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Together We Can Fly - 7. Chapter 7

The weekend arrived, which meant that it was almost time for Gianni’s birthday dinner. Gianni and Angelo had confirmed to all their guests that the evening meal at Da Rossi was to be followed by a late night after-party at the Villa Cimbrone gardens.

Since meeting Isabella, Toto’s spirits had risen considerably. While he still didn’t really know where he and Michele stood, he at least felt he had his friend back. As such, when he met up with Michele the following day, he assumed an apologetic demeanour.

“I’m sorry for the way I acted yesterday,” he said. “I wanted you to know that… well, I believe you.”

“Thanks, Toto,” Michele replied. “I’m sorry, too. I’ll make up for it soon, I promise.”

Toto decided not to mention, just yet, that he had met Isabella himself; there would be a better time for confessions. He contemplated the irony that he was now the one keeping secrets, and resolved to tell Michele all about it as soon as he could find the right moment.

On the Saturday morning, Toto woke up feeling excited for the evening’s festivities. With Michele by his side once more, he thought it would be a fun evening, but first there were some preparations to be made. He still hadn’t found a gift for Gianni, and he needed something smart to wear.

Because Gianni and Patrizia worked together, Daniele and his parents had also been invited to the dinner. Knowing how hard they worked, Toto and Michele had offered to take Daniele shopping for a gift and an outfit; they were all going to meet by the ceramics workshop a little later that morning and make a trip down to Amalfi together.

For the moment, Toto concentrated on a side project: making a birthday card for Gianni. He had decided this was the perfect application for his sketch of Alfredo the dog.

Toto cut the picture out carefully with a borrowed pair of pinking shears and mounted it to a piece of magenta coloured card he had unearthed from a box of old crafting materials. Using a silver pen, he inscribed the interior with a simple birthday greeting: Tanti auguri a te!

Pleased with his handiwork, Toto popped the card on his bedroom windowsill. He hoped Gianni would like it.

Having done that, Toto got himself organised to go out. He opted for jeans, a t-shirt and a bomber jacket – practical clothing for riding on the roads – and donned a rucksack to carry his shopping. He made sure that he had packed his bank card. He didn’t usually have a lot of money, but his father gave him a regular allowance, and he had earned a bit extra lately by doing a few shifts in the shop.

At the appointed time, Toto wheeled his Vespa out to the road by the ceramics workshop and waited at the bottom of the tree-lined street that led to the square.

He didn’t have long to wait. Soon, he heard the putter of a two-stroke engine and Michele appeared, riding his scooter into town from the direction of the main road tunnel. Toto’s heartbeat quickened at the sight of his friend, and he realised again how badly his doubts about Isabella had affected him before.

Michele pulled up next to Toto, and Daniele hopped down off the back of his scooter, beaming cheerfully: apparently, Michele had given him a lift. Today, Daniele was a vision in a breezy shade of orange.

“I don’t know if my eyes can take it, Dani,” Toto grinned. “Ciao, Michele.”

“Ciao, Toto,” Michele replied.

With some amusement, Toto noticed that Michele was dressed almost exactly the same way he was.

“Wow, Michele,” he said. “When it comes to clothes, I guess great minds think alike.”

“I don’t think there are any great minds here, Toto,” Michele replied. “Except maybe for Daniele.”

Daniele giggled. “Don’t be mean.”

“Michele couldn’t be mean, Dani,” Toto said. “He’s way too soft and fuzzy.”

Michele shook his head patiently. “I don’t think you could know that just yet, Toto,” he replied.

Oh, Jesus, there you go again… stop confusing me!

Daniele hopped on behind Toto. “Can I ride with you?”

Toto glanced at his friend. “Is that all right with you, Michele?”

Michele grinned. “Sure thing, Papà. I know my place.”

“Stop calling me that!” Toto called as, laughing, Michele turned his scooter round and started back down the road. Toto fired up his engine and set off in pursuit.

“Hold on tight, Daniele,” Toto shouted. “We’re not going to let him get away that easily.”

They set off at speed down the road into the valley, following Michele’s retreating figure. Soon they had swept past the main road tunnel and the Scala turning at the head of the valley. They descended into the olive trees and scrub, and Toto found that same feeling of freedom returning as it always did when he was riding.

As they descended towards the coast, the cliffs rose to either side, and soon they were sandwiched between the twin crags of the Villa Cimbrone and the Torre dello Ziro. Toto could see the Torre, just about, perched at the end of the cliffs, marking the watershed between valley and coast.

The sea was a sapphire blue as they burst out onto the final stretch of road that see-sawed down to the coast road at the village of Castiglione. Above and below, the houses that lined the road reached out towards the water, basking in the sun.

“I love this, Toto,” Daniele cheered from behind him. “I can’t wait until I’m old enough to ride!”

Toto would have replied, but he was busy negotiating the hard right turn onto the main coast road. From that point on, the narrow road became busy with traffic, and he had to concentrate carefully as they rounded its many twists and turns. A short distance ahead, he could see Michele doing the same thing.

They swept along the viaduct through the village of Atrani, its many crowded buildings bristling out of the steep valley sides; below, the grey sandy beach was dotted with visitors relaxing under serried ranks of blue parasols. Then they hopped through a narrow, echoey tunnel, and before long they were coasting down onto the seafront at Amalfi, where sparkling water lapped at the stony beach and visitors sheltered from the sun on a promenade of crooked pine trees.

They bumped along the seafront, where heat emanated from the dark grey paving slabs in waves. They parked their scooters among a long rank of them next to a pier where passenger ferries bobbed on the water, waiting to take visitors to Positano, Sorrento or Capri. They disembarked, and Daniele gave Michele back his spare helmet.

“It’s so hot down here,” Daniele panted.

