Together We Can Fly - 6. Chapter 6
July rolled around with no change to the hot and sunny weather. By day, the numbers of visitors continued to grow until the hotels were full; and by night the stairways and lanes that bordered the Villa Rufolo gardens resounded with the distant sounds of classical music. The Ravello Festival was in full swing.
Salvatore knuckled down as his shop entered the busiest period of the year, and Toto helped him out as and when his father would allow it. Salvatore seemed content to let Toto do an occasional shift, provided he understood that it was strictly temporary, and that no long-term commitment was either wanted or sought.
As for Michele, Toto still saw him almost every day, but Michele still hadn’t told him about the girl he had been seeing, and Toto had heard nothing at all from Claudia since a short, inconclusive text message a couple of days ago: No news yet. I’m working on it. Need more time.
The knowledge that Michele was keeping secrets from him – especially over something as important as this – was beginning to sap Toto’s goodwill during the time they spent together. Toto’s determination to remain a good friend to Michele, no matter what, was being put to its toughest test yet.
It was the day before Gianni’s art exhibition, and Toto was on the road again, riding his Vespa down the Valle del Dragone with Michele riding ahead of him. Daniele was mounted behind Toto, arms closed tightly about his waist, and for once Toto was relieved to have the younger boy along to distract their attention.
Remembering Daniele’s request to visit the Torre dello Ziro, Toto had put the idea to Michele, not really believing he would go for it. To Toto’s surprise, Michele had agreed at once; he said that he no longer felt particularly afraid of the place.
“Anyway, I’ll feel safe if I’m there with you,” he had said earnestly. In spite of everything else that was on his mind, Toto was touched by his friend’s trust, and found that he couldn’t bring himself to argue.
“Whoah!” Daniele whooped as Toto turned his scooter briskly into a double hairpin bend just before the Pontone turning.
Toto laughed. “Keep holding on, Dani!” he called, although there was really no need: the younger boy was gripping him so tightly that it was hard to breathe.
Before long they were climbing up into the quiet village, approaching the head of the rocky, tree-crowned crag that had haunted Michele’s dreams until a few weeks ago. Since their visit together, Michele had told Toto, the recurring dreams of falling had completely stopped.
They parked their scooters near the old church once again and took a few moments to lock them up and put away their helmets.
Michele was looking good in skinny jeans, a white t-shirt and a light bomber jacket, while Toto wore shorts, a polo shirt and a rucksack containing three bottles of water. Daniele’s tie dye of the day was a light shade of teal. Enthusiastic as ever, Daniele was already leaning over the railings at the edge of the road, looking down onto the cobbled footpath that they would soon be following.
“Is it a long way to the Torre?” he asked.
Michele wandered over to the railings and looked down with him. “Not so far,” he said. “We’ll be on the crag in a few minutes.”
“Is it scary?”
“Only if you’re a bit pathetic around heights,” Michele replied, looking up with a smile. “Right, Toto?”
Toto shrugged. “Sure,” he said neutrally. “It’s fine, I guess.”
Daniele looked up at him too, a slight trace of a frown clouding his usually clear brow for a moment. “Okay.”
Get a hold of yourself, Toto. Even the kid can tell something isn’t right.
Toto hitched a smile onto his face. “Let’s go, then.”
They climbed down the steps that led to the cobbled path. Daniele flitted about, inspecting the view across the valley towards Ravello one minute, absorbed in the plants that grew out of the scruffy stone walls the next. Toto and Michele walked side by side, companionably enough for the moment.
“Are you okay, Toto?” Michele asked quietly.
Toto shrugged again.
As the path passed under the old houses, Daniele became fascinated by the stone aqueduct that ran down one side of the street. He trailed his fingers in it, splashed the water onto his face and even tasted some.
“What’s the water like, Dani?” Toto asked.
Daniele considered this for a moment. “It tastes kinda earthy,” he said, “but it’s nice and cold.”
“It’s probably the only source of water they had here, once,” Michele said. “Can you imagine that?”
Daniele frowned. “Yeah, how would they flush the toilet?”
Both Toto and Michele laughed. Out of habit, Toto caught Michele’s eye, and for a few seconds things were okay again.
They wandered on down the path until they emerged from the village. Daniele made impressed noises as they reached the foot of the steep, zig-zag staircase up onto the crag. Toto and Michele climbed it slowly, while Daniele hurried on ahead, impatient to get through the gate.
