Italian cities shut down early, and Florence
is no exception. By 1am the streets were almost dead. Navy blue sky and a pale moon throwing into relief the silent bulk of
the Duomo, like a big sleeping animal with hunched shoulders and a huge bald head. Long purple shadows on ancient
paving slabs: L's 6' 3" shadow stretched into a 12' stickman, my shadow smaller, wavering. Happy tired daze, aching legs.
We'd climbed up to Fiesole that day, the village up in the hills above the city where Forster set the love scene in Room
with a View - but there'd be no comfortable room with a view for us tonight: we were leaving for Venice in a few hours. The
train wasn't due till 4am, so we hung around near the Duomo, haunting the last coffee bars (too-bright fluorescents, coffee
like poison mud) until they closed down too and ejected us. Eventually we wound up back at the station looking for a
bench to poop out on.
There were no benches, just wide empty marble floors, low-level lighting like a hospital night ward and an eerie silence
haunted by a neat row of sleepingbagged backpackers along the platform, all fast asleep. Innocent faces. Parked trains let
out the occasional plume of engine steam, making a shushing sound. We dumped our bags quietly in front of the arrivals
board, plonked ourselves down on the floor beside them and shared the last crumpled cigarette, not saying much, too
sleepy. The marble floor was cold and hard, but in situations like this the small person gets to lean comfortably on the
bigger one, and I drifted off for five minutes. I was woken up by a loud crack! and a coke can flying towards me across the
marble tiles, closely followed by a tiny little dog who pounced on the dead can, shook it like a rat and then sat there
guarding it, looking very pleased with himself. He wasn't much bigger than my hand. Little scruffball. Untidy smoky grey,
silly dog grin.
"Ecco!" shouted a voice and another can came sailing through the air, much higher this time. The little dog sprang
maybe six feet in the air - several times his own body height - and made a stunningly perfect save. We clapped and
cheered. The owner, across the other side of the station, smiled, bowed to us, and came over.
"Angelo," he said, holding out a hand. "You Americano? Where you from?"
He was opera-singer sized, Italian dark with friendly brown eyes. Cheap crumpled white zipper jacket, pockets spilling over with dog treats. We shook hands: he
hunkered down next to us and offered a tattered pack of Lucky Strikes, the little dog curling up beside him. We told him
where we were from, where we were going. Smiling pauses and hand-waving, snatches of four different languages to fill the
gaps in his limited English and our crappy Italian. We asked where he lived: he shrugged, smiled and said: "Here."
Now it's always wise to be wary of people you meet at 3am in stations in foreign cities, and there was something odd
about him that I couldn't quite place: but he seemed friendly and harmless enough, and he didn't ask for money - quite the
"Let me get you a drink," he said, disappearing on the tail-end of an enormous grin before we could stop him. He
returned with three cans of coke and more cigarettes, which he pressed on us, waving away offers of payment. We didn't
argue much, having nearly run out of money. I shot a glance at L - strangers offering us stuff? is this okay? - got a
tiny shrug in answer, and took the can with thanks. Angelo drained his in around ten seconds, crushed it flat in mighty
hands and hurled it high for the little dog. Another perfect save, this time with a backflip somersault. Owner and dog
I put out a hand and the little dog let me stroke him. Surprisingly silky fur, tiny heartbeat racing. Then a shout made us
all look up: somebody hailing Angelo. He strolled towards us across
the marble floor, looking like every bad-ass cliché in the book. Mirror shades, shaven head with a black mesh skullcap. Heroin skin. Bad
cheap tattoos I didn't want to read. Not a good addition to the party. He sat down, stared unpleasantly at L, said something. Angelo, all anxious smiles,
began translating. I caught a look I didn't like, and my tired head decided that now was the time for me to escape to the loo. So I got up, and left them to
it. Down the platform, the echoey marble bathroom, stained and stinking. No hot water,
nor even cold - but oh so peaceful. Glimpse of huge eyes all pupil in pale face tinted an interesting green by the rusting mirror
as I leant on it, trying to get a grip and stop myself from falling asleep on my feet. Cool kiss of glass on my forehead. Black
warm delicious sleep vortex sucking me in. No idea how long we stood there, the mirror and me - then the door came
swinging open, and in came L, looking ruffled and all wild-eyed.
"You won't believe what just happened," he said. "Come on, our train's in, tell you on the way," and he hustled me out
to the platform.
Outside he told me that after I'd gone, the skinhead guy had asked him something he hadn't understood. Whatever it was, the
shrugged reply made the skinhead angry. He'd snarled something unintelligible at L, he'd argued briefly and nastily with
Angelo, and then he'd stomped off. L, far too sleepy to be bothered, had ignored it and carried on talking to Angelo, until
suddenly Angelo had leapt up and begun running towards the bathrooms, shouting - and had grabbed the skinhead just as
he was about to come in after me. The skinhead had been carrying a knife. L had been about to pile on in when Angelo's
little dog had launched itself, snapping, at the knife hand. The skinhead had backed off and (this is the amazing
thing, said L) Angelo had somehow got him to pocket the knife: then he'd put an arm round the skinhead, talked to him
quietly, and walked him away. In short, while in the bathroom quietly communing with the mirror, I'd been narrowly saved
from a nutter with a knife by a strange Italian with a miniature performing dog...
My sleepy head found it impossibly hard to take it all in. I almost giggled, it was all so weird, but L was shaking. Not
surprising, really. I held his hand and got him onto the train, where we dumped our stuff opposite a trio of chattering nuns (for
safety, maybe?) and settled down under a blanket. I had just closed my eyes when L murmured sleepily: "He wasn't
catching a train, you know."
"Who, Angelo?" I opened an eye reluctantly. "He lived there, he said so, remember?"
"Yes, but he hadn't been anywhere."
"Mm... er, so?"
"What the hell was he doing there then, in the station at three in the morning?"
"No idea. Maybe he's the station's resident angel, or something. Now shh! go to sleep."
And at last we did. Later, waking up around noon with the mountains near Perugia outside the windows and the scent
of basil blowing through the train, we thought about it properly, and came up with all sorts of different explanations. But we
liked that one best.