LONGING AND BELONGING
We hear a lot about Irish people emigrating to other countries. However there is the other side of that coin: people who have chosen Ireland as their homeland. Paolo Tullio is one of those people. Leaving his home country of Italy as a very young man, he has made his life here in Ireland. Although he has lived in Ireland for all of his adult life, his new novel is set in Italy. We give you a sneaky preview of his book.
‘Don’t lose the cloth.’
‘No, mamma, I won’t.’
He kissed her goodbye and turned to walk down the lane to the road. He pushed the sandwich into his satchel, next to his school note-book.
It had rained during the night and the stones on the path were slippery. He picked his way carefully, stopping every now and then to pick particularly lush blackberries from the canes invading the lane. In places his descent was steep; the rain running down the path had washed mud into soggy pools. A gust of wind rustled the chestnut leaves and Vanni was showered with drops. By the time he reached the road his feet were covered in mud. He stood by the way-side waiting for Sandro with whom he walked to school. Idly he wiped his feet on the grass verge, whistling. He saw Sandro running toward him.
‘Vanni, do you know what time it is?’
‘It’s nearly eight. We’ll have to walk fast.’
There was plenty of time, but for the last three days Sandro had made a point of asking what time it was, knowing that Vanni had no watch. Sandro had a watch. His father had given it to him three days ago when his grandfather had died. Sandro was the only boy in school to have a watch, and consequently was the only one to whom time seemed important. He had required the whole school to admire it. It was an American watch; it said ‘Made in USA’ on the face.
‘It’s the best watch in the world.’ said Sandro. ‘Made in oosa. That’s what they call America.’
‘They do. The people who live there. They call it oosa. We’re the only ones who call it America, because we don’t know any better.’
‘My uncle calls it America. He was here last year. He lives there – he’s lived there for all his life – and he calls it America.’
‘Your uncle is just like everyone else from here. An ignorant peasant who emigrated and who still doesn’t know anything. He calls it America because he’s as ignorant as a goat. Real Americans call it oosa. Look, it’s written on my watch.’
Vanni dropped the subject and refused to look at the watch again. It was only made of steel. It wasn’t a gold watch like his uncle Roberto had on his wrist. Just steel. One day, Vanni decided, he’d have a gold watch with a long, thick gold chain. And a waistcoat, and shiny shoes.
The two boys walked in silence for a while, Sandro polishing the glass of his watch with his sleeve, Vanni staring at the ground. A rumble made them turn around. A motor car was coming down the road toward them, a fine spray rising like a cascade from each wheel. A man with a helmet and goggles was driving, a long white scarf around his neck streaming behind him in the wind. They jumped back just in time to avoid the splash from a puddle. The driver honked his horn and waved as he passed. The boys watched as the car disappeared around a bend.
‘What was that?’ asked Sandro.
‘I don’t know. Never saw a car like that before, only in pictures. You can take the roof down or put it up.’
‘I know that, you fool. It’s called a convertible. I meant what make was it? Maybe it was American, like my watch. It wasn’t a Fiat.’
‘Must have been a rich man. You have to be very rich to buy a car. My uncle says everyone in America has a car. Lots of people have two. In America they’re all rich.’
‘What you know about America would fit in a sow’s tit. I read a magazine all about America, with pictures and everything. There was a big colour picture of the Empire State building. It’s the biggest building in the world.’
‘Huge. Bigger than you can imagine. It’s called a sky-scratcher because it touches the clouds.’
They fell silent again. Vanni tried to imagine a building that was so high that it touched the sky. A building as high as La Meta – incredible. There were wonders in the world, no doubt.
Elena di Vito watched her son walk down the lane swinging his satchel. He was twelve now – this was his last year in school. By next year he’d be helping full-time on the land with his father and brothers. It was hard to believe that her baby was soon to be a man. She went into the kitchen and sat down at the table. In the dull morning light she found herself staring at a photograph of her father-in-law, hanging beside the door. A hard-faced man with a huge moustache looked back at her, unflinchingly. He was dead now, and God forgive her, she was grateful. For four years she’d nursed him in this house, for four years the ungrateful bastard had never thanked her, never said a pleasant word. It was a sin to speak ill of the dead, and probably a sin to think ill of them, but the thoughts wouldn’t go away.
It was nearly a year ago that he died. The fifteenth of September. The old man insisted on eating figs daily while they were in season even though they gave him diarrhoea. And then she’d have to change him, clean him like a baby, wash the clothes. God forgive me, she thought, I’m glad he’s dead, the incontinent bastard.
She busied herself around the house, changed the heavy linen sheets on the matrimonial bed, opened all the windows and doors and took the mats outside to shake them. Then, back in the kitchen, she took down the coffee-grinder from the shelf and made enough grounds to fill the cafetiera. She filled a tall aluminium pot with coffee and milk, replaced the cork stopper and set off for the vineyards where her men were working.
Gerardo di Vito had rented land from a cousin and had planted vines on it twelve years ago. Now he could call himself one of the San Gennaro’s wine-makers. Gerardo was proud of his vines; he’d thought for months before he began planting, about what variety of vine he’d invest in. It was an important choice. With a five-year wait until the vines fruited you couldn’t afford to make a mistake. He’d finally settled on a variety of Montepulciano, called locally la Pamponara. It was a vine that didn’t make great wine, but it produced a lot of it. Each mature vine was laden with large bunches, each bunch made of big, fat grapes. It was true what he’d been told: from a hundred kilos of these grapes you could get seventy litres of wine.
Elena arrived with the coffee. Gerardo and their sons, Marco and Pietro came over to her. She poured the coffee into tin cups and they sat down by the ditch.
‘What are you doing today?’
‘I’m spraying. The rain last night washed off most of the blue-stone. I don’t want any rot at this stage, we’ll be harvesting very soon. Marco and Pietro are hoeing.’
They sat in silence. Gerardo looked at the sky. Broken cloud rushed across the sky, the sun bursting through occasionally. It had been a good year. The vines were heavy with fruit, already nearly sweet enough to eat. By harvest he could maybe get twenty-four degrees of sugar. That would make a good, strong wine.
