My thanks go to PapaGus and Deryk for assisting me in preparing this story for posting.
I'd wandered away from the cathedral entrance, wondering what the hell I was doing there anyway. It was the third day of our holiday, and my two daughters had taken their spouses inside to enjoy the splendour of the old building. And the coolness of the air, I should imagine.
I didn't want to go inside the building myself. I'd seen it all too many times before and like most of the city, it held too many memories for me.
Quite honestly I didn't want to be in Italy at all, let alone Venice and even less so, St Marks Square. For some reason Venice, especially the famous Piazza, had been Mary's most favourite spot in the whole damned world. Okay, Venice had been the city we'd spent our honeymoon in, but I'd never thought it necessary for us to return to the city almost every other year.
Mary must have thought it was romantic, I suppose; she loved the place. I'll admit that I kind-a liked the city myself. Christ, I was so familiar with the place by then, it was something like coming home again; Mary and I had visited the city so often.
But for me personally, it wasn't the city itself; the fascination for me had always been the woman I was with when I visited.
But I'd lost Mary some five years before, and with her going the city had lost most of its charm for me. I have no idea what possessed the girls and their husbands to book this holiday, or even why I had -- after a lot of cajoling -- agreed to come along with them.
Yeah, neither of my son-in-laws had visited the city before, but my two girls knew the place almost as intimately as I did. So their story, of me playing tour guide didn't really hold water. But when I put that argument up, all I got was:
"Oh dad, you haven't been away since mother passed on. It's time you got out and did something. Besides you like Venice, it'll cheer you up no end, to get back there."
I honestly do not believe my daughters had thought that one through properly. Venice without Mary was hardly likely to cheer me up, now was it?
Anyway eventually, and against my better judgement, I'd agreed to go with them.
Telling them I'd meet them in one of the many cafes that surround St Marks Square, after they'd had their fill of the cathedral, I took a stroll up one side of the Piazza under the colonnade, or whatever you call the bloody thing. I think I was intending to walk back down the other side, but I noted that the sun was still partly finding its way under there, so I turned back the way I came. Just stopping for a moment to gaze in the window of a little jewellery store and remembering when I'd bought Mary a necklace she'd spotted in there one time, long before.
As I gazed into the window, I became aware that I could see a young child with incredibly large eyes reflected in the glass. She could only have been about five or six years old and for some inexplicable reason she appeared to be studying me with great interest.
Slightly embarrassed, I turned and smiled at the child. I have no idea why, maybe I thought that me looking at her, might drive the little girl away. No chance, the little girl continued to study me rolling her head this way and that, and then looking me up and down. Very curious behaviour I thought, and I wondered whether I'd suddenly sprouted horns or a tail or something.
Then suddenly a slightly older child, another girl, probably eight years of age, appeared by the little one's side. I figured an older sister. After exchanging a couple of words in Italian with her sister, she took hold of the little one's hand, then dragged the protesting smaller child away.
I probably smiled to myself, remembering how I'd seen my two girls studying something in the same manner, as the little girl had stared at me when they were young. I just could not imagine what the little girl had found so enthralling about me and cursed myself for not picking up more of the language over the years.
Then I made my way back along the colonnade to one of the pavement cafés nearer the Cathedral's entrance, so that my family would not have too much trouble locating me.
Picking a table that I thought would remain in the shade for a little while at least, I ordered a pot of tea and a couple of rounds of toast, pulled out the paperback I'd been reading and settled back to lose myself in it until the family showed up.
A short while later, I was reaching for the second slice of toast when something caught my eye. Just on the other side of the barrier that separated the many pavement cafés from each other and leaning against it was the little dark haired girl with the big green eyes again. What's more, standing beside her and also staring intently at me, was her larger sister.
I smiled -- I suppose slightly embarrassed to find myself the centre of their attention yet again -- then sat back wondering what the hell the children found so fascinating about a middle-aged Englishman and nibbled at my toast, while I tried to get back into my book.
Yes, it did cross my mind that they might be hungry. We've all seen those pictures of staving children from around the world on TV. But I was in Italy for Chri'sake, and those two young girls did not look at all underfed to me.
"Surely they've seen people eating buttered toast before?" was the one salient thought that crossed my mind.
I suppose ... well, maybe ten minutes must have passed, while I nibbled at my toast and tried to pretend that I was reading my book. And keeping an eye on the two little girls out of the corner of my eye at the same time. Neither moved or said anything to me, or each other.
