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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.

The Summer of the Firefly - 5. Chapter 5

Gianni’s conversation with Anna had indeed given him a lot to think about. Over dinner that evening, he regarded his grandmother quietly and watchfully, trying to square what he had learned from Anna with what he saw before him now. But, in the kindly and elderly woman who asked after his day and served up another delicious meal of pasta that night, Gianni simply couldn’t see the kind of person who would throw her daughter out on the street. Perhaps, he thought, time had brought about a change in Marina, or perhaps, he wondered, there was more to his mother’s part in events than he had realised.

A few days later, over breakfast, Gianni received a letter from Mrs. Deakes.

Marina was squeezing oranges in the kitchen, listening to the news on the radio as Gianni made his way down the stairs and joined Vittorio at the table.

“Good morning, young man,” said his grandfather, who was poring over a newspaper.

“Buongiorno,” Gianni replied.

“Would you like a spremuta, Gianni?” Marina called from the kitchen.

“Yes please, Nonna,” Gianni responded, helping himself to a butter croissant and some apricot preserve.

As Gianni tore the first piece off the croissant, Marina shuffled through from the kitchen with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice, which she passed to Gianni. “This came for you,” she said, pulling out an envelope that she had tucked behind her apron.

“Thanks,” Gianni replied, licking his fingers and taking the plain white envelope from her. He recognised Mrs. Deakes’ spidery handwriting at once and quickly tore the flap off the envelope, pulling out the hastily scrawled letter from within.

Dear Gianni,

I hope you’re well and are settling in OK with your grandparents. I’ve been missing you loads – your parents too – and I can’t imagine how strange it must feel, trying to make a home for yourself not just with a whole new family, but in a whole new country as well.

Things are going OK with your parents’ estate. The solicitor told me that their life insurance has covered the mortgage, so you won’t need to worry about that, and we’ve stopped all of your parents’ subscriptions and utilities. We won’t know for some time exactly what you’re going to inherit, but I’ll let you know once all of the expenses are resolved.

In the meantime, your debit card came yesterday...

Gianni fished around in the envelope, and the black plastic card plopped out onto the table, attached to a slip from the bank containing his account details and his PIN. He detached the card from the slip and looked at it curiously: he had never possessed one of these before. He turned back to the letter and read on, taking a sip of the tangy orange juice as he did so.

You must be feeling very grown up now! I had a word with the bank, and they told me that you should be able to use the card in most cash machines in Italy for the time being, but you’ll need to contact them soon to sort out something more permanent.

I ran into Kian and David’s parents the other day. They wished you well and wanted me to tell you how much the boys miss you. And you know Giancarlo, your dad’s junior partner? He’s agreed to take over the business. He gave me a message for you – “In bocca al lupo” – I didn’t know what it meant, but he told me you’d understand.

I have to go, but you must let me know how you’re getting on.

Lots of love,
Sharon

As Gianni put the letter down, he realised that his grandfather had been watching him.

“Finally gained access to your riches, eh?” said Vittorio.

Gianni blushed slightly. “I don’t have much,” he said, “just what I got from my old paper round.”

“Aha!” Vittorio said approvingly. “A man with a work ethic!”

“Dad’s influence, I guess,” Gianni replied quietly, not wanting Marina to overhear. His father had run an ice cream business, and had been the family’s main provider, although his mother had held a part time job teaching Italian evening classes.

On the radio, the news had given way to the warbling of an Italian diva. Marina hummed along huskily and somewhat tunelessly as she squeezed another glass of orange juice. Vittorio, checking to see that his wife wasn’t watching, leaned conspiratorially over the table and whispered to Gianni.

“It’s your Nonna’s birthday tomorrow,” he said. “I wonder if you could use some of that money of yours to buy her a present?”

“Sure,” Gianni replied. “Of course I will.”

“Only something small,” Vittorio added quickly. “She wouldn’t expect anything more.”

“Okay.”

“There’s also going to be a party tomorrow evening at the restaurant up on the hill,” Vittorio said.

“The one with the vegetable garden?” Gianni asked, “Won’t that be expensive?”

Vittorio spread his hands expansively. “It’s her seventy-fifth,” he said. “We don’t usually spend so much money, but my Marina deserves something special.”

“Does Nonna know?” Gianni prompted, keeping his voice low.

“Not yet,” Vittorio replied. “It’s a surprise. But the guests have all been invited – Anna and her father will be joining us, along with Pietro and his family; young Angelo will be there, of course. There’ll be others from the town, too.”

Gianni and Vittorio broke off their conversation rather hastily as Marina appeared at the table with two more glasses of orange juice; she eyed them suspiciously as she sat down.

“What are you two conspiring about?” she said.

“Er –” Gianni began, trying to think of an excuse, but Vittorio was better prepared.

“Young Gianni here was just reminding me that it’s your birthday tomorrow, cara mia,” he teased, “I’d almost forgotten.”

“Oh!” Marina scolded her husband. She turned to Gianni. “Don’t listen to him, Gianni, whatever he’s told you. I don’t want anyone to go to any trouble.”

“Okay, Nonna,” Gianni replied, as nonchalantly as he could. Vittorio winked and took a sip of his juice.

* * *

The sun was already working its way up to its usual ferocity as Gianni descended the avenue of oleanders that morning. The day was off to another hazy start. Small plumes of smoke arose from bonfires on the terraced slopes; briefly, Gianni wondered what the farmers could possibly have to burn at this time in the morning.