‘Let’s get back to work. Ora et labora.’
Gerardo was fond of quoting St. Benedict. This land was, after all, part of his patrimony. Work and prayer, prayer and work. Life was getting harder for many, he thought. We’re lucky to have this land. The state had decided to make the Church sell its huge reserves of land, built up over centuries. Every death-bed penitent had left land to the Church since the dawn of Christianity in return for an intercession with St. Peter at the celestial gates. Now the land was to be returned to the people. Except that wasn’t how it was working. The only people who could afford to buy it were the rich, and unlike the Church, they had no intention of renting their newly acquired land to anyone else. The fact was it was getting harder to find land to work, and therefore harder to make a living. Four men from San Gennaro had emigrated this year. Three to Belgium and one to Milan.
Professore Sicolo wiped the irregular Italian verbs from the blackboard. The Ministry of Education had determined that the Italian language should be an integral part of the curriculum. In theory he was supposed to do all the teaching through Italian, but in reality it couldn’t work. It was like insisting that all lessons should take place in Greek. Nobody in San Gennaro spoke Italian, just him and the priest. And even Don Ferdinando spoke it badly. Here they spoke their own dialect; a mix of corrupt Latin, traces of early Oscan and chunks of Lombard.
When he’d first arrived here five years ago he had enormous difficulty understanding what was said. His own Sicilian dialect was of little help. Bit by bit he’d had to learn the language of San Gennaro. The state could make all manner of pronouncements to the effect that they should all learn Italian, but the truth was that he’d had to learn their ways instead.
He looked at his classroom. Thirty faces, from five to twelve-years-old looked back at him in silence. He’d teach them to read and write, but that was where it ended. Even the bright ones would end up working the land. It had always been like that.
‘All right. Now we’ll study history. Who knows who Octavian was?’
Several arms stabbed at the air.
‘An orator, sir.’
‘He was Augustus, sir.’
‘He became Augustus, Vanni. Very good. As Augustus he took Roman rule to the whole of the known world. The Roman empire stretched from Parthia to the farthest reaches of Britain, even to Africa. Rome was the capital of the world.’ He noticed an outstretched arm. ‘Yes, Sandro.’
‘Like New York is the capital of the world today?’
‘Don’t be flippant, Sandro. Who knows what other name Rome is known by? Pietro Scola?’
‘The Eternal City.’
‘Good, Pietro. The Eternal City, Sandro, because the Urbs will always be the capital of the world. Because we gave civilisation to the known world.’
That night, around the kitchen table the family sat expectantly. Gerardo di Vito had received a letter with a foreign stamp. Benito the postman had told Vanni about it on his way back from school. Gerardo pulled the oil lamp closer to him and put on his spectacles.
‘This letter is from my brother in Paris, your uncle Aldo. He has bought his own ice-cream parlour. It is in a fine part of Paris, where trees line the street. But now he needs help to run it, and for this he has turned to the family. I will read it to you.’
Whenever he read aloud to his family Gerardo di Vito assumed an air of formality, which he firmly believed was reinforced by his half-moon spectacles which he wore low on the bridge of his nose. For Gerardo, learning in all its forms was something to respect. Learning was what differentiated the peasant from the priest. Learning could make possible a route through life that wasn’t tied to the land. Learning could make you free. Other families kept their children from school when there was work to be done, but Gerardo had never done that. He’d managed without the help of another pair of hands and had made all his boys attend school right up to the age of twelve. Education was important.
Slowly and laboriously Gerardo read from the letter. ‘and so now I had enough put aside to buy my own place. I will call it ‘Chez Aldo’ which is French for Aldo’s place. It will be decorated with brass and marble and there will be big mirrors on the walls.’ Then there’s a bit here about your Aunt Giuseppina which you don’t need to know about, and then he writes this: ‘Gerardo, you know as I do that you can trust no one outside the family. For the new shop I will need someone to help me, someone I can trust. For this I turn to you, my brother, because I know that by now my nephews Marco and Pietro are old enough to travel and make a way for themselves in this world. I know, too, that you will not want to hold them back.’ That’s as much as you need to hear. Slowly he removed his spectacles and placed them on the table. He looked directly at Elena.
‘It’s an opportunity we can’t ignore.’
‘That’s what I think. Marco, you’re the oldest, what do you say?’
‘Papa, I’ll do what you want. But if I go, who’ll help you?’
‘Vanni will leave school next year. He will take your place.’
‘Papa, he’s just a kid. And he’s small.’ Marco smiled indulgently at his little brother, who was indeed the smallest in his class.
‘I’ll grow. I’ll grow as big as you.’ Vanni said defiantly.
‘Of course you will, Giovannino. Of course you will.’ His father patted his arm.
‘Now your uncle says here he wants both of his older nephews. Your mother and I have talked about this and for the moment we can only allow one of you to go. Marco is the oldest, and if he wants to, I feel it should be him. Pietro, there is still plenty of time for you.’
Pietro said nothing, and continued to look at the table.
Elena turned to Marco. ‘My son, if you go, you won’t see us for a long time. It will be years before you’ll be able to repay your uncle and come back to visit us. You know that, don’t you?’ Tears filled her eyes.
‘I know, Mamma, I know.’
‘Marco, you can leave after we finish the harvest. I will borrow the money for the train to Paris.’
‘I’ll pay for it,’ said Elena.
‘Elena, how can you pay for it?’
‘I’ve saved the egg money since Vanni was born. It’s in the post office. I will pay for the ticket.’ She got up abruptly and went into the bedroom, closing the door quietly behind her.
Gerardo stood up and lifted the lamp from the table. ‘We’ll go to bed now. We’ll talk more about this tomorrow.’
Vanni lay on his bunk unable to sleep. He understood that his childhood years were ending fast. With Marco gone he’d be needed to work the land. It occurred to him that perhaps time spent in school was not so bad. He could hear the irregular breathing of his brothers in the bunks. They weren’t asleep either, but Vanni had no intention of breaking the silence. He tried to imagine life without Marco. Although he was only nineteen, he was big. He had thick, curly hair and broad shoulders like Papa. As far back as Vanni could remember Marco had been kind to him. Protected him. When Gennaro Riva had taken his Christmas money from him at school it was Marco who’d made him give it back. He hadn’t said anything when Vanni told him what had happened, he’d just given him a pat on the cheek. The next day Marco gave him the money. Two shiny lire with Victor Emmanuel’s head on them.