Stepping through the gate, they made their way up the final flight of steps to the old stone bastion that they had paused at before. They found Daniele hunched over the low stone wall, peering down at the narrow, steep patch of rocky ground that separated the bastion from the sheer drop below.
“This is awesome,” Daniele grinned. “You can see the whole valley.”
Hands in pockets, Toto glanced at Michele. He might normally have tried to make a joke at this point, something about trying to defend a valley of this size with bows and arrows, but today he didn’t feel like it.
I don’t know where we’re going now.
They carried on, descending into a pine-scented clearing in the interior of the crag where a concrete viewing platform had been set up years ago; it looked rather abandoned now. Daniele explored this thoroughly, going up onto it and down under it, examining in detail some colourful mosaics that had been installed around the bottom. He picked up a few small pinecones as he went, shoving them in his pockets.
“Inquisitive, isn’t he?” Toto said to Michele.
Michele nodded. “He probably even finds school interesting.”
They followed in their own footsteps from their previous visit, taking the little path down the side of the crag to the broader trail that ran alongside the cliff. Before long, as the sheer drop drew closer, they were passing the spot where Michele had collapsed before. Toto kept a watchful eye on Michele as they walked but, apart from casting the odd sidelong glance at the drop-off, he seemed to be coping.
Michele, meanwhile, seemed to be keeping a nervous eye on Daniele in between glances over the edge. For the moment, however, the younger boy seemed to have decided to be sensible and was walking along the centre of the path more calmly.
Daniele stopped as he caught sight of the view down over Atrani that could now be glimpsed through the trees.
“Everyone looks so tiny!” he said.
“Wait until we get to the end,” Toto said. “You’ll see Amalfi too.”
“Cool!” Daniele replied, and he hurried on.
They caught up with him at the Torre itself. He was already halfway up the metal staircase to the viewing balcony.
“Come on, Toto,” Michele said anxiously, and they hurried to climb up with the younger boy.
There wasn’t really room for all three of them at the top of the stairs, but Michele seemed happier knowing that Daniele was within reach. Daniele leant on the railings, staring down at the panorama over Amalfi. The sun shone on the terracotta rooftops and the colourful parasols, and the beachgoers moved around like ants.
“You should have come down to Minori with us, Michele,” Daniele said. “It was fun.”
“Yeah, sorry, Dani,” Michele replied. “I had to be somewhere else.”
Toto glanced at him, frustration building in his chest.
Just tell us the truth, Michele. Why are you holding out on me?
“Michele had important personal business to attend to,” Toto said, a slight edge to his voice.
Michele glanced at him, his brown eyes registering something Toto couldn’t quite place – was he hurt, or was he worried?
Toto exhaled, feeling lousy for snapping.
I don’t like feeling like this.
“Ready to move on, Dani?” Toto said, with an attempt at cheerfulness as he tried to recover his composure.
Daniele glanced up at him. “Sure,” he said quietly.
They made their way back down the stairway and retraced their steps until the turning for the belvedere. Daniele seemed a little subdued now, but he still looked about him with interest as they climbed through the trees.
Some of the younger boy’s earlier enthusiasm returned as they reached the rocky clearing at the top of the crag. He hurried down onto the belvedere platform, Toto and Michele in hot pursuit, and leant on the railings, his face alight with pleasure.
“It’s so cool!” he said. “You can see Amalfi and Atrani.”
Toto ruffled the younger boy’s mop of blond hair. “I’m glad you like it, Dani,” he said. “Was it worth the climb?”
Daniele nodded eagerly. “Totally.”
Toto retired to the clearing, leaving Daniele and Michele looking out at the view together, and took off his rucksack, crouching down to look for his bottle of water. He sat down on the ground and was just settling down for a drink when he heard footsteps approaching. He was surprised to see Daniele sit down next to him.
“I thought you’d still be admiring the view,” Toto said.
Daniele shook his head. “Something’s wrong, isn’t it?” he asked, fiddling with a loose stone on the ground. “You and Michele are hardly talking.”
Toto looked down, feeling ashamed of himself. “Sorry, Dani. I guess we’re not much fun today.”
“Is it my fault?” Daniele asked anxiously.
“No!” Toto said at once. “It’s us. There’s something I need Michele to tell me.”
