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Author's Note: Set after series five.
The Grand Tour
by Tara O'Shea
In the height of summer, the town is nearly abandoned except for the denizens of a dozen tourist coaches wandering from piazza to piazza in the oppressive heat, water bottles clutched in British, French, German and Japanese hands.
She's sitting at an outside table of a café, her dark hair pulled up off her neck in a tail. However it's too short still, and tendrils reach down to clung to her damp neck. The sun is blazing hot, and the entire piazza seems almost white, the strong noon sun bleaching the yellow stone to the colour of bone. She's wearing a white cotton shirt, the neck open and the sleeves rolled up to her elbows, and a tiered peasant skirt that reaches to mid-calves. It's what a student might have worn, when they were both young, but it suits her none the less.
His eyes are fixed on the curve of her tanned cheek and the clasp of the her necklace, hypnotised by the sweep of her arm as she turns the pages of her book. The way she lifts the coffee cup methodically, eyes still fixed on the page right up until the moment she feels the weight of his gaze settle on her.
She keeps reading for another few minutes, until the waiter brings her the bill. She drops a few coins on the table, and scoops up her purse, which had been on the ground, slouching against her ankle. He sees the bright flash of reflected sunlight as she opens the compact, and can't help the smile that tugs at the corner of his lips as she deftly reapplies lipstick and drops it back into her bag along with the book. She never turns the corner down or marks her place with a receipt. He knows she has memorised the page number.
She never once looks back to where he sits, crossing the sun-warmed cobblestones with an easy gait. He glances down at the newspaper as she rounds the corner and disappears from view. He turns the pages slowly, ignoring the cup of tea at his elbow until it's gone completely cold. A boy arrives, offering in broken English to guide him to all the famous sights, and he drops a handful of small change into his outstretched hand.
His guide takes him through window narrow streets, prattles on about this dead saint, that ancient emperor, getting names and dates wrong with gusto that would have done a mountebank proud. It's almost sunset when he returns to his hotel, knowing the back of his neck is pink above the collar of his linen shirt, the line of his shirtsleeves clearly drawn by that same unforgiving sun. Everything, he notes with dry amusement, is uphill. Even the downhill bits.
When he sleeps that night, he doesn't dream.
The next morning, the boy is back, and he is treated to another rambling discourse, this time about the hundreds of British soldiers buried after the war. The boy, a wrinkled 5 Euro note clutched in his hand, cheerfully abandons him to the dead. He wanders the tombstones and plaques, until he finds a grave marker with Maurice William Hunter is carved into the stone, a fresh bouquet of daisies resting at its base. Tucked inside the blooms is a business card.
The bookshop is across from an ancient temple in the Piazza del Comune, remarkably well preserved despite Mother Nature having shaken the town had a decade earlier. He stops for a gelato which melts in his hand as he stands outside the modest door. He takes a handkerchief from his pocket and wipes his fingers carefully before reaching out to take a guidebook from the shelf.
She is standing between two tall narrow bookcases, flanked on either side by rows of blank journals, and watercolours depicting San Francesco surrounded by woodland creatures. Her eyes are very blue, beneath the curve of dark brows. She asks him if she can help him find anything in flawless Italian, then repeats herself in English before he can open his mouth and make a poor attempt at replying.
"I think I've found exactly what I'm looking for, Miss..."
"Ealing," she says with a smile. "Rachel Ealing."
"Harold," he replies, taking her hand. "Harold Pullings."
"And what brings you to Assisi, Mr Pullings?"
"The Grand Tour."