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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 - 9. Chapter 9

The next morning, Gianni awoke feeling energised. He and Angelo were due to meet in the square at half past nine, and they were going to go for a hike up Monte Brusara. Angelo had promised secluded leafy glades and panoramic views; for his part, Gianni just hoped that they would have the opportunity to spend some time alone.

Gianni showered, adjusted his hair carefully and put on the smartest shirt he could find that was practical for a morning’s walking. To this, he added Angelo’s pendant – tucked in, of course – and a clean pair of shorts.

Marina and Vittorio were finishing breakfast as Gianni came down the stairs.

“You took your time in there,” Marina observed as he joined them at the table.

“Did I?” Gianni replied.

“Leave him alone, Marina,” Vittorio said. “A teenager has to do what a teenager has to do, eh, Gianni?”

“If you say so,” Gianni replied. He glanced out of the window at the blue sky and the sun shining on the hillside dwellings below. “Beautiful morning, isn’t it?”

Marina, too, glanced out of the window. “Yes, Gianni, it is,” she said, “although I don’t know why you should choose this particular morning to mention it. The weather’s been much the same for a couple of months now.”

Gianni felt himself flush a little. “I guess I’m just in a good mood today, that’s all.”

Gianni knew this was weak, but his grandparents either didn’t pick up on it or decided not to press the issue. Deciding not to give them any further ammunition, he quietened down and concentrated on eating his lemon croissant.

After breakfast, Gianni started to become impatient, and paced about his room, checking his wristwatch repeatedly. After a while, he decided that this was ridiculous; half past nine was still an hour away. Grabbing his notepad and a pencil from his drawer and a bottle of water from the kitchen fridge, he dropped them into his rucksack and, making his excuses to his grandparents, set off down the avenue of oleanders to reach the square. Taking a seat at the bottom of the cathedral steps, he set his sights on the ancient stone tower that formed the gatehouse of the Villa Rufolo and began to draw.

While the town came to life around him, Gianni lost himself in the detailing of the ancient structure, picking up the individual leaves of the creepers that climbed around the corner of the weather-beaten stonework and the black stone tiles that lined the pointed archway. Increasing numbers of people flowed around Gianni as the time passed by; bartenders put out tables, while retailers put out their displays of postcards and ceramics; but Gianni hardly noticed, so involved was he in his work. As he was putting the finishing touches to the shadowing of the pointed archway, however, he checked himself. Something wasn’t right; what was it?

The church bells had just chimed quarter to ten.

Frowning, Gianni stuffed his pencil and notepad back into his rucksack and looked about the square: nothing. It was unlike Angelo to be late, and Gianni particularly hadn’t expected it today.

Shouldering his bag, Gianni transferred himself to a more prominent spot on one of the benches under the pine trees, which was their usual meeting place. Putting the rucksack down next to him, he sat patiently, keeping his eye on the nearest turning, which was the street leading down to the ceramics workshop and the route from which Angelo usually appeared.

By the time the church bells had chimed ten o’clock, Gianni was beginning to feel a bit put out. Could Angelo have forgotten? Surely not, he thought, after yesterday. Maybe he had come at half past nine as they had discussed, but hadn’t seen Gianni sketching on the cathedral steps, and had given up after a quarter of an hour or so? That didn’t seem likely, either; surely he would have checked at the house first?

Gianni stayed where he was for another long fifteen minutes, feeling increasingly agitated, but then concluded, reluctantly, that Angelo wasn’t coming. He pondered his options as he climbed back up the steps to the top of the town, dodging the overhanging oleanders; should he let it go, or should he investigate?

By the time Gianni had returned to the courtyard outside his grandparents’ house, he had made his decision. Instead of making for the front door, he headed straight for the storage area under the stairs and pulled out his bicycle. Leaving the rucksack behind, he cycled out into the street and made for the square with the fountain and the Amalfi road.

Without Angelo to keep him company on the long climb up through Scala, Gianni was more aware of the heat of the morning sun, and just how steep a trek it really was. However, his new-found fitness hadn’t deserted him, and he kept the pressure on the pedals, guiding the heavy old bike onwards and upwards.

It wasn’t until Gianni approached the last corner before Angelo’s house that he let the pressure drop. He relaxed a little as he coasted around the bend, but then he saw the vehicle that was parked outside his friend’s house, and his heart lurched horribly. He came to an untidy halt a few metres down the road, his wheels sending up clouds of dust as he braked, and landed heavily on one foot, barely registering the stab of pain from his ankle.

An ambulance stood just outside the gate, with its back doors open and nobody in sight. Gianni discarded the bike, propping it up against the boundary wall, and walked slowly towards the house, heart in his mouth at what he might find.

Gianni was saved from having to approach any further by Anna, who emerged from the front terrace at that moment and stepped out into the road, looking sober. Seeing Gianni approaching, she put a hand to her mouth in dismay.

