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Together We Can Fly - 5. Chapter 5

A few days later, a sunny morning found Toto and Michele alone together among the chestnut woods on the lower slopes of Monte Brusara, riding their mountain bikes along the upper reaches of the Valle del Dragone.

Toto pedalled determinedly through the dappled shade of the trees, his open shirt fluttering, swift pendant hanging out over his grey vest top. Michele led the way, concentration evident in the set of his shoulders. Lizards scattered as they went, disturbed from their daily bask by the wheeled intruders. On the far side of the valley, the church and houses of Santa Caterina, one of the higher hamlets of Scala, flickered past through the gaps between the trees.

They had met in the cathedral square and had made their way up through the town, passing the fountain and the hotel where Gianni worked. They had been climbing gradually ever since, enjoying the feeling of the breeze that they themselves created as they cycled.

Since their short conversation at the vegetable garden, Toto had been trying to make sense of the way his friend had been behaving. His mind veered wildly from one explanation to another, but none of them would stick. One minute he was imagining the horror of being best man at Michele’s future wedding to his mysterious girlfriend; the next, he was reliving his old fantasies again, imagining Michele expressing his undying love for him. He felt utterly divided. However, Michele’s gift was one concrete thing he did have, and he clung to it like a talisman. It meant something.

On the way out of Ravello, Michele had cringed slightly as they passed some tatty old agricultural sheds, where the faded traces of some obscene graffiti were still visible. He described how Enzo and his friends had forced him to scrawl the hateful messages; how he had been too frightened to stand up to them and say no.

“I had no idea my best friend was such a shameless vandal,” Toto teased. “I’ll send for the Carabinieri at once.”

Michele shot him a look. “Oh, shut up.”

“I mean it,” Toto said gravely. “The owners of this place must have been absolutely devastated to have their pride and joy defaced. I mean, just look at the elegant lines of that rusty corrugated iron.”

“Toto, you can kiss the elegant lines of my ass.”

Toto grinned. “It’s a date.”

“Ugh, you couldn’t resist it, could you?”

Toto had laughed and continued pedalling. It felt good to share a joke with Michele, as they had when things were normal.

Now, they emerged from the trees and sat down for a rest in a sunny, scrubby area quite close to the stream. Down below, a little staircase led to a fording point where the river could be crossed. Toto closed his eyes for a moment, raising his face to the sky to soak up the sun. After a while, he glanced back down and realised that Michele had been quietly watching him.

“I still avoid them, you know, when they’re together,” Michele said.

“Who?” Toto asked. “Enzo and his goons?”

“Enzo and Filippo, I mean. Antonio…? I don’t know, I’ve barely seen him since the business up by the Torre.”

Toto frowned. “Actually, neither have I.”

“Maybe he was afraid I’d tell everyone what really happened.”

“Why didn’t you?”

Michele fiddled idly with one of the plants growing nearby. “After I told Mamma everything, she wanted to press charges. I asked her not to take it any further. She wasn’t happy about it, but I didn’t want any more trouble. I just wanted to get on with my life.”

“And that’s it?” Toto said. “She’s the only person you told?”

“Until I told you a couple of weeks ago, yes.”

Toto shrugged. “At least he’s out of the picture. You should try to face the others, though. They’re just pathetic losers. They don’t frighten me any more.”

Michele picked up a small pebble and flicked it down towards the stream bed. “Yeah, I know. But what about that thing the other day with Enzo’s father?”

Toto had to concede this point. “You’ve got me there.”

Michele stretched, arching his back with a sigh. “Let’s talk about something else.”


“Are you still thinking about leaving school?”

“I don’t know,” Toto hesitated. “Maybe? I guess not.”

Michele snorted. “Thanks Toto, that’s really clear.”

“Hey,” Toto said. “Claudia said some stuff that made me think, that’s all. She’s dead set on going to university. She wants to see more of the world.”

“I wish I could.”

Michele seemed distracted now, lost in thoughts all his own. He fiddled with his own swift pendant, pulling it out from inside his collar.

“I’ll miss you if you go away, Toto,” he said after a while, weighing his words carefully as if they cost him something, “but Claudia’s right. If you’ve got the talent to go further, don’t waste it by quitting school early and staying here.”

“Hey, it’s okay,” Toto said. “There’s plenty of time to think about that stuff. I mean, we’re only sixteen.”

