“Italy? Are you sure?”
The question was asked of George by his friend, Alice. They had been friends since university days – platonic friends, of course, because both of them married somebody else. Now both of them were single again, but it would seem too complicated – not quite right, perhaps – if they were to change the basis of their relationship. “Our friendship,” George had once observed, “is a bit like an old glove. Or an old scarf, maybe. Comfortable. Familiar. Undemanding.”
Alice had not been taken with the comparison and had made a face. “Nice to be thought of in that way,” she said.
“Oh, I don’t mean it in any but the most complimentary sense,” George reassured her. “It’s just that I feel I don’t have to explain myself to you – if you see what I mean.”
“Possibly. But then does one have to explain oneself to any of one’s friends? Surely that’s what friendship is all about – not having to justify oneself.”
“Possibly,” said George. “But I’d have to think about that. That’s the trouble with aphorisms, isn’t it? They seem spot on – they seem to express some fundamental truth – but when you think about them, the exceptions start to appear.”
But now they were sitting in their favourite coffee bar – the place they met at least once a fortnight – to exchange their news. And Alice looked at George in that slightly puzzled way of hers and repeated her question. “Italy?”
George took a sip of his coffee. He was always careful to dab at his mouth with a handkerchief when he drank that foamy coffee; he thought one looked so ridiculous with a line of white around one’s lips. He took out his handkerchief.
“It’s on your chin,” she said. “Here, let me.” And then she said, for the third time, “Italy?”
“I’m forty-six,” he answered.
“What’s that got to do with it? If you go to Italy, you’ll still be forty-six unless … unless there’s something I’m missing.” She paused. “And anyway, I always know exactly how old you are because we were, if you remember, contemporaries. So when you say you’re forty-six you remind me that I’m forty-six too.”
He smiled. ‘The relevance of my saying I’m forty-six is this. Here I am at …”
“Yes, at forty-six. I’ve made enough money to last me until I’m …”
“In your case, I should imagine it must be about two hundred and forty-six.”
He demurred. “It’s enough,” he said. “So I don’t have to work my fingers to the bone. I don’t have to go into an office every morning.”
“Did you ever have a proper office, George?” She looked out of the window. “What’s that wonderful line? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil …”
“That’s me,” he said. “Now.”
She was right about his never having had a proper office. He had a studio, an untidy place, as creative places so often can be, and it is only when he became successful that offices began to play a role in his life. But they were always somewhere else, and staffed by people other than by him and his designers. He came up with the concepts and the basic designs – ‘the look of the game’, as he put it – and then others did the hard work of translating the designs into code. Acres of code. Code that went on until it suddenly, and rather magically, was transformed into vivid images of people struggling to survive threats, confronting challenges from all directions. There was a game called Jungle which pitted the player against pumas, jaguars, and poisonous snakes. That proved to be immensely popular in Scandinavia, where there are none of these things. There was a game called Avalanche that went down in well in Indonesia where, as far as he knew, there was no snow at all. “We give people what they think they want,” he once remarked. “That’s a bit different from giving them what they actually want.’
The people he employed to do all this were mostly in their twenties or early thirties. They appeared to enjoy the games they devised, whereas he had no time for them. He had invented the first one as an intellectual challenge, because he had been bored with the financial modelling he had been trained to do. He had developed it only because a young programmer had urged him to do something with it. “I can translate your idea,” the young man had said, “into something really commercial. I can do the programming – with my friends, of course. We could make something big of this.”
And they had. But George had kept all the profits. He had paid the young man and his friends a flat fee, and had then taken them on as employees. But he owned the intellectual property, and that was still the case; he owned it all.
Then he sold it, accepting an offer that had come to him through a firm of City of London solicitors. They had dealt with him with veiled contempt. They thought computer games were beneath them, but it was just that the sums were so large that they could hardly decline to act for their client.
He accepted the offer and transferred the ownership of the company – along with all the copyrights – to a company from Singapore.
Alice said, “Are you going to spread it around a bit?”
He looked puzzled. “Spread it around?”
“I’m thinking of all those people who made the company what it is. Your designers. Those people.”
“What about them?”
“Well, they’ve been with you since the beginning.”
He shook his head. “They’ve never had shares. I own the company, Alice – or did. The equity was all mine.”
“But they made it, didn’t they? Their art work – all those designs. That odd logic game – the one you said had really taken off – didn’t you say that one of them invented that?”
