"At your age--" Carlo hesitates, and falls silent. He is remarkable when it comes to being inexact with time, numbers, dates. He probably doesn't know my age, is my guess. Does he even know we haven't seen one another for twenty years -- plus three months? My father won't have been counting, like me, year after year remembering he left on a June morning -- and I am instantly dragged back to my teenager years in rural France. But just before I succumb to my memories, I again have to surface, blinking as I hear him amending, "No. Much younger. I was a penniless painter, then."
"And homeless, too." He continues, leaning against the back of his chair, making himself comfortable, and I relax too, understanding I am being taken on a ride to his past. " I had to leave the room I had been sharing in an apartment in the 6e arrondissement, after I graduated from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. My ex-roommate, who had left on a one year trip around the globe, being wealthy, and utmost generous, paid my rent for another couple of months -- 'to give you time to figure out what you want to do, Carlo', he had suggested. He actually wanted to have the room paid for me for another year, but I had decided it was time to conquer Paris on my own."
It is smilingly that Carlo retreats into his memories.
"I did not have to figure it out. I knew what I wanted to do.
"I wanted to paint. But I guess my ex-roommate referred to getting a job, or going back to the Apennines, where my grandfather still waited for my return, to help him with the crops.
"I decided to spend all my money on a new easel, plenty of canvases and painting supplies. And so, I could not afford paying the rent after that courteous period ended.
"But sleeping rough did not concern me. What I wanted most was to have a small studio, an atelier for myself.
"I found shelter in an abandoned factory, located in a decaying industrial district, on the outskirts of Paris. I imagine it used to be a tires manufacture, but I never even learned its name. It was a vast room with high walls, left totally empty after the machinery, the furniture, and even the doors inside the building had all been removed -- or stolen. I occupied the corner located farthest from the street, just a few rooms which might have been the administrative quarters, from which the partitions had vanished, too. The rest of the building I left for the noisy population of bats and rats, and the cats that chase them. In the beginning, I would startle at the screeches of their bloody battles of survival, to later grow thankful that they could resolve it among themselves, and not come after me.
"I wasn't exactly hungered when I moved in, but from then on my diet consisted mostly of the leftovers from a neighboring food packing factory -- lots of canned soup. And stale bread, too."
"Are you telling me..." My voice echoes in the empty Lounge, and I have to lower it, "you were that poor? That you didn't have enough food, Carlo?" I inquire, in shock. There has never been one single word about this period of my father's life. Has Catherine known about any of this, I wonder. Knowing her, she must have hidden it because she might have been ashamed of her partner's poorness.
In his youth, Carlo studied Fine Arts in Paris. As far as I know, he has never returned to the city since then. Doing some quick calculations, I am guessing he must be talking about the beginning of the seventies, prior to meeting Catherine in Punaouilo. He was in his early twenties then, and not 'my age' -- or do I actually look younger? Had he been in town already, during the revolution of May 1968? I want to ask, but have no chance, for Carlo is no longer before me, but dwelling in his own past.
YOU ARE READING
The Last CanvasSpiritual
A starving Italian painter flees Paris in the winter of 1974. His destination -- a tiny private island lost in the Indian Ocean. His destiny -- a soul-crushing love triangle with a French nobleman and a haughty Parisian intellectual. His fate -- inv...