“You’re right, Dani,” Toto replied. “I think we’ll all have earned a cold drink after this.”

“Or an ice cream,” Michele suggested.

They trekked back up the seafront and cut through among the buildings to the main square, where the black and white tiled façade of the town’s elaborate cathedral glared down from the top of a soaring flight of steps. There were crowds of tourists everywhere, coming and going from the square’s many bars, restaurants and shops. Instinctively, Toto and his friends bunched together, closing the gaps between them to avoid getting separated.

“What should we get first?” Toto asked.

“How about the clothes?” Michele suggested. He pulled a sheaf of banknotes from his pocket. “From Dani’s parents,” he explained.

They made their way up the heaving main street, passing shop after shop selling lemon liqueurs, sweets and soaps, wines, beachwear, ceramics and postcards. Eventually, the crowds thinned out a little and they stepped down into a quiet, air-conditioned clothing store.

The shop was mercifully peaceful after the madness of the public streets and spaces. Once he had recovered his wits from the onslaught of sights and sounds, Toto set to browsing through the shirts, watched by a well-dressed sales assistant standing by the cash register. Daniele stayed at Toto’s shoulder, while Michele concentrated on the trousers on the other side of the store.

Toto found himself drawn to a light blue, long-sleeved shirt which he thought struck the right balance between smart and casual. Finding one in his size, he crossed the shop and paired it with a pair of beige slacks. Finding a mirror mounted to one of the pillars, he held both items up against his body and nodded, satisfied.

“What do you think, Michele?” he called.

“Looks good,” Michele answered from across the shop, where he was now flicking through the shirts.

“Yeah, this’ll do,” Toto said. “How about you, Dani?”

“Umm…” Daniele stepped forward and pulled down a similar pair of slacks. He nipped back across the shop, and then returned to Toto carrying a matching shirt. “I’d like to dress like you,” he said.

“Okay…” Toto said slowly, flattered but slightly embarrassed at the same time. “I guess you could carry it off. It makes a change from tie dye, anyway.”

Michele appeared at that moment, carrying a pair of skinny jeans in a dark blue-grey and a stylish pleated shirt in white.

“Any good?” he asked.

“You’d look great in anything, Michele,” Toto said, “but it’s a good choice.”

Michele smiled. “Thanks, Toto.”

Daniele wasn’t sure of his sizes, so they waited while he visited the fitting room. He pulled back the curtain a few moments later and stepped out, hands in his pockets, shirt buttoned, trouser cuffs pooling around his socks. He seemed strangely muted without his usual colourful attire.

“Looking good, Dani,” Toto said.

“It’s put at least a year on him,” Michele whispered. Toto nodded.

Daniele smiled. “I’ll take them.”

* * *

Once they had bought the clothes, Toto stuffed their purchases into his rucksack and they browsed the gift shops in search of presents. Michele picked up a decorative bottle of dangerous-looking limoncello liqueur; Daniele chose a hand-glazed mug with a pattern of lemons on a navy-blue background; and Toto, torn between a ridiculous inflatable float in the shape of a turtle and a novelty apron featuring the manly chest and thighs of a Roman legionary, opted for the turtle.

Satisfied with their purchases, they foreswore Michele’s idea of an ice cream and adjourned, instead, to his mother’s bar for drinks and an early lunch. They perched at an outside table in the shade of the bar’s extendable awning, backed by pots bursting with clipped hedging and colourful flowers.

Catching sight of the new customers, Chiara emerged, pad in hand, hair tied up behind her neck and a pencil perched over one ear. She stopped in her tracks when she realised who the new arrivals were.

“Well, this is a surprise!” she said.

“Ciao, Mamma,” Michele replied.

She smiled. “What would you all like?”

“I suppose it’s no good asking for three beers?” Toto said, nudging Daniele playfully in the ribs.

“Bleugh,” Daniele replied, giggling.

Chiara laughed. “Ask me in a few years, Toto. Why don’t I get you a nice Lemon Soda?”

* * *

They rode back up the valley after lunch and parked their scooters in the wider section of Via Roma where Toto usually kept his. Having thanked them both for taking him out, Daniele shot off at once, eager to get his purchases home.

“I’m glad you guys are talking again,” was all he had to say before he left.

“Do you want to come to mine for a bit to wrap these things up?” Toto asked his friend.

Michele nodded. “Sure thing.”

They wandered companionably up the narrow street.

“I’m glad too,” Michele said. “When we’re not talking, it never goes well.”

Toto put an arm around his friend’s shoulders as they walked. “You can’t keep us apart for long.”

Michele accepted this gesture for a few moments, but then gently shrugged Toto’s arm off. He seemed troubled.

“Are you okay?” Toto asked.

Michele nodded. “Yeah,” he replied, but he avoided Toto’s eyes as he said it.

They reached Salvatore’s store, and paused to say hello to Toto’s father before letting themselves into the apartment and heading up the stairs. They both freshened up in the bathroom and then settled down in Toto’s bedroom, sitting at opposite ends of the bed. Michele shrugged off his bomber jacket and sat there in his t-shirt, inspecting his hands. For a moment, Toto was forcibly reminded of another memorable afternoon a couple of years ago, when things had not gone so well.

Even with that memory, all Toto really wanted to do now was lean across and kiss his friend.

“I’m sorry,” Michele said.

Toto blinked. “For what?”

“I don’t think I ever said sorry for the way I reacted when you kissed me that time.”

Did you just read my mind?

Toto was touched. “That’s ancient history, Michele,” he replied, “but thanks.”

“I was just a kid. I just suddenly had all these different feelings at once and I freaked out. And then I had to go off and blurt it out to Enzo.”

“It worked out pretty well for me in the end,” Toto said. “Thanks to you, I’m friends with Claudia, Gianni and Angelo and I’m out at home.”