Then I heard a female voice talking in Italian and both girls' attention moved from me to the lady. Actually at the time, I wasn't completely sure it was their mother, as she didn't really look old enough, and at first had hazarded a guess that she might have been a much older sister ... There was a distinct and unmistakable resemblance between them, that for some inexplicable reason I found familiar.
Later I discovered that my guess was wrong and that the woman was their mother. But she looked to me, much younger than both of my own daughters.
The woman quite obviously chastised the two little girls, in Italian. I assumed because they'd done a disappearing act on her. Well, those of us who have had children of our own, know what it's like when you suddenly realise that one of the little tykes, isn't where they should be, or you thought they were.
But then something strange happened. The smallest child said something her mother in Italian, which caused the woman to look at me; doing so brought the oddest response from her. The woman's eyes appeared to grow as large as her daughters' had been, and her complexion turned a distinct shade of pink, when she realised that I was looking back at her. Then grabbing both children by the hand she muttered "Sorry!" In English, without the slightest trace of an accent, and then retreated from my sight between the tables of the next pavement café, at high speed.
I was still sort of wondering what the hell had just happened when I realised that I'd become the centre of attention for quite a few people sitting at adjacent tables, who were, without exception, smiling at me. I could only assume that whatever joke they were smiling at, must have had something to do with the words the child had said to her mother. But hardly speaking a word of the lingo, it had gone over my head.
I shrugged back at the people on the nearest table -- which brought an even bigger grin to their faces, and confused me even more -- then returned to trying to read my book; or rather, I attempted too.
Maybe another five minutes had passed, and everyone had apparently gone back to minding they're own business, before I figured it safe enough to pour myself another cup of tea. Under those circumstances I'd figured I my best option to keep my eyes down up until then.
But as I was putting sugar into my cup the little girls' mother appeared at my table.
"Excuse me ... I..." was as far as she got before I'd leapt to my feet.
Sorry, it was something I couldn't prevent myself from doing. One doesn't converse with a lady you do not know, whilst seated, if she is standing. Well, not when they look as good as that particular young lady does, you don't!
Look, I might have been pushing fifty, but I wasn't that old!
"I'm sorry if my daughters have caused you any embarrassment." The young woman was saying. "But they ... Well they didn't actually, but my mother thought ... No, this is ridiculous. There's no possible chance..."
"I'm sorry young lady, but you are making a very good job of confusing the hell out of me." I said when she stopped to take a breath.
"Yes, I'm sorry. My name is Vitalia. My friends call me Talia. Look, I'm sorry, you don't know me from Adam and I know this might sound like a ridiculous question, but your name isn't Matt Moncrieff, is it?"
"Mathew Algernon Earnest Moncrieff at your service madam." The name Algernon brought a flicker to Talia's eye, so I explained. "My mother had a thing about Oscar Wilde and thought it quite humorous. Most people call me Matt."
Talia was staring back at me with eyes that looked -- relatively speaking -- even bigger then her daughters' had appeared to be. Then she sank into one of the other seats around my table.
"Oh my god. Honestly?" she asked
"Would I lie to a lady, especially one as pretty as you, Talia?"
"My god, I would never believe it was possible."
At this instant the waiter appeared carrying a tray, loaded with another much larger pot of tea and five cups and saucers. The poor fellow must have assumed that the young woman's appearance at my table heralded the arrival of the rest of my party.
"You look like you've had a little shock Talia. May I offer you a cup of tea; it's very good for shock, or so I'm told?"
"Thank you." She replied without thinking.
"Now, if you don't mind, I like to ask you a small question." I said as I poured Talia and myself a fresh cup. "Your daughters are Italian, and, if you don't mind me saying, you are most definitely Italian, but you speak English without a trace of an accent?"
She smiled at me. "I am Italian, but I was raised in Zzumerzet!"
"Now, don't you go trying to kid I, that!" I kidded her.
"Honestly! At one time I had a humdinger of an accent, but then I went to a Public School, where they knocked all the West Country right out of us."
"They did a bloody fine job, by the sound of it."
"Thank you. But surely you can't be the same Matt Moncrieff my mother thinks you are. It would be just too much of a coincidence."
"The nature of coincidences young lady, is that they do seem impossible sometimes. But as, when I first saw you, I thought that you reminded me of someone, then it stands to reason that your mother may possibly be correct. Where does she think she remembers me from?"
"Rimini!" Talia replied.
