5. Girasole/SunflowerThe Italian café stood out between Loughram Solicitors on one side and Parker's Property Management on the corner. Pale green with hand-painted sunflowers, a Taste of Italy. The owner was a large, olive-skinned woman, with dark, tightly-curled hair pulled up tight and an open face that made you think of grandmothers. Giulia would ease herself around the small main room of the cafe talking anything with anyone and singing sparkling duets with the light Italian pop that played all day long. Everyone who came to Girasole loved her and she loved them, her hungry children to feed, to bring into the warmth of her small haven for a brief respite from the big bad world. Her husband was large as well; Monolo would make coffee and sit in the window or stand just outside and smile at passers-by in a way that made them smile too. Girasole was famous for its rigorous approach to customer management which began with mornings for the few regulars who would sit at the tables around the outside of the room, backs against the walls, feet spread wide, coffee steaming on the table. Not much milk this early in the day. Lunchtimes were busy, the regulars slip outside for cigarettes and stroll up and down, talking about their families and English football. The cafe fills with the smells of fresh tomato sauce, basil, flaky pastries, pistachio, cream, oil. The sounds of satisfaction and giddy chatter buzz in waves, jumping from table to table as Giulia and her small team squeeze between chairs and children, filling water, clearing plates, laughing and chatting in Italian, French, Spanish, jokes for the regulars, jokes for the bemused couple off the street. A humming energy of excitement spills from Giulia that makes the room swell and chuckle as the visitors find themselves warmly swept into the heart of what, in the diary, was meant to be twenty minutes, but subtly went on to nearly an hour of how about another coffee, and what are those called, the crunchy ones, or please, just one more slice, and all laughing all the while. In the late afternoons the regulars would wander back in and take their regular places by the walls and nod to each other over tables stained by empty coffee mugs. Once upon a time this room would have filled with gentle smoke but today these stolen moments were reserved for the river and, honestly, I was glad of it. 'Congratulations!' A regular. He's beaming and trying hard not to laugh. 'How did you know?' 'I saw one picture, in the hospital.' There are hugs and now he lets himself go with a shake of the head. 'We called him Manu.' 'Like me? Manolo?' 'Short. Just Manu.' You can tell he's imagining him now, little Manu. 'Okay.' Manolo laughs and the three stand for a moment smiling and shaking their heads. What an extraordinary thing. Giulia speaks first. 'Coffee, babbo?' They sat at the round table close to the door, Giulia and the father talking about little Manu, who has his grandfather's eyes and such small fingers. Manolo leans back and looks out the window, listening and not saying much, nodding along softly. For a while the boy lost himself and his head span with the cream that he swirled into his coffee even though he liked it without. He wanted to watch it turning and turning and then, when it was a perfect spiral, he would unturn and watch the coffee spout cream back up out, and pour thick and white into the small pot that he set gently down on the table beside the sugar and glass bottles of olive oil. He would raise the cup and coffee would run hot and steaming, cooling him inside as it spilt sipping back down into the cup, and he'd place it down again. He'd stand and his jacket would float gently onto his shoulders, bag jumping into hand, looking up away from the empty table. He'd pace, toe-first down and out then be back on the road with Girasole in front of him, inviting. Back, away and further still watching the blue glass door grow smaller and smaller catching sight of birds before he backed around the corner and was gone. When he looked up Giulia was bringing a fresh tray of pastries through from the kitchen, the swinging door blinking glimpses of a hot, floury white and silver room. Chocolate, icing sugar-dusted, light and crispy, piece by piece she tonged the still-warm crusts onto the counter, stacking them into a fragrant pyramid. As she placed the last pastry delicately on top to complete the pattern she turned and caught the eye of the boy who sat alone now, the afternoon sun just beginning to cast ceiling shadows the length of the cosy room. Manolo was outside watching the river and the view of the old town ahead of him and the old cathedral across the island to the right. A slight breeze drifted in from the left bank. Manolo shivered and lit a thin cigarette. The door bumped coolly closed. Giulia looked up at the noise and her eyes narrowed, nose lifted, sensing the night's weather to come. She turned and the music seemed to slow as she looked directly into the eyes of the boy who sat, mug raised to lips frozen in a silent pursed blow. They stood and sat and stared deep into the eyes of the other. The music turned and whined and out of the noise came a single note, brassy and thick and then a low thrum, cymbals splashed softly and as the rhythm swelled it began to rock the room gently, then a voice. Light