Michele smiled, and Toto had to avert his eyes. He wasn’t sure he could take that look for too long.

“You’re cute when you blush, Toto.”

Toto stared at him. Of all the things he could have expected his friend to say…

He covered his confusion by throwing back a quip. “Don’t you start,” he said. “Claudia’s bad enough.”

Michele smirked. “I wish I could have seen your face, that time she kissed you.”

“Yeah,” Toto said casually, lying back in the grass. “The hills were alive with the sound of music.”

“Or the sound of you giggling, the way Claudia tells it.”

Toto gave his friend a provocative look. “So, do you two talk about me a lot then?”

“Only to complain,” Michele sighed. “It’s like a support group.”

Toto laughed and threw an old stick at the other boy. “Screw you.”

The day was getting hotter, and there was no breeze in their little glade. The cicadas droned on in the nearby trees, and small insects hovered above them, catching the sunlight in their wings. Toto sat up and stripped off his shirt, so he was just wearing his vest top.

Michele watched from his vantage point a few metres away. “Down, boy,” he said.

Toto rolled his eyes. “Not everything I do is a desperate attempt to impress you, Michele,” he said.

“Nah,” Michele replied idly, “sometimes it’s just a free bonus.”

Toto gave him a sidelong glance as he shoved his shirt into a pannier bag on his bike. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were flirting with me, Michele,” he said. “Shall we go?”

Michele hopped to his feet, leaving the last point unanswered. “Sure.”

They picked up their bikes and continued on their way. For a while, they had to dismount as they negotiated a flight of steps, but then they converged on the streambed, flicking in and out of trees on the rapidly shrinking path, and were able to cross it and scramble up the other side of the valley towards a quiet road.

The semi-wild woodland above Scala bore little resemblance to the floral streets and manicured gardens of Ravello. Chestnut trees grew everywhere, and the sleepy little road was flanked with piles of logs. The undergrowth was different, too, with sprays of ferns, bracken and brambles popping up out of the dusty soil here and there.

They began the gradual descent that would eventually lead them back to Ravello, cycling side by side, not rushing. They passed between wooden fences and low stone walls enclosing little plots where local people sought to make a few Euros from the trees on the land.

They met no other traffic; it was as if they had left the rest of the world behind. Toto rolled gently onward, relishing the sense of space, the freedom, and the quiet company of his friend.

“Why can’t life always be this good?” he sighed.

Michele seemed to be lost in thought again, and he didn’t respond. In his distracted state, he had left his pendant hanging outside the collar of his polo shirt. Allowing his own mind to wander, Toto watched it twinkle in the sun as they arrived among the first few scattered houses of Santa Caterina. In Toto’s mind, they weren’t just wearing images of swifts: they were the swifts, soaring over the terraced slopes of the mountains. It was an old image, one from his childhood, but one that gave him comfort.

“Come back to me, Michele,” Toto said after a while.

“Hmm?” Michele glanced over at him. “Sorry.”

“Something on your mind?”

Michele nodded. “I guess.”

But is it me, or is it the girl?

They swept around a few more bends and then rolled into the centre of the hamlet, where they both coasted to a halt at the sight that met them.

“Talk of the Devil,” Toto hissed.

A young man of about eighteen with long, lank hair, dressed in scruffy jeans and a leather jacket, was unloading shrink-wrapped crates of mineral water from the back of a small black Fiat opposite the little church.

“Antonio,” Michele said quietly.

Antonio looked up at the sound of Michele’s voice and saw both boys glaring at him. He froze for a moment, and then slunk away up a side street without a word, leaving the mineral water piled up at the side of the road.

Michele dismounted from his bike and made his way over to an old drinking fountain opposite the church. He ran the tap briefly, splashing a little water onto his face.

“There’s someone I could happily have never seen again,” he said when he had finished.

Toto got off his bike, too, and sat down on a bench in the tiny, crazy-paved piazza at the side of the church. “I just want to smash his stupid face in for what he did to you,” he said. “Does that make me as bad as Enzo?”

Michele sat down next to him and put a hand on his shoulder for a moment, staring straight into his eyes. “No,” he replied. “That makes you a good friend.”

“Doesn’t he make you feel like that?” Toto asked.

Michele shrugged. “I’ve had two years to get my head around what he did. You’ve only had a few days.”

