Pedalling For Peaches by Yannick Pas

Photo by Ian Baldwin on Unsplash

Pedalling for Peaches will also appear in an anthology by Small Leaf Press

Gherardo woke at the usual hour and, as usual, it was the incessant barking of dogs that woke him. Cursing their existence, he hauled himself out of bed, slipped into his crinkled linen ensemble and headed down the dusty stone staircase with its crumbling wallpaper, then out through the heavy wooden door and across the hazy piazza to the market, where he found, to considerable alarm, that there were no peaches. He didn’t quite let out a startled cry, nor fall to his knees in anguish, yet his nonetheless emotional response (sharp intake of breath, muttering of a curse word followed swiftly by a crossing of his breast and an apology to the heavens) was noticed and responded to by Giuseppe the fruit-seller, who shrugged his shoulders and released a torrent of excuses, bringing their interaction to a quick end with a simple, dismissive flick of his hand as he engaged another customer in morning pleasantries and cheerful conversation.

“May the Lord curse the wheels of your damned Subaru,” Gherardo muttered inaudibly as he turned away from the market and ambled over to Caffe di Massimo for his morning espresso. He drank his coffee in one swift gulp, plonked the small cup back down on the counter, shouted a quick arrivederci at Massimo, and stepped back into the sunlight as he lit one of the thin cigars he found complemented so perfectly the remnants of the coffee taste that lingered bitterly in his mouth.

The bells of the church announced it was seven, and Gherardo shuffled over to its steps to sit down and assess what to do next. A morning without peaches was unfathomable, unthinkable. The juicy nectar contained within those delicious spheres had been the kick-start to his mornings for the last sixty-seven years, ever since Eva had first introduced him to their exotic splendour on their second date the week after the Americans had left, grumbling away in their bone-rattling Shermans or buzzing overhead in their clumsy planes. When Eva had passed he had sworn to continue his morning peach routine without fail as a token to her memory, and the mere taste of a peach’s flesh brought forth an ocean of memories of her that swelled across his mind and brightened what would otherwise be an uneventful day riddled with tedium. Indeed, as he had grown older and his mind had begun its inevitable decline, Gherardo found it more difficult by the day to recall Eva’s face, or her tender touch upon his forearm. He felt as though he lost a memory a day, as though the image of her and the life they had shared would soon dissolve from his mind altogether. The only thing that saved these moments of divine recollection was the taste of peaches in his mouth. Then she was there, in the forefront of his mind: her lily-white face, dominated at its perimeter by those flowing, auburn curls that captivated all those who looked upon her. Then he could remember, and that, these days, was all he wanted from life: to remember. No, it was not possible that he could be without peaches today.

The bushy eyebrows flexed and the great toucan-like nose, having been tickled by a wandering moustache hair, wrinkled as Gherardo looked around the town square as the prospering sun slowly peeled back the early morning’s inactivity. The townspeople emerged from their shaded domains and into its ceaseless glare as they went about their daily routines. He peered through the golden rays of sunlight that had crept around the sides of the crumbling buildings and blessed the cobblestones with its amber gaze. He eyed the morning commuters fizzing past on their bicycles and the baker’s boy sweeping dust from the pavestones outside the shop, glancing up to the top of the church as a flock of pigeons burst from the bell tower and scattered down into the valley below and dissolving into the hazy light that hugged the sun-scorched valley which rolled out gently below the clifftop town of Santa Teresa.

“Rino!” Gherardo shouted at the Mantovani boy who had come hopping round the corner of the post office at the far end of the piazza. “Come here and earn yourself a buck!” Rino looked at the old man puffing on his cigar and scrunched his face up.

“No way, vecchio! Get stuffed!”

This worked Gherardo up somewhat, who began cursing the lack of respect shown by the younger generation towards their elders.

“But Rino, don’t you want to know how the great King Alberto travelled all the way from the North to slay a beastly dragon down in the valley below us?” Rino looked at the old man as if he had been prematurely released from some ghastly mental institute.

“Dragon? What on Earth are you talking about, you nutty old prune? Dragons don’t exist!”

“Ahhh, but they did! In these very hills that hold us, my boy.” Rino had by now grown somewhat intrigued by the shouty old bugger and his now feverish eyes, and had begun approaching Gherardo, his little toy mule held by his side.

“What’s this about dragons then, vecchio,” demanded the boy with an inquisitive gaze. This was a boy of eight years, who looked at Gherardo with dark eyes that bore the same forlorn look as those of his mother who worked as a typist for the mayor. His curly hair lay vaguely combed to one side, and his clothes hugged tightly to a body so frail he resembled a strand of uncooked linguine with limbs.

“Ah,” said Gherardo mischievously, “there’s a catch.” Rino threw his arms in the air and turned away from the old man, rolling his eyes, and made as though he were about to walk away.

“Rino, my boy. Come here, come here.” Gherardo motioned for him to take a seat next to him on the church steps. “Now, I intend to tell you every tale there is about these fine hills, tales about all manner of beasts that had to be slain in order for our people to flourish. But first, I need to ask a favour of you, my boy.” Rino looked at him questioningly. Gherardo continued: “Now, you have a bicycle, do you not?”

