Family Business, a short story by Valli Henry-Boldini at
Natalia Ruedisueli

Family Business

Family Business

written by: Valli Henry-Boldini


It’s all because of Giovanni. Mum says that he’s family after all and if dad were still alive, he’d want us to welcome one of the family into our home. This is the reason why grandma has dusted off her Italian cookbook and marked the ravioli, meatballs and stew pages. It’s the reason why mum insists that I brush up on my Italian. It’s the reason I’m sharing Lisa’s bunk bed.

Giovanni is dad’s second cousin’s third son or something like that. He’s part of some distant Sicilian branch of the family, or more likely a twig or leaf or something similar. He’s arriving tomorrow to stay for a month. Apparently, he wants to perfect his English and expand the family business here in London. For my sins and all the trouble I’ve ever caused this family, I’m to be his chaperone. Maybe then I’ll be forgiven once and for all.

His plane is an hour late and I’m already on my second spritzer. He’s well tanned and wearing white when he finally walks through. White jeans. White shirt. White jacket. Even white sports shoes. Very Italian. I recognise him from the photo the family sent. He recognises me from his name on the card I’m holding.

“Ciao. You’re Elena, yes?”

I reach out my hand. He instead kisses me warmly on both cheeks and I blush unexpectedly. His accent is sensual and his dark brown eyes and long lashes are more profound in real life. He’s tall, well built and his curly hairs ruffled in all the right places. I manage a nod in response.

“Do you want something to drink? Maybe a spritzer before we go home?” I blurt out awkwardly.

“Thanks but can we go straight there. Mamma’s sent salami, fresh ravioli and cheese. I think they’re coming alive with the heat,” he smiles. I smile back.

The minicab to Barnet takes thirty minutes. Giovanni is chatty. He describes his village near the slopes of Mount Etna and how the mountains meet the sea. He tells me about the white villas, the blue villas and the pink ones. His hands are speaking their own language as he tells me about the sweet perfume of Bougainvillea on his porch.

“You’re quiet Elena. Am I boring you?” he says.

“No, really. I’m fascinated. Tell me more.” I’m already dreaming of hot sun and sea. Anything to get away from here for a while.

He tells me about the warm summer breeze and the beauty of the sun setting over the blood orange groves. He tells me about Papà Riccardo, Mamma Manuela, Nonno Giorgio, his older brothers Michele, Francesco, Antonio and his little sister Greta.

You’d love it there Elena,” he says. “You’ll have to see it for yourself one day.” His eyes sparkle with pride.

We pull up. Mum’s already waiting at the front door. I pay the cab driver and follow Giovanni up the weed filled path, which would make dad turn in his grave. “Benvenuto. Welcome to our humble home,” mum says kissing his five o’clock shadow and hugging him in true Italian style. Then she bustles him towards the kitchen where grandma’s already prepared enough spaghetti with meatballs to feed an army.

“Benvenuto Giovanni. You must be starved,” says grandma. “Come sit here tesoro.”

“No thanks. I’m fine,” he protests. “I’m still full from Mamma’s farewell lunch.”

But it’s too late. She’s already pulling out dad’s chair and marshalling him into it.

Giovanni is from San Giorgio. He’s attentive and polite and doesn’t act like anyone from the Godfather. There are no strange bulges in his breast jacket pockets. No ‘I gonna dis’ or ‘I wanna that’ or ‘offers you can’t refuse’ delivered with cotton wool stuffed inside his cheeks. I’m relieved at the thought.

Lisa sits opposite Giovanni. At seven years old she’s having fun slurping up her spaghetti and playing catch the meatball. I giggle as Giovanni struggles with the Mount Etna portion on his own plate. Mum shoots me one of her looks for giggling.

Francesca is sitting next to him. Her fingers are too busy texting on her mobile to notice all the fun.

“It feels good to have a man in the house again,” says mum. Giovanni smiles then forces another forkful into his mouth. “Have some more wine,” she says filling his glass for the third time. He politely takes a sip.

“Do you like Al Pacino?” I ask. “I’ve seen all his films.”

He smiles a thank you for the break. “Yes, he’s good if you like films,” he says. “Our family prefers classical music. We love Puccini and Verdi.”

Giovanni tilts his head at my puzzled expression.

Mum sighs heavily. “You see! You should have studied harder Elena, then you’d know who Giovanni’s talking about,” she says. “She’ll be twenty two next November Giovanni, and all she does is party, party, party. She has no respect for this family.”

Giovanni shifts uncomfortably in Dad’s chair.

“And Francesca,” continues mum. “For God’s sake, put down that mobile. Where’s your manners?”

“Where’s your manners?” repeats Lisa.

I wipe away her tomato sauce moustache. OK. So I love partying to Lady Gaga. I love drinking spritzers. I love having fun with my friends. And yes, out of seven 0’levels I only passed French. And yes, I’m unemployed at the moment. But at least I’m trying now. I’m doing a computer course, aren’t I, so what’s her problem?

