When I look back on 2002, there are three things that stick out: a lump in my groin, silverfish, and a girl—no, a woman—called Fatimah. It was the beginning of the year and my third attempt to live in London since graduating from university the year before. My first attempt had failed miserably. I had been saving money over the summer while decorating for my father, who also gave me a bonus of three hundred pounds to get me started in 'The Great Wen,' as he always referred to London. I had spent the summer working on being salt-of-the-earth, classless, and nobody could tell me anything I didn't already know. I did not trust banks. I placed the three hundred pounds in my wallet and headed up to the Notting Hill Carnival, of which I remember nothing except for a man with a trolley cart full of Red Stripe and rum, and from a photograph on Facebook, urinating into a public bin. I woke into an early dawn on a doorstep with a lump on my head and not a penny to my name. I begged the conductor at Paddington Station to let me on the train home to Pangbourne, near Reading, and he only allowed me to board when I put him on loudspeaker to my mother on the phone. My parents ignored me for a whole day, sensitive to my independence, as I mooched around the house reading Women by Charles Bukowski.

The second London attempt was less quickly aborted. I managed to get a part-time job in a pub in Maida Vale. But I was living with a friend, an intern from the States, in Streatham Hill, and spent almost more on the commute than I earned. Then I lost the job. Here's how. My friend was preaching something called Positive Appreciation. 'Look in the mirror every day and repeat over and over, You are the luckiest man alive. Repeat it, looking at your reflection until all cynicism dries up and you genuinely believe it—you genuinely believe you're the luckiest son of a bitch alive.' I was the only one in the pub. I decided to pour myself a pint of Guinness. I hit the tap, glimpsed my reflection in the mirror and popped into the bathroom for some Positive Appreciation. I was in the cramped toilet under the stairs repeating over and over, 'You are the luckiest man alive, you are the luckiest man alive.' I repeated it earnestly, believing it with all my heart. Christ, I had health, employment, an education. I was the luckiest son of a bitch alive.

I left the toilet, full of luck and optimism, when I noticed the Guinness tap gushing dark liquid. It had overflown the beer tray and spilled all over the floor. I followed a line of black paw prints across the vinyl floor to Phil, a big ginger tom cat, who was licking his toes. Phil stood, and with his tail erect, looked at me as if to say, 'Lucky, my arse,' the full pink of which he was proudly displaying before disappearing up the stairs. I returned my gaze from the cat to the black pool, glanced up and there was Siobhan, the landlady. A staunch believer in honesty, I told her the truth and nothing but the truth, and was sacked within a minute. Once again I headed back to the family home, where I drank coffee in Lou La Belle patisserie while reading Tropic of Cancer. In the afternoons I took long walks through the beechwood ploying to go to Montmartre. Any old boarding house would do. I would toil away as a plongeur. 'Look, George Elliot,' my mother said (she meant Orwell), 'next time you go anywhere, make sure you go with a job.'

'Oh, please, shut up,' I said.

'I see you're at that age. The age when your mother is always wrong.' Yes, I was at that age. I was the twenty-one-year-old teenager.

Anyway, the next time I took her advice: I made sure I went with a job. I managed to get a position as a Science Communication Admin Technician (SCAT) at Hammersmith Hospital. I'm not going to go on about the job. It was dull and I had to sit for hours screen-gazing amid the dystopia of White City. At lunch I would read Dante's La Divina in the canteen or, in pleasant weather, listen to the starlings in Wormwood Scrubs. I was after Francis Bacon's Soho, something creative and ethnic down in Brixton, a garret (it had to be a garret) from which I would record the conservations of prostitutes and transvestites in the bar below. I was not after an admin gig in the sterile bowels of Hammersmith Hospital.

It was around that time that I started noticing a lump in my groin. And once I'd noticed it, I became obsessed with it. Death, that's what it was. Death thriving down by my young pubis. I was living alone in a studio flat in Kilburn and I would spend hours gazing at the bulge, attempting to pinch it off and diagnose myself. Perhaps it was just an infection of the gland. No, I decided, it was Death. Miserable, spoil-the-fun, or spoil-life-before-you-even-get-to-the-fun Death. On top of that, silverfish plagued the place, darting phantasms that appeared out of nowhere. On the toilet seat, clinging to the greasy wall above the hobs, scurrying across my face in the mirror ('You are the luckiest man alive').

