By Nasir Ali Hussain
When I was eleven years old a new kid joined our class in the last term of school, the one before the summer holidays. His name was Manfredo. He had short, light brown hair that curled at the ends, but was otherwise straight. He also had startling blue eyes. Manfredo was the second shortest kid in the class. I remember he was kind of quiet in class, but did all that was expected of him and so in a funny kind of way it meant that you could easily forget that he had been in school when you looked back on the day. I thought this was because he had come over from Italy with his parents and his English was not as good as the rest of us.
Where we lived there were four residential roads that started up one after another in rows. We lived in the middle of the fourth street. At the top of our street was a park where I spent most of my free time.
Anyway, one Friday, not long after he had joined our school, I was in the park playing with some of the other kids that lived in one of those four streets when Manfredo showed up.
“Ey let’s play” he said. Which we took to mean “Hey can I play?” We let him play and within a minute he had surprised all of us with his tricks with the ball, he could dribble and dummy in a way that left us looking like spectators rather than players. When he joined in the game the score had been 5-0 to our team, though we had five players while they had 4 and were allowed ‘rush goalie’ to help compensate. ‘Rush goalie’ for those who don’t know is when the goalkeeper is allowed to come out and do what he likes while the goalie for the other side has to stay within the limits of his goal area. By the time the game was done the score was 10-6. They had won. We always played first to ten goals rather than set time limits.
He had been a real extrovert that day, not just in his game, but in his whole demeanor. But when I saw him in class the following Monday he was back to his shy, retiring self, acting like he didn’t want to be seen or heard.
That week he invited me over to his home for a sleepover, along with Sean, one of the other boys in our class who had been in the park that Friday.
“Itssa eyo birthday and I be really ‘appy if you come to my ‘ouse. You come yes? Please, you come ok?”
I wasn’t the most popular boy in class, but I wasn’t unpopular either. I did have a few friends, such as Sean. And I guess that his mother had wanted him to make some new friends. I asked my parents and they agreed as Manfredo looked so adorable that he was hard to refuse. His mother came to pick us up in a proper old banger, of a VW Beetle that looked laughably old-fashioned.
“Ello ello ello!” She was so beautiful and she looked very jovial, like a comedian. I remember finding it a bit odd at the time, for the simple reason that whenever I have been in close proximity to beautiful looking women they have always come across as either serious, distant remote or quietly satisfied at best. All of these things, never jovial or comical. However, I am humbly open to the idea that this could merely be their natural reaction to me. Perhaps these shrinking violets are the life and soul of the party when I am not in their vicinity!
There were five of us kids in the car that day. Though, apart from Sean, I didn’t know much about the other two boys and neither did Sean, they were in the same year as us, but in the other class. There was a girl also who I think was a cousin or some sort of relation to Manfredo and family. She had olive skin and brown hair take back by a blue ribbon. She had the same startling eyes as Manfredo and his mother had. I don’t know what her name was.
His mother sang in Italian to us as she drove, Manfredo sang along too. The songs sounded happy and we all laughed and clapped along. Their house was about a mile and a half away on the other side of town that none of us had ever been to more than a few times in our 11 year old lives.
The house was pleasant enough. It was one of those bungalows that are a lot bigger inside than they look from the outside. There was even a second floor. This is where Manfredo slept. I also remember that they had an old style outside toilet. This we all found amusing, as we didn’t think those things- like chain toilet flushes, were around anymore in 1983. The house stood alone and had a sizable front garden with a little goal post with a net. There didn’t seem to be any houses around. It just kind of existed on it’s own which was a strange thing for suburban London.
Manfredo had a little brother called Massimo who was about 6 years old who looked like he was going to be as good a footballer as his older brother. An old woman that they both called Nona had been looking after him in the mother’s absence. She wore a kind of headscarf and flower patterned dress that you don’t see anybody wear anymore.
“Let’s play,” said Manfredo. So we played football on their front lawn.
We played football and ate lots of nice Italian food that Nona had made. She held her fingers up to her mouth and said, “manga, manga.” We didn’t have to be asked twice. We were starving from all that running after the ball that Manfredo seemed to have glued to his feet. There was pasta and pastries and at the end Manfredo blew out the candles and cut the birthday cake. My memory of that afternoon is quite hazy. It’s like a film which largely you remember, but there are some scenes that have just kind of wiped from your memory. I just remember images and out of sequence events and remember that I was laughing a lot and that I really liked the mother as much as the son as they were so funny. I know I had a great time there.