Michele smiled slightly. “That’s just spin, Toto,” he said, but he did seem more cheerful after that.

They settled down to wrap their gifts. Toto showed Michele the card he had made for Gianni, and he was suitably impressed. All the while, Toto kept stealing glances at his friend. Every time they got close like this, a part of him still desperately wished that it could lead to more.

* * *

Michele left Toto’s apartment in the early evening to return home for a shower and a break before dinner.

The sun was low in the sky by the time Toto set out for the restaurant. He had bathed, put on his new clothes, and arranged his tousled hair as nicely as he could.

The shadows were lengthening as Toto stepped out into the street, but the air was still heavy and warm. The gift shops had closed and the narrow thoroughfare had fallen quiet, but Toto saw various people he recognised making their way towards the restaurant.

There was a shuffling of feet and Michele appeared around the corner. He had acquired Gianni’s grandmother Marina, somehow, and they were walking side by side. Michele had presented himself beautifully in his new clothes; his hair was soft and freshly washed, and his swift pendant was hanging out through the open top button. Toto hurriedly tugged his out, too. He watched his friend approach with a powerful longing.

“Ciao, Michele. Buonasera, Marina,” Toto said as they approached.

Marina smiled. “Another escort?” she asked.

Toto took up a position on her other side. “Yes,” he declared, “we’re your honour guard.”

Michele shook his head and laughed. “Ciao, Toto.”

They walked together down to the little square outside the church, where Gianni and Angelo were greeting their guests. Both were smartly dressed, and they were effortlessly commanding the crowd’s attention. Toto recognised several members of Angelo’s extended family and several of Gianni’s artist friends. It also looked like the hotel had released as many of Gianni’s colleagues as they could spare for the evening; Toto spotted Patrizia and Daniele among the crowd.

Toto, Michele and Marina approached Gianni, who already had an armful of gifts. Instead of trying to add to his burden, Toto offered to carry some for him. Gianni seemed glad of the help.

“Happy birthday, Gianni,” Marina said.

“Thanks, Nonna,” Gianni replied, embracing her.

“I can’t believe you’re twenty-four already,” she went on. “Why, it seems like only yesterday that you first arrived.”

Gianni smiled. “I know what you mean.”

Auguri, Gianni,” Toto chipped in, handing Gianni his card.

Gianni tore open the envelope and laughed as he saw the picture of Alfredo. Angelo stood at his shoulder and looked on.

“This is brilliant, Toto,” Gianni said. “I’m afraid the poor old chap is stuck at home tonight. There’s not much place for him at the restaurant.”

“It’s a hard life, being a dog,” Angelo remarked.

“I could take him out tomorrow morning, if you want?” Toto said. “I haven’t walked him for ages.”

“That’d be great!” Gianni replied. “Thanks, Toto.”

“No problem. I’ll come to your apartment.”

At that point, Anna appeared at the door of the restaurant.

“Okay, we’re ready for you now!” she called.

The guests streamed in, Toto and Michele among them, shoulder to shoulder. Pietro stood inside the door with a wooden crate, which they had thoughtfully provided to collect the gifts. Toto said hello as he deposited the pile he was carrying.

Anna had been right when she said they’d booked out most of the restaurant. Only the two outside tables were free; inside, the individual tables had been rearranged to form two long rows. The lights had been dipped and oil burners had been set out on the tables, replacing the bright, breezy atmosphere of the daytime with something more intimate and golden.

Gianni and Angelo took up a position together at the centre of one of the tables, and Gianni took care to ensure that Marina was seated beside him. Toto and Michele sat down together on the far side of the table, just down from Marina.

Toto was soon joined by Gianni’s former neighbour, Mrs. Deakes, who sat down opposite Marina, looking self-conscious in a floral dress. Toto smiled a greeting at her just as Claudia slid into the chair beyond her with a friendly wave at Toto and Michele.

“Ciao, Toto! Ciao, Michele!” said a younger voice.

Daniele and his mother had dropped into the two chairs opposite Toto and Michele. Further up the table, Marta had arrived next to Angelo, and the various Rossi cousins were filling in the remaining chairs. Behind them, the second table was quickly filling up with the remaining friends of the families.

“Ciao, Dani,” Toto replied. “Nice shirt.”

“Oh, my goodness,” Patrizia laughed, glancing from Toto to her son. “You’re identical. Now I understand your new look, Daniele.”

“No Paolo today?” Michele asked.

“No,” Patrizia sighed. “He works so hard, the poor dear.”

“At least Sergio gave you the night off,” Toto said.

Patrizia nodded. “He’d have been here himself if he could, but it’s getting so busy at the hotel now!”

Mrs. Deakes was attempting to communicate with Marina in her broken Italian.

“Please, call me Sharon,” she was saying.

“Sciaronna?” Marina asked, frowning.

“Close enough,” Mrs. Deakes replied. She turned to Toto. “Help me, please, Toto,” she whispered in English. “I’m going to be in real trouble here.”

Toto laughed. “I’ll do my best.”

When the crowd had settled down a bit, Pietro and Anna circulated with large carafes of water and baskets of artisan bread that gave off a tantalising, freshly baked scent. This was followed by the local red and white wine. Toto and Michele accepted a small glass of white wine each, although Toto had never really had a taste for it.

“Now we’re talking!” Mrs. Deakes said quietly to Toto, who grinned.

The first two courses arrived. They each waded through a plate of mixed antipasti and a choice of two pasta dishes. Toto opted for a seafood linguine, which was loaded with prawns, squid, octopus, mussels and clams tossed with garlic, chilli and ripe cherry tomatoes which burst with flavour.

Toto listened to the conversation unfold, helping Mrs. Deakes and Marina to talk as best he could, overhearing snatches from further down the table now and then. The wine was already doing its work, and tongues were loosening.

