Together We Can Fly - 2. Chapter 2
Toto woke late the next morning. He sat up and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. Sunlight filtered into his bedroom through the cracks in the shutters over the windows.
Toto and Salvatore’s apartment did not have air conditioning. In the lingering heat of the night before, he had slept in just his underpants. Now, he opened the window and pushed the shutters apart. The refreshingly cool morning air flowed over his skin, reviving his senses.
Toto’s compact bedroom looked out over Via Roma. Poking his head and shoulders out of the window, he peered down into the little alley and saw a few early risers wandering to and from the square. Salvatore was out in the street, setting up the small display that he put outside each morning when he opened the shop.
“Buongiorno, Papà,” Toto called down to him.
“Good morning, Toto,” Salvatore replied, before disappearing back into his store.
Toto padded over the cool ceramic tiles of his bedroom floor and took a detour to the bathroom. Once he had freshened up, he dressed casually in a pair of shorts and navy-blue polo shirt and adjourned to the larger room they used as a kitchen, dining room and living area. Salvatore had left a jug of orange juice and some sliced ciabatta and apricot preserve out for him. Toto helped himself to a light breakfast, glancing at a local newspaper that had been left on the table.
RAVELLO PREPARES ITSELF FOR RECORD-BREAKING FESTIVAL
Several new special guests have been announced as the famous Ravello music festival enters its 65th year…
For years, Toto had watched the crowds of tourists swell over the two months during which the festival took place. At its peak, classical orchestras performed to large audiences in the Villa Rufolo gardens. The main stage floated improbably in mid-air against a panoramic view of the coast, wowing audiences with the combination of music and scenery. Toto and Michele had snuck in once when they were thirteen years old, and their illicit attendance had given them a little thrill, even though the finer points of the classical performance had been entirely lost on them.
When he had finished his breakfast, Toto brushed his teeth. He was due to meet Michele for their trip to the Torre a little later in the morning. For now, his first port of call was the hotel where Gianni worked, where he meant to sort out a date for their trip to the beach.
Once he was sure the breakfast service at the hotel would be finished and things would be quiet enough for them to talk, Toto let himself out of the apartment and wandered down Via Roma. The little street wound between crooked old buildings, even passing underneath some of them. Shops geared at the tourist trade lined both sides, selling wines, pasta shapes, ceramics, clothes and anything and everything that could be made with lemons; Toto saw colourful sweets, liqueurs and soaps.
At the next corner, Toto passed Pietro and Anna’s restaurant, Da Rossi. It was shuttered for now, but Toto knew it would be open later, doing a brisk trade right into the evening. Opposite, the old church with the cupola and barrel roofs faced out onto a tiny square. Next to a planter full of flowering geraniums, a couple of skinny feral cats sat washing themselves in the shade.
Toto continued down the street until it opened out into a wider section next to a high stone wall. Here, a line of Vespa scooters stood side by side, including Toto’s own. He had been riding on his own for a couple of months, having set out to earn his freedom as soon as he had turned sixteen. He patted the seat affectionately as he passed, knowing he would be riding it again later when he set out on his expedition with Michele.
After a while, the street broke out into a bumpy footpath along the side of a low cliff. Here, sprays of pink oleander flowers framed a view across the Valle del Dragone to Scala, the rear of the village’s stone cathedral glaring severely back out across the valley to Ravello. Among the terraced plantations, small bonfires burned on the slopes. Lizards scattered as Toto passed.
Before long, Toto had arrived in a square with an ancient stone fountain at its centre. The arched façade of the hotel where Gianni worked dominated the space, its doors open onto an invitingly cool-looking reception area.
There was a flick of grey in the corner of Toto’s eye as Gianni and Angelo’s tabby cat, Ennio, appeared on the low wall where the square looked out over the valley. Ennio was much plumper than the feral cats Toto had seen a few minutes ago. Toto wandered over to say hello, extending a hand in greeting. Ennio purred and rubbed his outstretched hand vigorously with the scent glands on both sides of his forehead.
Once Ennio had tired of his attention, Toto stepped inside the hotel and spoke briefly to the woman on the reception desk, who confirmed that he could carry on through to the dining room to look for Gianni.
