"Didn't anyone ever tell you? Pain and promise, they're all mixed up in our lives. A bit like good sex, really."
June, 1981: The small town of Frentana on the Adriatic coast of Italy was the last place Bobby would have suspected that his titanic struggle with being gay would come to a head. But then he hadn't reckoned on the town's evil secret weapon - Dario, a Michaelangelo man with a missionary zeal for sex with men and the tightest trousers that Bobby had ever set eyes on. But then Bobby wasn't the first Englishman in that bright land where the olive trees grow, to be dazzled and beguiled by a local boy. For there was another love story that had yet to be told. A hidden affair separated from Bobby and Dario by almost forty years. An inspiring tale of a great war-time romance between two very special young men and one with which Bobby would become strangely linked.
Luca was an old friend. He lived across the street, or at least the stony little track which back in the fifties ran past the front of Dario's house in the little village where the boys grew up in Southern Italy. As children, they had spent many happy hours together, innocently exploring the old olive groves and vineyards around their neighbourhood, taunting the grumpy mules they found tethered in the shade and getting into the usual scrapes that country boys do, as they helped themselves on hazy afternoons to the fresh fruit from the fig trees in the local orchards.
The only difference in Dario's case was that all this created regular headaches for his father, the village policeman, who on more than one occasion had to pay off an irate farmer to head off an embarrassing complaint. But life back then among those simple stone farm houses, ramshackle barns and dusty, unsealed roads was less complicated and the mild misdemeanours of local minors were quickly forgotten. They were after all just children.
It seemed to these young friends as if those days might never end until, both aged seven, the boys were suddenly separated as Luca's parents, along with many other friends and neighbours, left the village. They went in search of better prospects and the higher wages on offer in Switzerland and Germany. So, Luca and his family moved to Zurich. How Dario pined for his friend in the months that followed, channelling his loneliness and frustration into various mischief around the house, driving his mother crazy and making his father angry, which at the time, he recalled, he found very entertaining.
But time marched on, and the seasons rolled by. The long hot summers followed by the cold, wet winters. The land around them, tended so relentlessly by countless generations of their kin before them, didn't stop giving. The sticky tobacco carried on growing, and the sweet grapes kept on ripening.
Then one summer, ten years later as the sixties drew to a close, Luca and his family finally returned to the village for a holiday. Luca was now a stout youth with clear blue eyes, a very unusual feature in that part of Italy. That along with his trendy Swiss haircut and faint German accent made him stand out now from the other young men in the village he had left behind so many years before. Dario too, now seventeen, had developed into a tall, hirsute and dark haired young man with boiling brown eyes and long strong legs who enjoyed working outdoors on local farms and for the local wine co-operative based in the valley near the village. Old friendships, particularly those forged in youth, are enduring things, and so, when these two young men met again during that summer of nineteen sixty-nine, it was as if no time at all had elapsed, and they quickly rekindled the sparks that formerly made them such a terrible twosome as children.
One summer evening during that holiday, Dario was invited to join Luca and his family for supper. Luca's family was staying with relatives for the duration of their visit, a family consisting of an uncle, an aunt and several cousins left behind to look after the ancestral home while the other members of the family went abroad in search of new found wealth. At about six o clock in the evening, Dario made his way over to the old house in the village where Luca's uncle and his family still lived. Like so many houses in that part of Villa Costantina, it was a battle-scarred building which still bore the pock marks and hostile signatures of the fierce battles that had once taken place in and around the village twenty-five years earlier during the Second World War. They sat, this cluster of old faithful buildings close to the village square, on the lip of the valley that in those troubled times had separated the warring armies for some considerable time and put the village on the front line.
But how times had changed. That evening a smart white Audi with a gleaming Swiss number plate was parked prominently outside the house, advertising to old friends and neighbours just how well Luca's parents had done from their time abroad. Luca, too, had done well. He had become fluent in German (which was rapidly replacing Italian as his first language), acquired a competent knowledge of French, and was a virtuoso with the accordion.
When Dario arrived, he could already hear the sound of music coming from the terrace above the old stable. He climbed the simple stone steps at the side of the house and joined the assembled family, taking a discrete place at the back. The big shiny musical instrument was already strapped tightly to his friend's massive chest. It almost seemed alive as Luca worked the bellows with rhythmic precision under everyone's watchful gaze. And yet, Dario noticed, as he watched Luca force a reluctant smile on his face, his friend seemed resentful of all the attention.
