Robin Lawless (Pseudonym)
Word Count: 5,870 approx
Paolo. What a hero!
This was the third pizza he’d ordered for Gaz. But – get this – he hadn’t ordered it in Stoke. He’d picked up the tab in Greve. In Italy, for Christ’s sake!
Paolo had told Gaz, who had reddish hair and a scruffy beard, that Greve was at the heart of the Chianti wine region in Tuscany and had a wine library – enoteca or something. Well, Gaz had come across Chianti wines before. Might even have had one. But what was the library thing?
In idle moments, of which there were quite a few – Gaz was subject to the vagaries of the gig economy - Gaz pictured Paolo and his parents sitting down at home to the mother of all pizzas and washing it down with a bottle of Chianti – vintage 1955? – from that library!
Yeah, Paolo still lived with his parents. Already balding, he was the eternal student, currently studying psychology. Apparently, lots of grown men in Italy were still attached to their mammas’ apron strings. Not like Gaz, then, whose parents had urged him to fly the coop early. For the past two years, he’d been living in a poky little flat above a bookies.
And when Gaz sat down to his pizza in the evening, he’d knock back two cans of lager and maybe smoke some weed afterwards.
Gaz and Paolo, who were in their early twenties, had got to know each other online playing Minecraft. Both had accessed the site out of loneliness.
For as long as he could remember, Gaz had played second fiddle to his older brother, Ritchie, who could do no wrong in his parents’ eyes and currently managed the local Tesco Esso Express, as they proudly told all and sundry. Consequently, with the odds so glaringly stacked against him, Gaz had become an outsider, although he wasn’t entirely friendless.
Thank God for Auntie Madge then. She’d always been there for him, especially in a spiritual capacity. For his thirteenth birthday, having noticed his penchant for drawing, she’d bought him a bumper-sized art book, not knowing how influential it would be. So, whenever Joe had to help in his parents’ shop or Col had one on him, he could always turn to his comfort read.
Mature before his time, Gaz had soon plumbed the depths of this gem. Two heavyweights stood out for him: Rembrandt and Goya. For the most part, their darker, sometimes disturbing later work. A shadowy painting of Rembrandt’s comely mistress bathing, strangely, was a great source of comfort to him.
It wasn’t all darkness and melancholy, however. Light and colour also lifted him, the kaleidoscopic canvasses of Hockney and Matisse usually having the desired effect.
And, unsurprisingly, Gaz was soon able, technically, to lose himself in the throes of creation.
However, the stark reality of Gaz’s situation was never far away and, as he’d got older, he’d turned to more mundane pastimes to combat his loneliness. Online gaming had clearly paid off (the free pizzas were proof of that), and ornithology had come up trumps, too. Like that kid in “Kes”, he’d found comfort in the natural world. And, out on the Staffordshire Moorlands, to his surprise, he’d been adopted by much older bird spotters, who’d not only given him birdwatching tips but also generally looked out for him.
And now, Gaz’s drifting might be coming to an end. An alien concept had crept up on him: a sense of urgency. In two weeks, he was flying to Florence – gratis! You couldn’t make it up. What had Paolo said? ‘Look, you’re poor and I’m rich.’ OK, the pizzas were one thing. But this latest gesture was taking magnanimity to a whole new, delusional level!
When Paolo had broached the subject of the holiday, Gaz had panicked. To begin with, there was the travel. It wasn’t like he was one of those cool dudes, who’d taken gap years travelling around the world. Nor was he savvy when it came to money. And as for the lingo, well, he couldn’t rely on Paolo’s English all the time.
Surprisingly, owing to his school French, Gaz had found the last issue – learning Italian - relatively painless. In fact, the task had been genuinely inspiring. Ever the stalwart, Auntie Madge had unearthed an Italian primer and phrase book for him, and he’d digested them first. Then, on a whim, he’d stuck Italian labels on objects all around the flat. And, from the beginning, he’d kept a vocabulary notebook, to be perused in those – less frequent now – idle moments.