The hotel straddled a narrow ridge between the valley and the coast. The dining room was a room of two halves, vaulted and low in the older part of the building but airy and spacious where it had been extended to make the best of the view. Racks of wine and potted plants lined the older part of the room. At the modern end, a large picture window looked out over the steep mountainside leading down to the sea far below at the twin resorts of Minori and Maiori. Toto hoped that they would be seeing one of those beaches at much closer quarters in a few days’ time.
It wasn’t long before the kitchen doors swung open and the head waiter, Sergio, appeared, closely followed by Gianni. The two were immersed in conversation and didn’t notice Toto at first. Toto waited respectfully at the doors while they conducted their business.
Sergio was Gianni’s uncle by marriage. A grizzled but fit and healthy-looking man of about sixty, he wore a waistcoat and cream jacket and sported a fine grey moustache. He carried himself in a very business-like way, but there was a twinkle of good humour in his eyes at the same time.
“Gianni,” he rumbled, “I’d like you to clean the tables, please, and then set numbers one through nine up for the next shift. I don’t think we’ll have a huge lunchtime trade today, so let’s make sure they get the best of the view.”
“Of course, Sergio,” Gianni nodded.
Gianni was also wearing a waistcoat, but he sported the dark jacket of a more junior waiter. As he turned away to complete his task, Toto stepped forward and cleared his throat.
Sergio turned towards him. “Yes?” he said courteously. “Can I help you?”
Gianni glanced over his shoulder. “It’s okay, Sergio, he’s here to see me.” He walked back over, giving Toto a smile. “Ciao, Toto.”
“Ciao, Gianni,” Toto replied.
“Sergio, this is Toto Friuli,” Gianni told the older man, “a friend of mine. This shouldn’t take too long.”
“Salvatore Friuli’s boy?” Sergio asked with interest. “Gianni has told me about you. I’m pleased to meet you, although I’m sure we must have seen each other around town before.”
Sergio extended a hand, which Toto shook in greeting. “Buongiorno,” Toto said, before adding “Ah – I’m sorry, signore. I’ve just been stroking a cat.”
Sergio examined his hand wryly. “Your honesty does you credit, Toto,” he replied. “Not to worry. I’ve already washed my hands several dozen times today. Once more will not hurt. Please, carry on.”
Sergio returned to the kitchen to wash his hands, reappearing shortly to begin tidying the bar.
Gianni chuckled. “Ennio strikes again.”
Feeling a little embarrassed, Toto nodded. “So… about that trip to the beach…?”
“Great, yes,” Gianni replied. “Sergio…?”
“Yes, Gianni?” the head waiter called back.
“Please could I have a day off next week?”
Sergio moved to consult a rota on the wall above the till. “I could probably manage without you on Wednesday,” he replied.
Gianni glanced questioningly at Toto, who nodded.
“Wednesday would be great. Thanks, Sergio,” Gianni replied.
Sergio waved his thanks away and continued about his business.
“I’ll let Michele and Claudia know,” Toto promised. “Thanks for doing this, Gianni.”
Gianni smiled. “It’ll help Angelo to burn off some energy. He gets skittish if he’s kept inside for too long.”
Toto laughed. He turned to leave, but at that moment another visitor walked in. It was Anna, Gianni’s cousin. A beautiful young woman in her early thirties with olive skin and long dark hair, she was looking resplendent in a white summer dress. She stopped in surprise at seeing them all there, glancing from Gianni to Sergio.
“Oh, dio!” she laughed. “I don’t know who to hug first.”
“Why, me, of course, tesoro,” Sergio chuckled, stepping out from behind the bar. They embraced.
“Papà,” Anna smiled, kissing him on each cheek. “How are you?”
“Very well, thank you,” Sergio replied as Anna crossed the room to greet Gianni as well, sparing a smile for Toto as she went. “I take it this is not just a social call?”
“Well, no,” Anna admitted. “I was just hoping for some advice about the restaurant.”
Sergio’s moustache twitched. “I thought as much,” he said. “What would my bosses say if they knew I was advising the competition? Walk with me.”
They set off together. Sergio slid a part of the picture window open, and they stepped out onto a small sun terrace beyond.
Toto and Gianni exchanged a glance, and they both laughed.
“How’s their restaurant going?” Toto asked.
“Good, I think,” Gianni replied. “I’m having my birthday dinner there next month. You’d better be there!”
“Really?” Toto asked. “You’re inviting me?”
Gianni chuckled. “Of course! Bring Michele along if you like.”
“I will! Thanks, Gianni.”
