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Authors: Kate Eberlen

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On the last day of the holiday, I ran along the Arno at dawn, crossing the river in alternate directions at each bridge, then looping back on myself to mirror the route, with the pale gleam of
the sun in my eyes one way and its warmth on my back the other. With only an occasional road-sweeper for company, it felt as if I owned the place, or, perhaps, that it owned me. At the level of
cardiovascular exertion that freed ideas to float across my mind, it occurred to me that I could come back to Florence one day, even live here, if I wanted. In this historic city, I could be a
person with no history, the person I wanted to be, whoever that was. At eighteen, the thought was a revelation.

On my third crossing of the Ponte Vecchio, I slowed to a walking pace to cool down. There was no one else around. The glittering goldsmiths’ wares were hidden behind sturdy wooden boards.
There was nothing to indicate that I hadn’t been transported back in time five hundred years. Yet somehow it felt less real than it had the previous evening, heaving with tourists. Like a
deserted film set.

I suppose I’d hoped to find the girl there again. Not that I’d have known what to say to her any more than I had on the first two occasions. Handing back the camera, I hadn’t
even been brave enough to make eye contact, then, given a third chance, I’d blown that too.

Standing in the queue for ice cream beside the bridge, I’d felt a tap on my shoulder, and there she was again, smiling as if we’d known each other all our lives and were about to go
on some amazing adventure together.

‘There’s this brilliant
gelato
place just down Via dei Neri where you can get about six for the price of one here!’ she informed me.

‘I don’t think I could manage six!’

My attempt at wit had come out sounding pompous and dismissive. I wasn’t very practised at talking to girls.

‘Honest to God, you would from this place!’

Why don’t you show me where it is? Great! Let’s go there! None of the responses I’d like to have given had been available with my parents standing right beside me. Instead,
I’d stared at her like a moron, with sentences jostling for position in my head as her smile faded from sparkling to slightly perplexed before she hurried off to catch up with her friend.

On the north side of the river, Florence was beginning to wake up to the mechanical clatter of shutters as bars opened up for the day. As I entered the Duomo square, the sun’s rays lit up
the cassata stripes of the Campanile and the air was suddenly full of bells. Florence was a kind of heaven on earth and I thought it would be impossible to be unhappy living here.

I joined my parents in the lobby of our hotel on their way in to breakfast.

‘The loneliness of the long-distance runner!’ my father remarked.

It was what he always said when he saw me after a run, as if it meant something, when it was actually just the title of a film he’d seen in his youth.

I always felt prickly with my parents, like a Pavlovian reaction to their company.

I knew, from overhearing conversations at school, that a proper Tuscan holiday meant renting a villa with a pool, if you didn’t actually own one yourself, surrounded by olive groves and
views of rolling hills. My father had instead booked us into this expensive hotel in the centre of Florence. I was never sure how the done thing got established, but I was aware from quite an early
age that there was a done thing and that my father often got it slightly wrong. Not having been to a private school himself, but now able to afford to send his sons to one, he would turn up to
sports days wearing a blazer and tie, whereas the cool dads, who went to the Cannes film festival, or held offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands, wore jeans, polo shirts and loafers with no
socks, as if vying for a most-casually-dressed award. As a liberal-minded sixth-former, I upheld the right of anyone to dress as they wished; as his son, I was mortified.

‘Who on earth wants cheese at this time in the morning?’

My father inspected the buffet table. He was the sort of man who made loud statements, as if inviting the room to agree with him.

‘I think it’s what Germans eat.’ My mother spoke in a low voice so as not to be overheard.

‘You never hear about the German rates of colonic cancer, do you?’ Dad mused. ‘All that smoked sausage too . . .’

‘Where are you off to today?’ I asked, as we returned to the table with laden plates.

Included in the price of the Treasures of Tuscany package were excursions to the other principal tourist cities of the region. Since having to stop the coach twice to throw up on the first trip
to Assisi, I now spent the days in Florence alone, visiting the galleries and churches at my own pace, enjoying the wonderful feeling of weightlessness that came from getting away from my
parents.

