There are going to be changes around here – massimo changes,’ shouted Marcello, as he paced between the lines of staff he had called to the meeting. He was not happy. The staff, most past usual retirement age, sat quietly, expecting the worst from their horrid new boss. They had enjoyed their time working at Growers ‘n Mowers, but now they worked for Marcello, who had converted the old garden centre into what he said would be ‘West Berkshires biggest and best’ Italian theme park.
‘These are your new uniforms,’ spat Marcello, throwing a bag at them in turn. Each contained a woollen jumper. They already seemed stretched and misshapen with missing stitches. They were truly horrible.
‘You can take that look off your faces,’ said Marcello. ‘My nonna back in Sicily knitted them, and believe me, you wouldn’t want to cross her.’
‘Mine’s a bit long,’ said Jeremy, standing to show that it sagged down to his knees. ‘I could cut the bottom off?’
‘You cut the bottom off, I’ll cut your bottom off,’ volleyed Marcello, and none of the others doubted for a moment that he would.
‘They’re very…colourful,’ said Netta, trying to see some silver-lining in the ghastly garments.
‘Il tricolore,’ said Marcello, and he thumped his chest with one clenched fist.
Jeremy screwed his eyes. ‘The Italian flag? Surely that’s green, white and red – not orange?’
‘Nonna may be a little colour-blind, but orange is good, orange is the colour of…oranges.’
‘It looks more like the Irish flag’, said Netta. There was a general murmur of agreement.
‘Or India. Or Iran,’ said Jeremy, who was more versed with flags than the others.
Across town, Marcello’s brother Gianni was smiling behind the counter in his deli, slicing spicy sausage while serenading his many customers, all perfectly willing to queue just to hear more of his finely sung baritone arias. The queue stretched all the way past what was once Collar’s and Cuff’s, Marcello’s now bankrupt high-end Italian suit shop. He would sell a lot of sausage today, but then when didn’t he?
Like many brothers, they were very different. Gianni had their mother’s British easy-going nature. He also had their father’s smouldering Italian looks, luxuriant hair, and the skin that evoked a warm Tuscan sunset, the voice of a Sistine chapel choirboy and the sexual prowess of Ferrari’s prancing horse that had the ladies purring over him. His spicy sausage was always in demand, but the temptresses of Newbury were always disappointed; the only woman in Gianni’s life was his mother, and until he met a girl who could make a ragu and tend her moustache as well as Mama did, he was not interested in relationships.
. Marcello had the fiery temperament of their Italian father. He also had the smouldering looks of a burnt-out shed, the thinning hair of his aunt Flavia, skin that evoked the Kennet & Avon canal, and the sexual prowess of a Fiat Cinquecento that left the ladies even more disappointed than his brother. Marcello had one goal in life: to outdo Gianni in any way he could, whatever the cost.
Italy-are-We was his latest plan to get one over Gianni, but like all of his business ventures it was failing miserably. After the disaster of the sharp-suit establishment, when the Armani logos he’d stuck to his stock started to peel off the Primark labels underneath, there’d been the whole parmesan-flavoured ice cream court case thing, and now the theme park was a disaster. The local Anglo-Italian press from the Espresso Express had a field day when they visited. A ‘load of old Bolognese’ they printed, as his attempt to build a mini-Venice coincided with a hosepipe ban, and the subsequent macaroni-dry soil caused his plaster ‘leaning tower of pizza’ to subside to a perfectly vertical stance. He’d also turned half of the old garden centre land over to a field of durum wheat, in which he planned to conquer the lucrative Newbury pasta market, however not one of the tortellini he sowed germinated.
Marcello looked at his staff, all dressed in nonna’s jumpers, looking less tricolore, more tripe and onions. Desperate measures were called for, so he did what all Italian men do at times of crisis: he closed the meeting and went to the barbers.
Marcello sat back in the chair, while Salvatore, who ran Head Cuts , the spit-and-sawdust barbers in Newbury’s red-light area, listened to his problems, while snipping each hair individually, several times, in an effort to make the visit and his bill seem worthwhile.
‘I might be able to help you.’ Salvatore wobbled a mirror to show Marcello the back of his head where most of his remaining hair sat. ‘You remember what I did when Tony threatened to sue me for shaving off both his ears as well as his sideburns?’
