Monnie Stewart breathed in the salt air, listened to the sounds of activity as the ship docked. Naples, vibrant with activity, and welcoming.
In an hour’s time she would be heading off the ship and onto the coach that would take her to the place where her heart lay. Impatience hit her. She’d waited three years to get back to Sorrento and now her dream had come true, thanks to the lottery win. The entire voyage had been taken up with thoughts of first things to do. She wanted to go straight to Marina Grande but she knew she would have to curb her enthusiasm until she had booked into the hotel. Still, it was only a stone’s throw, a quick run down the steps and she would be there. Her memory was so sharp she could almost smell the haul of fish on the trawlers and she could have sworn she heard Roberto’s voice urging her to hurry.
Monnie moved off the balcony, back into her cabin. Her luggage had been collected by the stewards, her account was settled, all she had to do now was go down to the lounge and wait for the call to disembark. Her stomach was in turmoil with excitement.
All the seats were taken in the lounge. People sat around reading newspapers, surrounded by flight cases and coats, sometimes occupying more than they should of the seating. Monnie didn’t mind, she would prop up the bar and think of her last night on board.
Tim had been very attentive. He had been her dining companion throughout the journey. They had joked about being single travellers and discussed how natural it was to forge friendships on board ship. Discounting a mop of fair hair that obviously defied the comb he was quite easy on the eye, and he had the most piercing blue eyes Monnie had ever seen. As far as she was concerned he was simply a guy to pass the odd hour with when she had nothing else to do so when he suggested meeting her on shore sometime during the vacation she pretended she hadn’t heard. Nice as he was she didn’t want to encourage him. There was so much for her to do she would feel hampered by his presence.
She wondered if there would be a table available at Ristorante L'Antica Trattoria. She and Roberto always went there on their first day in Sorrento. The proprietor gave them the same table every time, on the outside terrace, right next to the overhanging flowers. It was the first time she ever tasted sea bass baked in salt. On the other hand, if she went there she would be alone and the experience wouldn’t be the same. Monnie sighed, remembering those glorious summers spent with Roberto.
This visit was as much to remember her dearest friend as it was a vacation. She still missed him, missed his happy, smiling face, his jokes, his profound wisdom, his loyal support when things went wrong. Even though there was a distance between them, Roberto was always there for her. He was her strength. Monnie’s life had seemed to end the day Roberto died but inevitably she recovered. It was as if she had inherited his common sense.
They met in the Trattoria da Emilia, a restaurant with a jetty that went right out into the sea. Roberto had asked to share her table. Initially, with the language problem their conversation was hilarious but they managed to understand each other with the use of expressions and signs. With his help Monnie had mastered the language and she had often wondered if she would ever need to use it again. Well this was testing time; she would soon know if she remembered how to speak to Italians.
Tim Rowlands was one of the first to go through security. Quickly he went down the gangway and headed to the area where the coaches waited. He hadn’t seen Monnie and regretted the fact that he might not see her again in Sorrento. At the very least he could look forward to bumping into her on their return journey to England.
Monnie nursed her cup of cappuccino, her eyes fixed on the fishing boat entering the harbour. She wore a flimsy white blouse and wide floral skirt and her feet were snug in flat white sandals. Overhead the gulls cried kee-aa, kee-aa, seemingly unaffected by the beating sun. She tilted her straw hat to protect her eyes. A gull swooped and caught a piece of bread thrown by a young boy. The boy giggled and tossed up another piece. Monnie aimed her camera, took the shot. She felt happy, already entranced by her surroundings.
There had been a few changes since her last visit, another restaurant, another coffee shop, more scooters following the bus. The fishing boats seemed larger and the piles of nets looked higher, but the weather was exactly the same. There was so much to remember, her first taste of squid, the first sip of limoncello, a recipe for tiramisu she’d copied for her mother and promptly lost, seashells she and Roberto collected in Positano. Vivid memories of early morning swimming, late night dancing, and fine dining.
Marina Grande was a charming sun-soaked fishing village. Except for the occasional roar of a motor scooter it was unspoiled by modernism. She and Roberto adored it. They would go there every day, to eat at a trattoria, drink coffee outside the pink house, browse the stalls, talk to the women and watch the fishermen, or merely sit and inhale the beauty of their surroundings.