"My Christ, I haven't been back there for ... Oh god, it's got to be..." -- I did some quick mental arithmetic -- "it must nearly thirty years at least!"
"So you have been there?"
"Oh yes, in my childhood I went there with my parents many times, and, when I was in my teens."
"And Lia! Do you remember Lia?
Strange how the mention of a name can take you back to your youth so quickly. Most certainly I remembered Lia!
Her parents had owned and run the small pension that my family always stayed at, in Rimini. My father had never been one for the big tourist hotels. I first met Lia when we were both less than ten years old. Although we only met for two weeks each summer and we could hardly communicate in actual words, a close friendship developed between us, and ... well, eventually a romance, of sorts,. By the time I got to sixteen it had developed into an extremely heavy romance as well.
All rather strange, because Italian parents kept a very close reign on their daughters in those days, and probably still do.
Somehow Lia and I slipped through the net of her family's close surveillance and well ... No, I don't think I'll go there, not just yet anyway. You can pick it up as we go along.
I have no idea why Lia and I never corresponded with each other by letter. Most likely because of my not speaking Italian, I couldn't write it either, and nether could she, English.
Hey, there were no computers kicking around back then, that you could type your letter into in English and then have a free internet program translate into Italian for you. And I somehow don't think either of us had the money, or the nerve, to have any mutual correspondence translated by anyone else.
Anyway, eventually one summer when the family and I arrived in Rimini, we discovered that Lia's family were no longer running the pension. I never went back to Italy again, until Mary and I honeymooned in Venice.
"Of course I remember Lia." I replied to the young woman. "But how... ?"
"Mother saw you on the waterbus yesterday, and told my daughters that you reminded her of ... Well, of you actually. Mother still has photographs of you two together in her album, when you weren't much older than my girls are now."
"Oh my, what does your father think about that?"
"He didn't mind. You and mother were friends long before he'd even met her."
"The way you said that leads me to believe..."
"Yes, mother is a widow, that's why we moved back to Italy, to be near her family. Oh, and Matt... ?"
"Mother has told me many times just how close friends you two became."
"Oh dear! How embarrassing..."
"No, I think it was sweet. Mother told me that you could hardly communicate in words. But she claims that you didn't need to talk." Talia had a knowing glint in her eye.
I suddenly felt a little hot under the collar, and took a long sip of my tea.
"Don't worry Matt, my lips are sealed." she giggled.
"I should bloody hope so. It was bit, er ... un-Italian of Lia, wasn't it? You know, to tell you about our relationship."
"My mother is not your typical Italian woman Matt; I would have thought you, above all people, would know that."
"Well she certainly wasn't any usual Italian young girl back when I knew her. Lia and I had something very special between us."
"Well, it was a very long time ago Lia."
"Matt may I tell you something? When we lived in Somerset, my mother once told me that her greatest fear in life was that one-day she might run into a certain Englishman. Mother told me, that she didn't know whether she'd have had the strength to leave him and come home again, if she did."
"Oh my god, that is flattering. But we haven't seen each other in years."
"Much to my father's relief, I should imagine. My father loved my mother, but I do believe he always knew that there was someone."
"Oh, so where is your mother now? I should imagine that you are going to suggest we meet again in person."
"Back at our hotel. We're on holiday the same as you, but nearly all of mothers' family is along. Our children are the youngest and can be rather boisterous sometimes. They needed a break from the old people; so my husband and I brought down here. Lucky we did, because Ambra spotted you again."
"Your little one?"
"Yes, and one who listens to, and understands, far too much adult conversation I fear. I'm afraid she told everyone that you were her grandmother's lover."
"I see. Well, that explains the general reaction."
"Yes, and why I came back to apologise. I didn't know how much Italian you understand."
"Not as much as I should, Talia, considering how often I've been over here. I'm afraid I'm not much of a linguist."
"So mother said."
"What about your mother's English?"
"My mother and father ran that ice-cream business in the west country for eighteen years, Matt. Mother can curse eloquently in both languages." Talia grinned back at me.
"Yeah, I do recall she had picked up a couple of words of English, that ... well, I don't think her own mother would have liked to hear her use."
"I know that she'd like to meet you again Matt, just to talk about when you were young. She would have approached you yesterday on the waterbus, but she had my little ones with her, and you had your family with you. Your daughters and their significant others?"
"Their husbands. They all but had to drag me over here for a couple of weeks. I've not been one for going away, since I lost my wife."
