “I will not tell you that it’s easy, because it is not,” she said: “But you will master it if you put your mind to it. Come. Sit next to me.”
I sat down sheepishly. She took my right hand and led it to play the first three notes of Bach’s piece.
“You see?”, she asked: “You can do that, can’t you?”
And, in fact, the first notes were not too difficult, unaccompanied as they were by any movement of the left hand.
She was pleased with her efforts and started explaining the next part of the piece.
“What does she want from me?”, I wondered. What does this pretty, intelligent girl with her privileged background and her cultured life want from someone like me?
I had never been a fan of the theatre. It seemed like a prison to me in which one was forced to sit and watch, unable to move and fully at the mercy of the actors on stage.
But Angelina insisted that we go and under her influence I came to cherish the magical world of the stage, the expressive power of the small gestures and the playfulness of an art that made visible the absurdities and peculiarities of human interaction that – once you started noticing them – turned out to be everywhere.
One evening we watched a piece by Samuel Beckett. It was just as strange and paradoxical as you would expect a piece by Samuel Beckett to be. Four men stood on stage, not doing very much, just looking confused and uncomfortable. To my surprise, the static scene with its lack of action and dialogue was fascinating, as our minds were teased by the question of what the strange set-up was meant to convey and how the tension of the four bodies on the stage was going to be resolved.
The man to the right opened his trousers and let them drop to his ankles. Then the four men again stood motionless. The three others glanced at the man’s exposed legs, grinning nervously, until a second man opened his trousers and let them slide down. Were we meant to be provoked by the breaking of a taboo? Or by the human tendency to imitate those around us? A third man turned around, trying to pull the second man’s trousers back up, but the other one pushed him away. The whole scene descended into a slow-motion fight between the two factions, those of the trousers-down persuasion and those who advocated for them to stay up. Throughout the whole scene there was always a vague suggestion of meaning, but never quite enough to for the audience to be sure what was really going on.
“I love Beckett”, Angelina told me as we were sitting in a café on the Via Nazionale later that evening: “I would love nothing more than to create works like this, full of strangeness and poetry, fascinating, riveting and impossible to decipher.”
“You want to be a writer?”, I asked her.
“I’m sure my father will not let me,” she replied: “He wants me to marry and have a family. That is his idea of a fulfilled life for me. It is ridiculous. For him, writing is a waste of time – but if I could convince him, yes, I would love to be a writer.”
She looked at me directly with her dark earnest eyes, full of conviction in her decision.
She paused for a moment, then she said: “To be a writer, to be a creator of worlds, to entertain others with the wild play of ideas is the most wonderful thing in the world.”
Without the conversation that evening, without the idea, which I had never entertained before, that one could dedicate oneself to writing, my own writing career would never have taken off. My novels – including A Father’s Dream – would never have been published, nor would my plays and my essays. All these works, the awards they have garnered and the performances they have inspired would never have materialized had it not been for the passion with which Angelina spoke about her ambition that evening.
We were sitting in the shadow of an oak tree park in the Parco de Villa Ada, Angelina leaning her head against my leg, reading from the scene we had just written. She was laughing about the dialogue we had cobbled together: “It does not make any sense whatsoever”, she said: “I love it.”
It was a perfect moment: the gorgeous park around us, the unfiltered sunshine, the beautiful girl leaning against me. I slowly moved my hand and placed it on her thigh. She pushed it away.
It had become routine between us: the wordless rejections of my attempts at physical contact, the sharp drawing of the line where the permissible ended and the no-go zone began. Angelina, normally so lively and irrepressible, became sullen in these moments, as though terrified by the idea of intimacy. She seemed to tease me, to lure me in with her smiles, the careless way in which her body was close to mine during our excursions and adventures, but then recoiled when the invisible boundary was crossed and I responded too directly to the invites I thought I had received.
But she did not remain in her state of sullenness for long, instead returning quickly to her bubbly monologues, her wonder at the world around us and her joy about the writing project we had begun: “The actor takes a couple of steps forward and plunges headlong into the audience,” she read from our stage directions. She laughed: “People are going to love it.”
She leaned forward and gave me a kiss on the cheek, as though rewarding me for my quirky ideas and compensating me for her earlier rejection.
She pulled back and smiled at me. For over 50 years, I have preserved that image in my memory: the fine lines of her face, the vivacity in her eyes, full of innocence and confidence that we belonged together. Behind her was the perfect Roman park landscape, a few clouds in the sky and the majestic trees all framing her dazzling smile.
