Prologue

Venice, Italy, 1999

The summer heat creates a shimmering haze, through which Venice appears like a Canaletto brought to life. The dome of St Mark’s Cathedral rises above the pastel-coloured buildings, with their peeling paint and time-weary elegance. Vaporetti buzz. Tourists throng. Among the crowds, children run in the square, scattering pigeons; men in sharp suits and designer shades sit smoking cigarettes; a guide with his umbrella talks history to a group of German tourists.

And two teenagers. They’re weaving a lazy path across the cobbles, her arm wrapped round his denim hips, his arm slung loosely over her bare freckled shoulder. She’s eating an ice cream and laughing at some joke he’s making as he puffs on his cigarette, waving his arms around and making silly faces.

That’s me and Nathaniel. We just rolled out of bed an hour ago and are spending Sunday in Venice like we always spend our Sundays in Venice: drinking espresso, eating ice cream and getting lost in the cat’s cradle of alleyways that crisscross the maze of canals. I’ve been here the whole summer and I still get lost. Leaving the square, we turn a corner, and another, and another, until now we stumble across a market selling brightly coloured Murano glass and Venetian masks.

‘Hey, what about this one?’

I turn to see Nathaniel holding a mask up to his face. It’s got huge pink feathers and is covered in gold sequins. He does an absurd exaggerated bow.

‘It suits you,’ I giggle.

‘You making fun of me?’ He pulls it from his face and frowns.

‘You? Never!’ I laugh in mock indignation, as he tickles my nose with the feather.

‘I thought I’d get it for my mom.’ He puts it back and picks up another. This time it’s a grotesque one with a long, hooked nose and beady eyes. ‘Or what about this?’

‘No, the first one. Definitely.’ I shudder.

‘Sure?’

‘Sure.’ I try to mimic his American accent, but my Manchester burr makes me sound ridiculous and he laughs at my rubbish attempt.

‘What would I do without you?’ He grins. ‘Though I think we’re gonna need to work on that American accent of yours.’

‘It’s better than your English one!’ I protest.

‘Awright, luv, let’s ’ave a butcher’s,’ he replies in a jumble of Cockney and Lancashire, and I crack up laughing as he grabs hold of me and silences me with a kiss. ‘Bad?’ He pretends to look hurt.

‘Terrible,’ I say with mock-seriousness as he turns to pay for the mask.

Left standing in a patch of sunlight, I smile happily to myself. For a moment I watch him, puffing on his cigarette, trying to barter with the stallholder. Then, glancing away, I let my gaze drift absently over the market. I don’t want to buy anything – I’ve already got all my souvenirs – but there’s no harm in looking . . .

My eyes fall upon a stall. Tucked away in a shady corner, it’s not really a stall, more a fold-up table, but it’s the old man sitting behind it who attracts my attention. Wearing a battered fedora and with thick black-framed spectacles balanced on the end of his nose, he’s peering at something under a small spotlight. Curious, I slip away from Nathaniel and wander over to see what he’s doing.

Buon pomeriggio bello come sei oggi.’ He looks up at me.

I smile shyly. I’m useless at languages. Even after nearly three months in Venice studying Renaissance art, my Italian still only stretches to ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and ‘Leonardo da Vinci’.

Inglese?

‘Yes.’ I nod, meeting his eyes.

They flash mischievously. ‘What is a beautiful girl like you doing here alone?’ He smiles, revealing teeth stained by a forty-year cigar habit. He reaches for one, burning in a nearby ashtray, and takes a satisfied puff.

‘Oh, I’m not.’ I shake my head and gesture to Nate, who’s having his mask wrapped. Putting it under his arm, he strolls over and slides his arm casually round my shoulders.

‘Ah, to be young and in love.’ The old man nods approvingly as Nate and I look at each other, our faces splitting into embarrassed grins. ‘I have just the thing for you.’

We turn back to see him holding out what appears to be an old coin.

I look at him in slight confusion. ‘Um . . . thanks.’ I smile, wondering what he’s doing, and then suddenly it registers. Oh God, he’s trying to give us money. Do we look that broke? OK, so we’re students, and Nate looks a bit scruffy in his ripped jeans, and my dress had seen better days, but even so. ‘Actually, we’re fine,’ I begin explaining hastily, and am about to tug on Nate’s arm and drag him away when the old man places the coin on a small piece of machinery and breaks it in half.

I watch as he proceeds to punch a hole in either half, through which he threads a piece of leather. Then triumphantly he holds them up, letting them dangle like pendants. ‘For you.’ He smiles. ‘Because you are like the coin,’ he explains. ‘You are two halves of one whole.’

I gaze at the jagged edges of the half-coins, like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. On their own they’re just half a broken coin, but together they make a seamless whole.

‘Wow, how romantic,’ I murmur, turning to Nathaniel, who’s watching me and grinning in amusement. I feel a flash of embarrassment. ‘What? You don’t think it is?’ I yelp, poking him in the ribs.