‘Pisa,’ my father said.

As someone who didn’t quite believe in travel-sickness, he couldn’t disguise his irritation at my failure to get full value from the holiday and the tour company’s refusal to
refund a proportion of the cost.

The city centre was filling with groups of tourists following dutifully behind the raised umbrellas of their guides, but it was easy enough to peel away down a shadowy side
street. I’d walked so much in the past week, I had the map of Florence in my head. The covered market near San Lorenzo, its cool air infused with the smoky scent of delicatessen, was my first
daily pilgrimage. Some of the stallholders recognized me now. At the fruit stall, the old man’s practised thumb roamed over a pyramid of peaches to select a perfectly ripe fruit. At the
salumeria
, the friendly mamma paid serious attention to my search for a filling for my single bread roll, offering little slivers of different salamis for me to taste or sniff like fine
wine. As it was my last day, I treated myself to
un’etto
of expensive San Daniele prosciutto. She carefully arranged the wafer-thin translucent slices in overlapping layers on a sheet
of shiny paper.


Ultimo giorno,
’ I told her, attempting a few Italian words. It’s my last day.


Ma ritorno
,’ I added – but I’ll come back – as if voicing it would make my intention more real.

I had bought a sketchbook, covered in hand-printed Florentine paper, to take with me to the art galleries because drawing made me look more closely at the paintings and feel
less self-conscious about it. Art had always been my best subject at school, if you considered it a subject, which my father didn’t. The more I studied the art in Florence, the more I wished
that I had summoned the courage to apply for Art History at university. It wasn’t just the skilful application of paint to canvas or fresco, it was what the artist was thinking that
fascinated me. Did they believe in the religious stories they made so human, with saints and apostles dressed like Florentine burghers, or were they just doing it to make a living?

I’d been steered towards Medicine, because it was ‘in the family’, as my sixth-form tutor put it, as if it was some kind of genetic mutation. As everyone always said, I could
look at pictures in my spare time. Now, inspired by this city where art and science had flourished side by side, I wondered if there was even a way of combining the two. Perhaps I would come back
to the Uffizi one day as a visiting professor in Anatomy? At least as a doctor, I’d have the means to return. There was no money in Art, my father always said. ‘Even Van Gogh
couldn’t make a living out of it!’

I ate my
panino
sitting on the steps of the Palazzo Vecchio, occasionally tapping my foot to the music of a guitar-playing busker to make it look as if I was doing something. Time on my
own seemed to pass very slowly and I was pathetically shy about striking up conversations with strangers. I wondered if I’d have been any better at it if my friend Marcus had been there. We
were supposed to be Interrailing together, but he’d got off with a girl from our sister school at the end of school prom, and had naturally chosen sex in Ibiza over trailing round Europe with
me. Neither of us had any real experience with girls and I think had both assumed that sex was something that wouldn’t happen until university, so I had a grudging admiration for Marcus, but
it had left me with the unwelcome decision to cancel our holiday or go it alone.

Around the same time, one of my father’s patients, who’d broken a crown on a slice of panforte, expressed astonishment that my father had never been to Tuscany. The inferred
criticism had stung Dad into action.

‘What do you think?’ he’d asked, pushing a brochure across the kitchen table one morning, as I was shovelling down cereal before cycling to my summer job at our town’s
new gastropub.

‘Great idea!’ It had been good to see him focusing on a plan again.

‘Want to join us?’

‘Really?’ Somehow, through a mouthful of Weetabix, I made dread sound like surprised enthusiasm.

Being a dentist, Dad never expected much more than a slight nod in answer to his questions, so, by the time I arrived back from work, the holiday had been booked and paid for.

I’d told myself that it would be churlish not to accept my parents’ generosity, but the truth was, I was a wuss.

Scanning the crowds of tourists taking photos with the replica statue of Michelangelo’s
David
, I began to wonder if I would actually recognize the girl if I saw
her again. She was tall, and her hair was longish and brownish, I thought. There wasn’t anything particularly memorable about her features, except that when she smiled her face was suddenly
full of mischief and intimacy, as if there was a thrilling secret that only she knew and was about to share only with you.