“Eh?” Rino replied, looking utterly perplexed by the question. Gherardo wrinkled his thick moustache.

“A Bicycle! A seat on two wheels! Come on now, boy, don’t play the fool with me!”

“Yes, Signor, I have a bicycle. My father used to ride it to carry supplies to the Americans.”

“Ah good. That’s good,” Gherardo said. Visibly pleased, he savoured a hefty puff of his cigar.

“You want to borrow it?” Rino asked, looking the old man up and down as if it would be a ridiculous notion to consider. Gherardo burst into a husky laugh, coughing a few times and slapping his knee.

“Ah-ha-ha, borrow it indeed! No my boy, I simply ask that you go and retrieve it from wherever you have it stored, and then cycle over to the next village and collect for me some peaches from the market there. That little toad Giuseppe hasn’t got any today, you see.”

“But that’s like an hour away!” Rino cried in protest. Gherardo nodded vehemently.

“Yes, yes. An hour there, an hour back. What of it? You’re a spritely young man with fire in his legs still. I’m a mere old – what was it you said? – a mere old prune.”

“A nutty old prune,” Rino corrected him, with a glint of mischief in his eye.

“Ah, yes. A nutty old prune. So… how about it, boy?”

“You want me to cycle two hours for you, in this terrible heat, back up this terrible hill, just to get you some peaches? Why can’t you just wait until tomorrow and see if Giuseppe has some then?”

“I’m afraid that cannot be done, my boy. You see, it is absolutely imperative that I have some peaches today.”

“Imperative?”

“Yes, imperative.”

“What’s imperative?”

“That I get some blasted peaches is what’s imperative!”

“No! What does it mean?”

“It means go and get me some damn peaches and cease your questioning!” Gherardo half-roared at the boy, who spooked a group of nearby pigeons as he got up to leave, rather taken aback by the old man’s sudden outburst. Gherardo sighed, ashamed that he had scared the boy.

“Excuse me, Rino. My temper shortens by the year it seems. All I mean is that eating peaches has been a tradition of mine for the last forty-seven years. Not a day has gone by where I have not had a peach at some point during it, and I do not wish to break from tradition today.” Rino sat back down and looked at the old man, whose eyes had developed a sombre look about them as his thoughts returned once more to his dear Eva. The town and all its citizens knew about the love that old grump Gherardo had had for his wife, the most beautiful woman in the hills. It was one of those stories that form the personality of a small town like Santa Teresa. A legend that passes down the years: the legend of the old man who tragically lost his wife and secluded himself thereafter from the world, ostensibly unable to recall her without the aid of peaches. Rino knew the story, and a twinge of sympathy plucked the strings of his heart into a lingering tremolo.

“So if I go and get you some peaches, you’ll tell me all the stories about these hills? And all about dragons and monsters and the likes?” Gherardo’s eyes lit up.

“Indeed I will! I shall tell tales until sundown if you fetch me my peaches, until your mother storms over here with that vicious brush of hers and beats me half to death like she would some bothersome beetle!”

“Two lire,” Rino stated firmly, raising his bony chin to the sky in obstinacy.

“Heh?” Gherardo didn’t quite understand.

“I want two lire to cycle over to the next town and get your peaches. Two lire, on top of those stories you promised me.”

Gherardo was about to break into another thunderous tirade, but stopped himself short and extinguished his rage with a lengthy sigh of resignation, rubbing his brow with thumb and forefinger. “Ok, ragazzo, you can have your two lire. And your stories. Just get me my peaches.”

Rino jumped up and began to depart to collect his bicycle, but Gherardo stopped him by grabbing onto his arm. He motioned for Rino to come closer so that he could whisper something to the boy. He put his mouth to the boy’s ear.

“And Rino. Beware the goblins that dwell in the ravine.”

The boy moved backwards, a look of horror across his face. Gherardo wheezed and chortled, slapping his knee vigorously. Rino rolled his eyes and started walking away again. “See you in two hours, Rino!”

“Yes, vecchio, two hours!” Rino shouted back at him. “Two hours, and two lire!”

Gherardo laughed gleefully, admiration filling his eyes. The boy had some nerve on him, some cheek, but he was a good boy and would go far he thought.

He shifted himself on the church’s step until he faced the sun, which had moved higher in the sky and burned upon the tawny landscape and the terracotta roofs without mercy. The piazza was now host to the bustling activity of mid-morning as the citizens found no option than to revolt against this most troublesome star and prepared themselves for the gathering of lunch items, zipping in and out of the stores like bees to a hive. Gherardo wrinkled his nose and waved a fly from his face as he ground his cigar into the floor with his heel. A loud tring! tring! emanated across the piazza as Rino whizzed along the cobblestones, dodging horrified pedestrians who shook their fists at the boy as he tore through town, his head bent down over the handlebars. He shouted over to Gherardo on the steps.

