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A Christmas Escape

Charles Latterly stared across the untroubled sea at the shore they were fast approaching. The mountain rose sharply, as symmetrical and uncomplicated as a child’s drawing. The sky above was midwinter blue. At home in England they would be expecting snow at this time in December, but here, so close to Sicily, the wind off the salt water was mild. The small boat barely rocked.

He had been looking forward to this break from the reality of London, work and the routine of his life, which lately had seemed more meaningless than ever. The recent death of his wife had given him an acute feeling of loss, but not in the way he had expected. There was no deep ache of bereavement. It forced him to realize that perhaps he had felt alone for a long time.

Would three weeks on Stromboli, a volcanic island in the Tyrrhenian, accomplish anything, change anything inside him? Would it heal the sense of helplessness, the bitterness of endless small failures? Maybe. It would certainly give him a long time to think, uninterrupted by the petty details of life.

He was in his midforties, yet he felt old.

They were almost at the shore. He could see men on the wharfs busy unloading fishing boats. There were small houses along the front, and streets leading inland, climbing quite steeply. It all looked simple and homely, probably much as it had done for two thousand years or more.

The mountain was bigger than it had seemed at a distance. It towered above them, almost bare of vegetation except for patches of grass. The terrain looked smooth, even gentle from here.

It was time to pay attention to landing. The boat was only feet away from the wharf edge. Ropes were tossed and made fast. A man shouted in broken English for Charles to get out, to hold on so he didn’t slip. They were all cheerful, smiling to make up for the words they didn’t know.

Charles thanked the men in polite English, and accepted a steadying hand so as not to fall on the wet stones. He should make an effort to learn a little Italian. It would be a courtesy.

Someone passed him up his case. He had brought only the necessities: a minimum of clothes, a pair of boots, toiletries, and a couple of books. His intention was to spend his time walking as much as possible.

He knew that the hostelry where he was staying was quite remote and a long way from the port village—­too far to walk with a case—­so he hired a pony cart and driver to take him up the side of the mountain.

It was a pleasant ride, although the rough roads were quite steep in places. As they moved away from the water’s edge, Charles realized that the landscape was actually far more varied than he had thought. The central cone of the volcano was not as symmetrical as it had seemed from below, at sea. It towered above them, bare toward the top, as if shorn of its grass and shrubs. Yet it had a kind of beauty that was brave but also almost barbaric.

His driver nodded. “She sleep now,” he said, showing gaps in his teeth as he smiled. “She wake up. You see.”

Charles thought that he would rather not, but it would be impolite to say so. They were passing through rolling grassy country now. He imagined that in the spring and summer it would be full of flowers and butterflies, probably bees. A good place to walk.

They passed a few small settlements, some of whose narrow streets were cobbled, others, merely dry earth. The limestone houses were whitewashed. They looked as if they had been there forever. Women were busy with picking herbs or gathering in laundry. Children played, running and hiding, fighting with sticks for swords. Old men stood by a fountain on the street corner and stopped their conversation long enough to look briefly at the passersby.

As they drove, the driver gave commentary Charles did not understand, though he smiled and nodded at suitable intervals. He was relieved when they finally arrived at the low, rambling house well beyond the villages that was to be his home for the next three weeks.

“Thank you,” he said as the man handed him his case. He paid the agreed amount and, as the pony and cart set off back toward the shore, he turned to look for his host.

The low midwinter sun cast a warm light on the stone house, slight shadows hiding blemishes and giving it an infinitely comforting look.

Then a man came out of the door and hurried toward him, a broad smile on his face, his hand held out.

“I am Stefano,” he said cheerfully. “You must be Signor Latterly, yes? Good. Welcome to Stromboli. Is beautiful, yes?” He waved his arm in a broad sweep to include the huge, looming mountain and the arch of the sky, which was already darkening in the east. The fire of sunset in the west was painting the sea with color. A faint wind stirred, carrying the scent of the grasses.

“Yes, it is,” Charles said quickly. “I look forward to exploring.”

“Tomorrow,” Stefano agreed. “You have come a long way. Now you are tired. You eat. I have something for you. I show you your room. Yes? Come.” Without waiting for Charles to reply, he led the way past the front of the house, along a small passage between buildings, and out into a courtyard with a bubbling fountain in it.

Charles had no time to look at it or admire the stone fish that formed its base. Stefano briskly led him into another open-­air passage at the far side of the courtyard and opened the second door along.

“This is your room,” he said with a flourish. “You are welcome. Kitchen is that way.” He pointed. “Come when you are ready. I make you something to eat, yes?” He patted his ample stomach. “Nobody sleep well empty. Not good. I look after you, you leave Stromboli a new man!” He smiled widely. “Yes?”

“Yes . . . yes, please,” Charles accepted, walking past Stefano and inside. He set his case down, staring around him. The room was small, containing a bed, a table and chair, and a washstand. There was also one chest of drawers and a makeshift closet composed of several hooks behind a curtain. The floor was tiled in a warm earth shade. There was a bathroom through a small door, to be shared with his immediate neighbor. He did not care for that, but it was acceptable. It was all immaculately clean. The cool air through the open window smelled of dry earth.

He unpacked, changed his shirt for a fresh one, and washed the other. When he was ready, he left his room and walked along the passageway to the kitchen as Stefano had indicated.

Stefano looked up from the bench where he had been chopping a fine green herb. There was a piece of broiled fish on a plate on the bench beside him, garnished with bright red tomato.

“You are hungry?” Stefano said cheerfully. “Fish? A little vegetable? Bread? Yes?” He held out the plate and gestured toward a table with a chair pulled up to it. He took a carafe of red wine and poured two glasses full. “A little raw still,” he said, putting one glass on the table in front of Charles and the other in the second place, where he sat down himself.

“Eat,” he encouraged. “Give thanks to God, and enjoy.” He reached across and took one of the slices of fresh crusty bread, dipped it in olive oil, and put it into his mouth.

Charles found himself doing the same. He must have been far hungrier than he realized. The food was delicious and he ate it all without giving it thought.

“You like to walk?” Stefano asked cheerfully.

“Yes, indeed,” Charles agreed. “How far up can I go?”

“All the way up to the crater. But you have to be very careful. Never go up alone, in case you fall. Always take someone with you, and let me know.”

A Christmas Escape
by by Anne Perry