* * *
Gaz was about to emerge from Florence Airport.
That morning, in Manchester, he’d taken his leave of Auntie Madge with some trepidation. Inside the terminal, stripped of his water wings, it was a case of sink or swim. Consequently, he’d clung on to his aunt’s detailed instructions for dear life. The self-service bag-drop, admittedly, had been a doddle but, apprehensive about the next stage - getting through security - he’d taken off his belt, jacket and watch way too early. Juggling those items on top of his passport and boarding card, and making sure his trousers didn’t fall down, had been a nightmare. Then, in the lounge, the nerves had kicked in again. Queasy about missing his flight, he’d checked the gate information that many times, it had made him dizzy.
At last, on Italian soil, he could breathe easily again: he’d weathered the storm.
Gaz scanned the arrivals hall for Paolo, forcing himself not to succumb to anxiety again.
Fortunately, after a few minutes, Gaz made out Paolo’s balding head and green designer label glasses. Weaving his way through fellow travellers, he approached his host-to-be and said: ‘Buon giorno, Paolo. Come stai?’
Paolo, unaware of Gaz’s month-long Italian cramming, looked surprised and replied in a soft voice: ‘Bene, grazie. Tu parli italiano, Gaz?’
‘No, sto imparando.’
Gaz and Paolo shook hands, smiling uncertainly. After an embarrassed pause, Paolo said: ‘So, you are familiar with the present continuous tense?’
‘Am I?’ Gaz replied.
There was another awkward silence and then Paolo took himself in hand and assumed host duties. He suggested they have a coffee in the city centre before embarking on some sightseeing.
Paolo told Gaz the centre of Florence was a four-kilometre taxi-ride away and he knew a good gelateria in the Piazza della Signoria. Exiting the airport, Gaz was hit by a blast of heat and temporarily blinded by the bright sunshine. Hard to credit he’d left Manchester and Stoke just a matter of hours before.
In the taxi, however, they were soon swallowed up by the dark, narrow streets of the inner city, tall, imperious buildings on either side of them. Now and then, Gaz caught glimpses of sun-drenched squares and imposing marble facades – flood-lit clearings in a stone forest. Then the taxi entered a vast square and came to a halt near a huge fort-like building that looked like an ancient rocket-launcher with a towering projectile in place.
The gelateria was the most sophisticated eating establishment Gaz had ever been in and the cappuccino instantly raised the bar of his expectations, coffee-wise. As for the cassata, he’d never had anything remotely like it; it was out of this world.
Paolo interrupted Gaz’s reveries, saying: ‘I didn’t think English people learned foreign languages.’
‘We don’t, really,’ Gaz responded. ‘We’re arrogant, lazy bastards.’
‘Perhaps you don’t need to.’
Silence descended again. Then, looking up from his plate, Gaz said, gesturing all around him: ‘Stoke’s nothing like this, you know.’
‘No?’ Paolo said.
‘No. It’s like a poor cousin, in comparison.’
‘Yeah. At the end of the day, it’s gritty city.’
‘What is that?’ Paolo looked puzzled.
‘Life’s hard there. You have to be tough to survive.’
‘But it is famous for pottery, isn’t it?’
‘Yeah, yeah. ‘Is’ being the operative word. Sure, in the past, it was something. Struggling now, though.’
‘No, worse. Don’t get me wrong. I would love to see it restored to its former glory. But it’s gonna be a mammoth task’
‘Let me explain something, Paolo. Back home we have this thing called UK City of Culture, a scheme to boost places like Stoke culturally and financially. Anyway, we put in for it…’
‘Yeah. Didn’t get it, though.’
After a pause, changing the subject, Gaz asked Paolo if he would give him Italian lessons. Paolo said that was a given and suggested an eight o’clock start the following day. Seeing the look of horror on Gaz’s face, he laughed nervously. Excusing himself, he explained that his mamma ran a tight ship domestically; he might get away with a lie-in on his first day, but that would be it. Gaz still looked put out, but then cracked a slowly spreading smile. This finally broke the ice and Gaz and Paolo clinked coffee cups. Then, Gaz asked Paolo what the hell the present continuous tense was. Paolo said he’d have to get up early next morning to find out.
