There’s a little Italian place on South Frederick Street which knows full well that it is anything but little. Though its walls press in, shelved deep with bottled wines from every region, with jars of dull-hued preserves, with packets of those sugary biscuits that, dipped in strong coffee, are breakfast enough for any Italian, and though the square little tables squeeze up to one another for space, this place carries itself with the swagger and the grin that comes of knowing that it will always draw in the crowds. The head waiter, an Italian who manages to look like a Celt, flirts and charms, and plays at insolence as his eyes dance with irony; he hums at the coffee-maker and sings at the till, and he’ll even dance for middle-aged women if he thinks it will bring the tip up.
I’m sitting in this place on a cloudy Friday afternoon, my back to the big window that looks out onto the street, a book closed in front of me, and I’m waiting for a bowl of minestrone soup, fat with vegetables, to come and take the hunger shake out of my hands, when two children pass each other at the doorway to my left. They look to be of a similar age, perhaps eight or nine, both with their mothers, and one is leaving with a paper bag from the deli counter, while the other is coming in from the cold. The little girl has her hair tied back in a high ponytail, giving her face the same severe look worn by that of her mother, and she barely looks at the boy as she passes him at the door.
He has bright red hair and flushed cheeks; he is wearing grey flannel shorts, despite the weather, and he walks quickly, and confidently, but in a way that causes people to look quickly at him and then look av\iay, because he walks with two blue crutches, and his legs bend under him each time his feet touch the floor, so that his movement has a splayed or elastic sort of effect that is uncomfortable to look at. But the little boy dashes. In this tight space, he moves fluidly between the tables either as if he is accustomed to trying to rush everywhere so as not to have to stay walking and bear the gazes of others for too long, or as if he is so completely confident with his way of getting about that he can do it at speed. His mother comes in behind him, and they choose a table; he wants to sit against the wall, but she prefers a table in the middle of the room, and they settle down there. The menu is dropped to them, and a silver watch glints on his mother’s wrist as she skims through it; she wears little silver earrings, too, and the fullness and rough texture of her long cotton skirt, its ethnic print in burnt reds and yellows, and the cropped cut of her brown hair, suggest, though I cannot see her face, that she is young.
She reads her menu, and the boy takes from her bag a thick book with red hardback covers and pages that look somehow, even from this distance, hardened and creased; it has the look of a book that has been left out in the rain but snatched in by a vigilant parent just before becoming ruined. And though the boy opens the book, he does not yet read it, just leans on it-first his elbows, then his chin-and looks around the room with eyes that are very round and very blue. I look away for a minute or two, because he has been looking straight back at me looking at him, and has unnerved me, and when I look back to them I see that the mother has closed her menu, and that the boy has turned to his book, and that he is reading to her from it, in a voice that rises and falls with every new intonation, and I strain to hear what the story is about.
The book, with its battered aspect, looks like a very old one to me, and I am regarding the whole scene as somewhat quaint-the little carrot-haired boy with the big blue eyes and the short trousers, reading aloud from the adventure book for boys that he must have found in the attic, or among his grandfather’s shelves-until I catch some of the words, and I realise that the boy is reading to his mother a story of murder and mutilation, a ghost story set in nineteenth-century Edinburgh, in which the body of a man is hung over a bridge to be picked apart by the birds. And the little boy’s voice is earnest and high, and he plays with his fringe as he reads to his mother, who listens, it seems, with an air of slight distance, and people in the restaurant turn to look and smile, and to try and make out the story, and then he has finished, and the book is closed, and it is just a normal library book which more than likely has been left out in the rain, I think, and their food arrives, the boy eating big curled strips of soft bread while his mother has a coffee.
When they have finished, the boy says ‘Excuse me’ to the cheeky waiter in a polite voice, and the waiter comes over to him and says, ‘Tell me’; Di mi he would say in Italian. The boy would like ice cream, but they have none, and the waiter looks very sorry. He offers biscuits, or a little tart, but the boy says ‘Pass’, and looks, not disappointed, but resigned. His mother teases him to try a biscuit, and the waiter too tries to convince him, but he doesn’t yield; they don’t have what he wants here, his face seems to say, and that’s fine, but there’s no point in settling for something that’s not ice cream. And the red-haired waiter ruffles the hair of the red-haired boy, and when the time comes to pay, the boy brings his mother’s gold credit card up to the till, and they have about them, the waiter and the boy, an air of conspiracy as they talk and wait for the payment to go through. From the kitchen, I notice the chef looking frankly at the boy’s thin legs.
The boy’s mother comes to the till and puts her arms around him as she signs. And then he runs in his quick, jolting way, out, and off into the street, stopping at the door to gesture to a middle-aged man that he can come in, then twisting his mouth in that same resigned way when the man insists in letting him through first. His mother turns from the till to see that he has gone, snatches up his crutches, and follows. I watch them head up towards Nassau Street, talking and arguing, and as they pass the next cafe, which has at its front a large clay model of coffee beans, beans with arms and legs, with little Mexican hats, the boy doubles back with a look of sheer incredulity on his face.