“Gianni!” she cried, running to meet him. Reaching him, she placed her hands on his arms, stopping him in his tracks.

Gianni’s heart was pounding. “What’s happened?” he asked.

Anna shook her head sadly. “It’s Andrea. He died last night.”

Gianni felt like he had been struck in the stomach with a sack of bricks. “He... what? How?”

“The doctors think it was a heart attack,” Anna replied.

Gianni was still for a moment as he allowed the news to sink in. “Angelo said he had a weak heart,” he said at length.

Anna nodded silently, but Gianni barely noticed; the sudden thought of his friend had cut him to the core. “But... Angelo...” he cried. He tried to run to the house, but Anna caught him by the wrist and held him back.

“No, Gianni,” she said.

Gianni wanted to cry. He didn’t fight his cousin’s restraining hold, but he gave her a desperate look.

“You really care about him, don’t you?” Anna said, looking at him wonderingly.

Gianni nodded. “I...” he blurted out. “I mean, he... he’s my friend. We said we’d look out for each other.”

Anna looked tearful, and kissed Gianni on the forehead. “You really are special,” she said, “but now’s not the time.”

“But... he needs me,” Gianni replied lamely.

Anna shook her head. “What the family need right now are each another,” she said. “I’m not even sure I should be here, but Pietro said I should stay.”

Defeated, Gianni allowed his posture to slump. “What are you going to do?” he asked.

Anna shrugged her shoulders uncertainly. “I’m not sure. I’ll stay on the edge of things, so I can be there if Pietro wants me, but I’ll try not to get too much in the way.”

“But it’s the wedding in ten days,” Gianni said.

Anna rubbed her eyes. “I know.”

Before Gianni could reply, Anna flung her arms around him and hugged him tightly. No longer embarrassed by this gesture, Gianni hugged her back. They rocked on the spot for a few seconds, until Anna released him and pulled back again. She gave Gianni a watery smile.

“We’ll have to see,” she said. “I expect the show will go on.” She paused, glancing briefly back towards the house, before turning back to Gianni with anxious look. “Now, will you go? I think they’ll be bringing the body out soon, and you won’t want to be around for that.”

Gianni nodded glumly, beginning to back away. “I’ll tell Nonna and Nonno.”

“Thank you,” Anna said. “Cycle safely, tesoro.”

Gianni nodded once more and then turned on his heel, leaving Anna and the ambulance behind him. Mounting his bicycle, he set off back down the hill without looking back.

* * *

It was a hot and tired Gianni who returned to his grandparents’ house a quarter of an hour later. Locking his bicycle safely away, he grabbed his rucksack and let himself in.

There was nobody in the warm and gloomy living room. Gianni went to the dining area and, discarding his bag on the old church pew in the window, plonked himself at the table with his bottle of water, head in his hands. His thoughts were soon with Angelo, and what he must be going through after the night’s events.

There was the sound of shuffling footsteps, and Gianni looked up to see Marina descending the stairs. She was wearing a frayed old apron, and looked like she had been cleaning the bathroom. She looked at Gianni quizzically.

“Gianni?” she said. “I wasn’t expecting you back so soon.”

“Bad news,” Gianni mumbled. “Really bad news.”

Marina looked concerned. Lumbering awkwardly around the table, she hung the apron over a chair and sat down opposite Gianni. “What do you mean?”

They were distracted at that moment by the sound of the front door being opened. Shortly Vittorio appeared, carrying a cloth bag from which protruded several groceries.

“Fresh bread, fruit and pasta, just as the lady ordered,” he croaked cheerfully, placing the items on the sideboard and mopping his brow with a handkerchief.

“Vittorio,” Marina said, “come and sit down. I don’t know what it is yet, but Gianni has something to tell us. He says it’s bad news.”

Vittorio fell silent. He hobbled over the table and took a seat next to his wife, his usual jovial demeanour gone. “What is it, son?”

Gianni took a deep breath. “Andrea Rossi’s died.”

There was a second of shocked silence.

Dio, no!” Marina cried, clasping her silver crucifix. “Poor Marta!”

Vittorio, looking shaken, put an arm around his wife’s shoulders; Marina responded by reaching across and taking his other hand.

“What happened, Gianni?” Marina asked.

“The doctors think it was a heart attack,” Gianni replied. “That’s all Anna told me.”

“Anna was there?” Marina asked, to which Gianni nodded. Marina seemed lost for a moment, but then her face took on a look of dismay once again. “Oh, but the wedding!”

Vittorio gave his wife’s hand a squeeze. His voice when he spoke was shaky, but reassuring. “I’m sure it’ll still happen, cara.”

“That’s what Anna’s hoping,” Gianni said. Gloomily, he unscrewed the cap of his bottle of water and took a swig.

“There’ll be a funeral,” said Marina. “We’ll have to go, of course.”

Gianni nodded. “Yeah.”

“Did you see any of the family?” Marina asked.