“Oh, and Claudia and I are going to do some drawing in the square tomorrow night. Come along if you’d like to have a go.”
Toto nodded. “Maybe I will. Thanks again. Ciao!”
“Ciao, Toto,” Gianni replied.
Toto set off with a wave. So far, he thought, the next few days were looking pretty good.
* * *
A while later, Toto knocked on Michele’s front door. Michele and his parents lived in a small house amid a tangled cluster of courtyards and buildings on the hillside below the centre of town, where a single quiet road zig-zagged down the hillside overlooking the coast. The front door opened on the living area on the top storey of the house, making the best of the view. The bedrooms were downstairs, set into the hillside below, facing out onto a small sun terrace.
Toto felt his heart quicken as it always did at the thought of seeing his friend, even though he knew it was foolish to get so excited. To his surprise, however, it was Michele’s mother who opened the door.
“Ciao, Toto,” Chiara smiled. “Michele will be right out.”
“Buongiorno, signora,” Toto replied. “Is it your day off work today?”
“Just until tonight,” she replied. “I’m afraid nobody gets to skip Saturday evenings, but Davide and I are going to have a nice lunch out together.”
“That sounds great.”
Michele appeared a few moments later, wearing a light rucksack over one shoulder. He was also sporting a dark blue short-sleeved shirt with a pattern of small flowers and a pair of denim shorts. The top two buttons of his shirt were undone, and Toto could see the chain of his pendant glinting inside his shirt collar.
Damn you, Michele. Are you trying to make me crazy?
Michele was accompanied by his father Davide, who was dressed in casual clothes this time; he nodded a friendly greeting at Toto. Michele gave both his parents a goodbye hug, and then they were on their way.
“How’s it going?” Toto asked his friend.
“Good,” Michele replied, and he did seem cheerful; the thought of returning to the Torre did not seem to be weighing him down just yet. “It’s nice to have the family back together.”
They climbed a flight of concrete steps and crossed the quiet road. Opposite, an older flight of stone steps continued the ascent into town. They started up it, taking the steps gently against the swelling heat of the morning and hugging the stone walls for shade.
“Do you ever talk to your parents about, you know… us?” Toto asked.
Michele gave him a thoughtful glance. “They know what happened a couple of years ago,” he replied.
Okay, so they know I kissed you. That’s not much of an answer.
“And they still don’t mind us hanging out together?”
Michele and his parents were regular churchgoers. They were friends with the priest at the cathedral, Father Stefano, and Michele had even done a short spell as an altar boy when he was younger.
Michele, however, just shrugged. “It’s fine.”
Seeking to lighten the tone, Toto told his friend about his dinner the previous night with Gianni and Angelo.
“So, you think Gianni really fancies Zac Efron?” Michele laughed. “Jesus.”
Toto smiled at his choice of words. I bet you wouldn’t say that in front of the priest.
The stairway wound between old villas, leafy gardens and overhanging vegetation as they climbed, their footsteps echoing off the stonework. As they neared the centre of town, they became aware of raised voices floating out of a side turning. They paused at the corner and glanced curiously down the quiet, narrow lane.
A young boy of about twelve had his back to one of the high stone walls, and he looked frightened. He had a mop of soft-looking light blond hair and was dressed unusually, sporting a pale pink tie-dye t-shirt and a pair of pale khaki shorts.
Facing him were two familiar and unwelcome figures: Filippo, eighteen years old, weak-chinned and vain, seemed to be doing most of the talking. A few metres beyond the two of them, a habitual scowl locked into his brutish face, was none other than the self-styled tough guy Enzo Palmeri.
“Hey, Daniele,” Filippo was saying. “It’s so good to see you out with all your friends.” He laughed at his own joke.
“What do you want?” the boy replied in a small voice.
“First, your promise on your mother’s life that you’re not as queer as you look,” Filippo smirked. “And second, any money you have on you would be nice.”
“I…” the boy said, fumbling in his pockets for change.
Toto bridled furiously at the sight of it. Once upon a time, he would also have been afraid of these two, but the fear had left him a year or two ago. Beside him, Michele had gone very still and quiet, but Toto felt sure that – if it came to it – his friend would back him up in a fight.
“Hey, losers!” Toto called, advancing on the two older boys. “Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?”
The younger boy glanced at Toto and Michele with a desperate kind of hope. Filippo looked up and gave Toto a scornful look.
“Hey, it’s Toto the fairy boy,” he said. “Do you really think you could take us?”