“Thank you all for coming,” Manfredo had said before we left the next morning. His mother wanted him to make some new friends. And he had. We all promised each other that we would remain friends.
His mother drove us all back to our homes the next morning, which was a Saturday.
“Ciao Bello! Ciao Bello!” She had said as she bent down to kiss me on each cheek in goodbye. Her lips made a sound like a plunger on a sink plug hole each time.
Come Monday morning and I found myself looking for Manfredo in vain. His chair was empty. “Oh well,” I thought, “maybe he’s ill?”
The next day came. No Manfredo. Wednesday came and went. No manfredo. I had asked one of the other kids at school who had been at the party if he had seen him and he gave me this look as if I was speaking to him in another language.
“Manfredo? Who’s that?”
That took me aback and I tried to turn it into an angry joke. “Oh, just the person last Friday that we said we were going to be best friends with. What have you fallen on your head and lost your memory or something?” I scoffed, pleased that I didn’t know him that well.
“Shut your mouth you weirdo.”
“No, you shut your mouth!”
He gave me a dirty look and pushed me back.
Later that week after we were coming back from shopping in the car my mum drove by the street where Manfredo lived.
“That’s where I was last weekend.” I said starting to point, I looked out the window with my eyes on storks. My head felt heavy and confused.
No front lawn, no goalposts. And no house there! Nothing, just a field of dried summer grass in need of rain and a lawnmower.
“But there was a house there just last friday. Manfredo’s house.” I said in an angry argumentative tone even though she had said nothing.
“Sweetheart. There couldn’t have been.”
“What! Why not?” I was angry that even my own mother seemed to think I’d lost my mind.
“Well, for one thing there’s no rubble.” she pointed out. “Not even a sign of a house. Nothing. And there hasn’t been a house in that location as far as I can remember. And we’ve lived here since 1975.”
I spent the next week arguing my case. But since none of the parents had dropped off or picked up their sons, there was no one who could verify the house’s existence. And aside from my one friend, no one else acknowledged that they had been there. No one at school even remembered ever seeing anyone with the name and description I had described. After a while I just gave up mentioning him at all.
But I never stopped thinking about him. Years later I did some research in the civic centre on that location as a set of flats had been built there. It said that there had once been a few buildings in the area there. A grocery shop and three bungalows. But they had been burned down to the ground in a German air raid in 1940. There was a small obituary in the piece. It said the grocery shop was run by a family who were ‘very popular with the locals for their cheerfulness, and were civic minded and very much involved in the community’. One of the homes nearby was inhabited by them. The small piece finished by saying that: ‘That Mr Lupo had immigrated from Sicily only a year ago and had managed to build up a small grocery and delicatessen business was no small feat. Their pasta and pastries were the talk of the town. He, along with his wife and her mother, ran the business.They had two young sons who were said to have loved football.’
By Nasir Ali Hussain Copyright 04/07/2021
4 thoughts on “Let’s Play”
This short story is as delicious as a home cooked egg plant Parmesan fresh out of the oven with fresh Roma tomatoes from the garden. Growing up in Philadelphia, largest area of Italians in US, there is a pizza place, pasta place, hoagie place And a Catholic Church on each corner. I know Massino and Manfredo well. I grew up with a table full of “Nona’s” handmade Cookies at Christmas. This well written piece captures the joy of the Italian people… no matter how short their lives… they lived it! You know?! Manga!
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Really enjoyed your story! Reminded me of those old ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ episodes 🙂
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Thanks a lot for your comments Julia. Very much appreciated 🙏
I rather enjoyed this. I felt it had a nice personal account feel that reminded one of simpler yet just as complIcated times- perhaps , but SLOWER more thorough times. Pre the Hi Tech boom that ravaged childhoods. It rang true as a real account particularly with the photo. It took me back to Primary school days and Grange Hill Episodes looking at the seemingly autobiographical (?) 80’s image. A more real world that yielded a surprise within like an Easter Egg of the esoteric.
The time shift part was rather like a One step beyond/Twilight Zone or Black Mirror in that yes it was a surprise. With a lesser writer it might have fallen apart at that point but the intriguing tale of an Italian family made one wonder about the way spiritualists often speak of lived out lives on the “other side” of children or babies who die for example. A comforting – if unsettling thought. It also got me thinking of alternative realities and universes. Dimensions are another matter…Might the street have been wrong in the writers head and the friend had grown up be a famous footballer? Or perhaps the writer had a madness? So it was nice when the research led to a nice MR James conclusion. A nice little piece.
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