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The Apprentice’s Revenge

This yarn was told to me back in the early eighties by my brother in law as we walked from his house to the “Top Bar” in his village in Sth’n Italy … It apparently happened in his village, which was known for it’s workers in textiles and shoes … My B-i-L is himself a cobbler by trade. He told me the basic rudiments of the story … as one does when relating a passing yarn rather than a complete and constructed story-line … which is what I offer here to you.

It is of interest that in the days of yore, not that long ago … perhaps even to the early 1950s. In many of these villages, an apprentice was not hired like we do here and now, rather, he was offered to a master craftsman to be trained, by the youth’s parents … and sometimes money would be paid for that training … the apprentice becoming a sort of “live-in” servant to the master … not being paid any wage, save maybe a little pocket-money, but given board and keep in lieu of … and perhaps being trained alongside a son as a companion. I have spoken to some older European tradesmen who “served their time” in this “feudal-like” manner … I’ll tell you a story about one, one day.

The downside was that once apprenticed, there was little that could be done to get out of the arrangement and this could result in a cruel master subjugating the youth to all sorts of abusive treatment. The story I heard may or may not be a type of generic village “myth” … but none the less, it was one of the best “paybacks” by a tyrannised apprentice I have heard. It must be said that the peasants of these isolated villages were very gullible to a well presented lie, and could be persuaded to accept all sorts of weird and lurid scenarios (what am I saying! … Is it any different here and now?) … It wasn’t long ago that I heard and witnessed a “Evil Eye” consultation with a “empowered woman” in that same village.

The superstitions still remain … Anyway, to the story for your entertainment …

It went like this:

The Apprentice’s Revenge

Little puffs of condensed breath steamed from the boy’s mouth in unison with his quick steps.

“Hurry there, boy, hurry,” the Master Tailor poked and prodded the youth in the ribs with his rule “why, I had a donkey once, more lively than you.”

“Yes! … ” thought the boy “and I bet it carried almost as much, you old bugger!” but he said nothing and kept on hurrying over the cobblestone road, as he stepped, the pewter’d sheen of window-lamps reflecting off the wet stones made his steps cautious .

“What are you mumbling about? … don’t mumble, just get a move on … we have to be at Gemano Alfonsi’s half an hour ago! … step lively now!”

“Please don’t push me, master, for if I stumble I will surely drop these bolts of cloth in the mud!”

“Drop the cloth?! Drop the cloth?! Just you try it, boy, just you try it and you will feel the thick edge of my boot a thousand times … yes, yes two thousand times!!” and he prodded the youth once more. A door opened on their right and a shaft of yellow light stabbed onto the road to their feet. a stocky man silhouetted in the doorway called to them in a mocking tone.

“Ahh! Master Tailor … keep a tight rein on your steed there, for these young ones will find any excuse to spit the bit!”

“Ha ha! … right you are Signor blacksmith … right you are … but never fear, I have this young colt well and truly hobbled … ha ha! on with you boy, on with you! … to Gemano Alfonsi’s to measure a suit … hurry now!”

So on they went, down street and lane till they halted in front of a peasant’s cottage at the far end of the village. Through the small window facing the street could be seen the wife and three children … girls (for Signor Alfonsi was blessed solely with girls) methodically preparing the evening meal. Waftings of steam from a large pot misted over the window, a man’s hand wiped circular on the glass and a face peered out, then with raised eyebrows of recognition pulled away and opened the heavy wooden door.

“Master Tailor … and his apprentice no less … we were expecting you an hour ago … lose your way?”

“I was busy fitting a ruby coat to the king of Siam!” replied the tailor.

“And I am to meet him next Monday! What a coincidence!” mocked the peasant.

“Ebbene! … my house is your house … Master Tailor … the good wife is preparing a meal for us now.”

“First I will measure you and then I will eat … and tomorrow evening I will cut the cloth … speaking of which, I will leave some cloth for you to choose from. Though if I may suggest … ”

“Ah! … I can guess what you may suggest, Master Tailor. But I want cloth that is elegant, BUT! … manly … ”

“Well, if I may … ”

“A suit with fine lines, BUT! … not too delicate … ”

“Well, if I may … ”

”Robust. BUT! … ” (and here he wagged his finger side to side) not in the style of a pig farmer’s overalls!”

“Allora! … then it leaves me only one option to pursue I will make a suit of clothes for you that when you take the promenade on the Sabbath, people will stop and stare and say: “Ah! … There goes Signore Alfonsi; a Gentleman!”

All this banter back and forth was done with the appropriate gestures and twirls and twists of fingers and hands, with all the nuances insinuated with raised eyebrows and winked eyes. The two men finished with effusive back slapping.

“Master … ” the youth interjected so they both turned a surprised eye to him. “The cloth, it gets heavy.”

“Ah! … if they’re not lazing off in some corner … they’re whining for the little work they have to do.”

Signor Alfonsi “tch’d-tch’d” and nodded in agreement.