Pietro was never unkind, but he was never kind either. Sometimes Vanni thought that Pietro didn’t care whether he had a younger brother or not. He never said much. Like tonight at the table, didn’t say a word, just listened. If Marco went away he’d only have Pietro. He’d have to grow fast, because from now on he’d have to look after himself. Mamma always said that if you wanted to grow you had to eat a lot. From tomorrow, Vanni promised himself, he would eat like a hog.
The next morning the brothers got up together. It was Sunday, so Marco and Pietro were able to stay in bed until seven. When Vanni walked into the kitchen his mother already had the stove lit, boiling water for the bath.
‘Go and polish your boots, Vanni. Show God respect. We’ll go to church like good Christians; clean and well-kept.’
Vanni took his boots out of his locker. They were becoming tight, but he could still wear them. They were good boots. Marco and Pietro had worn them before him, and they still had wear in them. He took out a rag and spat on the boots. Not many people in San Gennaro wore boots. Mostly they wore cioce, a thick leather sole bound to the foot with cross-strappings of leather. You bound the foot and calf with strips of white cloth then strapped on the cioce. Vanni preferred going barefoot, but on Sundays his mother made him wear and polish the boots.
When his parents had finished with the bath Pietro and Marco carried it into their bedroom. It was still steaming, and one by one they took their turn. Vanni, as the youngest, went last. One day, he thought, I’m going to have a hot bath instead of a tepid one. He tipped a pitcher of bath water over his head and rubbed at his hair.
‘Use some soap, you little heathen.’ Marco laughed and took his Sunday trousers from under the mattress. Suddenly he stopped laughing and looked serious.
‘What’s the matter, Marco?’
‘Nothing, Giovannino. I was just thinking that I’ll see Celeste at church today. I was half thinking about her and me, maybe one day, but now… things are about to change. I don’t know.’
Pietro walked in. ‘Can I borrow your razor, Marco?’
‘After me. Why don’t you strop your own?’
‘It needs grinding, not stropping.’
‘OK. But after me. I’ve just got a good edge on it.’
While his brothers shaved, Vanni went into the kitchen. His mother eyed him critically.
‘Comb your hair while it’s still wet. Here.’ She took a comb and ran it though his hair. Then she took a small piece of perfumed soap and rubbed it lightly over his hair. ‘Now that’ll keep it in place and make it smell nice. We must have respect for the house of the Lord.’
Vanni could smell the soap. He smelt like a lily of the valley. How could making a boy smell like a flower have anything to do with respect? Hopefully the smell wouldn’t be so strong when they got to church. He didn’t want Sandro laughing at him.
By half-past eight the whole family were in their Sunday finery. Mamma wore a black suit with a black hat that had a veil. Papa wore a black suit and a black hat with no veil. The boys, too, wore suit jackets and trousers, but not from the same suit. A good jacket was a good jacket and was kept, even if the trousers were past the point of repair.
The lane from the house to the road was still muddy from yesterday’s rain. The five of them carried their shoes as far as the road. Mamma had two flour bags over her feet, which she left behind a stone when they reached the road. The men wiped their feet on the grass and slipped on their boots. San Gennaro stood on the top of a hill in front of them, running like a snake across the crest of the hill. The houses, like many hill-top towns, looked inwards, their backs defensively turned to the outside. The road they were walking was the main road between Presipe and Barrone, two large market towns, and it was asphalted. After a kilometre or so they turned off it to start the long climb up the dirt road that slowly went up the hill to San Gennaro, winding its way between the vineyards and olive groves of the town’s slopes. Behind the town the higher Apennine peaks stood out starkly, their white, snow-topped summits in sharp relief against a deep blue sky.
The bells were tolling as they came into the piazza. A few traders had begun erecting their stalls in preparation for the market after High Mass. Gerardo di Vito nodded and smiled to all he met as they made their way to the church. The church occupied the highest point in San Gennaro; they walked up hill through the narrow vicoli that were the town’s roads. At their widest they were two metres. Today they were filled with good Christians, slowly making their way to the church. Every woman wore black. Even on weekdays most of the women wore black. Mourning was a continual state. Seven years for a father or mother, seven years for a wife or husband, five for a son or daughter. Mostly women were in mourning from their early twenties for the rest of their lives. It was like a habit. After thirty years of black who would suddenly change into colours only to go back to black within a year? Black was the uniform. Except of course at the festa. Then the women and girls would dress in the traditional costumes, and the men, too.
‘Keep up, Vanni.’ His mother waited for him to catch up. ‘Keep next to me or you’ll get separated.’
‘Mamma, I know where we sit.’
‘Well keep up, anyway.’
As they walked up the steps to the church of San Gennaro, Benito the postman came over to Gerardo.
‘A letter from Paris, eh? I noticed the postmark. Your brother?’
‘Yes, Benito, from my brother. He’s well.’
Benito waited a moment for more, but none came. ‘Give him my best wishes when you write back.’
‘I’ll do that.’ Gerardo smiled, and Benito moved on into the church.
‘He’s nosy, that Benito.’ said Elena.
‘I know, but he means no harm. He’s just curious.’
‘Nosy.’ said Elena firmly.
They took their usual pew and waited for Don Ferdinando. When he emerged from the sacristy Vanni was delighted to see that Sandro was one of the altar boys. He wouldn’t be able to make fun of his hair.
‘Introibo ad altare deum.’
‘Ad deum qui laetificat juventutam meam.’
Vanni stared at the statue of San Gennaro, which stood to the left of the altar, nearly underneath the pulpit. He knew the story by heart. Gennaro had been decapitated outside Naples, near Pozzuoli. People said the executioner’s stone block could still be seen by the side of the road. He was a martyr, one of those saints who would never renounce their faith even when death was the alternative. Although he had often answered Don Ferdinando that he too would be proud to die for his faith, he had a doubt that perhaps he would choose life.
