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. For much of the forty-kilometre trip over from our place I had been thinking about that day, the day we had first met Pam, our dear friend and effectively the catalyst for our finally taking the plunge and moving to Italy. Stefano is the carpenter who made and installed the shutters missing from several of our windows and who is now in the process of refurbishing all the windows themselves, and I had gone there to pick up the latest pair he had just finished and to drop off the next pair for him to work on. His workshop and yard are just a few metres from where, on that first trip to Pam’s, we turned off that same road to Falerone and headed down the hill towards Pam’s house for the very first time. And once Stefano and I had swapped windows, I was going to trundle down the lane whose every bump and bend we know so well once more.
It only took a couple of stays in her holiday cottage, aka the Little House, that is attached to the sprawling farmhouse she had restored several years earlier to realise that Pam is not one to suffer fools gladly. But once she is satisfied that you are neither a fool nor a crook, then she is a loyal and generous friend. We clicked with her almost immediately, and by about our third visit we had started talking in terms of ‘going to stay with Pam’ rather than ‘going on holiday to Italy’. Such a practical and capable person herself, she warmed, I think, to our broadly can-do, get-stuck-in attitude, and to our absolute seriousness about moving to Italy: she had almost certainly lost count of the number of guests at The Little House who, over their second bottle of wine, would get all misty-eyed about buying a charming holiday hideaway tucked among the rolling hills of Le Marche, but who, in the grip of a raging hangover, realised the next morning that it was never going to happen,
Indeed, having recognised how serious our intentions were, Pam came and viewed a succession of ruins with us and gave us her characteristically blunt assessment of their feasibility (or otherwise, more often than not) as a restoration project. But she didn’t stop there: as a capable and easy-going hostess who without turning a hair could rustle up a three-course lunch for twelve in her cluttered kitchen, she always made us feel welcome among her wide circle of both Italian and expat friends. And as a born net-worker and connection-maker, she enthusiastically set about introducing us to a whole cast of characters who might be able to help us achieve our dream. Through Pam we met estate agents, architects, surveyors, builders, a translator, a notary and a lawyer – as well as a highly-skilled carpenter, for even Stefano was one of her many recommendations. And once we had finally found the house we now call home, she guided us through the whole purchase process, dispensing wine and wisdom as required and in equally generous measure.
But it was with a heavy heart that I pulled off Stefano’s drive and turned down the hill, for I was effectively going there to say goodbye. Pam no longer lives in the sprawling farmhouse and extensive gardens she so lovingly restored and filed with life in her own unique style. She sold up about three years ago when, in her mid-seventies and with a recently diagnosed heart condition, she came to the unwelcome conclusion that looking after a three-bedroom, three-storey house with attached holiday cottage, plus two acres of land, a couple of dozen olive trees, an artist’s studio and a plunge pool had simply become too much for her. But Pam being Pam, she didn’t take the easy option of moving back to a purpose-built retirement apartment in the UK as many people in her position might have done. Instead she decided she still had one last project in her, so bought the small, derelict property practically next door (that none of her friends saw any potential in at all) and in just a few months converted it into two cosy, one-bedroom apartments, one for her and one to rent out. Naturally, the place didn’t have quite the same presence or flair as The Big House, as she came to call it, but she still managed to imprint her bold and colourful personality onto the two modest spaces – and even create a pretty courtyard garden too.
And there she stayed for just over a year, very happily living her life with her beloved and extremely elderly feline companion Kato, very much as she always had – just on a simpler and smaller scale. But then what might otherwise have been put down to her well-known eccentricity and light-hearted contrarianism was in fact diagnosed as dementia. Within just a few short months she was unable to cope on her own and after much soul-searching, her family reluctantly decided to take her back to the UK where she now lives in a care home close to two of her children. Her dream of living out her days with Kato in their cosy little apartment in the secluded corner of Le Marche she had made her own was over.
I almost wished I hadn’t gone. Pam’s once colourful and abundant garden was choked with chest-high weeds, and as I peered through the cobweb-curtained window, I could see Pam’s few remaining possessions, still waiting to be boxed up and shipped back to the UK, now covered in a heavy blanket of dust. The silence and stillness of Pam’s utter absence hung like a cloud in the brilliant summer sky, casting over me a deep shadow of sadness. And in that moment I knew that we would never see our dear friend, guide, mentor and inspiration again.