This made Toto feel a little better. “I see what you mean,” he said. He got up again and ambled thoughtfully across the road, then bent down and tore open one of the shrink-wrapped crates of mineral water. Liberating two bottles, he called down the deserted side street, “thanks, Toni!”

Returning to the bench, he gave one to Michele.

“Cheers, Toto,” Michele laughed.

“Let’s hope he gets it in the neck from whoever he’s shifting those things for,” Toto replied, opening his bottle and taking a swig.

They were quiet for a moment while they drank the water; Michele had lapsed into thought once more.

“What’s it like, being so sure of yourself?” Michele said after a while.

Toto stared at him. “What?”

“You always seem so confident, so certain of who you are and what you want,” Michele continued. “Me, I haven’t got a clue.”

“I’m really not,” Toto replied, feeling embarrassed.

“After you kissed me,” Michele said insistently, “you told me – once we were talking again – that you’d been thinking about it for months. I hadn’t even started to think about that sort of stuff back then.”

“You know I’m sorry I did that,” Toto said. “It was stupid.”

Michele shrugged again. “At least you had the guts to tell me how you felt.”

This gave Toto pause for thought. He had never looked at it quite that way.


Michele rose from the bench. “Come on, Toto,” he said. “These two swifts need to fly home.”

* * *

The ride back down through Scala was an easy one, downhill all the way. Toto and Michele freewheeled down the straight sections and controlled their speed around the sharper hairpin bends. As they descended the mountain, the trees and vegetation evolved, and the road got dustier. Pines and olive trees replaced the earlier broadleaved woodland.

Before too long, they were climbing the long final slope of the main road up into Ravello from the head of the valley. Their strong leg muscles, accustomed to the terrain, made short work of the steady climb. Outside the ceramics workshop just below the cathedral square, they prepared to part company for the day; Toto was due to meet his father for lunch and drinks in the square, as part of their concerted effort to spend more time together. Salvatore had agreed to close the shop for a longer than usual period in the afternoon.

“See you tomorrow?” Toto asked his friend.

“Not if I see you first,” Michele replied.

Toto groaned. “Michele, that’s so old.”

Michele started to smile, but then he faltered, looking over Toto’s shoulder. “Toto, look.”

Toto turned. A familiar scowling figure was slouching along the tree-lined street that led down from the square.

“Enzo,” Toto called. “Hey, Enzo!”

Enzo halted. “What do you want, fairy boy?” he sneered.

“What happened with your father?”

“Like I said,” Enzo said. “It’s none of your business.”

“Please tell us,” Michele said quietly.

Enzo glared at him for a while, but then some of the aggression seemed to leave him.

“All right,” he said abruptly. “Filippo’s family posted bail for me.”

“Bail?” Toto asked. “Then you’re in some kind of trouble?”

Enzo shrugged. “I’m not worried about the outcome. But it’s the last time that cazzo will raise his hand to me.”

Michele’s eyes widened. “You mean he’s…” he began.

“He’s still alive, Michele,” Enzo growled. “See you later.”

He slouched off down the street.

“That was weird,” Toto said once Enzo was safely out of earshot. “He was almost civil.”

“People can change, I guess,” Michele replied, watching his retreating figure.

Toto smiled. “Yeah, but Enzo?”

Michele laughed slightly. “I don’t know.” He mounted his bike again. “Ciao, Toto.”

“Ciao,” Toto replied. Michele set off, and Toto watched until he was out of sight.

* * *

Toto wheeled his bike up the little street, bumping over the crazy paving as he went. As he entered the square, he saw that his father was already waiting for him at one of the bars.

Toto’s first reaction was surprise, quickly followed by indignation, as he realised that his father was not alone. A woman in a dark green dress was sitting opposite him. She had her back to Toto, and he couldn’t see who it was.

Watchfully, Toto leaned his bike against a nearby building. He skirted the cluster of outside tables, walking round to where Salvatore was sitting. The woman looked up at him, and Toto’s annoyance turned to utter confusion as he realised it was Marta, mother of Claudia, Angelo and Pietro.

Salvatore was nursing a small beer. “Ciao, Toto,” he said as his son arrived.

Toto stepped up next to his father and placed a hand on his shoulder in greeting. “Ciao, Papà.”

“You know Marta Rossi, don’t you?” Salvatore asked.

