The hot breath of the late summer “sirocco” swept the piazza dust up into a fountain of swirling air. It soared up into clear blue sky in the form of a mini whirlwind. At 3 p.m. there was not a soul to be seen except for a lone couple who trudged valiantly in the stuffy, hot sun. They stopped in the centre of the oblong piazza gazing hopefully for any sign of life. The relentless heat gave no respite to the unfortunate pair. The woman carried her wide brim hat in her hand, using it as a fan when it would have been much wiser to keep it on her head. The burn on her face would be troublesome tonight if she didn’t take cover soon. Her companion seemed to be faring better in his white shirt and travel shorts. He had tied his white kerchief with knots at each corner and used it as a cap to protect his thinning hair and scalp.
Vincenzo looked out through the faded green shutters that protected his shop from the sun, yet allowed any breeze to enter. At twenty-three, he had learned the art of survival early. He checked out the tourists again. Easy pickings, he thought as he made his way to the open doorway. The doorway was indeed open, but it had a stationary waterfall of linked plastic baubles to keep out flies and mosquitoes. He pushed aside the plastic streamers and stepped out into the piazza. He felt the oppressive heat instantly and quickly walked up to the strangers. Before he spoke, he noted their clothes and shoes. He bet himself 1000 lire they were British.
When he saw Vincenzo, the male traveler stopped in his tracks. His face registered a combination of surprise and thanksgiving as the young man approached. “I say, old chap, thank God we found someone before we collapsed from this heat. It’s jolly good you are up and about. Ethel, love, we are saved.”
“Mad dogs and Englishmen as the saying goes,” replied Vincenzo. “We natives are smart enough to wait out the heat by napping or relaxing. It saves on perspiration and heat stroke. Here, let me take you to my shop where it is cooler.”
“Bloody decent of you. My name is Miles Newman.” He held out his hand and shook Vincenzo’s with a firm grasp. “I say, you speak English extremely well. Are you a language student, by chance? My wife Ethel and I teach English back home and some of our students are not as polished as you.”
“And that would be Stoke-on-Trent, if I’ve caught your accent correctly.”
“I’m positively amazed. Ethel, he’s pinned us right as rain.” His wife nodded, her eyes looking somewhat glassy as they pushed through the bauble curtain.
“Would it be too much bother to ask for a drink of water?” Ethel asked. The coolness of the shop interior seemed to refresh her energy. Vincenzo quickly retrieved a litre of bottled water from the miniature refrigerator at the rear of the tiny store. They were surrounded by three walls of shelves holding a variety of non- perishable food items as well as an assortment of laundry and cleaning detergents.
“I’m sorry, but I only have carbonated. Will that do?”
“My dear boy, it will do very nicely indeed. At this moment, dishwater would taste wonderful. We are on our way to the Villa Serenitˆ to see la Signora Borraccetti.”
“Yes. I know it. The villa is not far. Only a short walk. Once you are rested and refreshed, I will take you there myself. Do you know the Signora?
“I met her many years ago,” Miles answered. “In the summer of 1950. Italy was suffering dreadfully at that time, almost as much as in wartime. During the war, my regiment was stationed in this vicinity while the Yanks were on the other side of the valley. I vowed I would return after the war. She was very kind to me. I stayed at the villa from April to late October. It turned out to be a pleasant summer for me. She had lost her husband a short time before and, to augment her small pension, she rented out rooms at the villa. It was just what I needed. The war was . . .” he paused, stumbling for words. “I had a breakdown. I needed a place of refuge, Somewhere with peace and quiet to purge the nightmare of memories and the pain of remembering. She took me under her wing and protected me. Bless her.”
“Miles was fortunate to meet her at that time,” Ethel said, coming up to her husband and running her hand soothingly between his shoulders “She may have saved him. He is . . .” she stopped, correcting herself, “we are both grateful to her. Although I was always a little jealous of her, I know from what Miles has told me that she was instrumental in guiding him on his road to recovery.”
“She is very different,” Vincenzo replied pensively, “from the women hereabouts. Very closed. She rarely comes to town. People are conservative here and they have always treated her as an outsider. She is not well liked. I would say that the feeling is mutual. I’m rather partial to her. She took me in when I was three because I was the youngest of ten children. My parents farmed the land for her but they were very poor. It was her way of helping them and me. She adopted me and I took her husband’s name. She is my second mother and it was with her generosity that I was able to go to school in Fermo and later university in Bologna. I was offered a position in Milano but I felt obliged to stay here close to her and my real family. Is she expecting you?
“No,” answered Miles, “I’m afraid we just tottled down and I assumed she still had rooms to let. Did she ever remarry?”