I was sitting alone in the grand piano room, practicing Bach’s English Suite.
I had told Angelina how much I adored the piece, how perfectly I thought it captured her character: her liveliness, her limitless energy and the sheer joy of existence she exuded.
“Whatever happens to us, this music will always remind me of you – and of this summer that we spent together,” I said.
“Who says that it will only be a summer?” she replied.
She insisted that I regularly come to her house to practise the piece. I protested that this would impose an impossible burden on her family which would be forced to endure my inept fumbling on the keyboard: “If you want me to get along with your parents, this is not the right way to go,” I told her.
But she would not hear of it. “Once you have mastered the piece,” she said: “You will be proud of yourself. And if the music reminds you of me, you will be able to conjure me up wherever you go.”
So, I sat in the piano room, dutifully moving my fingers, half embarrassed by their clumsiness, half excited about the prospect of one day being able to play the marvellous piece with the same fluidity and skill with which it flowed from Angelina’s hands.
The door opened and Angelina’s father came in. He was a tall man, with a broad nose and thick eyebrows. Angelina had told me about him: his modest origins, his success as a stockbroker, his ruthlessness and determination. She was in awe of his energy and his achievements, but also repulsed by his imperiousness.
“I pity my mother”, she said: “For she loves him, but she fears him even more.” She let the sentence hang in the air for a while, then she said: “She has modelled her life on his expectations. It is a terrible way to live.”
She turned and looked at me with her frank, open eyes: “I will never let anyone dominate my life like that.”
Now Angelina was at her French lesson and I was sitting at the piano, facing her father who slowly came walking towards me. It was as though he had chosen the moment for maximum effect, me sitting meekly at the instrument that I barely knew how to play, while he was towering over me, surrounded by the luxury he had created.
He stopped next to the piano and looked at me. Then he smiled. We had not spoken before, but he obviously saw no need for an introduction. He gestured at the instrument: “Tocca!”, he said: “Play!”.
I played the first four bars of the pieces I had learnt so far, but as I did, the whole ridiculousness of the situation bore down on me. Crouching over the piano next to the imposing figure of Angelina’s father I felt stupid and uncultured. I was sure that this was his intention: to make me understand that I did not belong in his world.
He put his hand on my shoulder, a gesture that could have looked supportive, but felt like an assertion of dominance: “If you keep practising,” he said in a slow voice: “Maybe one day…” He let his sentence trail, then smiled: “Who knows. Maybe one day you will be able to play.”
If only he could see me today, the fluidity with which my fingers move over the keyboard, the effortlessness with which they execute Bach’s puzzles. I wonder what it would have been like if I had played like this on that spring day in Rome, if I had impressed Angelina’s father with a brilliant rendering of Bach’s complicated composition, if I had been able to make a statement of who I was. But these are fruitless thoughts, for in that moment I was not capable of playing. Instead, I broke off and stared at the keyboard before me, his hand still resting on my shoulder.
Angelina and I were sitting at the back tables of a small restaurant, our papers scattered on the table before us. It had become a daily ritual: we would go for lunch after class and, while eating, would jot down ideas for the play we were writing. Our ideas flowed naturally from our conversation, inspired by the theatre pieces we had seen together and the heady discussions in our philosophy classes.
Angelina would always pay for our lunches. She would do so in an offhand manner, dropping the money on the table as though it was an inconvenience she was getting rid of. She was used to having money, for it simply to be there, while I had to watch my expenses carefully. As soon as she had discovered how important money was for me, she had made sure that I never paid anything while we were together.
“I want our stories to capture the weirdness of human existence. And I want it to be like a piece of music, flowing joyfully and inebriated by its own energy. I want it to be like the English Suite: so light, so ecstatic,” she declared.
She seemed transformed during these days of our writing together: all her shyness and reticence had disappeared. It was as though the protected girl, who had always been alone with her thoughts and her projects, had finally found the companion that allowed her to translate her dreams into adventures and her vague ideas about being a writer into reality.
“I want it to be like this forever: these lunches, these conversations, the process of writing, of inventing and creating worlds together,” she beamed.
Her enthusiasm was endearing, and yet I felt the need to stop her: “It’s so easy to say ‘forever’,” I cautioned: “But what does it mean? It is easy for us to feel an intense connection to another person, but – who knows – that connection might simply disappear one day.”
