“Your job!” people said to Robert. “How do you get something like that?”
Robert always smiled at the question. He was used to people asking him this, and he invariably gave the same answer. “It just came my way, as it happens. They offered it to me.”
Which was perfectly true. He had never set out to become a food buyer for a major supplier of delicatessens. Nor had he deliberately chosen the Italian department of the firm, which meant, of course, that he had to go to Italy five or six times a year and sample everything from Sicilian olive oil to air-dried Trentino ham. It had been his language skills that had led to this – he had always had an ear for language and once you spoke French and Spanish, as he did, Italian was a relatively simple matter.
And so, at the age of thirty-six, Robert found himself leaving his rather dead-end job with a refrigerated transport company to become the Italian buyer of a then much smaller, but much more exciting food company. He took the job at exactly the right time. Just as he joined, several major contracts were landed and the company’s fortunes took off. Now, two years later, the firm had taken over several smaller concerns and was on its way to becoming a real success.
If it was a good time for his career, it was also a bad time for his marriage. In fact, it was disastrous.
Robert and Clare had married when they were both twenty-five. It was not a whirlwind romance – they had known one another for two years before they became engaged – and they were well-suited. Clare was a vet in a small animal practice, and he had met her when he brought in his parent’s dog for a routine immunization. He had watched her as she reassured the dog – a rather timid cocker spaniel – and had been impressed by her gentle manner. They had talked as she calmed her patient, and on impulse he had asked her whether she had seen a film that was being much talked about at the time.
“No, but I’d like to,” she said.
He hesitated, but only slightly. “Care to come with me?”
The expression why not had become their private joke. Whenever either of them suggested something, why not was the standard reply. Or, if the suggestion was unwelcome, it became, simply, not.
They had two children, a boy, Freddie, and a girl, Emma. Clare was unwilling to give up her career, but she was able to switch to a part-time schedule and they took on a child-minder whom the children adored. They also found a house that suited them ideally. Although it was on the edge of the town in which they lived, it was not far from the school and the veterinary practice.
“You’ve got it made,” said one of Robert’s friends. “Great job. Those kids. Clare. The lot.”
Robert nodded. It was true. Everything was going as well as he could possibly hope, but somehow … That was the inexplicable part: he felt discontented – not in any way he could put his finger on, but vaguely, indeterminately. He wondered whether this was what how the rest of his life would be – living in the same house, doing the same thing, going on holiday to the same place each year. If he looked about him, he could see many people in precisely that situation, and this worried him. Routine. Sameness. Boredom.
He became difficult to live with. He was often moody, and would spend much longer at work than was strictly necessary, only coming home after the children had been put to bed.
“Surely you could bring work back with you,” said Clare. “Then you’d be able to see a bit of Freddie and Emma before bedtime.”
“You don’t understand,” he replied. “You can’t just bundle everything up and bring it back. You can’t do that.”
He was wrong in saying that she did not understand. She understood far more than he realised, and one of the things that she understood was male boredom. She tried, as tactfully as she could, to get him to take up new interests. She arranged for a friend’s husband to invite him to play golf. That was not a success. She suggested that they join an amateur dramatic club.
“How tragic,” he said.
“I don’t see anything tragic about that. What’s wrong with acting?”
He shook his head. “A bunch of amateurs prancing about the stage doing Noel Coward? If that isn’t tragic, then what is?”
She wondered whether he was having an affair, and eventually she asked him. His denial was convincing. It was not indignant – that could easily have been feigned – but was one of cold anger, almost of contempt.
“If I were having an affair,” he said. “I’d be the first to tell you.”
That answer was perhaps more hurtful than he had intended, but it told her something. Robert no longer loved her. It was as simple as that.
It came to a head about a year after it started.
“If you’re bored with our marriage,” she said, as calmly as she could, “then why don’t you move out?”
“Why not?” he said.
She struggled to control herself. She felt the tears welling up with her, but she did not want to cry. “Who’s going to tell the children?” she asked. It was the only thing she could think of to say.
“I will,” he said. “I’ll do it.”
It seemed to her that something within him had withered. She had read somewhere that the heart could harden, and now she saw that this was true. She closed her eyes. She would do her best. She would make a home for the children; she would give them everything that their father – this man to whom something strange had happened – would not be giving them.
The arrangements were made surprisingly quickly. He moved to a house a few miles away. He took the children one weekend in three, but they did not seem to enjoy it.
“There’s something wrong with Daddy,” said Emma. “It’s as if he’s not there.”
“He tries to do things with us,” said Freddie. “But I don’t think he likes doing them.”
“Does he have any friends?” asked Clare. The real question she wanted to ask was whether there was a woman, but she did not want to put it that way.
Freddie shook his head. “Nobody,” he said. “Not even a girlfriend.”
Clare had not expected that, but she concealed her surprise. Children were more sophisticated these days, she thought, and perhaps an eight-year-old should be expected to understand these things.
“Daddy will be all right,” she said. “Sometimes people just want their own company. It doesn’t mean that he doesn’t love us.”
The children looked at her, staring with that innocent curiosity – or perhaps disbelief – that children see no point in hiding.
The olive harvest in the South of Italy started in November and ran into December. One of the wholesalers with whom he dealt invited Robert that year to taste the new oil in the olive groves themselves.