I decided to earn more money by tutoring. That way I could escape to Paris or Lisbon or Rome. I got employed at a company called Talk Business. My first job was to teach refugees through the local council. So one day after work I found myself knocking on the door of the basement to a rundown Victorian terrace house in Maida Vale. A small lady opened the door and invited me in. She gave me a strong instant coffee and told me to wait in the living room for Fatimah. Eventually twenty-six-year-old Fatimah skulked in. She apologised for being late. She wore a pink flannel tracksuit and her hair was wet and she smelled strongly of sugary shampoo. She sat down and said, 'I am talking at my family in Guinea.'

'To,' I said.

'No. One.'

I asked her lots of questions about Guinea and attempted to teach her the present continuous. At the end of the lesson, she said, 'You are my favourite teacher.' I blushed, waved my hands in the air and said something like 'Well, we'll see about that.'

Life carried on in that vein—work, tutoring, lump-gazing, work, tutoring, silverfish massacre—for six weeks or so. Then, during one lesson, Fatimah's adopted brother started shouting his head off and I suggested that we go to Starbucks to tackle the use of superlatives. I bought Fatimah an enormous coffee with a mound of cinnamon-dusted cream on top and I sat with my espresso (I was very much going through an Italian phase and if it wasn't Italian it wasn't worth knowing). I took out my new grammar book and said, 'I thought we could do superlatives.'

'Include me out,' she said. Exactly where she'd picked up that expression, I'm not sure. The vibe was odd. She was moody and seemed extremely unimpressed when I opened the grammar book and a silverfish scurried under her saucer. I managed to teach her a tiny bit of the superlative tense before she looked at her phone and said she had to go.

'Three more superlative sentences,' I said. Moodily, she wrote down her three sentences. Before the last one, she looked at me out of her dark eyes and said, 'I love you the most.'

I grinned. A flood of happiness rushed through me like a dizzy dove and I said, 'Me too.' Yes, there had been attraction, a strange intimate presence sitting quietly between the cappuccino and espresso, but I had blocked it out for fear of breaking some Talk Business rule. Straight away I invited her to a meal at Zizzis Italian restaurant up the road. I bought a bottle of chianti, which we drank in about twenty minutes, then ordered another. Before I knew it, I had invited her to Rome on a one-way ticket. There, we would establish a literary café specialising in loose tea and West African cuisine. The thing is, I told her, feeling the wine coursing through my veins like a bubbling Genovese brook, I am writing a modern version of Dante's La Divina. I need to go there for my research. I reached across the table and took her hand and we sat like that, with the distant rumble of Arsenal playing Watford on a radio in the kitchen, until I moved my chair beside hers. I turned my head slowly toward her in the manner of the girl in The Exorcist whose head rotated to face the priest, and kissed her. My penis almost banged its head on the underside of the table.

I am not going to go on in detail about what followed. But we made love. And although I admire discretion, I find it difficult. She liked to lie on her front, flat as an ironing board, as I inserted from behind, bouncing and jiggling around on my haunches like some peculiar reddish primate, and then hunching over and going as fast as I possibly could, and then (remembering the varied music of sex) gyrating in wide slow circles while greedily kneading every bit of spare flesh I could find. That slow final gyration now reminds me of an elderly woman in a fairy tale slowly stirring porridge. Afterward, we lay in naked bliss watching the car lights tigering my bedroom wall in the wonderful calm that follows hot on the heels of sex. Luxuriating in that wonderful calm, I went to the toilet and admiring my glistening penis in the mirror, and thought, 'You are the luckiest man alive.' I didn't need Positive Appreciation. I just needed sex. Then I saw the lump, and was instantly reminded that before long, I would be dead. Dead before I even got to Rome. Dead before I even finished La Divina. Dead before I even learnt how to say in perfectly accented Italian, 'Dov'e il duomo?' Anyway, that was the beginning of our romance, which lasted almost the entire year.

About a month later, I took Fatimah to visit my parents in Pangbourne, and my mother couldn't help but remark on her sullenness. 'Is she always like that?'

'Like what?' I said. 'You. Do. Not. Under. Stand. Anythingaboutfuckingmodernlife,' I hissed. I tapped my mother on the forehead and said, 'Open the doors to your little, little mind.' I skulked upstairs to my old bedroom where Fatimah was moodily gazing at her phone—she really was sullen that weekend now that I think about it—and I wedged a pillow behind the headboard and we made love. We were meant to prepare a wonderful dinner of prawns and plantain; my mother had even bought expensive tiger prawns from Sainsbury's. Instead, we crept down to the kitchen sheepishly, where mum and dad were watching a Scandinavian thriller, and helped ourselves to a tin of baked beans.

