Penance.

 

God I was feeling good..you know those days when you set out with a heavy work-load of appointments and things to do so you think you’ll never have time to do them all..and then suddenly this one and that one falls off the list through no fault of anyone’s and suddenly you have half the day to yourself to relax and just enjoy…Those were the circumstances that found me idling my time away in the shoe repairs, in the arcade in the city, getting  my good lady’s riding boots repaired.

“Cosimo’s Shoe Repairs” ; it is one of those small shops there off the side of the arcade. I always take my good shoes there to be fixed, have done so for years. Whenever I’m in the city, which is not that often, and I needed some leather work done I’d go to Cosimo’s.

Cosimo is a little bloke, light framed and with one crook leg. He is rather soft spoken but has the loveliest eyes, now I say that as one human to another…lovely eyes, you see them sometimes… but when I look I notice it’s not his eyes so much as the slope of his eyebrows…they slope away to the sides of his face at such an angle as to draw your attention toward his eyes…or at least that’ the conclusion I’ve come to!

“Are you in a hurry Mr. Gregory?” Cosimo asked. “For I can fix the heel while you wait.”

I waved my hand casually.

“No. No hurry for me, I’ll wait if it’s ok with you.”

I rested one arm on his work counter and gazed out of the little side window display into the arcade. There was a greeting card stall in the middle of the walkway and a young couple were browsing through the cards while holding hands and smiling into each others eyes upon mutual enjoyment of a particular card. I smiled for them.

“Isn’t love grand?” I remarked flippantly then I turned my head over my shoulder to the busy Cosimo and asked casually: “Have you ever been in love Cosimo?” I paused then ; “excepting the lovely signora of course.”

Cosimo looked up at me with those eyes.

“I have never loved my wife, actually…and she has never loved me… respect each other…yes…endeared to each other ..yes..but love…no!” He switched off his machine and rested his hands on the bench. “Raising a family, feeding it, working a business for it, let alone giving birth to it takes more than love, Mr. Gregory,…I’d say I was deeply dedicated to my wife, but love…no!”

I raised my eyebrows. Cosimo wiped his hands methodically as he pondered. Fate picks strange moments for its pronouncements of insight, this was one of those moments. He looked at me for a moment and then said.

“As for love…yes…I was in love once,…with a boy I served my apprenticeship with”…I must have raised my brows a little higher for he immediately gave a quiet chuckle… “Oh no Mr. Gregory…not like that”…he chuckled softly…”Men can love each other without there being any homosexual overtones… such insinuations are mostly foolish presumptions by foolish people…” he sighed “It takes growing up to realize that but yes I did love that boy and as you can see, I’m not the kind of male who’d attract the eyes of too many women eh? It’s the truth…I’ve never been handsome it’s as simple as that!”

He put my shoes down on the bench and gazed at his wrist watch.

“It’s smoko time,…do you fancy a cup of coffee?” I was pleasantly surprised.

“Why yes, yes…love one.” Cosimo nodded

“Good…come, I’ll shut up shop and we’ll go out back for some lunch.” and he did just that.

After we’d settled down at his laminex table with some bread, cheese, slices of meat and a rich brew of coffee in front of us, he began.

“I’ll tell you a story of those times, you might find it interesting and I’ll be able to put it to rest. I s’pose this leg was the catalyst of it all…It’s this gummy leg that’s let me down, they nearly wouldn’t let me migrate to Australia because I had a “crippling affliction”. It was only after I got some glowing references as to the quality of my work that they changed their minds…that and the fact that I’m self-employable, being a shoemaker, was what tipped the scales in my favour.

“ I’ve had the crook leg from birth, one shorter than the other, that’s why the extra thick sole on my shoe. The kids used to tease me about it, called me “draught horse” on account of the way I drag one leg after the other sort of…you know? I see it in other people with the same problem as me…that sort of heavy legged look, like one boot is full of lead, but you can’t see it in yourself…you know?

“ I learnt the leather trade from old Gino Barrina, he took me on as his apprentice along with his own son …Angie…a kid my own age. I used to board with them on account I came from a village out in the sticks as you’d say…By god, he was a good lookin’ kid that Angie! Not like me, I wasn’t any prettier then than I am now. You’d think life would give you something in compensation for ugliness eh? ha! oh well…Angie said to me once that I should get a job in a cheese factory, they could just stand me in front of the vats of milk to make it curdle!…but he said it in a more humorous way than those other boys…but it still hurt. “It’s alright for the more fortunate to poke jibes at the less privileged” I said “because they don’t have to live with the insult”.. and he never poked fun at me again.

