“A life spent roaming is no life for my son! He needs to settle down and learn a trade.”
This had been a bitterly argued point between Luca and his mother, right up until the day she had pinned his arm against his back and forced him onto the cart. Before he knew it, he was being sped away from his home and towards a new life. Now, however, Luca was beginning to think he may have been wrong.
The salty-tang of the canal brushed the back of his throat; the rough cobble-stones pressed against the soles of his shoes; The swelling hubbub from the market place began to fill his ears. Relishing each new sensation, Luca started to feel more and more at ease. The most he had ever felt, in fact.
The itch for the road was still there, of course. But for the first time in his life, the city seemed to be soothing him.
“Out the way, kid!”
Luca was suddenly barged aside by a barrel-chested man, arms laden with baskets of fish. Stumbling back, Luca watched the man march along the street, elbowing aside anyone foolish enough to be in his way. A grin spread across the young man’s lips. Without a second thought, he fell into step behind the fisherman.
Led by his impromptu guide, Luca wound through the thronging streets of Venice. Falling into an easy stride, he let his eyes drift up. A myriad of faces peered out of windows; some were hanging washing, some were chatting to neighbours, and some simply sat and smoked, doing the same as Luca: admiring the view. If he jumped to the tips of his toes, he could make out the peaks of towering spires in the distance, and the domed roofs of far-off palaces. Feeling the weight of just how big this city was, Luca turned his attention back to what was closer, and a little smaller.
To his right, a gondola waltzed lazily down the canal. The boatman, free of passengers, was humming lazily to himself. His head was tilted up towards the sun, and a blank smile sat on his face.
Noticing that his guide was quickening his step, Luca followed suit. Launching out of his idle stroll, he kicked away some a cloud of loose dust and stones. Chips of brick tumbled off the edge of the path and landed with a splash in the murky water below. The young man was gone before the ripples had begun to form.
Luca was close enough now to the heavyset man to see the sweat creeping down his neck, and the tremble in his knees. His cargo’s weight was beginning to take its toll. As he rounded the corner, Luca caught a glimpse of the man’s face. His puffed-out lips, bulging eyes, and gleaming brow, all together made him look like a distant cousin to the fish in his arms. The laughter prompted by this sight vanished as Luca stepped around the corner and into the square.
The vast space was filled from corner to corner with more stalls than he could count. The myriad of coloured roofs gleamed in the early noon light. Hawkers of all shapes and sizes fought to make their voices heard. Citizens wandered idly through the labyrinthine system; their eyes unfocused until one particular item made them bloom with excitement.
A little way off, tucked in the shade of one building’s eave, was a quartet of street musicians trying to make their lilting heard above the market’s cacophony. A few passers-by dropped coins in their waiting caps.
A trio of guards were sat, playing cards, around a makeshift table made from a wooden board resting on an empty barrel. Two of the guards glanced up and gave Luca a warning scowl. The third, however, slapped down his cards with a hoot of victory, and scooped up his winnings.
“Not there, you damned fool!”
Luca’s head snapped round and found the fisherman, wiping his forehead with the back of his arm, and standing in front of a vendor. He had dropped his basket right down on the stall’s display. “Pick it up! Pick it up! You’re crushing my Anguilla!”
Swearing to himself, the man hauled the basket back up and dropped it to the floor. The stall-holder, a thin-faced and balding man, brushed the eels free of some unseen blemish. His assistant, face still red and shining, fixed him with a glare. “Next time,” he growled, “why don’t you go and make the collection?!”
The bald man’s eyes boggled. “You think I’d trust you with my merchandise?” he squealed. “If I left you in charge, we wouldn’t have anything left!”
“Oh, yes,” the other man snarled, “but it’s better than making sure our stock goes nowhere!”
A vein began to throb in the vendor’s neck. “What’s that supposed to mean?!”
His partner was about to snap a retort, when he suddenly noticed Luca watching. His burning scowl deepened. “What do you want?”
The stall-holder slapped him with a dish-rag. “Mattia!” he squawked. “Is that anyway to talk to customers?” He turned a needling smile towards Luca. “Hello, young signore. Is there anything I can tempt you with today?” He nodded down to the gaping-mouthed eels. “These are on special offer today!”
“Actually,” Luca said, shifting the satchel over his shoulder as he pulled an envelope from his pocket. He glanced at the name scrawled across the front. “I’m looking for Timeo?”
The pair shared a glance, and a smirk. Their argument, for the moment, was forgotten.
“Oh,” the bald salesman said, dabbing at his brow. “He’s up the northern end of the square.”
Mattia nodded, a broad grin stretching across his face. “Probably busy with his ‘lovely lady’.”
They both snickered at this, though the joke was lost on Luca. He thanked them both, then continued on his way, navigating through the market. With every step a new voice called out to him. Not a moment passed without someone shoving something under his nose: a piece of pie, a length of silk, a heavy necklace, a parakeet stuffed inside a cage. Just as he began to feel he might suffocate under the assault Luca spotted an opening among the stalls. Knocking aside a merchant trying to offer him a new cologne, he darted through and escaped the bounds of the market.