My job as SCAT was a form of anaesthesia. Life was too short for a man with a lump in his groin. I got a tattoo of an aboriginal frog because I decided to be multiethnic. I increased my tutoring and started taking evening classes at the Italian Cultural Institute on Belgrave Square. It was there that I met Camilla. She spoke Italian with a wonderfully exaggerated intonation, throwing her pincered fingers up and down, a true pastiche of something out of an Italian soap opera. She too was from the home counties. And when she switched back to English she spoke with a low posh drawl. Her voice was the oral equivalent of jodhpurs. But she was vivacious and wore felt boots and a huge vermillion bow of lipstick. Over a quick espresso, she explained that she had a tough, sort of hippyish, upbringing in West London. I have often felt attraction as a third presence—oh, Dante's amazing!—and it was there with us as we laughed and dreamed together. I next saw her at a screening of Fellini's 8 ½ at the Italian Cultural Institute. The ticket included free Aperol Spritz, which we drank with gusto, and the third presence of attraction descended from the stucco ceiling. We exchanged numbers and I felt the stirrings of betrayal.

Meanwhile things with Fatimah were going well. She got a job working as a receptionist for a non-government organization. Together we fumigated the flat; splatting the mercurial silverfish was one of the best things we ever did together. She filled my flat with aromatic candles. She listened to Fleetwood Mac's 'Everywhere' on repeat. Just the intro to the song brings to mind lavender-scented candle wax. I introduced her to Italian food and she would research Italian restaurants all over London, which we would later try. She always ate lasagna. She told me that she'd had a panic attack on the tube so I would wake up early and guide her, hand-in-hand, to her work near Oxford Circus. She said that back in Guinea she would always swim and so I paid for her membership to the Kilburn swimming pool. Together, we hit the water three times a week. And Jesus, could she swim! After a length or two she left me red and gasping for breath, clinging to the side lining while she glided slickly back and forth, length after length. She started to hold herself in that composed broad-shouldered way that swimmers do. Over the weeks, I progressed. I moved from breaststroke to the occasional length of front crawl and before long I could do sixty-four lengths without stopping. There was a wonderful satisfaction in progress. I now believe that swimming helped her come to terms with her new life in London.

After swimming we would return to my flat, shower together in my tiny shower and get straight into bed. Our sex life was joyous. Progress again! More and more frequently, she would look around sheepishly and shift from lying plank-like and motionless on her front, onto her hands and knees. Around that time my neighbours made themselves apparent. I don't know whether they had just moved in or if they had a new work pattern, but they started making incredibly loud noises, sex noises, I mean. And it always happened after our swimming when we were heading bedwise to make love ourselves. All of a sudden, we would hear coming through the thin walls, the voice of a man yelling 'come on, come on, come on,' like a jockey riding a horse, and a woman making lots of little aie aie aie noises. Then the man would grunt successively before emitting an almighty groan as if every last drop of glorious life liquid were being expelled from his body. I can even recall the sound of his drawer, which would squeak open soon after sex. Maybe that's where he kept his Wet Wipes.

It did not take us long before we began to compete. We never spoke about this, but soon I was spanking Fatima's bottom and yelling 'come on, come on, faster, giddyup, faster,' and she herself started making lots of aie aie aie noises, then I would let out an unworldly groan as if to signify to the gorilla next door that I too had just shed my painful burden of carnality. It went on in this fashion for several weeks until we bumped into our neighbours on the shared landing. He was a small forty-something-year-old man with a pot belly and pink cheeks, and she was as thin as a rake with a pale, pointed face that instantly brought to mind the province of Transylvania. I forgave them both in an instant. We discussed the silverfish, which had come back with a vengeance, and decided they must be migrating to and from our flats through the skirting board. We never heard the poor couple in the throes of love again.

I occasionally took Fatimah to showings of Continental films, but she usually fell asleep in the middle of them. It was after one of these films that I stood before her, naked, reciting Beowulf in the original tongue, when all of a sudden she said, 'What's that?' The lump protruded from the side of my penis.

'It is what it is,' I said, with an air of the fatalist.

Within a week, I found myself beside her in the waiting room of Brondesbury Medical Centre. Now she was holding my hand, clammy and hot, as we waited for the doctor.

Dr Westerman put a finger on the lump and said, 'Cough.' I coughed.