Monnie finished her coffee and smiled at the buxom apron-clad proprietor to indicate she wanted to settle the bill. ‘Grazie,’ she said when the woman handed her the change.
‘Arrivederci.’ The woman waved as Monnie moved away, wisps of dark hair wafting in the gentle breeze.
She walked the length of the Marina, stepping over fishing nets and small oars lying near the boats, pausing to watch four men lift a swordfish from a big trawler. She knew that before long the sword would be displayed on the slab at the local fishmongers. Ahead of her were the stalls where hand-embroidered tablecloths hung from lines strung between stalls, the sales women seated nearby, chatting as they knitted. Carefree women, each wearing a crisp, white apron over full skirts.
Beyond the stalls was the walkway that led to the town where tourists gathered round the shrine to Our Lady. Monnie knew from experience that magic happened at the shrine. She had heard the voices many times. When evening came she would come back and listen for Roberto’s voice.
Three nuns strolled along the walkway, smiling at everyone. Monnie smiled back, made a comment about the glorious weather, ‘Bella giornata.’ The nuns smiled and nodded, said in unison, ‘È bello.’
The place was filled with atmosphere. Outside a green door a boy played with a small puppy, while his mother shouted from inside for him to bring the animal indoors. The sight brought back memories of Monnie’s first experience with a puppy. She would have been the same age as this child, just old enough to appreciate the joy of ownership. While she watched, the boy’s father came on the scene, swarthy and rugged, an obvious fisherman. He picked up the pup and placing his hand on the boy’s head turned him gently towards the door. Seagulls called as they flew by, probably grateful for a recent meal of fish.
Tim sat in the Foreigners’ Club. He had finished his lager and was studying a map of Sorrento. He should be outside enjoying the weather but he had yet to buy sunscreen; with his fair skin he had to be cautious. Idly he riffled through the brochures he’d picked up at the door. Capri was a must, so was a ride along the Amalfi coast. It was his first visit to Italy and he wanted to see as much as possible during his eleven day vacation. One brochure described a fishing village called Marina Grande. He wasn’t sure a fishing village could be called an attraction but he supposed the Italians thought it was. He pulled the map towards him to check the location. It seemed just a short walk from his hotel.
After dinner Monnie left the hotel and sauntered down Via Capo hill to Corsa Italia and Piazza Tasso, where she would try to resist stopping for ice cream. It was a good walk and she noticed how breathless she was getting. She had thought of hiring a scooter but decided against it. Exercise was what she needed. Exercise or not she couldn’t resist buying cappuccino in the square. Tomorrow she would take the bus to Amalfi; this evening belonged to the magical shrine.
She drained her cup, resisted the urge to finger the remaining foam to her mouth, recalled how she and Roberto tried to do it surreptitiously. How they laughed when they were seen and tut-tutted at by English tourists. She paid the bill, left a couple of Euros for the handsome waiter, and walked down the steps to the square. She had plenty of time before dusk descended and it would only take half an hour to reach the shrine.
She went the long way so that she could see the sea while she walked. Occasionally she leaned on the rail to daydream. Once she thought she heard her name called, turned to look, saw no-one.
For a minute Tim thought she had heard him but when he realised she hadn’t he felt relieved. Monnie wasn’t the sort of girl who would welcome being whistled at. On the ship she’d been aloof and unwelcoming and he didn’t intend to push in where he wasn’t wanted. All the same, she had been on his mind ever since they landed. She was an attractive woman with a slender figure that curved in all the right places. Her clothes were stylish and expensive and she wore excessively high heels like they were comfortable slippers. Her dark hair, styled like a cap, suited her elfin features. It was good to see her relaxed in casual gear and sandals.
She was no longer in sight and he guessed she’d turned down a narrow side street. If he did that he would get lost and anyway if she saw him she would think he was following her. No, there were two more weeks, he was bound to see her again.
By the time she reached Our Lady’s shrine Monnie felt she’d had enough walking. Hitching up her skirt she eased onto the opposite wall, facing the holy place. There were few people around, most tourists would be preparing for an evening out or relaxing after a meal, not many would pass by at this time. She knew from experience that the owners of nearby houses would soon place lighted candles in their windows and the church bells would ring. Only then could the voices be heard. Monnie prayed that she would hear Roberto’s voice.