“So, what’s this I hear about you buying Salvatore’s whole stock of penis pasta shapes?” Toto heard Angelo ask his cousin Viola.

Viola, a bespectacled woman in her forties who was dressed in a bohemian style, looked mortified.

“It’s for my husband,” she squeaked. “Giovanni can’t get enough of them.”

“Wait a minute,” Angelo said, “he’s a chef, isn’t he? I hope he’s not serving them up to the guests at the Villa Maria.”

Toto exchanged a glance with Michele; he seemed to have overheard, too, and they both dissolved into fits of silent laughter.

“I probably shouldn’t have told Angelo about that,” Toto panted.

“Angelo!” Marta scolded her son but, judging from the hand she held over her mouth she, too, was trying not to laugh.

The choice of three main courses arrived. Toto chose a veal escalope in a mushroom sauce, served with spinach braised with garlic, oil and chilli. Next to him, Michele tucked into a plate of lamb chops with a pizzaiola sauce made with fresh tomatoes and herbs.

Gianni had now taken over helping Marina and Mrs. Deakes to talk. Toto tuned into their conversation as well, curious to hear what they had to say. With Gianni’s prompting, they seemed to be discussing their memories of him.

“Gianni always stood out from the other children when he was little,” Mrs. Deakes said. “With his mother’s dark hair and his father’s blue eyes, he was a handsome boy.”

Gianni cringed a little as he translated this.

“He still is,” Marina said warmly. Gianni looked like he was about to protest, but she was insistent. “You’re still a boy to me, Gianni.”

Marina gestured towards their host, who was refilling wine glasses on the other table. “That’s Anna,” she told Mrs. Deakes. “She’s mine, too.”

Mrs. Deakes considered the young woman for a moment. “You have a beautiful family, Marina.”

“Thank you, cara.”

“Gianni wasn’t just handsome,” Mrs. Deakes went on. “He was soulful.”

“Soulful?” Gianni echoed despairingly. Toto smiled at his obvious embarrassment. “Don’t you have any memories that make me sound normal, Sharon?”

“What’s normal, anyway?” Mrs. Deakes replied. “I wouldn’t change anything about you, Gianni.”

“What do you mean, soulful?” Marina asked.

“Gianni was never loud and raucous like the other boys. He preferred art and reading to sports; he had a great imagination.”

“Angelo has taught me a little bit about sports since then,” Gianni admitted.

“A very little bit,” Angelo chipped in from next to him, before returning to his own conversation.

Gianni elbowed him in the ribs. “Don’t you start!”

Marina rubbed her top lip thoughtfully. “Did you know, before Gianni left, that he was…” she tailed off, but Toto was left in no doubt about what she was struggling to say.

“Nonna!” Gianni protested. “Even I didn’t know that.”

Mrs. Deakes smiled. “When Gianni wrote to me to tell me he’d found a boyfriend, I was thrilled,” she said, “but not totally surprised. He always was such a quiet, sensitive boy.”

Gianni stared at her, looking a little stunned. “Well, that’s me told.”

Quiet, sensitive… automatically, Toto glanced at Michele, and was startled to see him glancing back. He froze awkwardly for a moment, and then wrenched himself away. His eyes found Daniele, who smiled at him.

“I’m glad it’s not my birthday,” Daniele said.

Dessert was served. Toto, who was starting to feel very full, braved a Tiramisu. Marina waved the desserts away; Mrs. Deakes pushed her chair back a little and rested her hands on her belly.

“If I eat any more, I’ll burst,” she gasped.

The sudden movement caught Claudia’s attention. She gave Toto and Michele another wave as she was presented with a fresh, glistening lemon sorbet.

“How’s it going, guys?” she asked.

“Good,” Michele replied.

“Make sure you behave yourselves down there,” she said. “I think I can tell where the naughty end of the table is.”

“Is she talking about me?” Patrizia asked, and they laughed.

Once everyone had finished and the tables had been cleared, Gianni, Angelo and Marta settled the bill, and then Gianni set to work on his crate of presents. He chuckled when he unwrapped Toto’s inflatable turtle.

“I wonder if Sergio would let me take this out on the hotel pool during the breakfast service?” he joked. “Thanks, Toto.”

It was fully dark by the time the assembled guests rolled back out into the street, but the night air was still balmy. The guests drifted into pairs and small groups, getting ready to make their way to the after-party. Anna had arranged to come with them, and Pietro waved them all off as he and the rest of the restaurant staff worked on the clear-up.

Gianni was standing with Marina, with the crate of presents in his hands.

“I’m going to walk Nonna home,” he said, “but I’ll catch up with you all soon. Angelo, can you lead the way?”

“Sure thing, G.,” Angelo replied. “Follow me, everyone!”

He turned and led the party on its way, taking them out to the end of the road so they walked up the wider, tree-lined street that led to the square. With the coming of the night, the place had taken on a magical feel. The decorative streetlights cast dappled shadows through the trees, and fairy lights twinkled among the branches. The mingled murmur of cheerful conversation washed over them as they reached the corner of the square, where the bars were doing good business, backed by the distant refrain of classical music emanating from the Villa Rufolo. The façade and bell tower of the cathedral glowed with accent lighting.

Toto walked side by side with Michele through the lively scene, followed by Daniele and his mother. Local children, who had been playing in the middle of the square, parted to let the company pass. Toto had a brief, crazy notion to reach out and take his friend’s hand, but he brushed the idea aside, blaming it on all the food and wine.

The sounds of the square receded as they embarked on the climb up to the Villa Cimbrone. As they wound their way up the twists and turns of the stone stairway, all fell quiet except for their quiet tapping of their footsteps and the chirp of nocturnal crickets in the trees and gardens. They passed under the brightly lit arches of the convent and heard a snatch of choral singing floating out from somewhere inside.

