I wasn't going to start posting this until I was finished with Avventura, but I felt like I needed to write something happy... consider this an official apology for the angst.
For anybody interested, one lira circa 1960 was worth something like a seventh of a cent (there's a scene in Roman Holiday where Gregory Peck gives Audrey Hepburn £1000 and then tells her 'it's about a dollar and a half'). The archaeologist from Savona paid Alberto approximately fifty dollars for the coin, which is not nearly what a well-preserved Roman gold coin was worth but probably represents all the cash he had on him at the time. The camera is worth around $160, which is the equivalent to about $1500 in 2021.
Giulia usually spent the Christmas holiday in Genova with her mother. Massimo would visit if he could to deliver a gift on the sixth, though he didn't always have the money to make the trip. This year, however, was going to be special.
It had started a few weeks earlier, when Luca found out about the holidays coming up. At first he'd been excited to hear about the treats like panettone, and the Befana delivering gifts on Epiphany. Then he'd learned that some of the kids from out of town went home for the break, and his attitude changed. Giulia and her mother could tell that he still wanted to be excited, but he missed his family and was disappointed he wouldn't get a chance to visit them.
So Helena Marcovaldo made a telephone call, and when the school got out for the holiday they were able to surprise Luca by telling him they were going back to Portorosso. Giulia's Mamma was coming along, and the Marcovaldo and Paguro families could both spend the holidays together.
Luca was practically vibrating with excitement as the train pulled into the station in Portorosso. The sky was clear but the day was chilly, barely ten degrees Celcius, and the people waiting on the platform to greet returning travellers were wearing scarves and knitted hats. Luca scanned the crowd for familiar faces, and grinned in delight when he spotted them.
"Giulia! There they are! There are my parents!" he said.
"And there's Papà and Alberto!" Giulia agreed happily. They'd only been away for four months, but now that she had something to look forward to in Portorosso besides Ercole's insults it had felt like forever.
The train groaned to a halt, and Luca and Giulia were the first to the exit. On the platform, Alberto was shoving his way to the front to meet them. He was dressed in new clothes, including a yellow cable sweater that must have been bought especially for him, as it was his favourite colour, and shoes so he wouldn't have to stand directly on the cold stone. Luca almost fell off the train in his haste to give his friend a hug.
"Alberto!" he said. "School is amazing! I got to use the big telescope Giulia told me about! We could see the moons of Giove and I had to keep a journal recording where they were every night as they went around and around! You know what keeps them moving?" he asked. "You won't believe this, it's gravity! The same thing that makes you fall!"
"Yeah?" Alberto asked, "well, I found a new shipwreck! It's mostly buried in the mud but I dug some stuff up and this guy from out of town saw it, and he said he was going to tell a professor from Napoli because he thinks it's really important! I'll show it to you," he promised.
Giulia lost no time joining in. "Mamma's painting Luca's portrait!" she said. "It's not finished yet, but when it is we'll bring it back in the summer so you can see. She said she used to try to paint sea monsters when people in Portorosso would describe them to her. Right, Mamma?" she turned to beam at her mother as she stepped off the train.
"People always made them sound a lot more fearsome than Luca is," Helena agreed with a smile, and went to give Massimo a hug. "It's good to see you again."
"You as well, Gioia," said Massimo. "I could have made it this year, you know. The fishing's been very good, all thanks to Alberto." He put a proud hand on Alberto's shoulder.
"Nice to meet you finally, Alberto." Helena shook the boy's hand. "Luca and Giulia have told me all about you, and Massimo says you're a big help with the Pescheria."
Alberto stood up a little straighter. "It's not like I do anything hard," he said, pretending to dismiss the compliment.
"Mamma, his head doesn't need to get any bigger," Giulia pretended to chide.
"Nonsense, Alberto has every reason to feel pleased with himself," Massimo said loyally. "The man from Savona seemed to think he'd made a big discovery. I'm looking forward to hearing what this Professor Hadid from Napoli will say."
Alberto's chest swelled even more.
Meanwhile, Luca's parents had also made their way over. They ocean didn't change in temperature with the seasons as much as the air did, so they weren't used to the cold. Both of them had scarves and mittens on, but that didn't stop Daniela from covering her son in kisses. "I missed you so much," she said, hugging him tight. "It hasn't been the same without you... even the fish miss you! They've been moping ever since you left."
