ICE CREAM, FIREWORKS AND FIRE-BREATHING DRAGONS
Summer started late that year. The very first day they were there a grey mist shrouded the village and hid the sun. No beach, no need of the sunscreen – cream to start, milk for later – they’d brought with them; the M&S bikini Ros had purchased at the very last minute in a shade of cerise she hated, that did nothing at all for her, but was the only one they had in her size. Of the Russian novel Simon had planned to read, sprawled under a striped umbrella.
Instead, they trod the cobbled streets wearing sweaters, the little boy strung between them. Briefly the mist lifted though it still clung to the mountain tops, bits of it breaking free and drifting down towards them.
“Hey, mummy, look. There’s a great big ball of smoke.” Sammy wriggled one hand free and pointed. “Where’d it come from?”
Dragons,” said his father. “They live up in the mountains, a family of them. See the caves way up there? That’s where they sleep at night. And because they’re fire-breathing dragons, every time they hiccup or sneeze enormous balls of smoke pop out of their mouths and roll all the way down the mountain.”
The boy’s eyes glinted with a mixture of delight and fear.
“What, real dragons?”
“Of course real ones. Like we’ve been reading about in those library books, remember?”
Sammy breathed out.
“For heaven’s sake.” Ros wasn’t smiling. “Must you always be filling his head with rubbish? Can you never tell things as they are?”
“No need. He’ll learn how things are soon enough.” Stupid thing to say. Even Simon could hear the tinge of bitterness in his voice.
We’re off already, he thought. To shatter the mood he bent and scooped up the child, swinging him around in an arc until they were both dizzy.
They stopped at a pasticceria, sat out on a terrace cluttered with huge earthenware pots, luscious greenery trailing everywhere, the husband and wife drinking tea, sharing a triangle of dark cake, Ros insisting she couldn’t eat a whole one, Simon fitting in. As usual.
“Can I have an ice cream?” said the boy. “Please?”
“Un gelato, per favore.” His mother corrected him. This was Italy after all; he must learn. He repeated it shyly. Jelly. Ah. Toe. It came in a little glass bowl, mounds of orange, green, pink, one white as a snowball. Sammy tucked in, elbows on the table, legs swinging.
“Sit still, Sammy,” his mother said. “And up straight, please.”
Simon looked away.
Later, dinner eaten, the child tucked neatly beneath a stiff white sheet, Simon and Ros went downstairs to the hotel bar, which was deserted. They’d heard it was always the same. It lacked atmosphere, the prices were criminal; most of the residents preferred to make their way to one of the nearby bars where there was laughter and smoke and you had to jostle for a seat, and actually met local people.
They had no choice. They couldn’t leave the boy alone too long, didn’t trust the hotel staff to keep an eye on him.
“We could take him with us,” said Simon.
“To a bar?”
“Why not? Bars here aren’t the same as pubs. And besides, Italians always take their kids with them.”
“Our son isn’t Italian.”
It was awful, this bickering, as quietly destructive as water dripping on a rock. They did it all the time. Simon wondered how they’d ever agreed about anything; about getting married, buying a Victorian house in the suburbs, so tasteful with its original cornices, oatmeal sofas, its fitted pine kitchen. About his changing jobs, though they hadn’t really agreed about that. Ros had sulked and refused to discuss it, so he’d taken that as an affirmative and gone ahead. And it had been a good decision. He’d hated the desk job, dealing with sales figures and growth charts. He was dying on the inside. Working with the homeless had brought him back to life.
Had that been the moment, though, when his marriage had started to flag?
Or was it when Sammy had become not just the next thing on their to-do list, but a reality, a pink, burbling, sometimes smelly, always smiling baby. That was one thing they’d agreed about, wanting a child. Just one, not a family: years of sleepless nights, soggy nappies, satchels on the banisters. No privacy, no time. Just one perfect child to complete their world.
During her pregnancy Ros had practised yoga, sprinkled wheatgerm on everything, sweetened her tea with blackstrap molasses. Simon’s gifts of her favourite After Eight chocolates were passed to a neighbour, doughnuts dropped into the bin. She resolved from day one that she was going to do it right. Her words: do it right.
“I want my baby to have the best possible start in life,” she said.
Our baby, he corrected her in his head. Ours. But didn’t put the thought into words. She was touchy in her pregnancy.
And he was a beautiful baby, hair soft and white, eyes golden, who grew quickly into an uncomplicated child, full of wonder. It was that Simon feared for most, that sense of wonder. Saw how easily Ros could crush it under a barrage of don’t, you mustn’t, leave that, sit still, be good.