Michele seemed lost in thought, but not unhappy; he was glancing up into the canopies of the pines, contemplating their form against the night sky. He seemed so beautiful, and Toto watched him, a kind of peace upon him. In the future, he thought, these were the sort of moments he would like to remember, whatever paths their lives might go on to take.

Realising he was being watched, Michele glanced down and smiled, and suddenly Toto felt nervous.

“Look where you’re going, Toto,” Michele said. “You don’t want to fall up the steps.”

“You’d catch me, wouldn’t you, Michele?” Toto replied.

“I can’t move that fast.”

Soon they had reached the top of the hill, and the path levelled off. Angelo led them on past the vegetable garden and down to the villa gates, where the after-party awaited.

* * *

Toto had never been to the Villa Cimbrone by night before. The gates had been propped for them, opening on an enclosed courtyard, where an enormous umbrella pine loomed against the night sky. Ahead of them, the main central avenue through the gardens had been lit for the occasion. Recessed lamps at the bottom of the stone walls cast pools of light onto the ground, receding into the distance, illuminating the fronds of the hydrangeas growing on the other side of the path.

The atmospheric lighting exerted a powerful pull on Toto and the other party-goers. They drifted along the avenue, beneath hanging clusters of young grapes and wisteria flowers, until they were almost at the Terrace of Infinity. There, the lights led them down a side stairway to a lower garden where, by day, a small café bar served drinks to passing visitors.

The garden had been transformed with fairy lights and burning torches, casting a flickering, golden glow over the surroundings. The bar was open for the party, and cheerful music was playing. A few tables and chairs had been set up with candles in colourful glass jars, while the rest of the garden had been left open for mingling and dancing. At the lower side of the space, a row of trees framed a view across the Valle del Dragone, where the lights of Pontone twinkled white and gold in the darkness.

For once, Toto was struck by the scene; he thought he had never been anywhere so beautiful. He turned to Michele and grinned, drinking in the way the flickering light played on his chestnut brown hair.

“Kinda romantic, huh?” he said.

Michele shrugged with a smile. “You’re the expert, Toto,” he replied.

There was a clatter of feet as Daniele pounded enthusiastically down into the space and began inspecting the torches and the lights; Toto wondered whether, being from the city, he had ever been allowed to stay out this late.

The guests were all making for the bar, and Toto and Michele joined the throng. They were surrounded by cheerful conversation. Toto saw Angelo chatting to his cousin Fabrizio, a young man with a mane of curly dark hair who had been best man at Pietro’s wedding. Marta was attempting to talk to Mrs. Deakes, using the best English she could muster. Anna and Claudia passed by, both laughing at something one of them must have just said.

Once they had both managed to make themselves heard, Michele came away with an orange juice, while Toto carried a Cedrata, a cloying but refreshing soft drink made from the local citron fruit. They went to the chestnut railings overlooking the valley, contemplating the twinkling lights on the far side.

“Would you ever throw a party like this for me, Michele?” Toto asked.

“I’d do it for someone I loved,” Michele replied.

Toto turned his back to the view, sipping his drink and surveying the scene. The guests were already mingling, and a brave few were trying to start the dancing, bopping or swaying on the grass to the refrains of the music on the stereo.

“I think this would be a great place to fall in love,” he said.

Michele nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “I guess it would.”

There was a wave of applause as Gianni arrived, descending the steps in the light of the lamps mounted to the terrace walls. Angelo stepped forward to greet him, and they exchanged an enthusiastic kiss.

Toto laughed. “I would love to be able do that,” he said, “right in front of everyone. They’ve got some nerve.”

“Yeah, it’s great,” Michele said. He drained the last of his orange juice. “I’m going to take this back to the bar, I’ll see you in a bit.”

“Sure, okay,” Toto replied vaguely; he was distracted by the sights unfolding in front of him. Several of the guests were dancing now, but Toto gravitated towards Claudia and Anna, who were still talking cheerfully on the far side of the garden.

“Ciao, Toto,” Claudia said brightly as he approached. “Some party, huh?”

“Yeah, it’s awesome,” Toto replied.

“I was just telling Anna how I wish I’d brought my camera,” Claudia said. “Night lighting is hard to work with, but if I had my tripod…”

“You could get some great shots,” Toto agreed.

“Look at all these couples,” Anna said, smiling out over the dancing guests. “Angelo’s done well here.” She laughed at the sight of Fabrizio dancing with a young woman who, Toto was fairly sure, was one of Gianni’s work friends. “Why, there might even be a few new couples by the end of the night.”

Even Daniele had joined the dancing throng. He seemed to have acquired a younger girl of about nine, who looked utterly starstruck to have the attention of an older boy.

Daniele swept his blond hair back dramatically. “The name’s Ferrero, Daniele Ferrero,” he said, striking a pose, before beginning a complicated dance routine with much bopping of his arms and swaying of his head. The younger girl giggled, wide-eyed, trying her best to copy him.

“Oh, God,” Claudia groaned, “that was me once.”

Anna pulled her into a hug. “Don’t ever regret it,” she said warmly.

“Daniele’s got some moves,” Toto said, watching the younger boy.

Claudia took him by the arm. “How about it?” she said, “just for fun.”

“Oh, I don’t know…”

“Go on, Toto,” Anna laughed, “this is no time for pride.”

“All right,” Toto said reluctantly, finishing his drink.

Anna held out her hand to take Toto’s glass, and Toto allowed himself to be led onto the dance floor.

Fortunately for Toto, the music stayed upbeat, and he was spared the embarrassment of having to dance to a romantic number. He and Claudia bopped their way through two songs, and after a while he even began to enjoy himself a little. He took comfort from the fact that everyone was making a similar fool of themselves, fortified by several glasses of wine and a fair few cocktails and beers.

