Something up There by Christobel Kent
‘I thought we could put it here,’ said Luisa, and indeed he supposed there was a space between the two long windows of their salotto where a different sort of family might have positioned a Christmas tree. A family whose sitting room might be warmed, where theirs was chilly, by the presence of more than two people.
‘But we never do this,’ he said lamely. ‘I thought you didn’t like it. All the fuss.’
‘Just go and find one,’ said Luisa. On the television a woman in a short skirt was gesticulating at a weather map. ‘It’s Enzo and Giuli’s first Christmas as a married couple. We can do things the way everyone else does, for once.’ She glanced down at the weather girl. ‘That is if they make it back down here in time. Those country roads are the first to get blocked.’
Sandro wasn’t listening: he was looking for his gloves. ‘How big,’ he said, at the door. Luisa shrugged, helpless. ‘Normal,’ she said, vaguely. ‘You know. What other people have.’
The icy wind had dropped. Stopping on the corner Sandro lifted his head and looked up into the green-black Florentine night sky, not a star to be seen: there was something new in the air. Some people could smell rain, but this wasn’t rain. High overhead, a drifting freshness lifting him from the dank street, the smell of bins. He walked on, to the shuttered-up market and there he was, as Luisa had said he would be, a southerner selling Christmas trees. Dark-skinned and pinched with cold, he looked up at Sandro hopefully from his stool.
Sandro’s heart sank. He might not know what he was looking for, but this wasn’t it. A dismal, tired little selection of spruce, half of them already dropping their needles among the plastic baubles, and not one of them more than a metre tall. ‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘I was looking for something bigger.’ The southerner on his stool regarded him a moment, considering the possibility of goodwill as though it was a dog that might bite. He opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again. ‘Santo Spirito, maybe,’ he said. ‘Down by the bridge there. Maybe.’
Turning away Sandro pondered. A bit of a walk on a cold Christmas Eve but whatever it was sitting high in the sky - a star, a weather system, a god - made up his mind for him. That and the thought of Luisa’s expression if he came back empty-handed.
He had decided to give the exit to the big new supermarket at the foot of the Ponte Vecchio - brightly lit, disgorging gangs of foreign teenagers clutching bags of booze and women strung about with panettone boxes - a wide berth from a hundred metres back. But then Sandro saw Arturo, and he quite forgot he’d been going to cross the road. As he came level with the glass doors something was bleeping, one of those security gates, and vaguely he registered the row of cashiers looking up to see what had set it off this time. Arturo just stood there, looking up into the sky.
He guessed the man was his own age, or thereabouts, old by now, but for as long as he could remember Arturo had looked as though he wouldn’t make it to another Christmas. He was a drunk: a singing, dancing, filthy, unrepentant drunk who was as much of a landmark in the Piazza Santo Spirito as the statue beneath which he had panhandled and serenaded passersby for thirty years. But this evening Arturo was wearing a clean shirt – even if it was hanging out – clean trousers, his shoes almost new. His hair, if not exactly combed, had been recently washed, and his face, usually adorned with an insanitary dripping moustache, was miraculously smooth. With a shock Sandro realised that he looked younger – by some margin – than he did himself and for some reason the thought cheered him. There was hope.
‘It’s you,’ said Arturo, and dropping his supermarket bag on the pavement with a clunk, flung his arms around Sandro.
He didn’t even smell too bad. Sandro felt the thinness of Arturo’s arms under his, clasping him. ‘It’s me,’ he replied, feebly, patting his back, not even sure if the other man did know who he was embracing. Arturo held on, as if for dear life: warily Sandro extricated himself. ‘What’s all this, Arturo,’ he said, ‘A new leaf?’ But he’d gone too far: Arturo stepped back, mumbling, grappling for his bag at his feet. A square shape in it. ‘Happy Christmas, anyway,’ said Sandro, averting his eyes, but Arturo was already shambling off, canted over to one side by the weight in his bag. A uniformed guard came to the sliding doors, raising a hand to peer through, and saluting a fellow security operative, Sandro was on his way.