Luca giggled. "How was the crab show?" he asked.
"The crab show!" It was now Lorenzo's turn to puff himself up. "Pinchy-Pessa won second place!"
"Bianca Branzino's best crab was disqualified after they found out she'd been covering a flaw in his shell with paint," Daniela agreed triumphantly. "Her second-best only got third."
"Congratulations!" said Luca, who wasn't really interested in crab breeding but knew it was important to his parents. He guessed they must feel the same way about him going to human school; they didn't understand it, but they were glad it made him happy. "Where's Grandma?"
"She's watching the roe," said Lorenzo. "It's going to hatch any day now and somebody had to stay with it to make sure the fish don't start eating their fry."
"Oh, of course," said Luca. That had used to be one of his jobs, and he felt an unexpected lump in his chest knowing he'd been missing it. "I hope I get to see it."
"Hey, more great news," Alberto inserted himself into the conversation. "I'm going to be staying with you over the holidays."
"Really?" Luca asked eagerly.
"So that Giulia can have her room back while she's here," Daniela explained.
"That's great!" said Luca. It would be like the nights he and Alberto had been camping out in Giulia's treehouse, able to lie awake and talk for half the night if they wanted to.
"The only thing is," Alberto added, "Giulia's room is kind of where I've been keeping the things I found in the shipwreck." He turned to her. "You'll have to be careful with them. The guy said to leave everything else down there and not touch stuff much, because it'll all have to be conserved and studied. You two wanna see?" He grinned eagerly.
"Yes!" Luca and Giulia chorused.
When they returned to the waterfront house above the Pescheria, the adults settled down for coffee in the kitchen while Alberto led Luca and Giulia up the steps to the top floor. Giulia's bedroom had always been small, and it had seemed to get smaller the bigger she grew and the more she filled it with her possessions. Now it seemed tinier still, as Alberto had crammed it with stuff he'd pulled out of his shipwreck. The biggest object was the upper half of a barnacle-encrusted amphora, but there was also a handful of ancient coins, a tiny bronze statue of a naked, bearded human holding a three-pronged fork as tall as he was, a few pieces of plank with nails coated in rust, a ring with a beetle on it, and a collection of small bottles in opaque but colourful glass, with stoppers still in them.
"The guy from Savona said this guy is Nettuno," Alberto pointed to the little statue. "The god of the sea. They named the planet after him. The bottles might still have perfume in them if the water hasn't gotten in. And the best coin – he paid me forty thousand lire for it – had a picture of an emperor on it. He said if it's the one he thinks it is, then all this is eighteen hundred years old!"
"That's so cool!" Giulia exclaimed. "We've been learning about how Genova founded colonies during the crusades in history class..."
"Oh, man, there is so much history!" Luca interrupted. "One of the teachers loaned me an extra book about the archaeology of Liguria, and there've been humans living here for like six thousand years."
"... but we haven't covered Roman times," Giulia went on. "Wait until we tell everybody. You're gonna be famous!" She grabbed Alberto by the face.
"You think so?" he asked.
"Yeah! You'll probably get your picture in the paper and everything!"
"And this time, people will actually be able to see you!" Luca agreed, remembering the fuzzy photo of Alberto that had accompanied one of the Giornale's articles on sea monster sightings.
Alberto was thrilled, but tried to play it cool as he kept describing his find. "There's way more still down there," he boasted. "These great big cylinder rocks, and hundreds and hundreds of the vases. I didn't bring up any more because the guy told me not to, and because there's not really room in here unless I move some of Giulia's stuff." He hadn't taken anything out of her room, although he'd put up a couple of new posters with pictures of Vespas and motorcycles. "I'll take you to see it tomorrow, Luca. You're gonna love it."
"We'll have to move at least some of it," said Giulia. "We've gotta make room for you guys to sleep over here at least once, because it's so not fair that you get to visit shipwrecks and hang out every night without me."
Alberto had an idea. "What about the dive suit?" he asked. "You can't use it to sleep over, but you can come see the shipwreck with us!"