“So what business are you going to expand here?” asks grandma putting an end to yet another argument.

“Oh, just family business Signora. Family interests,” he smiles. “Can I call you nonna?” he asks. “It’s eight years since grandma passed away and we called her nonna. In fact, you remind me a lot of her.” It’s now grandma’s turn to smile sympathetically. She’s already forgotten her question and offers him an espresso coffee.

The first day I take Giovanni to Soho. He’s got a little black book full of names and addresses neatly written one after another. We stop at restaurants, wine bars and exotic clubs with photos of topless women in various enticing positions.

“Come in with me,” he says.

“No, I’m good.”


“Oh. I mean I’m fine here thanks.”

I window shop while I wait. I don’t want to get in the way of family business.

The next day I take him to Carnaby Street, Old Compton Street, Denmark Street. I try on shoes, jeans; look at guitars and sniff perfumes cards. And I wait.

I take him the day after to Oxford Circus, Regent Street, and Charing Cross Road. More shoes, more jeans, more perfume. And I wait. And the day after that we go to Piccadilly Circus and Tottenham Court Road. I browse books in Waterstones. I check out Lady Gaga CDs in HMV and ask them if they have her film with that gorgeous Bradley Cooper, but they’re sold out for now. I feed the crumbs from my BLT to the pigeons in Trafalgar Square. And I wait. We go to Leicester Square and Kensington. And I wait and wait.

At 5.05pm exactly today, I’m exhausted. I’ve had enough of walking up and down. It’s been three exhausting weeks! I’m sick of browsing books, of being pushed by crowds, eating junk food, avoiding sex shops. I’m sick of shoes, guitars, jeans, perfumes and even of listening to Lady Gaga on my iPod. My feet ache. My head aches. My stomach aches. I’m done with waiting around. I just want Giovanni to go home.

Day after day mum and grandma fuss over Giovanni. It’s “Giovanni try this. Giovanni have that.” Giovanni, Giovanni, Giovanni. Grandma’s on page fifty three of her Italian cookery book and Giovanni’s face is definitely looking more rotund. We’ve gone through polenta swimming in stew, four types of ravioli, pizza, lasagna and fresh pasta that had porcini mushrooms and a multitude of different tomato sauces. You’d think we were real Italians!

Francesca instead is embarrassing. She’s really overdoing it. She spends the whole time in Giovanni’s face. She kisses him good morning. She kisses him goodnight. It’s “Giovanni. How do you say this in Italian? And this Giovanni?” Like she’ll ever use it in the future. She’s even taken to wearing more makeup and shorter dresses; which don’t do anything for her sixteen-year-old cellulite legs. I look on bemused each time she stalks him and laugh at Giovanni’s knack of escaping her attention with grand savoir faire.

I’m Googling Puccini in the kitchen when Giovanni walks in. He looks over my shoulder and smiles at the list of operas on the page.

“We can go see Madama Butterfly or Tosca before I leave,” he says. “It’ll be my way of saying thanks. You’ve been really patient with me. Really great! Grazie.”

He smiles again as he studies me for a few moments. I smile back.

“It must be hard being the eldest.”

“Yeah, I guess. It gets lonely. Especially since dad died.”

“You must miss him a lot.” I nod a tearful yes.

“Listen,” he says putting a hand on my shoulder. “I’m going home next week, so come visit me and my papà whenever you want. Papà would welcome you with open arms. We’d all welcome you. You could learn a lot about the family business in Sicily.” He’s about to say more but grandma walks in.

“You made Giovanni an espresso Elena?” she asks. I nod a yes. “What about something to eat?” I nod again. Grandma’s black stockinged bandy legs hobble over to the cooker. Her arthritic fingers struggle to open the still warm Moka. “Then I’ll make you another Giovanni,” she says. “My husband always had two in the morning with plenty of sugar. Nice and sweet.” You can see that Giovanni has a soft spot for grandma. He doesn’t seem to mind her repeating the same thing every morning like a broken record.

“No grazie nonna. One espresso’s enough for me,” he says. “And Elena made me some lovely hot toast with butter and strawberry jam. So I’m good.” He winks at me then moves in closer to nonna and brushes back her thin grey locks. He traces his fingers over the roads of wrinkles, lying like a physiological map carved in her once stunning face. He kisses grandma gently on her forehead. Grandma’s eyes are closed in a seemingly distant memory.

“We need to get going now nonna,” he says hugging her. “We’ve got lots to do today.”

Grandma’s eyes snap open. “Have a croissant then Giovanni. You need to eat more. You’re too thin,” she says. “Elena…”

Grandma hasn’t time to insist again. Giovanni grabs my hand and we escape giggling like two lovebirds through the back door, onto the grey stone patio and through the wrought iron gate with its birds captured in flight. It was one of mum’s ideas to make the back garden look more Italian and one of dad’s favourite reasons to tease her.