Gianni had run out of smarter shirts, and had resorted this morning to wearing one of his tatty old t-shirts with his older and more frayed pair of jeans. Feeling out of place, he resolved that he could put off his clothes shopping no longer, and decided the first thing he would do after finding a present for his grandmother would be to look for something smarter to wear.

Gianni crossed the cathedral square and took a seat at one of the benches under the pine trees, watching the world go by, and pondered what his grandmother might like for her birthday. No ideas came to him; in truth, he didn’t know where to start.

Gianni had only been in the square for a short while when the cathedral bells erupted in an uproarious peal, and several passers-by turned to watch as a wedding party emerged from the central doors, led by the young bride and groom, who were flanked by their family and friends. The newlyweds cut a handsome picture, descending the steps amidst a flurry of rice and rose petals, he in a tailored black suit and she in a delicate white dress. Several locals stopped and applauded as the smiling couple were led out into the square for photographs, the groom fishing stray confetti out of his wife’s dark hair as they went; observing in silence, Gianni was reminded of Pietro and Anna’s forthcoming wedding, and wondered if this was how it would look.

Gianni remained where he was, lost in thought and only half watching as photographs were taken of the newlywed couple with their family and friends, then just their family, until only the bride and groom themselves remained. Gradually, the guests drifted out of the square, presumably heading on to wherever the reception was to be held.

After only a few more minutes, there came a rhythmic trundling sound from the left, and Gianni glanced across the corner of the square to see Angelo, looking his usual smart self, propelling himself into the square from the direction of the ceramics workshop on a shiny new skateboard. Gianni, who hadn’t yet been spotted, watched as the other boy came to a halt in the middle of the square, flicked his skateboard up into one hand and looked curiously at the rose petals and rice littering the paving stones outside the cathedral.

Gianni, sensing his chance to settle a score, tiptoed up behind the other boy. Smiling slightly, Gianni paired up the first two fingers of each hand and jabbed them into either side of Angelo’s waist as he had learned at school, catching him in the soft tissues just below the ribcage. It had the desired effect: jumping into the air with a strangled yelp, Angelo spun round, dropping his skateboard with a clatter. Gianni stood back, laughing at the comical look of shock on his friend’s face.

“I think I owed you that,” he said.

Angelo blinked. The colour had risen on his cheeks, giving him a flustered look, but he gave a shaky laugh all the same.

“You’re evil, Gianni Fortuna,” he said, bending to retrieve his skateboard.

“You can talk,” said Gianni. “Who was it that bounced me into the fountain?”

Angelo grinned furtively. “I guess that makes two of us, then.”

Gianni looked appraisingly at his friend’s latest acquisition. “What’s with the skateboard?” he asked.

“Fancied a change,” said Angelo. “Have you ever skated?”

Gianni shook his head. “No.”

“Want to try?”

Gianni frowned and, through force of habit, cast an eye about the square to see who was watching. Nobody seemed to be paying them much attention, however; not far away, against the backdrop of the view across to Scala, the newlywed couple continued to have their photographs taken, drawing the eyes of the few onlookers that there were around the square.

He shrugged. “Okay.”

“Cool.”

Angelo placed the skateboard down in front of Gianni and showed him how and where to put his feet. Uncertainly, Gianni complied, and soon stood sideways on the board, facing Angelo, his arms spread to keep himself upright.

“Like this?” he said.

“Don’t tense up,” said Angelo, looking Gianni up and down. “Loosen your knees a bit and use them to balance.”

Gianni allowed himself to relax a little, and experimented with shifting his body weight. It didn’t seem too hard.

“Now try pushing off,” said Angelo. “Turn forwards a bit and use your back foot. Stay relaxed.”

Gianni did as he was bid, and pushed off gently with one foot. He felt himself begin to roll, and managed to swing himself back sideways, but the motion of the skateboard was disorientating; leaning instinctively back, he lost his balance, and was forced to leap untidily off the skateboard, landing on his feet with some embarrassment as the board coasted to a halt in the middle of the square.

“That was crap,” he said, picking up the skateboard and returning to his friend.

The corner of Angelo’s mouth twitched, but he shook his head. “Try again.”

Gianni embarked on the skateboard for a second time and cautiously pushed off with his back foot. Once again, he wobbled, lost his balance and had to jump clear. This time, however, it was Angelo who went to fetch the skateboard, while Gianni watched with some frustration.

“I’m not sure about this,” said Gianni, shoving his hands into his pockets.

“Here,” said Angelo, placing the board down in front of Gianni once more. “I’ll help you. Come on.”

Reluctantly, Gianni stepped back up onto the board and spread his arms for balance. Angelo reached out for Gianni, and then hesitated.

“Do you mind?” he asked. Puzzled, Gianni shook his head.

Angelo placed a tentative, stabilising hand to either side of Gianni’s chest. Gianni glanced down, curiously: unused to touching, he found it an odd sensation.

“Now push off, very gently,” said Angelo. Gianni looked back up and nodded, then pushed off slightly with his back foot. He began to trundle very slowly across the square. Angelo walked with him, and Gianni could feel the other boy testing his balance.

“Don’t lean back,” said Angelo. “Lean forward a bit. Put your weight on the front.”

Gianni did as he was told, and immediately felt more in control. “Yeah, that’s better.”

“Cool,” said Angelo. “Now try going a little faster. Remember to relax.”

Gianni put his foot down once more and picked up a little speed. Angelo released him and Gianni allowed himself to cruise, remembering to keep his joints loose. Starting to get into the swing of it, Gianni put his foot to the ground a couple more times, experimenting with shifting his body weight a little further to and fro.

