1955 The Summer When… excerpts

CHAPTER 16

In the light of the morning after, and during the tedious hours of shopping for the children and washing clothes, I see myself for the first time as a simple, naive, easily-bamboozled girl who has a lot to learn about the world. I should have realised far earlier the sort of family I had tumbled into through lack of prudence. My sunstroke is distinctly better, but I am inwardly sick and disgusted at the situation I’ve got myself into through my thirst for adventure, or money – or a mixture of both. I brood over the way I have been almost polluted by money. What does the Palumbo man mean exactly by the increasing number of banknotes he has been slipping into my hand with a stolen caress, too rapid and seemingly innocuous for me to protest? Will they decrease from now on, or cease altogether? It is a deceitful business, and even Giosetta, who has become something of a friend and companion, is part of their sleazy world. Thinking of Giosetta, I feel rebellious. I shall take up her idea, go out with all the men who have asked me and just see how they’ll behave! I can always escape if I keep to the cafés and amusement areas round the free beach.

I start to plan with the list of my contacts in order of preference and availability. Gino at the baker’s shop will do initially. I know he’s free mid-morning after making bread, and that will suit me fine. I could finish shopping and clothes washing earlier to meet him at eleven, or just after. Giosetta counsels that if you arrive a little late they are that much keener. Careful emotional timing is required. Gino approaches me, his white overall covered in flour which flecks his face and eyelashes.

Sì, sì, sì.’ He looks surprised, asking, ‘though can’t you be free in the evening?’

No, mi dispiace, but I have to work then.’ He is quite attractive, the usual average Italian height, just taller than me by a small inch or so, broadly built which doesn’t particularly appeal, but all in all he isn’t too bad. Fine for the morning slot. Now Agostino is different. He stroked my ankles while I was buying some fashionable light brown sandals with signor Palumbo’s second bunch of banknotes. As he knelt down to fit them on I had the urge to fondle his curly, velvety hair and athletic shoulders – he is probably a champion long-distance runner. As he stood up and before he turned to wrap my purchase, I noticed he had long eyelashes falling over slate grey eyes. Rather stunning, I have to admit. He recognises me immediately when I enter the shop and rises to the bait.

Domani all’una.’ Tomorrow at one. I hint something about lunch. All is working out perfectly: coffee and a stroll in the old town with Gino; two hours later I shall slip away to meet Agostino to enjoy lunch in a chic restaurant, probably in the main shopping thoroughfare. Shops close from one until at least four in the afternoon. That suits me well, keeping me away from the beach crowd in the morning. After a really good meal I can escape for a siesta and a chance to have a bath and change for the evening. To ensure use of the bathroom for at least half an hour, I shall have to time it carefully while Giosetta and Rosina are still resting. Also I must remember to iron my best dress beforehand, ready for the evening encounter. I am hesitating about the afternoon assignation, torn between one of the others I met on the beach with Francesco or the student working part time in the bookshop where I bought the Divina Commedia. He wears spectacles, is earnest and pasty faced – obviously not one of the beach crowd – but he does have a thoughtful, more intellectual air about him. The quiet, bookish, unromantic Carlo might provide an interesting if unexciting couple of hours. As the prime evening slot is reserved for Francesco, it would be better not to select one from his gang for the afternoon to avoid tension – for him as well as me. To crown the day’s encounters, I’ll ask Francesco to introduce me to Genoa’s evening beach life. There it is, all neatly planned, and I’ll be back safe and sound, if exhausted, by midnight.

