The Star in my Eye - 2. Chapter 2
As December approached, the weather continued its descent into unusual levels of cold for the time of year. The bemused residents of Ravello hunkered down in their homes or ventured out in hats and scarves, while Gianni wandered the town in a light jumper, wondering what all the fuss was about.
God forbid it should actually snow this year… what would they do then?
On the last Saturday of the month, Gianni persuaded Angelo to venture out to the cathedral square for a morning coffee so Sami could play outside with his friends. They sat at the corner table of the last bar standing, sipping on cappuccini as their foster son kicked a ball about with Daniele and Marco. All three of the boys had arrived wrapped up in warm winter coats and scarves, but they had gradually been shed as they charged about together, and now lay piled up on one of the stone benches beneath the umbrella pines.
Aside from the three boys, the square was quiet apart from a young man who was walking back and forth across the square, carrying bundles of timber on his shoulder from a delivery van that was waiting at the mouth of the tunnel that led out to the main Naples road. The young man watched the game of football warily, pausing to take a tighter hold on the timbers if any of the boys came too close.
The young man, Gianni realised, was coping with the weather just fine in nothing more than a short-sleeved t-shirt, and he sensed a kindred spirit. He appeared to be working on the refurbishment of a building at the corner of the square, at the top of the tree-lined little street that led down towards the Valle del Dragone and the neighbouring village of Scala.
Sami had charge of the ball and was dribbling it towards the other two boys from the middle of the square.
“To me, Sami!” Marco called, raising an inviting hand into the air.
Sami giggled and changed direction, causing the young man with the timber to stop abruptly to avoid a collision. Gianni winced as the little boy charged past the young man without even seeming to realise what he had almost done. The young man rolled his eyes, and continued on his way.
“Does this strike you as an accident waiting to happen?” Angelo remarked.
Gianni chuckled and nodded. “Should we say something…?”
Angelo gave the young property developer an appraising look. “I think that guy’s got it covered. Let the boys have their fun.”
There was a whoop and a giggle as Daniele and Sami got their legs in a tangle and tumbled down onto the paving stones together, landing on their bottoms without injury. Marco advanced on them, shaking his head in a pitying sort of way.
“Real smooth, guys,” he remarked, helping Sami to his feet as Daniele got up and brushed himself down.
Gianni turned back to his partner.
“I’ve been thinking about what you said the other day about making Sami feel like part of the family,” he said.
Angelo gave him a questioning look with his dark eyes. “And…?”
“This weather,” Gianni replied, gesturing up towards the pale grey sky, “has been making me realise how much I miss Christmas.”
Angelo’s brow creased in a puzzled frown. “But we do celebrate Christmas,” he replied.
Gianni shrugged. “I know, but it’s not the same. In England they make a whole day of it. Whole families or groups of friends get together for gifts, drinks and a great big turkey dinner.”
“I miss things, too,” Angelo said with an exaggerated sigh, glancing over at the three boys, who were still engrossed in their game of football. “I miss having you to myself… and, since we’ve had Sami, I miss eating pork. What’s life worth without prosciutto, pancetta and salami?”
“I’m serious,” Gianni chided him, punching him gently on the arm.
“All right,” Angelo conceded. “So, what was so special about the big London Christmas, really?”
Gianni shrugged again. “I just miss the way it made me feel. I guess it’s because I was young, but when I think back on it… it’s like there was a glow to the whole thing. It was always so cold and dark outside, but inside it was warm, and we had the Christmas tree and all the colourful lights. On Christmas Day, we would wake up really early, and there would be presents under the tree already, and I would have to wait for ages to open them, but I would have my stocking full of gifts from Father Christmas to get me started.”
“Like the Befana?” Angelo asked.
Gianni nodded. “Exactly. Mum and Dad would work together to get the Christmas dinner started, because the turkey had to be cooked for hours. That’s why it took so long to get to opening the presents. Eventually, even I had my part to play in making the dinner – Dad and I would make the stuffings.” He smiled. “By the time we’d eaten the dinner and washed up, it was so late in the afternoon that it was already dark outside. We’d go for a little walk round the streets and look at everyone else’s Christmas lights – you know, to help digest all the food and blow away the cobwebs a little.”