Toto nodded. “Yes, but not well. Buongiorno, signora.”

Marta smiled. “Buongiorno, Toto. Please join us.”

Marta was in her late fifties. She had greying hair, olive skin and friendly creases at the corner of her alert brown eyes. She had a kind face, Toto thought, although there was a weariness about her as well.

Toto sat down next to his father. The waiter came over, and Toto ordered a Sprite. Marta sipped at a glass of sparkling mineral water.

“I didn’t realise you two knew each other,” Toto said, glancing from one adult to the other and trying to figure out what was going on.

“We didn’t, until a year or two ago,” Marta explained. “I’ve been spending more time in Ravello since Pietro and Anna opened their restaurant.”

“And, since then, Marta has become a fairly regular customer of mine,” Salvatore added.

This much did follow. Toto knew Marta was a partner in her son and daughter-in-law’s business. According to Claudia, she provided experienced advice on recipes and kitchen management; Toto supposed that meant she bossed everyone around.

“Do you go for drinks with a lot of your customers, Papà?” Toto asked.

Marta looked amused, and Salvatore uttered an annoyed little grunt. “It’s not like that, Toto,” he said. “If you must know, Marta has been a great source of advice and support to me since you made your… revelation.”

All of a sudden, the pieces fell into place in Toto’s mind.

“Marta’s the only other person you know with a gay son,” he said.

Salvatore winced a little. “Well, if you must put it like that…”

“But I thought Marina…”

“I am not eighty years old, Toto,” Salvatore said. “Our situations are rather different.”

“Fair enough.”

Marta smiled. “Toto has a point, Salvatore. All of Marina’s hopes for her family line must have rested on Anna and Gianni. I’m part of a much larger family. In many ways, you and Marina have more in common.”

Toto frowned. “You mean you have children to spare if one goes wrong?” he asked her.

“Toto!” Salvatore exclaimed, but Marta raised a pacifying hand.

“Nothing of the sort, Toto,” she replied. “I’m proud of all of them.”

“Okay,” Toto said, now slightly ashamed of himself. “Sorry.”

“I’m lucky to have three wonderfully different children,” she went on. “One, a determined entrepreneur; one, a caring soul with a practical head on his shoulders; and one, an artist in the making.”

“You’re right, of course,” Toto’s father said. “I’m sure their father Andrea would be equally proud.”

“Thank you, Salvatore,” Marta smiled. “Toto,” she went on, “the fact that my two eldest children are both very much in love with wonderful partners only adds to my pride.”

“Did it really never bother you?” Toto asked. “Gianni always made it sound like he and Angelo had to work hard to be accepted.”

Marta nodded. “Perhaps it wasn’t what I had originally hoped for,” she conceded, “but I love my son, Toto.”

As he pondered her words, Toto found that he believed her. “I can tell,” he replied.

The waiter arrived with his Sprite, and Toto took a sip. Marta looked at him with a sad smile.

“Claudia tells me that you haven’t been so lucky in love as yet,” she said.

Toto flushed slightly and shook his head.

“The boy’s only sixteen, Marta,” Salvatore objected.

“Some might say that’s when the fires burn brightest, Salvatore,” Marta replied wryly, looking steadily back at Toto’s father, who shrugged.

“You mean it’s only downhill from here?” Toto asked in dismay.

Marta chuckled. “Perhaps not just yet.”

When the waiter returned, they ordered lunch. Toto chose a Parma ham and mozzarella panino, which he ate as gracefully as he could, despite the strings of melted cheese that coated his chin with every mouthful. Marta managed her tomato bruschetta with much more decorum, while Salvatore made his way steadily through a bowl of spicy penne all’arrabbiata. They settled to more casual conversation; Salvatore and Marta talked about their businesses, and Toto tried to connect with his father over their more general interests, although, in reality, they had little in common.

After she had finished, Marta dabbed neatly at her mouth with her napkin.

“How are your studies going, Toto?” she asked. “Salvatore tells me you’re studying languages at the liceo.”

“They’re going fine, thanks,” Toto replied.

“Have you got your eye on a university?”

Toto gave his father a sidelong glance. “I’m still deciding about that.”

Salvatore sighed in frustration. “Toto, we’ve talked about this.”

“I know, Papà. University holds the key to my future. But what if I’d rather stay here?”