Francesco is lounging on the sand after a long swim with two of his friends, taking turns trying out flippers and a snorkel one of them has bought. It isn’t easy to prise him aside. I’m in a hurry. I must see Carlo before he makes other arrangements – though he doesn’t seem the type to have a crowded social life. The bookshop is in a road not far from the Cecconis’ flat, so I can drop in to see Flavia’s parents no later than six; I don’t want them to think I’m cadging dinner. Francesco and the others register my presence in the nonchalant manner one assumes towards an established member of the group. Other matters than me are occupying them. I’m a tad irritated to feel myself treated as an appendage to male activities, like their latest silly fixation on underwater swimming. I’ll entice Francesco away by asking for some help. Opening the sixth canto of Purgatorio, I hold it out to him pointing to a verse,

Non capisco.’ All three glance round at me with variations on, ‘Wait a moment – we’re busy.’ I look out to sea trying not to pout, and after what seems like hours I have three simultaneous offers of help with Dante’s syntax – and I have always assumed that only Francesco is interested in literature! That accomplished, the three lie back on the sand to relax into desultory comments, a rare anecdote or roll over for yet more bouts of arm wrestling. I am neither included nor excluded, free to enter where I think fit. I pretend to read, but can’t concentrate.

Prendiamo un gelato!’ Wandering in the direction of the beach café that sells ice-creams should let me casually draw Francesco aside – but no one moves.

‘Already had them – get yourself an ice-cream, Valeria!’  I try to smile amicably and begin drawing a labyrinth in the sand, zigzagging the lines diagonally away from Francesco. They might draw him magically towards me. He’s looking up, interested.

‘What’s that you’re drawing?’

‘Come and see,’ I coax him. He laughs, without moving. ‘Just tell me!’ I must rapidly review my tactics while continuing to draw the Minotaur, a spindly Theseus and plump Ariadne to punish myself. Hairy legs move towards me.

‘What is it?’ It isn’t Francesco but small, nervous Bruno, certainly the most sensitive of the three; definitely not the person I’m aiming for. I feel like giving up, but the morning arrangements have worked out perfectly; I must persist. Is Francesco playing a game with me, or aren’t the signals clear enough? I explain my labyrinth unenthusiastically to Bruno. Things aren’t quite going to plan – perhaps I ought to give up any idea of arranging the evening and let it go to chance. Francesco should, according to form and what I have heard about male behaviour, be eager to repeat the evening we spent together two days ago. A sneaking thought – he might have another girl friend. So I am already casting myself into a role I haven’t anticipated or even thought about. Obscurely ashamed, I pick up Dante’s Purgatorio and pull my handbag over my shoulder. Elbowing himself half up off the sand, Francesco says,

‘Going already, Valeria?’ He jumps up to follow me. ‘What’s the matter?’

‘I want to see you – alone.’ I draw in my breath wishing I could pull those confessional words back with it, but it works. Mission accomplished. We meet in the evening at seven-thirty. I scurry up to the old town, late for my self-imposed appointment to see Carlo at the bookshop and make a beeline for him. He frowns and turns away. Then I realise he is talking to a client. Is he less keen than before? I pretend to look at books but the titles are blurred by worry and haste. My mind is probing the space behind me, feeling and listening for his approach. I start and turn round at,

‘I didn’t know you bought books on bird-watching, Valeria!’ I am almost ready to fall with relief into his arms, except that one hand is holding a pen, the other a piece of paper, probably a boring receipt. He too would prefer to spend the evening with me.

‘I have to work,’ I lie demurely. He does agree reluctantly to meet me at five o’clock. What a relief! All my men are free and booked for the time I choose. So far so good.

It is now three weeks since my rather hasty departure from Flavia and her family. I am not sure whether I have upset the Cecconis or not, but I feel uneasy and want to spend more time with Flavia’s parents, whether their daughter is there or not. It is just after seven, an hour later than I planned. Signora Livia will be preparing dinner and insist on me joining them, which is one of the many reasons why I left to find a job.

The massive faded-green entrance doors to their block are ajar and chickens still pecking around in the courtyard. An array of shirts, dresses, trousers, bed linen and strange flannel shapes, like nappies but much too big hangs from wires stretched precariously below windows. The evening air holds appetising aromas, not the succulent ones of midday olive oil and pasta dishes, but promising more delicate culinary pleasures. Never wise to burden the stomach before retiring to bed, so the signora told me soon after I arrived in Italy. The wide stairs seem less dreary in the evening light, though the WC on the landing still blatantly proclaims its presence, maybe because blocked by newspapers torn into squares that serve as toilet paper almost everywhere I’ve been this summer. Signor Cecconi opens the door. His face lights up when he sees me.