“Oh,” Daniele frowned, flicking the stone away. “Can’t you just ask him?”
Toto looked at the younger boy for a while. He made it sound so simple.
“You’re right, Dani,” he said. “Maybe I will.”
There were further footsteps as Michele appeared at the top of the belvedere steps.
“I was all alone down there,” he said, looking at them curiously. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” Toto replied, holding out Michele’s bottle. “Water?”
* * *
As they made their way back down the crag a while later, Toto considered Daniele’s suggestion. He began to feel stupid for suffering in silence while he waited for Michele to come out with the truth on his own. He weighed it up as they trod the stone steps, kicking up a gentle scent from the fallen pine needles that littered the path.
By the time they had returned to the old stone bastion near the front gate, Toto had made up his mind to spit the question out and be done with it. Then, perhaps, he could stop torturing himself and get on with being whatever kind of friend Michele really wanted him to be.
“Who is she?” Toto asked Michele as they climbed the last flight of steps, trying his best to keep his voice light.
Michele looked up in surprise. “Who?”
“The girl you’ve been seeing. The one you call ‘Bella’.”
“How do you…” Michele began, then his voice hardened a little. “Have you been spying on me?”
Daniele glanced up at them both, and then retreated to the bench under the pine trees, looking uncomfortable.
“I haven’t been spying on you!” Toto replied, incensed. “I’ve just seen the two of you about town.”
“Then how do you know what I call her?” Michele pressed.
Toto sighed. “Look, I was there the other day, okay?” he admitted. “Just around the corner. I saw the two of you coming and I didn’t want to just run into you like that, so I got out of sight. I saw you hug her, and I heard what you said.”
“That kinda sucks, Toto,” Michele replied, turning away.
“So does keeping secrets from your best friend.”
“Guys…” Daniele said, but neither of them answered him. He got up again and wandered miserably towards the exit.
“It isn’t that easy, Toto,” Michele said, glancing back at him. “There’s stuff I’ve been trying to -”
“What, Michele? Why couldn’t you tell me?” Toto burst out. “You even promised her you would. You know how I feel about you, even though you’ve never felt the same. The least you could have done is put me out of my misery and told me when you got an actual girlfriend!”
“She’s not my girlfriend!” Michele shouted.
This took the wind out of Toto’s sails. He stared at his friend for a few moments.
“I don’t believe you,” he replied. “If there’s nothing to hide, why keep it a secret?”
Toto thought he saw a tear at the corner of Michele’s eye; the other boy rubbed it away frustratedly. “I – I’m trying, but I can’t explain. I need a few more days. Please, Toto.”
“All right,” Toto said doubtfully. “A few more days.”
Michele seemed relieved. He shoved his hands in his pockets.
“Why do you like me anyway, Toto?” he mumbled. “It’s not like I’ve ever given you anything in return.”
“That’s not true,” said Toto. “You’re the best friend I’ve ever had.”
“You know what I mean.”
What can I say? That it started out as a simple crush, but then everything we’d ever shared came piling in and soon I was head over heels? I can’t put that into words just now. Not like this.
Michele turned away and rubbed his eyes some more, leaving Toto feeling wretched. He still wasn’t sure he believed what his friend had said, but Michele seemed so desperately upset now that Toto didn’t have the heart to press the issue.
“Where’s Dani?” Michele said after a few moments, looking up in concern.
Toto cast his eyes around the deserted bastion and looked both ways along the path. There was no sign of the younger boy. Only the insistent scraping of the cicadas pierced the silence.
“Oh, crap,” he said. “Dani?” he called, “Daniele?”
“Where’d he go?” Michele breathed.
“I think he went this way,” Toto said, moving towards the exit. “Come on!”
They hurried on towards the steep steps that led down from the bastion towards the front gate. Anxiously, Toto peered over the stone wall next to the stairs, where a thin strip of uneven ground and trees was all that separated them from the sheer drop to the valley bottom.
“Daniele?” he called again.
“Over here! Come and look.”
Toto and Michele turned in relief towards the sound of Daniele’s voice, and Toto saw the younger boy’s blue eyes peeping back at them from a small opening, half-concealed by scrub, in the rocks below the bastion.
Toto stared back at the younger boy, realising that to get to the opening, he must have climbed over the wall and scrambled along the rocky ledge with the drop at his back.
“Daniele, what are you doing?” Michele protested. “That looks really dangerous!”