'Hernia,' he said.

'Fantastic!' I felt dizzy with relief. The flood of feeling that passed through me was indescribable. I suddenly felt as if I'd gained an entire new life. I shook his hand and told him I was going to take up the jazz saxophone. A minor operation, a patch of gauze, and then life, sweet, normal life.

'Fatimah, you know what? After my operation, I think we should go to Italy. I want to write, learn the sax, recuperate.'

And that is what we did.

Wait, an important thing happened before we went to the doctor. We had gone for a weekend away, camping, in Seatown in Dorset. It was too early in the year for camping, and what was meant to be cosy was cold. She was a brave soul and hired a wetsuit and went swimming for twenty minutes while I watched my toes turn blue in the shallows. One evening, huddled up over a driftwood fire in a chilly onshore breeze, I said, 'Isn't it beautiful?' She remained silent. 'Look at Golden Cap, up there It's bright red. Like fire. Isn't it beautiful?' Silence. She seemed determined not to be impressed, and I told her so. She replied by saying that it does not compare with her native Africa. She spoke of the colours and weaverbirds, of golden surf and jetsam and wooden racks for drying fish in the sun. She spoke of music and laughter and coconut palms. I highlighted the corruption and danger and dishonesty (trying, I suppose, to make her grateful for what she had found: safety, Dorset, me). This blossomed into a monstrous argument, and it was during the argument that she mentioned the fact that she had a husband back home. An accountant, she said, with a huge condo on the beach.

I drank my Fursty Ferret ale wishing it were whisky. This was a delicious little mess. I imagined her lying on her front, a landscape of wonderful dark curves, before an open window in a high flat on Sangareya Bay (oh, yes, I'd heard all about that) while a naked man with a sculpted torso made something fresh and fruity in an open-plan kitchen. Back in England, in front of the cold dreary sea, we sat in a heavy silence—no pelicans or flying fish here—and traipsed back to the tent. I read The Divine Comedy with my headtorch before I felt a finger tracing my spine—and in that way the argument ended.

The hernia operation went smoothly. Again she held my hand as I negotiated an over-friendly Australian anaesthetist. And life ticked on normally for a week or two before I found La Casa Del'Artista. It was a medieval house in a small, perched village in Tuscany. A photo of vines, an arbour, medieval turrets—it was perfect. I immediately booked two flights for 'our Grand Tour.' Impulsiveness was something I very much admired. From Hunter S. Thompson to Leonardo da Vinci, I admired the spontaneity of genius. In La Casa Del'Artista, every morning, an hour before sunrise, I did sun salutations on the turret terrace. Yes, this was a yoga phase too, but like all my phases it was done in a half-baked noncommittal way and soon petered out. (I can no longer touch my shins let alone my toes.)

After yoga, I would go downstairs and wake Fatimah and we would have peculiarly slow sex. I didn't want to reopen the hernia. After a breakfast of fresh fruit I would write my new version, inspired by African folklore, of The Divine Comedy. But it wasn't long before the isolation got to us. The old village was full of emaciated cats and smelled of urine, and every house had a sign on it that said vendesi. There was nobody around. And even here there were silverfish! Did Lord Byron have to put up with silverfish on his Grand Tour? Every night we sat drinking red wine beside a huge fireplace with moss-covered logs that smoked. The first night it was heaven. The romance and mystery and foreign odours got to us and before we knew it we were up in the turret bedroom and I was slowly stirring porridge. The second night it was fine, quite interesting, fairly meditative and the smoke smelled pretty nice. Come on, come on, come on! By the third night we sat in sullen silence. 'Is she always like that?' I asked myself. God forbid, we had started to get on each other's nerves.

I spent the afternoons writing poetry in the style of Beowulf and every night I would go up and sit on the rocks behind the church, but Fatimah never wanted to come with me, and I would watch far below me on the plains a troupe of wild boar forage among the olive groves. The rocks were a wonderful stage and it was upon this stage that we had some splendid rows, one of which ended with me blubbering 'I'm pathetic, I'm pathetic,' before we made love against the huge granite rocks, still warm from the spring sun. I can't think of that holiday without thinking of those immense granite outcrops, which enchanted the village, but seemed to possess some nefarious spirit. On a nightly basis one of us would storm out there in a rage, which would inevitably precede incredible sex.

