Three men, who all looked to be in their late seventies, were walking along the pavement in a row. They spoke in casual, familiar tones, and when the conversation lulled they continued in silence with their shoulders occasionally bumping together.
The man in the middle was holding his hands behind his back and steadily tightening and loosening the grip of his right hand on the heel of his left, which could have been a nervous tic except that he felt completely at ease in the present company.
To his right was a man wearing a red polo shirt, crisp and bright, with the collar turned up despite being told he was too old to wear it like that. His glasses had red frames that matched his polo shirt and his silver hair was combed back with obvious care.
On the left was Carlo, the outgoing one of the trio. He talked loudly, telling brash stories with no hint of embarrassment when strangers could overhear, which made the other two men cringe slightly. But Carlo was oblivious. He smiled at people passing by, especially the women, and greeted them with a mischievous lilt to his voice.
The three men strolled along the pavement, squinting in the hot sun and slowing their pace when they passed through a puddle of shade. It was a walk they did most days, along the coast from Lerici to San Terenzo where pine trees grew in dusty soil and the muffled crash of waves mingled with the hum of cicadas.
The man with the red polo shirt reached up to smooth his hair back and to check his collar was straight, which it inevitably was, and then he cleared his throat and patted his hair again. He had an idea for a new painting and wanted to ask his friends what they thought. It was a difficult topic for him to bring up - the embarrassment about his art hadn’t faded over the years - but he also found it useful to articulate his ideas to other people, unravelling them and picking through each strand.
But before he could begin someone called out: “Ciao Carlo!”
The three of them looked up and saw a middle-aged couple, tanned and well-dressed, bounding towards them. Or rather, bounding towards Carlo.
Carlo’s eyes lit up and he strode over to greet them, looking almost relieved by the interruption to his walk. The man in the red polo shirt - the painter - let out a bitter groan. He knew how easily Carlo’s attention could be diverted, lost in an instant.
It had always been this way during their long friendship. Carlo revelled in his identity as the sociable one. He jumped at the chance to meet new people or parade younger friends around, and he neglected to introduce his oldest friends - his walking partners - to these peripheral figures, which the painter assumed was done on purpose.
Carlo would then bring boorish stories back with him that were designed to make the other two jealous, and it worked on the painter who never failed to rise to the bait, letting envy bubble up until he made a snide comment. And he wasn’t jealous, he would say, just disappointed that their friendship wasn’t enough for Carlo.
The man in the middle would step back in these moments to let Carlo and the painter express themselves. He was content to let Carlo have his fun beyond the confines of their friendship, but also understood why his other friend felt betrayed.
So, true to form, Carlo hurried off to greet the middle-aged couple and left a slightly awkward silence in his wake.
It wasn’t as if the other two men felt uncomfortable when left alone, merely that the painter was struggling to conceal his anger about Carlo’s flightiness, and he felt childish and silly for succumbing to this anger so easily. He sighed, shook his head and stalked off with as much speed as his aging joints could muster.
The man in the middle also left Carlo to his playmates and lengthened his stride to catch up to the painter. He reached out and placed a hand on his friend's shoulder. The painter turned around and they shared a brief look, one that acknowledged the painter’s irritation while also managing to calm it.
Tell me, began the man in the middle as he gripped his hands behind his back again, was the painter working on anything new?
They walked on, shoulder to shoulder, talking quietly as they gazed at the blue sea beyond the pine trees. And they walked slowly, so that Carlo would be able to catch up.