After ten minutes or so Toto made his excuses, explaining that he was wondering where Michele had got to. He couldn’t see his friend anywhere in the garden, and he cast his eyes about the surroundings. After a few moments, he thought he glimpsed movement up on the Terrace of Infinity, and he made his way back up the staircase.

At the end of the avenue, he found Daniele, who had managed to shed his admirer. He was hiding behind the columns of a temple-like structure at the top of the stairs, watching something with interest.

“Dani?” Toto started to say, but the younger boy shushed him, smiling and pointing out at the terrace.

It wasn’t Michele: it was Gianni and Angelo, who must have slipped away from the party to have a quiet moment together. They were standing by the balustrade, arms around each other’s waists, heads together, staring out at the view of the darkened sea, the star-laden sky and the rows of bright lights along the coast road far below.

“What a night,” Gianni said.

“I remember another night up here on this terrace,” Angelo murmured.

“The worst and best night of my life,” Gianni replied. “I’m thankful every day that it was you who found me.”

“Of course I found you,” Angelo said gently. “You’re my soulmate.”

They kissed again, slowly and for a long time. Toto would have been happy to watch all night, but he tugged Daniele gently away.

“Come on, Dani,” he whispered, “this is a private moment.”

“Aww…” Daniele replied, disappointed, but he came willingly enough.

Claudia met them halfway up the stairs. “Did you find Michele?” she asked.

Toto shook his head. “No,” he replied, feeling slightly concerned now. “I don’t know where he’s gone. He’s been a bit quiet all evening.”

“I’ve got some idea,” Claudia said. “Toto, would you come with us for a minute?” she asked, glancing at Daniele, who nodded. “We need to talk to you about that boy.”

“All right,” Toto said, a little puzzled.

Claudia led them back down to the party and then down a further flight of stairs, running her hand along a stone wall that separated them from the top of the cliff and the view across the valley. They turned off into a lower lawn where there were no other guests, although the party continued just above them; Toto could see the flickering torches lining the parapet.

“Sit down, guys,” Claudia said, and they all settled down on the grass. Claudia and Daniele perched together so they were both facing Toto.

“What’s going on, Claudia?” Toto asked.

“Toto, I know why Michele has been acting weirdly around you for the last few weeks,” she said.

Toto frowned. “Why? How could you know?”

Boys,” Claudia said, shaking her head despairingly. “It’s because he likes you, Toto.”

Toto was so thrown by this that he actually laughed. “You’ve got that backwards, Claudia. I’m the one that likes him, remember?”

Claudia grunted in frustration. “Toto, it’s true. I’m not making this up. It’s what Isabella’s been trying to persuade him to tell you all summer!”

Toto stared at her, temporarily struck dumb. The few confusing signs he had seen, he had brushed aside. At even the slightest possibility that she might be right, he was overwhelmed: his brain was clamouring, and his insides were fluttering with butterflies.

“But…” he floundered, “if that’s true, why couldn’t he just tell me?”

“You’ll have to ask him that yourself, Toto.”

“Ask him? But… this is crazy.” He turned to Daniele. “Dani, you can’t really think this is right?”

“He was looking at you all the way through dinner,” the younger boy said simply.

Toto wasn’t sure how to process this. At the dinner party, most of his attention had been focused on Gianni, Marina and Mrs. Deakes. Could Michele really have been watching him the whole time?”

“What should I do?” Toto asked lamely.

“Go and find him, Toto,” Claudia replied. “For whatever reason, this hasn’t been easy for him. He’s probably gone off somewhere quiet to think.”

Toto got shakily to his feet. “All right,” he said. “I’ll try.”

* * *

While Claudia and Daniele returned to the party, Toto went to the stairs and paused at the wall overlooking the valley, wondering where his friend might have gone.

He decided to keep skirting the edge of the gardens in the hope that he would find him. He made his way on down to the lower levels, skirting the cliff edge, the cheerful sounds of the party receding behind him, and it was then that he saw his friend.

There was only the moonlight to go by, but Toto could recognise Michele’s figure anywhere. He was standing alone on the lowest level of the gardens, on a secluded terrace at the end of an avenue of cypress trees, staring out at the view.

Toto moved quietly along the path and down the last few steps to the end of the avenue. Apprehensively, he slipped along the avenue, his shoes crunching softly on the gravel. He skirted a small stone rotunda containing one of the gardens’ many statues, little more than a domed shadow in the darkness, and joined his friend at the viewpoint.

“Ciao,” Toto said quietly.

Michele looked around, startled at being disturbed. “Oh… ciao, Toto,” he replied.

“Is everything okay?” Toto asked.

“Yes… no… oh, I don’t know.” Michele put a hand to his head ran it roughly through his hair. “This is killing me, Toto.”

Gently, Toto tugged his friend’s arm back down to his side.

“It’s all right,” he said. “I think I understand what’s going on now.”

Michele stared at him, his face pale in the moonlight. “How could you know?”

“Claudia,” Toto explained. “She made friends with Isabella. She knows.”

“And she told you?”

Toto decided there was no more time for secrets. “More than that,” he said. “She introduced us.”

Michele shook his head. “That’s incredible.”

“I know,” Toto replied, trying to lighten the mood. “She’s an evil genius.”

For a moment, Michele stared at Toto with the wide, worried eyes of a lost child. “I don’t know what to say, Toto.”

“Say something,” Toto entreated him. “Anything.”

“I… oh, where to begin? This is hard.”

Toto took a step closer. “How long?” he asked quietly.

Michele shrugged. “Few months maybe.”

“Months…? Why didn’t you…?”

