That summer, it was too hot. We didn’t have a thermometer, and even if we had, the little red lines and numbers wouldn’t have meant much to me. But I knew that it wasn’t normal. It couldn’t be.
By the time the church clock struck ten it was already too stifling to venture outside. The sun had swelled to an angry pulsing ball of fire which I had come to regard as evil, lancing my eyes with pain when it glanced off the shiny back of a car or a beer bottle, discarded on the ground.
By eleven, the terracotta tiles of our patio were too hot even to run across, burning away the soles of your feet. Without shoes, we were essentially prisoners in our own homes, forced to lie in the hot dark rooms, failing to sleep, until the evening.
No-one ventured outside until six. It was always us children who came first, bored of the incarceration and air so hot it pressed on your nose and mouth, making it hard to breathe. We would put on the sprinkler and dance in the cool rainbows it scattered, until the top shutter of Pudding House invariably creaked open and La Signora would tell us to turn the goddamn thing off before we wasted any more of that bloody expensive water.
“Water is valuable, precious stuff,” she’d shout at us. “Remember that next time you’re thirsty.”
I didn’t need reminding that water was precious. In those days, wide gaps would appear in the parched ground, as though the world itself were opening its dry lips, gasping for a drink. Each morning one of us would be the unlucky one, told to go to the well to fetch a bucket of water for the day’s drinking and cooking and cleaning. The bucket would be heavy and slippery to carry up the path, and each morning we’d silently pray with hands pressed together under the table that we wouldn’t be the one Mamma wouldn’t chose. But her finger would point at each one of us with the same frequency whether we prayed or not, and we soon learned not to disobey her.
After La Signora’s rebuking, out would come the women, sweeping dust and pine needles from their front doors. They came in two different varieties, the tall thin ones with long dark hair like Signora Foscarini, and the plump ones with short hair who wore flowery dresses, like Mamma. I used to imagine them like chocolates, thin sticks of toffee as opposed to the fat round ones filled with cream. Finally, the men would come back to the village, creaking home in rust-bitten Fiat 500s, lighting up on the porch and swearing at the lack of work, the heat, the women, the dinner, and the children.
In the summer holidays, our lives could not have been more scheduled, even if we had planned them ourselves.
I never much liked to play 'Tag' or 'Stuck in the Mud' with the rest of them. “Loner Luisa”, the others would tease me, as I would wander off alone of the evening. My oldest sister would jab me with a stick. “What goes on in that head of yours?” she would jeer, and the others would laugh. Teresa was not only the oldest of us children, she was the biggest, bigger even than the boys, and anyone not following her lead would get a sharp pinch or kick.
As soon as La Signora had shouted at us to turn off the sprinkler – we always called her La Signora, although I realise now that she must have had a proper name – I meandered my way down the road to the big pine tree at the end, out of sight of the rest of the village.
This was my favourite spot to sit and think, even though when I returned I could never remember what I had thought. I would smile at the curious insects that came to check me out, marvelling at their delicate lace-like wings or trembling legs. I would lie on the hot tarmac in the middle of the road – in those days, there was no danger of cars, you could hear one for miles off, and anyway, who would come to our godforsaken village? – and stare at the birds that swooped in the sky. I would cradle the toad that came to visit me every day, searching in vain for a puddle to splash in, and place him near the well. I never knew if he’d find any water that way, but he came back each night to say hello, and that was enough for me.
It was that day that I heard his voice.
Being the small village that it was, I knew every voice I heard. Mamma’s. Papa’s. The grocer’s. But I didn’t know his, and that confused me.
This was why I was staring at the road, waiting for him.
“Three hundred and seventy-eight, three hundred and seventy-nine, three hundred and – three hundred and... eighty. Three hundred and eighty-one...”
He trailed off when he saw me.