Don Ferdinando was always asking the boys if they had a vocation. Did they feel God calling to them? There were missions in Africa, in Ethiopia, where the people had never heard of Jesus. People who didn’t know about God. Someone had to go there and save their souls, because if no one did, they’d all go hell because they were heathens. Saving souls was doing God’s work.
‘Vanni.’ His mother’s elbow took him from his reverie.
‘Gloria in excelsis deo.’
‘Et in terra pax hominibus, bonae voluntatis.’
The congregation rose to sing the Gloria, Don Ferdinando’s quavering voice leading the congregation. Vanni could see Sandro trying to catch his eye. He was pretending to drink the wine from the cruet. Vanni kept his eyes firmly on the priest.
During the sermon, which was long and started off with Daniel in a den of lions, Vanni thought again of Africa. There were lions in Africa. And giraffes. Strange creatures unlike any in Italy. He had a picture book at home that told of hunters who shot elephants and took the tusks of ivory as a trophy. The church organ had keys that were made of ivory – a little piece of Africa in San Gennaro. There was a drawing of a man with a rifle to his shoulder, in front of him an enormous bull elephant was bursting out of the long grass, his trunk held high and his ears wide, his tusks ready to impale the hunter. You’d have to be very brave to stand still and wait until you could see the whites of his eyes. That was when you pulled the trigger. When it was nearly about to trample you.
Vanni realised that the mass was almost over. He’d said the paternoster, sung the credo, made all the responses without even being aware of it. As if he was there, but not there. Funny.
After mass they did as they always did. His mother went to the market stalls to buy the necessities they didn’t produce for themselves. Some salted cod, coffee and occasionally some clothes or material. His father brought the boys to the Bar Roma in the piazza. It wasn’t a piazza in the sense that it was square, because it wasn’t. It was a small, triangular public area between the houses just below the church. It was just wide enough to get a few hours sunshine, even at this time of year. Tonino, the barman, had put out four steel tables and some chairs for whoever wanted to take their coffee in the sunlight. Vanni got an ice-cream and went to sit on the bench in the piazza. That was where he’d meet Sandro. His father drank a beer and talked in the bar, his brothers played cards at a table outside. Marco’s eyes constantly scanned the people who walked in and out of the piazza. Vanni knew he was looking for Celeste.
‘I drank some of the priests wine.’
‘No you didn’t, I was watching.’
‘No, later. In the sacristy. I found where he keeps the bottles. I drank some. Here, smell my breath.’
It was true. The unmistakable smell of wine was still on his breath.
‘Sandro, you’re crazy. I bet that’s a sin.’
‘I bet this is too.’ He took a matchbox from his pocket. ‘Want to see what I’ve got in here?’
‘Promise to tell no one or die a painful death?’
He opened the box. In it, on a piece of paper was a solitary host.
‘I took it from the sacristy. There’s a bowl full of them in there. It’s just like having God in a box.’ Sandro burst out laughing. ‘Isn’t it great? I’ve got God in a box.’
‘Sandro, you’re crazy. And you’ll probably go to hell.’
‘I don’t care. If I do I’ll take God with me.’ He put the box back in his pocket. ‘Remember you promised not to tell.’
Sandro sat on the bench next to Vanni.
‘Do you remember the car we saw yesterday?’
‘It’s an Hispano-Suiza. And I know who it belongs to.’
‘He owns the paper factory in Barrone.’
‘What’s he doing driving round here?’
Gerardo di Vito came over to the boys. ‘Come on, Vanni, time we went home. Ciao, Sandro.’
‘Buon giorno, Signor di Vito.’
Gerardo put his arm around Vanni’s shoulder and slowly they walked back to the bar to meet up with the others.
The ritual for preparing Sunday lunch was invariable. Before they left for church Elena di Vito would leave the sugo on the range, bubbling quietly, so that the perfume of the tomato sauce would fill the house on their return. Today it would be special, there was a ham bone in the bubbling pot which would give the sauce a wonderful flavour. The bone would serve to flavour the sugo many times, until the point where there was no discernible change in the taste of the sauce.
Because Vanni was still a boy he was expected to help his mother make the lunch. His brothers and his father sat outside the front door talking and smoking while his father read the newspaper aloud. The sun was low in the autumn sky, but there was still warmth in it, especially where it hit the front of the house. The door was open and the sunlight burst in, lighting the floor so brightly that the rest of room was hard to see.
‘Vanni, get me some water.’ Elena handed Vanni a large aluminium pot. He went outside and stopped briefly by his father and brothers who were discussing Abyssinia. ‘Italy has an empire once again,’ his father read from the paper. ‘Not since the glorious days of Rome has Italy been a nation with an empire. Once again an illustrious story unfolds for our fatherland.’
‘Where’s Abyssinia?’ asked Vanni.
‘Africa,’ said Marco. ‘Where the blackies live.’
‘Who are the blackies?’
‘They’re the people who live in Africa. They have black skin, not white like ours. They fight with spears and bows and arrows, so they’re no match for our armies. Now they’re part of our new empire.’
Vanni tried to imagine someone who was black. They called Mario Zegna ‘il negro’ at school because he was so dark skinned. A real black would have to be blacker than Mario. His father shook him from his thoughts.
‘Are you supposed to be getting your mother water?’
‘Yes. Sorry, papa.’ He took the pot and went to the well. They were lucky to have a well, many families didn’t have one and had to walk a fountain to get water. The well had always been on the land here, according to his father. ‘It’s been here as long as the di Vitos have owned this land, centuries and centuries, even before the Lombards came. The di Vitos have been on this land since the Romans.’ Vanni had always accepted this as truth and often wondered how many other boys had leaned over the well’s edge and pulled up buckets of cool, fresh water from deep inside the earth. Maybe boys who only spoke Latin had done it.
It was a long pull, hand over hand, before the half barrel that Gerardo had converted for well use came to the rim. It was hard work too. Vanni knew enough from school to know that twenty-five litres of water was twenty-five kilos of weight. And the wet bucket. He’d noticed that his arm muscles had started to get bigger at the biceps and he was quietly proud of his growing strength.