Toto squared up to his opponent. Filippo was a little taller than him, but not by much.
“I think we’d have a chance,” Toto replied, smiling in an attempt at bravado. “And God forbid we might make a mess of your precious designer clothes.”
Now Michele sidled up alongside Toto. “I’m sure the rest of the town would love to hear how you robbed a little kid for a few Euro cents,” he added quietly.
Filippo’s face paled in fury as he floundered for a response, but then Enzo finally spoke up.
“Let’s get out of here, Filippo,” he growled. “They’re not worth it.”
They slunk away along the lane.
“Leave him alone next time!” Toto called after them. “We’ll be watching.”
Enzo and Filippo disappeared round a corner and then the three of them were left alone. The younger boy turned a tear-stained face upon them, revealing a pair of light blue eyes that reminded Toto strongly of Gianni.
“Thank you,” he said quietly, in a voice that still had the chirp of a younger child. He focused in on Toto. “I know you, I think.”
“I’m Toto,” Toto replied, “and this is Michele. You’ve probably seen us around town, that’s all.”
The boy said nothing. His eyes lingered on Toto for a moment, and then flicked to Michele with less recognition.
“It was lousy of Enzo and Filippo to corner you like that,” Michele said. “Have they bothered you before?”
The boy shrugged. “Yes, but never like that.”
He sniffed and rubbed his eyes. Toto stepped forwards and put his hands on the younger boy’s shoulders. “Hey, it’s all right,” he said. “It’s Daniele, isn’t it?”
The younger boy nodded.
“We’ll look out for you, if we can,” Toto went on. “I mean, I’m not saying we’ll be around all the time, but… oof!”
The younger boy had surprised him by lunging forwards and throwing his arms around him. Unconsciously, Toto responded by putting his own arms around the boy’s own narrow shoulders. He turned an astonished glance on Michele, who responded with an amused smile.
“Hey, easy, tiger,” Toto said, gently prising Daniele from his chest. “We’ve just met.”
“Sorry,” the younger boy replied.
Toto looked him up and down, considering his unusual colouring.
“You’re not from around here, are you?” he said. “You must be from the north.”
Daniele nodded. “Milan.”
“How did you end up here?”
“My parents came here for work.”
“What did Filippo mean, ‘out with all your friends’?” Michele asked. “Don’t you have anyone? What about the kids from school?”
The younger boy shook his head. “They all think I’m weird.”
Toto regarded the younger boy sympathetically. He knew how it felt to be an outsider.
“Where were you headed before?” Toto asked.
“Into town,” Daniele replied.
“Same here. Let’s go, then.”
They carried on up the narrow lane together. At the end of the lane, they turned left and had soon entered a low stone tunnel that ran beneath the Villa Rufolo. After climbing through the fierce morning sun, it seemed dark and refreshingly cool inside.
“Show him your wolf howl, Toto,” Michele suggested.
“All right. Check this out, Daniele…” he threw back his head and howled. The sound echoed loudly along the arched passageway. In the darkness next to him, he thought he heard the younger boy laugh slightly.
“Do you want to try?” Toto asked.
But they had already emerged back into daylight as they followed a shady, tree-covered lane that led them back towards the cathedral square. Before long, they had emerged into its safe and bustling surroundings next to the stone guard tower of the Villa Rufolo gardens.
“Will you be okay, now, Daniele?” Toto asked.
The younger boy nodded. “I think so,” he said, glancing at each of them in turn. “Thanks.”
Toto waved Daniele off as he set off slowly across the square, hands in the pockets of his shorts.
“Say, Toto,” Michele said. “He looks like he could use a friend. Do you think we should…?”
Toto paused thoughtfully as he remembered how, a couple of years ago, Gianni, Angelo and Claudia had stepped forward to help him in a similar time of need. He nodded.
“Hey, Daniele!” he called.
The younger boy turned and came hurrying back.
“Yes?” he said hopefully.
“Would you like to hang out with us tomorrow? We could…”
The younger boy’s face lit up. “Yes, yes, yes!”
Toto and Michele couldn’t help laughing at his sudden enthusiasm.
“All right, we’ll see you in the morning,” Toto said, “if your Mamma and Papà are okay with it.”
Daniele paused for just long enough to give them his address, then fairly skipped away across the square with a cry of “Ciao!”
Toto and Michele watched him go in a slight daze.