Vincenzo frowned enough for the lines to show between his brow. “She does not take to surprises well. It might be better if I went ahead to smooth the way.” He seemed preoccupied with their reception and then, as if he remembered he had not answered Miles question, he added, “She never remarried. She claims her widow’s weeds make her easily identifiable as both an individual and a survivor.” He smiled and his blue eyes flashed with a twinkle. “She has always been independent, Signor. You may recall that yourself. Is it not true?” Miles was deep in thought and did not hear the question. Ethel answered for him. “I’m sure she was. We are eager to see her. Please see what you can do. And apologize for our insensitivity at arriving at her door with no notice.”
When Vincenzo returned, he was smiling broadly. “She remembers you fondly, Mr. Newman, and is looking forward to meeting your wife. She said to come for tea and that it will be just like the old days.”They left immediately and walked up the curved, gravel road, leaving the asphalt main road behind. The years pealed away as Miles recognized landmarks of his earlier stay.
The Villa Serenitˆ was perched on a high escarpment, overlooking the town but still hidden from it. This part of the Marche, a central province of Italy that hugged the Adriatic, was noted for its sandy beaches and the rolling, rugged interior of the Appenines. Like the central vertebrae of a fish, the Appenines divided the Italian peninsula down its length.
The villa was not grand in style but it was pretty in character. The mustard yellow exterior was vine-covered and only the occasional patch of stucco was visible. Tall, main-floor windows were actually narrow double doors that opened to let the outdoors in. They were repeated on the second floor, with a small balcony replacing the ground floor patio. The requisite full-height, green shutters completed the Italian country architecture and gave the villa a handsome and comfortable look. The front door was three inches of solid walnut that had aged to a fine, unfinished patina of roughness. Its wrought iron detailing mimicked the entrance gate from the road. In the front garden, on each side of the gate, was a huge mass of bougainvillea that climbed over the stone wall in a breathtaking blaze of colour.
“Mamma. Siamo arrivati,” Vincenzo called out as they entered.
“I’ll be with you directly,” his mother answered in a passable English. She appeared at the top of the stairs in a simple black outfit and made her way down with the grace familiar surroundings bring. She held out both hands to Miles, a welcome smile on her face. He brushed both cheeks with a kiss in the Italian fashion. And she returned the gesture. Her hair was immaculately coiffed in a becoming chignon. In a nervous movement, she ran her hand over her hair to gather non-existent stray strands.
“Louisa, it’s good to see you again. May I introduce my wife, Ethel.” The women exchanged pleasantries and Louisa ushered them out into the back garden.
“I’ve asked Bianca to serve us tea out here. She has been with me a long while and is indispensable to me. I find, as I get older, my aches increase faster than my wrinkles. You will remember the fruit trees as somewhat smaller when you were here last,” she said, waving her arm in the direction of the garden. The trees, in fact, were lined like soldiers, alternating peach, plum and lemon. Most were exhibiting the potential for a heavy harvest, with the plums clearly in the lead. The garden was shaded by their umbrella of leaves, giving the outdoors a welcome oasis of coolness. “I took it upon myself to put you in the ‘angel’ room,” she continued. “I think you will like it, Ethel.” After a slight pause, she added, “Is it permitted?”
Vincenzo burst out with a laugh. “What she means is may she call you Ethel?” They were still laughing as Bianca came out with the tea tray and pastries.
When they were settled into their room, they understood why it was called the ‘angel’ room. The coffered ceiling was painted a pale blue with floating white clouds and chubby cherubs peeking from behind. It was very new, but the cherubs retained the renaissance look of Verrocchio’s bronze statue of a boy with a dolphin.
Later that evening, after supper, Miles strolled through the garden of fruit trees with Louisa. The sky was dark but brilliant with stars. He looked back towards the house and the warm light emanating from the interior. He could see Vincenzo with Ethel discussing one of the painting reproductions that hung on the wall of the dining area. “It’s as beautiful as I remember,” he murmured. “As are you.”
Louisa continued walking but did not speak. Her mind was full of conflicting thoughts. Was she angry, sad, happy or numbed? Finally she spoke. “Does your wife know? Everything?”
“Yes. Everything. I have no secrets from her, or you.”
“That’s good. She must be a very strong woman. Like me,” she added.
“Yes, like you.”
“And what do you think of the arrangement? Was I right?” She had stopped now and turned to look at him, but his face was in shadow. She reached out and gently turned him so that the light from the dining room showed his blue eyes.
“Yes, you were right. Until now. Now the last secret has to be told. That’s why we came. He’s beautiful. When I saw him in the piazza today, I knew instantly. He looks exactly like you, but he has my eyes.”
“Ah yes, those damn blue eyes. That’s what got me the first time I saw you so long ago. Will you tell him tonight?”
“Not tonight. I want to be with him alone tomorrow and tell him gently. To try to explain why I felt it necessary to wait this long. I hope he won’t hate me.”
“He is not that way. Besides,” she looked at him with a nervous smile, “it’s not every young man who can claim three fathers.