He looked back towards the house. Just outside the door there was a sloping roof that extended perhaps ten feet from the house where his father had put some decking. During the summer they’d eat outside at night and watch the moon and stars. Marco could name many of the constellations and was teaching Vanni how to find them. Now, though, the grown men were simply enjoying an hour or so of indolence. Gerardo was still reading aloud but Pietro had begun to play patience with a pack of cards. Forty cards laid out in four rows of ten, face up. It was called Napoleon’s patience and was too hard for Vanni. ‘That’s just like Pietro,’ thought Vanni, ‘everyone else sits and talks, but he just sits and listens.’ You never knew what he was thinking, or even if he was thinking.
‘Vanni!’ his mother called from the house. ‘Where’s the water?’ Vanni poured the water from the half-barrel into the pot and carried it back to towards the house. He made his way carefully past his father and brothers and into his mother. ‘Good boy. Put some on the fire crane to heat.’
Hanging over the hearth was a black cauldron into which Vanni poured some water. The fire was low, just a few burning embers of what remained of the oak logs. He broke a few small sticks and laid them carefully on the embers before blowing gently. The kindling burst into flame and slowly he put slightly larger pieces on. He swung the cauldron over the flames. His mother looked around and smiled at him. ‘Good boy. What would I do without you?’
His mother was stirring a big pot of pasta, rigatoni for sure, which they’d eat with the ham-bone sugo. He could smell the chicken roasting in the oven and felt his mouth start to water. They didn’t eat chicken often, but today Elena had decided that with the good news from France it was time for celebratory feast.
‘Set the table, Vanni.’
He went to the wooden box where the breads were kept and took out a neatly folded white linen table cloth. He shook it to take off any flour that may have stuck to it and turned to his mother. ‘Inside or out?’
‘Inside today. It’s going to get cold quickly with that clear sky.’
Vanni spread the cloth over the plain wooden table and arranged the chairs around it. He went back to the bread box and took out a pagnotta, the last of the seven large loaves his mother made every Monday. Sunday’s loaf was the hardest; he placed it on the bread board and cut it in half with a little difficulty. As carefully as he could he sliced the bread and filled the bread basket. He put out plates and cutlery, and then taking a pitcher he went outside to the shed where his father kept the demijohns of last year’s vintage. They were heavy, fifty litres in each glass carboy, and they needed to be handled carefully. A short length of rubber hose pipe allowed him to siphon wine into the pitcher. He closed the demijohn again and brought in the wine.
His father and brothers were sitting at the table when he came in, and Vanni put the pitcher down in front of his father who poured a glass for himself, Marco and Pietro. He filled half a glass for Vanni and topped up the rest with water. Elena was straining the pasta into a colander, keeping the hot water for washing the plates later. Vanni went over to her and took the big plates from her, one at a time, serving first his father and then his brothers. That done, he and his mother joined the men at the table.
Lunch passed quietly enough, a little more talk of Abyssinia, a little talk of the state of the vines. Hovering unspoken around them was the French adventure. Tomorrow, Elena promised herself, I’ll go to the Post Office and get the money for the ticket. After all, there was no point in prolonging Marco’s departure any longer than necessary. He was a man now, and it was time for him to make his way in the world. She’d given him as much love and care as she could, taught him to be God-fearing, honest and hard-working, and now it was time for him to fly the nest. The decision made, she concentrated on her pasta. It was Gerardo who broached the subject.
‘It’s a tragedy,’ he said, ‘the land can’t feed all the mouths who want to suckle on it.’ He paused and looked around the table. ‘Emigration is a curse and blessing. Without it we’d starve, but it breaks our families into fragments.’ He fell silent again for a moment. ‘I stayed because I love the land, and because someone had to look after my parents in their old age. Anyway, I was the youngest.’
‘That was your sister’s job,’ said Elena.
‘I don’t want her name mentioned in this house. I’ve told you, I have no sister.’
His face darkened and Elena knew that the subject was closed once more. There were three di Vito brothers and a sister. Aldo had emigrated to France to work with his wife’s brother and Roberto had joined the merchant navy where he worked as a boiler-stoker. One night he’d got drunk in New York and decided that he wanted to stay in America. Now he was a plumber living in a place called New Jersey. He’d been there for fifteen years and had visited the family only once, and that was last year. He wasn’t married and always laughed when Elena asked him if he’d ever marry. He always said the same thing, ‘I’m too much for a woman to handle,’ and then he’d slap his hands together and laugh more. Elena could never understand how a man would want to live alone without the benefit of a wife. ‘A good woman would make your life better. You could have children. It’s not natural to live the way you do.’ And Roberto would laugh again and say ‘How little you know.’ And then there was Maria. Maria who had made the family’s name a scandal in San Gennaro, who still caused scandal, even today. A woman who didn’t go to mass – it was shameless.
Pietro got up and went to the fire. He raked the embers from under the logs until he’d made a small pile of them and then, with a shovel, he filled an old biscuit tin which he placed under the table. As he sat his mother smiled at him.
‘Thank you, Pietro. I was beginning to feel the cold around my ankles.’
Pietro said nothing, but began eating his lunch in silence.
Marco finished the pasta on his plate and looked at his father.
‘Papa. Will I leave before Christmas?’
‘Yes. Well before Christmas.’
Elena turned to get up and clear the pasta plates. Tears welled in her eyes. She stood at the range with her back to the table and felt prickly tears running down her cheeks. Before Christmas. Sweet Jesus and Mary, my son will be gone forever. I’ll never see his boyish face again. He’ll be into his thirties before I see him again, if God lets me live so long. She took the capon from the oven and stared at it. A wry smile came her face. Celebration lunch? What kind of celebration was this? She pulled at her apron and dried her eyes before placing the bird on a platter and surrounding it with the roasted potatoes. She covered the potatoes with the fat from the roasting dish and brought the platter to the table where the men were talking of football.