The cottage, having one room for eating and meeting, the rest for bedrooms, meant the measuring for the suit had to be done amongst the setting out of the evening meal. The females weaving about and placing dishes amongst the lifting of arms and the shifting of legs … the apprentice eyed the meal, for he was as hungry as … as only a young man can be … and oh! … the tantalising aromas of a hearty peasant feast sent his tongue licking and smacking against his lips!

“But seriously, Master Tailor, I must look my best for the council meeting next month!” and here he bent low to whisper secretively into the tailor’s ear. ”I have heard … heard mind, that a position may be available for me to sit on the commune council for next term … and then?” (a gesture with the hand).

“Aha! … then you must look to your friends who support your election … and I for one would be grateful for any uniform work that could come my way.”

“Well, I am not elected yet, Master Tailor, but … er … given the right price for your services … er … I will certainly not overlook the … er … consideration.”

“BOY! … ” called the tailor, “wake up and bring me the chalk!”

“Signori! … ,” called the matron of the house: “Dinner is served!” And placed a large bowl of Chicken Cacciatori in the middle of the table.

“Are you asleep, boy? … ah! … I see … more of a mind for the meal than your work eh? … I didn’t bring you here for a feast outside with you! out! out!”

“Ah … truly, Master Tailor … ?” began the peasant in protest …

“Out … and next time think more of the duty to your trade than your stomach!” … and he shut the youth outside. The peasant and his family were a little embarrassed at the whole incident, but said nothing, not wishing to further compromise the boy.

“A firm hand … Gemano … a firm hand is what is needed … ” a cutting motion with hand-on-edge up and down …

The youth outside sat sorrowfully down on a bench seat and commiserated with himself … then he plotted his revenge … he would have to be cunning!

“Hmm … Ah!”

(The next day in the street near the post office).

Gemano Alfonsi gently lay his hand on the apprenticed youth’s shoulder …

“Look, it was a terrible thing for you to be left out of the meal … We expected you to eat with the tailor as is the custom (shrug of shoulders) but …”

“NO, no, signor Alfonsi, think not of it, for I am used to Master Tailor’s growing moods … ” Here he turned to look about him and then looking meaningfully to the peasant made a twirling motion with his finger about his ear

“He is a bit crazy, you know.” The peasant raised his eyebrows.

“How do you mean … he doesn’t seem … ?”

” A little bit unbalanced … is what I mean … oh! not badly, mind … he just flys off the handle sometimes … it builds up in him, you know.”

“He did seem a bit tense last night … for he was a little hard on you … ”

“Oh that was nothing … but it is building up though … little by little … until …” The youth leant a little closer: “That incident last year in San Angelo.”

“What incident!?”

“Yes, it was hushed up nicely … cost, Master Tailor a pretty penny … ,” with a nodding of his head. “It’s those lonnng, sharrp scissors he uses to cut the cloth … he becomes mesmerised by them … they say his pregnant mother was threatened by a sword-weilding soldier.”

“Long, sharp, scissors?”

“Yes, Signor Alfonsi … you’ll see … you watch his eyes when he runs his thumb along the edge to test the sharpness … you watch … mesmerised … ”

“But what will he do? … I have my family … ”

“Nothing! … nothing, if you act quickly to snap him out of it! … Oh don’t judge him cruelly I beg you … and I chastise myself most severely if I have led you to doubt Master Tailor’s intentions, which, at all other times are irreproachable … and I beg of you also not to tell of this … this confession to Master Tailor, for, while I feel I must be a sort of guardian against any outrage that he may commit in a … a confused state, I must consider his “face” in the community and his pride … and I tell you this in honourable secrecy to not repeat it to any others … for what man needs his pride dragged through the mud.” At those words the peasant puffed out his chest … for there is none more proud than he! … for it is always so: The more unworldly a man is, the more that pride has hold of his heart.

“Have no fear of betrayal on my part, boy … but what can I do to snap him out of this … this mood?”

The youth pulled the peasant close in a huddle, shoulder to shoulder, face to face and went through a little pantomime.

“You will see when he is about to “snap”, for he will be cutting the cloth like this and his tongue will be pushed between his lips and he will be biting down on it … look, look … like this … and his eyes will grow wider and wider as he makes the cut with those scissors,” and the youth acted out the gesture while the peasant, now wide eyed also, obediently watched and followed every exaggerated gesture … “and when he is doing that, you must have a stout stick handy … no, not too heavy, for we don’t want to brain him! … just stun him … and when he is doing that … whack! … on the back of the head … just here.” He tapped the peasants’ head … the peasant rubbed the spot as if reassuring himself it was really there … “And he will snap out of it and be right back to normal.”

“But, but he will demand to know why I hit him!”

The youth pulled a confident face and made a dismissing gesture.

“Deny it … and say he fainted … and tell your family to all say the same and all will be well … you’ll see … this isn’t the first time, you know … remember San Angelo … and after all, you’ll be protecting yourselves AND his honour.”

“Why don’t YOU hit him then … since you know how it’s done?”

“ME! … As if I can move about without Master Tailor watching my every move and giving me orders … no … it must be you, signor Alfonsi … or we must ALL take our chances.”

(That night in the kitchen of Gemano Alfonsi’s … ).