“In company time,” he said. “While he was working for me. So I owned the copyright – that was all set out in their contracts.”
She was silent. He was selfish. She had always known that. It was his major flaw. He thought only of himself, which was why Anna had left him. She had got fed up with that – she had confessed as much to her. She had said, ‘He wants to own everything. Everything. He has to possess it, you know. He’ll never change. Never.’ And Alice had said, in reply, ‘I know exactly what you mean. I still like him, of course – he’s a very old friend, as you know. I still like him, and he’s got plenty of good qualities too. He makes me laugh. It’s just that he doesn’t get sharing, does he?”
Anna shook her head. “No, he doesn’t get it. Some people don’t.”
“You were going to tell me more about Italy,” said Alice.
He put down his coffee cup. “All right. So, I’m forty-six and, frankly, I don’t want to sit around.”
“Of course not.”
“About two months ago,” he said, “I went to Italy, as you’ll remember.”
“I do. You sent me a postcard.”
“So I did. And while I was there, I met an American couple who had a villa just outside Florence. It was one of those really beautiful places – like I Tatti – you know the villa that Berenson owned – that famous place. Very aesthetically pleasing.”
“It’s the most beautiful country.”
“Of course it is. Anyway, I went for lunch at their villa and they happened to mention to me that they had seen the most wonderful place for sale in the hills outside a place called San Casciano dei Bagni. It was right down in southern Tuscany, a long way from where they were, but they had been to look at it on behalf of a friend of theirs from New York. He was interested in buying a place in Italy but had eventually decided against it. They told me the place they had looked at was still on the market. They said it was a slice of heaven. Those were the words they used – a slice of heaven.”
“You went to see it?”
George nodded. “I did. And what they said was correct. It was just as they had described it.”
“So you bought it?”
“Eventually. That took over a month. Property in Italy can be very complicated because there may be all sorts of people with an interest in it. Brothers and sisters. Cousins. It can be a complete mess.”
He signalled to the barrista, who knew them, and would bring their second cup of coffee over to the table.
“What does it consist of? A villa?”
“It’s an old working farm. An estate, I suppose. There’s a very large farmhouse – a beautiful place, and then there are the outbuildings. A dovecot. Massive stables. A couple of barns. A vineyard.”
“You’re going to produce wine?”
He shook his head. “The vines haven’t been looked after very well. We might do something about them – I’ll keep an open mind. I don’t think so, though. I have somebody out there whom I’ve employed. He’s going to help me look after the place. He’s called Aldo. He was the local fireman, but he took early retirement, as you can do if you’re a fireman in Italy. He’s very practical.”
“And he said that the vines …’
“Weren’t up to much any longer. But that’s not really what I’m interested in. I want to restore the buildings and concentrate on olives. Olives and views: it has the most gorgeous views. If you look up, I’m convinced you’d see angels. It’s that sort of place.”
She asked him who had owned it before. “It was a cousin of Aldo’s, the fireman that was,” he said. “He had no money. He loved the place, but couldn’t afford to keep it. He moved into the village, where he has a job in one of those food stores they have – an alimentari. He also looks after the church – opens it up and so on. He’s happy enough, I think.”
They looked at one another.
“I’m going to miss you,” she said. “I think you’re doing the right thing – because you do need a project. But I’m going to miss our meeting for coffee.”
He made a vague gesture. “You could come and see me. Will you? There’s plenty of room.”
“Give me a couple of months to get things sorted out, then come out. How about July? It’s up in the hills and so it’ll be cool enough.”
She said she would.
She nodded. “Promise.”
It took several days for him to get used to the fact that he was there. Everything was so strange: the quiet of the mornings when he woke up, the utter quiet; the warmth of the air about him; the feel of the stone floors on his bare feet. At home, he rarely looked at the sky – here he could stare at it until it made him dizzy. The sky, it seemed to him, was not empty, but was composed of singing molecules that were the sound of the cicadas in their screech; and there were swallows, too, dipping and wheeling, flying higher and higher until they seemed to dissolve in the blue of the upper layers.
He spent long hours with Aldo, going over the plans for the various buildings. His Italian, learned years earlier, was coming back to him, getting stronger and stronger each day. He bought a chart which showed building materials – nails, screws, sheets of corrugated iron – with the Italian word for each of them printed below. One might do that for the whole world, he thought; one might picture and label it so a search through dictionaries would be otiose.