“What would you do with yourself?” Salvatore asked.

“I could help you run the shop,” Toto suggested.

Salvatore spread his arms in despair. “You know that’s not the future I have ever wanted for you, Toto. With your potential, you could travel… and have a career. What possible reason could you have for choosing my life over that?”

Marta looked shrewdly at Toto over her mineral water. “I can think of one reason. Is there something you’re not telling us, Toto?”

Toto thought of describing Michele’s unusual behaviour and the confusing questions it had raised, but then he sagged back into his chair. “No,” he admitted. “Nothing’s really changed.”

Salvatore shook his head sadly. “How long are you going to stake your future on a dream, Toto?” he asked. “You told me yourself that Michele doesn’t feel the way you do.”

It’s not that easy to forget how I feel… especially when he starts giving me gifts and paying me weird compliments.

“I don’t know, Papà,” he replied.

Marta smiled sympathetically. “I’m sure there must have been a time when I felt things so keenly,” she said. “Keep your options open for as long as you can, Toto. Don’t be too quick to close those doors.”

Salvatore nodded. “Wise words,” he said.

* * *

Once the lunch had been paid for, Toto, Salvatore and Marta moved on. Salvatore had to reopen his shop, so they threaded their way around the other tables and started out down Via Roma together. The numbers of tourists visiting the town had swelled during the last couple of weeks, and they had to walk in single file to get by the groups of visitors; Toto’s passage was made doubly difficult by the fact that he had to wheel his bike along with him.

Salvatore said goodbye at the entrance to his store, and Toto, with no real idea of where he was planning to go next, shoved the bike inside the door to the apartment and then continued down the street with Marta. He felt awkward, as he didn’t really know her well enough to chat.

Not wanting to seem rude but hoping that she might carry on if he stopped, Toto paused to look in through the window of a small clothing store. However, Marta stopped with him, leaving him staring rather stupidly at a rack of women’s hats.

“Ah…” he said, floundering, “do you like this shop, signora?”

“I don’t buy a lot of clothes for myself, Toto,” she replied. “I think Angelo and Gianni shop here sometimes, though.”

Toto glanced back at her, allowing them to carry on slowly along the street. “Gianni and Angelo mean a lot to me,” he said. “They were there for me at a time when nobody else was – apart from Claudia.”

Marta smiled. “Claudia and Angelo also speak very highly of you,” she replied. “I think Angelo and Gianni see you as – forgive me – a sort of protégé of theirs.”

“You mean I’m a sort of apprentice of gayness?”

Marta put a hand to her mouth and stifled a chuckle. “My goodness,” she said, “what an awful way of putting it.”

They emerged from the shade of the overhanging buildings and fetched up outside Da Rossi. The restaurant seemed to be doing a decent trade. Both of its small outside tables were occupied by couples enjoying pasta lunches, and a quiet babble of conversation was emanating from within as well. Marta stopped, and turned to Toto.

“Well,” she said, “this is me. It was good to spend some time with you today.”

“And you, signora.”

“Please forgive your father,” she added quietly. “He’s trying his best.”

“I know.”

“Ciao, Toto.”


Marta disappeared into the restaurant, her green dress whispering around her ankles.

“Hey, Toto!” said a voice.

Toto looked up. Gianni was standing outside the church next door, pinning something to a notice board. Alfredo, Gianni and Angelo’s small white dog, was with him. Toto wandered over and gave Alfredo a scratch between the ears; the dog licked his hand enthusiastically in greeting, slobber dripping off his beardy chin.

“Ciao, Gianni,” Toto said. “Shouldn’t you be at work?”

Gianni had temporarily placed a couple of pushpins in his mouth while he pressed the first two into the notice board. Now he took them out, using them to attach the bottom corners of the poster he was mounting.

“I’ve been rostered on for late nights three days running,” he replied. “I think Sergio felt sorry for me, so he gave me lunchtime off.”

Toto turned his attention to the poster.

An exhibition of the art of Gianni Fortuna, Toto read, Santa Maria a Gradillo, Tuesday 4 July. Paintings and drawings inspired by the buildings and landscapes of Ravello.

“This is great,” Toto said, “well done!”

Gianni looked pleased with himself. “Thank you.”

“Have you ever done this before?”

Gianni shook his head. “Never.”

“How did you arrange it?”

