Runner Up: Richard Ayre
Richard hails from Northumberland but now lives in Newcastle upon Tyne.
He has written four books, all horror or Sci-Fi: Minstrel’s Bargain, Minstrel’s Renaissance, Point of Contact and A Hatful of Shadows, and has also had pieces included in two horror anthologies. Richard teaches History as a day job and in his spare time enjoys riding around the Northumbrian countryside on his motorbike, Tanya.
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Reflections in silver and gold
The fountain still glistened. It still frothed and splashed and gurgled. Even after all these years.
At this time of night, and at this time of year, the crowds were thin. Only a few people sat around, mostly at the little cafés perched around the fountain’s edges. They sipped their wine, and chatted to their partners. And they laughed. Most of them wore their sunglasses on their heads. They were no longer needed on this day, for the street where the fountain splashed was now in shadow, although some sunlight remained to sparkle like silver over the never still water.
Even at eight pm the air was still warm, but a chill was beginning to descend. Nothing like the chill in Britain of course. October in Rome is a very different kettle of fish to October in Newcastle, but still, I was beginning to feel it. Thin blood I suppose.
I sighed and leaned even heavier on my stick. My body was tired from wandering around the famous sights. An hour earlier had found me sitting on the Spanish Steps, indecisive and unsure.
What did I think I would get from making this trip? Why had I gone to the trouble of buying the tickets, and hauling my failing body to a city I hadn’t seen in decades? At my age I should have been sitting in a rest home somewhere, with grandchildren and great grandchildren visiting me, telling me about their lives and listening to me telling them about mine.
Except, of course, I had none of those things. They had never existed. I was a man alone. Alone ever since the coin was thrown into the glistening waters of the fountain, all those years ago.
I sat on the steps until the sky turned orange, then I hauled myself to my feet, and believe me, at my age, that is no small effort. I slowly made my way towards the fountain, my hand touching the little bulge in my jacket pocket, checking it was still safe. Eventually, I came upon my destination.
Oh, the memories. The memories. They all came back. They returned with a suddenness that was almost physical. I managed to move over to a seat at one of the cafés as they surged through me. They were more than just ‘remembering.’ I could see the crowds, see their jubilant faces. Hear their cheering and shouting. I could smell them. Nowadays we have become used to deodorants and aftershaves and perfumes. Back then, those things were the furthest from anyone’s minds. Nobody cared. Nobody noticed. They were just happy to be alive. Ecstatic they had survived. Fiercely hopeful for a future better than the past. I watched them as they pirouetted in the hot sunlight and hugged each other, strangers gleefully kissing strangers, sweat glistening on their foreheads and darkening the sleeves under their arms.
I could hear the music playing. Guitars and accordions. Couples who had not known each other moments before were dancing around the fountain. They were so happy. So happy.
I pulled off my spectacles and dabbed at my eyes with my handkerchief. An old man, silently weeping for a past long gone.
It was not until I got them back on that I noticed the young waiter, standing at a respectful distance.
‘You are ok sir?’ he asked in broken English.
I managed to nod. ‘Yes, yes I’m fine, thank you. Just a silly old man, remembering things.’
The waiter nodded uncomfortably. ‘Would you like something to eat sir? Or a drink?’
I stared into his smooth, unlined face. He was so young. Had I ever looked like that?
‘Is it alright if I just sit here? Just for a few minutes?’
The waiter smiled and indicated to the almost deserted café.
‘Of course sir. But only a few minutes. You can see how busy we are.’
For a second I thought he was being serious, but then I caught the grin on his face, and I smiled back at him. He nodded and went back inside, leaving me with my ghosts.
I dug my hand into my jacket and pulled out the small, leather bag. I opened the draw string and pulled out the lone occupant. It had lain in the back of a wardrobe in my house since nineteen forty seven, the year I had returned home. I had never looked upon it in all those years. If I ever moved it, I left it in the bag. My eyes had not alighted on it since they were twenty two years old.
It was a five Reich Mark coin. It was from 1937. On one side was an eagle holding a swastika, and on the obverse was a portrait of Hindenburg, who had been dead for three years when the coin had been struck. It was unusual as it was solid gold, but not worth very much. Not in monetary terms anyway. There were probably hundreds just like it dotted around the world.
I stared at the coin lying on the table cloth, as around me, celebrants from an event over seventy years ago danced and laughed. I wiped my eyes again.
A cup of coffee appeared beside the coin. I looked up and the waiter smiled at me.
‘On the house,’ he said.
I began to protest, but the waiter was not listening. He indicated to the coin.
‘That is the Nazi sign, no?’ he asked.
I nodded. ‘A swastika.’
The waiter turned his puzzled expression from the coin to my face. ‘Why do you have such a thing?’
