Nobody remembered how or where zio Ettore had first met her. He had travelled the world on cruise ships for 15 years before returning to Milan in the late 70s with grey hair, five books on English grammar – his greatest passion – and snapshots of women he called his “sweat hearts” (mimicking an American accent). All we knew was that every August Fenella visited him and, scandal, shared his bedroom for two weeks. Whether their relationship was limited to that yearly fortnight or continued into the winter months, we could not tell. Zio Ettore was very vague about his private life, which made him my parents’ favourite subject of conversation.
Every summer my whole family would leave Milan on the 31st of July – our three car convoy departing at 4.30am to beat the queue on the motorway – and for a month we lived together in a rented apartment in Cesenatico, on the Adriatic coast.
The apartment wasn’t particularly attractive, painted in light pink, with worn ceramic tiles on the floors and only one bathroom. Its best attraction was its proximity to the beach, a long stretch of sand divided into private establishments with colourful huts and funny names: Tritone, Mamma Morena, Bagni d’Oro… Ours was called Thaiti blu (they meant Tahiti of course) and was run by Vito, a middle-aged hippie with long hair, USSR tattooed on his chest and a strong Bolognaise accent. We’d usually hire three umbrellas, four deck chairs, two chaise-loungues, and two huts. Number 116 and 117, next to the toilets.
Our routine at the beach was strict: arrival at 9.30. Retrieving towels, creams, buckets and spades from huts. Undressing. Folding clothes and piling them on nonna’s chaise-longue. Sun lotion. Buying dried coconuts from a Moroccan man called Abdul. Swimming. Drying. Back home for lunch at 1pm.
Children weren’t allowed proper seats, but since entering puberty I had been fighting a daily battle for my right to a deck chair. It was a lost cause, so I’d lie on a towel, a black hat and huge sunglasses covering most of my face, flicking through the foreign magazines Vito kept for his Northern European customers and pretending I wasn’t part of the family, just a foreigner visiting for a few days.
Like Fenella Irving.
People didn’t need to hear her funny English accent to know that Fenella belonged to another world. Everything about her was peculiar: her straw hats, her garish mini-dresses too tight for her big bum, the way she ordered a double G&T in the middle of the afternoon, waving at Vito and pointing at the bar, then winking at the teenage waiter clumsily balancing the big cocktail on a plastic tray…
She was the one who had given me the hat and sunglasses. “What kind of outfit is THAT?” Nonna had said. “Are you going to a funeral?”
Fenella never spent much time on deck chairs, preferring to lie on the shore, her chubby feet tickling the waves.
“You can have my seat, Nelly,” she’d bellow, her voice bubbling like her G&Ts. She was the only person calling me Nelly instead of Anto, short for Antonella. I loved the idea of a nickname ending in “y” – a letter the Italian alphabet didn’t include – and holding in its spelling the very essence of an outsider.
“But, tesoro,” zio Ettore, protested. “I reserved the chair for you! Why are you always leaving me alone?”
“Oh, stop moaning. Move that bum of yours and join me!”
“Can WE join Fenella?” My two cousins would beg.
“Can we go swimming yet, mamma? Can we?”
But only when Thaiti Blu‘s big clock stroke eleven were they allowed anywhere near the sea.
“You must wait at least two hours to digest your breakfast,” were zia Lucia’s words. “Or you’ll faint in the water and die.”
They’d sigh, looking with envy at Fenella and at the foreign kids who had being playing in the water since early morning.
Thaiti Blu‘s greatest pride was its Ferragosto lunch party, on the 15th of August, culminating in a “creative dish” competition. All patrons were invited to enter their culinary creations to be judged by anybody daft enough to pay 15.000 liras for the honour. The battle was fierce. The prize was a bronze trophy with representing a dolphin leaping out of a cup.
“Pity it looks like a turd with eyes,” Fenella had once said. After that Vito had stopped giving her discounts on G&Ts.
Since the age of 13 I had developed a deep hatred for Cesenatico, ashamed at the idea of spending holidays with my family while my schoolmates were sent to language camps in faraway places like Eastbourne. I had no idea where Eastbourne was, somewhere in England and therefore exotic, full of green fields, castles, and blond young men looking like Simon Le Bon from the Duran Duran.
For this every reason, I waited for Fenella’s arrival with impatience. She wasn’t beautiful, she was almost my mother’s age and even an awkward teenager like me knew she lacked class. Still, I longed to be like her. My mother and her sister were slender and dark, wore expensive tunics over their bathing suits and immaculate make-up. Fenella would appear at the beach with a sarong wrapped around her skimpy bikini and her bright yellow hair in a scruffy pony tale. She didn’t care what people thought of her and she never made an effort to please zio Ettore.
“She comes here for the free holiday, not for him,” nonna proclaimed once. “He pays for her plane ticket… Why?”
“Why?” mamma said. “Men would do anything for a bit of… you know…”
“Oh, please, not in front of Antonella!”
“Nonna, don’t worry, I know about sex.”
“You don’t know anything… She’s just had her first period!”