“It sounds nice,” Angelo admitted. “But you’ve never mentioned missing Christmas before, Gianni… in fact, you never talk much about your time in London. Where’s this really coming from?”
Gianni shrugged. “I guess being part of a family again has brought some old stuff back up.”
Angelo nodded and took a sip of his cappuccino. “Yeah… I suppose it could do that.”
“I can’t help feeling…” Gianni mused, “it’d be nice to do it again.”
Angelo cocked his head curiously. “Are you saying you want to recreate a traditional British Christmas here?”
“Maybe,” Gianni replied. “I mean, what better way to make Sami feel part of the family than to put him at the centre of all that?”
“I see your point,” Angelo said, “but who would you invite?”
“Anna and her father… and your family, I guess,” Gianni said.
Angelo scratched his head thoughtfully. “You do remember Christmas Eve’s also my birthday, right?”
Gianni nodded. “Of course. I haven’t forgotten. But I wonder if we could, maybe… bring your birthday forward a little?”
Angelo smiled slightly. “So, you’re saying I’d get two celebrations and two sets of presents in as many weeks?”
Gianni nodded again. “Naturally.”
Angelo chuckled. “Well, I… guess I could live with that.”
Gianni smiled. “Thanks.”
They were silent for a while, observing the chaotic game of football. As they watched, a fourth boy came jogging into the square from the direction of the broad, gently stepped avenue of oleanders next to cathedral that led up towards their home in the Toro.
“Ciao, Dani!” Giacomo hailed his friend.
Daniele looked up and smiled in that heart-warmingly open and welcoming way of his that Gianni had come to know so well over the years.
“Ciao, Giaco!” Daniele called back. “Come and join us!”
The dark-eyed boy gave a questioning glance to Marco, who offered a brief nod of consent, and then he joined the fray. He bent down slightly, patting his thighs encouragingly to Sami, who had gained control of the ball once again.
“To me, Sami!” Giacomo urged.
The little boy eyed him a little suspiciously, then kicked the ball in his direction.
Giacomo grinned and nudged the ball straight back to Sami, who passed it on to Marco.
“Good to see someone’s making new friends,” Gianni observed.
“So…” Angelo pondered after a while. “What shall we do for my shamefully displaced birthday celebration? What price shall I exact for my selfless generosity? You had better throw me one hell of a do.”
There was sudden a clatter of feet as they were joined by the boys. Daniele, Marco and Sami flopped down at the next table for a rest, while Giacomo, who was still fresh, remained standing, leaning on the back of one of the chairs with polite interest.
“Could we… maybe… get some drinks, please?” Marco panted.
“Sure thing, Marco,” Angelo replied, gesturing to the waiter, who was leaning against the wall of the bar, wearing a warm coat over his uniform.
“Is somebody planning a party?” Daniele asked, his light blue eyes flicking curiously from one adult to another.
“Angelo’s twenty-sixth,” Gianni replied. “His birthday’s on Christmas eve, but we’re thinking of bringing it forward a week. You’d be invited, of course, and your parents too.”
Another painfully genuine smile began to steal across Daniele’s features, but then his face fell just as quickly, and he looked utterly crestfallen.
Damn… thirteen years old, but you still wear your heart on your sleeve. One of these days, it’s going to get badly bruised.
“But then it might clash with Emilia’s fourteenth,” Daniele said.
Gianni pursed his lips thoughtfully and glanced at his partner, who had just finished placing the drinks order.
“What do you think, Angelo? Is that a problem?”
“It’d be a shame if Dani and his parents couldn’t come,” Angelo replied. “And Marco of course,” he added quickly, because now the mousy-haired boy was looking downcast.
It was then that Daniele chipped in with a suggestion that was as endearing as it was naïve.
“Why don’t you just celebrate it together?” he said.
Gianni chewed a thumbnail anxiously. “Oh, I don’t know, Dani,” he said. “Don’t you think that’d be a bit strange? We don’t even know your friend Emilia that well, and… I’m not sure I’ve even met her parents properly.”
“Mamma could introduce you,” Giacomo suggested, joining the conversation for the first time. “If you pooled your money, you could book out a whole venue and have two parties at once.” He grinned. “It could be huge.”