"No, it's broken," Luca said. "The glass cracked and now the water gets in."
"Oh," Alberto frowned, disappointed. He knew way too well what it felt like to be the odd one out, or to feel forgotten about.
"That's okay, there's gotta be lots of other stuff we can do," Giulia said. "Don't tell, but I peeked while my Mom was packing and she got me a snorkel for a present. I won't be able to go deep enough for your house or your shipwreck, but I'll still be able to see lots of stuff. Just probably not until summer, because right now it's too cold for swimming."
That made the whole thing seem even more unfair, but Luca came to the rescue with something happier to talk about. "Alberto, do you wanna see my astronomy journal?" He pulled it out of his bag and opened it, showing a page of drawings that documented four little stars moving back and forth across a big circle. "Giove has four big moons while the Earth only has one. They were discovered three hundred and fifty years ago by a man named Galileo, who was the first person to look at the planets through a telescope! He called them the Satelliti Medicei..."
When Luca was done describing the moons of Giove, Alberto told him and Giulia about Ercole's failed attempt to hold a job at the Trattoria. Giulia put on a new record she'd bought, though with the extra things in the room there wasn't any space to dance to it. Finally, after perhaps an hour and a half, there was a shout from downstairs.
"Luca! Alberto!" Daniela Paguro called up. "Time to go! Grandma's making skate's eggs for dinner!"
"Oh! Yum!" Luca said. Human food was great, but he'd definitely missed his mother's and grandmother's cooking. He began gathering up his things. "See you tomorrow, Giulia."
"Be sure to get here bright and early," Giulia told them. "We're gonna put up a Christmas tree, like Mamma and I do in Genova every year. It'll be a small one, because we don't have much room, but you guys can help decorate it."
"Wouldn't miss it," Alberto promised, pulling his sweater off over his head. "Gotta leave this – it'll shrink, and then I'll get strangled." He put his hands around his own neck and gurgled as if choking himself.
Giulia giggled. "I'll try to keep Machiavelli from sleeping on it."
"Oh, he already does that," Alberto said. "Sometimes while I'm still wearing it."
As the Paguro family headed down to the ocean, Giulia leaned over the balcony to wave to them. "First thing in the morning!" she repeated. "Don't forget!"
"We won't!" Luca called back. "We promise!"
Daniela hadn't been joking when she'd said the fish missed Luca. As the family approached the house, the entire flock came swimming out, bleating happily, to swarm him. He laughed and gave them scratches behind their fins and called them by their names. Their new scales had grown in strong and shiny, and as long as they kept the parasites off, there'd be a good harvest when they shed them again next year.
"Welcome home, Bubble," said Grandma, who was perched in the entrance to the barn, guarding the roe.
Luca swam up to give her a hug and a kiss. "How's the roe?" he asked.
"Take a look." She gestured to the barn.
Inside, the cavern was heaped with translucent pink eggs, each about the size of a cherry, and within them Luca could see curled shapes with huge, reflective eyes – a familiar sight, but always an exciting one. "Alberto!" he whispered, waving his friend over. "Come and see!"
"He saw 'em last week," said Grandma. "When he dropped in to tell us you were coming home for the holidays."
"Yeah, but the fry will be bigger now," Luca replied. He felt a touch at his elbow and looked, expecting to see Alberto – but instead it was one of the fish, taking entirely too much interest. "Oh, no, you don't, Monalisa," said Luca, shooing her away. "I've told you before, they're not for eating. Did you forget already?"
Monalisa bleated at him and nudged his arm for more scratches.
"They are bigger!" Alberto said, looking over Luca's shoulder.
"They might even hatch tonight," Grandma told the boys, "but more likely tomorrow or the day after."
"Aw, man," sighed Luca. "What if it's tomorrow while we're at Giulia's? We'll miss it."
"But if we stay to watch, we'll miss this Christmas tree thing," said Alberto.
"They'd probably wait for us," Luca said, although he didn't like that when Giulia had seemed so excited about it. "The fish won't wait to hatch." It was probably a dumb thing to worry about – he'd seen it before, even helping some of the fry to escape from their eggs when they got stuck, and there'd be roe again next year. But it was still a special thing, and he didn't want to miss it.