“I think you just got a new admirer,” Michele teased.
* * *
“Thanks for backing me up with Enzo and Filippo,” Toto said.
Suddenly, Michele looked ashamed of himself. “I was frozen before you stepped forward,” he admitted quietly. “I couldn’t have faced Filippo down like you did.”
Toto placed a supportive hand on his shoulder. “You came through. Don’t worry about it.”
Michele smiled grimly. “Shall we get on with it, then? The Torre awaits.”
“Are you okay to ride with me?” Toto asked.
Michele nodded. “Sure, no problem. I left my Vespa at home.”
“Great. Let’s pick up some food first.”
They walked companionably across the square amid the chink of coffee cups, the soft babble of conversation and the scraping of the cicadas in the umbrella pines. Daniele had vanished, off on whatever business had originally brought him to town. Toto and Michele made for Via Roma and Toto’s father’s shop.
“Ciao Papà,” Toto said as they crossed the threshold.
“Toto,” Salvatore nodded from behind the counter. “Ciao, Michele.”
“Please may we have some bread, and some… cheese spread?” Toto glanced at Michele, who nodded. “Maybe some chocolate and a couple of bottles of water.”
“Are you going for a picnic?” Salvatore asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Well, we’re…” Toto began uncertainly, unsure how much his friend would want him to say, but Michele interrupted him.
“We’re going to the Torre dello Ziro, signore,” he said in a matter-of-fact way. “I haven’t been there since the accident. Toto is helping me to face my fears.”
Salvatore nodded approvingly. “As you say. Take care up there, both of you.”
Toto reached into his pocket for his wallet, but Salvatore waved it away. “Keep your money, Toto,” he said. “You’re doing a decent thing.”
They thanked Toto’s father and put the food in Michele’s rucksack, then headed back out into the narrow street. The sun was approaching its zenith and was beating straight down into the alley; even the old buildings that crowded in to either side offered them little shade.
“Are we mad, going out there at this time of day?” Michele said, glancing up into the vivid blue sky.
Toto offered him a casual smile. “Probably.”
Pietro and Anna’s restaurant was just opening up for the Saturday lunchtime trade as they made their way down the street. After a few moments, they reached Toto’s Vespa scooter.
Toto dug the key out of his pocket and placed it in the ignition, then released the storage compartment under the seat to reveal two open-faced helmets, one of which he passed to Michele. They took a moment to clip them on, and then Toto mounted the saddle and backed the bike out into the middle of street.
“Climb aboard, Michele,” he said.
Michele slid into the rear part of the saddle behind him. Toto closed his eyes briefly as Michele wrapped his arms around his chest in what felt like a strangely intimate gesture.
I could get used to this…
Toto fired up the engine and they puttered along the street, bumping at first along the crazy paving, then they turned off between the restaurant and the church and emerged at the top of the proper road that led down into the valley and, eventually, to the coast.
Riding his scooter still gave Toto a slightly giddy sense of freedom. They glided down the incline, the sun-drenched upper reaches of the Valle del Dragone spread out to the left, ornate lamp posts and slender street trees flicking by as they went.
They left the town behind them at the head of the main valley, where they swerved round a hairpin bend past the Scala turning and descended through olive groves and then wild scrub. A few more hairpin bends later, they passed below rocky cliffs on both side of the valley, turning off the main road and onto a side road that climbed back up the far side of the valley to the village of Pontone.
The sleepy village was much as they had left it the day before; it wasn’t the sort of place that changed a lot from day to day. They left the Vespa scooter at a wide place in the road and then descended a flight of steps next to the old church, stepping down onto a narrow pedestrian street that ran beneath the building.
The little street was narrow and wonderfully shady after their sunny ride down the valley. A stream ran down a tiny aqueduct at the side of the footpath. They paused beneath the arches of the church to splash a little of the water onto their overheated foreheads.
“How are you feeling, Michele?” Toto asked.
“I’m okay so far,” Michele replied, smiling bravely.
After they had descended past a long row of crooked houses, the street ended at the foot of a sheer cliff standing between them and the main part of the crag. A flight of steps zig-zagged up through a gulley in the cliff to reach a stone wall in which a small gate stood open. They climbed together, taking it slowly against the heat.