I stared at him, not knowing what to say. But then I laughed softly through my nose.
‘Because it reminds me of a mistake. A mistake made a very long time ago.’
The waiter pulled back a chair and sat opposite me, scrutinising my face.
‘You are very old man,’ he said eventually, nodding to himself.
‘I am. I turned ninety last month.’
The waiter looked shocked, as if such a number was beyond his comprehension.
‘And you come to Rome? By your own self?’
My smile became broader. ‘Yes. By my own self.’
The waiter chuckled good-naturedly.
‘You a crazy old man!’
I laughed again, louder this time.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Yes, I believe I am.’
The waiter picked up the coffee he had brought for me and sipped it himself.
‘Tell me about coin,’ he said, making himself comfortable.
I stared at the table for a long time. Did I want to talk about it? Did I want to open those old wounds again? But as I looked up into his dark eyes, I began to think that I did. I wanted to tell this young man the story of the fountain and the coin. Of the silver and the gold.
Without thinking too much more about it, I began talking.
‘I was in Rome during the war, the second world war. I had been wounded you see. We’d been pushing the Germans back and I was shot. This was after Mussolini was gone of course. It wasn’t a serious wound, but it meant I couldn’t continue. I was taken to a school here in Rome that had been turned into a hospital. And that’s where I met Sophia. She was a nurse’
The waiter nodded knowingly. This was something he could understand. He was Italian.
‘Over the months of my convalescence, we became…close.’ I sighed. Close? Did that word express what we’d had? Did a word exist that described how I felt?
‘You loved her, yes?’ asked the waiter.
I hesitated. I was not the sort of man who talked about feelings. I was from a taciturn generation. But there was something about this waiter. He made me feel like I wanted to tell him everything.
‘Yes, I loved her,’ I continued. ‘And she loved me. I was still in Rome when we got the news. Hitler had killed himself. The war was over. We came here, to the fountain. We danced, and we kissed. Along with hundreds of other people. And that’s when I asked her to marry me.’
I swallowed as the old pain washed through me again. I shrugged.
‘I was eventually demobbed. We rented an apartment and my life was perfect. An old friend of mine from my platoon visited and he gave me this coin as an engagement present. He had taken it from a Nazi POW. He said it would bring us luck.’
Horrified, I felt my eyes begin to prick again and I stared at the fountain, willing the tears away.
‘Sophia told me about the old saying; that if you threw a coin into the Trevi fountain, you would one day return to Rome. So, the week before our wedding, we came here, and we threw the gold coin into the water. We said that we wanted to stay in Rome forever, so the coin we threw in had to be special. The next day, she was going to pick up her dress. She asked me to go with her, but I said I was tired and that I was going to have a lie-in, and anyway, it was bad luck for the groom to see the dress before the wedding.’
This time, as the memories roiled, I had to wipe my eyes again. I didn’t care how I looked now. An old man has little in the way of dignity.
‘Sophia was killed that morning. She was run over and she died in the street right outside our apartment. She never got to pick up her dress.’
The young waiter leaned over and touched my arm softly and I glanced at him in surprise. I was unused to human contact such as this. But his eyes showed nothing but sympathy, and I was grateful to him.
‘What happened next?’ he asked softly.
‘I blamed myself of course,’ I continued. ‘I got it into my head that if I had gone with her, she would have been fine. I know now that’s not true, but it’s what I believed at the time.
‘After the funeral I decided I was going to go home. Back to Britain. I decided I never wanted to see Rome again. I came down here, and I waded into the water. I spent hours searching, but eventually, I found the coin. I made sure I wouldn’t return. And I went home. I haven’t been back since then.’
The waiter finished my coffee. He frowned at me and then stood and disappeared back into the café. He returned with two brandies. He saluted me, and I saluted him and we drank.
‘So why you come back now?’ he asked. ‘You never get married, you never have children?’ I shook my head. ‘You come back now as crazy old man. Why?’
I stared at him for such a long time that he seemed to become uncomfortable. I never did tell him the reason though. Both my illness, and my imminent death, were things I wanted to keep to myself.
We eventually said our goodbyes, and to my surprise, the waiter hugged me like a son would hug his father.
‘You keep the coin?’ he asked, and I shook my head.
He watched as I limped down to the fountain. I took out the coin for the last time and held it in my hand. And as I looked down at my reflection, a reflection that suddenly seemed to shine with the youth of yesterday, Sophia’s smiling reflection appeared in the rippling water beside me. I felt her standing next to me, felt her arm link through my own, and I knew my decision to come back had been the right one.
I threw the gold coin into the silver tipped water, and in the ripples it caused, the guitars and the accordions played, the laughing crowds danced, and Sophia smiled her beautiful smile at me. Forever
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