Sometimes – just now and then – he imagined driving off in the night, he and Sammy. When a friend announced he was getting divorced, Simon felt a twinge. Regret for a once promising marriage? Or envy?
“We ought to be going up.” Ros drained her glass. “It’s late.”
Simon thought of other holidaymakers emerging only now from restaurants, heading for bars, or the village’s one small discotheque, or the beach to lie together on the cool sand watching the moon curve slowly across the velvet sky.
“Let’s go then.”
Ros went straight to bed, muttering about the mattress which she found hard as a board, though it was to be expected. These package holidays were a new thing, a wonderful idea, and cheap too, but you couldn’t expect luxury at that price. It would do. It would have to.
She took a sleeping pill.
Simon stood out on the small balcony listening to the lisp of the sea. Far out lights flickered like fireflies: fishing boats, he decided. He lit a cigarette – Ros didn’t like him to smoke, so he did it rarely and surreptitiously – and recalled why they were there, on the Amalfi coast, one of the most romantic places in the world. Everyone knew it could work all sorts of magic. Miracles even.
But maybe he was expecting too much.
The unseasonable weather continued. There were sudden and drenching showers.
“C’e un tempo terribile,” complained the locals, shrugging apologetically. It was bad for business.
Holidaymakers moped around moaning about the toilets, the service, the price of everything. Boat trip bookings slumped, hot cappuccinos were more popular than fizzy cocktails. Only ice cream continued to be consumed by everyone whether sitting on walls, in cars, on scooters, or squeezed into the little local bus as it zigzagged its way around the village.
Sammy too was now addicted. He tried new flavours: ice cream with nuts, dried fruit, chocolate chips, raisins, once with a liqueur though that was a mistake. Sometimes Simon joined him.
“It won’t do him any good, you know. It’s full of additives.”
Ros kept her eyes on the boy as she spoke.
“What additives? This is homemade, Ros. From real fruit, local nuts. It’s nothing like supermarket ice cream.”
“Anyway, he’s on holiday. It’s what people do on holiday.”
“Make themselves sick on ice cream?”
Simon also watched the boy as he spoke. They rarely looked into each other’s eyes these days, looked ahead, up at the mountains or the sky, met other people’s gazes and smiles. Other people didn’t seem to be forever at loggerheads, he thought. Or if they were they didn’t show it. It wasn’t done, to be unhappy on holiday.
Finally the sun emerged. And now the village looked like it had in the travel brochure. On the beach chairs were lined up, umbrellas like spears stood ready to be opened. Bars stocked up with extra ice. The temperature soared.
Ros and Simon made friends with another couple, older, the man given to sudden bursts of laughter that caused tremors through his large body. His wife, too, was voluptuous. Or fat, as Ros said.
“You can guess our favourite hobby, can’t you?” The woman patted her tummy with pride.
Their laughter was infectious, as was the pleasure they took in everything. Ros relaxed a little. She drank more than her usual half glass of wine at dinner; fell in love with a turquoise crocheted slipover, and when Simon bought it and insisted she wear it at once, she did so, unclipping her hair so that it touched her shoulders. Was this the woman he’d fallen in love with all those years ago? Was she still there?
Later, back in their room, Simon pulled her out onto the balcony. touched his lips to her dainty ears, her neck, going slowly, gently. Suddenly she yanked away from him, hissed no, what about the child? Sammy was sound asleep.
“It’s four and a half months.” It was out before Simon could stop himself.
“Since we made love.”
“Oh.” She turned away. “I’ve not been counting.”
Simon ran his fingers through his hair. He took a deep breath, then another.
If Sammy was aware of the friction between his parents, he didn’t show it. On the beach he made sandcastles that disintegrated almost at once, patiently started again. Or toddled quickly over the hot sand to splash in the turquoise water. Ros followed him, always alert for the bad things in life. Simon turned and watched a small group of Italians: mother, father, an elderly woman balanced on a wobbly beach chair, all smiling, three dark skinned children circling them, screaming.
It was hopeless, he knew.
Waving to tell Ros he was going to the bar, he downed a brandy before buying yet another bottle of mineral water to take back. They must not of course drink the local water. Or make eye contact with the many stray dogs that lurked in the shadows. Or go near the cacti whose needle-like spines could cause a nasty injury. Or forget to put on insect repellent…
Only another six days to go.
With the end in sight, Ros thought they really should make the effort to see more of the area. Their friends couldn’t be persuaded.
“OK, I admit it. We’re lazy.” The man chuckled. “You can tell us what we missed.”
