Mr Blue-Shirt arranged to go and have a look at the potential forging space Francesco had offered him in one of his barns on a Saturday afternoon in early April. His heart wasn’t really in it, though, as he had by then committed – mentally, at least – to setting up his forge in the space that Antonio, the chap who runs the shipping company that had transported Mr Blue-Shirt’s shipping container over from Lincolnshire, had offered him in one of the warehouses he rents. In fact, he had been on the point of finally unpacking all his forging equipment when Covid stopped both of us in our tracks back in February. The problem was, in the meantime the owner of the site had informed Antonio that it had become necessary to renegotiate his lease as they needed to do something else with the site, so with Plan A at risk, Mr Blue-Shirt knew he’d be foolish to pass up a potential Plan B. After all, to turn down this opportunity could mean having to start the whole search from scratch – and leaving his forge crammed in it steel box for yet another few months.
Mr Blue-Shirt did have to admit, however, that being just over 2km from home – and with magnificent views across to the snow-capped Sibillini Mountains – the buff-coloured metal barn with a corrugated roof was in the kind of location he had always dreamt of. And the space, complete with a couple of large workbenches, an assortment of tools and several pieces of metal-working apparatus certainly had potential as a forge; it even already had a three-phase power supply – a crucial selling point in Mr Blue-shirt’s book . That said, it was also quite a lot smaller than the space at Antonio’s, plus Francesco was likely to want a commercial rent for the space. And apart from anything, he didn’t want to put his pal Antonio’s nose out of joint. So with quite a lot of pros and cons to weigh up, Mr Blue-Shirt remained politely non-committal as we drove Francesco back up the white gravel track to the main road and dropped him back at the large coral-pink house with white shutters where his mother lived.
“Would you like to come in for a quick coffee?” asked Francesco as he unfolded his long-limbed frame from the back seat and shoo-ed away the very yappy Jack Russell that had noisily greeted us as we pulled up in front of the house. Even though we had never met Francesco’s mother, it seemed churlish to decline, so we followed him up the broad, tiled steps on which a matching pair of large marmalade cats lounged proprietorially. He led us into a wood-panelled hallway where a petite woman in her late sixties with sensibly styled salt-and-pepper hair ushered us into the small dining room that was dominated, incongruously, by a large flat-screen TV.
“Mia mama,” said Francesco somewhat unnecessarily.
“Piacere – pleased to meet you,” she said, her heavily lined face crinkling into a broad smile. “Sono Lilia,” she clarified and extended her hand while rolling her eyes benevolently at her son and then disappeared into the adjoining kitchen to make coffee.
Shoving his unruly mop of curly chestnut hair back from his face with his wrap-around sunglasses and lighting yet another cigarette, Francesco invited us to take a seat at the scrubbed oak dining table. Over the hiss and splutter of the coffee machine coming from the kitchen he explained that this was the family farmhouse, but that he and his girlfriend lived in an apartment in Montelupone itself, and that while it was mainly an arable farm, they also reared a certain amount of livestock.
“Ecco ci qua – here we are,” said Lilia as she returned to the dining room with a tray of tiny espresso cups, each containing barely a tablespoon of deeply aromatic coffee. As she handed round the cups and the sugar and a plate of dainty, homemade almond biscuits, we answered her questions about why we’d moved to Italy, why we’d chosen Le Marche, what we thought of Montelupone and how we had found our house before she returned to the kitchen where we could hear her bustling about with dinner preparations. By the time we had responded to Francesco’s queries about how many olive trees we had, how much oil they yielded and where we got our olives pressed, we had finished our coffee and the delicious biscuits, so stood up ready to take our leave. We thanked Francesco for the tour of the workshop and for his hospitality, and as we called out “Arrivederci!” to Lilia, she suddenly reappeared holding a large Pyrex dish that she had obviously just removed from the freezer.
“Do you like lasagne?” she said, indicating the condensation-coated dish.
“Er…yes, we do.…”
“Here you are, then. It’s all homemade. Our own eggs in the pasta, our own meat and our own tomatoes in the sauce.”
“But that’s far too generous. We couldn’t possibly…,” we protested.
“Nonsense! I’ve got plenty more in the freezer. Just bring the dish back when you’re ready.”
Mr Blue-Shirt and I looked at each other hesitantly.
“Go on, take it,” urged Francesco. “She’ll be cross if you don’t!”
Suspecting he probably wasn’t entirely joking, we accepted the dish, thanked Lilia profusely and said our goodbyes.
We ate the lasagne the following weekend, and needless to say, it was divine. Multiple layers of pasta that was as delicate and smooth as silk alternating with equally thin layers of incredibly flavoursome beef ragù and topped with a generous layer of cheese-rich bechamel sauce. A couple of days later, in order to indicate that we had not just stuffed Lilia’s gift in the depths of the freezer, I drove up to the coral-pink farmhouse to return Lilia’s dish, and took a jar of lemon curd that I had recently made with our own lemons by way of a small thank you. Having assured her that the lasagne had indeed been delicious, I handed her the jar the lemon curd and as it is unknown here, I explained how it was eaten, how it was made and what was in it.
“Eggs?!” said Lilia as I ran through the ingredients. “Just a moment…”
Lilia disappeared into the tall cupboard under the stairs and emerged a few seconds later holding a large polystyrene tray stacked with getting on for twenty enormous eggs to which sprigs of straw and lumps of saw dust still clung. She waved away my protestations.
“We always end up with far more than I can use. In fact, come and get some more whenever you are passing. It’ll soon be the same with tomatoes: if you can take some off my hands, you’ll be doing me a favour.”
Sensing Lilia would not take no for an answer, I gave in gracefully, accepted the eggs, and promised to return for some more in the near future. So now I need to think of another way to reciprocate Lilia’s neighbourly generosity while Mr Blue-Shirt weighs up all those pros and cons. But we both agreed that meeting the generous, knowledgeable and persuasive Lilia was an unanticipated addition to the ‘pro’ side of the scales.