Restored now, the pair set off on their tour of Florence. In the taxi, Gaz had been cut off from the lifeblood of the city but now he was confronted by it head on. His senses were assaulted on all sides: enticing aromas emanating from every kind of eatery; the rattling of trolleys on cobblestones; light bouncing off the magisterial buildings… And he was unnaturally alert to the dangers posed by fast-moving traffic and narrow pavements. Each time a Lambretta or a Vespa whirred into action, he jumped.
Eventually, culture-shock gave way to wonderment and Gaz started to relax. How many listed buildings could one city boast? Time and time again, he ground to a halt, totally in awe of yet another magnificent church or palace. Consequently, progress was slow, and Gaz could try the patience of a saint. However, if Paolo was irritated by the dilatory pace, he didn’t show it.
At one point, Gaz and Paolo were strolling in the grounds of the Santa Maria Novella church - a welcome break from pavement bashing – when they became aware of loud, high-pitched squawking sounds. Non-plussed, initially, Paolo then recalled that he’d read about a bird repeller somewhere: a device emitting the cry of a bird of prey to deter huge flocks of starlings from roosting. Gaz thought it was a goshawk.
Then it was time for the piece de resistance: the Piazza del Duomo. Taking in the huge cathedral, Gaz was dumbstruck. Talk about monumental! Standing in the middle of the square, open-mouthed, his gaze travelled over the richly decorated polychrome marble panels and then up to Brunelleschi’s imperious dome. And, as if that wasn’t enough, across from the cathedral, no less stunning, was the Baptistery. Michelangelo, apparently, had called the doors, with their splendid relief panels, the Gates of Paradise.
Leaving the piazza, there was one last treat: the huge statue of David in the Piazzale Michelangelo.
‘That’s one of his major works,’ Paolo said.
‘I know,’ Gaz said curtly.
‘Didn’t know it was so big, though,’ Gaz continued.
‘It is five metres tall I think.’
‘Usually, artists show David standing over the cut-off head of Goliath.’
‘Yeah?’ Gaz paused. “This is better, I reckon. More tension.’
‘Look at his stance. His body’s twisted round, ready for action but, mentally, he’s in control.’
‘And look at the size of his head compared to the catapult.’
‘Well, it’s a lot bigger, right? Which suggests to me that mind’s gonna win over matter’
‘Yes, you are right.’
‘Look at the veins on his hand’
At five o’clock, Gaz and Paolo got off the bus in Greve. Forgoing the taxi, they set off on foot for the Rinaldi residence. As they neared it, Gaz noticed how imposing the properties were becoming; inexplicably, the word “villa” came to mind. Then, when Paolo indicated a large house on rising ground, Gaz’s jaw dropped. Taking in the grand entrance, with its portico and columns, and the ground floor windows with their round arches, Gaz wondered what sort of world he was entering. Was it really only nine hours since he’d left his own basic living quarters in Stoke?
By now, Gaz was feeling distinctly nervous. It was obvious from his outfit and luggage (from Argos), that he was out of his depth here. His jeans, T-shirt (albeit bearing the famous bearded self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci) and corduroy denim jacket were all worn-looking. At least his beard was trimmed neatly. (His aunt had insisted on that.)
‘Come in, come in, Gary,’ a comely, refined-looking woman said moments later, making a sweeping, welcoming gesture. ‘Let me take your jacket. You can put your luggage under the staircase for now.’ Then, seeing Gaz’s T-shirt, she said: ‘Ah, I see you are a man of culture.’
‘Am I?’ Gaz said, colouring a little.
‘Yes, you are right, Mamma,’ Paolo came to his rescue. ‘Gaz made some really interesting remarks about Michelangelo’s David.’