Aldo could not believe the budget. “If we need it,” said George, “we get it. Right? You don’t have to stint.”
“That is the best thing to do,” said Aldo. He said that often – that is the best thing to do – his endorsement of George’s suggestion.
Men came to the do the work; Aldo could find somebody for any task. Sometime they were firemen from neighbouring towns, and they arrived in their official red cars.
“They are giving up their spare time to help us,” said Aldo. “They are very strong, these people.”
They took the roof of one of the smaller barns. Bats flew up into the unaccustomed daylight, squealing in protest. Aldo shrugged. “They can come back,” he said. “Once we’re finished they’ll be very happy.”
One of the men hit his thumb with a hammer. Aldo came to see George and explained that two hundred Euros would sort the problem out. “He’ll feel much better,” he said. “The Euro is a great medicine.”
“As you see fit,” said George.
The next day another man did the same thing. He showed the black of the blood under the nail. George thought that it had been there for some time – perhaps a few weeks – but did not voice his views.
“This man is greedy,” whispered Aldo. “One hundred Euros will be quite enough.”
“I suppose I can consider it a form of taxation,” muttered George.
“Hah!” said Aldo. “That’s very funny.” He paused, before adding, “But you’re right – that’s exactly what it is.”
The work was still going on when Alice arrived. She flew to Fiumicino and then drove herself up in a rental car. George showed her to her room, which he had made sure would be freshly painted for her. The woman who cleaned the house and kept the kitchen, another relative of Aldo’s, had put sprigs of lavender in a vase near the window. From that window the views were especially impressive: down towards the plains below, where the sun beat hard on the sparse vegetation. In the distance was another range of hills, blurred by the heat haze, indistinct folds of blue that became almost white at the junction of sky and land.
They settled into a comfortable routine. In the mornings, they went in to the village to buy bread and the other things they needed: olives, ham, tomatoes. They ate a picnic lunch on the terrace while the workmen sat under the trees eating their own lunch of chunks of bread and slices of sausage, washed down with raw local wine. The cicadas protested throughout. In the evenings they had a more elaborate meal, taking it in turns to prepare it – both were keen cooks. They read a great deal. She had discovered Italo Calvino; he was making his way through Patrick O’Brian for the second time.
“O’Brian is about friendship,” he said.
“Men have difficulty with friendship,” she said. “Women don’t.”
He thought she might be right. How many close friends did he himself have? He was about to say something about that, but checked himself. Instead, he remarked, “Nor do Italians.”
She had been there for a couple of weeks when they started work on one of the outbuildings just behind the house. He had not paid much attention to it – it was a storeroom of some sort, and had been used for agricultural equipment, some of which was still there. There were old, toothless rakes, secateurs that he imagined were used for pruning vines, nets for the olive trees.
He looked around. He was careful of dusty corners because he had seen spiders’ nests and he was wary of them. A couple of years ago he had been bitten by a brown recluse spider and had suffered a bad reaction. Now, when dealing with the woodpile or in places like this storeroom, he wore gardening gloves that went all the way up to the forearm.
He approached the rear wall of the storeroom. A brick had fallen out of it, leaving a hole. There was a bricklayer coming in a day or two – he could attend to that, just as he had attended to various other walls. He picked up the brick and tried to slot it back into place, but the ancient mortar had crumbled and the brick would not stay in position. Then he noticed something: behind the brick there was no daylight. Was it a double layer? He bent down to look through the hole. There was something beyond – a space of some sort.
Aldo had appeared, along with one of the workmen.
“There’s something there,” George said. “Could you find a torch?”
Aldo said something to the other man, who went away for a few minutes, returning with a battered black torch.
Aldo shone the beam through the hole. “Bricked in,” he said. “There’s quite a large storage area behind this wall. Bricked in.”
Aldo shrugged. “I’ve come across this sort of thing before.” He grinned. “Remember this is Italy – we like to hide things away. We conceal things from the authorities – from the taxman, from Rome, from the European Union, from prying eyes.” He paused, straining to get a better view of what lay beyond. “It’s part of the rural mentality. It goes back … way back.”
“What should we do?” asked George.
“Knock it down,” replied Aldo. “I think there’s a wine cellar back there.” He looked enquiringly at George. “Of course, it’s your place. You make the decision.”