I stared at him. For the most part he was nothing unusual, a boy of about my age, with olive skin and a mop of unruly dark hair, caked with dust from the road. He was dressed just as we all were, in a coloured T shirt and pair of cut off shorts. They were so oversized that his mamma – or whoever had dressed him – had put a handkerchief through the loops as a makeshift belt.
But his eyes were blue.
Light blue, the colour of the sky each morning. The colour of Papa’s Fiat 500. The colour of Mamma’s best dress.
No-one here had blue eyes. Black and brown, yes. My sister Michela was considered exotic with her hazel-y chestnut eyes. I think at that age I had never seen blue eyes before.
He wiped his nose on his hand. “What’re you looking at?”
Without thinking, I blurted out, “Your eyes.”
He stared at me now, as though I were mad, and I felt heat rush into my cheeks. Then suddenly he shrugged, and returned to his careful counting of footsteps. “Three hundred and eighty-three...”
“You missed one.”
He stopped. “What?”
“You missed one. You missed out three hundred and eighty-two. Now your counting will be off.”
He looked at me in amazement, his blue eyes widening. They were even more noticeable now, and I couldn’t look away. “Who are you?”
I stood up, brushing down my shorts, and stuck out my hand. “Luisa Cardaccio. Pleased to meet you.” Just like a grown-up would have done, I thought to myself proudly.
He squinted at my hand for a moment, and then grasped it. “Luca Bodoni,” he introduced himself. Then, with a slight smirk, he raised my hand to his lips. “Enchanted.”
I couldn’t tell if he was making fun of me or not, but I didn’t like it. “How old are you?” I demanded, authoritatively.
“You’re short for nine,” I informed him.
Luca bristled at that. “Well how old are you, missy?”
“You mean eight.”
“Eight is nearly nine.”
We glared at each other. Whoever Luca was, despite his pretty eyes, I didn’t want him here, and I told him so.
I don’t know what I was expecting – him to count himself into the distance, cowed by my importance – but I was sorely disappointed. He shrugged and sat down on the well cover. “Well as a matter of fact, I don’t want you here either,” he said.
“I was here first. So there.”
“I’m older than you. So there.”
“I live here. So there!”
He looked puzzled. “Where? Oh, and if you mean a den, then I know you’re lying. People don’t live in dens, they live in houses. No-one builds dens except little kids.” He sneered.
“Of course I don’t build dens,” I lied, though I had built one the previous week. “I live in the village.”
“The one up the road of course. Where do you live?”
“Three hundred and eighty-two steps away, I suppose. Or a bit more, because I miscounted in the middle and had to start again. I don’t know.”
“How can you not know? How far did you have to come to get here?” A thought crossed my mind. “Have you come from Germany?” German children, I knew, had blue eyes. It was in my history book, so it must be true.
He ignored that, picking at the rusty cover of the well. “Is it a big village? How many people live there?”
“Ten,” I informed him smugly, proud to know something that he didn’t. “Well, ten grown-ups. Seven of us children, but we don’t really count.”
“There are more children? How old?”
I considered for a moment. “There’re my sisters, Teresa who’s twelve, Michela is ten, and Baby Giulia. She’s four. Then there are the boys, Mario is eight, and his brother Francesco is seven. Francesco is weird. He has nits. And there’s Vittorio. He’s ten. He’s Michela’s boyfriend.”
I said the last words proudly. Not many nearly-nine-year-olds knew people with boyfriends. Of course, it would be better if I had one myself, but I wouldn’t go near either Mario or Francesco. They were messy and dirty.
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
“No,” I admitted. “I have done though. And I might do tomorrow.” I scratched the ground absently. “Do you have one? A girlfriend, I mean?”
“I have done. I’ve had absolutely masses and masses. But I don’t today.”
“Did you ever kiss one?”
“Yes. It was very very nice. Have you ever been kissed?”
I squirmed. “Not really.”
Luca giggled. “Kiss me.”
“No!” I laughed in horror. “I don’t want to kiss you.”
