Short fiction by Federica Lugaresi, shortlisted for the 2015 Fish Publishing Short Story Prize.
The string of tunnels seems to cut the space in half, night and day playing chase across the road.
Paolo clutches the steering wheel. He blinks, once, twice, adjusting his eyes to the darkness as they enter yet another one. He savours the cool. He knows it won’t last.
Out the other side he blinks again, just in time to glimpse a small silhouette in the middle of the tarmac. He slams on the brakes, checks the rear-view mirror. He sighs in relief as the cat crosses quickly before his car, jumping gracefully over the rail guard and away.
Paolo checks the passenger seat, but it’s alright, Elsa hasn’t stirred. The little freckles on her nose gleam in the sunlight and a smudge of orange lipstick rises askew towards her cheek. Paolo smiles as he starts the car again, the tarmac leading them South.
It was dawn when they threw their suitcases in the boot and set off, their first ever journey to Italy together. Purple stripes ran over the lazy city as the sky turned slowly pink then orange then yellow. When it finally went blue Elsa leaned across and kissed him on the cheek.
The traffic hadn’t been bad at that time of day – they would be at the border in less than four hours. Elsa asked Paolo to tell her about his hometown again, about the history and all the things they would eat. She wanted to learn the exact pronunciation of each dish so she would be able to order for herself. ‘Ok,’ Paolo said. ‘Repeat after me.’ She had managed well enough with olive all’ascolana, brodetto all’anconetana, zuppa di cicerchia. But when she tried frascarelli her tongue got lost inside her mouth, making a sound that had nothing to do with food. She pulled a face. They both laughed.
When they passed Venice she began to sing old songs. After a while Paolo joined in, his deep voice guiding Elsa’s through the right notes. He tapped his narrow fingers on the steering wheel in a three-four beat until, exhausted, Elsa rested her head against the window and closed her eyes.
On her lap now sits the map, a long red line from Vienna to Ancona. She drew it when she was studying the route on their kitchen table. ‘Although,’ she said. ‘The roads may be different now.’ Paolo had nodded, though he was sure it would be more like the opposite.
Outside, the factories begin to thin out until they vanish into rolling countryside. The vineyards run up and down the hills then descend into the peach orchards that flank the road.
Paolo glances at the glove compartment. The letter sits inside, a white envelope with the sender’s name on the back. A black stone on a blanket of snow. He shakes his head and stares at his reflection in the rear-view mirror. His hair is longer than usual, floppy over his forehead. Inside the words are written in fountain pen, the handwriting he should recognise, but does not. His green eyes are bloodshot and tired, little lines around the corners. He wonders if she was crying when she wrote it. He takes his sunglasses from his breast pocket and puts them on.
The road narrows and the sunflowers begin to spread across the meadows, yellow patches under a clear sky. He knows he will see the sea soon. He glances at the map again, the long red line shining like a trickle of blood.
It has been ten years since his last visit home. He wasn’t going to come, but Elsa persuaded him.
‘She’s your mother.’
‘She’s a stranger.’
He turns on the air conditioning. Up ahead, a yellow flashing light signals a delay. He slows, and soon a snake of cars forms in both directions, the traffic down to a crawl. Paolo looks at the passengers in the other vehicles. Most are families, talking and laughing, the children in the back seats sleeping or playing with their toys. He wonders where they are off to on their holidays.
Elsa moves in her seat. A strand of brown hair crosses her face. He reaches out for her hand – he needs to hear her voice – but then he stops.
Through the windows of the cars in front of him he glimpses the sea. He bends his head to get a better view, but it is only when the cars begin to speed up again that he can make out the promontory clearly. It is covered with bushes and pine trees, and the sea stretches away from it towards the horizon, changing from turquoise to a dark navy.
Paolo breathes deeply, once, twice, like he does before a performance. He indicates and turns into the first petrol station they pass.
As he parks, Elsa opens her eyes, looks at him. He strokes her hair.
‘Are we in Ancona?’
‘Not yet, I just thought we could stop for a moment. Get something to eat.’
‘Good idea, you must be tired. And if there’s a store I forgot a few things.’ She folds the map and gets out, not noticing the sea behind her. ‘God it’s suffocating!’
As he crosses the car park with long, slow steps, clouds of steam seem to rise from the ground. The rubber of their trainers makes the sound of chewed gum against the asphalt, while the smell of petrol hovers intoxicating on the air.