Two of the firemen took their crowbars to the wall. There were clouds of choking dust, but they did not seem to mind. Within half an hour there was a door-sized aperture through which they could walk once the dust had settled.
Aldo had been right. There were roughly-made shelves that reached to ceiling height, and the wine, laid on its side, bottle upon bottle, filled these shelves. There were about ten cases, George calculated.
He reached for one of the bottles and rubbed the dust off it. Aldo and the firemen looked over his shoulder.
“I know that place,” said Aldo. “They make good wine. It’s over towards Montepulciano. Not that far from here – but in that direction.”
“1972,” said one of the firemen. “Old stuff.”
“That was a good vintage,” said Aldo. “I had an uncle who knew about these things. He said that 1972 and 1974 were very good.”
George reached for another bottle. It was from the same estate and the same vintage. A cursory check revealed that there were some bottles from later years, but nothing after 1982.”
George was thinking aloud. “I wonder whose this is?”
“Yours,” said Aldo.
“You bought this place with all its contents, didn’t you? Isn’t that what you told me?”
He remembered the negotiations. He had added to the price for the contents, which he imagined would just be the furniture. The seller – Aldo’s cousin, the man who worked in the village – had been eager to get rid of everything and had been pleased with the price.
“Could you ask your cousin about this,” said George. “Do you think he knows about it?”
“I’ll call him right away,” said Aldo.
He made the telephone call outside, and then came back in.
“He had no idea about it,” he said. “But he thinks it probably belonged to his grandfather. Apparently his grandfather was a great one for squirreling things away. He had learned to do that when the Germans were here during the War. The contadini hid their food – their wine too – so that it couldn’t get into the hands of the occupiers. People found hams for years after the end of the War. Useless, of course, because they were so old.”
“But this was a long time afterwards.”
Aldo nodded. “But old habits die hard. If you’re brought up to hoard – that’s what you do.” He hesitated. “He says that you’re very fortunate. He hopes that you will enjoy it.”
They opened a bottle that evening. It was Alice’s turn to cook and she had prepared an earthy mushroom risotto from porcini mushrooms she had bought that morning. She had also acquired a large slice of parmesan that they sampled with olive oil before the main course.
“I’m no real judge of wine,” said Alice. “But this is gorgeous.”
“It’s done very well,” said George. “I telephoned a friend in London. At Berry Bros. They knew the estate. They were enthusiastic.”
Alice looked into the glass. “What a windfall,” she said.
“Yes, it’s a real stroke of luck.”
“For you …”
He looked at her. ‘What do you mean?”
“Well, you say that it belonged to the seller’s grandfather.”
“Yes, but he sold everything to me. I believe that includes anything hidden away.”
She took a sip from her glass.
“You have so much,” she said quietly.
He said nothing.
“I shouldn’t say that,” she said. “It’s none of my business.”
She served the risotto. He seemed withdrawn. I’ve offended him, she thought.
The next morning Aldo brought his cousin to the house. Alice was looking out of the window and saw them arrive.
“Why is Aldo coming down the road with his cousin?” she asked.
“Because I asked him to bring him,” said George.
They went into the storeroom with Aldo and his cousin.
The cousin stood quite still. Then he said, “My grandfather … my grandfather was a very private man – very cautious, you’ll understand.”
“It’s best to be cautious.”
The cousin examined one of the bottles. “He knew the people who made this. He helped them out sometimes. He built them a new water tank – I remember seeing it. He was very proud of it.” He paused, and held the bottle up to the light. “I hope that you find it’s in good condition.”
George wiped dust of his hands. There was dust everywhere. “I hope you find that,” he said. “These are yours now.”
Aldo looked at George in surprise. Then he looked at his cousin.
“Its right that it should go to you,” said George. “Aldo will bring it over to you, won’t you Aldo?”
“Of course. Later today.” And underneath his breath he added, “This is a very good thing you’re doing.”
Alice had witnessed this. She walked back to the house with George. She said, “Did you see that man cry? Did you see the tears?”
George looked away. “I wasn’t watching.”
She said, “Well, I was.”
And she thought: what we have, we have because of others. What we love, we love because others have loved it too. These truths can be learned, can be understood, at any stage of life.
She reached for his hand. “I have some cheese for our lunch. And artichoke hearts. And some of those large olives.”
“And a glass of wine?”
“And a glass of wine,” she said.
This story first appeared in the Berry Bros & Rudd newsletter in 2017.