“Why not? I don’t have nits.” He grinned at me, baring wolfish white teeth. “Go on, I dare you.”
His eyes were very blue. And I sort of wanted to find out what it was like being kissed. Michela said it was lovely, but I was pretty sure she’d never done it. “Okay then.”
Luca came a bit closer, and licked his lips nervously. “Close your eyes. It’s better that way.”
I closed my eyes obediently, tilting my face up towards him.
As soon as his lips brushed mine, I jumped away from him with a gasp.
“What’s wrong?” asked Luca. “Didn’t like it?”
I shook my head. “I – uh, should go. Mamma will be here soon. Dinner time.” I got up to leave.
“I’ll be back tomorrow,” the blue-eyed boy called after me. “I promise it!”
“No, you won’t.” I told him that he would never come because was just a stupid boy, that he was a goddamn bastard who never kept his bloody word. (I was proud of to have a chance to use this vocabulary, taught to me from Mamma’s nightly rows when Papa came home too late or too drunk.)
Luca laughed at my language. “Yes I will. I promised I would. And gentlemen don’t break promises, Mamma said. A promise is as precious as water, and it should last forever.”
I nodded. “Okay then.”
We stared at each other for a moment, and then I stalked off back to the house.
The next day repeated itself as had every other, right down to the words of La Signora.
“Don’t waste the bloody water!” she cried. “It won’t last forever, you know! Then where will you be?”
As thirsty as the earth, I thought, but as usual I kept my opinions to myself.
I could see him. He was there, at the end of the road. Fifty more steps, forty, thirty...
“Go away, Teresa,” I muttered.
Teresa laughed, tossing her plaits. “Where’s the loner off to now then, eh? Going to ‘think’?”
I nodded silently. I could see Luca out of the corner of my eye, waving. Stop it, I thought, silently. She’ll see you.
Teresa was oblivious. “Freak,” she taunted with a smirk, jabbing her finger into my ribs. “Why don’t you ever come and play with us, huh? Too good for us?”
“No... I like being alone.”
“It’s not normal! Loner Luisa, loner, Luisa,” Teresa sang, darting about in front of me.
And then she stopped.
Shit, I thought. She’s seen him.
I was right. “Who’s that?” Teresa asked. Her voice was as sharp as a knife, reminding me that she was ready to hurt, if necessary.
“Freak,” she flung at me. “You know very well who.” She grabbed my neck and twisted it to face Luca. “Who is it?”
“No-one... just a friend.” Despite myself, I felt a little smug. “He came from Germany. For the summer. It’s cold in Germany at this time of year. And they like the heat, Germans do.”
“Friend? Friend? Loner Luisa, who likes being alone? She’s gone and got herself a friend? Liar!” She yanked at my hair, drawing tears. “If you won’t tell me who he is, I’ll go myself.”
But it was too late, she had pushed me over and started to run after him. I could only look in horror as Luca, who had been busily splashing water on the top of the well covering, spun on his heel and ran. He was quick, quicker than Teresa, despite her obvious height and weight advantage. But she kept up the chase rounding the corner yelling, until they were both out of sight.
Slowly, I got to my feet, brushing myself down. Tears formed in my eyes again, this time not from the pain, though I couldn’t pinpoint why. I tossed back my hair and prepared to go back up to the house.
However, the rays of the setting sun glared at me off the top of the well cover, shimmering with something wet. Curiously, I wandered down towards it, until I was close enough to make out lines and curves.
The blue-eyed boy had left a message.
I ran down to the well covering as fast as I could. Why wouldn’t my legs move any faster? The letters would only be there for seconds more as the heat would make the water evaporate.
I skidded to a halt on the loose section of tarmac just before the well, barely noticing the pain as my bare feet tore on the stones.
I was there in time to see the last letter 'A' slowly disappear from the top of the cover.
A promise is as precious as water, he had told me. But water doesn’t last forever. And promises break.