One night I remember her hissing, 'I don't believe in aid'—what I had said to provoke this I no longer remember—but I do remember my reply: 'Well, you certainly didn't pay for all those aromatic candles.' She slapped me hard across the cheek. Toward the end of the trip we went to Rome. There, in an Irish bar after about eight pints of Guinness, I got down on one knee on the sticky floor and asked if she would marry me. She pulled me up and kissed me on the lips and said, 'I am loving your impulse.' That night I was as happy as a man can naturally be. Pure impulse, we danced through the Piazza di Trevi drinking spumante out of plastic cups, where a group of confused Chinese tourists were studying a Rough Guide to Madrid. Life was spontaneity and laughter and lust, adventure and truth and love!

The hangover was satanic. My writing never got beyond a few pages of scribble in light blue ink. What kind of writer only brings a pale blue Biro to Italy, for Christ's sake? Where was the gilded fountain pen with flexible nib? It was during that holiday that I sent several descriptive emails to Camilla. I would recall the colour of the sky, the rocks, and the wild boar foraging in the olive groves below. I described the swallows and the soft evening breeze, the floating island of Elba and the smells of smoke rising up from the plains. On our last night in Italy, I reserved a table in la tratteria, which was owned by a wonderful nonna who made her own olive oil. It was a sad evening really, the end of the holiday and the end of the relationship. It was during this last evening over wild boar and olive stew that I mentioned all of this to Fatimah: Camilla and my emails and feelings. Fatimah wiped the corners of her mouth, stood up calmly and left.

I found her sitting high up on the rocks overlooking the plains. I quietly lowered myself beside her. We took off our shoes and let our soles rest against the warm stone. The moment was beautiful, too beautiful, too tranquil, too intimate for sex. There was a warm breeze and the sky was full of stars of varying brilliance. Jasmine lay heavy in the air. It was one of those clear, lengthening nights of spring. It was also too beautiful, too tranquil, too intimate, to talk about lichen. But that is what I did. The rocks were covered with the stuff. I explained to her that lichen was not actually a single species, but bacteria and fungus living together. Symbiosis, I said, linking my fingers. She looked at me and said, 'You know, you are an excellent teacher. A proper one. That's what you should be.'

I smiled and said, looking at my ink-stained thumb, 'No, I am a writer. That is my path.'

'No, you're a teacher. You have taught me how it is to be British.' I have never understood if this was said in a positive or a negative light.

At last, it was time to head back. I went barefoot, carrying my shoes. As we left the rocks and settled on the dirt path that led past a fallen shepherd's hut, we saw a porcupine in the shrubs beneath the church. It stopped dead, sniffed, and shuffled into the undergrowth. 'Never seen one of them before,' I said, sniffing the jasmine-rich air. We linked arms and continued along the track.

'Shit!' I shouted. I looked down in the dim light and saw a porcupine quill sticking out of the top of my foot. It had gone all the way through, entering through the sole and coming out of the top behind my toes. I limped back to La Casa del'Artista, leaning heavily on Fatimah for support, and she led me up to the bedroom in the turret. When Fatimah pulled out the spike, a single bead of blood formed on the top of my foot, which she held in her lap.

'Fatimah,' I said, 'you would make a brilliant nurse.'

'I like helping people,' she said. 'But I hate science.'

'I'll teach you,' I said, laughing. That night, I lay in bed with my foot upon a pillow, looking out at the stars through the window, thinking about the porcupine, the towering volcanic rocks, the delicate wisps of cloud passing beneath the glittering stars and this beautiful married lady sleeping beside me. We are just passing clouds, I wrote in my journal in light blue ink, passing clouds travelling through a world we are both trying to understand.

Back in London, Fatimah stopped replying to my messages. The following year, I returned to Rome and began work as a teacher. After a year or so, she sent me a long email. She said that I would forever have a special place in her heart. She said that I had given her a love of England and Europe. She said that she was training to be a nurse and had married a man from Senegal. I never wrote back.

Now, two decades on, all the things I remember from that year have gone. (Thinking about it: I still haven't finished Il Purgatorio.) The silverfish were exterminated by Rent-O-Kill, the lump in my groin is an inch-long scar, and Fatimah has moved on, to Croydon, of all places. The twenty-one-year-old of that time is also gone. But all three things came together that year—the silverfish, the hernia, Fatimah—and in some way changed my life. Our lives. They were like passing clouds beneath the hard brilliance of the stars, passing clouds that gathered for a brief moment under the vast indifference of the sky, bursting in a sudden downpour to give a flurry of gold-green life to the dusty plain far, far below.

Title image "Darlings" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2022.