Thursday, 20 November 2014

Slippery Italian

In Greenwich Village, in the Italian section, there was an antique-style shop cum Italian coffee house where nothing was what it seemed.
The owner, whom we shall call Vincenzo, was a petite, eccentric Italian chap. Everything about him was exceedingly neat from his diminutive stature to his small hands and feet. In fact, he looked as if all his parts had been assembled on a factory line, even down to the shiny hair on his perfect shaped head, which was the colour and texture of spun sugar and which some said must be surely dyed. The standard black waiter-style suit he wore always looked freshly pressed and the shirt beneath spotless, and so naturally you assume that my description will end with a pair of sturdy black, polished loafers, but no, for if you care to glance down you'll see his shoes are open-backed and made of Italian flat bread.
And while the bread shoes were the last visual clue to his flamboyant nature, they were by no means the first, for there are two I'd purposely not previously mentioned. If I had remarked upon these first it would have decided his character, and quite rightly so, but nevertheless it's best not to judge a person's cover.
The two items I earlier omitted were a rather large dark moustache and a gold-plated monocle. Vincenzo was fascinated with the English, styling his facial hair like that of an old-fashioned pilot and his eye wear on a country lord. Without these, you would have guessed he had Italian blood, but with the groomed 'tache, and the one bespectacled eye it was hidden, and only his Mafia-American accent was a dead giveaway.
For a lean man his charm could be both brutish and disarming so that men and women were equally putty in his long-fingered, elegant hands. He played with them as he did with his papa's recipe for ciabatta. Slapping the soft, wet dough on the work surface and kneading it vigorously before tenderly shaping it.
The inside of his shop was a fashionable mess; the left side housing distressed to Art Deco and kitsch items, while in the right there was a wipe-clean counter with bar stools, from behind which Vincenzo served doll-sized cups of espresso. The front of that right bay was reserved for alfresco dining: the outdoors brought indoors for two lucky diners. For friends, lovers, proposals and intimate occasions. The inside of the bay window was festooned with twinkly lights entwined with grass-green garlands over a rose-pink cushioned window seat, and then a little further back, but squarely in the centre, stood a round wrought iron glass-topped table with two handsome chairs. 
In the daylight, these decorations looked tacky, but by night the setting seemed almost magical. People would stop and stare at the two diners in the window like they were a fa├žade or a staged picture postcard, and Vincenzo's service, being Italian, was of course impeccable. He switched easily from a chef's hat to a linen cloth draped over his arm and quite mesmerised couples with his ambidextrous skills.
One memorable moonlit night, which went down in the village's ledger of history, he re-enacted a scene from a beloved Disney animation with two professionally trained look-a-likes. The crowd outside gathered under a canopy of stars; the children lined in front of the adults pressing their faces into the glass as Lady and Tramp took their places at the reserved indoor garden table and Vincenzo danced around in his flat bread carpet slippers. Of course, the pair shared a steaming bowl of spaghetti and meatballs, inevitably finding they ate from the same yellow strand until their wet noses met in the middle to the ill-sounding strains of Vincenzo's violin.
The adults wiped their moist eyes at this unfolding love story, while the children rapt tapped on the window and demanded gelato to seal this bewitching night.
Vincenzo, the son and grandson of bakers knew, as do all Italians, how to use ambiance with good food to slip into people's emotions.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Weeping Lady Willow