‘Relief!’ Elsa says once they have stepped inside, savouring the air conditioning.
The bar is small, but the glass wall along the front makes it bright. Three rows of red tables add a touch of colour. They pass the newspaper racks, the ice-cream refrigerator, and stop at the counter. Paolo asks Elsa what she wants.
‘When I come back.’ She touches him on the shoulder. ‘I need the bathroom first.’
Paolo watches her go, tall and beautiful in her white shirt and lilac shorts, until she disappears behind a group of men wearing biker jackets and drinking Cokes.
He remembers the first time he saw her. It was in a theatre in Vienna, nine years ago. She wore a black top and a full skirt and was sitting right next to him. During the interval, she turned and asked: ‘What do you make of it?’ Her voice was firm but warm, as if speaking to an old friend. He said he found the play clever. She said she found it boring. After ten minutes, she convinced him she was right and they left the theatre for a drink.
‘Yes, please?’ a voice asks, penetrating the noise of the coffee machine frothing milk.
Paolo turns and a smiling barman repeats the question. He checks the display, his fingertips tapping different chords on the glass. He orders a Chinotto and a roll filled with bresaola, rocket, grana flakes.
Tray in hand, he begins to search for a table. They are all occupied, people coming and going with their food, or reading newspapers. A family with a young boy play Memory, the blue cards face down upon the table. And then at the end of the row an old man sits alone, eating a piece of chocolate cake.
As Paolo passes the boy flips over a pair of matching dinosaurs. ‘Peekaboo!’
At the next table, Paolo asks the old man if he can sit.
‘Of course!’ The man brushes some crumbs from his brown shirt. ‘I never say no to a bit of company.’
Paolo thanks him and sits.
‘Vittorio.’ The old man holds out his hand.
‘Paolo, nice to meet you.’
Paolo pours the Chinotto into a glass filled with ice cubes. He watches Vittorio chewing his cake, very slowly. He wonders how old he is. His forehead is tanned and furrowed deep with wrinkles, but his shoulders and arms look strong, like a fisherman maybe, or a woodcutter. Paolo wonders if he is going on a journey or if he is on his way back.
As Paolo takes the first bite of his roll Vittorio lifts his face from the plate. ‘You’ll never believe me,’ he says, pointing his fork towards the ceiling. ‘But this is the best chocolate cake in the country. I come every afternoon.’
Paolo wipes his mouth and smiles. He tells Vittorio that that is all very well, but the place he lives is famous for the most delicious cake in the world.
‘Really?’ Vittorio says, laying down his fork. ‘Where are you from?’
‘Vienna. The city of Sacher Torte.’
‘Oh, I thought you were from here.’
‘Well, yes…’ Paolo says, fiddling with the tab of his can. ‘I was born in Ancona, but then I moved to Vienna when I was seventeen.’
Paolo takes a sip and waits for a moment before he explains. He tells the old man it was for music. That he always had a passion for it, ever since he was a child, and his dream was to study violin. So his Aunt Carla helped him to go to Vienna to finish his studies at the conservatory.
‘And now, finally, I am a professional.’
‘Congratulations! Your aunt must be very proud.’
‘Yes… she was.’
One of the bikers has stood up now, and inserts a coin into the pinball machine pushed up against the wall. Different-coloured lights flash on the display where a voluptuous pin-up whispers sexy words every time he scores a point.
‘I hope he loses soon,’ Vittorio says.
Finally the pin-up goes quiet, and the men eat in silence. Paolo looks out the window at the patch of sea in the distance. The voices from the bar seem to fade.
Vittorio puts down his fork and wipes his mouth with his serviette. He tells Paolo that he is not from here originally himself, that he moved to Ancona twenty years ago because of his rheumatism. ‘The sea air helps me, you know?’ He touches one of his legs.
‘Where did you live before?’
‘Abruzzo. A small village in the mountains, surrounded by woods.’ Vittorio’s voice fills with enthusiasm and a shade of nostalgia as he points southwest.
‘It must be beautiful,’ Paolo says.
The little boy at the table next to them has begun to cry, the cards forgotten. His father tries to calm him but cannot. Paolo watches his chubby cheeks turning red like two tomatoes. After a few minutes his mother arrives with an ice cream, kissing his head. Soon whiskers of chocolate have smudged out to the boy’s ears.
