‘Benvenuti alla Small Cluster Band!’ And about time, too. We had been sitting in the Castello in Castellabate for half an hour watching an empty stage, while members of La Small Cluster Band stood around eating slices of pizza from takeaway boxes. ‘They’re on Italian time,’ I told my mother, as she sat in her place wearing an expression communicating polite but profound dissatisfaction.
It had been my idea to spend an evening in the historic hilltop town of Castellabate listening to La Small Cluster Band playing ‘Concerto Swing’ after seeing a poster advertising the event on a wall. What could be more sophisticated, I thought, than an evening of live music in Castellabate, which boasts of being the most beautiful town in Italy.
I booked a table at the most idyllic restaurant there and told Luigi we would not be dining in the hotel that night. Luigi was not impressed. ‘But you have to see the Madonna,’ he protested. ‘The procession is tonight.’
Uh-oh. This was a dilemma. La Small Cluster Band clashed with the festival of the Madonna del mare in the neighbouring town where our hotel is. Every July they carry the statue of Mary down from the church into the harbour, on to a boat, then they sail around the bay with it, sail back and carry her up to the church again late at night with a band and all sorts of kerfuffle culminating in fireworks.
I have seen this marvellous ceremony many times, in various Italian towns, and what I almost wanted to say to Luigi was: ‘Once you’ve seen one Madonna being carried up a hill, you’ve seen them all.’
Shocking, I know. As a good Catholic girl I should be thoroughly ashamed. But I had been so pleased with myself for discovering La Small Cluster Band and what I thought would be a night of sophisticated entertainment. So I stuck to my guns and told Luigi that this year we would not be watching the Madonna. I should have known God would be angry.
We had a very nice meal of seafood pasta and tuna steak with ratatouille in the Cantina Belvedere. And as we wandered up the cobbled path to the magically lit Castello dell’Abate it looked as if I had pulled off a really classy evening.
But once we took our seats it became clear that the reason the stage was empty, despite the advertised hour of 9.30 p.m. having passed, was that La Small Cluster Band, which wasn’t all that small, was clustered at the side of the stage eating pizza. There were about 15 of them having a whale of a time, laughing and joking.
After about half an hour, they casually took to the stage and launched into the most out of tune rendition of ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ I have ever heard. They weren’t even playing the right notes in the wrong order. They were playing the wrong notes in the wrong order.
The biggest problem was the trumpet section — two young guys with slicked back hair who had obviously spent much longer in front of the mirror than they had behind their trumpets. Each time they put their instruments to their mouths, the audience cowered as we braced ourselves for a volley of bum notes.
It was sufficiently bad that the words ‘small cluster bomb’ entered my head as they murdered ‘Take the A Train di Billy Strayhorn!’
At the interval we got up and left. On the way back to the hotel we stopped by the harbour to see if the Madonna had finished her journey. She had. The concluding fireworks were writing our blasphemous betrayal into the sky. Guiltily, we bought an ice cream and wandered back to the car.
It wasn’t until the next morning that my mother noticed the parking ticket we had been served in Castellabate. It was tucked under the back wiper. ‘You see!’ I panicked. ‘God is angry we snubbed the Madonna!’
My mother exhorted me to stay calm. She pointed out that we have had parking tickets in Italy before, and have always managed to haggle them down by arguing at the police station. But this one had come just before our departure, so would be an awful drag to deal with.
While shopping for a gift to take back for the builder boyfriend, I asked the opinion of the owner of the local menswear store.
‘You want that I help you with this?’
‘That would be great,’ I said, thinking he was going to ring the phone number on the back. But the man simply ripped the ticket in half.
‘We get this all the time. We don’t pay. If we pay, we would have no money.’
Somehow, amid all their chaos, the Italians manage to make perfect sense.
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