“Really? It’s quite late. She’s 14. How old were you and your sister when you became… signorine?”
In theory, Cesenatico held much more appealing attractions than Fenella. The beach was crowded with young people having fun, but I would have rather died of terrible tortures than face the embarrassment of introducing myself. The weather was always sunny, but my skin was paler than my mother’s, and burned easily. The sea was turbid and brown, I had no desire to dive in. All day long Thaiti Blu‘s tannoys played “the greatest hits”, their music interrupted only by announcements such as: “Little Marco Piottini has gone missing. If you find him, please return him to Bagno Marinella where his family is waiting for him.” At least ten children disappeared every morning, punctually reappearing by midday, hungry and in tears.
Cesenatico was my personal idea of hell. Fenella my only Saviour.
The 15th of August wasn’t just Ferragosto, the peak of the Italian holiday season, celebrated with singing, heaps of food, and fireworks. It was also my birthday. When I was little, my mother used to say the celebrations were for me, and I would clap my hands in sheer delight, amazed at how grateful the world was for my existence. But on the dawn of my 15th birthday I knew only too well that the crowd cheering on the beach didn’t give a damn about me. And I wished the day over as soon as possible.
Fenella had arrived the previous night tipsy – her flight had been delayed and she had had a few drinks on the plane to fight boredom, she said. As a birthday present she had brought me an audio cassette – Flashdance, the soundtrack – wrapped in fuchsia paper.
“It’s a very popular movie in England,” she explained in her stilted Italian.
I didn’t dare telling her that I had already seen it twice and even owned a copy of that same tape. Fenella’s Flashdance wasn’t like ours. She pronounced “DANCE” stretching the “A” so much, you could imagine somebody jumping high, pirouetting in mid-air and gracefully landing back. We pronounced it “dens”. It was such a quick sound, it barely gave you time for a hop.
At 8.30am on Ferragosto day, our apartment was swarming with activity. Nonna had been up since dawn, preparing the dishes she was entering in the competition. Mamma and zia Luisa were busy packing the food in the plastic containers provided by Thaiti Blu, and I could hear papa´, zio Giacomo and zio Ettore entertaining my cousins with a game of memory cards.
As soon as I set foot in the kitchen, I was shoved away.
“There’s no space, here, Anto, we’re busy,” mamma said. “I left your breakfast in the living room, go.”
“Oh, happy birthday by the way.”
I walked to the living room to find my cold caffelatte on the table, next to three bear-shaped biscuits.
Zio Giacomo and papà winked at my cousins, who looked at them puzzled.
“Boys,” papa whispered. “We rehearsed…”
Suddenly Roberto tugged his brother Guilo’s sleeve and started singing:
“Happy Birthday to you…”
Papa´ and my uncles joined in, attempting an improbable harmony, and I stood there, smiling at that improbable choir.
“Blimey! What’s this?”
Fenella was at the door, wearing a short night gown, her eyes puffed.
“It’s Anto’s birthday today!” yelled Giulio. “Who is Blaimi?”
“Blimey is an English expression,” explained zio Ettore. “It’s like saying… porco cane!”
“I know today is Nelly’s birthday,” Fenella, picked up my cup and had a sip of caffelatte. “I only wish people in this house would be quieter first thing in the morning.”
“Tesoro, it’s past nine! My sisters have been up since 6.30.”
“Is this my cue to go and ask if they need help?”
“Don’t bother,” I said, offering her the remaining bear-shaped biscuit, which she took. “Only the adepts are allowed into the shrine.”
Fenella nodded, and started playing with my hair.
“Have you ever tried red highlights?”
“Nonna thinks red hair is vulgar.”
“What does she know? Last time she went out crinoline and wigs were top fashion.”
“Fenella, don’t insult my mother!” Zio Ettore said, waving his memory cards.
“Zio, I can see them!” Giulio screamed. “You have the yellow house and the pink mushroom.”
“Ettore, don’t wave your mushroom in front of the children,” whispered Fenella, walking back to the bedroom.
Papà and zio Giacomo giggled. Zio Ettore sighed.
“Mamma is right,” he said. “I don’t know why she still bothers coming to Cesenatico. She does nothing but criticise. And she never raises a finger to help…”
“You’re overreacting,” papà said.
Zio Ettore shrugged. He usually had a boyish, jovial expression, that made his face seem younger. Now he looked middle-aged and tired.
“We used to have such fun… Perhaps we’re both getting too old for that.”
“Zio, we’re BORED…” Roberto knelt on his chair, leaned across the table and grabbed the cards from zio Ettore’s hand.
Zio Giacomo, who’d been silent so far, stood up.
“Right, everybody, I think we should all get ready for the beach. It’s going to be a fan-ta-stic Ferragosto, I promise!”
Thaiti Blu was wrapped in tinsel, with palm leaves adorning the entrance and a huge sign written in English:
“FERRAGOSTO’S 1985. WELCOME TO PARTY”
Fenella stood in front of it for a minute, pensive.
“Shouldn’t it be Welcome to THE party?” She asked.
Zio Ettore beamed. Grammar was his territory.