‘So you’re here for your holidays?’ Vittorio asks.
‘Well, I spent my holidays here when my aunt was still alive,’ Paolo says. ‘I… I’ve just come to visit an old acquaintance.’
‘Oh, that’s a long journey for an old acquaintance.’
‘Yes. Yes it is.’ Paolo shifts his gaze to the store’s entrance. He wishes Elsa would get back.
Suddenly they hear laughter coming from the car park. The group of bikers are ready to leave. They put on their black helmets, mount their motorbikes, and one after the other ride away, the engines roaring like drumbeats towards the coast.
‘Yes, I miss my hometown sometimes too,’ Vittorio says then, as if Paolo had asked. ‘Especially since my wife’s death. But I’m too old now to go back there.’
Paolo nods and asks about the place. A fresh beam of happiness spreads over the old man’s face: ‘Well, it’s known as the Village of the Wolf.’
And before Paolo can say anything more, Vittorio sits upright, leans his elbows on the table in front of his cake and begins. He speaks low and then higher, his aquiline nose protruding over his full lips.
‘They say that one cold winter night a wolf mother abandoned her cub in the heart of the forest; that she had fallen in love with the most handsome wolf in the mountains and decided to run away with him.’ Vittorio shakes his head. ‘The wind was howling and the cry of the wolf cub could be heard from my village.’
Paolo stops eating, places his half-roll on the plate.
‘Meanwhile a cat that had just given birth to four kittens followed the cry, walked through the forest until she found the little wolf. She licked his tears and breast-fed him.’ The old man crosses his hands against his chest. ‘Then she took the wolf cub to the stable and he grew up there with his new brothers and sisters.’
Paolo looks away. In the distance, a summer haze has fallen on the sea. He remembers his aunt’s funeral, ten years ago now. Only a few friends had joined him at the cemetery, a couple of relatives on his father’s side. He had placed a bunch of white roses on her grave and said a prayer. The same day he said goodbye to Ancona.
The family at the next table have stood up now. They walk towards the exit, the boy hopping along, holding his mother’s hand.
‘Once an adult, the wolf re-joined the forest, but then every month he went back to the village to visit his adoptive mother. And when he walked along the roads, people weren’t scared – they let him pass to reach the stable, and they arranged a great feast, which is still called the Feast of the Wolf.’
They look at each other, as if listening to the sudden silence. Paolo wonders if Vittorio has children of his own, maybe a son who still lives in the Village, or more likely somewhere else.
The sun has begun to dip, so that two strips of light fall across the length of the table, pale white against the red.
‘I’ve never seen such a messy shop!’ Suddenly Elsa is standing next to them, a shopping bag in hand. ‘Oh, you’re still eating. I thought I was late.’
‘Well, no I… got a bit distracted,’ Paolo replies, a hint of a smile.
As he stands up he shakes Vittorio’s hand, thanks him for the story.
‘My pleasure. Thank you for the company.’
Elsa waves at the old man and follows Paolo towards the exit, stopping to buy a cherry ice pop on the way. As she pays Paolo looks back at Vittorio. He has topped his last piece of chocolate cake with cream.
It is still hot outside, though the car park is now in the shade. Elsa unwraps her ice pop and takes a bite. ‘Much better!’ she exclaims and kisses Paolo, her lips red and cold.
‘I’ve missed you,’ he says, opening the passenger door.
Paolo drives across the car park and stops at the petrol guns. He gets out and begins to fuel up, his gaze fixed on the litres scrolling up the machine’s display. He whistles a sonata in G under his breath until he hears the trigger click.
After he replaces the gun and pays with his card, he pauses for a few minutes. The summer haze has vanished now. The sea is calm and clear in the late afternoon. A seagull squawks before it flies away. Paolo smiles and gets into the car.
Elsa is still eating her ice pop while looking down at the map, and then up at the promontory and the sea as if trying to understand where they are. Some drips fall on the page, forming a pool of red, the colour of the sky before the sun goes down.
Paolo starts the engine and soon they re-join the main road. Elsa snaps the wooden stick of the ice pop in half and drops it in the ashtray. At the first roundabout Paolo ignores the exit and heads back the opposite way.
Elsa stares at the signpost disappearing over her shoulder, and then at him.
‘It’s time we went home,’ he says, tuning the radio to Classical FM. He touches her hand and asks her to fold the map and put it back inside the glove compartment.