‘Of course it is,’ he laughs. ‘Don’t I always call you “my other half”, anyway?’

‘Only three thousand lire,’ says the old man.

I turn to see his palm outstretched expectantly.

‘Even romance has a price,’ quips Nathaniel, digging out his wallet.

And there was me thinking the old man was being all romantic, when the whole time he was just trying to sell us something, I realise, feeling foolish. Honestly, I’m such a sucker. Before I can protest, though, Nathaniel has handed him a note and is looping one of the pendants over his own head.

‘See, we can never be apart now,’ he jokes, putting the other half round my neck. ‘Wherever you go, I go.’

Despite his attempt at humour, I can feel my mood immediately darkening. In just a few weeks we’ll be leaving Italy and going back to our respective colleges and I’m dreading it. Ever since we met I’ve been counting down the days until we have to part.

‘Hey.’ Seeing my expression, Nate gives me a hug. ‘We can do the whole long-distance thing,’ he reassures, guessing immediately what’s going through my mind. ‘We’ll write. I can call . . .’

I think back to my student digs in Manchester. I don’t even have a landline, never mind a mobile, and letters might sound romantic in books, but in real life they aren’t going to be a substitute for nuzzling my face into his neck, sharing a huge bowl of pistachio gelato with him on a Sunday afternoon or laughing at that terrible English accent of his.

‘I guess so.’ I nod, trying to put a brave face on it. I don’t want to spoil the present by brooding about the future, but it’s like a big, black cloud is just sitting there, waiting to descend.

‘If you want to be together, you can always be together.’

I turn to see the old Italian watching us thoughtfully.

‘I’m afraid it’s not that simple—’ I begin, but he interrupts.

‘No, it is very simple,’ he says firmly. ‘Do you want to be together?’

Nathaniel cocks his head to one side as if thinking about it. ‘Um . . . what do you reckon?’ he asks teasingly, and I punch him playfully. ‘Uh-huh, I think that’s a yes, we do.’ He grins, turning back to the stallholder.

‘Well, then . . .’ The old man gives a shrug of his shoulders and takes a puff of his cigar.

‘We have to go back home,’ I explain.

‘Where’s home?’

Nathaniel hugs me tighter. ‘Lucy lives in England—’

‘And Nate’s from America,’ I finish.

‘But you are in Venice,’ he replies, seemingly unfazed. ‘Here, there is no need to say goodbye. You can be together for ever.’

He is a sweet old guy after all, I decide. And a bit of an old-fashioned romantic.

‘I wish.’ I force a laugh and squeeze Nate’s hand. ‘But it’s impossible.’

Unexpectedly the Italian lets out a loud roar of laughter. ‘No! No! It is not impossible,’ he cries, slapping the table with the flat of his hand. ‘Don’t you know the legend of the Bridge of Sighs?’

Nathaniel frowns. ‘You mean the bridge right here in Venice?’

‘Yes. That is it! The very one!’ he exclaims excitedly.

‘Why, what’s the legend?’ I ask, suddenly intrigued.

Like a magician waiting for a drum roll before producing a rabbit, the old man pauses for dramatic effect. Only when we are both quiet does he start to speak.

‘The legend is very famous,’ he says gravely. His voice has the kind of hushed, awestruck respect reserved for churches and museums, and I almost have to stifle a giggle. ‘It says that if you kiss underneath the bridge at sunset, on a gondola, when the bells of the church are ringing . . .’

‘Wow, they don’t make it easy for us,’ whispers Nathaniel jokingly into my ear, but I swat him away.

‘Yes?’ I urge, turning back to the old man. ‘What happens?’

Dragging on his cigar, he exhales a cloud of smoke. It drifts upwards in front of his face, like a smokescreen. As it clears, his dark eyes meet mine, and despite the oppressive heat, a shiver suddenly runs down my spine and I feel goose bumps spring up on my arms. He leans closer, his voice almost a whisper. ‘You will have everlasting and eternal love. You will be together for ever and nothing –’ his eyes flick to Nathaniel, then back to me – ‘nothing will ever break you apart.’

‘Nothing?’ I repeat, my voice barely audible.

Niente.’ He nods, his face filled with conviction. ‘You are bound together for ever, for eternity.’

I laugh nervously and press the pendant to the heat of my chest.

‘So you like?’ He gestures to the necklace.

‘Oh . . .um . . .yes.’ I nod, snapping back.

He smiles and holds out our change, and as I take it from him, his sandpapery fingers brush against mine.

Grazie,’ I whisper, managing one of the few words I know in Italian.

Prego.’ He smiles genially, tipping his hat.

Then Nathaniel puts his arm round me and we turn and start walking away through the market, but we’ve gone just a few steps when I hear the old Italian call after us, ‘Remember, niente,’ and I glance back. Only the funny thing is, he’s not there any more. He’s gone, swallowed up by the crowd. Almost like he simply vanished into thin air.

You're the One That I Don't Want
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