This is another story written while in Norwich and I have put it after 'Beer Mug' as it is also about a man encountering a woman while living abroad with different consequences. This was an attempt to create a fictional story on this theme, one less embedded in my personal experiences. It is set in Italy where some friends of mine studied, though none of them had an encounter like this, though you did hear stories of such things occurring. To some degree, the dawning realisation at the end was an attempt by me to return to the kind of sting-in-the-tail stories I had been writing in the mid-1980s rather than the simple 'slice of life' ones that I had been tending to 1988-91. It also reflected a growing degree of xenophobia that I noticed in myself, stemming from feeling inadequate in the face of very experienced and sophisticated people from abroad that I kept meeting. As with Rob's reaction here, to simply thrust that way in a chauvinist attitude seemed a much easier, better solution to admitting that I was poor at foreign languages and had no chance of working in another country in a way that these people appeared to do with ease.
Out of the Mouths
Rob shrugged the rucksack of his shoulder and propped it against the end of the bench. He lay back on the bench and looked out across the other platforms alternately lit by the hard Italian sunlight and covered by the shadows it cast. He listened to the intermittent announcements for that afternoon’s trains. He wiped the sweat from his reddened face, from habit his fingers stroked the birth mark on his cheek. He rested his head in his hands and pulled his sunglasses back over his eyes. There was at least half-an-hour for his train, he could relax and soak up the heat.
Siena, Siena, the city’s name pushed its way into Rob’s dozing mind. Pisa was where he wanted, where he was going, northwards. Siena lay to the West but farther South, the line split between the two, West of Florence. Siena, he had been there five years ago, on his first visit to Italy, but he was not going back. There was too many dreams and too much angst wrapped up there, he was not going to let that spoil what had been a successful trip. Maybe he had strayed too close by coming out here, but Florence had been worth it. It always was and always would be. The announcer fell silent again allowing Rob’s thoughts to rest and his body to doze.
Suddenly he heard the squawk of a child stamping around the benches. Lazily Rob opened his eyes to study the source of disturbance. In front of him was a smartly dressed young boy, in neat white trousers and shirt outlined in navy blue. A round, thick straw hat was tied with a ribbon under his chin. The boy stopped in front of him and looked at him with the intense stare of a young child clearly trying to resolve something. Rob could almost feel the boy’s brain running. He smiled nervously and pushed the sunglasses up on to his forehead. The boy’s complexion was quite pale, touched with pink from the sun. His hair was a darker version of Rob’s fair brown, but nowhere near the jet black of the locals.
Rob smiled again as the child’s eyes bored into his face. Then the boy started shouting again, pointing at Rob repeating the same word again and again. Rob felt embarrassed and looked around nervously. No-one was paying attention. It was just another lively child, just another sunburnt tourist. He sighed with relief as a woman hurried up, swinging a green canvas covered suitcase at her side as she hurried on the heels of smart burgundy sandals. He sat forward to study her closer. Her long black hair blew gently off from her face. Her eyes were hidden behind sunglasses but Rob admired the lines of her face, the neck which ran into the fine white blouse, the curve of her shoulder in the lime cropped jacket and the legs which stretched through the matching skirt to those shoes. Their shade was repeated in the broach at her breast and the colour of her lips.
Rob noticed she was saying something to him. She had rested her hand gently on the boy’s shoulder. She did not seemed angry. Rob gestured ineffectually with his hands as the waves of Italian washed over him.
“Sorry.” He blurted, in his usual way, “I don’t understand.”
“Ah, Welsh.” She said. The smoothness of her English accent, coming out suddenly, surprised him.
“Yes.” He replied. Thinking again, he was usually put down as an American, getting himself recognised as British, let alone Welsh was the usual task.
“I’m sorry. He’s very independent. He keeps shouting at people.” The woman explained.
“No worry.” Rob shrugged. His eyes stayed fixed on her, he had to keep her talking. “I can’t even understand what he’s saying.”
“It was nothing really, just ‘same’, ‘same’ he kept repeating. You know children of that age. I will be glad when he is at school.” She had rested her suitcase at her heel, the boy fiddled with its locks. Rob’s eyes wandered to her hands, there was a wedding ring. He had hoped she was only the nanny. She looked too young to be a mother. What she was missing, he thought to himself.
“Your English is very good.” Rob added quickly trying to keep the conversation going.
“My mother lived in England for some years and my father still has British and American guests at the house.”
“Very sensible. What’s the boy’s name? Your son?”
“He’s called Paulo after his grandfather, and Roberto after his, er, father.”
“Nice names.” He was sounding like the boy’s uncle. They fell quiet. The moment was broken by the announcement of Rob’s train.
“Ah, time to go.” Rob said as he picked up his belongings. “Off to Pisa?”
“We’re returning to Siena. Have a good trip.” She said smiling warmly.
Quickly Rob rummaged into his rucksack and pulled out one of the last two apples in the paper bag. He hurriedly reached down to give one to the boy. “Here you are Paulo Roberto.”
The boy looked shy now, but as Rob crouched down he took the apple which looked large compared to his face. As he took a large bite, Rob noticed the birthmark on the boy’s cheek as his jaw stretched to get the apple into his mouth.
“He should say thank you.” His mother said. “You’re better than some of the tourists we get here. You should learn some Italian.” She said laughing gently. Rob looked up at her as he got up from the boy’s level. She had her sunglasses in her hand and he could see her deep dark eyes, the delicate face. She stopped laughing as he rose to her level. There was a moment’s pause.
“Bastard!” She shouted, she was close enough that her spittle hit Rob’s face. She swung her suitcase at him, hitting his knee and thigh, forcing him to stagger back. She snatched the suitcase under one arm and their child under the other. Rob watched as she stormed off down the platform swearing in Italian. Now all eyes were on them.
“Bloody foreigners.” Rob snapped as he shouldered his rucksack and walked off.