Aldo caviglia glimpsed his reflection in the overhead mirror of the crowded 64
bus. He was not a vain man but, on the whole, he approved of what he saw.
Caviglia had recently turned sixty. Four years earlier he had lost his wife.
There had been a brief, lost period when drink took its toll, and with it his
job in the ancient bakery in the Campo dei Fiori, just a few minutes' walk from
the small apartment close to the Piazza Navona where they had lived for their
entire married life. He had escaped the grip of the booze before it stole away
his looks. The grief he still felt marked him only inwardly now.
Today he was wearing what he thought of as his winter Thursday uniform, a taupe
woollen coat over a brown suit with a knife-edge crease running down the
trousers. In his mind's eye he was the professional man he would have been in
another, different life. A minor academic, a civil servant, an accountant
perhaps. Someone happy with his lot, and that, at least, was no lie.
It was December the eighth, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Christmas
stood on the horizon, its presence finally beginning to make itself known beyond
the tawdry displays that had been in store windows for weeks. Every good
Catholic would attend mass. The Pope would venerate two famous statues of the
Virgin, in the Piazza di Spagna and at Santa Maria Maggiore. Catholic or not,
families would flock to the city streets, to shop, to eat, to gossip, to walk
around and enjoy the season. In the vast racetrack space of the Piazza Navona,
which followed the lines of the Imperial stadium that had preceded it, the
stalls occupied almost every last square metre: toys for the children, panini of
porchetta carved straight from the warm pig's carcass for the parents, and the
Christmas witch, La Befana, everywhere, on stockings and pendants, decorations
and candies, a half-hideous, half-friendly spectre primed to dispense gifts to
the young at Epiphany.
Caviglia gripped the handrail as the bus lurched through the traffic past the
stranded temple ruins of Largo di Torre Argentina, smiling at his memories.
Theirs had been an uncomplicated, innocent marriage, perhaps because it had
never been blessed by children. Even so, for Chiara's sake, he had left out a
traditional offering for La Befanaa piece of broccoli, some sausage, and a
glass of wineevery year of their marriage, right to the end, when her life was
ebbing away like a winter tide retreating gently for the last time. He'd never
had the money for expensive presents. Nor did it matter, then or now. The
pictures that still remained in his headof rituals; of simple, fond, shared
actswere more valuable than any lump of gold or silver could ever have been.
When his wife was alive, they served as visible symbols of his love. Now that he
was alone, the memory of their giving provided comfort during the cold, solitary
nights of winter. In his own mind Christmas remained what it always was: a
turning point for the year at which the days ceased to shorten, Rome paused to
look at itself, feel modestly proud of what it saw, then await the inevitable
arrival of spring and, with it, rebirth.
Even in the weather the city had endured of latedark and terribly wet, with the
Tiber at its highest in a quarter century, so brown and muddy and reckless it
would have burst its banks without the modern flood defencesthere was a spirit
of quiet excitement everywhere, a communal recollection of a small, distant
miracle that still bore some significance in an ephemeral world of mundane,
fleeting greed. He saw this in the faces of the children spilling down the city
streets and alleys, excited, trying to guess what the coming weeks would bring.
He saw this in the eyes of their parents, too, remembering their youth, taking
pleasure in passing some fragment of the wonder on to their own offspring in
return. Nor was the weather uniformly vile. Occasionally the heavy, dark clouds
would break and a lively winter sun would smile on the city. He'd seen it drift
through the dusty windows of his apartment that morning, spilling a welcome
golden light onto the ancient, smoke-stained cobblestones of the alley outside.
It had made him feel at home, glad to be a Roman born and bred.
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