Short Story Honourable Mention - December 2013

Leah Eades - San Miniato al Monte

They’d been seeing the sights for hours, and Luke had been ready to quit and call it a day even while they were still inside the Accademia. After two hours of queuing under the relentless August sun, they’d managed to press their way through the museum, packed shoulder-to-shoulder with the mob of tourists, cameras, bags and water bottles, squeezed like toothpaste from a tube as they spilled from one gallery to another along endless crowded corridors. Luke didn’t have much interest in either history or art, but hadn’t had the heart to push the point. Gio had been so excited.

Like every Italian, Gio knew that Italy was the best country in the world. The best people! The most beautiful language! The finest food and wine! Back home, Luke hadn’t had much of an opportunity to see this patriotic side of him, beyond the occasional sneer at a glass of cheap white wine or a local pizzeria, which would invariably be dismissed with a wave of his hand and a pointed sentence that always began with “In my Italy…”

Now, in the full force of Florence in all its splendour, Gio the proud Italian had emerged. Perhaps, Luke reflected, it was because he hadn’t returned to Italy for so long that he was getting so caught up in everything. It seemed to Luke that the glories of Florence had rushed into Gio’s heart and puffed up his chest with pride, and were now propelling him from museum to gallery to restaurant with the energy and enthusiasm of an overexcited puppy. “This is my Italy!” was now his repeated rapturous cry.

“This isn’t even your Italy,” Luke had thought to himself meanly, the thirteenth time Gio had exclaimed this (this time in raptures because of a fountain that dispensed free fizzy water in the Piazza della Republica). “This–” he looked around at the tourists sitting at tables on the square enjoying bottles of red wine in the mid-afternoon, and crowds of teenagers on school trips eating ice creams, “–can’t be anyone’s Italy. People don’t really live like this.”

Luke had kept this to himself, and tried to get into the swing of things, allowing Gio’s patriotic pride, his dogged determination to show off the very best of his homeland, to sweep them through the streets, across the Arno and up the steep steps leading to the viewpoint at Piazzale Michelangelo. They’d watched as the sun began to set across the city, sitting side by side amongst a throng of people, their arms brushing lightly against each other, drinking it in. For the first time that day, Gio was silent, and Luke actually began to unwind. He could feel the ball of taught frenetic energy within him begin to uncoil, and his thoughts drifted as he gazed out across the terracotta rooftops and church spires nestled between the Tuscan hills and bathed in a soft evening glow. How could a real city be so beautiful? He wondered. It must be like living in a museum. Perhaps tonight they’d have a quiet evening – dinner at a trattoria and a bottle of prosecco to share, followed by a stroll along the riverside in the moonlight, and a good night’s sleep before tomorrow’s early train to Venice…

His reveries were disturbed by Gio, who one moment was smiling proudly down at the city, and the next was on his feet. “Wait – I almost forgot,” he exclaimed, pulling Luke up as well. “We haven’t seen San Miniato yet. It’s just a little further up the hill. We should see that before the sun goes down.” He was already moving, flashing the occasional glance back to check that they hadn’t lost one another in the crowd. Reluctantly, Luke followed.

At first Luke thought that San Miniato was just another church to traipse around, but instead Gio eschewed its grand entrance and veered off to the left, through an archway, and along a path that twisted out to the back. Luke rounded the corner, and found himself on the periphery of a vast cemetery that stretched out far behind the church. He’d never seen anything like it. In England the only graveyards he could recall visiting were rambling, crumbling affairs filled with ragged grey stones and jagged, overgrown grass. This was very different.

 It was like a scaled down city for the dead. The last of the dwindling sun cast a cool glow across great swathes of the glistening white marble gravestones and statuettes. Already the corners were cast in shadows. It occurred to Luke that this should be creepy, but he couldn’t make himself feel it. For the first time that day his interest was actually piqued, and he was distracted from his thirsting throat and itching insect bites. Even Gio became quieter, and for a moment they stood on the edge of the cemetery in silence. Luke was the first one to speak. “Well, you certainly don’t get graveyards like this back home.”

Together they started forwards. The first thing that Luke noticed was that the gravestones were adorned with miniature sepia-toned photos of the deceased. In front of him an elderly woman smiled from an anonymous fountain, while on her right a man in his fifties stared at something now too faded to discern. Everywhere there were flowers and candles – Luke was impressed by the Italians’ devout devotion to their dead, until he noticed that the flowers were artificial and the candlelight electric; the work of a caretaker, not a respectful relative. Still, it seemed like a nice touch, and undoubtedly it was beautiful, Luke reflected. This wouldn’t be a bad place to spend an eternity.

