A couple of years ago my writing group – The Tunbridge Wells Writers – collaborated on an e-book called ‘A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words’. The project involved writing short stories based on a single, randomly selected, image from the internet. I’ve been meaning to share the e-book on this website ever since but keep forgetting! One of my stories from the collection is posted below, along with the image prompt. I’ll post my other contributions (probably, if I remember!) over the next few weeks…
Paolo is walking on air. He has a new suit, new shoes, and a new haircut, and he feels at this moment like the most handsome man in all of Italy. Paolo is in love. The pavements are grey, but the sky is blue. It is early autumn: still warm, but the breeze, when it hits, hints of a harsh winter to come. Paolo doesn’t feel the cold or see the grey pavement; he only sees the blue sky. Paolo is in love.
He turns the corner on Consalvo and Mario, passing two old men who are arguing. One has a newspaper which he is hurriedly closing, a look of disgust on his face. Paolo nods to them but they ignore him, too lost in their dispute even to notice the most handsome man in Italy walking by.
He sees Gabriella, a sister of one of his friends, and impulsively blows her a kiss. She tuts and frowns, but as she turns her face away Paolo can see the frown turning to a smile. She is arranging flowers outside the florists where she works, threading strands of gypsophila between the dark green leaves and deep red heads of a display of roses. The roses are in a plain galvanised bucket, but Gabriella dresses them as though the bucket were a fine crystal vase. Her long fingernails are painted red, two shades lighter than the roses, matching the cupid’s bow of her lipstick and the ribbon in her hair.
Paolo is about to compliment her, but is stopped by an explosion of noise from behind: a barking dog and angry raised voices. He turns and is shocked to see the two old men fighting. They look ludicrous, like boxing March hares, leaning back to avoid blows rather than forward to land them. One is waving a cane, the other trying to shield himself with the raincoat he carries over his arm. Both have lost their hats, which have fluttered to the pavement. Most of their punches hit nothing but air, but when they do connect the results are dramatic, bringing forth exaggerated howls that sound more indignant than pained together with volleys of ripe curses. As Paolo moves forward to separate them the shorter man – who is still smoking his pipe, Paolo notices – grabs the other by the lapels of his greatcoat and spins him around. He looks jubilant as the other stumbles and falls into the gutter, his walking cane skittering into the middle of the road. As the man tries to get up the dog, a small brown and white spaniel, stops barking and leaps in, grabbing the man on the ground by his ankle and worrying the hem of his trousers. The man cries out, shaking and kicking his leg while the other man, now looking worried, grabs the dog’s leash and tries to pull it away.
Paolo is about to kick the dog but is halted by a sudden rush of water and roses as Gabriella upends the bucket she has been working on over the dog’s head. It lets go of the man immediately, and runs to hide, whimpering, behind the legs of the shorter man.
Paolo helps the fallen man up while Gabriella leads the other man and the dog back to the bench. Her voice is strident, her words angry: the men should be ashamed of themselves; who’s going to pay for her ruined flowers? The man looks cowed and embarrassed, the dog more so. The man Paolo is helping up is still angry, but now at the dog rather than the other man.
“I’ll have the bastard thing shot,” he declares, “that stronzo is a damn menace!”
Paolo tries to placate the man. “It’s only doing its job,” he offers “trying to protect its master.”
“But it’s my poxy dog!” the man cries, kicking out at the animal, which whines and hides underneath the bench.
At this Paolo starts laughing. He looks at Gabriella who starts laughing too. It is the perfect punchline to a ridiculous joke, but neither of the older men seem to get it.
Eventually the men are placated. The shorter man moves to leave, telling his friend he will meet him later in the caffé. The other man says he will leave the bastard dog at home, but without even seeming to realise it he has already started stroking the animal’s head, the action calming them both. Each of the men offer Gabriella money for the flowers, and after looking around she takes just enough to cover the broken stems. Paolo helps her collect the undamaged stems, then curses as he realises the time.
“I’m supposed to be meeting Maria” he explains. “She’ll kill me if I’m late again.”
“Not when you tell her what happened,” Gabriella offers, “She will think you are very gallant, stopping to help two old men. Here…” – she gives him a single rose stem – “… this will make up for the ten minutes she’s had to wait, and if she does give you a hard time tell her she will have me to reckon with.”
Paolo is grateful for the rose, but knowing Maria’s temper decides to keep Gabriella’s last suggestion to himself. He thanks Gabriella for the flower and her help, then hurries away.
Arriving at Maria’s home he is let in by her mother, who gives him a warning look. She jerks a thumb in the direction of the living room, where he finds Maria sitting stiffly on the family’s old settee. She looks less than happy to see him. He holds out the flower, then rushes forward, apologising and explaining what happened at the same time.
As he sits and tells his story Maria becomes more animated, running her hands through the hair at the back of his neck and kissing him on the cheek. Between sentences he kisses her back, on the lips, both of them wary of the open door and Maria’s mother in the kitchen. By the time he gets to the punchline, the Judas spaniel, Maria is wiping tears of laughter from her eyes. Paolo has a way with words, and the story has grown in the retelling. She kisses him again, and he knows his lateness is forgiven.
After more and increasingly passionate kisses they are disturbed by Maria’s mother, who has the decency to cough a warning to them on her way up the hall. She finds them, as she expected, sitting primly at opposite ends of the settee. She asks what Maria has been laughing at, and Paolo tells his story again, embellishing even further. Maria’s mother laughs, but says it is disgusting that old men should be fighting over a story in the newspaper.
“But they weren’t,” Paolo explains. “They were arguing over a woman – some girl they both dated and lost over fifty years ago!”
“Ridiculous!” say the women, and Paolo has to agree. But when he looks at Maria in her blue polka-dot dress and high heels, her shining eyes and smiling face, he feels his heart skip a beat, and he feels a connection with the two old men that he hadn’t felt before.