The relatives, all ordered by Luca's father to assemble on the terrace for the show, huddled together and looked on intently while Luca's parents beamed with pride. Everyone listened patiently as Luca's father insisted on one tune after another. Deaf to his son's protests, he relentlessly bullied him into performing an entire concert and vigorously applauded after each and every song, inviting the rest of the family to similarly shower his by now exhausted and embarrassed son with excessive compliments. He had won many competitions in Zurich, his father boasted between songs, and was being put forward for an international event in Geneva. Finally, the other adults and their clearly less talented children, decided they had all heard enough and went downstairs to the dining room in the house to prepare for the evening meal. Left alone on the terrace, Dario complimented his friend on his playing. Luca apologised for length of time he had been forced to stand there and listen.
Using the thick leather straps, Luca lowered the weighty accordion to the floor, and the two old friends sat in the warm summer air and waited for their supper. The stars were coming out in the blackening night sky above their heads, while twinkling lights on the other side of the valley betrayed the various locations in the advancing twilight gloom of other distant villages and farmhouses, where countless other families would also be sitting down to eat together. Luca fluffed up the rather large collar on the loud, bright green shirt he was wearing.
"What do you think?" he asked Dario hesitantly, pinching the polyester cloth between his fingers. "Do you think it suits me?"
"Sure. When did you get it?"
"Yesterday. I hitched a ride with my uncle into town. Mother doesn't like it."
"Mothers never like any clothes we choose for ourselves," Dario said.
"She says it's too bright. She says it looks as if I'm trying to attract attention."
"Well, are you?"
"I'm seventeen," Luca said. "Of course, I'm trying to attract attention."
"Well I think it looks good on you," Dario said appreciatively.
"Thanks," Luca replied, seeming grateful for some positive feedback at last.
"Your old man's very proud of your playing," Dario said.
"Too proud!" Luca exclaimed. "I hate it when he does that. You know, forces me to perform in front of one of his invited audiences."
"He wants to show you off," Dario said.
"I'm not a circus animal," Luca protested.
"Well, I wish I could play the accordion like that. You're lucky you have parents who take an interest in you."
"Your father still with the police?" Luca asked.
"Yes, still a policeman and working all the hours God sends. We hardly ever see him."
"Lucky you," Luca said.
A dog kennelled at an unknown farmhouse barked in the distance and the labouring whine of a lone moped trying to make it up the main street in the village filled the pause in their conversation.
"Will you stay in Switzerland?" Dario asked.
"It's where my life is now," his friend replied. "I'm going to apply for a Swiss passport next year, when I'm eighteen, and then maybe, we'll see. I might even apply for university, do a business course or something. Are you still at school?"
"No, I left two years ago," Dario told him. "Couldn't see the point in staying. Things are really picking up at the wine co-operative here. Sales are good. Italian wine is becoming popular all over Europe. There's a lot of money to be made."
"Well, if you ever need introducing to any potential customers in Zurich let me know," his friend offered with a smile.
"Thanks, I will," Dario responded gratefully. "What about your mum and dad? I thought part of the plan was to build a new place here in Villa Costantina and come back?"
"That was ten years ago. Right now, I think they are still too busy proving to the rest of the family and everybody back here that they've 'arrived'. Anyhow, it's a good life up there in Switzerland and Zurich is a fun place to be. If they came back here, I'm not sure what I would do. You must come and visit, my friend."
"Maybe one day I will," Dario answered.
"What about you?" Luca asked, lowering his voice to avoid being overheard by anyone in the house. "I thought you would have been engaged by now."
"What made you think that?" Dario asked.
"Well, you know, what with your fine prospects in the wine trade and your good looks."
Dario blushed. "I'm not really interested right now."
"What? All these beautiful girls in the village. My cousin Sophia has been asking me about you. She's still single. Just don't leave it too long my friend, or the pretty ones will be spoken for."
"No, I want to do my military service first next year and get it out of the way. Maybe then, I'll think about girls," Dario said.
"Why, what are you thinking about now?" Luca asked cryptically.
The sound of Luca's mother suddenly calling them for their supper cut like a blade through the pointed question. It was completely dark now, and the familiar sound of the crickets rushed to fill the silence and the still night air. The two friends locked gazes for a moment. In the intervening years, something had been added to their friendship.
"I guess we need to go downstairs," Luca said reluctantly, getting to his feet. "Hey, we're going to the beach tomorrow. Do you want to come? We're taking two cars. There'll be plenty of room. Go on! It'll be like old times."
"Sure. Sounds good," Dario replied. "Just so long as you don't try to fix me up with one of your cousins."