Valeria, che piacere!’ No sign of the signora, or of supper preparations. The only table is covered in photo albums. He pulls out a chair for me and starts to close them.

‘Please don’t! Can I look at them?’ He clearly isn’t quite sure how to take this young English student, pleasant and appreciative, but up to what point? I left so soon that he hardly had time to know me. Mario Cecconi moves his chair next to mine and tentatively opens one of the faded blue albums.

‘These are of Fiume, mostly of the port where our ships docked, and my family – not very interesting. Our memories.’ I ply him with questions, delighted to see Flavia as a small child in their world of quiet, hard-working dignity that war had shattered. The Cecconis are an old family, of modest fortune, which had for generations been associated with the fate of the port.

‘My wife will be back soon. She works in a chemist’s three days a week.’ He tells me he is trying to write the history of the family and it has spread into a history of the Dalmatian coast. It is difficult to do research now his city is part of Yugoslavia. That’s why he sometimes unpacks the albums and books he has managed to bring from his library. I noticed when I arrived that a bookcase stands in a corner of the kitchen, but didn’t spot the packing cases beside it. I’ve just seen a photograph from the 1890s of signor Cecconi’s grandparents, taken in a library with a grand piano and potted palm trees, the same room where Mario and Livia pose after their engagement. I wonder where that piano is now, and whether, in spite of their reduced circumstances, they are relieved not to live under a communist regime. Signor Cecconi tells me that Flavia won’t be back for dinner but he hopes I can stay and eat with them. I’ve another idea and excuse myself as tactfully as possible to slip out of the front door and across the landing to the WC, not out of need but to check the money I have with me. Just enough, I calculate, to invite them out for a simple meal in an osteria Francesco told me about. Meanwhile Signora Cecconi has returned and is clearly pleased to go out to eat, though she protests that she has bought a packet of soup we can all share. I insist, even though it may use up all my reserve money; no more has been forthcoming since the incident after the Palumbo banquet. However, I don’t plan to spend anything tomorrow when my four escorts will foot any bill they chose to run up with me – after that, who knows? I have set out on an adventure, and must let it take its course. Here and now I have the chance to do something for Flavia’s parents.

The osteria isn’t far off and I gladly escape from the close atmosphere of the Cecconi’s flat. Storms are forecast and the sunset is ominously red. Tables stand in a courtyard behind a low-beamed room with wine barrels and dark grained tables. We choose one under a vine with rather shrivelled grapes. The establishment has an operatic air about it; some inhabitants hang out of the upper floor windows to peer over washing lines at the people eating below, or toss racy comments at one another across the yard. In some osterie they only serve wine and snacks. Here we start off with North Italian white wine accompanying crusts of bread dipped into olive oil and peppered or salted to suit one’s taste. The Osteria da Emilio serves home-made pasta, thick and dripping with a spicy concoction called appropriately pesto Genovese, followed by slices of watermelon, and all for such a modest price that I have money left over, even after a generous tip which signor Mario helps me calculate.

As we leave, I point at the strange shapes of flannel that I’d noticed before on washing lines.

‘What are they used for? Babies?’ Livia looks at me strangely. ‘What do you use, every month?’ I never realised…

I return to the Palumbo dwelling soon after ten taking the short cut over the bomb site. Luigino is outside as usual with a gang of boys kicking a football around in lamplight. Carlotta is sitting playing dolls with two other girls. The doorkeeper’s children. She’s a reassuringly voluminous woman and I imagine that signor Palumbo passes her some lira to keep an eye on his children and will deal with any emergency. She has, I’ve been told, a key to the flat. Giuseppina is there fast asleep in the vast matrimonial bed, all alone.

