‘There’s nothing. There’s noone there.’ A tight twist at the edge of Paul’s smile. Condescension? She thinks so. He is forever trying to make her feel as if she is delusional, or worse: crazy. She pauses, in the act of handing off the binoculars, unwinding the strap from her wrists. Was crazy worse? Or was it the same thing, really? Why is she even thinking this way? She knows what she’s seen.
He pulls the binoculars from her, a little roughly, and the strap, not fully disengaged, pulls her hands together, up and towards him. She has the strange impression of supplication, a cameo she sees from the outside. Like the peeling Madonna in the chapel from which they emerged ten minutes ago, blinded by the Tuscan sun. She shakes her head to free herself of the shadow of the idea. She shouldn’t have to beg. ‘I saw him,’ she repeats. He screws the binoculars into the sockets of his eyes and sweeps them over the teeming piazza below, twiddling savagely with the focus.
She was not religious, not really, not even in the time she had most needed to be, had prayed to become. Winding their way up the hillside that morning, she pulled a handful of poppies from a ditch. She made a point of the abandoned roadside shrine with its headless saint and dry jamjar of faded silk flowers. You see, she said to him, how your God bleaches the life out of things. But in the gloom of the chapel, golden rays poured down on the Virgin’s face like arrows.
‘He’s not there, Mary, he’s gone. You have to stop this.’ He’s bending to pack up the binoculars. He’s turning towards the steps. Leaving without her. The bright certainty drains from her in an instant, leaving nothing but a small, muddy pool of doubt. ‘You’re right,’ she tells his receding back, the line of sweat between the broad shoulderblades. ‘It was just a trick of the light.’