A large grey cat perched on a fragment of fallen pillar caught her attention. On her way to a café in Piazza Navona, Amy Armstrong paused to admire the creature’s Zen-like stillness. The cat turned its amber gaze to contemplate her, then turned away. Like many momentous occasions in life, Amy was unaware of how significant this moment had been.
She moved on, merging with those waiting to cross the road, a slight, dark-haired woman with eyes that a past lover once described as witch’s eyes, her jeans and cotton shirt making her indistinguishable among the teeming tourists of this city.
‘Simply inviting a colpo d’aria,’ Signora Nannini would comment, who lived with the Italian fear of being struck by one of these dangerous draughts and remained muffled in jacket and scarves until April was safely past. ‘These tourists are so foolish.’
But Amy was in Rome on a mission.
The aroma of dark roasted coffee hit her as soon as she walked through the café doors. She was gazing at the noisy roasting machines, the shelves stacked with bags of coffee, when someone spoke her name. She turned to look straight into the darkeyes of a middle-aged man who had approached her.
‘Paolo Giordano,’ he smiled. ‘I thought it must be you. There is a resemblance to your mother, although, of course, she was blonde.’
Taking his hand, she said: ‘This is an amazing place.’
‘Tazza D’Oro? Yes. In my opinion, though not everyone’s, they serve the best coffee in Rome. But it is much more than a simple coffee bar, this is a torrefazione: they roast their own coffee so the blends are unique to them.’ He gestured towards the cashier. ‘Please choose what you will take, we must pay before we can order.’
Amy shrugged. ‘A cappuccino, I suppose.’
‘Ah,’ he shook his finger. ‘Is it true this is your first time in Rome? Then you must have the house specialty, the granita di caffe.’
‘If you say so.’
The result was a dreamy mix of frozen coffee, broken into slush and layered with fresh whipped cream, the bitterness cut by the dairy sweetness.
She closed her eyes as she tasted the first spoonful. ‘Oh, it’s heavenly.’
Paolo laughed. ‘What did I tell you?’
He sipped his coffee. ‘So tell me, why it is you who have come to Rome instead of your mother?’
He must have been a real looker when he was young, Amy mused. Even now, in his fifties, he was very attractive with that full head of white hair. If his brother had been anything like him it wasn’t surprising…
‘Well?’ he prompted.
Should she lie and say her mother was too busy in the shop, or not well enough to travel? The truth was bound to come out, sooner or later. She finished the last of the granita and laid down her spoon.
‘The thing is, Signor Giordano, she didn’t want to come to Rome. In fact, she doesn’t want to take up the inheritance.’
He frowned. ‘I don’t understand. It was Marco’s express wish that the apartment should go to her. The family always knew it would be so.’
‘Yes, I read the letter but…’ It was all so difficult. How could she tell him of Mum’s odd reaction when the news arrived? That she had made Amy promise she wouldn’t say anything about it to her father. It had been all she could do to persuade her mother not to destroy the notary’s words.
‘Paolo, please, I feel we are almost related.’
‘Okay Paolo, I don’t understand her reason any more than you do. I never knew Mum had had a relationship with your brother until she told me.’
Paolo produced a pack of cigarettes and held it out to Amy. She shook her head. ‘You don’t mind?’
‘God no, Mum smokes all the time.’
‘Yes, I do remember that.’ He drew out a thin brown cigarette and flicked his lighter. Amy noticed the beautiful silver ring on his middle finger, smelled spicy cologne.
‘She’d never mentioned Marco before?’
‘No, and she really didn’t want to discuss it anymore with me. Just said the past was the past, she had no intention of returning to Rome and wanted the apartment to be disposed of.’
Paolo’s gaze was fixed on her as if trying to grasp what she was saying. Amy wished she could end this interview, escape to the roar and bustle of the streets outside, to do what she had come to do before she went back to England.
‘Is that why you’re here, then?’ His tone sharpened. ‘To rid yourself of Marco’s apartment?’
She thought of the shadowy room in the apartment, of the previous evening, when she had sat watching the nightlife of the city from the big window that looked down onto the square. She’d remembered her mother’s reaction and been incredulous that anyone could turn down such a wonderful gift.
‘Mum asked me to deal with it, but I was also curious,’ she told Paolo. ‘I wanted to see the apartment for myself and I’ve never been to Rome. This seemed the perfect opportunity.’
He smiled then. ‘Everyone should see Rome at least once in their lifetime. How long do you plan to stay?’
‘Probably only a few days.’
‘Stay a bit longer if you can. Get to know the city. Then perhaps we can discuss the inheritance again.’
His words had a surprising effect on her. Instead of protesting that she couldn’t spare the time, she was needed in her mother’s spice shop, Amy found she was nodding in agreement. During this brief meeting with Paolo, a subtle shift seemed to have occurred. The feeling of having only a fleeting purpose in this city had been replaced by a sense of connection.
On her way back to Via Gioberti, Amy paused again at the site where she had glimpsed the grey cat. The sun was setting, illuminating the ruins, but there was no sign of the animal. She leaned over the railings to look and thought she caught the sound of voices. Then she noticed some metal steps leading downwards and a sign explaining that Largo di Torre Argentina housed a sanctuary for cats. She decided she would return the following day.