“And I had their respect; old man Barrina and Angie, ’cause I could work…If you pull your weight in the workplace, you’ll always get respect from the other working people…There’s no worse person than them as try to worm their way out of their fair share of labour.”

” We would go to the piazza in the evenings after dinner, just when it was becoming dark and hang around with other working boys and girls. In the early days of our apprenticeship, we had no money at all, so we just used to mull about the streets, hands in our pockets kicking the kerbs and generally making a nuisance of ourselves, you know, like most young bucks with hot blood and no action to quieten it! But then when we got older we’d go to a specific cafe or “bar” and play the machines and drink coffee or whatever and it was at one of these “bars”…the…the “Fiori di Napoli”…the”Flower of Naples” cafe that Angie first met Rosa.

“It was just after we’d brought this little moped type thing, you know, one of those motorised bicycles. All the young blokes had them, those or scooters, and the first thing we’d do is knock the muffler off to make them louder…god! the racket!…when I think of it now…tch tch! Oh well, we were younger then.”

“We were able to buy this machine because of a stroke of luck came our way in the shape of a couple of  Americans from New York we met at the monthly market, who were looking to buy lots of Italian shoes “wholesale” or rather “black-market”…they would buy hundreds of pairs, take them from their boxes and pack them in these big zipped bags and take them back to the States as personal luggage to avoid import duty. and then rebox them and sell them as high-class Italian shoes for triple or more what they paid!

“Angie and I knew all the shoe-makers in Naples , so we arranged the sale and bunged on a dollar a pair for our efforts and with the profit, we brought the little moped.. and that’s how Angie met Rosa.”

“Angie used to ride it and I’d go pillion whenever we went out at night. I would ride it too during the day and Angie’d go pillion but when we went to the cafe’s he’d always be up front, it was just an unspoken agreement we’d come to…look:…we all know our places eh?…he was strong, handsome and I was the opposite…with a ‘club’ foot…I tell you this…if you don’t know your place in this world, there’s plenty that will put you there for free…eh?”

“Anyway, we pulled up in front of the “Flower” one summers evening and no sooner had we slowed down than I slid off the back like those cowboys slide off their horses in the movies, I was off and hobbling about in excitement and this girl that was standing in the doorway up and laughs this great big loud laugh that froze us both and we looked at her and she says:

“Well, if it isn’t the Lone Ranger and Hop-along Cassidy!” And she tossed her head back and roared with laughter. I sidled up to Angie and said:

“What’s she laughing at..the trollop!”

Angie was smiling a little and he gave me a squeeze around the shoulders with his arm.

“Ha! don’t take it to heart..hoppy!”

“And a little later I noticed him talking to her over in the corner of the cafe and I thought then…it’s funny how you get these premonitions…they looked a matched pair and her name was Rosa! And over the months they got on…Angie and Rosa, but there was trouble afoot with her family…father at least. He just didn’t like Angie…no reason that I know of…just didn’t like him…bad blood between the famlies?..Perhaps he had other visions for his daughter I guess…haven’t all parents got plans for their children?…but I ask: do they ever pan out? eh… ever?…the instincts have it over reasoned intelligence every time. The ancients knew more of the passions of mankind than we do. They knew certain gods had to be appeased. They understood the power of love…we think these days because we can place an explanation at the foot of the deity of the day that is both concise and clever that the case will rest there…but the gods just smile at our simplicity and, thankfully, the young continue to confound us! ha!”

“But Angie, he was too wild and Rosa too fiery for a quiet romance. And listen! I was as much in love with them both as they were with each other. Angie was my alter ego, strong where I was weak, handsome where I was ugly, so why shouldn’t I feel for her, although platonic, an affection equal to Angie’s love? Dammit ,  Mr Gregory, have you ever desired out of frustration with a crook part of your body, to simply tear it away and replace it with a better part or for that matter, the same with a part of your life! Ah! but we’re all frail creatures, so very, very frail…So when the father refused permission for Rosa to see Angie, was I not the perfect conspirator, the lookout in the shadowy doorway and at the same time the “lover” caressing his maiden…ha! ha! oh weren’t we innocent! “Her hair Angie…isn’t it lovely!” I’d say at some moments, as if I shared her with him, which in my mind I did. “Isn’t that skirt nice.” I’d say , ha! and she was a very pretty girl, that Rosa.”

“And so it went on ; these secret meetings, for months till it blew up in our faces one day at the markets. There is a point of balance in any event both physical and emotional that once tilted accelerates away regardless of our desires. Angie and Rosa had reached that point of balance.”