“Father Stefano at the cathedral knows Father Francesco who runs this place,” Gianni replied. “I think Father Stefano put a good word in for me.” He paused, reflectively. “You know, I think Nonna probably gave him a nudge.”

Toto smiled at the thought of Marina working behind the scenes, pulling the strings.

“I’ll definitely come,” Toto said.

Gianni grinned. “Thanks, Toto. Say, have you picked an outfit for my birthday party yet? It’s just two weeks away now.”

Toto shook his head. “No, but I’ll definitely see you there,” he said. “Michele’s coming too,” he added.

“That’s great news.”

Toto suddenly realised that here was someone he could ask for advice. He chewed a thumb thoughtfully.

“Say, Gianni…”


“How did you first work out that Angelo liked you?”

Gianni cocked his head curiously. “Why do you ask?”

Toto shrugged. “Just wondering.”

This was a weak answer, but Gianni seemingly decided not to press the issue.

“A series of little things, I suppose,” he said. “First there were all those heart-to-heart chats we kept having, and the slightly flirtatious dissing. He smacked me into the fountain one time.”

“Into the fountain?” Toto laughed.

Gianni nodded. “With a football. Then he got a bit weird when I was hit by a car…”

Toto blinked. “You were hit by a car?”

Gianni waved this away. “It wasn’t serious. But, after that, he gave me this gift…”

Toto’s heart faltered again. He gave you a gift?

“It didn’t last forever,” Gianni went on, “it was just a quick thing that he made himself. It was a pendant made of a little bit of driftwood; he’d engraved it with a drawing of a cat under the stars. I wore it for months, until it eventually fell apart.”

A pendant. He gave you a pendant.

“Of course, I didn’t really know for sure,” Gianni said. “I wanted to believe he liked me, but it could have meant anything, you know? We might just have been really good friends.”

“Good friends… yeah…”

Unconsciously, Toto reached for his own pendant and started to fiddle with it. “Thanks, Gianni,” he said, turning to leave. “I’ll see you later.”

Gianni nodded, watching him go with ill-concealed curiosity.

* * *

Toto didn’t get far. Claudia had appeared outside the restaurant, and now she waved him over. She had an expensive-looking camera around her neck.

“Ciao, Toto! How are you?” she said cheerfully as he approached.

“Fine, I guess. You?”

“It’s all good. What are you doing this afternoon?”

“I don’t know. Nothing, really.”

“Let’s hang out, then. Come in for a bit?”


Toto made to walk into the restaurant, but she stopped him. She took his pendant in hand and examined it.

“I like this… hey, it’s just like Michele’s!”

Toto nodded, and told her all about his odd meeting with Michele after the trip to the beach. When he had finished, her eyes were round with interest.

Michele gave you this? That’s pretty weird.”

Toto spread his arms to show the extent of his own confusion. “Tell me about it.”

“You don’t think… could you have been wrong about him this whole time?”

“It doesn’t seem very likely, does it?”

They stepped into the relative gloom of the restaurant’s interior; after several hours outside, Toto relished the blast of cool air from the air conditioning.

“What are you doing here anyway, Claudia?” he asked.

Claudia waved her camera at him. “I’m doing a study of urban details,” she said. “Shutters, archways, that sort of thing. Even funny little things like interesting drain covers.”

“Drain covers, wow,” Toto said knowingly. “That sounds fascinating.”

Claudia cuffed him playfully about the back of the head. “A photographer needs to see beyond the obvious.”

“But why here?”

“Pietro gives me free meals sometimes,” she whispered.

“I’ve already eaten,” Toto said.

“Then I’ll get it to go.”

Now that Toto’s eyes had adjusted, the restaurant no longer seemed gloomy. By day, it was brightly lit and breezy. By the evening, the lights would be lowered to make it feel more intimate.

Pietro and Anna seemed to have taken inspiration from the décor of the Rossi family home, which Toto had visited a couple of times in the past. The whitewashed walls of the restaurant were lined with black and white photos of Italian movie stars. The partially vaulted ceiling gave the impression of a series of booths, under which the tables were separated from one another by tropical-looking pot plants. Patches of a stronger, reddish purple sort of colour lined up with the vaulted sections of the ceiling and an eclectic array of lamps lined the walls. The air was full of the delicious smell of freshly prepared food, which would have made Toto’s stomach growl were he not already fully loaded with toasted sandwich.