Looking up, Gianni realised that his few steps had already given him considerable speed, and he was now heading straight for one of the pine trees that lined the edge of the square.

“Er... Angelo, how do I turn?” he called over his shoulder to his friend, who was already in hot pursuit.

Feeling his balance threatening to go once again, Gianni swung back sideways and saw the tree looming large in front of him. Jumping clear but unused to disembarking at speed, he landed badly and pitched forward, only to be intercepted by Angelo, who caught him by the shoulders, breaking his fall.

“Perhaps I’d better show you how to stop, first?” he suggested.

Gianni nodded, embarrassed, as he righted himself. “Yeah, perhaps,” he said.

* * *

It took some time for Gianni to master stopping and turning, but by lunchtime he had managed to make a few circuits of the square and to ride down to the ceramics workshop and back without falling off the skateboard. With that accomplished, Gianni and Angelo headed back to the benches at the side of the square for a rest.

“I’ve got an old board you could have,” Angelo said casually as they sat down. “Next time you’re in Scala, we could go for a skate.”

Discussion turned to Marina’s forthcoming birthday party. Angelo confirmed that his whole family would be coming, including his father, who, despite his poor health, was determined that he would make it up the steps to the restaurant.

“I’ve got to get Nonna a present,” Gianni confessed, “but I’ve no idea what she likes.”

“She likes to cook,” said Angelo promptly.

Gianni nodded: this was true, but he couldn’t think of anything he could get that would seem exotic to Marina, despite the fact that most of the food he saw in the local shops seemed pretty exotic to him.

“Anything else?” he said.

Angelo looked thoughtful. “She likes to read the classics,” he replied.

“The classics? You mean, like, Homer and stuff?” Gianni asked, frowning. This seemed to limit his options.

Angelo laughed. “Not just stuff that old.”

“Oh,” said Gianni. “Okay, thanks.”

They adjourned to a café in the corner of the square, where they opted for a healthy lunch of ice cream. The colourful display at the gelateria was rife with exotic flavours, including such alien varieties as mango, pistachio, cappuccino, melon, a strange white concoction called zabaglione and, of course, lemon. As Gianni tasted the sweet, rich vanilla and honeycomb ice cream he had chosen, he was reminded once again of his father. He fell silent as they returned to the square, and flopped back onto the bench in momentary gloom.

“What’s wrong?” said Angelo, sampling his own orange and lemon ice cream as he sat down next to Gianni.

“Just memories,” Gianni replied. He gestured at Angelo with his ice cream cone. “This is what my dad did for a living.”

Angelo said nothing, but looked silently back at him in sympathy. Gianni held his friend’s gaze for a moment, but then dropped his eyes back to his ice cream cone, feeling unsettled. “This is good, though,” he said, managing a smile and taking a further lick of the sweet, creamy dessert.

After lunch, the two boys toured the shops in the square and the winding confines of Via Roma, looking for a present for Marina. Finding a bookshop, Gianni, who didn’t know a classic from a clunker when it came to Italian literature, sought his friend’s help in choosing a title. At length he settled on a paperback copy of Il Gattopardo, which Angelo said he remembered his father enjoying, and a small, decorative bottle of extra virgin olive oil blended with chilli from a neighbouring gift shop.

Using cash withdrawn from his bank account – Angelo was impressed when Gianni produced his debit card, and was interested to know how he’d earned his money – Gianni took a detour into a clothing shop, and treated himself to a couple of pairs of shorts, some smarter trousers and a few shirts. Despite pressure from Angelo, he resisted the temptation to get an expensive denim jacket to go with his jeans, deciding that he wouldn’t have much use for it given the season, but he did buy his friend a garish-looking baseball cap, which was in the green, white and red stripes of the Italian flag and had the word Ravello embossed on the brow in golden thread. Angelo laughed and seemed to take great pleasure in wearing the ridiculous garment.

Afterwards, the two boys parted, somewhat reluctantly, as Angelo explained that he had some chores to do back at home. Waving him off on his skateboard outside the ceramics workshop, Gianni waited until the retreating figure of his friend had gone, and then climbed back up the hill towards his grandparents’ house.

* * *

The next morning found Gianni and Vittorio up early, busying themselves in the kitchen in readiness for Marina’s arrival. This time it was Gianni’s turn to squeeze the oranges, while Vittorio made surprisingly dextrous work of assembling a sophisticated breakfast for his wife. Gianni was able to see, for the first time, how deft his grandfather might have been as a plasterer in his younger years.

Vittorio was just putting the finishing touches to dusting some icing sugar over a carefully sliced breakfast sponge when both of them heard a creak on the landing. Vittorio put a finger to his lips and quietly rinsed his hands, while Gianni conveyed the finished breakfast to the table by means of a battered wooden tray. Vittorio finished the display off with a single red rose in a long-necked vase, and then both of them stood back expectantly as they heard Marina set foot on the top of the stairs.

Before long, the slightly stooped figure of Marina, wearing a patched and frayed dressing gown, came slowly and heavily down the stairs, with one hand resting on the handrail for comfort. Turning the corner at the foot of the stairs and seeing Gianni and Vittorio standing dutifully by the sideboard, she straightened up, her mouth forming a silent ‘o’ of surprise.

Felice compleanno, Marina, cara mia!” Vittorio announced in his usual cracked voice, a wily grin about his face.

Auguri!” Gianni chimed in.

Marina spied the carefully presented breakfast on the table. “Oh, you shouldn’t have,” she chided, approaching the table.

“Nonsense, signora,” Vittorio replied. “If it would please you to take your seat?”