Michele’s chest hitched suddenly. “This isn’t what I wanted, Toto,” he wept. “You’re the best friend I’ve ever had, but I liked the way things were before. It was simple.”

“Oh, Jesus…” Toto reached for his friend’s shoulders, wanting to give comfort, but then he hesitated and pulled back. “I know what you mean, I think… I remember how that felt… or at least I think I do.”

Michele wiped his eyes. “Really?”

“Yeah,” Toto nodded. “It threw me for a loop. Before I knew I liked you, I had no idea I was any different from anyone else.”

“So, you weren’t okay with it straight away?”

Toto shook his head. “I was scared. But… it’s not all bad, is it, getting those feelings for someone? I mean, isn’t it also kind of… exciting?”

Michele stared at him for a long, wordless moment. The air seemed suffused with a kind of electric charge, making Toto’s heart pound with suspense; he wondered if he had gone too far.

Michele gave the slightest of nods. “I guess it is, a little.”

As he had once before, Toto felt the same, inexorable sense of the landscape shifting beneath him, morphing into something new. He didn’t know whether to be excited, or frightened. In the distance, the quiet chatter of the party continued as if there was nothing unusual happening in the world.

“So… what happens now?” Toto asked, turning back to the view over the valley to quieten his clamouring mind.

Next to him, Michele moved ever so slightly, and Toto’s eyes widened as he felt his friend’s hand slip into his own. Time seemed to stop as their fingers laced together and, for a moment, there really was nothing else in the world: just Toto and Michele, standing on the moonlit terrace, staring down the valley towards the sea.

* * *

Nine years ago

Gianni Fortuna, aged fifteen, stands in the street outside his boyfriend Angelo’s house in Scala, the September sun beating down on the dusty road.

Angelo takes his hand, so they stand joined as one. “Are you sure you’re ready to do this?” he asks gently.

Gianni nods. “It’s been two weeks,” he says. “I can’t go on avoiding them forever.”

“All right, then.”

Angelo tugs him through the gates and onto the shady terrace at the front of the house, where the grapes hanging over their heads are almost ready for harvesting. He pushes the front door open and leads Gianni down the cool, homely hallway, past the cluttered telephone table with its address book, message pads and other odds and ends. They proceed through a door and step into the dining room, where Pietro and Anna are waiting at the family table with Angelo’s mother Marta and his little sister Claudia.

Marta rises from the table and gently ushers Claudia out, leaving her colouring half-finished on the table. Gianni supposes she will return to it later, after he has gone.

“Ciao, Gianni,” Anna says. “Come and sit down.”

Gianni and Angelo take their seats, facing the others. Anna offers Gianni a supportive smile, but he knows it is Pietro he really needs to reach.

“Gianni…” Pietro begins, measuring his words carefully, but Gianni interrupts.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I… I’m really sorry for ruining your wedding reception.”

Pietro exhales with relief. “Look…” he begins, his tone conciliatory.

“I realise now I shouldn’t have picked that moment to… you know… it was supposed to be your special day.”

Pietro raises a hand to show that he has heard enough. “Thanks, Gianni. You don’t need to go on and, for what it’s worth, I’m sorry I yelled at you. We accept your apology, don’t we, Anna?”

Anna nods. “Of course.”

“But what I’d really like to know is… how can the two of you…” Pietro frowns. “I mean, it’s so…”

“There’s nothing wrong with it, Pietro,” Angelo says, “not really.”

Pietro scratches his head, obviously struggling with the idea. “Do you truly think this is for real?”

“It’s real for me,” Angelo says firmly.

“And me,” Gianni insists at once. “I love Angelo. More than anything.”

As if to prove the point, Angelo takes Gianni’s hand again and lifts it up onto the table for them both to see. There’s silence for a moment.

“Well, there you have it, caro,” Anna says to her husband. “I saw it for myself on the night Angelo brought Gianni back home. These two are serious about each other.”

“I guess you are,” Pietro admits, “although you’re so damned young…”

“Pietro,” Angelo says, “I’d really like it if you could… you know… be okay with this.”

Pietro shrugs. “What choice do I have?” he replies. “It’s not like I can change it. It’s not what I’d have chosen for my kid brother. I mean… God… it feels like only yesterday you were still playing with toy cars.”

Gianni dares to raise an arm and put it around Angelo’s shoulders, pulling him closer. “We’re not completely done being kids yet.”

“No,” Angelo agrees, “there are still walls to climb… paths to explore…”

“…lemons to eat…” Gianni adds.

Angelo elbows him in the ribs. “Don’t start bringing that up again, pussycat.”

Pietro can’t seem to help a chuckle. Anna smiles.

“See, Pietro?” she soothes him, “they’re still the same two boys you thought you knew.”

Pietro gets to his feet, and the two boys follow suit.

“All right,” Pietro says, “we’re good for now. Thanks for coming by, Gianni. I’m glad we did this.”

Pietro extends a hand, and Gianni reaches out and shakes it.

“I guess I’ll go, then,” Gianni says. “Thanks Pietro. Thanks Anna.”

His cousin smiles at him. “Come again soon,” she says. “We’ll be moving out as soon as we’ve found a place of our own.”

Gianni leads Angelo back out onto the shady terrace. They pause to say goodbye and, before they know it, they have thrown their arms around each other.

“You were great in there,” Angelo says. “I think they really got it.”

Gianni’s spirits feel lighter than they have done in days. “I couldn’t have done it without you, Angelo.”

“I love you,” Angelo whispers in his ear.

They hear a quiet cough, and they both look up to find Pietro and Anna standing in the doorway. Anna is smiling.

“It’s sort of beautiful, don’t you think, Pietro?” she says.

Pietro shakes his head, a resigned sort of humour in his eyes. “Whatever you say, tesoro.”

