“It will have changed, of course.”
“Yes, Dad.” Sarah stooped to help him out of the taxi. “Thirty years. So long. How come you and Mum never came back?”
“You know what she was like.”
The grief in his smile made her chest tighten.
Such a whirlwind. Always on to the next thing. Never look back, that’s what she used to say.” He sighed, heavily. “I don’t seem to do much else, of late.”
Sarah pressed her lips together – she had promised herself not to cry in front of him while they were away.
Three whole days – how long was it since she and her father had spent so much time alone together?
And yet she’d known, as soon as he began talking about Rome, about revisiting the streets where they had first met and fallen in love, that she would go with him.
She watched the taxi head back over the bridge. They were in an avenue of plane trees above the river Tiber.
Sarah slipped her arm through her father’s and guided him across the road. “Tell me again how you and Mum met.”
“You’ve heard that story a million times.”
“I can always hear it again.”
“She was just standing outside my front door: 32 Calle Borgino. Clutching a map, obviously lost. Trying to find the Campo Fiore. I offered to walk her and we began to talk but she was so beautiful, so bewitching, that I paid no attention to where we were going and before long we were lost. We ended up in a run-down square, with a hole-in-the-wall café. Richello’s. I’ve still got the card somewhere. I didn’t want to tell her I was lost, so I asked if she’d like coffee and cannoli. We sat for hours. Coffee became wine, and then dinner.”
“The perfect evening.”
“It was. Yet we never found that café again.”
The story was so familiar, yet there was an unbearable poignancy to it now.
She glanced up as the street grew narrower; the buildings on either side a rich palette of burnt auburn and saffron.
The city was changing; the grandeur of the old town melting into a quieter, more residential feel, with simple trattorias spilling tables on to the streets.
It still seemed possible that her mum would appear at any moment, stepping out of one of the restaurants.
“Here we are.” She glanced up at the sign: Calle Borgino. John peered along the street.
“But this can’t be it. There used to be a bar on this corner, D’Ella Vina. Always kept a good Montepulciano. Your mother’s favourite.”
“It’s been 30 years, Dad. Things will have changed.”
“I know.” He shook his head as they began to walk. “What is that?”
Sarah followed his gaze towards a glass-fronted building.
The window framed a twisted mass of metal and rubber, shaped to look vaguely like a tree.
Behind it, the empty space was dotted with half a dozen similar, smaller sculptures.
“An art gallery, I think.”
“That’s not art. How can they call that art, in this city of all places?”
“Look, number 32.”
Sarah squeezed her father’s arm, praying that the honey-coloured building, draped in ivy, still bore a resemblance to how it had looked in her father’s time.
“Now, that doesn’t look like it’s changed much.”
Before he could answer, the door swung open and a boy strode out, followed by another; both in jeans that hung far below their waists, hoodies draping their thin, teenage frames.
John steadied himself against the wall.
“Dad? Are you OK?”
“Just tired. Perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea. Everything just feels so different. Let’s just go back to the hotel.”
Sarah smiled wanly.
It was what she had feared, that this pilgrimage risked tarnishing, rather than embellishing, the memories of her mother.
At the end of Calle Borgino, Sarah guided her father left, hoping it was the way back.
Welcome back to Richello’s, Dad. Coffee and cannoli?
They walked in silence for several minutes, but the river failed to appear.
Instead the street opened out into a small piazza filled with warm, autumn sunlight.
On the right, a small palazzo was covered with jasmine and soft pink blossom; opposite, a cluster of café tables was framed by a low trellis, covered with climbing roses.
“What a beautiful square.” Sarah felt uplifted suddenly.
“Let’s stop, Dad. Have a coffee.”
“All right.” He frowned.
“It’s odd. I don’t remember this square at all. And yet…”
Sarah guided him to a seat and slipped through the door into the darkened interior of the café.
“Buongiorno, bella.” Behind the glass counter, a small, silver-haired man beamed at her. “What would you like?”
“Two coffees, please.” She glanced at the pastries; the neat rows of what looked like cream-filled brandy snaps.
“Are they cannoli?”
“Si, si. The best in Rome. Since 40 years.”
Sarah’s heart lifted.
He grinned. “Man and boy. Giuseppe Richello, at your service.”
“Si, si.” He slipped a business card across the counter with the coffee and cannoli.
Sarah stared at the card. “You’ve made my day.”
As Sarah laid the tray in front of her father, she realised he was smiling.
“It’s so odd,” he said, as she sat down, “I know it can’t be the same place, the piazza was so tatty, but…”
Sarah slipped the business card across the table. “Welcome back to Richello’s, Dad. Coffee and cannoli?”