Stepping through the gate, they climbed a last steep flight of steps and emerged into a walled clearing; an old bastion of sorts that looked back out over the valley. Dry grass grew everywhere. Stunted pine trees crowded into the space from two sides, ringing with the scraping of cicadas. Beneath them, a carpet of fragrant pine needles littered the ground. They peered over the edge of the bastion and looked down onto a small patch of steep, uneven and rocky land, beyond which a sheer drop led down to lemon plantations in the lower reaches of the valley far below.
Toto let out a low whistle. “I’m starting to see what you meant about this place.”
“This is nothing,” Michele said in a slightly haunted voice. “It gets much worse than this.”
A stone bench had been built into one of the low bastion walls. Toto pulled Michele down onto it.
“Let’s have some water,” he said. Michele nodded, and ferreted around in his rucksack, pulling out the water bottles and passing one to Toto.
Toto took a welcome sip of the cool drink. Next to him, Michele curled his fingers repeatedly through a small pile of dried pine needles that had accumulated on the bench.
“It is sort of beautiful here, though, isn’t it?” Michele said. “When I came here before, my first thought was that you would love it.”
Toto had to acknowledge that there was a peace and serenity to the place that was hard to resist. There were two beautiful villa gardens you could visit in Ravello, but neither of them offered places like this where you could be truly alone if that were what you needed… at least, not by day.
“I’d like to see more,” Toto admitted. Michele was still running his fingers distractedly through the pine needles, a faraway look on his face. “Are you sure you want to go on?”
Now Michele did look at him; his soft brown eyes held Toto’s gaze steadily. “I’ve come this far,” he said. “I’m not going to give up now.”
Once again, Toto was struck by the sight of his friend. He’s beautiful. I wish I’d never seen it, but I can’t help myself.
“I’m glad I’m here with you this time,” Michele went on. “Enzo, Filippo and Antonio were just talking trash the whole time we were here. It felt so wrong.”
They set off again, descending a short flight of steps that led them deeper into the pine-scented interior of the crag. Absently, Michele fished his swift pendant out of his collar and toyed with it as they walked. Toto watched the sunlight glinting off it as his friend turned it from side to side.
Reaching a lower point, they turned off down a side path before the crag began to climb again. The path snaked its way down the side of the cliff amidst pine and cypress trees, and soon they were walking along the edge of a sheer drop. Michele averted his eyes. Toto, however, peered over the unfenced edge with interest, looking almost vertically down onto the terracotta rooftops of Atrani far below. The dense cluster of buildings, glowing in the sunlight, hugged a small stony beach where he could just about pick out a few people splashing in the shallows.
Michele glanced up and saw Toto peering over the drop.
“No…” he said faintly.
Dropping his rucksack, he staggered back from the edge and pressed his back against the cliff on the other side, eyes closed and breathing hard. Only now could Toto see how frightened he really was.
“Hey…” Toto said uncertainly, unsure at first how to proceed.
“I’m sorry…” Michele whispered, eyes still closed.
Toto reached out and dared to take his friend’s hand. Michele’s normally dry palm was damp with perspiration.
“It’s okay, Michele,” Toto reassured him. “We’re safe here.”
Michele’s chest hitched and he pulled Toto into a hard embrace. Toto felt hot tears spatter against the back of his neck as his friend stumbled to get his words out.
“They were all coming for me, and I tried to get away, but I fell, and they just looked at me! Then Filippo ran, and they all went, and they left me there! I was clinging onto the cliff by my fingertips, and they left me, they just left me to die! Why would they do that? Why? I don’t understand. I just don’t…”
Toto thought his heart might break. “They were just cowards, Michele!” he cried. “They panicked and they fled. It wasn’t your fault!”
Michele released him and slid down the rock wall until he was sitting on the ground. Toto hesitated, then sat down next to him, scrunching in as close as he could and putting an arm around his friend’s shoulders. He waited until Michele’s breathing slowed and he was ready to speak.
“I guess I’ve been holding onto that for a while,” he said quietly. He slumped sideways and rested his head on Toto’s chest, and there was silence for a moment.
“Thanks for telling me,” Toto said at length.
Toto felt the other boy shrug slightly under his outstretched arm.
“Do you feel any better for it?”
“A little,” Michele murmured.
“Is this where it happened?”
Michele shook his head. “No, it was higher up,” he said quietly. “I’ll show you, but let’s look at the Torre first.”