Flushing with embarrassment, Gianni releases Angelo and takes a respectful step back, leaving the other boy looking a little ruffled but happy.

The visit has gone as well as Gianni could have hoped, but he suspects they have a long way still to go.

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. Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 
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Chapter Comments

1 hour ago, drsawzall said:

I have to believe that this is the best chapter yet, such a wonderous, beautifully written from start to finish. The setting eclectic, romantic and so entirely believable. The images were so realistic, I'm suffering jet lag as I tear myself away to type this comment.

The following was so thoughtful and poignant, well done Sir!!!

As he had once before, Toto felt the same, inexorable sense of the landscape shifting beneath him, morphing into something new. He didn’t know whether to be excited, or frightened. In the distance, the quiet chatter of the party continued as if there was nothing unusual happening in the world.

“So… what happens now?” Toto asked, turning back to the view over the valley to quieten his clamouring mind.

Next to him, Michele moved ever so slightly, and Toto’s eyes widened as he felt his friend’s hand slip into his own. Time seemed to stop as their fingers laced together and, for a moment, there really was nothing else in the world: just Toto and Michele, standing on the moonlit terrace, staring down the valley towards the sea.

How could you not fall in love??

https://www.hotelvillacimbrone.com

  

Thank you so much!

This is probably my favourite chapter too, but the part I was most pleased with is actually the dinner party scene. It hasn’t been much commented on, but parts of this story are definitely meant to be humorous, and that’s one scene where I felt that side of it really came together.

But maybe the jokes aren’t landing for anyone else. 😆

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It is one of the advantages of being the 'Old Troll' that my comments are not made for publication. I would never publish a story I had written without using a spell-check program like Grammarly as I realize my own failings. I only comment infrequently as a rule, picking out ONE error and try to do that as politely or as humorously as possible. My suggestions as far as an Author's work is concerned are just that – merely suggestions, not meant to be 'snarky' or mean at all. If, at any time an Author objects to my suggestions, I immediately cease making them and just sit back and enjoy the reading. James has mentioned that he appreciates my suggestions and really, I have found so few that it is almost a joke when I do spot one. Just as a side note, I try never to comment on punctuation as that is the La Brea Tar Pits of English writing.

Mr Will

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6 hours ago, drsawzall said:

How could you not fall in love??

Indeed!

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9 hours ago, Ivor Slipper said:

I suppose one thing in their favour is that they will not be trailblazers  thanks to Angelo & Gianni. Hopefully, they will not face too much antagonism. The main 'problem' may well be how Michele's parents react.

This is my concern and probably Michele's. What assurances did he give them two years ago?

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Awww. I love that Daniele decks himself out as a miniature Toto for Gianni's birthday (do I detect a slight case of hero worship?)

Oh, the seafood linguine at Da Rossi's! ("Hello, DoorDash?")

"Michele’s chest hitched suddenly. 'This isn’t what I wanted, Toto,' he wept. 'You’re the best friend I’ve ever had, but I liked the way things were before. It was simple.'" While love has sneaked up on Michele, he has resisted his heart's wish, which explains his recent moodiness.  Finally, when he gives in to his love, it's not with a hug or a kiss, but with a simple gesture: "Next to him, Michele moved ever so slightly, and Toto’s eyes widened as he felt his friend’s hand slip into his own." Michele is not as demonstrative as Gianni and Angelo, but I'm sure his love is just as deep.  He has seen what the future has held for his 24 year-old role models, and his eyes are cast on his--and Toto's--own destiny.

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On 6/15/2021 at 8:52 AM, Ivor Slipper said:

I suppose one thing in their favour is that they will not be trailblazers  thanks to Angelo & Gianni. Hopefully, they will not face too much antagonism. The main 'problem' may well be how Michele's parents react.

I think the only clue we have as to Chiara's reaction is Father Stephano's observation about "the kiss":  “I know Chiara well, and I’m sure she would understand.”  That said, I don't recall if Michele ever discussed it with her directly. Of course, if "a mother always knows," she may understand her son better than Michele thinks. (We have two more chapters to find out!)

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1 hour ago, travlbug said:

We have two more chapters to find out!)

There are still five chapters to go. Since Toto is now clued in on how Michele feels, you have to wonder what surprises are in store with so much of the story ahead of us.

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1 hour ago, drpaladin said:

There are still five chapters to go. Since Toto is now clued in on how Michele feels, you have to wonder what surprises are in store with so much of the story ahead of us.

"A novel in 12 chapters." Not sure why I remembered it as 9, but clearly, my bad:  I appreciate @drpaladin 's correction, and I echo his sentiments. 😊

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1 hour ago, travlbug said:

"A novel in 12 chapters." Not sure why I remembered it as 9, but clearly, my bad:  I appreciate @drpaladin 's correction, and I echo his sentiments. 😊

I confess I looked at the title page the other day otherwise I might not have remembered.

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4 hours ago, travlbug said:

Turns out that the beautiful Hotel Villa Cimbrone is on Via S. CHIARA! (A coincidence? 😉)

As Angelo said way back when he and Gianni first met, “half the places in this town are named after saints”. You’ll find streets in Ravello named after San’ or Santa Chiara, Barbara, Giovanni, Francesco, Martino, Trifone, Pietro, Cosma to name a few.

‘Chiara’ is just the Italian form of ‘Claire’. I believe the origin of the name may have something to do with ‘light’.

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Michele finally lets Toto knows that he loves Toto.  It is a touching scene. I enjoyed the build up to this moment.  Now they can begin building their lives together.  I did take some work on the part of their friends to help Michele and Toto.  I don't think that Marta will have any problem with their love, and hopefully Michele's father will be able to also accept it.  He is a loving father, and probably a bit more experienced in worldly manners considering his job and travels.  I wish the young men the best of luck. They do need to work on communications and trust, however.

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