“The place was crowded…Jews, Arabs, Morrocans, English tourists all squint-eyed and suspicious, Americans…everybody it seemed shouting and over it all that eternal sound of Naples…the quick toot-tooting of car horns! Angie’s father sold shoes, boots, belts and leather jackets and that sort of stuff…and a few brass buckles to go with the belts. Angie hadn’t seen Rosa for a couple of weeks because of her old man’s opposition to it all, so he was all short-tempered and irate with everybody, even giving cheek to the customers so that his father had to chastise him in dialect a couple of times even. Angie just shrugged and went on touting the goods till I spotted Rosa coming down with the crowd, she was with her father.”

“It was a cold day with a strong wind blowing off the bay. I nudged Angie and pointed her out him eagerly (didn’t I too desire?). She stopped over the other side of the avenue whilst her father went browsing at a stall there nearby. She looked cold as she stood there with her arms wrapped around clutching her shoulders. Angie gazed at her longingly. She looked lovely, but yet sad, her long dark hair swished about with the breeze so she tossed her head every now and then and her little red lips all pouty and her body all impatient looking as she waited for her father.”

“Suddenly as if inspired by a reckless angel, Angie snatched a nice little leather jacket off the rack that sent a rattle down the rest for the violent of the snatching that attracted the attention of his father. Angie leapt the trestle in front with his father two steps behind calling angrily: “Angie…Angie…che cosa fai?” with his hand raised in front. But Angie didn’t even look back, he pushed hurriedly through that crowd toward Rosa. I was craning my neck in anticipation.”

“She hadn’t seen him coming so that when he reached her and gently placed the jacket around her shoulders she gave a little start and her red, red lips formed a little “o” of surprise as she saw it was Angie and her hand went quickly up to rest over his that was on her arm and I saw their eyes lock together into that silent sphere where lovers go and I felt as if I was with them too, I was that thrilled for their affection, till suddenly her father turned and saw them there and he started shouting fit to raise the devil and Angie’s father put in his bit telling Angie not to waste time and money on the daughter of such a rat-bag and Rosa’s father pushing toward the stall, his finger pointing and his face all contorted with anger so that both fathers had to be held apart until they cooled down and when he did, Rosa’s father turned to Angie and said :”

“No more, boy…no more seeing Rosa…I know the secret meetings, and I know how this…(and he pointed to me) this cretino keeps guard like a nobelman’s lackey…you think I am stupid?…No… finished. If  I see you near her again there will be trouble.”

“He spoke this quietly with a real tone of threat that it would be carried out…probably with a knife! Then he dragged Rosa away by the hand and she shot a look so appealing over her shoulder as would’ve broke the heart of a statue, till the crowd swallowed her up. Then Angie’s father got stuck into him also and finished by saying that he’d have to pay for the jacket out of his wages. Angie said nothing during both tirades, but I could see he was thinking.”

“Sure enough, a week later he took me to one side at the Flower of Naples and said:

“I’m leaving with Rosa next Saturday, I’ve sent her a note to meet me tonight and I’ll tell her.” I was agog! ”

“You mean you haven’t even told her yet?”

“No…but listen, she’ll agree…I know. I’m going to meet her under the bridge near her house…you have to be in this with us”…

“Of course I agreed, I couldn’t think of them leaving without me, they were my life! We met Rosa after dark under the bridge. I went and stood “guard” and that phrase “nobleman’s lackey” rose in my memory and irked me somewhat as I stood there in the shadows of the bridge pylons. But it was alright as her father had gone to his local bar for a card night. Would she go! Yes, yes, yes, oh! he only had to ask, hadn’t she thought of the same thing herself these last few weeks! And they embraced and kissed and laughed so I kept  saying;

“Shh, shh..you’ll wake the dead with all that noise.” But I was happy too, we were all going away to a new life..wonderful!

“Angie arranged for the following Saturday as Rosa’s father always went to the football every Saturday and that would give us time to get to the station to take the train to Rome, then on to the north.. to…to…Switzerland or even Germany. Yes, anything was possible, we were young, there was nothing we could not do..it would be fine! North, away from all the frustration of a secretive love, of stunted desires and I rejoiced, even though I had never so much as kissed Rosa, I felt she was mine as Angie was me as I was them both. Such was my dedication to my alter ego. His happiness was my happiness, his elation was my desire, I was fates’ go between!

“And that Saturday we were secretly packed and on our way and we would have made a clear break too if not for fates’ vindictiveness. It was a very wet day, so wet in fact that the soccer was washed out after the first half. We were crossing the piazza in front of the railway station with all our bags and Angie hurrying us along.”

“C’mon, c’mon the train leaves in a couple of minutes!” and suddenly we hear an almighty yell from across the square and it’s Rosa’s father calling to her at the top of his voice so we all jumped in our skins!”