“No, Anna wouldn’t let me.”

“It’s probably for the best, so soon after the event,” said Vittorio. “She has a good heart, that girl.”

“I’m worried about Angelo,” Gianni said. Automatically, his hand headed for his own pendant, and he froze as he realised that he’d left it hanging outside his shirt.

“What’s that you’ve got there, Gianni?” Marina asked, dabbing at her eyes and squinting at it.

“Oh – Angelo gave it to me.” Gianni hesitated. “It’s a friendship thing.”

Fervently, Gianni hoped that his grandparents were sufficiently out of touch to not find this odd.

“It’s lovely,” said Marina. “What does the cat signify?”

Gianni felt in danger of flushing again, and hoped it didn’t show. “Nothing, really.”

Marina sighed. “You’re right, though, Gianni. It will be hard for Angelo, and poor little Claudia...”

Gianni felt a pang, not just for Angelo, but also for his sister, who he hadn’t even thought of. It wasn’t going to be an easy few days for any of them.

* * *

Gianni drifted aimlessly around the centre of Ravello for the rest of that day. In Angelo’s absence, the intimate, stone walled lanes and sun-drenched open spaces seemed to have lost much of their appeal. Even the burr of the cicadas was so much noise to Gianni, whose thoughts were preoccupied with the plight of his friend.

By mid-afternoon, Gianni had found nothing to engage him, and had grown tired of wandering around by himself. Returning home, he took his notepad and pencil from his bedside table, then made his way back down to the square and up the long, winding steps past the Convent of San Francesco until he reached the vegetable garden. Continuing around the edge of the monastery at the top of the hill, trailing his hand listlessly against the warm stone wall as he descended the steps, he made his way to the gates of the Villa Cimbrone.

Angelo’s cousin Viola wasn’t manning the gates today, so Gianni had to pay, but he didn’t care. Turning over some of his spare change to the girl behind the counter, he made his way through the aromatic gardens to the long stretch of lawn where he and Angelo had spent many an hour playing football and lounging around under the trees. Sitting himself down in a shady spot under one of their favourite trees, a small maple, he turned his attention to the villa at the far end of the lawn and set about trying to sketch it.

The drawing wouldn’t come. He could capture the basic shape of the building, but his lines were perfunctory, the picture without soul. After three failed attempts, he discarded the notepad and lay back in the grass, wishing he’d brought one of his books to read, and stared up through the leaves of the tree, which were backlit by the bright sunlight above.

The intense heat of the afternoon was soporific, and soon Gianni began to feel drowsy. With one hand resting on Angelo’s pendant, Gianni closed his eyes, contemplating the day’s events, and allowed himself to doze.

Gianni awoke some time later and sat up, blinking blearily. He hadn’t really intended to go to sleep. Checking his watch, he found that it was already half past five. Realising that the villa gates would probably be closing soon, he gathered his things and he made his way back to his grandparents’ house.

Anna arrived that evening with news of the funeral arrangements. The ceremony was to be held in five days in the church at San Martino, and then Andrea’s body was to be interred in the cemetery across the street. Anna looked tired but composed, and related the details in a steady voice over a glass of wine that Marina had pressed into her hand. Thanking Anna for the news, Marina insisted that she stay for dinner, and they ate a sombre meal together of pasta with aubergines. The bleak prospect of five long days without Angelo unfolded before Gianni, and he toyed with his dinner without a lot of enthusiasm, even though the recipe – dubbed ‘Norma’ by his grandmother – was one that he usually enjoyed.

After dinner, nobody felt much like going to bed, least of all Gianni after his afternoon nap. So, once they had washed up, the four of them made their way down to the square for a nightcap. Anna phoned home to invite her father to join them.

“He’s on his way,” Anna told them as they made their way down the avenue of oleanders, which was lit as before by the decorative globe lanterns, which shone down through the long green leaves and sprays of pink flowers.

It was a balmy night. Marina, Vittorio, Anna and Gianni colonised two tables at one of the bars in the square. Whilst the others ordered fortifying spirits and liqueurs, Gianni ordered a lemon juice, which he drank in silence, stirring sugar absently into the drink and staring moodily into the square, where the local children played energetic games of football and raucous games of chase amidst the twinkling lights. When any of the others attempted to engage Gianni in conversation, he replied in monosyllables, lost in thought.

Sergio joined them after about twenty minutes, and ordered a beer.

“It’s a terrible thing to hear,” he said as he sipped his drink. “I was getting somewhat frustrated over some limescale on the kitchen taps when Anna rang to tell me the news...” He shook his head despairingly. “But it suddenly seemed so foolish a thing to be getting upset about once I heard what'd happened.”

“Of course,” said Marina. “A tragedy like this is bound to put things into perspective.”

“I know how you feel, Sergio,” Vittorio said, nursing his glass of Amaretto. “A few moments before I heard the news, all I was thinking about was whether I’d bought enough ciabatta, but the moment I saw the look on young Gianni’s face I could tell that something much more serious had happened. It’s a wake-up call, particularly for us elderly folk.”