I am not sure why I said this. I loved her and I knew I did. This marvellous princess had chosen me as a companion for her kingdom. She was planning a life together in the happy sphere that we had built for ourselves – and I was telling her that I had no intention of staying. Maybe I felt the need to create some space between us after days of almost ceaseless conversations or maybe it was a silly way for me to take revenge for the awkward situation with her father she had put me into.
“What are you trying to say?”, she asked.
I did not have the courage to respond. She looked at me sceptically. Then she said: “Let me read something to you.”
She took out her notebook, looked for a passage she had noted down and then started reading:
“It is strange to wander in the fog.
Each bush and stone stands alone,
No tree sees the next one,
Each one is alone.
My world was full of light
When I was still with my friends
But now that the fog descends
None is to be seen.
No one is truly wise
Who does not know the dark
Which forever keeps him apart
From his fellow men
It is strange to wander in the fog,
To live is to be alone.
No man knows another,
Each one is alone.”
“It is beautiful,” I said: “Did you write it?”
She shook her head. “Why did you decide to leave your home and come here?”, she asked.
I had not expected this question. I thought for a moment. Then I said: “I could not stand the constant criticism. My mum had this fixed idea that I would never finish anything I started. ‘You always leave everything halfway.’ It was like a constant refrain, as though she had formed a conviction of who I was – and nothing I did could change it.”
Angelina thought about my answer for a while, then she said: “The problem is that you do not trust people. You are like the voice in that poem: you have convinced yourself that everyone has to stumble through the fog alone. But it is not true. If you have found someone you like, you can simply decide to stay with them.”
She smiled at me: “Don’t worry. I will show you.” She leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek. It was one of the rare moments of physical intimacy she allowed, as though she wanted to encourage me to see the error of my ways.
“I don’t think your father likes me”, I said to Angelina, as we were lying in the park, supposedly to study for our exams, but in reality daydreaming and taking in the late-afternoon sun.
“He does not like anyone,” she replied dismissively: “And that is why no one likes him.”
She turned to me. “Do you know what I most admire about you?”, she asked.
I was not sure how to respond. She rarely spoke about me in such a direct way. I shook my head.
“It is that you simply escaped from your previous life, that you decided that it was not good enough for you and that you had the courage simply to walk away from it and to come here.”
She said this with great earnestness as though she had given the matter some thought.
“Sometimes I think”, she continued: “that I should run away as well. I know that my life is comfortable, but I cannot allow my father to dictate my decisions to me. It is unbearable. I fear that I will be forced to live someone else’s life, just as my mother does. It is not for my father to decide whether I become a writer or not. It is not for him to decide who I spend my time with. He has to accept that these are my decisions. Otherwise I will have to leave.”
“But did you not tell me that people belong together – and it was just in my silly world view that they were naturally drifting away from each other?”, I asked cautiously.
She had her answer ready: “Only the people who have chosen to be with one another should stay together. It’s not the same with the people into whose company you have been born accidentally.”
I had to laugh at the ferocity of her reply. “In that case, we should maybe run away together,” I said.
“Yes,” she replied without missing a beat: “I think that’s a good idea.”
On our last night together, Angelina and I were sitting on the Hollywood swing in her parent’s garden.
We had spent the day revising the draft of our play. The university year had finished two weeks earlier. We no longer had any lectures and could dedicate ourselves entirely to our project.
After hours of writing and debating and after a tense dinner with her parents, we enjoyed the warm embrace of the Roman summer night.
Angelina looked more stunning than ever, so fresh and so alive, animated by the joy about our play and bronzed by the relentless Roman sun. As we sat on the swing, I could not resist placing my hand around her waist. Normally, that would have been a breach of etiquette to be sanctioned by an impatient reprimand, but that day she let it happen, her eyes closed and her lips smiling, as we listened to the concert of the cicadas around us.
I moved closer to her and kissed her on the lips, the precious features of her face close to mine. She did not react, but neither did she repulse me, as though quietly consenting to a gesture of affection that no longer seemed inappropriate.
There were steps on the path before us and we looked up. It was Angelina’s father, his face made invisible by the garden lights behind him.
Angelina shrieked. “Go inside,” he said calmly and she obeyed, adjusting her blouse and hurrying past him.
I was alone with the shadow before me. Angelina’s father took a step towards me. He said: “Non sei l’uomo giusto per la mia figlia”, then repeating in slow and careful English: “You are not good enough for my daughter,” putting an emphasis on every word.