Courteously, Vittorio pulled a chair away from the table and gestured for his wife to be seated. Marina conceded to doing so, shooting him a half amused, half exasperated look as she sat.

“You old rogue, Vittorio Bianchi,” she said.

As Marina sampled her orange juice, Vittorio made a meaningful gesture to Gianni, indicating that it was time to fetch the presents. Gianni slipped across the room, padded swiftly up the stairs to the landing and stepped into his warm bedroom. Opening the wardrobe, he fetched out the three small parcels from the back corner and returned to the dining area, where Marina had embarked upon a slice of breakfast sponge. He sat down opposite his grandmother and placed the three packages on the table.

Marina gave a start. “Presents?” she said, pausing with a piece of sponge half way to her mouth. Gianni nodded.

“Give her yours first, Gianni.” said Vittorio, who was still standing behind his wife.

“From you, Gianni?” Marina asked in surprise as Gianni passed her the first of his presents. He had only managed to wrap them in brown paper, but Marina didn’t seem at all put out by that. Putting down her piece of breakfast sponge and licking her fingers clean, she removed the wrapping delicately, being careful not to tear the paper so that it might be used again, and pulled out the paperback copy of Il Gattopardo, which she examined with interest.

“Wonderful,” she said, “I haven’t read this in years. Thank you, Gianni!”

Gianni mentally thanked Angelo for the suggestion, smiled and passed her the second present. Unwrapping the bottle of blended oil, she uncorked it, dabbed a drop onto a finger and tasted it.

“Lovely,” she said, nodding with approval and carefully re-corking the bottle. “Come here,” she instructed Gianni, beckoning with her rough and callused hands.

Gianni leant across the table and accepted a kiss on each cheek from his grandmother. Vittorio picked up the third and smallest parcel, which was wrapped in tissue paper and tied with a bow of silver ribbon, and handed it to his wife.

Curiously, Marina untied the bow and removed the tissue paper, revealing a small felt box. Marina opened the box and pulled out a tiny silver cross on a delicate chain, which sparkled in the rays of early morning sunlight that shone in through the two rear windows, her expression one of wonder.

Bellissima!” she breathed. “Thank you, Vittorio!”

Vittorio took the pendant from his wife’s outstretched hands and lowered it over her head, fastening the clasp behind her neck. Marina straightened, flicked her bushy hair back with a dignified air and settled the pendant on her ample bust.

“Marina,” Vittorio announced, “Your family and friends would like to request the pleasure of your company tonight at the Villa Maria at half past eight. I trust you will be able to attend?”

“The Villa Maria?” Marina repeated, looking at her husband in some shock.

“Yes, cara mia,” Vittorio replied courteously. “It is, after all, a special occasion.”

Marina put a hand to her mouth. “Well, then, I suppose I will have to accept!”

Gianni watched this ritual with some amusement; then, once Vittorio had settled himself into a chair next to his wife, he adjourned to kitchen to fetch the two further glasses of orange juice that he had already prepared, feeling suddenly hungry, and joined his grandparents for breakfast.

* * *

Gianni set out on foot later that morning, and descended the Bishop’s Way to ring the changes. Angelo wasn’t due to come into town until that evening’s party, so Gianni turned left, away from the square, and drifted down the narrow tunnel that ran under the gardens of the Villa Rufolo. Losing himself in the steep cobbled lanes and steps that ran up and down the hillside, Gianni found himself passing a church with two distinctive domes that he recognised at once from the t-shirts and postcards he had seen on sale in the gift shops in the town. The drone of the cicadas was ever-present as Gianni wandered, and the distant sea was a startling shade of blue; swifts flew by overhead, filling the air with their shrill, whistling calls.

Reaching a quiet road, Gianni cast about for an alternative route and spotted a narrow footpath leading up through an archway that ran beneath a small house. Stepping through the shady passageway, Gianni found himself at the foot of a steeply winding flight of steps that snaked its way up the hillside. Curiously, he began to climb.

The path was shaded by so many overhanging trees and shrubs that it seemed almost dark. For once the surroundings were silent, apart from Gianni’s own footsteps and the rustling of lizards in the leaf mould beneath the trees as they fled from the few patches of sunlight that made it down onto the stone boundary walls, where a few of them had been basking.

The steps were unrelenting, and Gianni climbed for what seemed like an age, taking it slowly so as to avoid breaking into too much of a sweat. At length the path opened out a little as it passed a few isolated and shabby-looking houses, and Gianni, feeling suddenly vulnerable, was startled by the sharp and unexpected bark of a dog in one of the overgrown hillside gardens. Continuing to climb after a moment’s wary pause, his eye was caught by a pair of small, nervous-looking tabby cats, which slipped away through a gap in a boarded-up gate as he approached.

Just as Gianni began to contemplate turning back, the steps finally levelled off and he broke out of the trees to find himself climbing a bright, sunlit footpath, dissipating his fears immediately. Almost at once, a brilliant panorama opened out over the towns of Minori and Maiori down by the water, and Gianni was momentarily distracted by staring out at the view.

Coming to his senses, Gianni found that the path was becoming strangely familiar, and realised with surprise that he had come to Angelo’s favourite viewpoint. Pleased with himself, he paused and leant on the wall.

Thinking back to his conversation with Angelo after the incident on the terrace at Villa Cimbrone, Gianni felt a stab of loneliness, and realised how much he was missing his friend’s company. Might Angelo be missing him as much? Gianni doubted it, surrounded as the other boy was by his busy family and the preparations for the wedding. Then, at the thought of Angelo’s family, Gianni’s contemplations turned to his mother, who had grown up in the very same room that he now slept in, and he wondered if she had also enjoyed staring out to sea from this spot – and who, if anyone, she might once have brought up here.

