Short Stories

Italy

One of the earliest memories within my possession is of a young me, sitting on the cold stone floor of the bakery. I am tracing shapes with my finger into a dusting of flour that has fallen from the table, where my parents are busily working. They are talking as they work, discussing the temperate weather, the stubbornness of the pastry that my mother is rolling, the plans for this evening’s dinner. With a sudden break in conversation, my attention is caught. I hear my mother gasp and see her take a step back from the large wooden bench. I haul myself up as far as I can, standing on tiptoes to see the surface where they have both been working. There, in front of me, is a giant cake. Its three tiers are all a pure, brilliant white and sitting individually on ornate stands. Draped all around it are beautiful sugar roses sitting elegantly on the duvet of icing. My mother continues to swoon, kissing Papa on the cheek and exclaiming how clever he is.

For the years that followed, I was given more of these memories – memories of my parents filling the bakery with delicious scents, Mama dancing across the cobbled floor to the radio, my brothers and I sitting in a line on the counter eating biscotti. I lived a very happy childhood, where simple pleasures such as singing, laughing and lemon cake were the fundamental components of each day.

Normally, the bakery was very busy. Whether it was Father Filippo buying his morning loaf of bread before mass, or my best friend, Anna, dragging her aged grandmother in and begging her for a cake, it was always full of friendly faces. Throughout the day, Papa would remain behind the scenes in the kitchen, which was where he was in his element. Mama, on the other hand, commandeered the front of house, utilising her infectious smile from behind the counter to woo the crowds in. As my brothers got older, they usually helped out in the kitchen, getting elbow-deep in currant-speckled dough. I preferred to follow in my mother’s beautifully heeled footsteps. I never served the customers – I was far too shy a child for that – but I always enjoyed sitting in the corner on my old rickety stool with my colouring book, occasionally looking up coyly when a kind townsperson acknowledged me.

Today, however, there were no people. The doors were locked and the shutters were down. Instead, Mama was running around in our apartment upstairs in her best dress and heels, shouting at Papa to get ready. I was sitting at the top of the stairs, buckling my polished black shoes and pulling up my favourite white socks – they were my favourite because of the special rim of lace that ran around the top. My belly rumbling, I made my way downstairs into the quiet, empty kitchen and helped myself to a piece of bread. I could still hear my family’s frantic footsteps upstairs, so decided to remain in the calmer depths of the building. I noticed on the table, a giant cake – just like the one I once stood on my tip-toes to look at. This was another wedding cake. In fact, it was more than just a mere wedding cake: it was my eldest brother’s wedding cake.

I reached up to the highest tier and touched the two small figurines that sat atop it; both had beautiful Italian bronzed skin and dark hair. I then softly caressed the bride’s miniature veil, only to pull my hand away and find that her entire head came with me. My brothers had always told me I was careless and clumsy, but now that I had beheaded one of their future wives, I felt those two terms had become somewhat of an understatement. I looked over to the counter by the sink and noticed a small pot, which was filled with the jam used to sandwich the cake layers together. In a rush of panic, I grabbed one of Papa’s spatulas and slathered the jam on the bride’s neck, before pushing her head back on firmly. The jam oozed from the break, meaning she still looked like a victim of a horrific decapitation, but I was satisfied that it should at least prolong Mama’s scolding until later.

Eventually, my three brothers marched their way downstairs, led by my impatient mother and followed by my slightly more relaxed father. All of the male counterparts were smartly dressed in suits, although my two younger brothers, Emilio and Sal, looked awkward and uncomfortable. My oldest brother, Giancarlo, however, was embracing every moment; today he was getting married and he was excited. We all made our way out of the door and set off for the short walk towards the church. As we neared it, I was immediately overcome with a rush of colour. Sprawled across the aged stonework were beautiful bouquets of flowers, tied with white ribbon to the various archways and statues. The path that wound through the graveyard was lined with more of these, each posing regally in a wrought iron stand. Townspeople lingered outside the doorway in their finery, all smiling and talking jovially. They loved a wedding. As we made our way towards the church, they all turned to us, and as we passed through the doors we were greeted with more enthusiasm and affection than Giancarlo could have ever hoped for. He responded with a wide grin that stretched right across the extent of his face.

The service was beautiful – well, it at least moved Mama to a weeping wreck. My father, too, was tearing up, and I think even Gian was. The eyes of his fiancée, Sofia were also growing misty as she stood opposite him, but as a salty tear slid down her face, I couldn’t help but notice how she managed to do this in a much more charming manner than Mama. I found it hard to focus on the words, but was happy to look around the church. I gazed at the bridesmaids – immediately envious at a role I had turned down on the basis of being too scared, but lapping up a harsh lesson that never again would I let my fear or timidity stop me from wearing such a pretty dress. The replacements were Sofia’s two sisters and three of her cousins. All looked beautiful and, much to my resentment, very smug. I averted my attention to my feet and began to fiddle mindlessly with the lace on my socks. This distracted my bitterness adequately until I felt a sharp pinch at my arm and Mama whispered angrily into my ear, “This is your brother’s special day! Look up and stop being so rude!” She had a way of making you instantly do anything at all when she used that tone.

When Gian and Sofia were finally joined in holy matrimony, everyone made their way back to the square next to our bakery. What was usually an empty area with a small fountain and a few benches was now a big celebration. Long tables had been set up and were surrounded by chairs, all of which were draped with ribbons and flowers. Fairy lights were bordering the square in anticipation for the evening darkness that would later come. Music was blaring jovially from one of Papa’s ancient speakers. The feature that I felt was most show-stealing, however, sat regally on a large stand by Gian and Sofia’s table – this feature, of course, being my parents’ cake. I could see townspeople and relatives circling it and cooing gleefully. Mama was stood beside it putting out plates and I could see a small, subtle smile twitching at the corners of her mouth. I was watching her proudly until she began to lean towards the top tier of the cake, smile fading and brow furrowing. It would appear that my cover-up job on Sofia’s neck was not as good as I had thought. As she turned to come and locate me, I took this precise moment to overcome my lifelong battle with shyness by going to find Sofia’s sisters for an innocent game of ‘hide and seek’. Emphasis on the ‘hide’.

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