I’ve never uploaded fiction to the blog before but I thought it might be nice to do something a bit different just for the fun of it. I tried my hand at WordPress’ weekly writing challenge today: this week’s objective was to write something based on the photograph below. See the full post here
I’ll never be able to explain what a fool I’ve been, waiting for Rafael on the corner of another cobbled street, the stones cold under the backs of my legs. I lean against my backpack, the canvas dirty with the dust from a hundred European streets. It’s all I own for the moment, the rest of my stuff still half a world away in my bedroom at my parents’ house in Bristol, England. A bundle of worn-out summer dresses, the colours dull from being worn so intensely in the last three months, wrapped tenderly around several objects that don’t belong to me: a set of lenses to an expensive camera, a silk top from a high-end fashion label, a handful of beads, a man’s wallet from leather so soft it makes you want to cry for the calf whose hide it was.
Rafael says most tourists’ attention is lost to the screens of their smart phones. They spend all their time trying to snap memories of a holiday as it drifts by, pictures pinned against the Mediterranean green as it washes the sand all over their shoes. It makes it easy to slide up next to them, pretending to admire the vista while dipping your fingers into the pockets of their cargo shorts. The hand tricks settle into your nature after a while, committed to muscle memory perhaps. He says it’s just being watchful. You’ve got to wait for a good opportunity.
I got too confident once, about six weeks in, and tried to take a man’s wallet from his pocket as he read a placard under a statue. To my horror, the German’s fingers shot out from his side, clasping my wrist like a vice; he was at least six foot tall, with the strength of a Viking. I was sure he was going to break my fingers, until he caught sight of my face- the confusion my pale, soft features created was enough for Rafael to slide in and direct a well-aimed kick at his shins. The giant howled, and we ran past marble squares for minutes in silence, before collapsing next to a fountain. Rafael laughed, ivory teeth dancing.
It’s time to go home. Sitting on the pavement about 500 miles from Florence with not one ticket stub paid for honestly, I can feel the slight autumnal chill that enters the air a little earlier every day now. In Italy red and white and yellow houses were a bright backdrop to everything we did, but here the houses are grey and painted with scrawled graffiti signatures like scars on the faces of old women. This is where he’s brought me to. I don’t feel guilty for what I’ve done, but it’s like something is slipping from my fingers. There’s no ownership at the bottom, no books or chairs, just bunk beds in hostels stripped bare.
Rafael picked me off the streets of Florence where I was supposed to be studying Italian at the local university, because that’s what we do on a gap year. I fell in love with the boy for the way he spoke. I can still hear him whisper my name, the music of his lilting accent accompanied by the jangle of a set of car keys he held out to me – drive, darling, drive.
People aren’t suspicious when I stop them to ask for directions. Rafael is dark-faced, his eyes a perfect black that shifts to brown in the sunlight. I thought he might be a Traveller, when I first saw him darting on his long legs past the portrait artists and living statues that set up store on the piazzas daily. I never did find out where he came from originally, but he speaks English almost perfectly. Where there are gaps I supply some of the Italian or French I picked up at school until his face brightens and he smiles at me, nodding. My mother once said the best way to learn a language is to take a foreign boyfriend; but I doubt this is what she meant.
I see Jeanne just up the hill, leaning casually in an empty doorway with her camera around her neck. She catches my eye but we don’t acknowledge each other’s presence- she is pretending an interest in the silver trams that shudder up the steep hillside every ten minutes or so, and I’m careful not to give the game away. She hasn’t been doing this as long as I have; we picked her up along the Croatian shore. Pretty girl, long lashes. She taps a finger to her nose: I turn and see Rafael coming, slipping up two stairs at a time.
“You are leaving.” He is frowning earnestly at the backpack next to me, hands in the pockets of a pair of chinos I haven’t seen before. It isn’t a question so I don’t answer. He holds out one of his hands to me; bright pink scar across the knuckle of the thumb that stands out painfully against his tanned skin. I take it and he pulls me up to his face. There is something very serious about his dark eyes; I would have thought he was used to saying his goodbyes. Now, I think with my back towards Jeanne. Take the picture now. It would be my one physical reminder that this boy existed, somewhere in a sunny place.
He must have seen the camera, a flash of sunlight reflected in its lens. He turns from the hips like a dancer, pulling my body closer to him and away from the camera, until my mouth is pressed against his collar. I can taste the fabric of his t-shirt on my lips, and smell red dust and sweat and something sweet like the juice from an orange. We hear the click of the shutter behind us, just as his face burrows into the hollow of my shoulder.
I know, and he does, that we will have captured nothing but the back of his head.