“It’s my new secret place,” Daniele’s voice floated back.
“I’ll get him,” Toto said, glancing at his friend.
Michele nodded. “Be careful.”
Toto scrambled over the wall and edged gingerly along the ledge, keeping hold of the stonework and rocks for support. Daniele waited expectantly for him at the opening.
“Come back with me now, Dani,” Toto said, offering the younger boy his hand.
“Come and see inside first,” Daniele replied, disappearing into the opening.
“All right,” Toto replied, “just a quick look, and then we’re going.”
He stooped into the opening and found himself in a small cavern under the bastion. A second opening through the rockface formed a sort of window that provided a vantage point down over the valley. The space was dry, cool and gloomy apart from the beam of sunshine that streamed in through the window. It smelled of stone dust.
“Neat, isn’t it?” Daniele asked, kneeling by the window and looking out. “I wonder what they used it for?”
“It’s great, Dani,” Toto replied, “but you shouldn’t have climbed over that wall. We were both worried you’d fallen or something.”
“Sorry,” Daniele said.
“Let’s go back now, before Michele thinks I’ve fallen too.”
They scrambled back out through the opening and held hands as they shimmied back along the ledge. Michele breathed a sigh of relief as they both clambered back over the wall to join him.
“Thank God,” he said. “Don’t do that again, you two.”
“I’m sorry, Michele,” Daniele said in a small voice. “I just wanted to leave you guys alone for a bit.”
“Look, Dani,” Toto began uncertainly; he glanced at Michele, who nodded encouragingly. “We’re sorry too. We’ve talked… I think we’re okay for the moment.”
They began to descend the stairs towards the gate. After a few moments, he felt Daniele’s hand slide into his own; he wondered how much of their conversation the younger boy had overheard.
* * *
That night, Toto prepared himself to wait. Michele had asked for a few days, and he would give him that chance.
She’s not my girlfriend, Michele had insisted. Toto turned this over in his mind as he lay in bed. Could it really be true? If so, why had Michele been so secretive about meeting her?
Toto picked his pendant up off his bedside table and examined it in the glow of his bedside lamp. He didn’t think he could bring himself to hope… not yet.
After a while, Toto slept. In his dreams he flew: as a swift, he arced gracefully across the sky, the whole coast spread out below him, the people just tiny specks on the ground below.
When he woke, he couldn’t remember whether they had flown together, or whether he had been alone.
* * *
The next morning, Toto got up late. Michele was spending the day out with his father, so they would not be meeting up. He showered and sat down to a leisurely breakfast of a sweet apricot croissant and tangy grapefruit juice.
Toto passed the first part of the morning at home, reading or working on his drawing. Without a landscape to copy, he had to work from his imagination. For a few minutes, he considered attempting a portrait. If he closed his eyes, he could picture Michele’s face perfectly, so often had he studied it; however, he knew there was no way his untrained hands could realise what he saw in his mind’s eye.
In the end, he settled for a sketch of Gianni’s dog, Alfredo. He pictured the little terrier cross carefully in his mind, from its beardy face to its coarse white fur and the black spot on its right flank.
Putting pencil to paper, he worked on the drawing for about half an hour, drawing the animal in profile. When he had finished the sketch, he looked at it critically; it was recognisably Alfredo, he thought, although a moderately talented twelve-year-old could probably have done just as good a job.
When the church bells struck half past ten, Toto decided that it was time to go and see some proper art instead. He ventured out, making for the church where Gianni was holding his exhibition.
The morning sun was already warming the crooked paving stones of Via Roma. Toto made his way down the shopping street, passing under the cool shade of the overhanging buildings until he emerged next to the restaurant and the church, where the doors were already open. Toto wandered in and looked around.
The tall, narrow space was light and airy, with whitewashed walls and pale marble pillars. Easels had been set up along the walls, displaying several of Gianni’s drawings and paintings. At the back of the church, a selection of mounted prints was for sale. The room wasn’t at all crowded, but a handful of people, a mix of locals and tourists by the looks of it, were browsing the art. Gianni himself was deep in conversation with a middle-aged woman up by the altar. Closer at hand, Toto recognised the blond heads of Daniele and his mother, and he gravitated towards them.
The two of them had been admiring a detailed landscape drawing of the view across the valley to Scala from the cathedral square. The terraced plantations and the looming rear façade of Scala’s own cathedral were instantly recognisable.