Pietro was leaning against the corner of a C-shaped bar, supervising the waiting staff, and standing ready to handle the money and to provide backup if things got too busy. Anna was behind the bar, apparently in the subservient position, but Toto suspected it was she who really kept things running to plan.

Anna beamed as they approached. “Ciao, you two,” she said. “What brings you here today?”

“Just my little sister, scavenging for favours again,” Pietro sighed good-naturedly. “Will it be two free meals today?”

Claudia shook her head. “Just something quick and easy for me, please, Pietro.”

“I think we over-ordered on pancetta and eggs,” he said. “How about a nice Carbonara?”

“That sounds great. Please can I have it to go?”

Pietro bowed. “Your wish is my command,” he said, and he set off for the kitchens, where Toto imagined Marta was already holding court.

“That’s a pretty good scheme you’ve got going,” Toto said to Claudia. “Maybe I should persuade Papà to open a restaurant too.”

Behind the bar, Anna laughed. “I can’t imagine that.”

Toto nodded. “You’re right, he’d scare the customers off.”

“Oh!” Anna scolded him, “you know that’s not what I meant.”

“Are you ready for Gianni’s birthday party, Anna?” Claudia asked.

Anna nodded. “We’ve got almost the whole restaurant reserved for it,” she said. “Gianni kept telling us not to make such a fuss over him, but Angelo told him to stop being so British. I think he’s given up fighting it now.”

Toto laughed.

“Will you be coming, Toto?” Anna asked.

Toto nodded. “I’ll be there. Will there be presents?”

“Just get him something small.”

Pietro reappeared a few minutes later with a portion of glossy spaghetti steaming in a cardboard street food tray. He handed it to Claudia, along with a paper napkin and a wooden fork.

“Don’t get your lunch all over that camera,” he warned her. “I don’t think Mamma would be very happy if you did.”

Claudia rolled her eyes, sweeping her lanyard round so the camera hung under her arm. “I would never have thought of that. Thanks for the food, Pietro.”

“Any time,” he replied, “as long as it’s a long time from now.”

Claudia stuck out her tongue at him and they left. Laughing, Anna waved them off.

They made their way back outside and took the lower, less busy route back to the square, passing the ceramics workshop once again. Claudia cast her eyes about for suitable details to photograph later, pointing out the steel pigeons welded to the tops of some of the ornate lamp posts and a wrought iron fanlight above a green wooden door. Sadly, no interesting drain covers were forthcoming.

Reaching the square, they sat down on a bench under the umbrella pines while Claudia finished her takeaway spaghetti meal. Toto thought she handled it pretty well, as the splattering was kept to an absolute minimum. When she had finished, Claudia disposed of the food tray in a nearby litter bin and cleaned her fingers with the napkin before taking out her camera.

Looking for further details, they continued across the square and wandered down the shady lane next to the Villa Rufolo gatehouse, passing colourful flowerbeds at the edge of the square. They lingered near an opening in the stone wall on the left which led to the Bishop’s Way, a secluded woodland stairway that leapfrogged the tunnel out to the bus stops on its way up to the top part of town. Claudia became interested in the way the stone wall was bonded at the corner, and the way low lights had been set into the walls to avoid cluttering up the natural-looking scene.

Temporarily at a loose end, Toto lingered in the lane, hands in his pockets. Idly, he glanced out towards the sunlit square and was shocked to see two familiar figures approaching: Michele and his mysterious girlfriend, talking intently to one another. Because of the high contrast between the sunlight and the shade, they hadn’t spotted him yet.

Toto hurried up the side turning and ushered Claudia away from the opening.

“What’s going on?” she said.

“Shh!” Toto hissed.

They flattened themselves against the wall as Michele and the girl came into view. They paused in the lane below.

“She’s pretty,” whispered Claudia.

Toto supposed she was, but he didn’t want to hear it. He was more interested in hearing what Michele and the girl had to say. They were talking quietly, and he strained to listen.

“I promise, I’ll tell him,” Michele said. “I just need to find the right time.”

The girl smiled, dimples registering in her cheeks. “That’s great, Michele.”

“We’ll talk again soon?” Michele asked.

The girl nodded. “Of course. Ciao, Michele.”

“Ciao, Bella,” he replied, and they embraced.