Simon wished he could stay with them, though of course Ros had a point. Though climbing to the top of Vesuvius – the bus only took them so far – he had his doubts, shoes full of grey dust, arriving to look down at a dusty hole, jostling other sightseers, all breathless from the longer than expected climb. Was this what they’d journeyed so far to see?
Pompeii also was full of tired tourists in shorts following guides waving umbrellas, everyone stopping to peer and shudder at displays of distorted bodies. Simon thought them ghoulish.
Playful winds whipped up mini sandstorms that died away almost at once. Simon bent close to Sammy’s ear.
“That’s ghosts doing that. Of the people who used to live here. Probably angry about all these strangers marching through their houses.”
Sammy thought about it.
“Are they angry with me too?”
Simon tugged Sammy’s sunhat more firmly down on his head and grinned.
“No way. No-one could ever be angry with you.”
Ros was lagging behind, reading a guidebook. At least one of them was taking the trip seriously.
They took a boat across to Capri. Boutiques, restaurants, cave-like shops full of useless trinkets, flowers everywhere. It was all very chic, and very expensive.
Ros declared it a rip-off.
“You’re paying for the privilege of being here too, don’t forget. Where else can you hobnob with celebs? I’m sure that girl in the white straw hat is …”
“Simon, I don’t care who she is, who any of them are.”
For the first time, Simon noticed two small, neat frown lines between her eyebrows.
She refused to let Sammy have his usual afternoon ice cream, of course. Tears sparkled in the corner of his eyes, but he said nothing. Simon bought him a cornetto anyway. He sat between them on a wrought-iron bench overlooking the town, licking neatly in a circle.
Finally Ros spoke.
“It was a mistake, wasn’t it? Coming to Italy, I mean. Thinking that being here would change anything.”
Simon didn’t reply.
Their friends left; addresses were exchanged. Now they were completely alone again, too weary to bother with new acquaintances. Too close to the end of their own holiday.
There was to be a football match in Rome, Rome versus someone or other. Simon didn’t know who, didn’t much care. Buntings made from old dresses were looped across the narrow streets; balloons hung in clusters. Someone wrote forza a Roma in white on walls; also on the mayor’s black car. Chairs were arranged in bars so that customers could see the television sets behind the counters. Restaurants announced they were shutting at eight. In their hotel, guests were asked to dine at seven.
“All this for a bunch of men kicking a ball about.”
For once Ros and Simon were in agreement.
Again, Ros went to bed early. Simon strolled the deserted streets, hands in pockets, buffeted by the sudden roars that came from open windows. Afterwards the streets filled again, this time the crowd more subdued. Rome had lost. Now tactics were analysed, mistakes mocked. Discussions became over-heated. Two men fought, blood trickled from a cut lip, others pulled them apart. There were small boys in the crowd, Simon noticed, not much older than Sammy. Of course Ros was right, this was no place for a child.
Eventually Simon found his way back to the hotel. Ros was asleep, her arm thrown back above her head; she looked younger, calmer, vulnerable even. Why was she so angry when she was awake? Sammy slept in a cot by her side. Simon couldn’t help but smile at the scent of vanilla that seemed to waft above the little boy.
Stretched out on the bed beside Ros he stared up at the ceiling willing sleep to come. It took its time.
At breakfast their waiter told them about the festa that was to take place that day, a celebration for the village’s saint. In the morning there would be a parade, the local band, men in blue, would march through the streets playing tubas, trombones, drums; and behind would come the statue of the saint, taken from the church just this once a year to be carried up and down, to be admired. Later a market would be set up selling nuts, sweets, and meat sliced from a whole pig’s head. In the evening, to end such a special day, there would be fuochi d’artificio.
“You come, yes?” he said as though personally inviting them.
Ros gave Simon a look. Sammy tugged at her sleeve.
“What’s that word mean, mummy?”
Gently she disengaged his fingers.
“Fireworks, darling. But I think it’s going to be too late for…”
“Not late. You come.” The waiter shook his head. “Bambino like.”
He winked at Sammy.
The day passed quickly, pleasantly, and – surprisingly – without many arguments. Too many distractions, Simon decided. Until the evening, back in their room, the sky beginning to soften to a muted pink, the sun almost gone.
“No, he’s not staying up so late.”
“Come on, Ros. it’s our last night.”
“Just look at him, Si. He’s worn out. He needs his bed.”
“For God’s sake, Ros.” Simon hesitated. “You’re destroying his childhood, can’t you see that? Don’t you want him to look back on these years and remember what fun he’d had, what things he’d seen and done, how exciting and different it had all been, and how we’d been a part of it, his mum and dad, how we’d helped make it…?”