When he’d had enough of gazing down at the coast, Gianni climbed the steps past the small salmon-coloured villa and made his way through the overgrown pathway beyond, emerging next to the vegetable garden. Spying Alfredo at work in the tomato patch, he tipped the old man a wave and was pleased to get one in return. After pausing for a while to watch the gardener at work against the backdrop of the mountains and sea beyond, Gianni set off back down the lane towards town in search of lunch.

* * *

With eight o’clock came dusk, and as the lights burst into life around Ravello, Gianni and his grandparents readied themselves to go out for their night on the town. Gianni showered, cleaned his trainers and decided to try out some of his new, smarter clothes, including a pair of beige trousers and a light blue, long-sleeved shirt.

When Gianni joined his grandparents in the dining area, he saw that Vittorio had smartened himself up with a cream jacket, a bow tie and slicked-back hair, while Marina had exchanged her usual black dress for a dark blue floral number and wore a pale pink flower in her hair. Vittorio’s silver pendant was prominent once again on her bust.

“Ready, Gianni?” she asked.

Gianni nodded. “Let’s go.”

Because his grandparents tended to stay at home, and because Angelo almost always had to head back to Scala before dusk, Gianni had had little chance to see his new home after dark. As they stepped out of the courtyard and set off slowly down the street, Gianni was all eyes, as if seeing the place for the first time all over again. With nightfall, the air had lost its stifling heat in favour of a pleasant balminess, and the unevenly paved streets and spaces had lost their dusty feel. The cool lanes were lit by a mixture of traditional lanterns hung from buildings and elaborate globe lights in metal frames, while the town hall and the cathedral bell tower were carefully floodlit. As they descended the avenue of oleanders together, the light from the illuminated globes filtered through the leaves and flowers, giving the place a magical feel with colourful highlights in the gloom. On the distant hillside of Scala, strings of lights shone where the road zigzagged its way up through the outlying hamlets.

In the square there was a pleasant hubbub, with the bars doing good business as the waiters served drinks and nibbles to local people and tourists alike as they sat at the outside tables. Even at this hour, young children larked around in the middle of the square, including the boy on the bicycle who had almost run Gianni over by a few days before, and his friend on the scooter. Out by the railings, Gianni spotted a few young couples, either contemplating the view or lost in one another’s eyes. Through this lively scene Gianni and his grandparents slowly passed, Marina and Vittorio walking with arms linked for company and mutual support.

Before long, Gianni and his grandparents had left the buzz of conversation and the chink of glasses behind them as they began to climb the steps that led up towards the restaurant on the hill, and a sense of quiet fell upon the surroundings, broken only by the occasional chirrup of a cricket. The illuminated globes led them up the winding steps like guiding stars, and the vaulted porch at the convent of San Francesco was brilliantly lit by hanging lanterns. Marina and Vittorio were unused to the climb, and their progress up the steps was slow; but Gianni, who under other circumstances might have led the way impatiently, trailed along behind, eyes and ears on the surroundings. From time to time they passed other couples wandering down into town, and exchanged greetings in passing.

As they crested the hill, Gianni became aware of the tinkling of music and the sound of voices. The sounds, he realised, were coming from the restaurant itself, where lights shone behind the tall stone boundary wall, bathing the vines that overhung it in a cheerful golden glow. Reaching the gate, they stepped through the archway to a warm welcome.

Half the town, it seemed to Gianni, had turned out for Marina’s birthday party. The terrace, whose ranks of round tables had been empty the last time Gianni had seen it, was now full of people, who greeted his grandmother with a round of applause. The golden glow emanated from an array of decorative lanterns that hung from the pergola roof, and spirit burners shimmered at the centre of each table, all of which had been laid out with immaculate white table cloths and silver cutlery that shone in the flickering glow. In the centre of the terrace, a small space had been left clear, and it was into this area that the astonished Marina now stepped, only to be surrounded at once by well-wishers, many of whom kissed her on both cheeks, wishing her a happy birthday.

Somewhat taken aback by this display of affection, Gianni remained on the fringes of the group until a wave caught his attention. Anna was sitting at a double table on the far side of the terrace with Pietro and Angelo, beaming at him. Gianni sidled across the terrace at once to join them, careful to avoid the crowd in the middle. Angelo’s sister Claudia, Gianni saw, was sat at the next table with her parents and another older man whom he took to be Anna’s father; as Gianni watched, Claudia looked at him and then glanced quickly away, blushing, while her parents gave him a wave.

“Ciao, Gianni,” Anna said when he reached her side, giving him a hug and a kiss.

“Ciao, Anna,” he replied.

Anna looked him up and down. “I like your clothes,” she said. “You’ve taken on some colour, too. You look positively Italian!”

Gianni grinned and glanced at Angelo. “I had some help,” he said.

“I can tell,” said Pietro with an amused smile. “The two of you are wearing almost exactly the same thing.”

Gianni glanced again at Angelo and saw that he was indeed wearing a similar combination of light blue shirt and beige trousers. Angelo gave a shamefaced grin and shrugged. Both adults laughed.

“They could be brothers!” said Anna.

“We are,” said Gianni, “or will be. Sort of.”

“Cousins, anyway,” Angelo chimed in.

“Look at the synergy,” said Pietro, putting an arm around Anna’s shoulders and glancing from one boy to the other. “They’ll be finishing each other’s sentences next.”

