They met when their fingers touched. He seized the half empty bottle of wine as she reached towards it. She’d had to burrow through the throng around the heavily laden food table to find it, the only white wine among an assortment of red.
It was ‘Matt Damon’ she realised, frowning at him. She had dubbed him that on her first glimpse earlier that day. She had been helping Matilde and Salvatore unload an astonishing feast from the car. It was Pasquetta, the day after Easter Sunday and a bank holiday in Rome, when so many left the city for a picnic in the country. The man was standing by his car, a low-slung Spyder convertible. Glancing up he caught her eye and smiled. She noted how carelessly he was dressed. Unusual, she thought, for an Italian. Later she walked past him as he stood chatting to the Nanninis, and she saw that he was tall and broad shouldered and his hair was slightly receding.
Now she turned away, from the table with the wine, pushing through the crowd and making for Matilde and her family sitting on the grass.
‘Excuse me,’ he arrived beside her. Forced to pause she glared at him.
‘You wanted this?’ He held up the bottle.
‘I just don’t like red wine,’ she said.
‘I see, then take it, please.’
She wanted to cut him short. ‘It doesn’t matter.’
‘Is this your first Pasquetta?’ he persisted. ‘I take it you are a tourist. I always say I won’t come to these festiccioleand then end up enjoying them.’
She clicked her tongue and shook her head. ‘I’m not a tourist, I live in Rome.’
‘Ah.’ He was eyeing the label on the bottle. ‘This isn’t very good. You probably wouldn’t like it.’
‘Maybe not,’ she said, amused now by his attempt to delay her.
She felt his gaze travel over her from the stylish cut of her dark hair to her low cut flowery dress, it was that Italian way of looking she had now grown accustomed to. He held out his hand.
‘Giorgio,’ he said. ‘Giorgio Bevacqua.’
‘Well Amy, shall we see if there is a secret store of white wine somewhere?’
She glanced back at the groups of people who had become her friends during the past, eventful year. No one seemed to be looking for her. She felt a twinge of guilt for the absent Davide. But it’s only a drink, she told herself.
‘Come on then,’ He led the way to another part of the field and she saw there was indeed another table, this one loaded with bottles.
‘Now let me see.’ He picked up one bottle, considered the label, then another as if they were expensive wines, which she was sure they were not.
‘I think this one you’ll like.’
As she watched him fill two glasses she felt a sudden sense of gratitude that she, Amy Armstrong, was here, now, on this April day 1998. The sun was warm on her bare arms and the city she had made her adopted home a few miles away.
‘You look happy,’ Giorgio’s voice came to her.
‘I am. Who wouldn’t be, here?’
‘Good,’ he said. They clinked glasses. ‘May all your wishes come true.’
They drank in a companionable silence.
He held up the bottle. ‘Another?’
But an image of Davide came to her mind, he seated across the table from her at Grappolo d’Oro on the evening of their first dinner together. It was the night he’d admitted he came to the cat sanctuary not to adopt a cat but to find her, the night he had kissed her for the first time.
‘I should get back to my friends. They might be looking for me.’ But she hesitated, meeting Giorgio’s gaze. ‘Or perhaps they could wait a little longer.’
He smiled ‘I’m sure they’d understand.’
Understand what? She asked herself. This man means nothing to me. But as they finished the bottle between them and then sought shade under an oak tree to laugh and talk, she thought why not? It is just an enjoyable afternoon interlude with someone I’ll never see again.
He asked her about her life in Rome and she told him about her spice stall in Campo de Fiori. He listened attentively. He was clearly impressed by her success and expressed admiration of the way she had built her clientele.
‘Yes, I had my doubts whether I’d succeed here and people were a bit reluctant to try at first.’
‘Interesting when you remember the ancient Romans used a lot of spices, herbs too. Cumin, for example, it was widely used in ancient Rome, ground to a paste and spread on bread. Pliny never tired of it.’
She did not say she knew this already, having made a study for the presentations she gave from time to time. ‘Wasn’t fennel one of their favourites?’ she asked.
‘Yes they used it medicinally too. It was believed to give courage and strength.’ He caught her questioning glance. ‘How do I know all this? I’m an archaeologist, you see. I particularly enjoy studying the domestic life of these bygone people on our digs.’
It was her turn to have her interest piqued.
‘The Etruscans,’ he replied in answer to her question, ‘such a mysterious civilisation.’
Amy realised they had been sitting there for over two hours and had not stopped talking. Giorgio had a delightfully relaxed manner that was so different from the often-nervous Davide. He laughed easily and gave her his full attention when she told him about her work at Largo Argentina with the cats.
‘Some of them have been abandoned and others are brought in off the streets. There was one we called Mister Grumpy who became such a sweet natured creature. All they ask for is some love.’
‘I’d never have put you down as a crazy cat lady.’
Her tone was cool at his use of ‘crazy.’ ‘Appearances can be very deceptive!’
For the first time in months she was enjoying another man’s company. And why shouldn’t I? She asked herself again. This is perfectly innocent.
Later someone played the accordion and they joined in the dancing and then returned to the first table for some of Matilde’s Easter gateau and more wine. By now Amy had convinced herself Davide would surely understand that she deserved a little light hearted enjoyment.
‘You two seemed to be having a lot of fun,’ Giulia Nannini commented as
they drove back to Rome.
‘It was very nice,’ said Amy, setting the afternoon firmly in the past.
‘Giorgio is a decent person,’ put in her husband. ‘Respected in his field.
I’ve read some of his essays.’
Amy thought the Nanninis sounded rather like matchmaking parents.
‘I expect he is,’ she said. ‘But I’m feeling guilty now.’
Giulia looked over her shoulder and met her gaze. ‘Guilty?’
‘Because of Davide.’
The couple exchanged a glance. Giulia said: ‘my dear Amy, I think you must realise that you’ll probably never see him again. And from what you’ve told me, it’s probably for the best. You’re young, it’s right you should enjoy yourself.’
‘What a day we had yesterday!’ Salvatore greeted her when she arrived at her spice stall the following morning. ‘And what a monster of a headache I’ve got!’
‘Serves you right for drinking all that wine,’ Matilde looked up from unloading a crate of broad beans for her stall. She turned to Amy. ‘You were certainly enjoying yourself, young lady.’
Amy murmured something. As she arranged her small packets of spices, the sky beyond her stall was blue and the sun surprisingly warm for April. She was thoughtful. A year had passed since her arrival in Rome, believing it to be for a short visit. Yet she was troubled by the mystery of Davide’s mysterious career and his extended trips to Naples. He had never told her when he might return and during a particularly long absence last year she had considered her dilemma. Her friend, Paolo, asked her: ‘what are you willing to lose if you stay here?’ In spite of everything she was glad she had stayed and now felt firmly rooted in the city, but as the months had gone by so had her conviction faded they would meet again. If it wasn’t for the occasional postcard, Davide might never have existed.
Thinking about the happy, uncomplicated day spent with Giorgio, Amy told herself that maybe Giulia was right, it was time to move on.