Though the sounds and smells were still powerful, here Luca felt little less under attack. He took a few deep breaths, then quickly glanced around. He had found himself in front of a small tailor’s shop. Out of curiosity, he peeked inside the window. Luca had never been too bothered about clothes before, but, staring into this building, a new sensation burst inside his chest. Everything he saw arrested him. From the shimmering silk, the polished buttons, the open-fronted gown, and, of course, the attractive clientele, all of it held a new fascination for Luca.
For a few moments he watched the tailors inside at work; circling their client before attacking the arms and legs with tape-measures and pins. However, when he saw an apprentice start sprinkling sequins over one of the dresses, Luca screwed up his nose and moved on. Maybe tailoring wasn’t for him after all.
After a few more minutes, when the sun was reaching its peak and the heat truly began its attack, Luca spotted a small stall set some way off from the main market. A man was hunched over the front of the stand, oblivious to everything else in the world. With the letter from his mother in his hand, and her description in his head, Luca approached with a confident step.
His mother had described Timeo as being not much older than Luca, but having a drive and passion that had propelled him in life. He had started his own business, was sober-headed, and, according to his letters he sent home, he was making quite a name for himself in the city. No one could serve as a better influence. As Luca approached him, it became apparent that the man was talking to a wheel of cheese.
“Who’s my lovely lady?” Timeo cooed, his hands on his knees and his lips close to the smoked provolone. “Is it you? Yes, yes, it is!”
“Ahem,” Luca said, shifting awkwardly.
Timeo rocketed up, wiping his hands guiltily on the front of his apron. He rounded on Luca, eyes narrowing with suspicion. “Hello?” he said.
Though supposedly not much older than Luca, the years appeared to have not been kind to Timeo. A disappointing and droopy moustache lounged across his upper lip, and his mousy brown hair had been slicked down to cover an increasingly receding hairline. A stained and weather-beaten apron tried to contain his large, protruding stomach, whilst the rest of his clothes seemed to be a patchwork of makeshift repairs.
In spite of this less-than-promising appearance, Luca gifted Timeo with his most charming smile. This appeared to calm the man’s nerves somewhat. “How can I help you?” he asked, folding his hands together and making sure not to obscure the cheese from Luca’s view.
“Are you Timeo?” Luca asked.
The vendor frowned. “Yes. Who are you?”
“I’m Luca.” He handed over the letter; his eyes glancing at the cheese involuntarily.
“Oh,” Timeo said, peeling the letter open and scanning the contents. “Yes, yes, your mother wrote and said you were coming. That’s good; for a moment there I thought I owed you money.” He folded the letter back up and stuffed it into his pocket, ignoring Luca’s waiting hand. He fixed a wide, welcoming grin on his face, one that struggled to reach his eyes. “So! Luca, you want to make a living, eh?”
“That’s right,” Luca said. “Mother thought I ought to learn from the best.”
A flicker of annoyance passed over Timeo’s face, and he stopped playing with a hole in his sleeve. “She sent you to the right place,” he declared, sweeping an arm over his stall. “I know it may not seem much at the moment, but in a couple of years I’ll be the top purveyor in this market! You watch!” He beckoned Luca closer, ready to divulge a secret. “Want to know how I’m going to do it?”
Luca shrugged, as if he had a choice in hearing the answer.
Timeo pointed at the provolone, a proud smile on his ruddy face.
“Cheese?” Luca said.
“Not just any cheese!” Timeo beamed, clapping Luca on the shoulder. “The finest cheese in Italy! Or, at least, that’s what I’ll tell them. You won’t get anywhere in this jungle unless you have a speciality. Everyone has one; Angelo has his eels, Lucrezia has her charms to defend against the pickpockets – do not buy them, they do not help. Trust me. We all have something to set us out from the crowd!”
“And yours is . . . cheese?”
“No,” Timeo said, shaking his head and wrapping an arm around Luca. “Ours is cheese!”
“Oh, I see.”
“Why don’t you drop your stuff round the back, then I’ll give you the tour,” Timeo said. He then paused, fixing Luca with a studious glare. “Your mother said a lot about you, in her letters,” he went on. “Said you were the restless type. That you liked to travel. How long do you reckon you might stick in Venice?”
Luca looked at him, then turned back to the heaving mass in San Marco square. He didn’t know how to describe what he was feeling. Ever since entering the city he had felt strange. It had been like stepping into a bubble, completely separate from the rest of the world. There was an odd magic in the air, one that crackled on the surface of everything he saw and touched. He didn’t think it was danger; he felt, more . . . potential. As if everything that ever happened, or could happen, was swirling down the canals and streets of this thriving city. He couldn’t fight the sensation that something was drawing him on, calling to him from the heart. He just couldn’t resist.
He turned back to Timeo, a wide grin on his face. “I might hang around for a bit,” he admitted.
“Good,” Timeo said with a nod. “Because I’m going to need a hand when the carnival starts.”
This time, it was Timeo’s turn to smile. “Oh, yes,” he said. “The carnival. I’ll tell you all about it.”
Written by James Willett
Based on Original Characters by Michael Elderkin.