Daniele and Marco brightened at once and nodded enthusiastically. Sami smacked his hands together in a gesture of prayer, looking at Gianni and Angelo beseechingly with his big brown eyes. Gianni and Angelo exchanged a wary glance, for the moment utterly outmanoeuvred.
“Ah… we’ll think about it,” Gianni conceded.
Daniele and Marco grinned and slapped their hands together in a high five.
“Where is Emilia, anyway?” Angelo asked. “I feel like we haven’t seen her in ages.”
“Oh –” Daniele replied, and then there were sighs and eye rolls around the table. Marco pointed two fingers towards his mouth in a vomiting gesture.
“She’s been a bit busy with her new boyfriend, signore,” Giacomo supplied.
“She hasn’t forgotten us, though,” Marco remarked, his cool grey eyes flicking towards the dark-eyed boy. “Not like some people like to do.”
Giacomo shrugged this off, glancing instead at Daniele, who smiled back at him a little awkwardly.
“Oh, Luca,” Giacomo sighed, adopting a high, girlish voice and miming a swoon. “You’re so dreamy!”
Daniele giggled slightly and then appeared to stifle it, perhaps not wanting to be disloyal to his absent friend.
“The worst part of it is,” Giacomo admitted, “he is. Even I can see that.”
Sami appeared to be growing tired of all the chat. “Ball!” he demanded, gesturing insistently at the battered football, which he was holding aloft in one small hand.
“Right…” Daniele replied, taking a hasty gulp of the Sprite that Angelo had ordered for him. “Andiamo!”
With another clatter of feet, the four boys were gone as quickly as they had arrived.
* * *
With slight variations, the four boys kept their game going for so long that Gianni began to wonder if he should order a second coffee. All the different versions of the game seemed to involve Sami running madly about the square, while the three older boys hung back a little, holding onto their corner under the umbrella pines.
All the while, the young property developer continued trailing dutifully back and forth across the square carrying bundles of wood or bags of other materials. After a while, a young woman dressed in work overalls emerged from the building they were refurbishing, sipping something warm from a Thermos flask. From the weary smile the two of them exchanged, Gianni suspected they were a well-established team – possibly husband and wife.
Unfortunately, with the young man blindsided by the bag of builder’s sand he was carrying over one shoulder, the brief distraction was all it took. Sami chose that precise moment to blunder into the young man’s path, and they collided. The young man’s mouth fell open in dismay as the bag of sand tumbled from his grasp. For an agonising split second, the heavy bag of sand seemed to be heading straight for the little boy’s head; but then, demonstrating extraordinary quick thinking, the young man managed to swat it aside somehow. The bag tumbled harmlessly to the paving stones, where it split open with a soggy ‘thud’.
Gianni and Angelo froze in equal horror, waiting to see how the situation would play out. In the corner of the square, the three older boys seemed equally rooted to the spot. The woman with the Thermos flask had raised a hand to her mouth in shock.
Silence reigned for a moment. Visibly shaken, Sami backed away a few paces. The football rolled towards the umbrella pines, entirely forgotten; nobody made any move to fetch it.
“I’m s-s-s-” Sami stammered, his Italian momentarily deserting him, staring up at the young man with fear in his large brown eyes.
The young man stared back at the little boy with eyes of an equal hue, registering first surprise, then curiosity. He glanced around the square, perhaps looking for a parent figure; his eyes fell on Gianni and Angelo for a moment, then he did the briefest of double takes, as if they reminded him of someone, but then he seemed to let it go.
“Are you alright?” he asked the little boy in passable, but slightly accented, Italian.
Sami nodded, and the fear left his eyes a little. Now something else seemed to be passing between them, as if they recognised something in each other that set them apart.
In the corner of the square, Daniele and Marco seemed to have noticed, too. Daniele was watching the unfolding scene with wide-eyed attention, while Marco’s cool grey eyes were glaring at the newcomer with protective suspicion. Giacomo had his hands in his pockets and was looking on with more neutral curiosity.
“S-s-sorry,” Sami managed, exhaling a quiet sigh of relief, whereupon he dropped his eyes to the paving stones, looking embarrassed.
“No real harm done,” the young man replied.
The young woman at the side of the square mopped her brow in relief.
“Reza!” she called, “I’ll fetch the dustpan.”