‘Ah ha. Well, let us have a little refreshment, shall we? Come on, you two,’ Signora Rinaldi said, leading the way to a spacious arbour at the back of the house.
As they entered it, Signor Rinaldi, who owned a big game animation company, got up from a wicker chair, where he’d been reading the newspaper. A stern-looking man, he shook Gaz’s hand firmly and greeted him without fuss.
‘Would you like an aperitif, Gary?’ Signora Rinaldi asked.
Gaz wasn’t sure what that was but said yes.
‘We have Martini, Campari, Aperol…’
‘A Martini, please,’ he said. It was the only one he’d heard of.
‘And do help yourself to the stuzzichini.’
On a solid oak coffee table was an array of titbits, including miniature salmon and crème fraiche sandwiches, little zucchini cakes and cheese puffs. Mouth-watering as this fare was, however, Gaz wondered whether it would be to his simple taste. And, aware of his big, clumsy hands, he wondered how on earth he was going to tackle those dainty morsels. Then, when asked what kind of Martini he wanted, he looked blank. Sparing his blushes, Signora Rinaldi quickly poured out the sweet red one.
The aperitivo hour glided seamlessly into the main meal - a pizza, accompanied by a Chianti wine (Villa Antinori, 2014). Gaz was on safer ground now. As they commenced eating, he soon found he was the centre of attention. There was a first for everything.
At one point, Gaz’s online paintings were singled out for praise.
‘Yeah, well,’ Gaz said. ‘Those kilns are iconic, and now the Potteries has lost so many, I kinda wanted to preserve their memory.’
‘You have certainly captured their power,’ Signora Rinaldi said.
‘Thanks. That’s down to the German Expressionists. I copied their use of thick, jagged outlines to make a statement. Be in your face, if you know what I mean.’
‘Any reason for the different-coloured backgrounds?’ Signor Rinaldi asked.
‘Well, the red one’s for anger – at the industry’s decline. The one with the purple background’s for its royal connections – Royal Stafford, Royal Doulton…’
‘And the green one?’ Paolo chipped in.
‘Growth. Unfortunately, the pottery industry’s been hit by a double whammy: globalisation and recession. It’s taken a while, but there are positive signs of recovery. You know, small factories popping up here and there.’
‘That sounds encouraging,’ Signora Rinaldi said.
‘Yeah. Focusing on the luxury end of the market, apparently.’
In his turn, Gaz showered praise on Florence, waxing particularly lyrical about Ghiberti’s Baptistery reliefs. Signora Rinaldi then listed all the different types of relief and explained how Ghiberti had introduced a new narrative technique into sculpture, which led to Signor Rinaldi pointing out similarities between these sculpted stories and animated video games.
Gaz’s head was whirling in bed that night, when it finally hit the large, linen-encased pillow.
The following morning, Gaz sobered up. It wasn’t a hangover he had, though, more a niggling inferiority complex. The previous evening, despite the euphoria he’d felt, he’d tripped up on a number of things and was sure there’d be more potholes along the way. Even deciding what to wear now posed a problem. Still embarrassed by his wardrobe, he wondered whether it was acceptable to put on the same clothes he’d travelled in.
Thankfully, he was spared further self-torture by Paolo summoning him to his Italian lesson. Paolo proved to be a proficient teacher and Gaz came away from the session firm in the knowledge he wouldn’t be thrown by simple and continuous tenses again. In fact, with that under his belt and having drunk two delicious cappuccinos with breakfast, Gaz felt a whole lot better about himself.
Gaz thought he’d solve the clothes conundrum by using some of Auntie Madge’s money (she’d given him a decent allowance) to buy a better pair of jeans and some smart casual shirts. Half-joking, he asked Paolo to act as his style guru. Paolo just smiled and advised him to save his money. The pair were of similar height and build and Gaz could wear some of his natty gear.