Gianni sat down next to Angelo and helped himself to a breadstick. They had chosen a good spot, right next to the railings, so that a panoramic view opened out over the Valle del Dragone and the sea off Amalfi. In the darkness down below, the village of Pontone on the escarpment above the valley was marked by a cluster of blue, white and golden lights, while up on the further hillsides the outlying hamlets of Scala and the distant village beyond glimmered similarly. In a nearby, floodlit pine tree, a couple of late cicadas continued their summer chorus.

The dinner that followed was as challenging to Gianni’s taste buds as it was new to him. To start with, the restaurant served up linguine with cherry tomatoes, clams and mussels still in their shells, which Gianni eyed extremely dubiously, but which turned out to be salty and rather good. There followed a full-flavoured main course of a veal escalope wrapped in sage and Parma ham drizzled with a light white wine gravy, which was served with a side dish of braised spinach spiced up with garlic, oil and chilli. Angelo set at this with a will while Pietro and Anna sampled one of the restaurant’s local white wines, talking about many subjects but often returning to the forthcoming wedding; Gianni, meanwhile, pitched into the conversation as and when he could and somehow managed to avoid splashing gravy down his shirt. To finish, the restaurant served up a dessert of extremely tangy local lemon sorbet, which was so cold when swallowed that it almost hurt. Finishing their desserts at exactly the same time, Gianni and Angelo chinked their long silver teaspoons together in victory.

When the dinner things had been cleared away, Vittorio rose to speak and raised his glass.

“To my darling wife Marina,” he said, “who has given me over fifty years of happy marriage, and without whom our wonderful grandchildren, Anna and Gianni” – here he gestured towards Gianni’s table – “would not be with us tonight.”

There was a ripple of response throughout the assembled crowd and, self-consciously, Gianni raised his glass of mineral water to join the toast.

Vittorio’s gesture seemed to signal the end of the formal part of the evening, and gradually people rose from their seats and began to mingle, while the restaurant staff cleared away some of the tables, making more space in the centre of the terrace. Under the influence of the numerous bottles of local wine that they had consumed, Gianni had observed the assembled guests becoming louder and more expansive in their gestures over the course of the meal; suspecting that there might be dancing before the evening was out, Gianni made a mental note to make himself scarce if things got too raucous.

While Angelo was dragged away by Pietro and one of his friends, a young man with a mane of curly black hair by the name of Fabrizio, Gianni remained at the table for some time, watching as Marina and Vittorio circulated among the crowd, exchanging greetings with the guests. Marina seemed know everyone personally, and always seemed to know the right questions to ask – Gianni saw her ask one man how his eldest son was faring with his new business in Naples, and watched as she asked another woman whether her youngest daughter, who was at University in Perugia, had recovered from her bout of gastric flu.

As Marina’s gradual movement from guest to guest brought her closer to Gianni’s side of the terrace, Anna’s father rose from his seat to meet her. Despite his grizzled appearance, he looked like a man who kept himself fit and healthy; Gianni took him to be in his fifties. He was looking dapper in a dark jacket, with combed-back hair that still held some of its colour and a smart pair of spectacles.

“Marina,” he rumbled, exchanging a kiss on each cheek with Gianni’s grandmother. “You are looking particularly beautiful tonight.”

“Sergio, you’re too kind,” Marina replied. “How is everyone at the hotel?”

“Very well, thank you,” Sergio replied with a courteous bow, “and eagerly awaiting Anna’s wedding celebrations.”

Marina ushered Anna’s father to Gianni’s table. “Have you met my grandson Gianni, Sergio?” she said.

Gianni rose and offered his hand to the older man, who grasped it firmly, dipping his head once again. “An honour to meet you,” he said solicitously.

“Er – you too,” Gianni replied.

“Anna has told me all about you,” Sergio continued, taking a seat. “She’s very sorry you haven’t been able to spend more time together, what with the wedding preparations commanding so much of her attention.”

“It’s okay,” Gianni said. “I’ve been keeping busy.”

“Gianni’s been exploring all over town, haven’t you, caro?” said Marina.

Gianni nodded. “Pretty much. Angelo’s been showing me round.”

Sergio nodded seriously. “I’m glad to hear that you’re making the best of things. I wonder, have you made it up to San Martino in your travels? You’d be very welcome to visit us next time you do.”

“I haven’t yet,” Gianni admitted. “What’s it like?”

Sergio gave an elegantly neutral gesture. “A friendly community,” he replied. “It may not be closest to the centre of town, but we have an excellent view of the valley.”

“I should think so, Sergio,” said Marina. “I really don’t know how you manage all those steps.”

“Continued practice, Marina,” Sergio replied diplomatically. “Given your undeniably robust heritage as a lifelong resident of Ravello, I must assume that you have climbed a fair few such flights yourself over the years?”

“I suppose I have,” Marina conceded, “but I would be interested to see if you cope quite so well with them by the time you get to my age.”

“My dear signora,” Sergio replied, “if by the time I am seventy-five I can manage to be as well-preserved as I find you today, I will already consider myself most blessed.”

Marina raised her eyebrows at this and exchanged a look with Gianni, who laughed.

Anna had joined them beside the table, and now put a delicate hand on her father’s shoulder. “I’m sorry to interrupt, papà,” she said, “but Marta and Pietro were hoping to discuss a few things about the wedding. Could you join us?”

“Of course, tesoro,” Sergio replied, clapping a hand briefly on top of his daughter’s, and turning to Marina and Gianni as he rose. “Please excuse me.”

