Extract from Hotel Milano

   Lifting my glass, my hand shook. Now I have made you more depressed than before.
   Deborah said not at all. I’m glad you told me. She hesitated. I see what you’re saying, though. You have nothing left to give.
  The waiter brought the bill. She said the magazine would cover it. I thought it would be tacky to mention the flights and the hotel. Tomorrow, she said, she was off to visit an old friend in Florence. To mull over the future. Saying goodbye, I asked, By the way, what was with Dan wearing that prayer cap? In his coffin. She had no idea, she said. I was as surprised as anyone.
   Her hotel was in Corso Buenos Aires. I checked the map on my phone. It was after ten. Again I decided to walk. After so much conversation, so much wine, I needed to exhaust myself, otherwise I would be awake all night, putting out fires.
   Google gave the distance as a mile. Slightly less. I felt befuddled. It was cold. The traffic seemed more feverish than it had been during the day. As if the city were hosting some major event. Though surely if they had closed
down the restaurants they would have cancelled anyconcerts and sports and the like. Waiting to cross a major road, I became aware that the five or six people gathering beside me all had suitcases. Trolley wheels rattled on the stone flags. People were hurrying. My hotel was beside the station of course. Others poured in from side streets. A crowd was swelling, drawn by a magnet that was more powerful with every block we walked. Many people had masks. But not umbrellas. It had come on to drizzle. Many were speaking on their phones. They seemed to be walking faster now. The traffic had jammed. Horns sounded. People dragged their trolleys between cars. A siren wailed. I began to worry about the chilly air on my neck.
   The big plaza outside the station was teeming. A solid procession flowed towards the whiteness of the floodlit edifice with its winged horses and warriors. Impressed, I let myself be pulled along, trying to work out how I could cut across the packed, moving crowd to my hotel whose facade was visible now above trees on the other side of the square. There was a clamour of voices. Apparently I was the only person without luggage. A dog yelped. The bodies were pressing tighter. Eventually, inside the first
grand hall of the station, I was able to get behind a pillar that parted the flow, like a rock in a river. A PA boomed. For a moment I thought I might faint. I leaned on the stone. Yet I felt elated too and, as the dizziness passed, extremely alert, alive. If somehow I could get across to the next pillar, and the next, and one more, perhaps I could make it out of the crowd on the other side. I waited for a slight easing in the throng. Someone changed direction, calling to a friend. Now!
   Behind the second pillar a boy had spread out a blanket with mobile phone covers. He made space for me and grinned. In the next rush I stumbled and went down hard on a knee before a woman pulled me up. I caught a cat’s gleaming eyes in her companion’s arms. Then I was out of it. Limping. The pavement in front of the great building was oddly empty. A doorman opened for me. When I asked at Reception what was going on, an older man told me he wasn’t aware of anything unusual. The lobby was immersed in a wealthy hush. In my room, the ice had melted round my Veuve Clicquot. The shower was as voluptuous as any shower ever was. I had my head on the pillow before midnight.