When I was younger, I used to hang out in Rome with my friends. That sounds cool, huh? Like I had the jetsetting lifestyle and all that. You couldn’t be more wrong. “Rome” was a café-bar-cum-ice-cream-parlour down the road from where I lived. It opened up one day when I was about eleven. Overnight, the front of a pretty ordinary 1960s shop acquired a lime-wash, marble pillars, and a green vine trailing its way towards the first-floor windows. The marble was fake, but the vine was real.
And inside—wow. The old folks said the place had some kind of identity crisis, didn’t know what it wanted to be: Café? Bar? Ice-cream parlour? But my friends and I, we thought it was marvellous. As you walked in, you were greeted by a large counter groaning under the weight of pastries. Further back, the bar was made of shiny dark mahogany, with glass shelves full of Italian beers, wines and fancy liqueurs. At the far end, the ice cream counter offered flavours of “gelato” that nobody had ever seen before or knew how to pronounce. Stracciatella soon became my favourite.
The place was furnished with rickety, mismatched wooden tables and chairs without table cloths, and the walls were beige-washed. I say that because the colour was irregular, like a white-wash, except it wasn’t white and it wasn’t brown. It should have looked dirty and horrible, but it was amazing, especially with all the hanging baskets of flowers and the artful patterns of tiny coloured tiles and mirrors.
Pretty soon, Rome was where we congregated to do our homework. Rome was where we went on our first dates. Rome was where we drowned our first heartaches in ice cream. And Rome was where we had our first, totally illegal, taste of alcohol when Joe—short for Giovanni—made us his special Limoncello ice cream cocktail on our fourteenth birthdays. It was heavy on the ice cream, and the Limoncello only made a token guest appearance, but we loved it.
Joe was the beating heart and soul of Rome. He and his wife Anna owned the place. They were from Italy, and their English was broken (if you wanted to be generous) to non-existent (if you were brutally honest). Yet somehow, we managed to communicate, and it was Joe who listened to our woes, Joe who advised us how to fix arguments and bikes, and Joe who straightened out our mathematical confusion. In Rome, we listened to Italian music, twisted our tongues around some basic Italian phrases, tried out Italian coffee, and feasted on Italian pastries and bread.
And then, as abruptly as it had opened, Rome disappeared. One day, the place was boarded up, and Joe and Anna were gone. Just like that.
Needless to say, we were bereft. Tears were shed and desperate attempts were made to trace Joe and Anna, but it was as though they’d never existed. The whispers started—about how Joe and Anna had been illegals, had been spies, criminals on the run, mobsters, you name it.
Me, I was grieving and angry. How could Joe and Anna leave like that, without a word, like our friendship didn’t mean a thing? In time, the grief and anger turned to sweet nostalgia. If it hadn’t been for Rome, I’d have probably never thought of leaving the village. But the glimpse of another world proved irresistible, and I applied to uni in London. I became a translator and interpreter, Italian being one of my six languages, and I travelled a lot. It was because of Rome that I saw the world before I settled back in London with a husband and—later—two kids.
Imagine my surprise then when twenty years later, on a business trip to Rome—yes, the actual place—I stumbled across a place called “GiovAnna’s”. Marble pillars outside, a vine trailing up the front, and, just visible from my vantage point on the road, a counter groaning under the weight of pastries.
I stood there, on the Vicolo dei Modelli, just round the corner from the Trevi Fountain, in the glaring heat of noon in the middle of July, and time and space slipped away from me. My heartbeat skittered and fluttered as flashbacks assaulted me hard and fast. Could it be?
Hesitantly, I stepped over the threshold. The inside was larger, much larger, than I remembered—but of course, I didn’t remember this place at all. Yet, the furniture and beige-wash and colourful tiles were all the same. The place was busy, evidently popular with tourists, and my eyes scanned the bar impatiently. Disappointment lodged in my throat when the barman turned out to a young woman, and the ice-cream server a teenager.
“Mia Bella! At last!”
I nearly jumped out of my skin when a hand alighted on my shoulder and I found myself being gently spun around. I locked eyes with Joe, a much older version of himself, but his voice hadn’t changed.
“Mia Bella,” he repeated. “You found us. What took you so long?”
I shook my head. “Why did you leave? You didn’t even say goodbye!”
“You learned our language!” Joe broke into a big smile at my Italian phrases and continued our conversation in his native tongue. “And I’m sorry we left. That’s a long story. Come.”
He took my hand and led me towards a table at the back. He sat me down, ordered some food, and summoned Anna. And at last the story emerged. As a young woman, Anna had witnessed a vicious crime. She had given testimony at trial, and then she and her husband had fled the country that very same night after a policeman warned them they wouldn’t be safe. They went to France, but that wasn’t far enough. Therefore, they decided to hide where no-one would expect them, namely in rainy old England. They picked an obscure place in the middle of nowhere and poured what little money they had in a small eatery. They laid low for six years, but they got ratted out again. They went to Denmark next, and then to Hungary. It was only a year ago that they finally received the all-clear and settled back in Rome.
“It was worth it,” Anna offered quietly. “Justice was done, we are still alive, and we made many friends along the way. And now we have this.” She made an effusive hand gesture and smiled.
“And this.” Joe pointed towards a pinboard covered in smiling faces, all with names and dates. “Our friends, they keep finding us, and they tell us stories of their lives. Now’s your turn,” Joe smiled. “What brought you to Rome?”
What a fascinating story Nicky, and its really made me smile. I love that you have shared this with us as part of Rome Week!
Cat Hope doesn’t want to go to prison. She needs a job, and she needs it fast: judge’s orders.
Kay Mahon, office worker by day and hacker by night, is on the run from a past life that he’d rather not remember.
When their paths cross, they discover that the night that derailed Cat’s future nineteen long years ago also changed the path of Kay’s life. Confused and intrigued, they begin to investigate the truth behind the deaths of the successful rock star couple Jackie and Adam Hope. Little do they know that their quest is putting Cat in grave danger.
About Nicky Wells: Love & Thrills
Nicky Wells writes captivating romance and breathtaking thrillers featuring famous (or infamous!) feisty heroes and extraordinary villains. DEAD HOPE is her eighth book and the first published novel in her “Wake Up Dead” themed thriller series, with the next two books scheduled for release through the course of 2017 and 2018. Nicky has previously published seven works of romantic fiction both with US publishing house, Sapphire Star Publishing, and independently.
Born in Germany, Nicky moved to the United Kingdom in 1993 and currently lives in Lincoln with her husband and their two boys. She loves listening to rock music, dancing, and eating lobsters. When she’s not writing, she’s hopelessly addicted to reading crime novels by the truck load.