‘Selva are lousy. They’ve no one left who’s any good, just a few boys and some old men in their thirties.’ Marco was in his stride. ‘If we don’t beat them four or five nil this afternoon, I’ll be amazed.’
‘If you were playing it’d be ten nil,’ said Vanni smiling at his brother.
‘Maybe. But today I’m a sub. San Gennaro has plenty of players, not like those cretins from Selva.’
They laughed at the idea of those mountain men from Selva playing football. They didn’t even have anywhere flat to practice on. All they had were mountains and sheep, not even a school. Just ignorant peasants.
‘I think they play football just to get away from Selva,’ said Pietro.
‘Aha!’ said Marco, ‘you do have an opinion about something after all.’
‘Just occasionally,’ said Pietro and they all laughed. They laughed until tears ran down from their eyes, they laughed and cried until Elena was no longer sure which she was doing.
The three brothers went once more down the hill from their house to the main road. Before the turning for San Gennaro was a hayfield that had been cut and would be the football pitch for the match. The surface was a dry, prickly stubble of erba medica, a mix of grasses grown for fodder, but the field was flat and big enough for the annual game. It took place every year on the nearest Sunday to the Festa of San Nicola on the 5th of September and had been played every year as long as anyone could remember.
By the time the brothers arrived there was already a gathering crowd lining the field. A blue bus was parked beside the gateway to the field and it was bedecked with banners proclaiming it the Selva bus. ‘Arseholes,’ said Marco as they passed it. A group of twenty or so women stood on the touchline which had been marked out with whitewash. Celeste raised her eyes, saw Marco, and quickly lowered them again. ‘Excuse me, boys,’ said Marco as he walked very casually over to Ricardo Bassetti, who was standing alongside his sister Celeste, immersed in conversation.
‘Ciao, Ricar,’ he said as he came near.
‘Ciao, Marco. Not playing today?’
‘Nah, I’m a sub. But they won’t need me to win.’
‘Damn right. Selva haven’t won for as long as I can remember. Bunch of smelly shepherds. Don’t know why they bother.’
‘Right. Ciao, Celeste.’
‘Ciao, Marco.’ She turned to face him. ‘Ricardo says he’ll have to do his military service in January. Will you have to go as well?’
‘I don’t think so. I mean, I think I might be going away.’
‘My uncle wants me to go to Paris and work with him. I might have to go soon. After the vintage.’
‘Oh.’ She looked across the pitch into the distance. Marco felt his stomach tightening. He wanted to tell her to wait for him, that he’d be back, that he’d think only of her, never look at any other woman.
‘Will you walk with me?’
‘Just up to the other end of the pitch.’
She looked at her mother who gave an imperceptible nod to Celeste and then to Ricardo. Marco started walking slowly and Celeste fell into step beside him, Ricardo following a little way behind.
‘We should get engaged, Celeste, you and me.’
‘I mean it. If I have to go away I want to be your fiancé. I want to know I can come home and marry you.’
‘Of course. Celeste, I think of you most of the time. I dream about you at night. I think I love you.’
He stopped and looked at her. She was beautiful. She had thick black hair in braids that she’d wound into a bun on top of her head, showing off her long, slim neck and finely shaped head. Her dark eyes with their long lashes made his thoughts fuzzy. Such a tiny nose, such a neat mouth, such beautiful lips. She was the most beautiful girl in San Gennaro, and no mistake. He’d admired her since they sat together in the junior classroom, shyly making eyes at one another. Today she was wearing a plain, black dress that fitted her tightly, Marco’s eyes fell on the curve of her hips and then downwards to her shapely calves. Marco had almost taken it for granted that Celeste and he would end up together. Even his parents and her parents approved. Ricardo was standing some twenty feet away, engrossed in a conversation with Selva supporters. Marco looked deep into her eyes.
‘Will you be engaged to me?’
‘I’ll think about it.’ She smiled at him and began to walk on.
‘Celeste, I’m breaking apart. Please give me an answer, one way or the other. Please.’
‘I’ll think about it, Marco. These are not questions that a girl answers lightly.’
‘No, of course not. But give me an answer soon. Please.’
‘Time we went back to my mother. I can’t stand here talking to you alone, it’ll cause scandal.’
They picked up Ricardo and walked back to the gateway. The game was about to start, the players were on the pitch. Marco rejoined his brothers. Vanni and Sandro were tussling on the ground, like two flies on a window pane, thought Marco.
‘How was Celeste?’ said Vanni with a grin as he dusted himself down.
‘Fine, little brother, just fine. If you two stop fighting let’s watch the match – there’s the kick-off.’
The match was played with all the fervour of any local derby in Italy. A country that not so long ago was lots of independent states now kept alive as much local rivalry as it could. Campanellismo – the loyalty above all else to one’s own bell-tower. The outcome was predictable enough, three one to San Gennaro. There was plenty of scope for argument as to whether Selva’s only goal should have been allowed. Most of San Gennaro believed the little fellow with a moustache who’d scored was clearly offside. But still, it was a victory none the less. Anyone with a few lire in their pocket was going to go to the piazza now for a beer in the Bar Roma. A long crocodile of men and women was already winding its way up the hill to the village. As the brothers came out of the field onto the road, Vanni saw the convertible car that he’d seen with Sandro once again. The man was standing up in the front with a bottle of spumante in his hand and was pouring a glass of it for the woman sitting in the passenger seat.
‘That’s Giancarlo Morelli, the man who owns the paper mill,’ said Vanni, pleased that he could name someone so glamorous.
‘I know,’ said Marco.
‘Who’s that lady with him?’
‘No one you need know about, Giovannino.’
Vanni was about to pursue this fascinating subject but Pietro caught his eye. Silently he put a finger to his lips and Vanni fell quiet. He fell back behind his older brothers and got into step with Sandro. He was sure that the lady had been looking at him and he couldn’t think why. He turned to Sandro.
‘Do you know who she is?’
‘No, but I’ll find out,’ said Sandro.