Patrizia looked up and smiled as he approached. So did Daniele, his naturally sunny nature shining through once again; apparently, Toto and Michele had already been forgiven for the dismal mood yesterday.
Toto smiled back at them. “Ciao,” he said.
“Buongiorno, Toto,” Patrizia replied. “Daniele told us how much he enjoyed visiting the Torre yesterday. Thanks for taking him.”
Toto gave the younger boy a quick squeeze about the shoulders. “Dani was no trouble.”
Okay, there was that business with the cave, but fair’s fair... it sounds like you haven’t told tales about Michele and me.
“Gianni’s very good, isn’t he?” Patrizia said. “I mean, it’s all incredibly detailed. I’m not sure I’d put a pencil drawing on my wall, but they’re lovely to look at.”
“I would,” Toto said stoically.
“You’re sweet,” Patrizia said, “but I prefer his paintings. They’re a bit more impressionistic.”
“What about you, Dani?” Toto asked.
Daniele took Toto’s hand and dragged them both back towards the doors, where a small, framed drawing stood alone. It was a much simpler sketch featuring the cathedral, captioned Gianni’s first drawing of Ravello, aged fifteen.
“I like this one,” Daniele said.
“Oh, Jesus…” Toto said, his eyes lingering on the three figures depicted in silhouette, particularly the two younger boys depicted in the background. “I’ve seen this one before. Let’s move on…”
“Hey, Toto,” Gianni called. “Come on over!”
Toto shrugged and smiled at the others. “See you later, I guess.”
“Ciao, Toto,” Daniele said.
Hands in the pockets of his shorts, Toto walked up the aisle to join Gianni and his guest. As he approached, he realised they were speaking English. Unprepared for this sudden test, he did his best to switch his brain into linguistic mode as he closed the last few paces.
Gianni grinned as he approached. “Toto, this is Sharon Deakes,” he said, “an old neighbour of mine from London.”
The woman had a round, friendly-looking face and a ruddy complexion. Her hair was a dirty blonde colour and she looked like she had caught the sun.
She smiled a little anxiously. “Hello.”
Toto nodded. “Buon – I mean, pleased to meet you.”
“Toto’s an ace linguist,” Gianni said. “He can speak English, French and, ah –”
“I’d like to learn Greek,” Toto supplied. “But I’m not that great really.”
“Well, you’re doing better than me,” Mrs. Deakes said bashfully, “I’ve been trying to learn a bit of Italian, but I’ve never had a head for languages.”
“What – ah…” Toto searched for the words. “What brings you to Ravello?”
“I’ve wanted to visit for years,” Mrs. Deakes replied. “Gianni’s letters always made it sound so beautiful here – and it turns out he was right. When he told me he was exhibiting his art, I had to come.”
“Do you write to each other a lot?” Toto asked, surprised.
“After my parents died,” Gianni explained, “Mrs. Deakes…”
“Call me Sharon, Gianni,” Mrs. Deakes objected.
Gianni nodded graciously. “Sorry, old habit. Sharon looked after me until I was ready to move here, and we’ve stayed in touch. I’ve known her all my life. She used to babysit me sometimes.”
“Babysit?” Toto asked blankly.
“You know,” Gianni said. “Look after me when my parents went out.”
“You were such a lovely little boy,” Mrs. Deakes said wistfully, “those blue eyes…”
“Oh, please…” Gianni said, flushing.
Toto laughed. “Do you know any really embarrassing stories about Gianni?” he asked hopefully.
“Oh, I couldn’t,” Mrs. Deakes chuckled.
“Sharon is sticking around for my birthday dinner, too,” Gianni said.
“Gosh, that’s true,” Mrs. Deakes gasped. “After I’ve had a few glasses of Italian wine, Toto, I might tell you anything!”
Gianni glanced uneasily from one to the other. “Maybe I’m starting to regret this a little…”
Toto fixed him with his best evil grin.
Mrs. Deakes turned back to Gianni. “Now, tell me, when am I going to meet this Angelo you’ve told me so much about? I’m dying of curiosity…”
At the sound of his name, Toto turned to look at the entrance. Daniele and his mother seemed to have moved on, but Claudia had appeared in the doorway. She beckoned at him. “Come on!”
“I’ll – ah – see you later,” Toto said to Gianni and Mrs. Deakes, and they waved him off.
