It occurred to me the other day on the way to Falerone where I was taking a couple of windows over to be refurbished by Stefano the carpenter. It is almost exactly eleven years since we first met her. Eleven years since we turned off that same road to Falerone barely an hour after setting off south-west from Ancona airport and, following her very precise directions, wound our way down a series of lanes and tracks, each one bumpier and narrower than the last, until we finally trundled down what we were relieved to find was her steep, oleander-lined, gravel drive. Eleven years since we drew to a halt in front of a sprawling converted farmhouse, with its honey-coloured brick, terracotta-tiled roof, tall shuttered windows and wisteria scrambling up the walls; eleven years since from beneath the shade of a dense curtain of passiflora hanging from the wrought iron balcony above appeared Pam.
As brown as a berry and dressed in sun-bleached shorts and faded T-shirt, she threw her arms open in welcome as we clambered from the dust-caked car. “I’m Pam,” she announced in her distinctive, high-pitched squeaky voice that always sounded as if she was recovering from laryngitis, and gave Mr Blue-Shirt a firm handshake and me an equally firm kiss on the cheek.
“You found it all right, then? Not many do, you know!” she continued.
“No problem at all,” I confirmed. “Your directions were perfect.”
There was something in her expression that made us feel as if we had just passed some kind of test. And what we had found was Pam’s delightful, quirky home within spitting distance of the Sibillini Mountains, and, attached to it, the modest but cosy holiday cottage in which we were about to spend our third holiday in Le Marche, about forty kilometres from where we now live.
Pam was in her late sixties back then, with an athletic build, poker-straight blonde hair that was almost permanently tied up in her trade mark top-knot, and piercing blue eyes that twinkled with humour – but also held a glint of steel. Divorced for far longer than she had ever been married and with three grown-up children scattered about the UK, it had been shortly after she had retired about eight years earlier that she had sold up and moved to Italy. She had bought and project-managed the restoration of her house completely on her own and at that time without a word of Italian, then built the adjoining holiday cottage, and later established a thriving property management and maintenance business mainly serving the small local expat community. She had single-handedly done up a succession of houses in the UK long before moving to Italy so was already hugely knowledgeable about all aspects of building work and all the associated trades – and certainly wasn’t afraid of getting her own hands dirty too.
Indeed, while we were making ourselves at home in the cool and shady one-up-one-down cottage, we could hear Pam squeaking instructions in her fluent but broken Italian to Cristiano, the young Romanian whom she employed to help out with the heavier building jobs. From our bedroom window we could see that between them they were trying, in vain, to shove back into position one of the massive sections of railway sleeper from which she had built a large pond, but that been pushed out of alignment by the weight of the water.
“Need any help?” Mr Blue-Shirt enquired. Pam peered up at the window, seemingly sizing him up: was he one of those fools we could already sense that she didn’t suffer at all gladly?
“Well, another pair of hands won’t go amiss, I suppose” she eventually said, apparently prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt at this stage. With that, Mr Blue-Shirt abandoned his unpacking, went downstairs and out round to the back of Pam’s house to the lily pad-covered pond. After a brief assessment of the problem he quickly decided that even if all four of us helped, we wouldn’t be able to shift the huge slab of timber.
“Have you got a wheel jack in your car?” he asked. “And a crowbar too, if possible?”
Barely a second’s pause this time, just a faint, quizzical frown.
“Yes, the jack’s in the boot and there’s a crowbar on a hook by the garage door.”
If this was another test, then Mr Blue-Shirt seemed to be doing pretty well so far. A few seconds later he returned with the tools he had requested.
“OK, then, Mr Clever-Clogs. Show us how it’s done!” said Pam, winking theatrically at Cristiano: this was definitely a test. Completely unfazed by the gauntlet she had just tossed at his feet, Mr Blue-Shirt calmly positioned the jack at an angle under the offending section of wood, wound the handle until it was supporting the weight of the sleeper and then used the crowbar to ease the whole thing back into alignment before slowly releasing the jack and letting the sleeper drop neatly into its proper place.
“Hmph,” was all Pam said – but with a small nod of approval.
As evening fell and we were just deciding whether to go out for a meal or to cook dinner from the provisions we had picked up on the way from the airport there was a cheery knock at the door.
“It’s only me,” came Pam’s sing-song voice.
“Come in, it’s open!” I called, thinking there were probably some house rules she had forgotten to tell us.
“I’m just about to have a little aperitivo and I was wondering if you’d like to join me. I take it you drink G&T?”
“Err…Yes, we do. That would be lovely!” I replied. “Thank you very much!”
We followed her in through the kitchen that had once been a stable, climbed the fantastic brass spiral staircase that wound all the way up to her bedroom under the steep pitched roof, crossed the artwork-filed first floor sitting room and went out onto the generous balcony with its views over the Marchigian hills behind which the copper-coloured sun had nearly set.
“Lemon or lime?” asked Pam as she sloshed huge shots of gin into the three heavy tumblers lined up on the low glass table illuminated by a string of fairy lights that bobbed overhead in the warm breeze.
“Lime, please. And lots of tonic,” I added hastily.
“The same for me, please. With lots of ice.”
Along with the gin, tonic, ice, lemon and lime, Pam had also set out an array of tasty little titbits: fat, juicy olives, cubes of salty Pecorino cheese, ribbons of melt-in-the-mouth-tender Parma ham, intensely flavoured sun-dried tomatoes, plates of crackers and chunks of fresh crusty bread.
“Don’t stand there making the place look untidy. Help yourself to something to eat and take a seat,” she said, gesturing towards the collection of slightly wonky wickerwork armchairs gathered around the table. “Then I want to hear all about your journey and what you plan to do while you’re here.” If there had been a test, it seemed we had passed it.
And so there we stayed for the rest of the evening, nattering away over the rasping of the cicadas as if we had known each for years as the sky faded from lavender to purple and finally to a velvety black studded with stars. We never got as far as dinner, and I’ve no idea what time it was when we eventually tottered back down the spiral staircase and up to bed in what we now knew was called The Little House – and where we were to end up spending practically every trip to Italy for the next seven years, in the company of who was soon to become our dear friend, mentor and inspiration, and effectively the catalyst for our finally taking the plunge and moving to Italy.
My thoughts snapped back to the present as I pulled into Stefano’s yard, right by where we had turned off the road to Falerone eleven years earlier.