It bothered Matthew that everything he wrote was really nothing at all. He couldn't even aspire to the relevance of Giovanni, the ice-cream vendor, who took thick euros with one hand, and gave back giant cones of ice-cream with the other. People paid money for things. But what did Matthew offer? Words.
Which was fine when words were printed in ink and stamped onto paper. And when these pieces of paper were placed on top of each other and presented to the world in a book. As if you'd actually done something.
But now paper was almost impossible to find. Who carried a pen anymore? Book shops had become curiosity shops, with feathered three-legged chairs in one corner and the complete works of Charles Dickens in the next.
Imagine, Dickens would etch words with an iron quill right into the paper! Then some monstrous machine straight out of the Industrial Revolution would hammer black letters into other paper, and everyone would run into the street to get that week's instalment of The Pickwick Papers. Papers. Matthew could hardly believe it, but there it was on his iPhone, straight from Wikipedia.
And then it was gone. His BBC app alerted him to the latest schoolgirl slaughter by Boko Harum, somewhere in northeastern Nigeria. Matthew wondered how his words were going to compete with that.
Giovanni handed a boy an enormous cherry ice-cream, which made the boy's eyes twice as big as they were already. The crimson cherries circled into the cream, leaving pastel streaks along the surface of the white mountaintops. The swirling colour reminded the boy of his spinning top, the one he used to play with for hours on the dingy floor of their kitchen. He'd concentrate on the colours and on the sound of it spinning, to drown out the sound of his mom and dad shouting at each other. He waited with bated breath, eager to hear it crash to the ground, spinning noisily out of his control.
In eight minutes, the ice cream too was gone. All that's left of it are the words.
An angry-looking tourist had been fighting with his wife, who said, The kids have had enough ice-cream today. Do I always have to be the disciplinarian? The tourist stepped up to the counter all the same. To record his triumph, he filmed the whole thing on his iPhone video: his kids' bewilderment at the Italian names, coupled with their certainty that each one of the two dozen flavours was exactly the one they wanted. Julie's eyes were big as cherries.
The tourist digitalized the whole thing: the way Julie said Grat say! and then Giovanni's beaming smile as he remembered the look on his own little girl's face, her sunny disposition, her big dark eyes alive to everything around her. At least, until Alessandra was run over by a cab three doors from their apartment.
Now Giovanni could only remember her smile as a composite of the smiles of all the little girls who ordered ice-cream. Yet when the tourist's daughter said Grat say! he could've sworn he heard Alessandra's voice, even through the foreign accent. The timbre, tone, and clarity were miraculously the same, as if one girl had disappeared into thin air and then three years later reappeared right there, where he last saw his daughter standing in front of the bucket of cherry ice-cream.
The iPhone had no way of recording Giovanni's thoughts and feelings. All that's left are the words.
Due to the meticulous operations of her delicate tongue, Julie's ice cream lasted eleven full minutes. But what was going on in her head is anyone's guess.