The bottom fell out of Toto’s stomach as he watched.

‘Bella’? You call her ‘beautiful’?

The couple parted. Michele headed on down the lane in the direction of home, while the girl turned and headed back towards the square.

Toto sagged down to the floor, his back sliding down the rough stonework of the wall. His face felt hot; he thought tears might not be too far away.

Claudia crouched down beside him, placing a comforting hand on his shoulder.

“This sucks, Toto,” she said. “Don’t worry. I’m going to find out who this girl is.”

She stood determinedly and, without another word, strode off down the lane in pursuit of Michele’s new friend.

* * *

Two years ago

Antonio’s greasy hair flies up as he falls to the ground. Enzo Palmeri stands over him, rubbing his knuckles where they have just contacted with his former friend’s face. The road to Scala lies below them both, and for the moment it is deserted.

“You touched Michele. It was you!” Enzo spits. “Michele did nothing wrong.”

Three days have passed since the incident at the Torre that left Michele hanging for his life at the top of the cliff. Since then, Enzo has been consumed by furious shame at his own cowardice in running away. For years now, he has styled himself as a brave and fearless person, a leader of men, but his own failure in the heat of the moment has shaken his confidence badly.

He has also become possessed by another thought. Even Toto, the fairy boy himself, would not have run out on Michele like that. In his own eyes, Enzo is now weaker than a scrawny little queer, and he can’t stand it.

These thoughts were so deafening in his mind to begin with that he did not even think to question Antonio’s account of the incident at first. However, since Michele fell, Enzo has relived those few short minutes on an endless loop and, as his mind has slowly recovered its ability to think, so he has begun to reconsider what he and Filippo walked in on. Enzo is not stupid: a part of his mind is coldly analytical.

For months now, Antonio’s sleazy gay jokes have shown just a bit too much interest to be normal, and Michele seemed far too young, shy and awkward to make the kind of move Antonio described. Enzo remembers the shrill squawk of Toni’s voice at being discovered, and Michele’s horrified reaction to Antonio’s accusation.

Now, Enzo realises he has been played. He and Filippo have been sheltering a pervert in their midst and he has fooled them both completely. Until now.

Antonio heaves himself shakily back off the tarmac.

“I don’t understand, Enzo,” he whimpers. “You know that’s not what happened.”

Enzo’s eyes blaze with fury. “I see through you now, Toni. It all makes sense. Your sick jokes, your obsession with those queer boys Rossi and Fortuna. You’ve played Filippo and me for fools.”

Antonio seems to realise he is beaten. “All right,” he says sullenly. “What if I did touch him? He’s just a little queer boy like his friend Toto. I was messing with him. It’s not illegal.”

Enzo advances on him threateningly, and Antonio stumbles back a step. “He’s fourteen,” Enzo says. “You’re worse than Rossi, Fortuna, Toto and all the others. At least they’re honest about who they are.”

“But, Enzo…” Antonio says weakly.

Enzo grabs Antonio by the lapels of his leather jacket – a fashion idea that he stole from Enzo himself. Enzo doubts that Antonio has ever had an original thought in his head, aside from his perverted imaginings.

“Get out of here, Toni,” he growls. “And if I ever catch you in this town again, you won’t even be able to describe the pain.”

Antonio’s bottom lip trembles. Enzo releases him in disgust, and Antonio turns tail and flees down the road, out of Ravello and out of Enzo’s life.

Copyright © 2021 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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Chapter Comments

Marta was a surprise, a very pleasant surprise.  She lends support to Toto, and good advice.  I was glad Toto got to spend some time with Claudia.  He needed her comfort when they both overheard Michele and the girl Michele called Bella.  Whether it was a name or a description we can't know.  I see two main possibilities for what she said to Michele.  She could be a friend or relative that Michele feels he can confide in and talk about his feelings.  If so, her advice might be for Michele to talk with Toto to let Toto knows how he feels now.  It is two years after the kiss, and Michele may feel nervous about revealing what he has decided.  We do have more evidence that Michele wants to be closer.  He definitely was flirting with Toto and there is the gift of a matching pendant.  One the other hand. Bella may be Michele's girlfriend and wants him to tell Toto about her relationship with Michele.  This chapter has some muddy water to settle before we can clearly see what is happening with Michele.  Great job keeping up the suspense.

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