There are very few cars. In holiday time the children play outside, in the street or on bomb sites where they build dens and improvise games, more or less playful, with bricks, bars and planks, or anything else useful found in the ruins. They eat at home and slumber on their parents’ bed when they are tired. It suits their mother and father; it suits them – perhaps because they know nothing else. It suits the pattern of life around them, though it is nothing like the way I was brought up.

I still worry about the Palumbo children after their mother and Giosetta go out to work in the early evening, but have never been asked to watch over them at specific times except in the morning. If I finish my tasks quickly tomorrow, I can hop off after giving the children their elevenses earlier than usual and skip the washing – two loads the day after tomorrow.

In bed early in preparation for the day I’ve so studiously planned, I’m too restless to sleep. The air is still, my heart pounding and my body tense. ‘It’s the stifling heat,’ I tell myself, drinking glass after glass of water. ‘I can’t sleep because it’s unbearably hot and I stick to the sheets.’ Then my fantasies glide into dreams.

I was canny enough not to give any of the men my address, though they asked for my phone number. Gino rings at ten to say he has finished work and is free. I’m only just back from shopping, busy preparing the children’s elevenses and lunch which will be left for them on the kitchen table. He is fretting, but I have to take my time. It will be eleven o’clock as agreed.

He is waiting outside the shop, but the moment I turn the corner he runs towards me to avoid giving the others working with him any food for gossip. It’s tricky for him to go out mid morning when he usually kicks a football around with any young people who happen to have time on their hands. A couple of hours hardly allow him much scope. I welcome him in the Italian that I’ve learnt from the Palumbo children and Dante, which is all I know.

Vieni meco alla città vecchia?’ He’ll agree to the old city or anywhere arm in arm with a girl who smiles enticingly.

Sì, vengo volontieri,’ of course, he replies, adding with a laugh, ‘teco.’ He is cheerful and cuddly with his long fair eyelashes, light brown hair grizzled at the ends by the sun and a freshly laundered look.  I immediately tuck my arm under his, surprising him at how easy it is to strut proudly along with me to the most delightful café he knows. We sit outside on the pavement, though I did try to take refuge inside fearing Francesco or my other two dates might pass by, but Gino insists, hoping that some of his friends might see him out with a foreign girl. Such an expansive and promising one too, with a quaint way of speaking.

So we chat over a large coffee pot and a plate of cakes which in other circumstances I would be wary of eating, but now relish. I’ll jump lunch if Agostino doesn’t provide it, saving money as I am convinced signor Palumbo won’t pay me again.

‘I can bake better cakes,’ Gino boasts, adding another detail to his life history. I had started him off by asking whether he came from Fiume, seeing he is light-haired like Flavia. He returns the interest by gazing at me, more preoccupied by what I am doing this evening and how long I plan to stay in Genoa.

‘Don’t leave too soon,’ he pleads, plying me with more coffee and pastries.

After more than an hour the waiter starts hovering over us till Gino reaches for his wallet and settles the bill, the waiter graciously stationing himself behind me to move my chair back. Gino feels emboldened to encircle my shoulders and draw me into the narrow streets.

‘Let’s go down to the port,’ he suggests. No, never, I reply silently, that’s for me this evening. We might run into Francesco or one of his friends – none of them seem to have anything else to do. They are on vacation like me, I assume. Agostino will be safely selling shoes, Carlo books, until one, and I must escape Gino before then.

‘No, show me some of the old houses.’ Gino stops, looks unblinkingly at me and plunges forward rather awkwardly to pull me close. His bristly chin brushes mine as he tries to find my lips, tingling my cheek as I jerk my head away.