It was a very nervous family that gathered behind Master Tailor as he stood at the kitchen table with the cloth laid out in front of him. The peasant: Gemano Alfonsi stood immediately behind the tailor, behind him cowered his wife and the three girls clutching at her skirt. All were wide eyed and trembling.

“My scissors,” commanded the tailor, with hand out.

The youth made a grand gesture of extracting the long shears from their sheaf, like he was withdrawing a sword for the executioner (he had spent some time that day polishing these shears so they gleamed cruelly). The peasant’s hand tightened on a stout stick he had ready behind his leg, his tongue flicked over his dry lips, his eyes as wide as saucers. The tailor snipped once or twice then suddenly spun around toward Gemano …

God, how they all leapt in the air!

“I had the boy sharpen them today … you can’t do a good job with blunt instruments,” and he licked and ran his thumb slowly along the keen edge of the blade. The apprentice puckered his eyebrows toward Gemano meaningfully, fear filled the peasant’s eyes, mama’s knees began to fold and she was clutched under the arm by the stout Gemano and brought around.

“Allora!” cried the tailor, “to work.” And he bent over the cloth, the family in one motion also leant over the tailor watching his lips closely … he straightened up, so did they.

“My glasses!” he announced, reaching into his pocket, “where are they?” He stared into the empty holder … (the youth had earlier deliberately removed them and left them at the tailor’s home).

“I remember you setting them on your desk at your home,” the youth quickly answered.

“Well if you know where they are, go and get them! … don’t just stand there!”

The boy opened the door, stopped for a moment and gazed back at the little scene … The tailor, head slightly turned on one side, his right eye wide-open and close to his markings on the cloth, his left hand held the cloth off the table, his right was ready to cut the cloth with the gleaming scissors, then with an expression of utmost concentration on his face, he slipped his tongue (as was his wont to always habitually do) out between his lips and bit down on it gently, his eyes widening in deep concentration … The boy stepped outside and closed the door … he took two steps, halted, cocked his ear to one side to listen …


The noise of the thump, a trifling interruption in the cool, still, silent air of the night. The youth smiled and with his hands plunged deep in his pockets, went off whistling down the cobbled street!

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  1. Joseph Carli

    I have to confess a love affair with the “Italianate” style of storytelling…that exaggerated over-reaction and the flamboyant vendetta payback!…and of course the “colour” of the characters….I love it!
    I have others if you are interested…

  2. wam

    The smell of body-warming tucker, on a winter’s afternoon, is an image with the smell itself.
    Unfortunately for us old cynics to put trust in a peasant would mean a terrible beating when the headache came home?
    ps wow scummo and trump’s dinner could include the 2/1 winner boris???

  3. Joseph Carli

    I have experienced some of that “peasant tucker”…cooked with home cured or home grown ingredients, the cooking timed with so many Ave Marias or Pater Nostras… washed down with home-made wine from the “peasants” own grapes………..

    ” My last thoughts of Southern Italy are of crisp, blue-sky’d days, lying under some olive trees on the tarpaulin that we used to pick said olives, unwrapping the fresh linen cloths off the plates of home-cured prosciutto, tasting the pale sheep-milk cheese, slicing off a healthy lump of that ciabata-type continental bread and pouring a glass of rich, home-made red wine from the glass-stoppered bottle and remarking to my brother-in-law that ;

    “There are people in some countries that would pay for the pleasure of doing this, you know?”

    So, in closing, I must remark that if there is a God, and if there is a designed end to the world, and He/She does judge us harshly for our lack of spiritual determination….we can all proudly and collectively point to the art of Italy and cry-

    “Look at this!…at least you can’t say we didn’t try!”

    ( https://freefall852.wordpress.com/2016/12/14/roman-holiday/ )

  4. Phil

    So, in closing, I must remark that if there is a God, and if there is a designed end to the world, and He/She does judge us harshly for our lack of spiritual determination….we can all proudly and collectively point to the art of Italy and cry-
    “Look at this!…at least you can’t say we didn’t try!”

    Damper cooked in a bush oven and the colours of the desert changing with the light as the sun does its pass.. The shrieking of parrots and watching Kangaroo’s race across the land at full throttle. Now that is the heaven I dream of and I am already in it

    Ha ha you jest. You are confused . We already live in the country that any God would call his own. It’s called Australia.

    I’m sure many Italians had thoughts of home when they waited on Ellis Island to be given the Yes or No and the countless other ports of the Italian diaspora.

  5. Joseph Carli

    Phil…I must agree..that little observation of Italy was lived in the early eighties….I live out here in the Murray Mallee in what I call : “Splendid isolation”…

    Adagio Dancers of the Mallee.

    The Mallee trees hold rock solid,
    Like a pair of adagio dancers,
    Feet fixed on stage, last step’d,
    Posed, poised and arms svelte-twist’d to the applause:
    Of the rasping cry of cockatoos in delight,
    Sillouhettes against the striking light..
    Silvered limbs naked sheen,
    The dancers twirl under evergreen
    Rustle of sequin’d leaves.
    A glimpse of heaven in between.
    The adagio dancer can never seem,
    As slender-limbed , as silver-sheen’d,
    As the Mallee trees I have seen.

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