at first, without words the lullaby pulled the two together and as the musicians played the pair danced. The tables pushed aside, hand in hand without looking away they moved through the room, gliding across brushed wood. The fading light still picked out their cheeks and arms and the glint of the cool brass, the flicker of the fingers that flowed across stops and mouths that breathed hard and each piercing perfect unplanned note that sang out into the room and said: 'I didn't know that this was where I belong.' The throb of the bass drum and the heavy twang of the upright began to beat faster and the dancers quickened their step. Moment by moment they matched the music and the light and the breath of the man who sang and watched with closed eyes, one hand tight to the microphone held close to his lingering lips, the other loose on the neck of the stand. Drifting through the other couples that rolled and lifted and danced they found space before the stage where they held each other, swaying together till the end of the song. The man who sang opened one sharp golden eye and looked down on the boy and on the woman whose hands were still dusted white from the kitchen. As they spin and spin and the room turns slowly around them the dust begins to fill the air, settling in slight whirlwinds onto their shifting, twirling shoulders and the tops of one joined head. The dust falls thicker and thicker, caking the scene in thick icing snow, sweet and cold, soft bed for the music that rolls gently across the sloping walls of the room and falling, dripping in the thaw down down into the river below. On the street the music continues, the glint of brass from four doors where, between Five, Six, Fourteen, and Fifteen, everyone sat out in the sun and says they saw someone sitting there once who went on to be someone. Four cafes that house the blinkered images of the leavers who came to find home in a swirling, intoxicating palace. Not at the time though, what was a cafe before it was made more? What was two francs a coffee is eighty euro a bottle and up. The doors open and close and nobody is any the wiser. The music continues and he finds the lights inside luring him from the river-side, deeper left into the bank. Images of cool glasses of white wine on warm summer nights, of stepping out in just a shirt buttoned up three-quarters and shorts, light shoes. Hand-in-hand he swirls with his chérie italienne until they reach the heart of it all and they swing in and out, laughing and calling to each other and everyone who'll listen about where they've been and who they've seen and the blind naivety of it all never lifts, not tonight. Quick, round the back of a building where it's dark and lips find each other again and there's passion now against the wall and the door beside them bumps open in the wind and she grabs his hand and slip in. Soft carpets and chandeliers, smooth marble walls and the silence of the grand hall draws them further and round a corner, painted eyes following the two intruders as they dart further up and further in. Panting to the top of another staircase and the landing closes at a door where they sweat and feel skin and then a sound and she says stop, stop, can you hear that? With the taste of her and wine on his tongue and in his nose he turns away from the wall, wide-eyed to the single, dying strain that cuts through the air from somewhere below. The door opens with a soft click, he and chérie step through to the gantry that clatters in a wide metal ring around the top edge of the cavernous room. All around them are the facades of old stories full of nature, and the body, and God with his angels, their hands outstretched to the pangs and leaches of human pain. At the far side of the room and below, the stage is lit with a thin bright, white spot that cuts through dust to find the face of the voice that has just grown quiet. Behind her the strings begin again, the melody rising and falling, sad and full of night. Each note reaches out into the darkness above the hundred headed beast that sits beyond the stage's edge. Each string sings its sweet, burning note with another, joined by another as string joins string and thick twine joins thicker and thicker, richer sounds hum together. The wash of vibration burrs out into the room as another sound, a sorrowful chord of brass and wind swells and hangs in a tumultuous cloud of fifths and harmony; anticipation in a growing bulb of music and passion that builds and builds until it breaks with the single voice that rings out above the rest; a note that clutches at the hands of God and the angels who reach down from the roof where the two watch with open mouthes and eyes, one desperate, clammy hand in another. Then silence. He looks at... chérie. Georgia? Gi... She's looking down at where the beast has risen up on hundreds of legs and begun it's clamorous roar. There are tears, one tear in each eye of each head of the beast and... chérie... Outside the sun has set. It glints, flashing along the river; this string of sunsets that meld into one and have done all summer long. He bumps the handle against the spoon of the cup where the cream sits in his mouth and his eyes open. Giulia is there on her knees beside the empty tray and the smoke cloud of icing softly falls across the cafe.
©2007-2022 Benedict Esdale