‘Why?’ Changing his mind rapidly at the thought of deserted courtyards, he agrees, ‘Yes, let’s do that,’ though he is slightly worried, probably having never paid much attention to ancient palazzi or churches or the things foreign tourists come to Genoa for. So Gino wanders me into the old town where I delight in the dilapidated buildings, a few boasting an owner’s bust or ornamental urn reinstated after the air raids. He trails along without much to say though eloquent with frequent arm squeezes and snatched kisses on my neck, narrowly missing my cheek. We’re passing a partially boarded-up mansion when Gino cries out, ‘Look, Valeria!’ and removes his arm from my shoulder to grab my elbow and propel me into the silent courtyard with ‘pericolo’ splashed in red paint over the half-shattered columns of the inner portico.

‘It’s dangerous!’ I protest, but Gino crushes the words into my mouth, passionately pulling my body firmly towards his and bending his knees slightly under me. I slip my right arm in front of his chest, and sling the other round his back, my head leaning over his shoulder to check my wrist watch.

‘Gino, I have to go!’ No answer. He is too busily involved. I look around, leaning down on his shoulder and pushing outwards with my right arm – an unequal struggle.

Chi siete?’ An old man is leaning over a balcony just above us. Gino propels me against the inner wall out of sight under the portico. ‘Andate via!’ the old voice continues angrily. Shuffling steps on the monumental staircase.

‘I must leave,’ I shout to anyone in earshot. ‘I’ll be late!’

Stranieri, tutti stranieri!’ The old man stands guard at the half open entrance as I pull myself away and turn towards him. ‘All foreigners, and now you come back to mock us. Inglesi, americani – tutti simili. Once enemies, now tourists,’ and he shrugs his shoulders. He is blocking my way out of his bombed home venting his frustration on me.

Mi dispiace tanto, tanto,’ I blurt, ‘ but it’s not my personal fault,’ and touch his shoulder to reassure him as I slip past turning left, and left again to run down narrow streets towards the Cecconis, dodging in and out of alleys so Gino will lose my trail. I can always shelter behind their huge palazzo doors. So I do. No sign of Gino.

It has never seemed hotter in this hottest of summers than it does now as I make my slow way to Agostino at the shoe shop. I am more irritated than elated by the first of my four encounters. Gino would intersperse his attempts to seduce me with glancing references to his pals, his morning football, and a recurring grumble that he can’t understand why I’m not free in the evenings. If not today, then tomorrow would do. Everything has to be in physical terms; he isn’t one for a neat turn of phrase, still less an interesting – or even provocative – comment. I admit he is quite attractive and, though he should have shaved better, the rasping effect was exciting – for a moment anyway. One thing is certain: no return to the bakery unless I reserve an evening for him. Any decision on that account to be postponed until I know the outcome of the three episodes to come.

I am to meet Agostino outside the shoe shop, though he told me he’ll be taking the day off. He is there waiting, slender and tall but not so tall as I imagined. At least I look up at him, which is more exciting than looking straight at Gino. New territory, new sensations. Those slate grey eyes are half-smiling with irritating assurance. He holds a rolled-up newspaper in one hand, takes mine in the other, and walks me off without even discussing where we are going.

Vado teco, ma dove?’ He turns sharply to look down at me, brow furrowed. What have I said now? I’m apprehensive. This adventure has only just started.

‘I’m taking you somewhere special,’ smiling assurance at me again. He too must have washed his hair, as it is curlier and bouncier than ever.

Per favore, don’t let’s go to the port,’ I beg, but he smiles down and ignores my request. All is becoming too fraught with possible danger – why is everyone drawn to the sea? Agostino raises his hand at a request bus stop and silently, smilingly escorts me inside the vehicle. We travel along the coast road to a café with a terrace shaded by palm trees and its own beach. I won’t swim. I’ll tell him I haven’t brought my costume, which isn’t true.

Caffé? Espresso?’ The lean shoe salesman settles down at a table, stretching his legs out so far that I have to step over them to sit down opposite him.

‘SÌ, grazie.’ This is a nice enough place, though there doesn’t seem to be much food in the offing. It isn’t near the port and beach area frequented by Francesco and his friends, nor anywhere near Flavia’s hotel. It is discreet. There is even a slight breeze.