"Nothing to do about it, Luca," said Grandma, patting his back. "They'll hatch when they hatch. Maybe it won't be for a couple of days still."
"If they start while you're gone tomorrow, I'll send somebody to go get you," Daniela suggested.
"Good idea," Grandma told her. "Now," she turned to the boys. "Who wants to help me peel sea cucumbers?"
Lorenzo stayed by the barn to take over guard duty, while the rest of the family headed inside. Luca and Alberto got to work helping Grandma with the cooking, and Daniela tidied up, set the table, and poked the jellyfish so they'd glow. Luca noticed that Pinchy-Pessa's red ribbon was being proudly displayed on a shelf, next to a particularly complete molted carapace. Beside that, a stone was weighing down a pile of papers that could only be Luca's letters from school.
"Your Mom re-reads them," Grandma whispered to him. "And sometimes she cries about it, because her baby's getting so grown-up."
Grandma's skate's eggs, cooked in the case humans delightfully called borsellino della sirena, were just as tasty as Luca remembered. Alberto must have liked them, too, because he ate four. Over the meal, Luca started trying to explain to his friend how the gravity that made people fall could be the same gravity that kept the moon going around in the sky, but got off-track as he had to tell his confused parents that the moon was a giant rock as big across as the entire Mediterranean, and that it changed its shape over the course of the month because different parts of it were lit up by the sun. By the time they finished dessert he was pretty sure Mom and Dad still didn't understand, but they agreed it was very interesting and they were proud he was learning so much.
After supper, the boys swam up to sit among the weeds on the roof and watch the bioluminescent plankton light up as darkness fell. Sunsets above the surface were more colourful, but there was something very comforting about that specific shade of blue. It was the colour of home, and unlike a sunset, it swirled in the current, as if it were waving goodnight.
"I've been thinking," Alberto announced. "You know what we need?"
"What?" asked Luca.
"A camera," said Alberto. "That little box humans use to make pictures of things. Do they have ones that go underwater?" There were certain machines that couldn't get wet, or they'd stop working.
"I don't kn... yes, they do!" Luca realized. "There were pictures of fish underwater in those yellow magazines. Some of them were even in colour." If he and Alberto had a camera, they could take pictures of things like the farm, or Alberto's shipwreck, or even the roe hatching. Then they'd be able to share them not just with Giulia, but with her parents and anybody else they wanted. "That's a great idea, but I bet they're expensive." Luca didn't remember seeing any for sale in Genova, but a camera just seemed like something that should be expensive.
"Hey, that guy from Savona gave me forty thousand lire, remember?" Alberto gave him a gentle swat on the arm. "I think that's gotta be enough to buy anything. Tomorrow when we do the Christmas tree, we'll ask Massimo where to find an underwater camera."
"Great!" Luca agreed, feeling much better about the whole situation. "But we can't let Giulia know we're getting it. It's gotta be a surprise. Christmas is all about surprises."
"Absolutely," Alberto nodded.
In the morning, the roe still hadn't hatched and didn't look like they were imminently about to, so Luca and Alberto set off for the shore. The weather today was still chilly, with the threat of rain in the air. It was only a few steps from the beach to the Pescheria, but both of them were pink-cheeked and shivering by the time they arrived.
"Buongiorno, boys," said Helena Marcovaldo as they entered the kitchen.
Giulia was up and dressed and sitting at the kitchen table, her mouth full of biscuits and jam. She waved to them, then chewed and swallowed hurriedly. "Here's your sweater, Alberto," she said, holding it out. "And Mamma's just making cioccolata."
"Thanks!" Alberto pulled the sweater over his head and put one arm in a sleeve, then backtracked when he realized he was putting it on backwards. Once it was the right way around, he sat down on the bench to put his shoes on, too. They weren't necessary in the house, but having new things that were only his was nice, and he wanted to use them.
Luca climbed into a chair and helped himself to a biscuit. "I wonder if it'll snow," he said.
"Probably not," Giulia replied. "It never snows in Portorosso."
"I saw it snow once, on the Island," Alberto said, joining them at the table, "but it didn't stick. Dad said there are places where it snows and it just piles up."