Later, Paolo showed Gaz around Greve, which he explained was the main market town of the Chianti area. Gaz instantly fell in love with the porticoed seventeenth century buildings lining the asymmetrical square in the centre. Unlike Florence, walking around this relaxed place now, Gaz saw ordinary Italians going about their business. And he found himself in a sea of Italian, snippets of conversation lapping all around him. At one point, Paolo pointed out the notorious enoteca but said that was for another day.
Mid-afternoon, Gaz told Paolo he wanted to change some money. As they approached a bank just off the main square, a man their age emerged from the building, wearing a light summer suit, probably an office worker of some description. Paolo immediately swung round, grabbed Gaz by the arm and propelled him in the opposite direction.
That first week, the weather was exceptional, and Gaz was eager to get out into the surrounding countryside. So, most days, he and Paolo headed for the hills, which were dominated by vines, of course. Never having seen a vine before, let alone a vineyard, Gaz was overwhelmed by their ranks stretching into the distance. Vying for space here, too, were olive groves and pockets of woodland. And then there was the wildlife. Gaz’s heart skipped a beat, when he identified several golden orioles roosting in a clump of umbrella pine trees. And what about the tortoise? Had it escaped from a house or something? Apparently not. Paolo thought you got tortoises all over Southern Europe; there were certainly plenty around here.
On a rare overcast day, the friends went to the enoteca. To Gaz, there was nothing bookish about this place. It was a smart wine bar and restaurant, in keeping with the prosperity of the region. There were a hundred and fifty wines on offer and, using a card reader, you could taste the wines from as little as a mouthful to a full glass. Gaz didn’t drink wine in a discerning way; he drank it to get drunk. But even he knew these wines were to be treated with respect. To this end, he tasted wines from different winemakers and vintages, in the vain hope of telling them apart. He asked Paolo what the secret was, and his friend said:
’Well, I am not an expert, Gaz, but I think you have to spit them out.’
‘What?’ Gaz said. ‘That’s sacrilege.’
‘Well, it might seem so. But, you see, so many things play a part – the soil, the micro-climate, the winemaker’s craft… So, you have to stay sober to detect the subtle distinctions between the wines.’
‘Right. Thank you, Professor Rinaldi.’
‘But I think you have passed the first test of wine tasting anyway.’
‘Oh, yeah? What’s that then?’
‘Back to spitting wines out, Gaz. Just think of professional wine tasters. Perhaps they have to taste thirty or forty wines in a morning.’
‘Right. Point taken.’
Gaz left the wine bar pleasantly inebriated, but noticed that Paolo, here as at home, had drunk like a dilletante - a mouthful here, a mouthful there.
One afternoon, while Paolo was studying in his room, Gaz checked his WhatsApp messages.
First up was Joe, who was being groomed to take over his father’s business.
God, the old man’s such a slavedriver! All right for some, swanning around Italy!!!
And Col, out of the blue, had sent him a shot of his latest tattoo, with the caption: ‘From my own design, that.’ Col had been Gaz’s arch-rival at A Level Art and Gaz had rated his work. But this piece of body art was just gaudy. If this was what being a hipster was all about, well….
Finally, Gaz turned to Auntie Madge’s latest text:
Sounds like you’re having a great time. You’ll be pleased to know Ritchie’s got a new motor (a BMW no less), all customised and souped-up. He can’t help crowing about it. Told him you were living in the lap of luxury in a Tuscan villa. That wiped the smile off his face!
Gaz punched the air and texted back:
Living in the lap of culture more like, but Ritchie wouldn’t get that, would he? Off to Siena soon.
What a philistine Ritchie was. He reckoned art was for poofters and probably had Gaz down for one. And a nerd – because of the birdwatching. Well, Gaz wondered, what about Ritchie’s fetishes for rocket cars and retro-gear then?
Siena was the feminine counterpart of Florence but, unlike that city, it was a Gothic stronghold where two-dimensional art prevailed. At the other extreme, however, it also boasted work by the much more sophisticated, post-Renaissance Mannerists. Gaz was impatient to get there.