The young man thanked her with a distracted wave and scratched at his thick black hair in amiable confusion, as if unsure what to do or say next. Gianni and Angelo, however, found each other’s eyes at once.
“Wait a minute…!” Angelo said.
They discarded the remains of their coffees in unison and scrambled to their feet, hurrying across the square to greet the new arrival. Seeing their approach, Sami retreated to their side, seizing Gianni’s hand with his own small fingers in search of reassurance; Gianni gave it a gentle squeeze, and felt the little boy relax a little.
“He’s with us,” Angelo said. “Sorry about your delivery. If there’s anything we can do to reimburse you…?”
The young man shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. We can salvage most of this,” he said, his attention mainly focused on the spilled bag of sand. “I’m just glad nobody was hurt.”
Angelo offered the new arrival an amused half-smile. “You know, I’m a little offended. I thought Gianni told you to look us up if you were ever back in town?”
At this, the young man looked up, really seeing them properly for the first time since the accident, and then Gianni could see that he really was the same, Guildford-born British boy they had hung out with, oh so briefly, all those summers ago.
“Man…” the young man said in amazement, “it really is you, isn’t it? For a second there, I thought maybe… but then, what were the odds that you’d still be together after all these years, and that I’d run into you just like that?”
Gianni smiled. “Ravello can be a very small place, sometimes, Reza Farzan. How’ve you been?”
Reza ran a slightly dazed hand through his hair once again. “Great, I guess. Why didn’t you give me shout when you saw me?”
Angelo chuckled. “I guess we just didn’t recognise you without your enormous SLR camera.”
“Not to mention the natty shirts,” Gianni added.
Reza offered them a slightly shamefaced smile. “Yeah, well, there’s still a place for those, I guess, when I’m not working.”
At that moment, the young woman bustled back into view, carrying a dustpan and an empty sack for the sand, which she began to sweep up in an industrious sort of way.
“My wife and business partner, Tiziana,” Reza explained. “Tiz, this is Gianni and Angelo.”
Tiziana glared at him. “I wish you’d stop calling me that.”
Reza smirked slightly. “Sorry.”
Tiziana straightened up, turning to Gianni and Angelo. Up close, Gianni saw that, while she was dressed down for work with her hair tied roughly up behind her head, she was actually very pretty, with fine-boned features and soft dark eyes. “I’m pleased to meet you,” she said, her manner polite, if puzzled.
Reza elbowed her in the ribs. “I mean it’s the Gianni and Angelo, Tiz! From that infamous holiday!”
Tiziana’s eyes widened. “Oh!” she replied. “In that case, I’m very pleased to meet you!”
“Tiziana credits the welcome you gave me with my falling in love with this country,” Reza explained, “at least in part.”
“You’re Italian?” Angelo asked.
Tiziana nodded. “We met on a course in Naples.”
“And who’s this?” Reza asked, looking directly at the little boy who cowered between them. He stared back up at the newcomer with wide eyes.
“This is our foster son Sami,” Gianni replied. “Oh, and…” he noticed that the three older teens had gathered in a small huddle nearby, evidently waiting to be introduced, “his friends Daniele, Marco and Giacomo.”
“Ciao, signore,” Daniele ventured, his blue eyes roving curiously over the assembled adults. Gianni could sense his inquisitive mind working furiously, trying to figure out the dynamics between them all.
Reza offered them a nod of greeting before turning back to the little boy.
“You’re from north Africa, I think?” he asked gently.
Wordlessly, Sami nodded.
“I’ve heard about the African refugees. To be honest, I’ve seen them on the streets. But you’re the first one I’ve met who was in foster care.”
“Are you like me?” Sami asked in a small voice.
Reza nodded slowly. “I suppose I am, in some ways, but maybe that’s a story for another time.” He crouched down to help his wife with the sand, turning to glance back up at Gianni and Angelo for a moment. “We should get this mess cleared up, and then I have the rest of the delivery to unload before the driver gets back from his break, but we should go for coffee… you know, to catch up properly.”
Angelo nodded. “Count on it!”
* * *
As the play date in the square wound down, Daniele cornered Gianni for a moment.
“Who was that man you were chatting to earlier?” he asked.