In the square of Santo Spirito itself there were no Christmas trees for sale: the market was long since packed up and only the usual groups of dreadlocked smokers collected on the edge of the light that fell from the bars’ windows, stamping their feet to keep warm. The southerner can’t have borne him much goodwill after all, thought Sandro, only then he remembered.
The bridge. He skirted the great pale flank of the church: on the corner a man lifted a bottle in a bag to his lips. You can sort one Arturo out, Sandro was thinking, hands thrust in his pockets and spirits dipping, but there’s twenty others waiting – only then he noticed that the man had lowered the bottle but was still looking up. Beyond the sweeping lovely curve of the church’s unfinished façade, into the inky sky, transfixed. What was it up there? Something.
Coming out on to the Via Maggio, each wire-shuttered window of its antique shops glowing with a forbidden haul, jewels and urns and carved mirrors and damask thrones, Sandro strained to see if it was there, down by the river, the treasure he was after. And there it was. In the shadows at the foot of the bridge the feathered pagoda-shapes of the trees brushed the stucco of a palace fronting the river. A man’s white hands flashed in the dark unfolding a wad of bills and one tree walked away, the customer staggering under it almost invisible. As he got nearer Sandro smelled the pine, and unconsciously he slowed, transported: of course. How could he have forgotten? There had always been trees here, since Sandro was a boy himself: for a few days every year the forest appeared in the city like magic. He stood in the wood. A handsome tree as tall as he was presented itself, effortless, the first to hand. She’d love it.
‘That one,’ he said. The vendor flashed a gold smile at him, hove the unwieldy thing into a net and held it out. Sandro reached into his pocket for his wallet.
He knew before his fingers reached the place, the unbuttoned tab of his back pocket where the battered wallet always sat. That wadded pressure always there, from when he’d slide it in first thing in the morning: he should have known. Must have known. How long had it not been there? He held out the empty palm. ‘My wallet,’ he said, helpless.
The man eyed him: Sandro did not look the type to try it on. ‘It’s gone.’ He looked about himself uselessly. ‘Fallen out?’ said the tree vendor, ‘Left it on the kitchen table?’ Sandro shook his head. He’d patted his pocket leaving, he remembered that much, an automatic gesture if you leave the house to make a purchase. The button fastened. He turned, looking towards the Piazza Santo Spirito, remembering brushing through the little group of smokers, turning to follow the gaze of the man transfixed on the corner of the church. Piazza Santo Spirito, home to druggies, pickpockets – and drunks. Arturo.
‘Look,’ he said, ‘Hold on to this one for me, will you? I like this one.’ The man folded his arms sceptically. ‘I’ll write down my name, address, all that,’ said Sandro. ‘I’ll be back for it. How long’re you here?’
‘Till I’ve sold ‘em all, said the vendor, looking at his stock. Eight or nine trees: Sandro had no idea how long they’d take to shift, on Christmas Eve. Did normal people buy theirs earlier?
‘Okay,’ said Sandro, writing, laborious on his knee in the dark.
‘Better report it,’ said the man, sagely, watching Sandro. ‘Make your declaration. They won’t give you anything back – cards and that. Without proof you’ve reported it.’
Handing his scribbled address back Sandro frowned furiously, the cards. Credit card, yes, his membership cards, the draughts club, free entry to the Boboli, the professional organisation. They’d get a laugh out of that, whoever was leafing through the wallet’s slots and pockets, old receipts and library card, maybe seventy, eighty euros cash and – look at this! This one’s a private eye.
The policeman on duty, a young one, puppyish with a straggle of beard, did raise an eyebrow too when Sandro handed the form back across the desk to him. Then told him to wait: he’d make a statement, in due course. Sandro didn’t bother to pull old rank: once he would have been this man’s superior, but what clout did he have now? A clapped-out private eye, early retirement from the force, too dim to know when his pocket was being picked by a drunk. Arturo.