“But it’s the young ones I really worry about,” said Marina, placing a hand gently on Gianni’s shoulder; Gianni looked up at this unexpected gesture of tenderness. “How are the children, Anna?”

“I think it’s too much for them to take in at the moment,” said Anna. “Claudia looked like a ghost this morning.”

Poverina,” Marina reflected, nodding sadly. “And how’s Pietro?”

“Well, he’s...” Anna began, but then her strength and composure finally collapsed, and she broke down in tears. Putting down his beer, her father put his arms around her and held her tightly, whispering comforting words into her ear until her sobs began to subside.

Gianni exchanged a pained glance with Marina and Vittorio at the sight of his cousin’s tears, but his thoughts were soon back on his friend. Contemplating how he had reacted to the loss of his own parents, he felt pretty sure he knew how Angelo must be feeling right now.

* * *

The next morning, Gianni appraised his wardrobe for the forthcoming funeral. Not wanting to use his smart wedding clothes for the occasion, he decided to make his way down to Amalfi in search of something more appropriate to wear. Grabbing his wallet, he slipped out of the house and wandered down towards the square.

Gianni’s feet led him along Via Roma, past the shops, which were just opening for the day. After pausing for an indecisive moment outside the Tabacchi, where he would have to buy his tickets if he was going to catch the bus, Gianni decided to make his way down to the coast on foot instead; the memory of his bus ride down to the beach with Angelo was still too fresh in his mind and, in any event, he still had the whole day to fill. Making instead for the grocery store, Gianni bought a bottle of Diet Coke to keep himself from drying out during the walk.

Not knowing for sure which was the right route to take, Gianni decided to begin his journey by exploring a flight of steps that had caught his attention once before, which descended steeply into the valley just below the ceramics workshop. The rocky cliff they led down was almost vertical in nature, and the steps zigzagged crazily to and fro as Gianni made his way down into the olive trees below the town, while the cathedral at Scala glared down at him from the far side of the valley. Glancing listlessly around at the scenery, Gianni wished Angelo was here to enjoy the walk with him.

Before long, Gianni had emerged on the Amalfi road. He followed it for a while, wondering if he was going to be stuck on the road for the rest of the way, but just before he reached the twisting hairpins that had made the bus journey down the hill so exciting, he spotted an old flight of steps leading onwards down into the valley. Branching off, he negotiated the ancient stone stairway, cutting across the twisting arms of the road as he went. Before long he had reached the banks of the Dragone itself, and he followed the ancient footway alongside the stream as it fell away from the winding carriageway above.

The Valle del Dragone was lush and fertile, with crops of oranges and lemons overhanging the footway. Gianni made his way down the winding footpath, passing between isolated clusters of houses, old storage buildings and sprays of oleanders as he drew closer to the coast. Above him, meanwhile, the village of Pontone watched over the valley from its position on the protruding crag at the lower edge of Scala. Looking up at the blue sky above and the serpentine terraces of the lemon groves and vineyards that lined the valley gave Gianni’s spirits the slightest of lifts, but still he wondered about Angelo, and wished he could be with him.

After what seemed like about an hour’s walk, Gianni found himself descending into the dense labyrinth of overhanging and interlocking buildings that was Atrani. He had long since lost sight of the stream, which he assumed now ran somewhere beneath his feet for the final stretch of its journey out to sea.

Following his nose, Gianni tried to make for the centre of town. The stairways and footpaths that wound around the village were some of the narrowest he had seen, with barely room for two people to pass as they descended, tunnel-like, through narrow gaps and archways overlooked by tiny windows that peeped out of buildings in the oddest of places. The dense and confusing passageways kept the sun at bay, and were refreshingly cool after the long and hot descent from Ravello.

Before long, however, the maze of stairways and lanes disgorged Gianni into a small waterfront square, where there were a couple of shops and bars. The arches of the imposing stone viaduct carrying the main coast road were all that separated the square from the small sandy beach, where a few early visitors had already colonised some of the choicer spots. Gianni paused to gaze up the structure, wondering how old it was and how it had come to be built.

Gianni wandered around aimlessly for a few minutes, unsure how to get round the headland that separated him from his destination, and was just on the verge of asking one of the waiters at the bars when he spotted a small ceramic sign pointing up a side turning, on which was painted the name “Amalfi”. Following the sign, he set off once again into the confusing tangle of steps and alleyways bordering the square, climbing this time until he emerged on a quiet, sun-drenched footpath raised high above the main coast road. Walking to the boundary wall that separated the walkway from the cliff below, he gazed out to the unbroken horizon of blue, feeling very alone.

Mopping his brow after the climb and pausing for a swig of his drink, Gianni wandered slowly around the headland until a familiar vista opened out over the sea of coloured parasols that was Amalfi beach. Drawn towards it in spite of himself, he began his search for a flight of steps that would take him down to water level.

