Wednesday, March 09, 2016

In the Place of Miracles

Here is Richard Finch: a bony Englishman, forty-five years old, in earth-tone slacks made out of some kind of stretchy fabric and a polo shirt from Marks and Spencer, hunched over a pushchair amongst the white marble miracles of Pisa, birthplace of his second wife. Their child, almost two now, is curled asleep in the pushchair, sucking at the fleecy ear of a toy rabbit. She has never been allowed a dummy. Finch checks his watch every thirty seconds and his wife, clearly annoyed, tells him they have plenty of time. Her attitude may well be all que sera sera, he thinks, but he likes to get to the airport early, to be at the front of the inevitable queue, and they still have to retrieve the suitcases from her mother's, which is not exactly between their current position and the airport, and she almost certainly hasn't taken into account how protracted the leavetaking is likely to be, particularly now the long-awaited grandchild has to be said goodbye to as well, and all the snuggling and tears and promises of an almost immediate return entered into, and the fact that there is probably going to be rush hour traffic, yes even here, where no-one rushes to do anything at all. He twiddles his fingers on the crossbar of the buggy, to stop himself looking at his watch but also as a subtle yet unmistakeable indication of his ongoing impatience.

Mrs Finch - smaller, slightly younger, and possessed of a honey-eyed, aquiline beauty which makes Finch the envy of his friends and colleagues - is altogether more relaxed. She walks alongside her husband and child smiling at the folly of the tourists, duelling with selfie sticks to position themselves at a position of greatest advantage for the same photo that everyone takes when they come to this small corner of the country she left behind. Nice to see the place anew, she thinks, through his eyes. And when Isabella is a little older, through her eyes too.

“Don't they drive you mad?”
“Why should they? Everyone is behaving very well.”

This is true, more or less, Finch thinks. No-one is actually throwing punches, but it's a scene, nevertheless. It was her idea, this. To have a leisurely lunch and wander down to marvel at i turisti, marvelling at the marvels. All good fun, but they're now half an hour behind the schedule he had outlined in his head. Perhaps he should have told her about this earlier.

“Laura,” he begins. His wife raises a hand. Across an angle of lush grass, perhaps fifty or sixty yards away, a crowd has gathered, and a woman can be heard shrieking. Finch can't see what is going on, exactly. His glasses are at at home on the narrow table in the hallway. Laura takes his arm. “Do something,” she says. He checks his watch again, finding himself somehow helpless, through no fault of his own. They're not even supposed to still be here, according to his own, silent reckoning. She is pushing him now, towards the fracas, away from the airport. He steps over the low swag of black chain and starts to jog across the grass, his gait long yet inefficient, like an old, lame wolf. The scene before him sharpens into a kind of sense. A Japanese couple and their son, all in matching golf visors, the father, with some expensive looking camera equipment slung over his back as he kneels behind the boy, who is three or four years old, and whose face is the livid purple of a drunk's cheek. The man has his arms around the boy and is snatching them upwards in an effort, Finch assumes, to dislodge something in his airway. Trachea, is it? The kid is flopping around noiselessly like a dead thing.

The crowd see the tall Englishman coming and back away in expectation so that when he arrives dozens of pairs of eyes settle upon him. The mother is still screaming and shaking. This response does not seem disproportionate to the situation, Finch acknowledges, which does appear to be rather grave, but he is surprised by it nevertheless, perhaps, he considers, because of the woman's nationality, and the Japanese reputation for calm stoicism. He stands there for a moment, panting slightly, and remarks to himself that the reason that we have a word for stereotypes is probably something to do with their unreliability, otherwise there would be no need to discriminate between generalisations of this kind and actual fact. The noise the woman is making, whatever his feelings about it, isn't helpful, so he puts a hand on her shoulder and flaps his other hand up and down, as if testing the buoyancy of a hotel pillow, in an effort to calm her down. The father, who seems to be conforming wholeheartedly to Finch's possibly somewhat bigoted expectations looks up at him and says “Medico?” Finch shakes his head and points towards the squat mediaeval gateway to the piazza through which he and his own family had entered minutes earlier and beyond which are visible the chequered markings of an emergency vehicle. “No, ambulancia,” he says, complete with a bad Spanish accent. “Ambulanza.” He looks into the eyes of the father and realises that the man's implacable exterior is a lie, white marble over brickwork, and that he is as panicked as his wife, still moaning to Finch's left, but at a manageable volume.

He reaches out to the child and puts two long hands under the boy's armpits. The kid has the surprising density of the unconscious, and Finch lets the small body flop onto his shoulder as he turns to run towards the gate. As he does so a small, sand-coloured object, wet with the boy's spit and phlegm, flies out of the kid's mouth, marking a gentle, curved descent before nestling atop the impossibly green grass. Almost immediately the boy comes to and starts to cough and cry. Finch has only taken five paces. He stops and with considerable care lowers the kid, lighter now by a more than the mass of a half-eaten rice cake, down onto the lawn. The father gathers his son into an embrace shuddered by sobbing. People are taking pictures or applauding. The boy's mother is thanking Finch, over and over again and pulling at the Englishman's sleeve, which is annoying, because all he wants to do is check the time, though he knows that the reward that awaits him is a missed flight, or at the very best a long, snaking queue at the airport, and him at the back of it.  

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