Around the corner was a child’s grave. Luke turned quickly away from the smiling face with its dark head of curls, only to find the next grave revealed a similar story. The next as well. And the next. As the sun fell still lower and the shadows spread still nearer towards him, Luke now felt the beginnings of a chill run up his spine. Some of these children had died recently, he noticed; their photographs revealed eighties clothing and nineties fringes. The gaudy colours made the tragedy feel a thousand times fresher.

The more Luke looked, the more human stories he could unravel in his examination of the different graves. Here: an elderly married couple who’d died one week apart. Buried next to them: their middle-aged son, who’d died five years afterwards, unmarried. Further down that row he spent some time peering at a woman who’d died in her sixties and was, if the photo was to be believed, glamorous until the bitter end. He wondered if she’d chosen this photo especially – an older woman looking flat-out fabulous in a fifties swimsuit, with massive shades pushed up off her face and a luminous, beaming grin.

As he moved through the cemetery, he found himself taking stock of who’d died alone and who hadn’t. The lonely graves made a knot in the pit of his stomach twitch.

He rounded a corner and stumbled straight into a row of tombs. In the darkest corner of the cemetery, their towering stone walls gave them a menacing air. They were breathtaking, but to Luke they had a coldness to them. He would much prefer to be buried in the sunshine along with all the regular graves, rather than barricaded inside one of these airless, glorified garden sheds.

Some of the windows had been smashed and stray cats had taken refuge in them. Luke followed a tomcat with his eyes as it prowled its territorial nightly patrol, and it was only when he looked up again that he realised with a start that he’d lost Gio. He turned to look back again at the way he’d come. His legs were aching from all the walking they’d been doing and he was beginning to feel hungry. Suddenly he felt a strong urge just to leave this place and go sit in the clean, fresh open air. The tombs and gravestones were too crowded together and claustrophobic. He turned in the direction where he thought the way out might be, quickening his pace as he walked.

“Hey – come have a look at this.”

Luke spun around and, fighting back the bubble of panic that was beginning to rise up in his throat, searched for the source of the voice.

Gio emerged from an adjacent row of tombs and grinned. “I’ve found the most amazing thing.” He dove back into the labyrinth of tombs from which he’d come. Taking a deep breath, Luke closed his eyes and, after a momentary pause, followed in his footsteps.

“Look,” said Gio, pointing.

They’d reached a corner of the cemetery that Luke had not seen yet. The dates of these gravestones revealed that these were overwhelmingly wartime deaths. Many, Luke noticed, belonged to young men like him. Somewhere at the back of his mind, he remembered learning about Mussolini and fascism. Italy had had a bad time of it, he recalled. Luke couldn’t much remember the exact details, but here he could see, stretching in front of him, the evidence.

Front and centre there stood two life-sized statues, to which Gio was pointing. Luke moved closer to get a better look.

The statues were a couple, wearing the clothes and smiles of newlyweds. On the right stood a man, dressed in formal military attire but grinning like a schoolboy. On the left was a woman, also grinning, leaning her body slightly towards him whilst holding her long dress up with one hand. The young couple were looking right at each other, smiling, and – Luke noticed with a start – their left hands, complete with new wedding bands, were reaching towards each other, at waist height, casually, as if to graze their fingers lightly whilst in conversation, unthinkingly, the way young lovers who are still revelling in each other’s bodies do. Their fingers were preserved in that moment before they touch, and to Luke it was both sad and beautiful all at the same time.

“It seems a pity that they couldn’t have them holding hands in the statue,” murmured Gio. “It’s not like they got to be together for very long in real life.” Casting his eyes down, Luke read the dates of the young couple’s deaths. The groom had been seventeen when he’d died, while the bride had barely survived him long enough to see her eighteenth birthday.

“They must have got married just before he went off to war,” said Luke in a flat voice.

Gio nodded. “Yes.”

He slipped his hand into Luke’s, and Luke noticed the difference between the way they held hands compared to the touch of the eternal newlyweds; theirs was a comfortable, easy fit, the kind that comes only with time, and the minutiae of eating, sleeping and living together as two. It did not have the spark of excitement of new, young love anymore, but it had a warmth to it that Luke wasn’t sure he’d been aware of or fully appreciated until now.

“Come on,” said Gio. “Let’s get back to the hotel. It’s almost dark and we need to get something to eat.” They turned from the statue, and began their downhill journey back to Florence once more, leaving the newlyweds to the solitude of the darkening cemetery.

*****

About The Author

Leah Eades is a writer with wanderlust currently based in Bristol. She’s not sure what her writing style is quite yet, but when she’s worked it out she’ll let you know. You can follow her on Twitter at @LeahEadesTravel or visit her website www.leaheades.com to find out more.