"It snowed a bit in Genova the day before we left," Luca told him. "Signora Marcovaldo said it happens there because of the way the cold air comes down from the mountains."
"We sometimes get snow from the Po Valley," Helena agreed, pouring the cioccolata into cups. "But snow or no snow, you two look frozen. Here." She added a dollop of cream to each cup, and sprinkled some cinnamon on top.
"Grazie!" the kids chorused as she passed them out. Luca scooped the cream and cinnamon off his cup with a spoon to eat first – Alberto did the same thing, but used his fingers.
"I need to tell you," Luca warned Giulia. "Our roe is going to hatch soon, maybe today. Mom said she'd send somebody to get me if it starts while we're up here. I kind of don't want to miss it," he explained apologetically, "so we might have to run off..."
"Oh," said Giulia. "That's cool." She managed a smile, but her disappointment at the idea was audible. "I guess if you leave before we're done with the tree, we'll just wait and finish it tomorrow."
"That reminds me," Alberto put in, licking cream and cinnamon off the back of his hand, "where's your Dad this morning? I gotta ask him something."
"He went to pick up the tree," Giulia replied. "He should be back soon."
Alberto nodded, and gave Luca a wink. Luca didn't dare wink back, in case Giulia saw, but he smiled to show he understood. Hopefully, the fry could stay in their eggs long enough for the two of them to get their camera.
As promised, Massimo arrived a few minutes later with the tree. Pine trees didn't naturally grown in the area around Portorosso, which made them expensive, but that wasn't a big problem because only a small one would have fit in the house anyway. The one he'd chosen was significantly shorter than Massimo himself, but when crammed into a corner of the little kitchen, it seemed to fill the entire room. Helena got out a box of lights, and Giulia presented the boys with scissors and coloured paper.
"This is how we used to do it when I was little and we all lived together," Giulia explained, as she got to work cutting the paper into strips. "My Dad would put the tree up, my Mom would string the lights, and I'd make the ornaments."
Alberto nodded to Luca and pushed himself away from the table. "Hey, Massimo, can I ask you something?" He dragged the man into the hall, pausing in the doorway to mouth the words keep her distracted to Luca.
Luca nodded. "I wonder," he said, starting on a sheet of green paper. "If we were going to do this underwater, what would we use? There aren't any trees down there. Well, there are dead ones," he said, thinking of the logs that occasionally sank to the bottom. The sea monsters would use them to feed teredo molluscs, which were eaten pickled. They were considered a special treat, but Luca had never liked the taste of them.
"You wouldn't want to decorate a dead one," Giulia agreed.
"Maybe we could use a big sponge," Luca mused. "Some of them look kind of trees."
"You could decorate it with seashells on strings," Giulia suggested. "What would you use for lights, though?"
"We've got jellyfish in our house to light it up after dark. We could find some smaller ones and hang them on the sponge," said Luca.
Giulia nodded. "And a starfish on top! Perfetto! You have to do it."
"Absolutely," Luca agreed. "It's too bad I won't be able to show it to you... I guess we still have time to figure something out."
From out in the hall they heard Alberto say, "thanks, Massimo!" and moments later he stepped back into the kitchen with a grin on his face. "What did I miss?"
"We figured out how to have a tree at Luca's house, too," Giulia said, and narrowed her eyes as she handed him a pair of scissors. "Are you two planning something?" she asked slyly.
"Maybe. You'll just have to wait and find out," said Alberto.
They spent the next couple of hours working on the tree. After Helena got the lights working, the kids glued their paper strips into chains and wound them around and around. The final touch was the metal star that went on top, which Massimo placed and then carefully straightened. Luca had seen some Christmas trees in Genova, including a great big one that had gone up in the Piazza De Ferrari on Conception Day, but it was very special to know he'd helped to decorate this one himself.
Giulia went and got her own little camera, which she'd brought back from school with a couple of frames still on the roll, and she and the boys stood in front of the tree and smiled while Helena took their picture.
"What should we do next?" Giulia asked.
"Actually, we want to run back to my place and check on the roe," said Luca. "We'll be right back, okay?"
The boys could see Giulia watching them through the window as they ran, not down to the beach but up the twisting streets of the town, but it didn't matter. Knowing a surprise was coming was very different from knowing what the surprise was.
