The Disguise

During the crossing it occurred to me that by wearing green spectacles and changing my coat I could quite well spend two or three days at Volterra, going out only at night and without being recognised by you.
Stendhal, letter to Matilde Dembowski, 11 June 1819
So that you wouldn’t know I was following you,
I wore a second-hand coat and green sunglasses.
I arrived on the 3rd. It was open day
at the asylum, madmen were out on the streets
canvassing for the ruling party. A plush hotel
rented rooms by the hour; in the lobby, secret policemen
posed as gypsies selling lucky charms.
Priests were suspicious, bank managers friendly:
I seemed young and single and on the make.
I entered a caf? where others of my kind
were gathered in disguise: an eye patch or glass eye,
a toup?e or false moustache. Women too,
smoking cigars. (So that no one might know I loved you,
I never spoke your name. So that no one might know
you did not love me back, I became a wit, a raconteur,
a boulevardier.) We debated pre-Columbian art,
heatedly. The pots in the archaeological institute
are fakes, every one of them, even the shards.
The real ones are kept in the livery stables,
packed in dry manure. The town was a hothouse,
though the sky was grey. I was so lathered in sweat
I couldn’t sleep. I gave my coat to a beggar
outside the Selci Gate, a veteran of the Somme.
I took off my glasses. I had everything to lose.

from The Age of Cardboard and String (Faber, 2001), © Charle Boyle 2001, used by permission of the author.

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