Marina gave him a nod and a wave of the hand and turned back to her grandson. “Are you enjoying yourself tonight, Gianni?” she asked.

Gianni nodded. “It was a great meal,” he said. “Are you?”

Marina’s mouth creased in a smile, and she nodded. “I should be cross with Vittorio, spending all that money,” she said, “but it’s been lovely to see everyone. I don’t get out these days as much as I used to.”

“Sergio seems like a funny guy,” Gianni said.

Marina chuckled huskily. “He’s quite an earnest person, really, but he can also be very charming when he wants to be. It certainly worked on my Giulia.” She paused, casting her eyes about the crowd. “There’s someone else here tonight that I’d like you to meet, if I can find him... ah, Father!”

A shortish, rotund man dressed in black glanced over from the assembly of guests in the middle of the terrace and then came to join them at the table, smiling politely. He was balding, Gianni observed, making him look older than he probably was, and wore large round glasses.

“Gianni, you remember Father Stefano?” Marina said as the priest sat down.

“Yeah,” Gianni responded. He saw, with a sinking feeling, where this was heading. “Buonasera.”

Buonasera, Gianni,” the priest replied. “Buon compleanno, Marina.” Observing the silver cross, which was still draped over the front of Marina’s dress, he added “I like your pendant.”

“Thank you, Father. It was a present from Vittorio.”

The priest nodded. “Of course.” He turned to Gianni. “You’re quite the talk of the congregation, Gianni. It’s not that often that new blood of your age arrives in the community, especially to such an established local family.”

“No?” said Gianni.

The priest shook his head. “Most of our young people are born here. Then, as they grow up, the most ambitious young move away, while the rest stay behind and, very often, never leave.”

“I like it here,” Gianni replied.

The priest smiled. “And I’m pleased to hear it.” He paused, rubbing a thoughtful finger back and forth along his mouth, before asking the question that Gianni was waiting for. “So, Marina tells me you’ve never been confirmed?”

Gianni shook his head. Here we go, he thought. “No.”

“How come?” the priest asked gently, looking attentively at Gianni, who shrugged and looked down at the table.

“We didn’t really go to church.”

The priest pressed the tips of his fingers together and sat back in his chair. “How did you feel about that?”

“Okay, I guess,” Gianni replied.

Marina leant forward as if to speak, but the priest put a polite hand up to silence her.

“Do you believe in God?” he asked Gianni.

Marina looked at Gianni expectantly. Gianni, feeling outnumbered, drummed his fingers on the arms of his chair and cast his eyes about the colourful terrace, where the rest of the party continued to enjoy themselves. Angelo, he saw, had returned, and now stood beside his father at the next table, watching Gianni’s conversation with an alert intensity.

“Dad didn’t,” Gianni replied at length, when he could leave the question hanging no longer.

“But do you?” the priest pressed.

Gianni shook his head. “Not really,” he admitted.

Marina shook her head and took hold of her cross. Sensing blame in her disappointment and bridling at it, Gianni shot her a look. “My dad never told me what to think,” he said shortly. “Mum and dad always said faith was something you had to decide for yourself.”

There was a shocked pause during which Gianni held his grandmother’s eyes, daring her to challenge him; but it was the priest who chose to break the silence. Inclining his head, he said simply, “Quite so.”

Both Gianni and his grandmother looked at the priest in surprise.

“But, Father!” Marina burst out. “How can you say such a thing? Surely Gianni must join the church. He needs prayer and confession. He has years to make up for!”

Father Stefano raised his hands in a pacifying gesture. “Marina,” he said. “We cannot force the boy to believe. We can only hope that he will come to us of his own accord once he has had more time to contemplate his spiritual needs, now that he is here among people like you and I.”

“But...” Marina protested, but she tailed off lamely.

“I should leave you to it,” the priest said diplomatically, getting up to leave. “It was good to meet you, Gianni. My door is always open to you if there’s ever anything you’d like to talk about.”

Gianni nodded thankfully at Father Stefano as he left, and then turned back to his grandmother. Her eyes were downcast, and she clasped her hands fretfully.

“He’s right,” said Gianni. “You have to let me decide.”

Marina glanced at him. “I’m worried for you,” she said.

“I know,” Gianni replied.

“I need time to think,” Marina said.

Gianni nodded and rose from his seat. As he passed his grandmother, she caught his arm. He turned back, readying himself for another argument, but instead she gave him a stiff little hug.

“Now go on,” she said as she released him.

With a heavy heart, Gianni walked away from the table. At once, Angelo broke away from his father’s side and came to meet him.

“Want to get out of here?” he said quietly.

Gianni gave his friend a grateful look. “Yes, please.”

* * *

Leaving the hubbub of the party behind them, the two boys slipped out through the archway and into the quiet lane. Gianni breathed a sigh of relief and inhaled the clean night air. Angelo led the way, and Gianni followed him wordlessly to the turning by the vegetable garden. They darted between the creepers on the narrow, overgrown lane together and down the steps past the small salmon-coloured villa until they had reached Angelo’s favourite vantage point. In the pool of light cast by an overhead lantern, both boys hoisted themselves up onto the outer wall and dangled their legs over the side.

The night was still warm, and Gianni felt perfectly comfortable in just his shirt sleeves. Resting his hands on the top of the wall, he found that the stone still felt warm to the touch. He gazed out at the view in silence as the lights of Minori and Maiori twinkled down at the water’s edge.

“So you don’t believe in God?” Angelo asked.

Gianni shook his head. “Do you?”

“I’m not sure... I guess, maybe.”

“But you go to church.”