Reaching the road, Gianni made his way along the seafront and into the cathedral square. From there, he headed up the main shopping street until he reached the clothier’s where Anna had bought him and Angelo their wedding clothes. It seemed an age ago, now, that easy time before things had got so much more complicated.

The same, efficient-looking young saleswoman was on duty. She rose to her feet as Gianni stepped into the shop.

“Hello again,” she said. “Have you come to buy clothes for another wedding?”

“Not this time,” Gianni replied. “I’m looking for something I can wear to a funeral.”

* * *

The morning of the funeral dawned with a rare cloud in the sky. It was the last Monday of August. Gianni, who had endured a lonely few days without sight of Angelo, rose early and tried on the new clothes he had bought in Amalfi – a pair of black trousers, a plain white shirt and a black tie. Checking his reflection in the mirror and finding the clothes to his satisfaction, he took them off again and laid them carefully on the end of the bed – the ceremony wasn’t until the afternoon, and he wanted his outfit to stay fresh for later on.

Gianni spent the morning reading. When the air in his room became too warm and stuffy, he migrated to the cathedral square and perched himself on one of the benches under the pine trees. Between chapters of his book, he paused to gaze listlessly around at the life of the town unfolding around him. The vibrant bustle of a sunny Monday morning in Ravello might have been a world away, for all the difference it made to Gianni: he still felt strangely detached from the life of the town that he had come to call home, as he had done ever since the news of Andrea’s death and the loss of contact with his friend, and hoped that, after the funeral that afternoon, he and Angelo would be able move on.

By midday, Gianni had finished his book, and with it the last of the books he had brought with him from London. He would go out in search of some more, he decided, once the funeral was behind him. He returned to his grandparents’ house, the reality of the coming afternoon’s events now weighing heavily on his mind.

Gianni ate an early lunch with his grandparents and then got ready for the funeral. Donning his new clothes once again, he carefully adjusted his hair and then went down to the living area to wait for Marina and Vittorio. Casting his eyes about the gloomy room, Gianni saw that Marina had laid out fresh flowers in the shrine on the wall and had lit a new candle there, perhaps in honour of Andrea’s passing.

At length, Marina and Vittorio joined Gianni in the living room, both wearing black, and they set out on foot for the funeral. Angelo’s family had opted for a traditional funeral procession, and all of the guests were due to congregate in the small square at the foot of the steps up to San Martino, one of the few parts of Ravello that Gianni had yet to visit, at two o’clock.

Walking slowly, for neither Marina nor Vittorio were especially mobile, Gianni and his grandparents made their way to the appointed rendezvous point. Their route took them past the fountain, in which Angelo had given Gianni his first wetting, and the hotel where the wedding reception was due to take place in a few days’ time. Glancing up at the hotel’s arched façade, Gianni reflected upon the irony of this as they passed.

A number of guests had already congregated in the small paved square at the foot of the steps. All present were dressed in dark tones, and they talked in small huddles. Looking keenly around the square, Gianni didn’t recognise many of those in attendance, presuming them to be friends of the family from Scala, but he did recognise one or two of Angelo’s cousins, including Viola, who was normally to be found manning the gates at the Villa Cimbrone, and Rosa, who worked at the ceramics workshop. The latter could be seen in the far corner, talking to a thin, bespectacled priest with black hair, beside whom hovered two sombre-looking altar boys. Of the family themselves, there was no sign, but Gianni presumed they would be along when the procession was ready to begin. A knot of anxiety formed in his stomach at the thought that he would soon be seeing his friend.

Placing themselves at the side of the square, Gianni and his grandparents were soon joined by Anna and Sergio, who appeared from the very same stairway that they would soon be climbing. Anna had regained her composure after the previous night, but there was a redness to her eyes that suggested that the crying might not yet be over. Anna hugged Marina, Vittorio and Gianni each in turn, taking an extra moment to plant a kiss on Gianni’s forehead. Gianni accepted this without complaint.

“How are you, cara?” Marina asked quietly.

“Coping, just about, Nonna,” Anna replied, with a watery smile, “but I wish I could be with Pietro.”

Gianni thought he knew how she felt.

A few minutes later, a hush fell on the assembled guests. A small hearse was approaching slowly along the narrow street that Gianni and his grandparents had climbed on their way up from the fountain, closely followed by a black taxi. There was silence as the family, dressed in black, climbed out of the taxi. Five pallbearers detached themselves from the guests collected in the square and joined Pietro behind the hearse, where the undertakers assisted them in lifting the pine wood coffin, which was draped with floral wreaths, up onto their shoulders.

