Edinburgh, Scotland

February 1952

As with all courtships, especially those involving the passions of il colpo di fulmine (or love at first sight), there can be uncertainties and setbacks. There are, of course, moments of delirium and delight, but feelings of insecurity and unworthiness can hijack the bravado in the cold light of day.

As a stranger in town Carlo was all too aware that all eyes were on him. The young suitor, though keen to express his emotions, was careful to advance with thrilling restraint. He was at all time vigilant. He understood the levels of propriety expected. This was a fine line.

He was passionately in love. The young lady, though perhaps not young at 28 years old, might have been regarded by some as being on the shelf. To Carlo she looked decidedly tempting; in fact, his intentions were to lift her off the shelf as soon as realistically possible.

He had to find her. He needed a plan. All he knew was her name and that she worked in her father’s ice cream shop in Easter Road. He had only ten weeks left of his assignment then his visa would expire. He didn’t have much time. He didn’t have a minute to waste.

The next night was Saturday. He had been working all day, but he had no evening classes. After his meal he took a tram into Edinburgh and headed straight for Easter Road. He started at the top and walked down. He was looking for Italian shops. He was surprised how many there were, at least one on every other block. Apart from the drinking houses, they were the only shops that were open, their shop windows bright in the gloom, twinkling like a festoon of flags decorating the street.

After the best part of two hours, having walked right down the one side of Easter Road and halfway back up the other, he was no further forward. He had investigated every shop that was open and though there were shopkeepers behind each counter, they were mostly older women; much to his disappointment. It had got very dark and it was starting to rain. What a waste of time. It was a wild goose chase. He decided to head for home.

Apart from some groups of youths going in and out of the drinking houses, the streets were deserted. It was getting decidedly chilly. He put his collar up to protect the back of his neck from the biting wind.

As he approached the tram-stop he noticed a an illuminated Player’s Cigarettes sign hanging outside a small shop with a narrow entrance.

'Oh, good, I’ll get some cigarettes.'

He opened the door and stepped into the brightly lit shop, the doorbell twinkling, announcing his entrance. It was warm and cosy and smelled alluringly of vanilla and coffee. He noticed a small welcoming seating area at the back. He turned to the counter reaching into his pocket for some money.

And then it happened. The thunderbolt, il colpo di fulmine, hit him again. There she was; the girl he was looking for, the beautiful girl from the dance. Olivia, the bellissima Olivia.

‘Good evening, what can I get for you?’

The girl showed no sign of recognition but was cool and polite.

‘Ciao, signorina, how nice to see you again.’

The shop was small and neat with a marble counter and a tidy display of sweets and cigarettes. It had an ice cream freezer and a long tube displaying a fanfare of ice cream cones and a large display of snowballs.

‘What can I say to impress her?’ He felt nervous, like a schoolboy.

‘Twenty Players, Navy Cut please.’

The cigarettes were in neat displays behind the counter. She turned away to get them.

He has a chance to look at her, his heart was pounding.

She was dressed in a spotless white apron, belted neatly at the waste. Her hair was tied tightly back from her face, with just a strand loose falling over those lovely eyes.

When she turned round again the light caught her face. There was no one else in the shop; just him and her. Carlo was smitten. She looked even more beautiful than he had imagined.

He needed to play for time.

‘And, eh, a box of matches, please.’

Carlo already had a box of matches in his hand with the money he had pulled from his pocket.

She put the matches on the counter, her eyebrows raised slightly, looking pointedly at the ones in his hand.

‘That’ll be three and six, please.’

Taking the money from Carlo she rang the till and counted the change in a business-like manner onto the counter. With a ‘thank you, good evening’ she turned away to do another job.

Carlo found himself outside the shop, unable to find any excuse to stay longer.

He couldn’t believe his luck. He had found her.

Standing under the light of the window he opened the packet of cigarettes and, tipping the box into his hand shook one free. He tapped it on the back of the packet and slipped it between his lips while he reached for a match. He struck the match and sheltering the light from the draught he slowly moved towards the window and with is head bent forward lit the cigarette. As he lifted his head, and took a deep draw. Slowly exhaling a stream of smoke into the bleary light he smiled to himself.

He glanced into the shop as he straightened his head. She was working away, wiping the counters, oblivious to his trembling and excitement. He lingered, savouring the moment.

‘This is it. She’s the real deal. I’m in love.’

Carlo had no doubts. This was the girl for him. He took another draw of his cigarette and, reluctantly, walked back up the road.

‘Ok,’ he thought, 'Olivia Crolla, ‘you want to play hard to get? You’ve got a fight on your hands, my darling girl. You don’t know who you’re dealing with.’

Extract from Dear Alfonso, by Mary Contini