Via dei Neri was a narrow street winding towards the Piazza Santa Croce and I missed the
gelateria
on the way down. It was just a single door with a dark interior. For my first cone, I
chose
nocciola
and
limone
, because that was what the Italian man in front of me ordered, the delicious creaminess of the hazelnut perfectly complemented by the refreshing citrus tang.
I walked back down to Santa Croce eating it, then returned and ordered another, pistachio and melon, and loitered in the cool shade of the shop, glancing at each new customer in the hope of seeing
the girl again.

In the heat of the afternoon, I made my way through the crowds on the Ponte Vecchio to the Boboli Gardens. The numbers of tourists dwindled the higher I climbed, and, on the top terrace, I found
myself completely alone beside the ornamental lake. The sun was still very hot but invisible now behind a veil of humidity that muted the view of the city like the varnish of age over an old
master. Distant thunder rolled around the hills and the air was thick with imminent rain. Opening my sketchbook, I recorded the smudgy outline of the Duomo.

Suddenly, a bright beam of light broke through the unnatural yellowish twilight, giving surreal definition to the trimmed box hedges, lighting up the greenish-blue water. As I raised my camera,
a white heron, which I had perceived as a static element of the ornate marble fountain in the centre of the lake, took off, startling me. It flew across the water, the flapping of its wings the
only sound or movement in the still air.

It occurred to me that I had not given Ross a thought since breakfast.

For a moment, I saw my brother’s face glancing back at me through a cloud of thickly falling snow, his teeth white, the flakes settling on his dark, swept-back hair, his eyes hidden behind
mirror ski goggles.

A fat raindrop splattered my drawing. I closed the pad and stood for a few moments with my face tilted towards the sky, enjoying a warm drenching, until a splinter of lightning reminded me that
I was one of the tallest objects around, and should probably take cover. As I skeltered down the suddenly slippery marble steps, hordes of tourists were emerging from the gardens, shiny guidebooks
held over their heads.

There was a feeling of camaraderie as we stood crowded together in the scant shelter of the Pitti Palace walls, one or other of us occasionally extending a bare arm to test the heaviness of the
downpour and judge whether to make a dash for it or wait.

Beside me, three American girls about my age, with cumbersome rucksacks on their backs, were consulting their guidebook, trying to work out how to get to the campsite. I knew the route, having
passed it on my way to Piazzale Michelangelo on my run the previous morning, but wasn’t sure whether it would be polite or intrusive to show them. One of them was very pretty. I could feel
myself going red even before I spoke.

‘I couldn’t help overhearing. Can I help?’

My voice sounded as if it were coming from another person, initially croaky, then far too loud and public school.

‘You’re English, aren’t you?’ the pretty one said. ‘Your accent’s SO cute!’

‘Are you camping too?’

‘No. I’m in a hotel,’ I confessed, unable to think of anything cooler to say quickly enough.

‘Why don’t we all go for an
aperitivo
?’ the loud one suggested.

‘Actually, I’m meeting my parents for dinner.’

With the rain easing, I set off in a hurry, convinced they were laughing at me. Ross would have known exactly how to behave. Was charm something you were born with, or just a matter of
practice?

The storm had driven the crowds from the Ponte Vecchio. I paused for a last look at the view, but the hills beyond the city walls were shrouded in low cloud and the green-and-white striped
facade of San Miniato al Monte which I could see floodlit at night from the pool on the roof of the hotel had disappeared.

The essential experiences for every visitor to Tuscany were listed at the front of the complimentary full-colour guidebook that had thumped through our letter box in a stiff
white envelope with our tickets. Each evening, when we convened for dinner, my father recapped the day’s activities, counting the completed targets on his fingers, like a conscientious Cub
Scout ticking off badges achieved.


SAN GIMIGNANO

S COBBLED STREETS
?

BOOK: Miss You
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