‘Who?’ asked Marcello.
‘You know – Tony Ravioli. He used to wear glasses. Anyway, I got word to il Padrino, and he fixed it. Deaf men tell no tales.’
Marcello was impressed. ‘You know il Padrino: The Godfather?’
‘Shhhsh,’ urged Tony, looking around to see that no one was listening.
Marcello knew il Padrino to be the legendary Don of the Reading Mafiosi, the force behind the Berkshire ciabatta racket. Legend had it that he once put a jockey’s severed head inside the stable of a horse that had failed to win a race at Newbury that he’d attempted to fix. It was so scared, it never ran again.
Marcello had never met il Padrino, but through his shady friend Tony’s even shadier friend, Enzo Orzo, a time was agreed to meet at Luigi’s Espresso Bar. Come the day, sat at the designated table, Marcello was surprised to see someone not broad shouldered, snake-eyed and scar-faced, but a man older than Michelangelo, more trembly than Shakin’ Stevens and even shorter than himself. However, he was wearing absurdly dark glasses indoors, a Dunn & Co jacket over his shoulders despite the heat, and appearing to be rolling a tooth pick in his mouth: the true characteristics of the Mafiosi.
‘Il Padrino?’ Marcello asked.
‘Watta you say?’ The old man screwed-up his face.
Marcello could not repeat the question for fear of giving away il Padrino’s identity. In tones as loud as he dared, he told him of his lifetime’s rivalry with Gianni and explained the predicament of Italy-are-We. Il Padrino sat motionless. Then he made a single loud snore, and lurched forward with a start.
Marcello leaned in to hear his wisdom.
The old man coughed, causing a few drips of phlegm to land in Marcello’s cup, and sent what turned out not to be a toothpick, but a set of lower dentures, rattling on the table in front of them.
‘I think, I think…’ said the old man, gummily. ‘That you should lova youra brother. Si, It’sa whatta your mama would want.’
Marcello knew this could never happen and stared into his macchiato to check if it was still drinkable.
‘And you need a hit man,’ added il Padrino.
Marcello’s eyes widened, and he smacked one hand into the other. ‘Yes, to pump Gianni full of lead.’
‘No. no,’ corrected il Padrino. ‘Lika Deana Martin or Sinatra. A hit singer. To bring in the peoples.’
‘But they’re both dead?’ said Marcello, crossing himself.
Il Padrino sat back in his chair at this revelation before succumbing to sleep again. Marcello took this as the sign that their meeting was over. Il Padrino had spoken.
Five minutes after Marcello had left the cafe, a black chauffeured Maserati pulled up outside and the real Godfather strode in. Luigi saw who it was, and dived behind the counter for fear of having to pay yet more menaces, but the Godfather had seen him.
Luigi confirmed that yes, Marcello had been, but had now left – having first spoken with his grandfather.
‘Huh, il Nonno,’ said il Padrino. That idiota Marcello will pay for wasting my time.’
Back in his office, Marcello sat alone, twiddling a pen, thinking. Jeremy walked in with the day’s meagre takings. With his voluminous knitted jumper tucked into the waistline of his slacks he looked like a gyroscopic sheep holding a child’s pocket money.
‘Sing me a song,’ said Marcello.
Jeremy was taken aback. ‘You mean like Kumbaya?’
‘Stupido – something Italian.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Sing,’ Marcello thumped the table. ‘Sing’.
Jeremy cleared his voice, adopted a deep, meaningful look, stretched out an arm and started to sing the opening lines of Nessun Dorma.
The contorted puckering that Jeremy’s voice gave Puccini’s aria did not invoke Pavarotti so much as parvovirus, but Marcello sat in silence, still twiddling the pen.
Jeremy looked at him nervously as he sang. He knew his voice may have been considered adequate for the Newbury Operatic’s musical version of Tango and Cash, but to impress an Italian, this Italian, in the theme park of his own country?
In reality, Marcello was still deep in thought. He’d got past the most vengeful way of dealing with that bastard, Salvatore for fixing him up to see Galileo’s great-grandfather: boiling him in salted water until al dente. But then again, perhaps the old man had a point – an Italian singer of renown might just do the trick. But where to get one, while also avoiding the expense of an Alitalia airfare.
