Aggie Partridge paused at the foot of the stairs and surveyed the room, looking across a sea of ceramic floor tiles to the marble pillars and wrought-iron tables. Sergio's Basement Pizza Parlour was a lot bigger than she had been led to believe. Italian and small she might tolerate; Italian and huge, like this place, was formidable. Still, it wasn't every day Pam treated her to lunch so she'd better not grouse too much especially as she wanted to test her daughter's reaction to the situation with Sam.
A swarthy Italian waiter took their raincoats and hung Aggie's umbrella in a special stand, grinning at the yellow duck's head which he said looked like the real thing. Raising her eyes heavenwards, Aggie brushed a strand of silvery hair from the corner of one rheumy eye. She was attired in widow's weeds although her period of mourning had long since elapsed and no member of the family could persuade her to dress otherwise.
Pam was still gathering her belongings when the waiter beckoned them to follow. Aggie nudged her arm. 'Come on,' she urged, 'lets get it over with.' Without waiting she trailed in the man's wake, one liver-spotted hand gripping the chair backs for support, wickedly emulating his lumbering gait.
The smell emanating from the kitchen was tantalizing though Aggie hadn't a clue what it was. Her knowledge of foreign food only went as far as the local Chinese takeaway.
Pam Partridge donned her reading glasses. Opening the menu she asked her mother if she fancied pizza or spaghetti.
Aggie fiddled with her ear. 'Don't know, I'm sure. You'll have to choose for me.'
'You could have fish, if you'd prefer.'
Locating the passage devoted to fish, Aggie ran her finger down the list of strange sounding names, repeatedly muttering 'Gee wiz' and 'Saints preserve us.' She measured the length of one.
'Ara-gos-ta. What's that?'
She tried another. 'Cal-a-mari.'
'Ugh! Forget the fish.' Aggie thumbed the pages to the pasta section and read, 'Cann-ell-oni. Pasta tubes stuffed with meat and covered with savoury white sauce. I'll have that.'
Ignoring the waiter's inability to hide his mirth, Pam ordered cannelloni for two with a dish of mixed salad and a bottle of Orvietto.
Twenty minutes later, time Aggie spent perusing sketches of Pompei and Amalfi, a parade of waiters in crisp open-necked shirts emerged from the kitchen and proceeded to serve their food. One of them impressed Aggie no end when he flourished a large mulberry-coloured napkin into her lap.
'Gee whiz! That's some service,' she remarked as he left, 'but one bloke would have been enough.' Grabbing a fork, she stabbed it into the cannelloni. 'Here goes. My very first taste of Italian grub.' She sampled the pasta. 'Hey! This is good,' she exclaimed, waving her fork like a flag. 'Bet Sam's never tried this.' She tasted the wine, decided she liked it, and drank some more. Perhaps at Christmas she and Sam….
'How is your Mr Wilding?' Pam dabbed her mouth with the napkin.
Aggie's fleecy hair, reflecting her heightened colour, was like melting candy-floss. She felt warm inside. And why not? Sam might be an ordinary window-cleaner but he was respectable. He obviously appreciated her though he hadn't actually said as much. She flushed further remembering last night, the kiss he plonked on the end of her nose and her, afterwards, tossing about in bed. Unable to sleep … at her age.
'Come on, Mother. Tell all.'
Absently swabbing a segment of pasta in the remaining sauce, Aggie mumbled that Mr Wilding was fine. Her daughter smiled knowingly. Just like her Dad, she was. He'd sit there silently grinning, making out he could read her thoughts. And he usually could. Perhaps Pam could too; perhaps she knew exactly how Sam was affecting her. Taking a deep breath, Aggie went straight to the point. 'What do you think of him?'
Pam cupped her wineglass and considered the question. She put the glass down and clasped her hands, leaning her forearms on the table. 'He's ... comfortable. Agreeable. Kind. Sociable. That's my assessment. What's yours?'
'I think I like him.'
'Think?' Pam broke off a morsel of bread roll. 'How much do you think you like him?'
Aggie planted a finger on pursed lips. Not yet. Not until you know for sure. Aloud she said, 'Come off it, girl. Women my age don't go in for romancing. Got enough to do existing without men hindering us.' But her churning stomach and rapidly beating heart told a different tale. If only she could decide if they were symptoms of some debilitating malady or indications of love.
'I think you've got it bad, Mother. Otherwise you wouldn't have agreed to come here today. It's not in you to go places you don't care for unless there's good reason.'
Aggie was astonished. 'Am I so obvious?'
'Yes, Mother. That's how I know what's in the wind with you and Sam.' Burrowing in her raffia bag, Pam withdrew a small box and passed it across the table. 'Teaspoons,' she said. 'To bring you luck.'
As Aggie lifted the cellophane lid, her mind galloped over forty-two years to her courting days, when her sister bought teaspoons for the same reason. She fingered the smooth steel and felt suddenly jubilant. The first ones brought her luck; perhaps these would too.
Pam nodded, as if she could read her thoughts. 'He's a good man, Mother. I like him. Now what would you like for desert? Profiteroles?'
Aggie dumped her napkin on the table. 'No, thanks. I've got better things to do than sit here devouring profiteroles.'
In the process of pushing back her chair, she collided with a hovering waiter. 'Out of my way,' she cried. 'I've got a man to catch.' Leaving Pam red-faced and goggling, she dodged a marble pillar and scooted to the exit where she grabbed her mac and duck's head brolly, and to the amusement of the head waiter scuttled up the stairs singing Arrivederci, Rome at the top of her piping voice.