“You’ll find the very best of the crop,” he promised. “We’ll take you out into the country. You’ll see the olives being picked. You’ll see the pressing. You’ll be the first – the very first.”
Robert accepted. There was other business he had to do in Bari, and he liked the city. He also liked his host, Domenico, whom he had already met on previous trips.
“You can bring your wife, if you wish,” said Domenico. “I’m sure she’ll enjoy it.”
“Sorry, she won’t be able to make it,” said Robert. “Perhaps another year.”
“I hope so,” said Domenico.
Domenico arranged the hotel and met Robert there shortly after his arrival. Being that far south, the winter skies were still clear and the harvest was in full swing. Robert was driven out to the olive groves and watched the farmers with their nets, coaxing the olives into captivity. He tried his hand at picking – much to the amusement of the professionals. Then, after watching the feeding of the fruit into the ancient presses, he saw the fine green oil flow into the giant flagons.
They ate lunch in one of the mills, dribbling the virgin oil onto chunks of rough country bread. Nothing else was needed, although afterwards they were served hunks of local cheese with small glasses of red country wine.
“Perfection,” said Robert.
Domenica smiled. “And when we get back to town, I’ll take you to see the Basilica of San Nicola. You haven’t seen it, I believe.”
“Well, let me show you something.”
They travelled back to the city through a countryside that was readying itself for winter, mild though it would be in those latitudes – through fields that had been cropped and were now under stubble; past orchards that had yielded their fruit, past vines with rattling, falling leaves.
“This basilica I’m taking you to see is very beautiful,” said Domenica. “It’s where Anna and I were married. It’s a very special place for me.”
Domenico reached into his jacket pocket and took out his wallet. “Here they are. I don’t think I’ve ever shown them to you. Carlo and Alfredo. See them.”
Robert looked at his friend’s photograph.
“They’re fine boys,” he said.
Domenico was silent. Then he said, “We lost Alfredo, I’m afraid. He was born with a heart condition. He was all right until …” He broke off.
Robert reached out and touched the other man’s arm. “I’m so sorry. I had no idea …”
“Thank you. You never really get over that sort of thing – not entirely. But we have done our best, and we have young Carlo. It’s important to remember what you have, isn’t it? You can’t spend your time thinking of what you used to have, or what you can’t have.”
Robert caught his breath. “No, you can’t.”
A car in front of them turned with warning, and Domenico had to brake sharply. “Italian drivers!” he muttered, and then laughed.
They arrived at the basilica. Domenico led Robert into the church. “It’s very interesting architecturally,” he said, his voice lowered in the way in which people lower their voices on entering any sacred place. “But there’s a big surprise – over there. See that? That crypt?”
They made their way to a corner of the church. An archway in the wall led into a small crypt in which a painting was displayed of people gathered around a saint.
“San’ Nicola,” said Domenica. “He was the Bishop of Myra. You call him Saint Nicholas – or Father Christmas, Santa Claus – he has a number of different names.”
Robert stared at the painting.
“This is where he is,” continued Domenico. “This is the resting place of Father Christmas, you see. His bones are here – right here.”
“The real one?”
“Yes,” said Domenico. “The man who became the legend. The original Father Christmas.” He paused. “He was a very generous man. He gave people presents – often in secret – which is the best way, I think, to give presents, don’t you think?”
Robert said nothing, and suddenly Domenico realised that his friend wanted to be alone. He left him, saying that there was something that he wanted to look at and would be back in a few minutes.
Robert stood there. He did not believe in miracles. He did not believe in any of this – saints and their relics. This was something that belonged to Southern Italy – not to him.
But whether or not you believe in miracles, they may sometimes happen. Or, rather, things happen that may be described as miracles even if they are not. Such as a change of heart. Such as a sudden realization that you have been selfish and wrong, that you have failed to appreciate what you have.
He moved out of the crypt and made for the entrance to the Basilica. He dialled the number. He heard her answer.
“My darling,” he said. “I don’t know how to put this, but I am asking you … no, I am pleading with you, to forgive me. I want to come back to you. I want that more than anything else. I will do anything … anything to get you back.”
There was silence at the other end of the line.
“Where are you?” she asked.
“I’m in Italy. I’m in a place called Bari.”
He interrupted her. “You can get here quite quickly. If you come, we can go out and taste the new olive oil. There’s a restaurant I want to show you.”
“Are you mad?” she asked.
His answer came quickly. “No,” he said. “I was, but I no longer am.”
They discussed it for a few minutes. They talked about whether her parents would take the children for a few days at the drop of a hat – he knew they would; about whether her partners at the veterinary practice would let her get away at short notice, particularly in the run up to Christmas – once again, he knew they would.
Then she said, “Why not?”
These were the two words on which he would rebuild their world.
“Good,” he said. “Now I believe in miracles.”
“I’ll tell you when I see you.”
The call ended. He was in tears.
“Something happened?” asked Domenico when he returned to join him. But he knew the answer already – he could tell the difference between tears of joy and tears of sorrow.
“Yes,” said Robert. “Something very good.”
Domenico smiled and took him by the arm. “Dear friend,” he said. He was about to say something else, but did not. This, he decided, was a time for silence.