For the tenth time in as many minutes he glanced at his watch and saw that it was now ten past eight. Once again, he started making a mental list of all the possible reasons why she still hadn’t shown up.
The white-coated waiter appeared from nowhere with the coffee he’d ordered five minutes ago. He placed it deftly on the table, nudged the glass and chrome sugar dispenser in Frank’s direction then pirouetted away between the other tables.
Frank reached for another cigarette and lit it carefully before measuring one level spoon of sugar into the strong, delicious-smelling brew. He took a sip, glanced at his watch again and drew heavily on his cigarette. Twelve minutes past.
He squinted through the cigarette smoke into evening sunlight which washed his corner of the piazza with an amber glow. He loved Rome, especially in early September when the tourists were not quite as thick on the ground. The Café Meletti was a favourite and he stopped by there to enjoy a coffee or aperitif whenever he was in Rome. Then he’d wander a few blocks to one of his favourite restaurants for dinner. He delighted in watching the myriad people, visitors and locals, as they strolled past the sidewalk cafés set out along the ancient colonnaded shopfronts or as they sat at the many tables, talking and laughing in the warm evening air.
Then he saw her - stepping briskly between the couples and family groups who sauntered up and down the sidewalk, taking their evening stroll. The sun was low behind her and he could see the shape of her slim figure through the crisp white organza dress. A golden halo of light surrounded the dark shoulder-length hair which framed her face. His heart thumped and a smile creased his handsome face which only a moment ago had been sombre and introspective. Quickly, he stubbed out the half-smoked cigarette and leaned forward to push back his chair as he rose to greet her.
Half way to his feet, he glanced up and froze there like an old man, shoulders hunched, as the white organza dress swished past him, carried away by the click-click-click of stilettos. He’d been mistaken, it wasn’t Gina after all but, tricked by the sunlight in his eyes, she had looked so much like her as she’d approached. As soon as he glimpsed her profile, though, he knew it wasn’t her.
There was a giggle from the young ragazza at the next table who seemed to have had her mouth glued to her partner’s ear ever since Frank had arrived at the café. Frank turned to see that the lovebirds had momentarily disengaged themselves and were looking at him with wry smiles on both their faces.
He felt embarrassed, angry and deflated in quick succession and lowered himself back into his chair with as much dignity as he could muster. Keeping his head turned away from the lovers, he seethed inwardly as he overheard the boy whisper something to his partner who responded with a loud husky laugh, the way Italian women do.
Frank grabbed the packet of cigarettes, pulled one out and tossed the pack back onto the table petulantly. He lit up and snapped the lighter closed, inhaling deeply before throwing back his head and blowing out the smoke through tightly pursed lips.
His coffee was still hot but somehow didn’t taste quite as good as the previous two he’d ordered in the 45 minutes he’d spent waiting.
He thought of the girl in the white organza dress – perhaps it had been Gina after all? But, no, he’d know that profile anywhere. Hadn’t he spent the best part of four hours studying it on the flight from London that very morning? She’d seemed very cool when he first boarded the flight and located his seat next to her, she by the window and he the aisle. He’d nodded when she glanced up quickly as he stowed his briefcase in the locker overhead but she had turned away quickly when their eyes met.
Even before easing himself into the seat beside her, he noticed her perfume, the intoxicating, heady scent of...what was it now? Yes, he knew – it was the scent of orange blossom. Almost immediately he was transported back over the years to the time he’d once spent in the Middle East. It conjured up images of a white-walled villa on the outskirts of Amman and a courtyard filled with dark, glossy-leaved trees laden with the white waxy flowers.
His attempts to make conversation shortly after takeoff had produced short, non-committal responses delivered in a soft, luscious Italian accent. She’d spent most of the flight with her head back, eyes closed, feigning sleep. This was when Frank had spent long periods tracing the outline of her profile with his eyes. He gazed at the dark brown curls against her cheek, the arching brow, the long dark lashes, beautifully modelled nose and full soft lips, slightly parted. Her complexion was creamy-bronze and unblemished save for a tiny black mole below the curve of her lower lip.
He’d watched her, first hesitantly, then boldly as she sat there with eyes closed. He watched the slow rise and fall of her bosom below the sensuous blouse of pale lemon silk. His gaze traced the line of the fine gold chain around her neck and he imagined the warmth of the gold cross upon her breast.
An hour before they were due to land at Fiumicino, she stirred slightly, the long lashes flickered open and she drowned him in those big, liquid-brown eyes. It was as if the girl who had closed her eyes had drifted away in sleep. Gone was the distant, almost cold demeanour. She smiled sleepily and spoke.