The crowd parted as, led by the priest and the two altar boys, the six pallbearers set off slowly across the square. Dressed in black, Marta followed closely behind, flanked by Claudia, who was weeping, and Angelo, who looked tired but stoical; dark shadows hung below his already dark eyes. Gianni watched as the three of them walked past; Angelo had also avoided wearing his wedding clothes, and wore a simple black suit with a matching tie. He looked in Gianni’s direction as they walked past; Gianni greeted him by raising a hand timidly into the air, wondering whether it was longing, or simply grief, that he saw in his friend’s gaze.

Reaching the foot of the steps, the procession began its agonisingly slow climb up to San Martino. A group who Gianni took to be extended family, including cousins Viola and Rosa, were the first to join the procession; they were followed by Anna and Sergio, and then the rest of the crowd, including Gianni and his grandparents, fell in behind them.

Feeling gloomy, but relieved to be underway, Gianni stayed close to his grandparents as they climbed the curving stairway with its monolithic crescent of weather-beaten buildings. House martins came and went from their nests under the eaves as they climbed, while faces appeared in doors and windows to watch the procession. Some of the older residents crossed themselves as they passed.

After a short while, the steps came to an end, and the footpath levelled off to a gentler climb as it made the meandering ascent through a tightly knit community of houses crowding in on one another to either side of the narrow lane. Ornate lanterns gave way to bare light bulbs hanging beneath battered metal hoods, and the buildings themselves were tattier than ever, with tufts of grass and valerian growing out from between cracks in the stonework; Gianni wondered which of the houses, some of which had well-tended window boxes to contrast with the state of the paintwork and plaster, belonged to Anna and Sergio.

At one point they passed the foot of a flight of steps that climbed endlessly and steeply up to the left, and Gianni saw the tree-capped summit of Monte Brusara looming behind the roofs of the buildings; he remembered, with a glum feeling, what he and Angelo were supposed to have been doing on the morning of Andrea’s death. He mulled over the events of the intervening days until at last, after what seemed like an age, they emerged from the tightly confined street outside a small church overlooking the view down to Minori. Down below the church, set into the hillside across the road, Gianni saw a densely packed cemetery full of raised tombs with tiled roofs. Here the pallbearers came to a halt, turned, and filed slowly into the church.

The funeral was a sombre affair. Sitting at the back of the church as he had done before, Gianni watched as the priest led the congregation in prayers, and examined his hands as members of the family gave bible readings and heartbreaking hymns were sung by the congregation. When the singing was over, the priest led the congregation in Mass, and Gianni watched as the family and the rest of the guests came forward for Communion. As Angelo stepped quietly forward to take his share of the bread and wine, Gianni felt a hollow feeling in his heart; here was a gap between them that he could surely never hope to bridge.

At the end of the service, the congregation filed out again for the committal. While the pallbearers and the rest of the family, led by the priest, made their carefully way down to the tomb that had been prepared to receive Andrea’s coffin, the rest of the congregation stopped at the boundary wall or the edge of the ramp leading down into the small cemetery, looking on from a respectful distance. Watching from above as Andrea’s body was interred, seeing Marta’s shaking shoulders as she wept, and seeing how tightly Claudia and Angelo clung to her hands, Gianni wished he could be anywhere but here.

When at last the time came for the crowd to disperse, Anna headed down into the cemetery to join the family, who were lingering on beside the tomb. When Sergio, courteous as ever, insisted that Gianni and his grandparents join him at his home for a drink and a rest before making the journey back down into town, it was with a sense of relief that Gianni allowed himself to be led away. He couldn’t help wondering, though, when he would next get to see his friend again.

* * *

Gianni and his grandparents didn’t stay for long at Sergio’s house. Both Marina and Vittorio were tired from the afternoon’s exertions, and were keen to head back to the safety of their home.

During the slow trek back down the steps from San Martino, Gianni hovered close to his grandparents’ elbows in case either of them should get into trouble. Although he was keen to get away, he forced himself to stay – somewhat twitchily – with Marina and Vittorio as they climbed back up the hill from the fountain to their house, but then parted company with them just outside the courtyard. The evening was still young, and he wanted to be alone for a while.

Making his way down the avenue of oleanders, whose pink flowers, Gianni now noticed, were starting to wither at the edges as they came to the end of their life, Gianni returned to the square. With no particular plan as to where he was headed, he found himself drifting automatically towards the steps leading up towards the Villa Cimbrone. Up he climbed, past the convent, drifting through patches of warm evening sunlight and dappled shade, and listening to the sounds of crickets and the occasional cicada as he went. Finding himself drawn towards the vantage point that he and Angelo liked to share, Gianni turned off the main path by the vegetable garden and made his way along the narrow, overgrown lane and down the steps beyond.

Reaching the vantage point and clambering up onto the low boundary wall, Gianni sat down and gazed out at the view over Minori and Maiori. A few scattered clouds drifted by above the further town, picking up the radiant glow of the evening sunlight, while at the far side of the nearer bay, Gianni recognised the stretch of sandy beach where he and Angelo had spent that strange and wonderful afternoon only a few days ago; it seemed like an age ago, now. Loosening his shirt and tie, he rested his chin in his hands and allowed himself to drift away, the events of the past few days replaying themselves in his mind.