When he had calmed down a little further, Michele shuffled forwards and retrieved his fallen rucksack, which had landed on the dry dirt in the dappled shade of the trees. He extracted his water bottle and took a long draught from it before putting it away and getting shakily to his feet. Toto got up too, and they continued along the path. Toto placed himself between Michele and the edge, so that they were walking shoulder to shoulder.
The Torre itself was unremarkable, really: a small, round watchtower made of stone, perched on the end of the crag, but it straddled a narrow rocky spit where the ground fell away on all sides. By wandering around the small outcrop on which it stood, they could look down on Atrani on one side and the larger bay of Amalfi on the other. The life of the resorts below seemed incredibly distant still, even though, as the crow flies, they were only metres away.
They climbed a metal stairway inside the Torre and squeezed onto a narrow viewing platform together, with the sprawling rooftops of Amalfi and the deep turquoise sea spread out below them. Propped up safely against the railings, Michele seemed more at ease now.
“Where in the world would you go, if you could?” Toto asked.
“I don’t know,” Michele replied. “Maybe one of the big cities, like New York, or London.”
“Gianni says London is all concrete, cars and smoke.”
Michele smiled slightly. “Sounds like Naples.”
“Remember when we used to pretend that we could fly down to the sea?”
“Yeah,” Michele replied. “You could be there in seconds.”
“I wish we really could.”
They made their way back down the stairs and returned along the unfenced path. After a while, Michele led them up a side turning, where a flight of steps scaled the highest part of the crag. They emerged on a small grassy plateau where a stone and concrete belvedere overlooked the coast in both directions. Leaning on the railings and looking over the edge once again, Toto saw they were at the top of a sheer cliff high above even the Torre itself.
“This is where it happened,” Michele said.
Michele seemed more open to talking about it now, and Toto felt it would be best if his friend could air the whole thing.
“Tell me about it,” Toto said.
“All right,” Michele said. He took Toto’s arm and led him away from the edge. They climbed a few steps to a point where two stone benches sat facing each other. Michele sat down and pulled Toto down next to him.
“We were hanging out here,” he went on. “The guys had been drinking. Enzo and Filippo went to, you know… water the bushes.”
Toto nodded. “Go on…”
“And Antonio, he…” Michele’s mouth twisted. “He touched me… like this.”
He took Toto’s nearest hand in both of his and placed it on the inside of his thigh. “And then he started stroking me and saying some pretty creepy stuff.”
Toto’s heart sank as he imagined Michele, just fourteen years old and still reeling from Toto’s own misplaced kiss, suffering all of that on his own.
“Shit,” Toto replied quietly, taking his hand back. “No wonder you freaked out.”
“So, I jumped right up, and that’s when the others got back. Enzo could tell something had happened, but he didn’t know exactly what. Before I could say anything, Antonio was on his feet and telling Enzo that I had touched him. That’s when they all blocked the exit and came for me.”
Michele got up again, and Toto followed him back down to the railings. There was only the tiniest strip of ground between the railings and the cliff edge: less than the length of one of Toto’s feet.
“Did you really try to escape by climbing over these?” Toto asked.
Michele nodded. “I thought I could slip around the side and run away – you know, to flank them – but then the ground crumbled, and I fell.”
Toto peered down at the slopes of rock and scrub that sprawled out far below. Suddenly it made him feel dizzy to look at it, and he stepped back from the edge and exhaled slowly.
“If that had happened to me, Michele, I would totally be afraid of heights.”
Michele looked back at him hopefully. “Really?”
Toto nodded. “Absolutely.”
Michele sighed, and looked down at his feet. “Thanks, Toto.”
* * *
They stayed at the belvedere for lunch, sharing the provisions they had bought from Salvatore’s shop. Michele was a little quiet, but he also seemed healed after sharing his experience with Toto, and they chatted more normally. Toto’s chest swelled with pride that he had been able to help, and that Michele had trusted him enough to tell him everything.
When they had finished their meal, they made their way back along the top of the crag. Michele led them along a winding path that descended back to the pine-scented hollow in the interior, and then they climbed back through the village to return to the road.
“You were amazing up there, Michele,” Toto said, glancing back out at the tree-crowned rocks as they made their way back to his scooter.
Michele shook his head. “I only went back because you dragged me there. I’m not so brave.”
“Are you kidding? It takes courage to face your fears.” Toto saluted. “You’re a superhero to me.”
Michele laughed slightly. “There you go, being lame again.”
Toto grinned. “You love it really.”