I had felt fear when he had first appeared, but now I was angry. Who was this man to judge me? Who was he to tell me that I was not good enough? “I don’t need any of this,” I said: “This whole world of yours: your house, your wealth, your family. It is nothing to me!”
I took a step backwards, as though to repulse his attempt at intimidating me, his bid to convince me of his superiority. Then I stormed past him, towards the garden gate. Angelina, who had watched the scene from the balcony door, called after me.
That was the moment in which I should have stopped, in which I should have turned around and allow her to calm me down. It was the moment in which I should I have realized how little her father mattered in comparison to everything that linked us. But I didn’t. It was Angelina who had brought me into this pitiful scene, into this humiliating position of being told that I was not good enough.
I could hear her voice behind me, but I kept walking, down the hill towards the city that was sparkling in the distance.
I often wonder what would have happened if our friendship had continued after that blissful summer in Rome. If we had continued our writing sessions, the long hours in the small, cosy restaurants, imagining lives for our characters, laughing about our ideas – if all of that had continued for a lifetime. I wonder what life would have been like if we had escaped together.
I imagine coming home in the evening, opening the door, hearing the piano notes floating through the entrance hall. Angela, sitting at the piano, playing the English Suite, our music, to welcome me back. I imagine the plays we would have written, the excitement of seeing them performed for the first time, reviewed in the press, interpreted differently by different actors, our ideas turned into flesh, into real voices and real bodies.
But none of this has happened. Instead, I’m sitting by myself at the piano and let my fingers run over the keyboard, following the lines that Bach has set for them. The melody runs off on a tangent, then re-turns to the main theme. Everything is planned and structured. Everything in this music makes sense. It is an antidote to life: instead of chaos and messiness, the perfect symmetry of the patterns, the joyful harmony of the notes.
In the days following my escape, I waited for Angelina to call me, to apologize, but all I got was silence. I finally decided to leave Rome, upset about the insults and confused about what had happened. I did not return for the start of the next university year, instead continuing my studies at home.
No other woman has ever filled the place in my life that Angelina created for herself. Every new publication, every new award brought its share of admirers, readers and journalists eager to open their lives to the voice that told these stories. But I was not interested. I had felt the irresistible pull of Angelina’s body in the Parco de Villa Ada, but now found myselfindifferent to what these women had to offer. Compared to Angelina, they seemed ordinary and dull.
Instead, I kept writing, just as Angelina and I had planned to do, basing my books on the ideas we had tossed out together during our long Roman summer. And I kept practising on the piano. With the years, my stumbling play turned into solid competence and finally into mastery. Bach’s piece, which once seemed a thing of impossibility to me, now flows from my hands with the greatest naturalness. I sometimes wonder what Angelina would say if she could hear me play today, her young, untalented disciple surprisingly arrived at mastery.
I wonder whether she has read any of my books. I wonder whether she herself has succeeded in her rebellion, whether she has managed to push aside her father to realize her plan of becoming a writer – or whether, once the main plank of her escape strategy had broken away, she folded back into her father’s expectations, quietly resigning herself to family life.
Of course, she was right. Of course, we belonged together. Of course, we would have written magnificent works together, inspiring each other, pushing one another along on the path to books and plays that would have made us proud. And yet, it did not happen. Instead, I have continued my own path through the fog, accidentally meeting people and then losing them again. Yet, despite everything Angelina has remained with me: in the dream of a life spent writing and, most of all, in Bach’s English Suite, the anthem of our summer, the musical expression of the young girl’s smile, which has remained with me to this day.
I often ask myself why I ran away that night. I could not let myself be pushed around, insulted and looked down on the way Angelina’s father did. But maybe that is an excuse. Maybe I ran away from our happiness because I did not trust it. And in a strange way by deserting it I have managed to preserve it, by not living it, by leaving it in a state of imagination, by conserving its beauty in my memory instead of sallying it with the stains of real life, I have kept it precious. In my memory, Angelina has remained agelessly beautiful. This is the woman I have spent the last 55 years with, happily, without fights and in constant admiration.
I rest my fingers on the cool keys of the piano – and, after a pause, I begin to play again. I sit and listen to Bach’s gorgeous music floating through the empty space around me, as crisp and sumptuous as ever. It conjures up the spirit of our summer in Rome and the smile with which Angelina looked at me in the park that day. Everything is as it was back then, beautiful and perfect.
Sebastian Raedler has studied philosophy and public policy at the University of Cambridge and Harvard University – and holds a Doctorate degree in philosophy from the University of Cologne, Germany. He works as a financial analyst in London.