Marcello put an advert in the Espresso Express and held auditions the following week. First he endured Elviro Presley, whose In the Cornetto was even worse than Little Giuseppe Osmond’s Slick-Haired Lover from Livorno. Two hours of painful listening later, he shooed the last of the trialists, Boy Georgio, out of the office after hearing just one line of Parma Hameleon, to see his brother sat waiting for him.
‘Gianni,’ he scowled.
‘Ciao, Bro. I hear you need a singer.’
‘I hear you need a face transplant.’
‘Ha,’ said Gianni, who was used to fielding sibling put-downs. ‘Come on, you know I can sing, and to be honest, my heart just isn’t in the sausage business anymore.
Come on Marcello, let me sing. You know I’ll bring in the crowds.’
Marcello stared into his brother’s eyes. ‘Swap.’
‘All of Italy-are-We for your awful shop, that’s what.’
‘I think you find it’s pronounced ‘off-al’.
‘Whatever.’ Marcello folded his arms. ‘That’s the deal. A straight swap. Take it or leave it.’
Gianni rubbed his chin for a few seconds. ‘Well, they say blood is thicker than water,’ and he thrust out his hand.
Marcello spat in his before quickly shaking on the deal. And that was that.
Soon, the re-branded Italialand was a magnifico success. An extra-large marquee had to be brought in to accommodate the vast crowds of ladies who came to swoon at Gianni and his tight trousers as he belted out his Puccini and Caruso numbers every night. Another was erected as a birra tent for their husbands and boyfriends to console themselves watching the live Serie A match, or a spaghetti western on the big screen, before their wives and girlfriends came excitedly in from the concert, all sweaty and sticky, full of unrequited carnal demands for the long night ahead.
The woollen garments the staff wore became so fashionable, that ‘Knitting’ Nonna’, as she became dubbed, was flown over from Sicily to keep up with demand. They were worn by ladies all over Newbury as warm and colourful dresses, their waist lines enhanced by a thick black Gucci belt, sold, of course, at fashion-house prices at Italialand.
Gianni was making so much money, that even the lucre he felt obliged to pay to prevent the menaces threatened by Il Padrino did not scratch the surface, especially as he offset these by allowing the Godfather’s men to man the shooting-range and run a sunglasses stall in the new Fettuccine Fairground.
Even the tortellini started to grow.
If you are ever on holiday in Newbury and are looking for Italialand, you will find it long gone. You may come across the odd petrified face of a plastic model Pompeii victim among the rubble, but that’s about it.
It’s a strange thing. One by one, Gianni’s staff left the theme park, usually mysteriously, and often overnight. Soon, no one would work there – Marcello spread rumour that it was haunted by a ghost from the Mussolini days, in disturbingly dark glasses, looking for visitors upon which to cough out his teeth in a sputum of Plague.
Gianni could not run the place by himself no matter how much the visitors loved his singing. Soon visitors had to bake their own pizzas, punt their own gondolas and when the local train enthusiast’s society got stuck on the unmanned Dante’s Inferno roller coaster, it wasn’t only the Espresso Express that published the photos. A law suit, an international scandal and the paparazzi followed, when the unattended Michelangelo’s statue of David; on loan from Florence, toppled after an unnamed local delicatessen owner climbed it to paint on a moustache. The stricken Biblical hero pinned a schoolgirl to the ground by its great marble appendage for several hours resulting in Italialand being immediately closed-down by the authorities. Gianni was left with no option but go into hiding to seek anonymity from disgrace. Thus he fit in well with the general populous in the nearby town of Reading.
Of course, Marcello made a mess of the spicy sausage business. People said his sausages just didn’t taste the same – all dry, and more gristle than meat. He didn’t seem to mind though, he was too busy enjoying his brother’s failure, as he stood in his shop window and hung up yet another batch of sausages, all wrapped in green, white and orange wool.
I hope you enjoyed that story. If you have 2 mins spare, add a comment to let me know what you think, if you have 5 minutes, add that comment then find another story on my site – there’s plenty to try.