“Ciao.”

Gianni, caught by surprise, whipped around to see Angelo standing at the bottom of the steps. In spite of everything, his heart leapt.

“Angelo!” he exclaimed. Jumping down from the wall, he stepped up to the other boy and then held back, fighting a sudden urge to embrace him.

Angelo had managed to shed his jacket and tie, and stood before Gianni in shirtsleeves. He gave Gianni a glum smile. “I hoped I’d find you here.”

“I missed you,” Gianni blurted out, knowing at once that it sounded selfish. Angelo, however, didn’t seem to mind.

“Me too,” he replied. “Sorry I haven’t been around. Mamma’s been keeping us close.”

“I – I guess she would,” Gianni said. He paused, awkwardly. “How’ve you been?”

Angelo grimaced a little and rubbed a hand through his short, spiky hair. “Trying not to cry,” he replied. “Mamma and Claudia have been doing plenty of that for the four of us.”

“What about Pietro?” Gianni asked.

Angelo sighed. “He’s been on edge ever since...” he hesitated, “you know. Anna’s helped loads, though.”

“Will he be okay for the wedding?”

“I think so,” Angelo replied, “once he’s had a few more days.”

Gianni looked his friend up and down. Angelo had a defeated air about him; the easy confidence and grace with which he usually carried himself seemed to have vanished, and he looked strangely diminished without it. The dark rings under his eyes were still painfully visible.

“You look tired,” Gianni said.

“I haven’t slept much,” Angelo admitted. He paused. “I guess you know the feeling.”

Gianni nodded; he did. Gesturing for Angelo to follow him, he sat down on the floor with his back to the rugged stone retaining wall. Angelo sank gratefully down next to him.

“Does it get better?” Angelo asked.

Gianni thought back to his own experiences over the last few weeks. He remembered his disconnection of the first few days after the accident, then his journey to Ravello and his first friendship with Angelo. He thought of the moment on the terrace, and then the discoveries that had followed it.

“Yeah,” he said. “It does.” He paused, wondering if he should go on, before adding, “But you were a big part of that.”

Angelo responded to this by extending a fist towards Gianni; putting forward his own fist, Gianni boxed Angelo’s knuckles gently with his own.

Although the last thing he wanted was to cause Angelo any further pain, Gianni’s curiosity was getting the better of him. Looking across at his friend, and hoping that it wouldn’t appear too insensitive, he asked, “How did it happen?”

“After the beach,” Angelo replied, with a brief but meaningful glance into Gianni’s eyes at the mention of their afternoon by the water, “I cycled home and everything was normal. Papà was a bit tired, but then he often gets like that in the evenings, so he went to bed early.” He paused. “Got, I mean.”

“But then...?”

Angelo hesitated, chewing his lip. “But then the next morning, he just never woke up.”

The bleakness with which Angelo spoke these last few words was painful. Well out of his comfort zone, Gianni hesitated, scratching around for the right thing to say. Then he remembered how his own parents had died.

“At least it... it sounds like it was peaceful,” he said.

Angelo nodded. “That’s what the doctors said, too. It helped.”

There was a brief silence. Feeling uncomfortable, Gianni inspected his hands.

“I saw the ambulance,” he said at length.

Angelo looked up in surprise. “When?”

“I cycled over to Scala to look for you. I ran into Anna in the street. She told me what’d happened.”

“She didn’t say,” Angelo said. “Did you... did you see papà?”

Gianni shook his head. “Anna told me to go. I wanted to find you, but she said it wasn’t the right time.” He paused. “I guess she was probably right.”

Angelo shrugged his shoulders and fiddled with a loose sliver of mortar on the ground. Gianni watched him, hating to see his friend so miserable, but not knowing what else he could do. In the end, he said the only thing he could think of.

“I’m really sorry about your dad.”

Angelo shrugged. “Mamma says he’s with God now,” he said. Gianni, however, didn’t think he sounded too sure.

“Is that what you believe?” he asked quietly.

Angelo looked up at him, and then his eyes welled up with tears. “Crap,” he said, placing his forehead in his hands. “I’m sorry.”

Gianni watched in horror as his friend began to weep in earnest, drawing in the air in ragged gasps.

“It’s okay,” he said. Extending a tentative arm, he placed it around the other boy’s shaking shoulders, half expecting him to struggle free; Angelo, however, reached across and held Gianni tightly, as if drawing strength from his support.

Gianni thought of Sergio comforting Anna in the square, and remembered how he had whispered consoling words in his daughter’s ear. Gianni wished he could do the same, but was unable to think of anything meaningful to say. Deciding simply to let Angelo cry himself out, he remained silent, heart beating nervously as he felt the closeness of his friend’s body next to him.

