In the shade of a rubbish bin, a rubbish bin on the square in front of the impressively ugly Duomo, the cathedral with its liquorice-all-sorts striped bell-tower, in the shade of a rubbish bin, a pigeon stands motionless, head bowed, eyes clouded. Guido walks on. I stop. I bend towards the pigeon. It doesn’t react. “That one isn’t long for this world”, calls Guido, seated on a stone bench in the shade.
In the middle of the square, in the middle of my Tuscan holiday, in the middle of throngs of tourists moving determinedly from one imposing piece of Etruscan heritage to the other by way of any available piece of shadow to avoid the scorching Italian sun they’ve saved all year to savour …… in the middle of all this, and my pleasure in it, in life itself, I am irrationally overwhelmed with grief at the impending death of the pigeon.
I look around me. I realise I’m hoping a passer-by will turn out to be a vet. Pas de probleme madame, geen probleem mevrouw, no problemo signora. Interesting how problem is international. No-one offers expert help, so I bite a small piece out of the nectarine I was enjoying before I saw the pigeon. I lay it in front of him, within pecking distance, and join Guido on the bench in the shade. We dutifully study the guide-book.
I read guide-books, automatically, as I used to read school text-books. It’s a kind of speed-reading whereby I try to pick out and memorise salient facts with a minimum of effort. I do this, I think, in preparation for any surprise test which may be sprung on me during an after dinner conversation on a winter’s evening, when travel tales are told. You’ve been there, so you must have done that. I can honestly say I’ve never bought the T-shirt.
Guido arrived yesterday evening. We ate, five of us, outside in the gentler twilight temperature, at a restaurant in one of the streets leading to the Piazza del Campo. The food was good, and the company enjoyable. The international floorshow, provided by passers-by was varied and very pleasant. The patron was charming above and beyond the call of duty. The moon was full. Verdi’s Nabucco was being performed on the square. We ate our first course to the tuning-up of the orchestra. The strains of the overture and our conversation mingled unselfishly through the main course. The patron confided that the conductor had sat at our very table not two hours ago. Blessèd are the blessed.
My cowardly table companions ended their meals with milky and elongated coffees. As we wandered towards the square, I was still glowing from the “Brava Signora” bestowed upon me by the patron for ending my meal with an espresso. I always do. I like it. A discussion arose as to how far it was acceptable to take culinary tyranny. Everyone had an example to contribute; someone had been refused cappuccino after dinner; someone else had been forbidden to mix lemon sorbet and pistachio ice-cream in one cornet; yet another had been roundly scolded for daring to order tea at the end of a meal. TEA? What were they thinking? TEA? Maybe at breakfast. At a push.
I came out on the side of culinary tyranny, if only because it shows a pleasing disregard for profit at all costs.
We came out on to the square. The square where twice a year horse-races are run round its sloping edges, behind ropes to protect them from the fifty thousand spectators in the middle. Guido says the horses are bred specially with two legs shorter.
We came out on to the square, which was now serenely filled and magically hushed. The full moon shone, round, behind the round face of the clock-tower, special because of its solitary hand. Beautifully painted sets, in the colours of Klimt’s Kiss, managed not to upstage a hefty forty-strong chorus in cobalt blue. The music itself hovered just above our heads, as reluctant to move on as we were.
What more can I say? You had to be there.
Guido and I decide to go into the museum directly behind us. The pigeon moves its head slightly. It walks a tentative circle. Guido and I enter the museum. I look over my shoulder. The pigeon has gone. The bird has flown. I am as ridiculously happy now as I was sad before.