Once Vanni had gone to school and her men had set off for the vineyard, Elena sat down before the mirror in her bedroom and brushed her hair. She looked dispassionately at her reflection. There were flecks of grey in her black hair, but it was still thick and healthy. She leaned forward and peered. She was forty-two years old now and had given birth four times. If God had not seen fit to take her away so young, she would have had a daughter. She studied her reflection closely. There were small lines at the sides of her eyes and her neck had thickened slightly. She wasn’t as slim as she used to be either, but she could still catch the eye of men when she walked through the village to mass. The man who had sold her the potatoes at the market yesterday had called her ‘bella‘. She had scowled at him as any married woman would, but it brought a smile to her lips as she thought about it now. Yes, she had been beautiful. Everyone used to say so. She still was, but twenty years of hard work and raising a family had taken its toll on her body. And yet, Gerardo still found her attractive. He still wanted to do to her what men always wanted to do. Sometimes she enjoyed it too, when he was gentle and took his time. She would try not to show it, but sometimes he’d do it to her when he thought she was asleep and she’d pretend that she was, and then she could enjoy the feeling of him filling her inside with no guilt or shame. When he finished he’d just lie besides her, his belly to her back and wouldn’t even take it out. They’d go to sleep like that, with him still inside her. She stopped brushing her hair and began to plait it, weaving two braids which she entwined and pinned as a bun on the top of her head.
When she’d finished she slipped off her house-coat and put on her black suit and hat. She’d never gone to the village dressed as she’d dressed for work. Her mother had always taught her to dress up for public occasions, and even going to the Post Office was a public occasion in San Gennaro. She opened the drawer in her dressing table, and there, under the tissue paper that lined the drawer was her Post Office savings book. She opened it and looked at the last entry. 142 lire and 56 centesimi. Her money. Twenty years of it. Everything she had to show for a lifetime of work, 142 lire scrimped and saved from nothing. Saved by a million tiny economies, each one trivial, but now, now that Marco needed a start, it was there. And there was no need to ask anyone for anything.
It was warm as she walked the road to San Gennaro. If it stayed warm like this they might harvest the grapes in a week or two. And then Marco would be gone. She fixed her eyes on the road and kept up a steady pace, the song of the cicadas filling the air. A pony and trap was coming down the road from the village, Benito the postman was starting his round.
‘Buon giorno, Signora Elena.’
‘Buon giorno, Benito. A fine, warm day.’
‘It is, it is. So, news from France then?’
‘Just a bit of family news. Have a good day’s work.’
Benito clicked his tongue and the pony trotted off, leaving Elena muttering to herself about the nosiness of Benito. She was still thinking about when she arrived in the piazza at the post office.
‘Buon giorno, direttore.’
‘Buon giorno, signora.’
‘Tell me, direttore, how much is a train ticket to Paris? Do you know?’
‘Going on holiday?’
‘No, just wondering. Do you know?’
‘Not off-hand. I can phone the station in Barrone. It’ll cost you 45 centesimi for the call.’
‘Thank you. I’d be grateful.’
The director pulled down the blind on the window of his little cubicle and went into the room at the back where the telephone was. Only the priest and the doctor had their own telephone in San Gennaro and most people wouldn’t have known how to use one, still less have someone to call. Elena looked at her deposit book. There were still 142 lire in her account.
The director came out from the back room and took up his customary position in his cubicle. He lifted the blind and said,
‘It’s 85 lire from Barrone to Paris changing at Modane. That’s for just a seat, not a couchette or anything. And that’s third class. Is that what you wanted to know?’
‘Thank you, yes,’ said Elena, handing over a fifty centesimi coin. ‘And I’d like to withdraw 100 lire please from my account.’
‘A 100 lire? I’m not sure I’d have that to hand. People don’t normally withdraw on a Monday. Let me see.’ He pulled down the blind once more and Elena looked around the grubby office, the walls covered in government notices exhorting people to save in order to help the economy. The blind went back up.
‘Have you got your book with you?’
He took the book and began to write it up.
‘Does your husband know you’re doing this?’
‘As a matter of fact he does. But the account is in my name. I can do what I want with it.’
‘Indeed you can. Sign here.’ He pushed the book back towards her across the counter and carefully Elena signed her name. He took it back and stamped it twice with San Gennaro’s official Post Office stamp. He handed it back to her with ten ten-lire notes inside.
‘Thank you direttore. Good day to you.’
‘Good day to you, signora.’
Elena walked home trying to calculate what needed to be spent. 85 lire for the train fare. A bus fare to Barrone, food for two days; he’d need to get a bus in Paris, or maybe his uncle would meet him at the station. A new suit and boots, he’d need new clothes of course. What else? Was that it? Ten lire would buy a good second-hand suit in the market with boots, too, if she haggled enough. 5 lire for the bus to Barrone and the change for spending on the journey. Elena nodded to herself. 100 lire should do it, and there’d still be 42 lire left for any emergency that might happen in the future.
The next two weeks were warm. The sky remained cloudless, and although the nights were growing colder the days were warmer than usual. The grapes were hanging in lush, heavy bunches and were growing sweeter by the day.
‘This will be a fine vintage,’ said Gerardo to Elena almost every evening. It was as though the vintage had taken over all of his thoughts. Maybe, thought Elena, he was doing it on purpose. If he filled his head with thoughts of the vintage there’d be no room left in it for thinking about Marco. And then, one night, the men came in and announced that they were ready to pick the crop the next day. Elena felt a weight suddenly fill her, an overwhelming sense of loss and sadness.
‘It’s time I wrote to Aldo. We’ll be finished in ten days or so. We should let him know our plans.’
After supper, while Elena cleared the table and washed the dishes Gerardo took a folder from a shelf above the door. Carefully he removed a sheet of paper and an envelope and laid them down on the table.
‘Where’s my pen, Elena?’
‘In the drawer of your bedside table.’
He fetched his pen and set to work.
My Dearest Aldo,
My son, your nephew, will arrive by train in Paris on the 22nd of October on the train from Barrone. I hope you will meet him at the station. He’s changed since you last saw him, but he says he will recognise you.
Elena and I bless you for giving him this chance to make a life for himself. I know that you will treat him as a son of yours, my dear brother.
We have had a wonderful vintage this year, God has smiled upon us. 1938 has been good to us, and you my brother, have given Marco an opportunity that he will be forever grateful for.