“Just someone Angelo and I met soon after we got together,” Gianni replied. “It feels like a stretch to call him an old friend… I mean, we only knew him for a few days… but we had a few adventures that week.” He chuckled. “Or, at least… Reza certainly did.”
“Oh, really?” Daniele replied, apparently none the wiser. “Well… he seems nice enough, I guess.”
Gianni have the blond-haired boy a curious look. “Why do you ask, Dani?”
Daniele shrugged vaguely. “I don’t know,” he said. “I sort of feel like something just… changed.”
Gianni glanced up at the building that the newcomers were working on. It was all decaying plaster and cracked stonework, one of the few truly rustic buildings remaining around the edge of the square. Weeds grew out from the fissures in the stonework of a crumbling first floor balcony, which, when it was finished, looked like it would boast a fine view across to Scala, nestled amidst the terraced mountain slopes on the far side of the valley.
“Perhaps they have, Dani,” he replied. “It looks like Reza and Tiziana might be in town for quite a while. But, you know… some changes can be good.”
Daniele brightened a little. “Sami made friends with Giaco today.”
Gianni looked up. A few metres away, Giacomo seemed to be teaching Sami to thumb-wrestle while Angelo settled the bill at the bar. Marco was watching the other two boys, hands shoved in his pockets in a slightly grumpy sort of way.
He turned back to Daniele. “Are you sure Marco will be willing to share?” he asked, raising one eyebrow in a quizzical sort of way.
Daniele smiled. “It’s cool. Giaco’s not about to start turning up every time we hang out with Sami. He’d never have the patience.”
Gianni nodded. “You, Marco and Sami seem to have a pretty special bond. I envy you, sometimes.”
Daniele offered him a small frown that was caught somewhere between confusion and concern.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
Gianni brushed the question away. “Ah, never mind. You’re great with him, that’s the main thing. Sami’s lucky to have you both.”
Daniele’s expression cleared as his naturally sunny demeanour re-asserted itself. “It was just the three of us for a while back in the summer,” he said. “I’m just happy that we still get to hang out with him.”
* * *
Sami was quiet during the short walk home, and Gianni found himself reflecting, once again, on how different a boy he became when he was around his friends compared to how he behaved at home.
“I could use some advice,” Gianni said as they made their way slowly back up the avenue of oleanders.
“Advice?” Angelo repeated, looking back at him curiously. “About what?”
“About… you know, stuff,” Gianni replied, gesturing subtly at Sami with his thumb.
“Oh, that stuff,” Angelo replied, the corner of his mouth twitching in an amused smile. “For a moment there, I wasn’t clear.”
Gianni rolled his eyes. “Anyway, do you mind if I make a call this afternoon?”
Angelo shook his head amiably. “Do you want me to join you?”
“No, it’s okay,” Gianni replied, “I’ve got it covered. You can go and shave some wood or something.”
Angelo was suddenly overcome by a coughing fit that almost, but not quite, disguised his laughter.
“Oh, I miss those days, right enough,” he whispered, snaking a hand around Gianni’s behind with a mischievous glint in his dark eyes. Smirking slightly, Gianni smacked it away.
“Children present,” he whispered back.
* * *
Gianni held on until well past lunchtime to make his call. While he waited, he helped Sami read a children’s picture book. Reluctant to let Daniele and Marco handle all the little boy’s Italian lessons, he had made read-together time a regular part of their day. Sami was usually willing to go along with it unless he was exceptionally tired, and sometimes it even raised a smile or a giggle if the book was funny enough. However, the little boy never came alive as much as he did when the other two boys were around.
When the time came, Angelo cajoled Sami into a walk up to the Villa Cimbrone gardens so Gianni could have some undisturbed time to himself. Settling down in the warmth of the den, Gianni curled up on the corner sofa with his phone and requested a video call.
There was a few seconds’ wait, then the round, rosy-cheeked face of Mrs. Deakes, Gianni’s former neighbour from his London days, sprang into view. She had perched on her familiar old red sofa and seemed startled, but genuinely pleased, to see him.
“Ciao, Gianni,” she smiled, before lapsing straight into English. “This is a surprise. How are you?”
“Hi, Sharon,” Gianni replied, settling down a little more comfortably amongst the sofa cushions. “I’m fine, thanks. Do you have time to talk?”