“Of course, tesoro. In fact, I also think the Saxon genitive is totally out of place. Don’t you agree, Anto?”
“Yeah, sure. No genitive.”
Fenella stared at us.
“No idea what you’re talking about.”
All the deckchairs had been piled up behind the huts, and the beach was occupied by a series of long tables, two of which, covered in checked cloths, had been reserved for the culinary competition.
Participants studied each other and the food, weighing their chances. There were elaborate cakes with sugar sculptures on top. Ravioli in the shape of mermaids. Lobster and gorgonzola quiches. Iced peppers. The Mazzino sisters, from Turin, had presented a series of vegetarian antipasti arranging them according to their caloric contents.
At midday, Vito grabbed a megaphone.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to our 9th Ferragosto party and culinary competition!”
Loud cheers from the crowd.
“For those of you who are just here to eat, please help yourselves from the buffet under the shed. Today we have sea salad, prosciutto, crostini, lasagne, vegetables, fried shrimps and grilled calamari. All for free!! If you’ve signed up to be a judge in the competition, please go to my wife Carola. She’ll give you the voting form and you’ll be allowed a taster of each dish. Have fun everybody! Buon Ferragosto!”
The moment Vito switched off this megaphone a hoard of people threw themselves on the buffet, filling their plates with as much food as they could pile up, as if the ghost of famine had been knocking at their doors. My mother, a wizard with buffets, managed to fill her plate first, positioning herself at the top of the queue with no mercy for other people’s toes. Papà and uncle Giacomo waited until everybody had finished, ending up with just a couple of calamari on their plates. Giulio and Roberto went straight for the fried shrimps, despite their mother’s attempt to feed them some vegetables.
Nonna and Fenella were standing in front of the competition tables. As the winner of the past edition, Nonna was allowed to try this year’s entries, while Fenella was always invited to be part of the jury as the only “regular” foreigner at Thaiti Blu. She was wearing a leopard printed sarong over a golden swimming suit. Her hair was down. She took a crab mousse crostini from one of the containers and called me over.
“Hey Nelly, come and taste this! It’s amazing!”
“I can’t, I’m not booked as a judge.”
“Who cares, I can’t possibly taste all this stuff. Last year I almost died. You’re going to be my assistant.”
I made my way through the crowd and joined her.
“I’ve already tried the fish lasagne, the peppers, the veggie stuff with no calories, the potato cake and the crostini,” she announced proudly.
“And how about my creation?” Nonna picked something small and red from a plate and put it straight into Fenella’s mouth.
“Wow, hmm… it’s fantastic. What is it?”
“Cherry tomatoes stuffed with anchovies, artichoke purée and mozzarella.”
“What? How can you fit all those ingredients in such a small vegetable?”
Nonna checked her hair combs nonchalantly. “Well, everybody can make mermaid pasta… You just need a mould. But stuffing cherry tomatoes needs love, dedication…”
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever tasted. You’re going to win again.”
“I can give you the recipe…”
My mother, who had been talking to Vito’s wife, turned and grabbed nonna by the arm, a horrified look on her face.
“Are you offering her your recipe? I asked first!”
“You’re married. She needs some proper recipes for when she invites a nice English gentleman for dinner. She’s still quite attractive.”
“Actually,” Fenella said, wiping her mouth with a napkin. “I don’t think I want it. I appreciate the intention but… life’s too short to stuff cherry tomatoes!”
She laughed loudly, thrusting back her head, her yellow hair wobbling like cooked spaghetti in a colander, when you shake it to get the water out.
Mamma went silent. Nonna shook her head theatrically, and walked away.
“I believe you’ve just hurt her feelings,” I whispered.
“Oh, for God’s sake, give me a break. It’s so hot here, I’m going for a swim.”
“But you haven’t cast your vote yet!”
“You vote for me, Nelly. Vote for your gran. I did love her tomatoes.”
Fenella unwrapped her sarong, threw it on a chair and walked to the sea, her golden ass rocking left and right, left and right. She dived straight in, without a shiver, swimming faster and faster until she was just a spot far away, a tiny yellow moon floating on the horizon.
From there, she turned and waved at me. Or at least that’s what I thought. When I looked again, she had gone. The sea was empty, only a couple of yachts and the red line of floaters limiting the swimming area.
Fenella made her disappearance from our lives like Ferragosto fireworks: exploding in the air, falling onto the sea and dissolving in the water. Her body was never found – which triggered all sorts of legends. Some people said she had been eaten by a shark. Some swore she had not drowned at all, but had reached one of the yachts where her new lover – a mafia boss she had met on her plane from England – had been waiting for her.
Nobody won Thaiti Blu 1985 culinary competition. Vito kept the trophy on the bar’s counter, next to the photo of a smiling Fenella.
I persuaded myself she had simply swum away, to the African coast, where she had been welcomed by the locals like a sea nymph. I imagined her tasting their food, seducing their men, then swimming away again, to a new country, or maybe back to England, where Simon Le Bon, dressed in a velvet suit, would be waiting for her, a G&T in his hand.