We get the northern line to Hampstead and he works down the last page of his list. I look at handmade soaps in the Body Shop and the last of the sale clothes in Monsoon. I spy on people in the Hampstead Tea rooms munching on scones with lashings of jam and clotted cream and sipping their tea with raised little pinkies. A sign catches my eye and I make a note to look up Lord Byron. Next stop Camden. I have fun trying on rings and rummaging through old junk and secondhand clothing for sale. And I wait for him. I pass the Eclipse tattoo parlour and think about having another one done; this time without my ex’s initials which have faded like the memory of his face. We leave Camden and head for Covent Garden. The street musicians are fun. I join the crowd in cheering them on and throw some loose change into the hat. And I wait for him. I browse through the market stalls and buy two Lily shaped candles, a peace offering for mum, and a cute wooden doll for Lisa. And I wait. He finally walks out of Maxwell’s beaming like a Cheshire cat.

“Well that’s the last one Elena,” he says closing his little black book. “I’ve made them all an offer they can’t refuse. Not bad for a twenty-four-year-old,” he winks. “I think we deserve a spritzer.”

I make a face at his first comment but willingly accept the spritzer. On the way back to Covent Garden Station we pass the Opera House and Giovanni’s excited squeal makes me jump.

“Look what’s on Elena. Madama Butterfly. It’s destiny,” he says. “We have to see it!”

He disappears into the opera house and is out before I can answer. “Got the tickets,” he grins, hopping like a five-year-old holding a wee. “I was lucky to get some before I leave. Must be my Italian charm with the ladies,” he grins again. I can’t stop grinning too as I picture a five-year-old needing a wee charming the ladies.

Giovanni loves the excitement of London but Sicily is his passion. He’s very ambitious. He has big plans for the family business and the future. And his family definitely comes first. What I still don’t understand though is what exactly the family business is. He still hasn’t mentioned it and I haven’t plucked up the courage to ask.

Mum and grandma are ready for their weekly bingo and we’re heading for Madama Butterfly. Francesca has been given the task of looking after Lisa. This fact worries me something rotten.

“Francesca. Make sure Lisa has her milk before she goes to bed. And make sure she’s in bed by 7.30pm. And stay off that mobile,” says mum hugging her favourite daughter. Grandma hurries her own daughter through the open front door.

The opera house is buzzing. I watch a mix of people of different ages and nationalities walk through before us. I’m so excited I feel like a giddy sixteen-year-old on a first date. We finally enter the theatre and the blood red richness of the red stage curtains takes my breath away. The ornate ceiling is stunning and the amazing red and gold lights give off a wonderful glow over the whole theatre. We take our seats and Giovanni hands me a programme. The lights go down and a Japanese house appears from behind the curtains. A man is looking out over the harbour.

“That’s Pinkerton,” whispers Giovanni.

Not long after a lady appears on stage with other women, all carrying brightly coloured sunshades.

“That’s Cio-Cio-San in the middle. She’s Madama Butterfly,” whispers Giovanni again. “Isn’t she beautiful?”

“Shhh,” I gesture with a finger to my lips. Giovanni smiles a sorry.

I feel Butterfly’s joy on her wedding day and my tears well up. And Giovanni looks at me. I cry at the love duet between Butterfly and Pinkerton. And Giovanni slips his fingers into mine. I cry when Cio-Cio-San is waiting and hoping for Pinkerton’s return; believing that he will return if he knows about their son. And Giovanni slides his arm around my shoulder. I cry when Pinkerton returns with his new American wife Kate. And Giovanni wipes away my tears. Giovanni pulls me closer as Butterfly hugs her son goodbye then sends him into the garden. I cry when Cio-Cio-San commits her last desperate act for love. And Giovanni hugs me tighter. I cry at the end when I hear Pinkerton calling out Butterfly’s name in the distance. And Giovanni kisses me. And I kiss him back.


Mum bursts into tears when we tell her the news. Grandma instead is fussing about organising a send off for us in such a short time. I spend the next few days packing all my treasured belongings into two large suitcases; my favourite photos of dad and my family, all my Lady Gaga CDs, my computer, my Italian phrasebook, a Lord Byron poetry book that Giovanni bought for me and a little toy dog from Lisa.

Mum keeps saying. “You’re a good boy Giovanni. Just look after my baby.”

And grandma, “But of course he will Ester. Elena’s very lucky.”

They’re still fussing over my husband to be, and Giovanni loves every moment of it. Francesca and I have made peace. She loves the idea of having such a handsome brother-in-law and even better, future free holidays in Sicily.


I’m here sitting on the porch with Giovanni smelling the sweet Bougainvillea and watching the sunset. I love the feel of my growing tummy. I love the late evening breeze and walking barefoot through the orange groves. I love Papà Riccardo, Mamma Manuela, Nonno Giorgio, Michele, Francesco, Antonio and playing hide and seek with little Greta. I love listening to Aida, Rigoletto and Tosca and secretly lending Nonno my iPod so he can listen to Lady Gaga.
Giovanni’s little black book has now been computerised and our blood orange and Prosecco spritzer Orange Lily is taking London by storm. Dad would be so proud of me. I’m taking care of family business.

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