Mrs. Deakes wrinkled her nose. “I was trying to persuade myself out for a walk, but it’s so cold and grey here today… you’ve given me the perfect excuse to pass.”
“Oh, sorry,” Gianni smiled. “I know how you like to get your daily steps in.”
Mrs. Deakes glanced down at something off-camera that Gianni couldn’t see. “Oh, you know…” she sighed. “I don’t suppose it’ll make that much difference to my waistline either way.”
“I’m sorry I haven’t written for a while,” Gianni said. “I’ve been… kinda busy. How’ve you been?”
Mrs. Deakes dismissed his apology with a shake of her head. “I’m just happy to hear from you whenever you’re able, Gianni. I’m sure you’ve had plenty on your plate since your poor grandmother passed away… and it’s not like you owe me anything, really.”
“That’s not true,” Gianni demurred. “I think I owe you quite a lot. Who else was there for me after my parents died?”
Mrs. Deakes shrugged. “Years of fostering for the council left me well prepared for that. It certainly made the paperwork easier when I offered to take you on for a few days.”
“Actually, that’s what I wanted to ask you about,” Gianni admitted.
Mrs. Deakes sat back slightly in surprise. “Whatever can you mean?”
“I mean that, since the summer, Angelo and I have been fostering, too.”
Mrs. Deakes put a hand to her mouth in shock.
“But… you’re both so young!”
Gianni nodded. “We didn’t exactly plan this. It sort of… fell into our laps, a little.”
“Go on…” Mrs. Deakes encouraged him.
“When you came to my birthday party a couple of years back, do you remember Claudia and Daniele?”
Mrs. Deakes rubbed her lips thoughtfully. “Was Claudia the very pretty, self-assured girl who sat next to me? Your Angelo’s sister, I believe? And Daniele… no, I don’t think so… unless you mean that sweet little blond boy with the very friendly mother?”
Gianni nodded. “That’s right, although Dani’s not quite so little now. He’s been through a lot over the last year or two.”
Mrs. Deakes frowned. “You’re not fostering him, are you?”
Gianni laughed. “No. I wish, but he’s still living happily with his parents Patrizia and Paolo right here in Ravello.”
“Back in the summer, Dani and Claudia were out boating with friends when they pulled three African refugees out of the water just off the coast at Amalfi. They’d been chucked overboard by fake smugglers who’d taken all their money and property.”
“How awful…” Mrs. Deakes murmured.
“Well, we all thought that was the last we’d be seeing of any of them, until the youngest one, a little boy called Sami, turned up at an abandoned farmhouse just outside town. His aunt and uncle had already been sent home, but Sami escaped detection somehow. It turned out Dani and another local boy, Marco, had been helping to keep him alive for weeks.
“There was a fire at the farmhouse, and Sami was picked up by the authorities. It looked like he was going to be deported too, but Claudia persuaded us to have a go at fostering. We’d just recently started talking about whether we’d like to become parents someday, so it seemed like the perfect time to give it a try. It meant Dani and Marco could still have contact with Sami, too – they’d become very fond of him.”
For a moment, Mrs. Deakes seemed speechless, but then she found her voice again.
“So, just like that, you went from a vague conversation about parenthood to actually having a real, live child in the house?” she asked.
Gianni nodded. “A Muslim child who could barely even speak Italian,” he confessed.
Mrs. Deakes shook her head. “Oh, my goodness!” she breathed. “I mean, I can’t fault your kindness. Gianni, but it seems like you had very little time to prepare for all this.”
Gianni inclined his head a little. “I have to admit that it hasn’t quite been everything I’d expected. I thought he’d be…” he tailed off, searching for the right words.
“…the star in your eye?” Mrs. Deakes suggested, with a sad smile that suggested she knew what was coming next.
“If you like,” Gianni agreed.
“But, let me guess…” Mrs. Deakes went on. “He seems quiet, withdrawn, not the lively and affectionate little soul you imagined would fill your days with fun and joy?”
Gianni stared at her on his phone screen.
“It’s like you read my mind,” he said.
Mrs. Deakes sighed. “Gianni, have you even read anything abouts the effects neglect and trauma can have on a child’s ability to form secure attachments to a new family? Put yourself in little Sami’s shoes. If you’d been though everything he has, especially at such a young age, would you be so ready to put your trust in another set of strange adults?”