“What’s up, Claudia?” he asked quietly.
Claudia looked oddly excited. “Can you come with me?” she whispered. “There’s someone I’d like you to meet.”
* * *
“What’s this about, Claudia?” Toto asked.
Claudia led them out onto the lower route to avoid the crowds on Via Roma.
“Just come on, Toto. I said we’d meet her at eleven o’clock and we’re already late.”
“Her…? What? Who?”
Claudia led Toto past the ceramics workshop and up the tree-lined street that led to the square. Instinctively, they moved from shadow to shadow against the heat.
A group of pigeons fluttered away as they strode into the square. The cicadas droned on in the umbrella pines as Claudia led Toto straight across to the old stone guard tower in the far corner, making for the Villa Rufolo gardens.
“Claudia, slow down! Stop being so weird!” Toto panted.
They passed through the gates at the bottom of the tower and entered the shady driveway that led to the villa itself, which was a sprawling, creeper-covered pile full of odd angles and secluded courtyards. Claudia paused at the small wooden entry kiosk, handing over a few Euros.
“Two, please,” she said.
Claudia took Toto’s arm and led him in through the villa buildings.
“Trust me,” she said, “this will be worth your while.”
Passing through a cloister of sorts and climbing a flight of old stone steps, they stepped through into the formal gardens. A winding path traced its way between colourful flowerbeds until they reached a scenic terrace, where a wooden pergola structure with proud stone columns framed a view down over the bright blue sea. On a lower level, the main festival stage dangled vertiginously over the hillside, but for the moment it was empty. By tonight, Toto imagined, the tiered seating would be full of music-lovers assembled for another full-blown classical concert.
Threading their way between the other visitors, Claudia led Toto down another flight of steps and into a quieter area full of palm trees and carpets of flowers in vibrant shades of red, white and purple. From here, the view down over the sea was framed by the twin domes of a little church on the hillside, bisected by another tall umbrella pine. It was a view that Toto had seen a thousand times before, depicted on postcards and calendars for sale in the town’s many gift shops.
But the postcards had never included a petite girl with glasses and a bob haircut.
She was standing against a rustic wooden fence, looking out at the view. At the sight of her, Toto’s heart froze for a moment. His first instinct was to flee, but it was too late. At the sound of their approach, she turned and smiled a greeting.
“Ciao, Claudia,” she said.
“Toto,” Claudia said, “this is Isabella.”
“Ciao, Toto,” the other girl said. “It’s great to finally meet you.”
“Isabella?” Toto repeated.
She nodded. “My friends call me…”
“…Bella.” Toto finished.
Toto gaped at her. He was completely at a loss. At the same time, he was marvelling at the cunning of girls. Claudia must have spent the last few days befriending this girl and getting to know her well enough that they might be introduced.
“Claudia, why…?” Toto began.
Isabella crossed her arms and sighed. “Michele still hasn’t talked to you, has he? That boy…!”
Toto shook his head. “Told me what?”
“It’s really not for me to say,” she replied. “But I’m going to kick his butt the next time I see him. He promised.”
“Not Michele’s girlfriend,” Claudia chipped in.
“No,” Isabella continued. “Just his long-suffering shoulder to cry on.”
“I thought that was my job,” Toto said in a small voice.
“Boys,” Claudia said, rolling her eyes. “Always so insecure.”
Isabella smiled wryly. “There are some things he can’t so easily talk to you about, Toto.”
“So, you don’t…” Toto began, “you know…”
“Hey, don’t get me wrong,” she said. “He’s cute as hell. I totally get what you see in him. But I’m not his type.”
Toto felt paralysed. “Yes, he is cute,” he echoed.
Claudia giggled. “That’s so lame, Toto. We’re talking about full-blown love here, Bella. This boy has got it bad for him.”
“Yeah,” Toto said, “I’m just lame.”
Toto turned away from the two girls and wandered among the flowerbeds. His face was hot, and his mind was in freefall. All the assumptions and resentments he had harboured for the last week or two were tumbling down, as if struck by an earthquake. He sagged down onto a stone bench in the shade of one of the palm trees.
Michele was telling the truth.
Toto felt tears spring to his eyes and he sobbed openly, furious with himself but, at the same time, completely unable to stop. The two girls remained at a tactful distance, talking quietly by the fence, the umbrella pine rising behind them like a strange green cloud.