“See you soon, vecchio! And make sure you have my cash and stories ready!” Gherardo waved at the boy and laughed, and soon Rino had disappeared from sight as he reached the cliffside road that wound down into the stifling heat of the valley.

Gherardo slumped back against the step and held his face to the sun. He would have to set his mind now to creating stories engaging and magical enough to impress the kid he had sent down into the valley to fetch his peaches. But that didn’t matter; he had time on his hands for now.

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Rino pedalled and pedalled until the sweat streamed down his forehead; past tooting delivery trucks and crawling tractors, past crystalline streams that glistened in the sun, beside the ochre fields littered with dozing cattle turned lazy in the heat and along shady olive groves where workers rested against the bark with cap-covered eyes.

That old fool, he thought to himself as his legs worked laboriously with metronomic precision, his breath bursting out of his chest in a series of pants. All he does all day is groan and grump and make the piazza look untidy. Why doesn’t he just move on with his life and find a new Eva?

As he glanced across the parched fields around him, his thoughts turned to the grandfather he had never known, the grandfather killed a fortnight after the war had ended by an American bomb that had gone for a wander.

“How could this happen!?” Rino’s grandmother had pleaded tearfully, he had been told, her sorrowful eyes staring like obsidian discs.

“Americans,” the police captain had said with a shrug. It had been a freak accident; a nervous, acne-flecked American fighter pilot with a twitchy finger. The bomb had dropped during a casual flyover, screeching over the rooftops of the town and landing directly in the allotment where his grandfather tended to his vegetables. The volunteer clean-up brigade had had difficulty deciphering tomato from flesh, and one shifty and opportunistic out-of-worker ended up with a bowlful of wildly exotic minestrone that evening.

“He was – how should I put it – well dispersed,” the police captain had told Rino’s grandmother when asked about the body. “Practically obliterated in fact, the coroner informed me. You could barely call it a corpse really…”

Rino’s grandmother, whose trembling knees he had often sat upon until she passed, had never shaken off the shock of the news she had received that day. She had never sought another mate, never once thought about replacing Rino’s grandfather. Tragedy had whipped her up in its vortex and refused to spit her back out. Accidents, tragedies, they never seemed to end in that part of the world. If it wasn’t the spontaneous and inadvertent bombing of an allotment and the decimation of a peaceful gardener, it was a beautiful woman like Eva, falling victim to leukaemia forty years later while Rino existed on a purely conceptual basis. Gherardo back then had seemed to shrink further into himself by the day as his wife withered before him, and so his eventual demise had come as no shock to the daily gossip that wafted through the town like a summer breeze.

Rino thought of the old man, still waiting on those steps, and the stories promised by him. Could there really have been dragons that terrorised the valley he was now passing through? Rino realised he no longer really cared about the stories. His thoughts were held to the sight of that melancholic gaze he had seen on Gherardo’s face. Tragedy had haunted his hometown for centuries. Phantoms moved constantly through its narrow streets, but here lay an opportunity for Rino to assist one of its famous figures with dedication and kindness, to preserve for him the memory of his beloved wife by fetching him his treasured, perhaps even hallucinogenic fruit. That man had nothing but his peaches, and Rino now felt a sense of duty and pride in being the person who would deliver them to him. Wiping his brow, he pushed his chin to the handlebars and pedalled harder.

A growing sense of detachment had taken hold of Gherardo as he basked lizard-like in the pulsing sun, and he suspected he was under the sudden, spooky influence of peach withdrawals. He had retrieved an orange from Giuseppe to enjoy a spurt of energy. To no avail, he now glanced nervously and sporadically from the church steps to the junction where he knew Rino would emerge once he had ascended back up the hillside and into the town, but saw nothing save the jittery arrival of the postman in his ramshackle van, who appeared through the vehicle’s sputtering fog like some magician’s trademark trick.

“Come on, Rino,” he muttered to himself as he fidgeted with the half-eaten orange between his hands, feeling the image of Eva slowly slip further away from his recollective powers. A weakness had taken hold of him and the sun now became an enemy he succumbed to with the same puzzled look a gazelle takes on once between the jaws of a lioness: a resignation to the laws of nature and the indifference of the universe. “Come on, my boy.”

His vision darkened, and the image of Eva began, as if doomed to the murky depths of some tenebrous lake, to lose its clarity and recede into shadow. Then all of a sudden, as the sounds of the piazza grew muffled to his ears; the chatter, the erratic flutter of a pigeon’s wings, the boisterous banter of the market sellers, Gherardo slumped back against the steps as his strength began to flicker and fade. He closed his eyes and held them to the sun as a bittersweet smile began surfacing slowly upon his face. To hell with the peaches, my dear Eva, he thought. I am coming to you now. The orange dropped onto the dust, and the piazza’s chorus continued unfazed.

About The Author

Yannick Pas is an aspiring writer from Kent, and a firm advocate of pushing boundaries in fiction. He is half-Welsh, half-Dutch, was born in Hamburg, Germany, and given a French name. For simplicity, he tends to refer to himself as British.

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