So impatient, in fact, that on the morning of the trip Gaz beat Paolo down to the dining room for the first time. As he entered it, Signora Rinaldi was setting out the breakfast things. Looking flustered, she asked him to kindly make a start on the food and perhaps amuse himself for a while afterwards.
Half an hour later, his host, apologising profusely, informed Gaz the trip would have to be postponed: her son had a debilitating headache with bouts of nausea.
Gaz was stunned. At first, he didn’t say anything, just looked blank. To say he was disappointed would be wide of the mark: he was gutted. Somehow, however, he managed to conceal his feelings and commiserate with Paolo’s mother but, once she’d returned to the kitchen, he just froze. Finally, he went out into the garden.
Damn! Damn! Damn! Gaz’s dejection was morphing into anger now. Why did this always happen to him? Just when things were going so well. Cursing his fate, he railed against Paolo: his new friend had let him down – just like all the others!
Like the house, the garden couldn’t contain Gaz either. Leaving it by the back way, he stomped off into town.
Two hours later, Gaz was sitting outside his favourite gelateria.
After slamming the garden gate behind him, he’d power-walked to the square, totally oblivious to the market in full swing there, and then made a beeline for the hills. Free of the town, head down, he’d blindly tramped on, still cursing. Only after loud staccato calls had pierced his consciousness an hour later, had he looked up. And there, just above him, was a sight that had finally had the power to wrench him out of his black mood: a flock of bee-eaters feeding on the wing. Mesmerised by their shimmering colours and aerobatics, he’d watched them for a good ten minutes, feeling the tension gradually relinquish its hold on his body.
The spectacle had brought Gaz back to his senses and now, halfway through his ice cream, the self-recrimination began. What a bastard he was! What an ingrate! What right did he have denigrating Paolo like that? His friend, so kind and attentive to his every need, was probably just as distraught as he was. Unfortunately, Gaz got these mental storms from time to time and loathed himself afterwards. Clearer-headed now, he took stock of his circumstances. Where would he be without Paolo? It was a rhetorical question. Still mouldering in Stoke, suffering from chronic loneliness and bereft of love. He sometimes wondered if he needed anger management classes.
When he got back, Gaz almost begged Signora Rinaldi to give him a task to perform. In his own modest way, this was the perfect opportunity to repay his hosts’ generosity. Reluctantly (he was a guest, after all), she finally allowed him to mow the lawns.
By the evening, Gaz’s positive mood and demeanour had returned. And, at the dinner table, the Rinaldis expertly stepped into the breach. They insisted that English, for the most part, was off-limits, and Gaz rose to the challenge. After the meal, they all watched a DVD – “The Italian Job”, with Italian sub-titles.
The following morning, Paolo was still indisposed, although Gaz had glimpsed him emerging from the bathroom. Mouthing ‘So sorry, Gaz. So sorry’, he’d quickly returned to his room.
After breakfast, still eager to show his gratitude to the Rinaldis, Gaz volunteered to do some housework – not a strong point - and soon found himself dusting and hoovering. After he’d completed this menial task, he was surprised to find how exhilarated he felt.
By this time, however, Gaz was becoming restive, missing Paolo’s company. Pondering his options, he decided to do some painting to fill his time and went into town in pursuit of art materials. On the way, he passed the enoteca and, momentarily, was tempted to go in again. Had he done so, of course, this time he would be looking out for notes of sour cherry, fig and roasted pepper. (This wine tasting lark was weird!) But he refrained. What would Signora Rinaldi think if he got back half-cut?
Back at the house, armed with an easel his host had dug out for him, he set himself up beyond a small stand of cypress trees at the back of the garden.
Suddenly, a strong desire to smoke some pot came over Gaz. (He’d inadvertently smuggled some into the country.) Here, he was away from prying eyes, and hadn’t he seen a shop in Florence displaying the logo of a cannabis leaf? Maybe Italians were more laissez faire about things. He fished out papers and cannabis from his bum bag and rolled himself a joint.