“ROSA!, ROSA!” he bellowed and she cried out in shock

“Angie, run, we must run!”

“Quick…down here” Angie responded and we ducked down beside a row of empty carriages. I was last and I glanced back and there was the old man belting across the square in a raging pursuit.”

“Quick, through the carriages.” And we clambered up into the empty carriages then ran down the aisle with our bags held up in front.”

“Out, out, out,” Angie yelled and we leapt for all we were worth out the other side of the row of carriages. I looked back and Rosa’s father was catching up quickly. The loud speakers suddenly barked noisily:”

“The three-thirty express to Roma: departing platform six…all aboard please.”

“Under here” Angie cried again and we scrambled under another row of carriages.”

“Platform six, quickly Angie” Rosa yelled “We won’t make it!”

“There, run, hurry” Angie called and the father was right on our heels as we reached platform six. They were just about to close the gates when we rushed through, Angie threw the tickets to the guard there and did we scamper. All our bags clumsy and Rosa running fit to fly, her rich black hair like the flowing mane of a wild horse, it was all I could do to keep up, with my gummy leg .”

“I looked over my shoulder just as Rosa and Angie reached the last carriage and the train let out this mournful cry that was the siren as it was starting to roll. I looked back and her father was two steps behind me, his face all flushed and his breath labouring from the exertion of it all, but he had plenty of anger in him to carry him to the train. I lunged out with my duffle-bag and it collared him in the middle and he stumbled and fell cursing and rolled over and over.”

“Cosimo, Cosimo…c’mon, the train’s going,” Angie yelled as I picked up my bag and ran toward the slow moving-away train and there was Angie leaning out of the last door of the carriage so far that Rosa was holding him by his shoulders and a hell of a look on her face and he had his arm outstretched toward me and I was going flat out with my gummy leg making an odd “clopping” sound as I galloped along that empty platform.”

“The bag,” Angie yelled “Drop the bag, drop the bag” and my breath was struggling so I threw the bag to one side, I can see it now cartwheeling along beside me and I was running, running as fast as I could and gaining on the train.”

“Cosimo, Cosimo…harder” cried Angie.

“My leg Angie…it’s…my leg”

“Grab my hand” he cried and Rosa was there with her anguished face staring over his shoulder and her arms wrapped around his shoulders to stop him falling out of the train and I put on a spurt and reached out with my hand and our fingers touched with my other arm wind-milling around and he reached as far as he could and our fingers interlocked and I looked up at Angie and Rosa and then…and then..something strange happened inside of me. In that split second of touching Angie’s hand, I looked up at he and Rosa and I realised…I realised they were a pair…matched in love and they had their lives before them and I could never be a part of that life, never…never…never and oh I could have wept for the realisation of it all. But I saw in that split second that my illusion was over. You see, I had tried to take a free ride with love, as I had taken a free ride with Angie’s personality all those years and though I still might have made that train, at that same moment my spirit deserted me and I grew so tired, so tired as my fingers slowly slipped from Angie’s grasp, slowly, slowly…

“No, Cosimo..don’t give up now, Cosimo!” he cried as the accelerating train gently pried us apart and he called to me again but it was drowned by the mournful wail of the trains’ siren.”

“My leg won’t go anymore.” I sobbed as I watched my old life slip away with the leaving train. Rosa’s father suddenly rushed past me crying abuse to Angie and Rosa.

“Lazzeroni! lazzeroni! delinquents” in a hoarse grasping voice and he hurled a heavy stick he was carrying after the train. “Delinquents…delinquents” he cried more weakly as the futility of it all came home to him.

“They were gone. He stood there a while breathing heavily and mumbling curses, then turned and came back toward me, slump shouldered, defeated. But when he came abreast, he suddenly gave me a back-hander.. then another.. then another, that knocked me to the ground. He was about to hit me again with his arm raised when he pulled himself up and just looked down at me in disgust and spat on me. I…I didn’t feel any insult, any pain, for what was his anger? With each blow I had taken loves’ penance, for she is a cruel mistress, and on every kiss she puts a price, and every embrace is measured. And that was it. The old man turned and walked past a group of gaping people toward the station gate.”

“I s’pose I could’ve followed Angie and Rosa if they asked me, but I suspect they too came to the same conclusion I reached in that moment…my point of balance, and they went their own way which is only right for a man and a woman. And now, I’ve got my own life and family and I don’t think I’d exchange it for any other desire, no matter how alluring! “”Another coffee Mr. Gregory?”  I mumbled yes.

“So you see, I have been in love, and I don’t know if I want to be in love again! I might not now have the courage to face loves’ penance.”

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