Michele rolled his eyes with a weary smile.
Helmets on, they mounted the scooter once again and set off back down the road towards Ravello. In the heat of the afternoon, Toto enjoyed the breeze they created as it played across his face. Returning to the main road, they ascended the valley together and before long they were back among the trees and buildings of their home. Toto dropped Michele off at the corner of the cathedral square, next to the planters of flowers that kept cars out of the centre of town. With the arrival of the hottest part of the day, fewer visitors were wandering around in the sun. Many had taken refuge under the parasols outside the bars, enjoying a late lunch, drinks or ice creams, while others rested on the benches in the shade of the umbrella pines, watching the world go by or listening to the sounds of the cicadas in the trees.
“Will I see you tomorrow?” Toto asked. “I guess we have a date with Daniele.”
Michele smiled and nodded. “Meet me here after church.”
“There’s something else,” Toto added. “I spoke to Gianni this morning – about that trip to the beach, you know? He said they could do it on Wednesday.”
Michele’s face fell. “Wednesday?”
Toto frowned slightly; this was not the reaction he had expected. “Yeah… is that a problem?”
“I can’t, sorry.”
“How come? Are you doing something with your mum and dad?”
Michele shook his head. “No, it’s not that,” he said awkwardly. “I’m… meeting someone.”
That’s not fair, meeting who? Toto’s mind protested, but he squashed the thought.
“Sure,” he said, trying to sound bright and unconcerned, but it came out sounding a little artificial. “Okay. No worries.”
He glanced out across the square where, at that moment, a familiar blond figure was passing the cathedral, shopping bag in one hand, heading back towards the side of town where they had met him that morning.
“Maybe Daniele would like to go instead,” Toto reflected quietly.
Michele looked crestfallen. “I’m really sorry, Toto.”
“Forget it,” Toto replied. “I’ll see you in the morning, yeah?”
Michele nodded. “Ciao, Toto.”
Toto turned the scooter around and bumped back down the crazy paved street towards the place he usually parked it.
He felt a bit ashamed of his reaction. Of course, Michele could meet other people if he wanted. Why should Toto expect exclusive treatment?
Still, after all that had happened today, he felt he could have expected a little more from his best friend.
* * *
Two years ago
Daniele Ferrero, aged ten, is new in town.
His father is a taxi driver, and his mother is trained in hospitality. Seeking a better life for their family, they have moved south from the busy city of Milan to the light and airy slopes of the Amalfi Coast, where they are confident of getting good work.
Daniele has been uprooted from his home, his school and from his friends, although he never had many of those anyway. He was always too soft, too emotional, on a different wavelength to the other boys somehow.
He has one year left to go of primary school. They have moved during the summer holidays, and he knows no-one. To try to ease the transition, his parents have worked with the school he will be attending from September to arrange a little get-together with some of the other kids from his class. His mother drops him at the door with a quick kiss and then hurries off to start her new job at a hotel a few streets away.
Daniele is an intelligent child. He knows his parents meant well, but it’s clear from the minute he enters the classroom that their scheme isn’t going to work. The other kids are already talking in their friendship groups – friends they have probably had for years and grown up with.
For reasons he can’t quite explain, Daniele finds himself drawn towards a dark-eyed boy called Giacomo, who is talking in the corner with two of his friends, another boy and a girl. Daniele says ‘Ciao’ and they respond in kind, but mostly they just stare at this strange, alien creature in their midst: a boy in unusual clothes with blond hair and blue eyes whose arrival has cost them their Saturday lunchtime.
An hour or so later, Daniele has still failed to connect with any of his new classmates. He wanders out of the school on his own and heads for the cathedral square, where his father said he would meet him. He promised that he wouldn’t keep Daniele waiting for long.
He is just rounding the corner of the square when, out of nowhere, something hits him with force. He falls painfully to his bottom, and looks up reproachfully at his assailant, but then something makes him stop in his tracks.
It’s a boy of about fourteen, and he seems to be running away just as fast as his legs can carry him.
“I’m sorry!” the boy calls over his shoulder, and Daniele glimpses such fear and misery on that tear-stained face that he can no longer feel angry with the older boy for knocking him down.
Daniele gets up, dusts down the seat of his shorts and gets on with his day. But he never forgets the look he saw on that face, and sometimes, when he’s dozing off in bed or walking alone, he remembers, and wonders what can have happened to make the mystery stranger flee like that.
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