Standing there in the bright light shed out into the street, he must have temporarily taken leave, if not of his senses then of every instinct he had. That something up there, no doubt, that caught the attention of every loafing fool on a street corner, had taken Sandro’s eye off the ball, that green-black sky, that fresh cold smell from far away. Even now, in the strip-lit, badly partitioned police post off the Piazza Duomo, on some reflex he found himself looking up and there, sure enough, was the velvet dark visible through a skylight in the high ceiling. And it moved: Sandro saw the flurry of something through the glass, heard the click of pigeons’ claws on the terracotta tiles.
The plump-cheeked officer returned, seating himself opposite Sandro. The place was quiet, for Christmas Eve: just Sandro and this young man. When he came in there’d been other voices, footsteps, but now even those had fallen silent.
‘So,’ said the boy. ‘Did you say you had an idea how it happened?’
He’d had time to work it out. Arturo’s skinny arms around him, grappling. The alarm that had sounded as he walked out with his four-pack of wine cartons unpaid for and the girls on the tills looking resignedly after him, the security guard too late as always. Only old Arturo again. It’s Christmas Eve, leave him. And Arturo, not content with new clothes from some charity or other, and his stolen wine, would have a wallet too, from the first idiot who stopped and stared and grinned stupidly at the sight of the city drunk turning over a new leaf on Christmas Eve. Or not.
The old lag, the old fraud, the old bastard, throwing up the smokescreen of Christmas cheer and flinging his arms around a man who’d known him thirty years but whom he didn’t know from Adam. Lifting my wallet! An outrage. And there were those, some deluded do-gooders in a charity dispensary, who’d been daft enough that very afternoon to take the old conman and kit him out in a shirt and pants and good shoes, to wash his hair and shave him – but then Sandro’s planned tirade slew to a halt unvoiced as he became aware that the young officer was not looking at him. He had tilted his head back, because something through that skylight had caught his eye.
‘Sorry,’ the man said, jerking his head back to look at Sandro across the desk. ‘Sorry. So did you say – you know who did it?’ And Sandro stared, faltered. Something was happening, the fluorescent lights flickered and dimmed, a softness descended in the room, the sounds from beyond the thick walls grew muffled.
‘I – I – I said that?’ The young officer looked at him, patient.
The old piss-artist, the old fraud. But as he opened his mouth to pronounce the name, to tell the tale, he thought of those girls’ faces along the line of cash desks, taking pity – and something quite different came out. ‘No,’ said Sandro. ‘D’you know what? I think it might have fallen out. In Santo Spirito. I always button the pocket, you see, but I was distracted –‘
The policeman was already shaking his head, pushing his chair back. ‘You’re kidding me. In Santo Spirito? It’s gone, mate.’ He bowed his head back over the paper. ‘Lost. Between – would you say – where and where?’
And twenty minutes of mildly humiliating fabrication later – playing the old fool, my wife’s always telling me to keep it buttoned, as the young man sighed – Sandro stood up to leave. Free, he thought, stepping across the stone-arched threshold into the piazza Duomo, his heart so light, his head so full of thoughts of Arturo in his clean shirt with seventy euro in his pocket that he no longer cared that it was nearly ten and the trees would all be gone from the bridge. So light and free that for a moment he didn’t understand what it was he saw, and breathed, between him and the green and white striped buttress of the great cathedral of Santa Maria dell Fiore. The something that had been drifting in high over their heads had come down among them, soft and white and cold, whirling and dancing and settling on heads and shoulders and the manes of the carriage horses waiting for tourists and the rooftiles and skylights. It was snowing.
And when Sandro came in through his front door stamping his boots on the mat, smelling the cold on himself, shaking the snow from his coat, the first thing he saw was the tree as tall as he was, leaning against the doorway waiting for him, bringing the magic forest into his hall.
‘A man came with it,’ said Luisa, taking his coat from him, brushing him down. ‘He said no charge. Have you seen it?’ And again in wonder, although of course she knew he’d seen it, he’d walked home in it and it was melting on his hair. ‘Have you seen the snow?’
Christobel Kent is the author of A Darkness Descending, which will be published by Corvus in May 2013. Her previous novels include A Time of Mourning, A Party in San Niccolo, Late Season, A Florentine Revenge, A Fine and Private Place and The Dead Season. She lives near Cambridge with her husband and five children.