‘Temporali,’ says Agostino, not leading from or to anything in particular. Storms he predicts, but there isn’t a cloud on the horizon.  I’m in a good position to survey him as I sip the strongest espresso I’ve ever tried.

‘Glad to see you’re wearing my shoes.’ Another futile comment, until I see he really is examining the sandals I’m wearing, not to please him, but because they are the best I possess.

‘Mine,’ he continues, wriggling his toes in front of me, ‘are the latest fashion. Moroccan leather – the best.’ They are polished to a military shine, beaming out from underneath immaculate fawn trousers and a light white cotton shirt with his initials embroidered on the pocket: A B – Agostino Beretti – I know because the moment my eyes alighted on the pocket he informed me. The shirt is open to the third mother-of-pearl button – a bit fancy – and they don’t match the gold chain with a cross and a medallion which, he tells me though I can see it, also has AB. I might have guessed.

‘We’ll go swimming at four. No earlier because of stomach cramp. They have changing rooms here.’ So he is taking it leisurely; he must have already eaten and is measuring out the afternoon and evening before him, or so he thinks. With all my meticulous planning, I have failed to tell my chosen companions that I can only stay with them for a set time. Is it a grave omission? I feel sick at the obvious realisation that with him and Carlo after him, I’ll leave a bad taste as I already have done with Gino. I must try to sort out my priorities while chatting nonchalantly to Agostino. We are in the shade but it is still sultry. I find myself forcing my eyes open as he tells me what his mother cooked for him. A grand lunch by all accounts. His father died in the war and he is their only child – that says it all! Everything about Agostino is drawn out, from his sentences ending either in shoes or mother, to his body – more sinew than muscle, well attuned, settled comfortably into itself – and his feet which I imagine long and tapering, impeccably profiled before me in his pride of shoes.

He is tracking my every movement without letting me see it, affecting the languid expression that his eyelashes enhance so well. I must surely be a virgin; a pretty face with a pert sort of nose and blue, almost violet eyes not unlike his favourite film star, Elizabeth Taylor. He prefers taller girls with long legs, and I’m a bit skinny round the hips – as far as he can see. He wants to get me into a swimsuit to decide whether he approves of my figure. He doesn’t need to do that for me. He’s so proud of his fine cotton shirt which is more see-through than my light chiffon blouse. His trousers are so well cut that little is left to the imagination. Maybe that’s a pity.

I’m languishing under a palm tree at half-past two on a sultry afternoon, mightily bored. If he has his way I shall end the evening naked on one of those huge Italian matrimonial beds with him trying sandals with thin silver straps on my feet, bejewelled slippers on my hands, and a cascade of high fashion winter and summer footwear arching over my midriff without somehow weighing down on me. Agostino is an invisible presence in this fantasy, absorbed within his fetish. I sit up suddenly, amazed to see him signal to the waiter.

‘A lemonade? Or shall we go for a walk along the sea boulevard to get an ice-cream?’ Not so languid as he pretends to be, this Agostino, as he takes my arm in a suave, practised manner and escorts me down the steps from the terrace restaurant.

‘Agostino!’ I stop, realising it is three already and he has used up his two hour slot. ‘Agostino, I have to go to the Ladies.’

How can I find the right bus to get back to the flat and freshen up in time for Carlo? Will I have to miss that assignment? I’ve no phone number and can imagine the slight, bespectacled, earnest young student pacing up and down in front of the bookshop. How long will he wait? What will he think of me? I could never again pass the shop, let alone buy a book!

The genteel tone of this café doesn’t extend to the cramped toilet with the usual pile of torn newspaper squares. I can hardly linger here to ponder my course of action. In fact, the only solution I can think of is as timeworn as can be – female frailty. I despise myself but what else remains for me to do? More time with Agostino talking about shoes and letting shy Carlo down, or –

‘Agostino,’ I draw my breath in sharply. Then in a sweet little girl voice, ‘Agostino, I,’ sob, ‘I must go back.’ He looks at me aghast. What is wrong with this woman? She seems as healthy as could be. Searching desperately for some ailment I blurt out,

‘Sunstroke. I feel sick – feverish I mean.’ I don’t want him to take me to the toilet here and stand outside waiting. He is scrutinising my neck, back and front and right down my low-cut dress, legitimately, to see where the sun has effectively struck.