There was no mistaking the little hint of a smile that passed across Talia's face, even though it lasted no more than a millisecond or so. For a few moments, I don't think Talia knew what to say, but then she suggested that perhaps her mother and I could meet and have lunch together.
I told her that I thought that would be nice; if her mother would like to meet me again, that is?
"Oh Mother would like that, Matt. But she is well aware that you and she haven't seen each other for many years, and that you've both been married and had families of your own. That is another reason that she didn't approach on the waterbus yesterday."
"Yeah, a lot of water has passed under the bridge since we last met Talia, but it can do no harm for us to talk about old times." I smiled at the beaming young woman.
But as I spoke Talia's husband arrived at table, one of their children hanging onto each of his hands. Talia introduced me to Lauro and then they fell into a hurried -- and completely incomprehensible to me -- conversation in Italian. During which, Lauro pulled out his mobile phone and the conversation turned into a multi-way discussion that I could make neither head nor tails of.
Actually I spent most of it exchanging funny faces with Ambra, Talia's youngest, who took me by surprise, and after disentangling herself from her father's grasp, climbed onto my lap and sat there grinning at me.
That brought Talia's other daughter over to hang on the back of my chair and play a sort of game of hide and seek. Her face would appear at my right shoulder, then, when I looked that way, it would disappear again only to reappear at my left.
I was so engrossed in my games with the children, that Talia had to say my name twice before I realised that she was addressing me again.
Talia asked me if I could be at a certain restaurant at one o'clock.
By chance I knew the place. It was another pavement café but it had a more formal restaurant in the building where Talia suggested that I meet her mother. I expressed surprise because the formal part of the place, to my memory, was closed to the public during daylight hours.
"Lauro's cousin owns the restaurant; you will have the place to yourselves. We thought that you and mother might prefer to meet in private. You said yourself Matt, a lot of water has flowed under the bridge of life since you last met each other. Mother will be meeting a memory and so will you!"
"Well thought out, Talia."
"Not me, I'm a born romantic. Lauro is the sensible one in our family."
"I'm not that bad." Lauro interjected. Again with not a trace of an Italian accent in his English. "We do not intend to tell Talia's mother that she will be meeting you Matt. We've asked her to meet us for lunch at my cousin's restaurant."
"Your English is almost as good as Lia's!"
"I'm sorry Matt. I grew up in Putney where my family has a restaurant. Lia and I should have spoken about this in English."
"No worries Lauro. In your position, if I could speak another language, I'm sure I'd have done the same thing."
"We must go now. But we will be near my cousin's restaurant later should we be needed. Good luck my friend, I do believe that you're in for a surprise." Lauro said shaking my hand again and rounding up his daughters.
The two little girls showed some reluctance to leave me and go with their father, which I found quite flattering. Both decided they were not going to leave, until they'd kissed me on the cheek; then they trailed off behind their father waving as they went. Talia lingered for a few seconds and then kissed me on both cheeks before she followed them.
"And just who the hell was that? Christ dad, we can't leave you for two minutes and you're chatting up all the local talent." Kathy my youngest daughter said a couple of minutes later as she approached my table.
"Sorry?" I replied feigning ignorance of what Kath was talking about.
"Dad, you were canoodling with a very attractive young woman as we came out of the cathedral."
"I wasn't canoodling Kath. That is the way Italians say hello and good-bye. She's the daughter of a very old friend of mine. She had her family with her and we've just had a cup of tea together."
By this time I could see that Kathy was mentally counting the used teacups on the table and she gave me a disbelieving glance.
"Okay, Talia and I had tea together, then her husband and children joined us a little while ago. They must have left before you came out of the cathedral."
At this point in our conversation, a very confused looking waiter reappeared, I held up five fingers towards him, and asked my daughters and their husbands if they like any toast at the same time.
"I thought we'd be looking for somewhere to have lunch before long." Kathy said.
"You might angel, but I have a lunch date at one o'clock. That it would be better if I kept alone."
"With that Talia..." Kathy blustered. "She can't be half your age dad!"
"No don't be silly Kath, with her mother. She's a very old friend of mine and we haven't met since we were both teenagers."
Kathy's eyes instantly performed the same trick Talia and her daughters' had performed earlier. Actually I thought for one horrible moment that Kathy's eyes were going to pop right out of her head.
"Dad," Kathy's husband ventured. "You are going to have lunch with a woman you haven't seen in forty years?"
"About thirty years Ken, I ain't that old. Besides Lia and I almost grew up together..."