After a few minutes, during which Gianni sat with his friend in silence, Angelo’s sobs did begin to subside. Releasing Gianni, he sat up straight again, rubbing his eyes and wiping away the tears. Relieved, but with a slight sense of loss that he couldn’t quite describe, Gianni let go of his friend’s shoulders and allowed his hand fall to the ground beside him.

“Thanks,” said Angelo once he had finished mopping up. “I think I needed that.”

“No problem,” said Gianni.

Angelo glanced at Gianni’s chest and smiled weakly. “Your shirt’s wet.”

Gianni looked down and saw that his left side was, indeed, soaked with tears.

“That’s okay too,” he said.

For a moment, Angelo smiled again, and Gianni thought he saw a trace of his old self in those tired eyes. Leaning back against the wall, Angelo closed his eyes and took a steadying breath, then looked back across to Gianni.

“Big day coming soon,” he said. “Are you ready for it?”

“The wedding?” Gianni asked, at which Angelo nodded. “What do you mean?”

Angelo frowned. “Didn’t Anna tell you she wants us both to be ushers?”

Gianni gaped at his friend. “What, you and me, really?”

Angelo nodded, and almost laughed. “Yeah.”

Gianni shook his head. “She didn’t say. I guess it must have slipped her mind.”

“Come over tomorrow,” Angelo said. “Anna’s bound to visit at some point. We can ask her what she wants us both to do.”

“Are you sure?” Gianni said.

Angelo nodded emphatically. “Yeah. Come by at eleven – I’ll ask mamma to give you lunch.”

Gianni was convinced. “Okay, cool.”

Angelo checked his watch and grimaced again. “I should go. Mamma will worry if I’m late.”

“How are you going to get home?” Gianni asked.

Angelo shrugged. “Walk, I guess.”

“Why don’t you let me bike you back?”

This time, Angelo actually did laugh; it was a good sound to hear, Gianni thought.

“No way can you get both of us up that hill on that old thing.”

It was Gianni’s turn to shrug. “Maybe not, but I can try.”

“All right then,” said Angelo, “you’re on.”

The sun was sinking lower in the sky, casting Minori into shadow. Picking themselves up and dusting themselves down, the two boys made their way back up the steps and headed back towards town.

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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A very emotional chapter. I teared up twice, when Anna and then Angelo wept. Especially where Angelo talks about his dad like he's still alive, then remembers to use the past tense. Mundane moments like that can be so poignant. Like Gianni receiving that surprise package after his parents died.

It must be a comforting thought that when someone we care about dies, they go to heaven or are "with god now." I tried but could never bring myself to believe that. I think the sense of loss can be deeper if you don't feel sure that the soul continues in a better place. It's total separation, with no prospect of reunion after your own death. So Angelo's grief resonates with me.

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Marina starts the chapter by picking on Gianni:  First, she berates him for taking his time getting ready for the day (and his "date" with Angelo), and she even berates him for saying that the morning is beautiful.  (Who criticizes someone for saying the morning is beautiful?) She is making her irritation with Gianni clear.

I like that Gianni decides to seek out Angelo when he misses their meeting time. He also takes it upon himself to purchase the proper clothes for the funeral:  He is becoming more proactive. 

After losing his own parents, Gianni now has to experience the loss of Angelo's father, and he is refused the catharsis of seeing and comforting Angelo until after the funeral.  Their enforced separation seems unnecessarily cruel, and I don't know how Angelo's family can justify it.

Gianni may be 75% Italian, but he grew up in England, where men aren't quite so demonstrative: He avoids or minimizes contact with Angelo earlier in the story (partially, perhaps, because of self consciousness), but their stray touches become electric for him. He remains hesitant to touch even in the presence of Angelo's grief, but Angelo will have none of it:  "Extending a tentative arm, [Gianni] placed it around the other boy’s shaking shoulders, half expecting him to struggle free; Angelo, however, reached across and held Gianni tightly, as if drawing strength from his support." A line has been crossed, and their intimacy--and relationship--have moved forward.

In terms of writing technique, I love the juxtaposition of the funeral and the wedding--a beautiful reminder that life, and love, go on.

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I didn’t intend Marina to seem irritated by Gianni, but I do think she is constantly clumsy in dealing with him. I can see though how her past actions might lead you to that conclusion!

Edited by James Carnarvon
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Again James you have written a very sensitive and delicate chapter dealing with one of the great mysteries of life.  Death is a mystery that causes humans to feel great sadness and seek comfort from the pain.  That is why we have so many questions and hopes that cannot be answered or fulfilled.  You wrote with emotionally power that caused me to feel the grief that the family felt at their lose.  I am glad that Angelo sought out Gianni to talk to after the funeral.  Angelo was able to do what Gianni could not when his parents died.  With Gianni holding him, Angelo was able to cry and release some of his pain.  Gianni's answer to Angelo's question was truthful and shows the strength of their growing bond.  Sad, but also full of love.

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