‘I’ve booked a table at the best restaurant in Genoa …’ but I’m already running along the street to the bus stop.

The only providential event so far in my tightly-packed day is a bus pulling up just as I reach the stop with a good start on Agostino. I board it as it moves off leaving Agostino sprinting after it for a few yards. I turn away, flushed with heat and embarrassment, while the other passengers stare at me.

It’s nearly three-thirty; my charges have long finished eating and there’s no sign of them. I clear up the mess they always leave, irritated by sympathetic pangs of hunger. This just can’t be tolerated. I have eaten enough cakes to last me until after five when Carlo will surely offer me some tea or an ice-cream – I shall have to work out what I want to do with him. The day seems to be stretching even further ahead, rather worryingly when I think of how I might spend time with Carlo. Francesco doesn’t bother me. He is too distant a prospect, far into the future at seven-thirty.

Unthinkingly I open the fridge; a half watermelon, huge, luscious, seems to be waiting for me. It is all water, not fattening at all, I reassure myself as I grab each end, cut two generous chunks and return the hardly depleted hulk to the fridge. As I pick out the black seeds and reduce the large portions into neat slices, Giosetta’s door opens and the bathroom one closes. My greed has lost me the bathroom for half an hour at least. New plans have to be made. Instead of a shower and hair wash, I’ll iron my dress. It’s something I should have done in the relative cool of yesterday evening but now there is no choice. I must wear the sort of dress one can go dancing in, with plenty of skirt to swing and show off one’s legs – discreetly, of course! Mike found it alluring, and I recall him affectionately as I finish the watermelon. I’ll have time now to drop him a note and buy a stamp at the cigarette and sweet shop round the corner, if it is open when I leave for Carlo. I lick the juice off my hands, feel under the divan, pull out the shopping bag used to store away my diary, paper and pens, and search for a postcard. No luck. I’ll write instead a humorous letter about some aspects of my morning experience. He likes the ridiculous side of life, and anyway, there isn’t much else to tell him, except my suspicions about the Palumbo family. He won’t be impressed by the set-up, and somewhat bewildered by my disinclination to leave them. In fact, I don’t want to talk about signor Palumbo and his friends to anyone, not until I know exactly what he is up to. It is hot, I am sweaty and dusty and time is stickily ticking onwards. There are stirrings from the main bedroom. The signora will expect to be next in the bathroom if I’m not careful. I stuff my writing bag back under the divan, knock on the bathroom door, slip in after Giosetta and out again in twenty minutes, calling to signora Palumbo as I pass her bedroom. Dressing in a hurry is emphatically not the best way to start off an afternoon of mysterious assignations.

Carlo is thankfully still outside the bookshop though it is after five.

‘I thought you’d never come!’ Not reproachfully, but in relief.

After Agostino he seems just friendly and companionable, leading me past stalls in a side street selling old clothes, bed linen, all sorts of bags and even bicycle tyres. Carlo seems to fit in here, shambling around in baggy grey trousers, loose shirt and beach sandals. He doesn’t try to take my arm or even touch me. He doesn’t even look at me, apart from an occasional glance as if to check I’m not bored, but when he does, he winks, which is somewhat out of kilter with his low-key attitude towards me. I am already building a character around him. He’ll be from a family like Flavia’s; that is, with little money. He has to work to pay for his university books and enrolment fee. Not being the flirting type, he wouldn’t be especially popular with either sex.

Vieni con me, Valeria.’ He takes me into a still narrower alley and down some steps to a small dark second-hand bookshop. ‘Look at these!’ He carefully takes out two books in English with red tulips and faded white lilies on a stiff beige cover.