Gianni frowned. “But… we would never hurt him or abandon him like that.”
“And it will take Sami time to accept that.”
Gianni slumped down a little. “Angelo said something similar,” he admitted. “He said it wasn’t surprising that Sami would have a few trust issues.”
Mrs. Deakes nodded approvingly. “Your partner seems like a wise man, Gianni. Children like Sami don’t always respond to loving care the same way children with more secure attachments do. At the same time, I’m sure he must be struggling with his identity, trying to find his place in the strange new world he’s found himself in.”
“Yes… I remember how that felt,” Gianni replied.
“What about his faith, and his cultural background…? What are you doing to help him understand that?”
Gianni shrugged. “There’s not much we can do about that,” he replied. “So, we’re focusing on helping him feel like part of the family.”
Mrs. Deakes nodded slowly. “Of course… although I can see there’s potential for a lot of difficult questions later on.”
“I thought it might be good to involve him in a traditional family Christmas,” Gianni said, “like we used to do in London. What do you think?”
Mrs. Deakes frowned. “You’re not thinking of taking him to Mass, are you?”
Gianni laughed. “No, I haven’t gone that native. I was really thinking of a big family meal.”
Mrs. Deakes’ eyebrows rose in surprise. “What, a roast turkey with all the trimmings? Can you really put something like that together in Italy?”
“I think I could get the right sort of stuff for most of it, with a few tweaks, like pigs in pancetta blankets for example… except…”
Mrs. Deakes cocked her head. “Except what?”
“I don’t think they’ve even heard of Brussels sprouts round here.”
Mrs. Deakes chuckled. “Oh, Gianni… surely you can serve up something else?”
Gianni pouted slightly. “It’s traditional! You can’t have a proper Christmas dinner without sprouts.” He paused, before adding hopefully, “I don’t suppose…?”
Mrs. Deakes fixed him with an uncharacteristically shrewd look. “Gianni Fortuna, are you asking me to courier you a shipment of Brussels sprouts?”
“Oh, no, I wouldn’t dream of it…” Gianni said, “unless… I mean, unless you really wouldn’t mind?”
Mrs. Deakes shook her head with a weary laugh.
“All right,” she replied. “I’ll see what I can do.”
* * *
When Gianni had finished catching up with Mrs. Deakes, he was surprised to find he had received a text message from their newest neighbour.
‘Sorry for short notice. Can u meet me for a drink at 6pm tonight? Bring Angelo if u can. -Elena’
As such, shortly before six o’clock, Gianni and his partner set out into the darkened street. Amidst the short days of winter, night had long since fallen. Daniele’s mother, Patrizia, had been hastily pressed into service to take Sami for a couple of hours, and she had stopped by to pick the little boy up on the way home from an afternoon shift at the hotel where she and Gianni both worked, which had remained open despite the quiet season. Gianni supposed that Sami and Daniele were probably already hard at play down at the Ferrero family home on the mountainside below the seaward side of town.
Knowing that they would be sitting outside as the temperatures continued to slide, Gianni had finally conceded to wearing a warm winter coat and a scarf. He paused on the crazy paving to make some final adjustments by the light of a traditional lantern that hung from the arched belvedere wall. It swung gently in the night breeze, creaking quietly on its chain. Angelo stood a few paces away, already wrapped up warmly with his hands shoved deep into his pockets, watching Gianni fumbling with his scarf with a fond half-smile. Tiny white stars shone in his dark eyes where they caught the lantern light.
“This reminds me of the old days,” he said softly, “stealing out after dark to spend our evenings together away from prying eyes.”
“Do you really miss the way things used to be?” Gianni asked.
Angelo nodded. “Of course I do.”
“So… do you regret becoming a parent?”
Angelo shook his head. “I love having Sami around… you know I do! But I’m not sure I was ready to give up on our old life completely.” He glanced up into the sky, where a few gaps had appeared between the clouds, allowing the stars to shine through for the first time in a few days. “But… maybe we could try to do things like this a little more often? It might do us both some good.”
Gianni smiled. “I… don’t think I’d say no to that.”
Angelo sidled up to Gianni and slipped his arms around his shoulders. “Then let’s not hurry down to the square. I’m sure Elena will forgive us if we’re a few minutes late.”