After some deliberation, Gaz chose to make the cypress trees the main feature of his painting against a backdrop of vineyards and scattered villages. Two hours later, he stepped back to appraise his work, noting that the trees had assumed a life of their own. Van Gogh sprang to mind. He grinned.
Later, when Signora Rinaldi called him indoors, Gaz thought she might reprimand him, but she was blissfully unaware of anything. Instead, she informed him she was taking him to Siena the following day in place of her son.
If someone had predicted, five weeks before, that Gaz would be sitting alongside a classy lady like Signora Rinaldi in her Alfa Romeo cabriolet, motoring through Tuscany, he would have questioned their sanity. But here he was, travelling in style through countryside that displayed all the hallmarks of centuries of civilisation. How could you not admire these beautiful, rolling hills - sumptuous pincushions pierced by elegant, needle-like cypresses.
And, later, Siena surpassed even Gaz’s high expectations. In his host, of course, he had an excellent companion and guide. He marvelled at the cathedral, laden with its thirty-five statues of prophets and patriarchs; he imbibed the grandeur of the Piazza del Campo, conjuring up the sight and sound of the horses thundering around the square twice-yearly; and drank in all the wonderful paintings, frescos and reliefs, of course.
When the city tour was over, Signora Rinaldi led Gaz to a quiet little café, tucked away behind the cathedral. Once they were seated, she held Gaz’s gaze for a few seconds, before saying:
‘You have been very patient, Gary.’
‘How’d you mean, Signora Rinaldi?’ Gaz asked.
‘With regard to Paolo.’
(If she only knew, Gaz thought, embarrassed now by his recent tantrum.)
‘Lots of people get bad migraines,’ he said.
‘No, Gary. It is more serious than that, I am afraid. Paolo suffers badly with depression.’
‘Yes, it was a shock. My son was fourteen years old. One moment he was a carefree boy, the next he was a very different person. He became shy and withdrawn and lost his self-confidence.’
‘As you can imagine, his friends gradually left him; some even thought his behaviour was a weakness. One boy in particular (he works for the council now, I think) got pleasure out of teasing Paolo. Later, he started to bully him. Then, I was obliged to see his parents.’
‘Now I remember Paolo avoiding a young guy on my second day here.’
‘That will be Antonio.’
‘Right. And I’ve noticed Paolo doesn’t drink very much?’
‘No, I am afraid that is because of the medication.’
There was a pause. Then Signora Rinaldi said:
‘There is a reason Paolo could not take you here, Gary. It is difficult to explain, but sometimes a thought comes into his head, uninvited, and it is associated with something unpleasant. This time, for some reason, it concerned Siena. It is not that he is superstitious. Paolo is the most logical person I know. But, sometimes, depression is stronger than logic. Anyway, that is why he could not do this trip. I am so sorry.’
‘It’s not a problem, Signora Rinaldi.’
‘Really? You know, Gary, for a young person, you are very understanding…’
‘Look, I don’t have depression, but I do have my own problems – rejection, loneliness… So, I have some idea…’
‘You know something, Gary? You are a saint.’
‘Oh, come on. Now you’re embarrassing me.’
‘I think it is time we got back.’
Fortunately, Paolo’s retreat from the world was short-lived. The day after Gaz’s trip to Siena, he resurfaced and took meals with the family again. He also played chess and Scrabble with Gaz in the garden. On one occasion, Signora Rinaldi drove the boys to the tranquil hilltop village of Panzano. And it wasn’t long before Gaz and Paolo resumed their forays into the surrounding countryside.
One morning (Paolo’s mood was much improved by then), the pair set off into the hills on mountain bikes. At one point, they decided to have a race between rocky outcrops. Paolo soon put distance between them. When Gaz caught up with him, he blurted out, panting:
‘Bloody hell, Paolo. You’re fit!’
