The old man grinned, eyes squinting as they drowned in a sea of wrinkles. He fished in the pocket of trousers so well worn the fabric was almost see-through and came up with a wooden object.
"This," he said, not bothering with tongues between teeth or half-way vowels, "is a strummolo."
Nami bowed her head in polite acknowledgment and joined her hands under the man's to receive the offer. The clash of Italian enthusiasm and Japanese politeness had the old man laugh as he grabbed both of Nami's hands and shoved the object in one palm, closing it with the other and giving the resulting sandwich a parting shake before letting go. Nami smiled at the same clash of customs and bowed her head again, this time in thanks.
The "strummolo" was a funny looking thing. Similar to an old-fashioned drawer handle, it started wide at the top and narrowed to a fine point at the bottom.
"Nice," Nami said, substituting the silent "e" with a quiet "u" in the way of someone not used to letting syllables hang in the air without a vowel to complete them. "What is it, please?"
"Is toy." The man made a few downward circles with his index finger. "Round round."
He bent down, his knee hitting the leg of the outdoor table, and the draught pieces of their paused match shifted slightly. When the man came back up, red in the face and holding up a shoelace, catching his breath as if he'd been underwater, Nami had all the pieces back in their original place.
It took her a moment to realise that by waving his hand back and forth the old man was asking for his toy back, and she held it out to him on her joined palms, head bowed. The man threw her an amused look before grabbing the object and wrapping the shoelace on the tip.
"Watch," he said, and Nami turned in her chair to observe as he placed the toy on the floor of the patio and pulled the string.
The "strummolo" spun, balanced on its tiny tip, following an invisible path until it fell into the gap between two slabs, continuing its dance. As soon as it started slowing down, a few other elderly men hovering at the bar started a mounting chorus, the kind Nami had always associated with football matches. It ended that way too, when the toy finally collapsed exhausted, in an explosion of triumph and claps that would have people thinking Italy had scored a goal in the World Cup. Nami joined in, her applause faster and her grin wider, giving away the fact she had no idea what she was clapping for but eager to be involved.
They didn't finish the match after that. The old man gave her back the toy and proceeded to tell her tales from his childhood in Naples, before his family moved to the north in search of work. The mixture of English and Italian was so broken that her thriteen year old Japanese ears could barely piece it together, and yet she smiled and nodded in silent prodding, eager to know more. She had never been outside of her country before, and everything was fascinating and exotic, although incredibly difficult to understand.
Nami had begged for so long to join her mother on one of her trips, but although she had finally succeded, she had work to do and conferences to attend so Nami was on her own all the time. However, since her mother had been coming to this seaside resort for years--while Nami stayed home with her father--the staff was nice and looked after her, making sure she was safe.
As if on cue, Amanda was waving at her as she was serving customers at the bar. She had a cake up in silent question, and Nami nodded, her stomach rumbling. She held the "strummolo" and the shoelace out to the old man to give them back, trying to explain she had to go, but he shook his head.
"No, no," he said, pushing her hand back. "Yours."
She bowed a few times in thanks and put the gift in her pocket before bidding goodbye and going to the bar when a slice of carrot cake was waiting for her.
It wasn't until later, as Nami was laying on her bed flipping a book Amanda had given her, that she remembered the toy. The book was full of beautiful photographs of old brick churches and golden mosaics, something the area was apparently renown for, and Nami needed something to mark the page before meeting her mother downstairs for dinner. She found some tape in her pencil case and attached the shoelace to the tip, letting the improvised bookmark hang off the edge of the volume as she put it under her pillow, eager to resume it later.
Nami turns the paper as soon as the examiner gives permission to start and smiles at the familiar looking brick church staring at her from the page. She grabs her pen and starts writing, words flowing without esitations. With a degree in Archeology and years of internships in various escavation sites around the world, a Master's Degree in Roman Architecture is the last step before applying for teacher's training, and she's so passionate she knows her subject like the back of her hand.
There had been many more trips to Italy after the one she just remembered, courtesy of a photograph she had not seen since the day she had bookmarked it in the room of a hotel that no longer existed. But that day on the beach will always be one of her fondest memories.
Nami's pen hovers, her train of thoughts interrupted. She raises her hand to her chest out of instinct, like she does whenever her thoughts become too clogged for her to find a thread through them. She feels the shape of the "strummolo", now more securely attached to the shoelace whose extremities her dad had sewn together upon her return. She remembers the chorus of the men at the bar, cheering the toy on as it turned, and the memory is so vivid she can almost hear it. It starts in a low, almost rumbling "o" and mounts, giving her confidence, and her thoughts clear, her knowledge once again translating on the paper in long, detailed paragraphs.
In the years since that day on the beach, people would sometimes ask what that funny looking wooden thing was, dangling from her neck. Every time, Nami would cup the "strummolo" into her hands, bring the joined palms to her lips and close her eyes, ears filled with an eruption of cheers.
"Omamori," she would say. A good luck charm.