* * *
Once they’d spent a few quiet minutes on the deserted belvedere, amidst the twinkling lights that shone up through the shrubs and trees and the views down to the sparkling waterfronts of Minori and Maiori far below, Gianni and Angelo reluctantly got moving. They wandered arm-in-arm down the avenue of oleanders, breathing in the cool night air as they passed beneath the decorative lamps that shone down through the overhanging clumps of lush green leaves.
They found Elena Agnello among a small huddle of people that had gathered around an outside table at the one remaining bar. One of them, Gianni recognised as Daniele and Marco’s friend Emilia. She had grown her mid-length brown hair out a little since the summer, and looked a bit more grown-up, but otherwise little changed from the tomboyish girl she had been when she was twelve. It seemed extraordinary to Gianni that Daniele and his friends could already be knocking on the door of fourteen, but such, he supposed, was the nature of time as you grew older.
They were accompanied by a middle-aged couple whom Gianni took to be Emilia’s parents. Her father was a round-faced man with short hair and a fine moustache; he had a sturdy, sensible look to him, and Gianni vaguely recalled hearing that he was a freelance accountant. Emilia’s mother was more Bohemian-looking, with long wavy hair, and wore a colourful patchwork coat that reminded Gianni of the eccentric clothes often worn by Angelo’s cousin Viola; but that was where the resemblance ended. There was an air of quiet determination about Emilia’s mother that was the opposite of Viola’s more scatter-brained style.
Across the square, Gianni glimpsed Giacomo. He was sitting, alone, on one of the stone benches under the umbrella pines, browsing his phone and swinging his legs in a bored sort of way. It must be tough, Gianni supposed, when all your friends were busy, although he couldn’t help wondering where Marco was.
As they arrived, Elena offered them a shy smile. She rose to her feet.
“Buonasera, Gianni, Angelo,” she said. “This is Roberto and Monica Roccia.”
“Piacere,” Gianni acknowledged. He and Angelo reached across the table to shake hands with Emilia’s parents before taking the two free chairs on the other side.
Angelo turned to their teenage daughter. “Ciao, Emilia,” he offered. “I hear we might be celebrating our birthdays together.”
“Ciao,” Emilia replied, with a polite, if slightly uncertain, smile.
“That is,” Angelo went on, turning back to Emilia’s parents, “if you’re prepared to go ahead with this madcap plan of Dani and Giacomo’s?”
Roberto Roccia smiled. “I was left with the distinct impression that young Daniele might not forgive us if he was forced to choose whose party to attend.”
Gianni nodded. “I think there are a few other people who would like to come to both, too… not least, Dani’s parents.”
“And me, if you’d have me,” Elena interjected quietly. “I know we’ve only been neighbours for a couple of weeks but, thanks to the wonderful work Angelo has done on my shop and the things I’ve heard over the years from Daniele and your Nonna, Gianni, I feel like I’ve known you both for much longer.”
“Dani and Giacomo will be nagging me to invite Toto and Michele, too, signore,” Emilia added. “It just makes sense.”
Gianni and Angelo exchanged a glance, and they both nodded slightly.
“That seems to be settled, then,” Angelo said, turning to Emilia’s parents once more. “Do you have any thoughts about the venue? My brother and sister-in-law own a restaurant, Da Rossi on Via Roma. Do you know it?”
Monica Roccia nodded. “Yes, we’ve been there before. It’s lovely… but I think we can do better.”
“Oh… really?” Angelo asked. If he was at all put out, he did a good job of hiding it.
“Roberto does the accounts for the family who own the Villa Eva.”
Gianni frowned. “The Villa Eva… isn’t that a wedding venue? The one with the fancy terrace and the stunning view?”
Emilia’s mother nodded. “There aren’t so many weddings here at this time of year. But for a birthday party… wrap up warm and it should be divine.”
Angelo hesitated. “I don’t know… that sounds expensive, even if we pool our resources.”
Monica offered him a slightly sly sort of smile. “They owe Roberto a favour or two. I’m sure he could put in a good word for us.”
Emilia’s father looked a little embarrassed. “Monica, you make me sound like a mafioso.”
Monica closed a reassuring hand over his. “Not at all, caro… just an excellent accountant.”
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