Halfway up the hill was the Farmacia with its green cross sign and the leaky fontanella next to the entrance. The bell above the door jingled as they went through, into the little shop with its shelves crammed with medicines, cosmetics, and cleaning products. An employee in an apron was mopping the floor, and the boys soon realized this was a familiar face.
"Oh, Ercole." Alberto snickered. "You're working here this week? What happened to the job at the petrol station."
Ercole scowled at them. "None of your business."
"You got fired again, didn't you?"
"I couldn't handle all the tourists on the autostrada asking for directions to places they'd already passed," Ercole sniffed. "I had to find somewhere that would give me fewer headaches, so here I am... even though I should be working for Signora Marsigliese, since this is all her fault!"
"Why's that?" asked Luca.
"She went and asked my Papà how old I was, and afterwards, he came to me and said, Ercole, if you need money so badly that you lie about your age in order to enter a children's pasta-eating contest, then you had better get a job! So I told Signora Marsigliese she owed it to me to give me work, but she just smiled and said she never hires anyone under eighteen! She knows I'm eighteen because Papà told her, so she's just being a cretina. Now go away," he added, shooing at them with one hand. "We don't serve sea monsters here."
"What was that, Ercole?" a voice called from behind the shop.
"Nothing, Signorina Repetto!" he replied quickly.
But the Farmacia's owner had already emerged. She was a woman in her fifties, with silver streaks in dark hair pulled into a bun at the nape of her neck. "Don't be a fool, Ercole," she scolded. "Of course we serve sea monsters here. This is Portorosso! They are practically part of the family. Buongiorno, boys," she greeted Alberto and Luca, and showed them the newspaper she'd been reading. "Have you seen this? This fellow in America says he has captured the Abominable Snowman and he's charging a fee to see it! Some people just don't know how to treat their local monsters!" She shook her head and set the paper aside. "What can I do for you today? Nobody's ill, I hope."
"No, Signorina Repetto," said Luca politely. "We wanted to ask you where we can find something."
"Massimo said Giulia gets film for her camera here," Alberto said, "so we want to know where we can buy a camera for ourselves. One that works underwater."
"Of course," Signora Repetto nodded. "I know just what you're looking for. Let me see." She knelt down to rummage under the counter.
While she was out of sight, Ercole stuck his tongue out at Luca and Alberto. They made faces back.
"Here we are!" Signorina Repetto straightened up again, holding a catalogue. She opened it to a page with an advertisement for a camera, accompanied by drawings of people taking pictures while boating and diving. "This is what you need – the Calypso. It's brand new, fully sealed so the water can't get in, and it advances the film automatically. I'll get you the form, and you can order one from Roma."
The boys' enthusiasm deflated at once. "It has to come from Roma?" asked Luca. "How long is that gonna take?"
"A few weeks," replied Signorina Repetto. "It won't be here in time for Epiphany, if it's meant to be a gift."
That meant they wouldn't be able to get pictures of the roe. In fact, it probably wouldn't arrive until after Luca and Giulia were back at school. Luca looked at Alberto to see what he thought, and could tell his friend was disappointed, too.
"We can use it in the summer," Luca said.
"Yeah, your house will still be there," Alberto agreed. "And the shipwreck, too."
"And summer is when the anemones bloom," Luca went on, trying to cheer himself up. Daniela was always proud of her anemone garden. "And my birthday." There would be lots of things to photograph. "I guess we'll just have to be patient."
"Yeah," said Alberto again. He pulled a handful of wadded-up bills out of his pocket as Signorina Repetto put the form and a pen on the counter for them. "How much is it?"
"A hundred and five thousand lire," she said, pointing to the lower right corner of the ad.
That made them both stop short.
"A hundred and five?" asked Luca, who had never imagined anything costing that much.
"We only have forty," Alberto protested.
"I'm afraid there's also a shipping cost," Signorina Repetto said apologetically.
Ercole sniggered. "Maybe you two need to get a job," he sneered.
"Ercole!" Signorina Repetto held up a warning finger "That floor isn't going to clean itself!" She turned back to the boys. "Not today, then?" she asked.
"No," said Alberto, "but hold onto that form. We're going to figure something out."