‘I know,’ Paolo replied. ‘That is because of the depression, Gaz. Lots of people like me run, cycle, swim…’
‘Yes, it releases endorphins.’
‘What the hell are they?’
‘Chemicals. They relax you and you become more positive mentally.’
The young men rested their bikes against a post and sat down on some rocks.
After a while, Gaz said: ‘Hey, Paolo. You study psychology, right?’
‘Well, what do you make of this? My parents think I’m on the autism spectrum.’
‘What?’ Paolo looked surprised. ‘You are joking.’
‘No, I’m not. They’re embarrassed by me. My brother told me Mam I was a nerd.’
‘What is that?’
‘Someone who has a boring hobby, like trainspotting.’
’I cannot believe this.’
Pondering the matter, Paolo finally said:
‘Look Gaz, you are not a nerd. A nerd has probably got Asperger’s Syndrome.’
‘OK. I’ve heard of that. Dunno what it is, mind.’
‘Well, people like that, they cannot look you in the eyes.’
‘Yes. Now you do not have a problem like that. You mentioned trainspotting. Now, trainspotters do not do this, because they love trains. It is more a question of compulsion.’
‘So, what about my bird watching?’
‘Well, I think birds bring you happiness, Gaz.’
‘Yeah, that’s right.’
‘Again, you like computer games. Well, so do I, but we are not fanatics.’
‘You know what, Paolo? Since I’ve been here, I haven’t even thought about them.’
‘So, you are not obsessed with just one thing. In fact, you have quite a lot of hobbies, don’t you?’
‘Yeah, let me see now. Well, there’s art, birdwatching, computers, learning Italian, (a pause) housework…’
‘Yeah, that’s your mam’s fault. When you weren’t well, she dangled the delights of dusting and cleaning before me. And now I’m hooked!’
There was a pause. Then Paolo continued:
‘Right, that is another thing. Usually, autistics do not have a sense of humour.’
The two looked at each other for a moment, started to giggle and then slipped off the rocks, convulsed with laughter.
And then Gaz’s holiday was almost at an end. Real life was encroaching again and he got that familiar sinking feeling.
Two evenings before his flight home, the family was assembled around the dinner table. As the month had progressed, Gaz had steadily acquired a taste for Italian cuisine but this evening he had no appetite. Before the family started on the food, out of the blue, Signor Rinaldi addressed Gaz, ‘I have a question for you, Gary.’ he said. ’Please do not think I am putting pressure on you. My question is this: what, do you think, is the main difference between film animation and computer game animation?’
Distracted momentarily from the gloom of his imminent departure, Gaz leant back in his chair and deliberated. Then, looking at Signor Rinaldi, he said in a considered way: ‘So, films are passive and computer games are interactive. In films, you see the finished product. Only one angle is needed. In computer games, as you’re personally involved, you have to consider all the angles.’
‘Very good, Gary,’ Signor Rinaldi said, a rare smile on his face. After a pause, he continued:
‘Well, your stay with us is almost over.’ Again, he paused. ‘But it does not have to be. My wife, Paolo and I have greatly enjoyed your company, and you have helped Paolo very much. I have not seen him so happy for a long time. Now, about that question. I asked it for a reason, and you gave me the answer I was hoping for. From Paolo, I know your employment prospects in Stoke are not the best.’
By now, Gaz was on tenterhooks. Signor Rinaldi continued:
‘So, Gary, I have a proposition to make to you: if you are in agreement, I can offer you a month’s on-the-job training at my company, working with one of our 3D animators. At the end of this time, I am sure you will be able to produce a 3D animation demo reel…and then, the future is yours.’
Gaz could barely grasp the import of his host’s words. He must be dreaming. In his experience, apart from Auntie Madge and the bird watchers, nobody took any interest in him. And here was this cultured family doing everything in its power to make him feel wanted. Signora Rinaldi treated him like an equal. Paolo took issue with his parents for mislabelling him autistic. And now, this earnest, well-meaning man was making him this offer.
Tears streamed down his cheeks.