‘D’you know anything about them?’ They are simple and striking, deeply satisfying, that much is obvious, but I know little about books and design. However, I like these a lot.

‘I’m saving up to buy them. They’re not expensive, being cloth bound and in English, though they’re so beautiful.’ I open one. The Stones of Venice by John Ruskin, printed in London in 1903 with ‘James Osmond’ written in thick black ink below Ex libris on the book plate.

‘They must come from a library. Giovanni found them on a barrow a few weeks ago and bought them for a song. He told me about them.’ Carlo pauses to look at me. The wink again. Then, ‘I’d really like to buy them. I can’t speak much English, but I do read it. A little.’

I never imagined I could have spent nearly an hour looking at the Osmond library with Carlo in a hot little basement bookshop. Giovanni, who can’t be much older than Carlo – twenty-six or twenty-sever perhaps – started it after graduating from Genoa University.  We sit round his desk at the back of his shop drinking coffee and talking books.

‘Who were these Osmonds?’ I ask. Giovanni and Carlo are obviously good friends since they keep on interrupting each other as they conjecture. An English family running a shipping agency in the port? Aristocrats living cheaply between the wars? There used to be a large Anglo-American community along the coast round Rapallo. Ezra Pound and his ilk. It makes sense. James would have come from a titled family. ‘Osmond’ sounds right. They would have had to flee at the start of World War II and left their library. Their palazzo might have been bombed, the furniture, Persian rugs, chandeliers and rare pictures looted, the library tossed out as valueless – mostly works in English. James was probably killed in the war, and his grieving parents never returned. No regaining of their paradise, their youth, their wealth, their family life. I shed a tear or two for the imaginary plight of the Osmonds; the two young men look at me curiously.

‘These books are so lovely,’ my eyes glistening through the teardrops, ‘and I think all the Osmonds must have been killed in the war’. Giovanni puts his hand on my shoulder reassuringly.

‘There was an English consulate here, because of all the trading connections and sailors. Even an Anglican church; quite a substantial community. I’m sure they were warned and had plenty of time to leave.’ Carlo smiles at me, and I realise the wink is just a facial tick.

‘I’ll try to find out more about them. We could go to the library together,’ he suggests, ‘Next week perhaps?’ I’m not sure I’d like to find out that the Osmond family had a more prosaic fate than I imagine, but I am intrigued all the same. It’s too hot to stay in the basement shop, so we take the plywood chairs out to sit amid the bustle of the street. Giovanni disappears without explanation leaving his friend in charge of the shop.

‘He likes you,’ Carlo says pointedly. ‘Could you persuade him to let me have the books from the Osmond library for a bargain price? I’ve already cleared a corner in my room at home, but will need to save for at least another month.’ Giovanni returns with three glasses and a bottle of wine.

‘Valeria, one can never do business with friends!’ he pronounces gleefully as he pours us each a glass. As I reach out for mine, I glance at my watch. I forget to check the time, and it is rude in any case to inspect one’s watch in company. It is gone seven already, and Francesco –

‘I have to leave!’ Desperate, I gulp down the wine. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow in the shop. What’s this street called? Oh yes, via della Mandorla. I’d like to return here.’

‘Pity. We thought you’d like to join us at the local trattoria. Another time. Contact Carlo at work. You have his number?’

‘Yes. Ciao, ciao amici!’ I veer right out of the alley into the street with the stalls, then sharp left to jump down steps and short cuts, twice ending up in blind alleys in my haste to reach the harbour.

I’ve nearly won the bet with myself: out with three men in a day, and that doesn’t include my evening tryst! Exhilarated that Francesco and I will be alone with no need to leave at any self-imposed time, blithely confident he is keen on me and with a pressing need to deal with the effects of the watermelon, I arrive at ‘our’ bench on the sea promenade barely five minutes late. A mother and two toddlers are sitting at one end, a tramp with a beer bottle at the other. No Francesco.


 

To continue reading…
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