“We all do,” said Angelo. “As a family.”

“Do you think I should?” Gianni asked.

Angelo frowned. “Not if you don’t believe in it. I mean, it’d be hypocritical, wouldn’t it?”

“Nonna thinks I should; she says I need prayer and confession.”

Angelo laughed. “What have you got to confess to?”

Gianni shrugged. “I dunno. You?”

The other boy looked at him in silence for a moment. “I guess there’s always something.”

“But I don’t think that’s right,” said Gianni. “I mean, if there is a God and he loves us all like we’re told he does, then he’d know what we’ve done, he’d know whether we believed in him, and he’d understand that we make mistakes sometimes. Why should we have to go to church all the time to make sure of it?”

Angelo nodded. “Makes sense to me.”

“And if there is a God,” Gianni added bleakly, “why would he let my parents die?”

At this, Angelo gave a sad little smile.

“I don’t think that’s how it’s supposed to work,” he said.

They fell into companionable silence for a moment, and Gianni listened to the occasional sounds of crickets chirruping in the plot below. The tinny horn of a scooter drifted up from somewhere down in the valley. Then, Gianni heard what sounded like a quiet little sigh from behind. Both boys looked round to see a pair of large brown eyes looking back at them from behind an overhanging spray of vegetation at the foot of the steps.

“Claudia!” Angelo exclaimed, incredulously. “What are you doing here? Go on, get lost!”

The younger girl backed away, staring reproachfully at her brother, then turned tail and ran off back up the steps.

Angelo shook his head despairingly and looked at Gianni. “I think she likes you.”

“Me?” Gianni frowned, taken aback.

Angelo laughed. “Don’t look so shocked.”

They turned back once again to the view. Gianni saw the headlights of vehicles driving along the coast road, sparkling in the darkness.

“I want to get down there,” he said.

“We’ll have to, soon,” Angelo replied. “Anna’s offered to take us down to Amalfi to get our wedding clothes fitted.”

“When?” Gianni asked.

“Next week, I think,” Angelo replied.

“That’d be cool.”

“I guess.”

Angelo paused, drumming a rhythm on the wall as if weighing up what to say next, and then shook his head.

“I don’t think I’ll ever get married,” he said.

“Yeah,” Gianni grinned, “it sounds like it’s been a nightmare.”

Angelo shook his head again. “It’s more than that. I’ve been thinking about it for a while. I’ve been surrounded by it since the wedding preparations started, and you’ve seen the way Pietro and Anna are with one another...” he paused. “I just can’t imagine it ever happening to me.”

Gianni nodded, slowly; Angelo’s words had struck a chord.

“I know what you mean,” he said. “I’ve never felt that way either.”

Angelo looked at him hopefully. “Really?”

Gianni shook his head. “Never.”

Angelo looked down and inspected his fingernails, before asking quietly “You don’t think there’s something wrong with us, do you?”

Gianni shrugged. “I don’t know... I don’t think so.”

They broke off and looked back out to sea. “It’s an amazing night,” Gianni said, undoing his shirtsleeves and loosening his top button. The new fabric he was wearing had begun to itch in the warm evening air.

“Yeah,” Angelo replied. “I could stay here for ages.”

“Fine by me,” Gianni replied. Angelo grinned.

They sat in silence for a few more moments, until Gianni suddenly felt Angelo’s hand on his arm. He looked up, startled, and saw an expression of wonder on his friend’s face.

“Look!”

Angelo pointed, and Gianni saw what had caught his eye. A flickering spark of green light was drifting towards them, seeming to dance in the air.

“A firefly,” Angelo breathed. “We never get them here.”

They watched as the insect danced toward them, and followed it with their gaze as it darted unexpectedly between them. This time it was Gianni’s turn to grab his friend. “There!”

Gianni pointed. An answering green glow was emanating from a cleft in the stone retaining wall behind them.

“Go on,” Angelo urged, “go and find your mate.”

The male, still flickering, danced for a while over the footpath, but then swooped into the cleft in the wall, where it was screened by leaves. Angelo gave a joyous laugh, and held his hand up for Gianni to high-five. “Yes, they did it!”

Smiling, Gianni smacked his friend’s hand, and then they turned back to face out to sea. For the moment, Gianni felt at peace with the world and at peace with himself.

Copyright © 2019 James Carnarvon; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
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1 hour ago, travlbug said:

If I'd have known you can have ice cream for lunch in Italy, I would have lobbied my parents to emigrate! :gikkle:

Well, Naples claims to be the birthplace of both ice cream and pizza, which makes it an ideal sort of destination for me! 😄

Also, the colours of the toppings on the traditional Margherita pizza (tomatoes, mozzarella and herbs) are meant to represent the Italian flag. Funny the things you pick up...

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Strong words there...! If you’re looking for a scathing critique of the church, I’m afraid you won’t find it here. How the received wisdom / orthodoxy of the church affects the attitudes of the people around Gianni, though, is important, as you have already seen.

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This makes me want to visit the area. You're not sponsored by the Italian Tourist Board 🤭are you? A great read all the same though.

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raven1

Posted (edited)

Marina's birthday was very special.  I have my own belief's, and try to recognise when someone has done something good.  Therefore, I applaud Father Stefano's quick analysis and diffusing what could have been a very hurtful situation when Gianni said he didn't believe in God.  Although hurt, Marina responded appropriately and Gianni was able to leave without guilt.  Angelo and Gianni are becoming more comfortable and trusting with each other.  This chapter was written with both sensitivity and delicacy.  Another wonderful chapter.

Edited by raven1
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