“What are you talking about?”
Simon turned away then back again. He had to say it.
“You’ve taken the magic out of our marriage, Ros. I’m not going to let you do it to him too.”
The boy stood waiting patiently, a spectator at a tennis match, head turning one way, then the other. In a sudden silence he spoke, his voice tentative.
“Are we going to the fireworks, then? Please?”
Outside, down in the street, people were gathering, heading towards the beach to jostle for the best positions. There was a growing buzz of excitement.
“Of course we are. Wouldn’t miss it for the world, would we?”
Simon held out his hand and Sammy gripped it firmly.
At the door he hesitated.
Ros snatched up her bag, followed them.
“I want a divorce,” she said quietly as the door clicked shut behind them.
“Fine. OK. Certainly.”
It was a relief to have it decided. Not to have to try any longer.
It seemed the whole village was out on the streets. Boys hung over wrought-iron balconies, others had climbed the few sparse trees. Some were even perched on roof tops. As advised they headed for the beach. When the fireworks began there was a cheer, then a great inhalation as everyone held their breath. The dark canvas of the sky was splattered with colours, fountains of it, crescents, wheels, shooting stars. Suns and moon rose simultaneously, lighting the upturned faces below, making day of night.
Perched high on Simon’s shoulders, Sammy clung to his dad in silence, eyes wide.
Finally the fireworks came to a halt. It was as though someone had switched them off, like a television set suddenly gone black. Then, applause and cheers.
How it happened Simon couldn’t afterwards say.
He’d put Sammy down again, Ros reached for one hand, Simon gripped the other, and they started to edge through the milling crowd. When he stumbled over a step it didn’t worry him that Sammy’s hand slipped from his. Ros was there, he could see her head just to the left. She had hold of him. He was safe.
And then the moment when Ros called across to him and his heart stopped.
“Better pick Sammy up, he’ll get trampled.”
“But… you’ve got him with you, haven’t you?”
He saw the sudden flicker of fear on her face.
“No… I thought…”
He couldn’t hear her words. Using his elbows he barged his way across to her.
“Ros, where is he?”
“I don’t know. Here somewhere, he can’t be far.”
Together they began calling his name, their voices getting louder, frantic to be heard over the din. Sammy could be nearby, under their feet, it was impossible to see through the forest of legs; he could be further away, up towards the cafes along the promenade where the crowds had at least thinned a bit.
Or he could – and Simon dismissed this thought instantly, it was unthinkable – he could have been picked up by someone and carried off.
Hearing the panic in their voices, a young and heavily pregnant woman turned.
“You… how you say… is missing, your child?”
“Yes.” Ros’s voice trembled. “He’s this size, wearing a red shirt, blue shorts.”
“His name is Sammy,” Simon said. And instantly the woman added her call to theirs, and then others joined in, and the news of the missing child spread like a ripple across the sea of heads.
“This is Italy,” Simon called to Ros. “They’re mad about kids here. He’ll be fine.”
“Of course he will,” she managed.
It took just under half an hour to find Sammy.
“Lui e qui, con Franca.” Someone was beckoning from the far side.
He’d ended up, somehow, at one of the cafes overlooking the beach and was sitting on the front wall, a cluster of anxious men and women fussing around him. When Ros and Simon managed to get through to him, they were welcomed with cries of delight, claps on the back, everyone smiling. Sammy slid down off the wall and ran to them, though he didn’t seem worried., just pleased that they’d finally appeared.
They both wanted to hug him and so they did, together, and somehow they ended up hugging each other too. Simon closed his eyes. He was so grateful to these wonderful people, to God, to fate, to whatever had kept his beautiful boy safe.
Glasses were thrust at them, a bottle appeared. For once Ros didn’t object.
“Is for shock,” the café owner said as he sloshed some of the golden liquid into each glass, then some for himself.
The world that had tipped so much off axis settled down again. Things came back into focus. The sound of the crowd was no longer distorted. It was possible to breathe again.
And Simon knew that he could never give Sammy up, and neither could Ros. It was the one thing they shared: their love for their son. If they split up his world would be shattered, and how could they do that to him? They couldn’t. Wouldn’t. They must keep trying, that was all there was to it.
A woman was talking animatedly to Ros who was listening, nodding. But when his wife reached towards him, caught his hand and then wound her fingers through his, he knew that she agreed with what he hadn’t yet said.
It was a start. A promising one.
Picture by Positano Daily Photo