Lady Willow pitiably sobbed at everything from the rooster crowing in the morning to the guard dog's barks at night. Her eyes and nose leaked between the hours of dawn and midnight, although the servant that slept at the foot of her bed said that even deep in sleep she cried, and that her tears and snot ruined the silk sheets and pillows. Nothing they tired, such as soothing words or sudden slaps could bring her to her senses.
A snivelling toad!”, her rivals said, while the Emperor only saw a weeping beauty. Some days she was a trickling fountain, others a gushing waterfall. Her face and eyes were never completely dry, so that she sparkled like a rare precious gem, which for a time made her the Emperor's favourite. For him, she glistened like morning dew or shimmered like a lake. None of his other wives or concubines could match her unique splendidness, not even the fine-looking Empress.
The Emperor, who was prone to whims, indulged in Lady Willow's propensity to weep. Her tear-stained cheeks fascinated him and so he sought out her other weaknesses. She was encouraged to whine, to clamber on his knees for comfort, and to throw herself at his imperial feet and beg him not to leave: “Please, Your Majesty, stay longer!”
He sent numerous gifts to make watery pearls gush from her eyes: song birds in gold cages, dragonfly hair pins, armfuls of chrysanthemums and peonies, and beautiful patterned robes. He ordered her to accompany him to operas, temples and gardens, all of which were intended to start a pool then a flood. And she didn't disappoint: she cried bucketfuls and the Emperor was delighted.
When he tired of her reaction to happiness, he experimented with his moods and tried frightening her: he made impossible demands and shouted at her, his chief eunuch and his ministers. She cowered and trembled like a leaf in an unforgiving icy wind in his presence and the silent weeping turned into vocal sobs, but still she would cling to him as a child does to a disapproving parent. She would have done anything to please him if he requested it, but her behaviour was reward enough.
In-between gulps, sniffs, and sobs Lady Willow waited for him, the Emperor, her husband, her love, her tormentor, but those waits got longer and longer from hours to days at a time. Without knowing why she'd slipped out of favour. The Emperor, bored with his latest plaything had moved on to torment some other female creature.
Lady Willow, with constant overflowing eyes, pined for his attention. Her reasons to wail somehow seemed justified when he'd courted it and now her whole being bowed from the loss. All her features appeared to suddenly droop as if life had been taken from her: she hunched and kept her thin twig-like arms wrapped round her disappearing body. Her eyes sank into empty, dark wells and her tears turned black, as black as squid ink, and left unsightly trails; a permanent mark of her tortured soul and blackening heart.
Her youth was spent before she was ready so that she felt trapped in a perpetual state of misery. She wept with one pure emotion, that of sadness, instead of how she used to weep up and down the emotional spectrum. Gone too was her magnificent dress for she would now only allow herself to be dressed in coarse sackcloth as if grief-stricken. She forever mourned for the girl she once was before the Emperor had cruelly hastened her age and her weeping.

*Inspired by Anchee Min's Empress Orchid

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Pea Shooter

Pea was an excellent shot with a bow and arrow. He'd just released a plastic arrow with a suckered tip, with window putty on it to make it stick, into Mrs Glenville's bottom. It stuck to her right floral-cottoned cheek, which had been a rather large and easy target, and quivered as it settled in its new resting place. Mrs Glenville swung round and swatted her backside with a wet shirt she was about to peg on the washing line, until she realised that whatever it was was attached to her person. She gingerly felt around and pulled the little blighter from her dress with a loud sucking pop, mildly threatening as she did so, “Pea, just you wait 'til I clap my eyes on you!”
Pea, in an attempt to suppress his convulses hunkered down behind the upper window ledge and waited for his shakes of laughter to subside.
Mrs Glenville, his foster mother, was a good sport and was known as GT to all 'her boys', after her favourite tipple, but she was getting on and her rearing methods were frowned upon for they were as unusual as her boys, so Pea, soon to be 10, was her last foundling. And he'd proved a rather exuberant handful ever since he'd arrived as a wide-eyed terry-towelled bundle. GT was a pro though and used to boys' capers. She was no sergeant major, but she knew just how to cajole growing boys.
But Pea, from the chubby and terrible age of three, had been more of a challenge, despite fooling everyone by looking like a angel. Nubs of wings had appeared a month after his third birthday – the bony protrusions had torn two small holes in the back of every single one of his t-shirts, so that it had become easier and more cost effective to let him run around bare-chested like one of Peter Pan's lost boys – and had in the space of two months developed into fluffy brownish-grey wings, before slowly darkening to a deep brown-red. They were however a useless appendage, as demonstrated by Pea flinging himself from the tops of trees and out of open windows, or running as fast as he could along a strip of flat land hoping for take-off. And at this early stage, they moulted profusely so that GT even considered starting a trade in old-fashioned ink and quills.
The wings were troublesome, but rather less than Pea's sudden obsession for missiles, where anything round or pointed was seen as a launch-able weapon, and people's large thighs or ample backsides were the perfect target. GT attempted to restrain his interest by training him like you would a guard dog: by showing him how to blow dried peas through a tube, which he quickly excelled at and which made him demand harder challenges for the same reward like a puppy brought to heel or taught to sit and fetch.
GT had unwittingly tapped into this thirst for crude hand-held weaponry so that before long Pea had also mastered the slingshot and moved on to toy bows and arrows. He'd practised on lines of baked bean cans and paper targets; he'd successfully fired countless harmless arrows into the rumps of people, so that GT had had to erect a warning sign for the postman and other visitors. The point had now come where the student was more than ready to overtake the teacher, and GT was ready to over-indulge her winged, tousled-haired foster son. She would be his irresponsible champion, his subordinate.
On his tenth birthday, GT presented Pea with a handsome bow and leather sheath containing twenty-four golden arrows: twelve with a sharp point and twelve with a blunt tip of lead, whose pointed or blunt tip, the salesman had said, could unleash desire or aversion. GT, at seventy, had decided Pea would make an excellent mischief-making Cupid if only she could persuade him to aim for people's hearts and not other body parts! Oh, what plots the two of them could set in motion!

*Inspired by Daphne du Maurier's Rule Britannia