“Will we arrive soon?”
Frank, caught unawares, stammered like a schoolboy.
“No...I, I mean, yes. Not long now, about one hour.”
“That’s good. I am happy to return in my home.”
“Oh, have you been in England long”?
“Just three week. I make visit to my brother.”
“Is your brother in London”?
“Yes. He marry English girl since two year. She very nice. They very happy.”
And so it went – he asking most of the questions, delving gently but thirsting madly to find out as much as possible about this strange, beautiful girl. It seemed like they had only been talking for minutes when the first announcement came alerting them that they were approaching Fiumicino and to fasten seatbelts in preparation for the descent.
He knew he had to see her again. He would be in Rome just two days to finalise a big sales contract for his company. In the twenty years since the end of the war, the company had forged strong ties with Italy and Frank was one of their star salesmen. He had a tight schedule but was willing to break a leg if necessary to juggle meetings so that he could spend as much time as possible with her, if only she were willing.
Frank snapped his seatbelt on and pushed his back against the seat. His mind was racing. He took a deep breath and turned to the girl, mustering his most charming smile.
“My name is Frank – Franco – and I’m very happy to meet you” he said trying to sound friendly but formal too. He didn’t want to scare her off!
“Ah, Franco,” she smiled, “Also my brother’s name! I am Gina.”
She didn’t offer her hand so Frank, knowing that time was of the essence, said,
“Just a few more minutes and we should be there. Gina, it would make me very happy and would be a great honour if you would meet me for dinner tonight.”
He spoke slowly and clearly so there was no chance of her not understanding.
She hesitated, “I...I don’t know...you are very kind but my aunt, she will meet me in Roma. Tomorrow I go to Napoli, there is my mamma. Tonight I will stay with my aunt; she is, ‘ow you say, ‘aspetta-mi’...
“I understand: your aunt is expecting you to spend this evening with her but please say you will meet me for dinner – anywhere in Rome, any time you say.”
Gina laughed gently at the sound of quiet desperation in Frank’s plea.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is a final announcement and in a few minutes we shall be landing at Fiumicino. Please extinguish all cigarettes and make sure that your seatbelts are fastened and your seats are in an upright position. We hope that you have enjoyed your flight today and look forward to being of service to you again in future. Thank you and Arrivederci.”
“Maybe... I don’t know. I will try.”
“Wonderful! Do you know the Café Meletti in Piazza del Populo?”
“Yes, I know very well.”
“Good. Please meet me there this evening at 7:30, okay?”
“I will try...7:30? Ok.”
There was a slight thud followed by a loud roar as the wheels hit the tarmac and minutes later they taxied to a halt.
He lost sight of Gina in the crowded Customs Hall, decided to concentrate on getting through the passport and Customs formalities, and then headed straight for his hotel.
Now he began kicking himself for not doing the obvious like giving Gina a phone number where he could be contacted or, better still, asking for her phone number – not that she would have given him one – Italian families, especially protective aunts, don’t take too kindly to strange men ringing their young women, he thought.
He looked at his watch again and sighed in resignation – 8:35. She wasn’t going to show now; it had been over an hour. He called the waiter over, paid the bill and lit another cigarette as he stood up.
The sun had slipped behind the ancient buildings at the far end of the piazza and the air felt noticeably cooler. A lone church bell rang out and a startled flock of doves flapped noisily up from the church tower. An accordion was playing a romantic tune in another of the many sidewalk cafés, the melody drifting plaintively on the evening air. Frank looked up and down the vast expanse of the piazza then glanced at the young couple at the next table. They sat, fingers entwined, gazing into each others’ eyes and murmuring endearments. They didn’t see Frank leave, head across the piazza and disappear into the crowd.
Minutes later, an attractive girl with dark, shoulder length hair walked quickly up to the Café Meletti. She hesitated, her eyes scanning the tables then glanced at her watch, a frown furrowing her brow. She hesitated again, appeared to make a decision, then sat down at the very table Frank had vacated only minutes before. Almost immediately, she saw the gold Zippo lighter, half hidden by the empty coffee cup and saucer from the previous customer. She reached over and picked it up; turning it slowly in her hands, then noticed the inscription on the base: ‘Happy Birthday Frank.’ Her eyes widened and she clasped the lighter to her breast.
A soft breeze moved like a whisper in the violet twilight, carrying with it the perfume of orange blossom. The young man at the next table turned his head towards the scented breeze and his girlfriend pinched his arm in mock jealousy. Leaning over, he kissed her on the neck and whispered something in her ear. She threw back her head and laughed that earthy, husky laugh, the way Italian women do.