As the years went by, my shyness dwindled slightly, meaning I became increasingly inquisitive to try out my newly acquired confidence. My stool in the bakery shop gradually moved its way from the corner to a more central spot, until it wasn’t even needed anymore. Finally, I was behind the counter, standing beside my mother and trying to recreate her magical smile. Customers would often come in and address me instead of her, asking for a Pannetone or loaf of bread.
By the time I had turned ten, I also started helping Papa in the kitchen. It all began in the small hours one morning when I found myself unable to sleep – a problem that never quite seemed to leave me. After what felt like hours of reading a comic in my bed, tossing and turning, I tiptoed downstairs for a change of scenery. There I found Papa, hunched over the table kneading dough. This wasn’t unusual – like me he was never much of a good sleeper, and would often retreat to the comfort of the kitchen where his restless hours could be spent more productively.
“Papa,” I whispered. “I can’t sleep.”
“Come and help me, sweetheart,” he replied softly, beckoning me over to the table. He gently ripped off a globule of dough from his own mound and pushed it across to me.
“Knead this, you know how to,” he commanded.
I had never helped Papa with the bread, or any other element of the baking for that matter; whilst watching my brothers assist him I came to the incorrect conclusion that it was maybe a matter of being a girl. In fact, I found out it was because I wasn’t a lady, and finally the day came when Papa felt I was mature enough. Throughout my youth I was always making biscuits with Mama, or stirring the cake mixture when it was a brother’s birthday, but now I was being allowed input to the goods that would serve our friends and neighbours, our customers.
That night, I never went back to sleep, but instead stayed awake with Papa until it was time to get ready for school. Mama was furious when I returned home with a note from my teacher explaining how I had fallen asleep in class, and she scurried off to scold my father for letting me stay up. When she returned some minutes later, however, her expression had relaxed and she told me how Papa had sung my praises.
“I’m glad you’ve inherited the family talent,” she told me. “But don’t stay up late making bread again. Night time is for sleeping, darling.”
Despite my mother forbidding me from late night baking, the vast majority of my nights were rendered sleepless by both insomnia and my ever-whirring mind, meaning this was absolutely ignored. Instead, I would sneak downstairs and join my father. If he was not yet there, I would never begin making the bread itself, not trusting myself with the ancient heavy machinery that harboured an ominous presence in the kitchen, nor the intricate measurements that Papa knew like the back of his hand. I would instead set up for him, lining up the various bowls, spoons and spatulas neatly along the workbench. There they would sit patiently until he was ready for their use.
Eventually my body seemed to train itself to get by with less sleep – sometimes if I allowed it one deep, rich lie-in a week it seemed content. Mama always told me that clever people don’t need as much sleep, because in actual fact their brains relished the extra learning time. I liked to pretend this was true, a comforting notion for when restlessness got the better of me. When I was young, I would lie in bed worrying that the next day I would be cranky and tired, but as I grew up I realised the importance of not worrying about things you cannot change. It was thanks to this that I learnt the art of bread making, along with great novels, life-changing films and, eventually, caffeine.
* * *
When I was eighteen my parents decided I was at the pitiful age where I needed to be set up with a suitable male suitor. I had never had a proper boyfriend, an absence in my life that did not bother me in the slightest as it also meant I had never had my heart broken. My brothers found this to be a cynical equation for life, but to me it just symbolised a happy medium of contentment. I came to realise that perhaps romance just wasn’t for me. That’s not to say I was steering myself in a gloomy state of spinsterhood, but merely that I was not expecting to be swept off my feet by anybody. I looked at other girls – characters in films, heroines in novels, pretty ladies in the streets – and they were the type that warranted a good glamorous and dramatic sweeping. I knew from a young age that my best friend, Anna, for example, would make a brilliant wife and mother. I felt I did not necessarily deserve such aspirations just yet. Instead, I decided not to wish my life away for a handsome young prince, but to get proactive and excel in an area that I had more control over. Mama said this was my brain, and so this is what I chose to invest time in.
This is exactly how I tried to convince my parents not to waste time on setting me up; “Mama, I don’t want a boyfriend right now. I want to focus on studying and just spending time with my friends. I’m young still, I’m happy.”
This resulted in quizzical stares and then led to a serious questioning on my sexual orientation.
“Are you a… faggot?” Papa almost spat the word out.
My parents were never ones to discriminate whatsoever, but were not very clued up on the modern etiquette surrounding political correctness and also watched a lot of American television. I am not a lesbian, I told them. In fact, I had had a number of steamy moments with boys that would serve as more than sufficient evidence, but I thought it best to spare them of those details.
However, despite my best efforts, my parents cornered me when I wasn’t expecting it. They threw a dinner party for our close neighbours and went to the special effort of inviting Mrs Bocatelli’s great-nephew. He had even been made to travel two hours from the nearest city for the privilege of eating at my parents’ house and meeting their daughter, although this was not revealed to me until at least a week later. The table had been laid and looked beautiful, the food was prepared and smelt divine, and then he arrived and things became horrible. Mama made the special effort to invite specifically two more guests than there were spaces around our dining room table, meaning that my date and I were shimmied off to the other end of the room with our own little setup at Papa’s folding card table. I also noticed a rose, which made me wince.
Now Mrs Bocatelli’s great-nephew was a perfectly nice boy. He had clearly been well brought up and was able to treat people with respect. Overall, he was lovely, but absolutely one hundred percent incompatible with me. If anything he was too nice that it slightly sickened me. I watched him eat the long strands of pasta awkwardly and messily, and when he giggled nervously I just felt even worse. Obviously I would never dream of commenting on this, or give him a hostile impression – I may be apparently heartless, but I do have decency. I liked him as a person, just not as a love interest. Therefore, we both remained engaged in conversation, and showed interest in each other, but by the end of the evening I was desperate to go home. Yet I was already home so I couldn’t leave. He asked if I wanted to go for a walk and I couldn’t think of any excuse other than the need to go to bed soon, to which he replied, “Surely you can spare time for a short stroll?” An idea that was met with nothing but hesitation, before a reluctant “Okay” slipped its way mischievously from my mouth. What else could I say?
I don’t know if I should have been open with him about my lack of feelings for him, but instead I took the coward’s route and just avoided his invitations vocalised to me via Mrs Bocatelli. It seemed to work and eventually he moved on – to a much nicer person, I found out. I have always believed that you can’t just settle for someone that isn’t right, purely to fight off the potential pangs of loneliness that can hit at any time. I would much rather be alone than be fooling myself with the wrong person.
And so my life remained in this odd romantic lull for a good while longer. But, I was happy and carefree. I did, however, have to endure my parents’ hushed and assured belief that I was a closet lesbian.