‘I’ve missed you, Roberto.’ Monnie had crossed to the shrine and placed a single red rose in one of the vases provided, no doubt, by local residents. Filling it with water from the nearby tap, she held it high so that Roberto could see it before placing it beside Our Lady.
The reply was barely audible but Monnie heard the words as if they’d been shouted from the heavens. I’ve missed you too, Monnie. A single tear rolled down her cheek which she quickly brushed away. ‘Oh Roberto, I’m here at last though there’s not much to tell you. I keep myself occupied as you advised but it gets lonely. We had such good times together; it’s hard to move on.’
You must ... move on.
‘More than anything I need a friend. I need you, Roberto.’ Monnie realised she was being silly but it was the way she felt. She and Roberto had been special friends for over ten years, close like brother and sister, closer than she was with her mother.
I am no more, Monnie, you must move on.
‘I met a man on the ship, he was very handsome and I know he liked me. I gave him the elbow. He will be on the ship when I return. Oh Roberto, I would rather stay here in Italy where you are.’
Devo andare, vi lascio in pace, il mio caro amico. I must go, I leave you in peace, my dear friend.
The voice faded. Monnie looked at the rose in the vase, saw that it was wilting. An elderly man had arrived, she hadn’t heard him come. He too brought flowers. ‘For my wife,’ he whispered.
Monnie walked over to the wall and sat there, feeling strangely light-hearted.
Tim looked at his watch. He had spent so much time watching the procession of priests and villagers he’d almost forgotten about getting back to the hotel for supper. It was too late now, it would be better to get something at the fish restaurant he’d seen as he entered Marina Grande. He had stopped outside to watch the fish swimming in the tank and read the notice about customers selecting their own. He hadn’t the stomach for that... maybe the owner would do it for him and not tell which one he’d picked?
It was while he was deliberating that he heard the commotion further along, just below the wall that lined the path to that flower decked shrine. People gathered round something or someone on the floor. Curiously, he ambled towards the scene.
Monnie felt such a fool. She couldn’t believe she had actually fallen off the wall. A kindly fisherman said it was a wonder she hadn’t broken a leg or something. Several women helped her up, checked her over for injuries. Satisfied that she hadn’t broken a limb they provided a chair so that she could regain her composure. One woman ordered her daughter to fetch water from their house. Velocemente.
Monnie relaxed, allowed the women to fuss, indulging in it. It was a long time since she’d had so much motherly attention. She looked down at her leg, sighed when she saw the discolouration, knowing she was in for a healthy bruise. She didn’t bruise easily so she must have given the leg a terrific whack. Gingerly she tested it out, putting pressure on the leg without actually rising from the chair, and that’s when she saw Tim coming towards her.
It was the most stupid thing. She was so pleased to see him that her eyes began to water. Here was someone she knew, and yet she didn’t know him at all, they had merely travelled together on a ship. Tim actually knelt in front of her; she actually saw concern in his eyes.
Oh Tim, am I pleased to see you. ‘I was sitting on the wall and lost my balance. I feel a right fool.’
Tim took her hand. ‘Come on now, you can’t help having accidents.’
Monnie looked at him, surprised by the compassion written on his face, and wondered why she had wanted to avoid him. ‘You’re very kind,’ she murmured, not trusting her voice too much.
Tim took charge, helped her to stand, test the stability of her limbs. She was fine. In fact, she had such a glow inside her she felt like dancing. Tim suggested a quiet supper somewhere, maybe some wine, or coffee if she preferred.
Monnie felt the weird sensation creeping over her; it had been so long since... since Roberto. Could Tim be her new friend? She thought perhaps... but then she was jumping the gun. Just because a good looking man paid attention to her didn’t mean....
Maybe it does.
Monnie heard the words as clearly as if Roberto was standing beside her. She turned and looked back at the shrine. The rose now stood erect, the bloom fully open, the deep red colour glistening in the candlelight.
Take my love with you, Monnie, it’s time to move on.
‘Yes,’ she whispered, ‘but I will return one day to let you know how my life turns out.’
Tim put his hand on her cheek, aware that something was going on but not knowing what. ‘Is everything all right?’
‘Oh yes, everything is wonderful.’ Monnie put her hand on top of his, felt the warmth. ‘Have you ever known such a magical place?’ And then she pointed to the firefly fluttering near Our Lady’s shrine. ‘Look, there’s a lucciola,’ she said, but inside her head were the words Thank you, Roberto, wish me luck.