Only once he had got himself under control did the two girls walk over to him. Isabella reached into her shoulder bag and offered him a bottle of water.
“Thanks,” Toto said blearily, taking the bottle from her and taking a thirsty gulp of it.
“You seem like a sweet kid, Toto,” she said. “Kinda got your heart on your sleeve there.”
Toto rubbed his eyes. “I’m supposed to be confident and sassy.”
“Hey, you can’t be both?”
Toto shook his head and looked gratefully at Claudia. “Thanks for setting this up.”
Claudia shrugged. “What are friends for?”
I think I’m starting to learn that…
* * *
Two (and a bit) years ago
It’s March, and one of the first truly warm weekends of the year so far. Toto Friuli, aged almost fourteen, and his friend Michele are wandering together on one of their adventures.
Following a well-worn route, they have taken the sunlit path through the hamlet of San Cosma, close to Michele’s home, which snakes around the bottom of the great rocky crag upon which the Villa Cimbrone gardens stand. To the left, the terraced hillside tumbles away towards the coast.
The first signs of spring growth can be seen among the carpets of bougainvillea and morning glory that hang over the walls, which have been largely dormant during the long winter months. The cicadas have yet to start singing, but the lizards have started to appear. Toto sees one of them now, basking in the spring sunshine. Speckly brown and patched with blue and green, it stares beadily at them as they pass, its throat pulsing. When they get too close, it skitters off to the crack between the rocks from whence it presumably came.
Companionably, they walk around the end of the crag and into the olive groves at the corner of the Valle del Dragone, which have long been one of their favourite haunts. As the concrete path becomes an earthen one, they take off among the trees, sitting down on the dry dirt and leaning against a gnarled old olive trunk.
“I can’t wait for the summer,” Michele says.
“Me too,” Toto replies.
“Senior school in the autumn, though,” Michele adds. “I’ll miss hanging out with you when we’re off at different places.”
“I’ll just be round the corner,” Toto says, “we can still be together before and after school.”
“No,” Michele teases. “Kids from the istituto tecnico don’t usually mix with kids from the liceo. You’ll be dead to me.”
“Are you kidding? You’d be lost without me, Michele.”
Michele reaches out and pushes Toto playfully to the ground. “Get over yourself, Toto,” he laughs.
“I’m just saying…”
From where he’s lying down, Toto watches as a large drop of water falls from the sky and explodes on the dusty ground in front of him, turning it a much darker shade of brown.
“Uh-oh…” he says.
He struggles back up to a sitting position and soon the raindrops are falling thick and fast, and getting faster. Both boys look up at the sky, where a dark grey raincloud has boiled up seemingly from nowhere.
“Oh, crap!” Michele yelps. “Let’s run for it!”
They scramble to their feet and run shrieking back along the lane, Michele out in front. His mid-blue t-shirt is getting heavy and dark, and his trainers are glistening with rainwater. His hair is getting limper by the second, losing its characteristic swept shape. Toto imagines that he probably looks just as bad.
They finally make it back out onto the road, and they pelt the short distance down the hill towards the bottom level of Michele’s house. He lets them both in via the sun terrace and they take refuge in his bedroom, leaving their sodden shoes and socks by the door.
They look at each other, barefoot and dripping in their sodden clothes, and they both begin to laugh madly, pointing at the sorry state they find each other in.
“Let’s get out of these clothes,” Michele gasps, and he grabs the neck of his soaking wet t-shirt and drags it up over his head. He chucks it into a corner on the ceramic-tiled floor and stands there in just his shorts, his chestnut-brown hair now sticking up in all directions, a skinny and lithe but awkward teenage figure.
The laughter dies in Toto’s throat as he stares at his friend. He has just experienced a physical reaction, something that affected his whole body from head to toe – something powerful and alluring that he has never felt before, and now blind panic threatens to overwhelm him. He backs away, eyes wide, as he tries to process what it means.
“What’s wrong, Toto?” Michele laughs. “You’re soaked. Get that shirt off.”
He reaches for Toto’s shirt buttons, apparently wanting to help, but Toto brushes his questing hands away.
“No,” he says quietly, “I’ll do it.”
He turns his back and begins to undress, his every sense on alert and his nerves jangling.
This wasn’t what Toto wanted, but something immense has just shifted beneath his feet, and now, he suspects, there can be no going back.
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