Our fondest love to you and to Marguerita, your loving brother, Gerardo.
Solemnly he read what he’d written to his family, put the letter in the envelope, sealed it, addressed it and handed it to Vanni.
‘Here’s 5 centesimi. Tomorrow, on your way to school, buy a stamp and post this letter. Now, off to bed with you.’
He turned away quickly, he didn’t want Vanni to see the tears welling up in his eyes.
It was hard. They’d start shortly after first light and work until the day was done. It needed a lot of organisation and a lot of physical work. It had been a generous year, each vine was laden with bunches of grapes and each bunch was full of big, luscious, mature grapes. They’d almost left it too late, many of the grapes were starting to split, they were so ripe. They needed careful handling.
The routine was much the same each day. They’d place a large wicker basket at end of a row of vines and each of the three men would carry a smaller one on their backs. They’d work their way painstakingly along each row, picking each bunch, removing any rotten grape from it and so fill their basket. This in turn would fill the large wicker pannier at the end of the row and when there were two panniers filled, the ass would carry them back to the barn where they were tipped into a wide, low vat, about 4 feet high and twelve feet wide. After two and half days the grapes were picked and the vat was nearly full.
After a light lunch the men took off their trousers and started crushing the grapes in the vat by treading them. They walked round and round, steadying each other by holding onto each others’ shoulders. They walked like this for four hours until the job was done. Their legs had become as red as the grapes; they were heady, almost intoxicated with the smell and with the elation of a year’s effort coming to fruition. Back at the house Vanni and Elena had prepared basins of water and vinegar to ease the pain of the wasp stings in their feet. There was no way to avoid it; wasps flock to ripe grapes in search of sugar as surely as bees come to honey.
Vanni had split oak logs and had a fire blazing strongly beneath the cauldron that hung over the hearth, heating water for the mens’ bath. Next year Vanni would be part of this time-honoured tradition. The bath was poured and the men washed off the juice of the vines. Supper took place almost in silence. Vanni was aware only of the sound of cutlery on crockery, and outside the noise of the crickets rose and fell in waves, like the melancholy sound of a distant ocean.
There were two days to go before Marco’s departure and the mood in the house was sombre. After they’d eaten Marco got up from the table and said,
‘I’m going up to the village. I want to say good bye to my friends, there may not be time tomorrow.’
‘Go son, take your time. You don’t have to start with us in the morning.’
‘Thanks, papa. Goodnight mama.’ He kissed her and walked out.
Elena stared at the closed door and then burst into wracking sobs. Gerardo went over to her and put his arms around her, holding her tightly.
‘My love, don’t cry. It’s for the best.’
‘I know. But I’ll miss him. I’ll miss him so much.’
Quietly Pietro and Vanni went to their room, leaving their parents alone. The boys sat on the bed side by side in silence. Eventually Vanni spoke.
‘Will we manage without Marco?’
‘It won’t be easy with just papa and me. You don’t finish school until the end of May. There’s plenty to be done before then.’
‘I’ll help. I can help after school. I’m strong now, you’ll see.’
Pietro stared at the window glass, the flickering flame of the lamp reflected in it. He realised with a growing certainty that with Marco gone his work load was going to increase. He’d be the oldest and he’d have all the responsibilities that went with that. It might be years before he’d get his chance to leave this shit-hole. Grubbing in the dirt and calling it a life. He thought about Uncle Aldo’s letter inviting Marco and him. And Marco got to go and he got to stay. It was so unfair. He lay back on the bed and pulled a blanket over himself.
‘Put out the light, Vanni. I’m tired.’
Vanni turned down the wick and blew into the glass. He lay back too, and thought about the future.
Marco walked quickly to San Gennaro. His feet still hurt from all the stings and they were swollen in his boots. He tried not to think about it. He was thinking about Celeste. The way she looked at him, the way she smiled whenever she saw him coming. Celeste. Even her name made his heart beat a little faster. He had a plan, but it wasn’t going to be easy. Celeste’s house was just on the edge of the village. There was a small olive grove that butted onto the house. Her bedroom window looked over it. All he had to do was get to the olive grove without being seen. He walked down one of the small vicoli that by-passed the square. Unlikely there’d be anyone around at this hour, not even in the bar, but it was better to take no chances. He got to the little olive grove without seeing anyone, or, he hoped, without anyone seeing him.
Quietly he approached the house until he was standing under her bedroom window. He took a small pebble and threw it at the window pane. It clattered absurdly loudly and he tensed, waiting for a sound. But all was still, and he threw another. He saw a face appear at the window. He waved both arms and mouthed ‘It’s me, Marco.’ The window opened slowly and Celeste looked out. ‘Shh,’ she whispered. She began to climb onto the ledge.
‘What are you doing?’
Suddenly she was in arms. He kissed her. ‘Celeste. Celeste, I don’t know what I’m going to do. Celeste, I love you.’
She looked up into his face and kissed him lightly on the lips. Gently he put her down and she stood in front of him, her arms around his neck. She stood still, looking at him, her only movement an occasional flicker of her eyes. Then she spoke.
‘I love you too, Marco. I’ve always loved you, even when we were small. You’re my first and you’ll be my last love.’
‘Celeste, what can we do?’
‘Come away from the house. Someone might hear us.’
She led him to the corner of the olive grove where an old stone wall gave protection from prying eyes.
‘Kiss me, Marco. Kiss me again.’
They kissed as they had never kissed before. He held her tightly to him, smelling her, drinking in the very essence of her. His brain was on fire, behind his eyes lights erupted like a firework display. She took his hand and put it on her breast.
‘Feel me, Marco. Let me feel the touch of your hand. Let me feel the fire of your passion.’
‘Celeste, don’t do this to me. I don’t want to lose control of myself.’
‘I don’t care. I love you. I’ve thought about it. I decided that if you came to me I’d give myself to you.’
‘It’s madness, Celeste. I mean, what if…’
‘Shh. Kiss me again.’
Only once before Marco had let his hand brush against her breasts and she’d reacted as any girl would – with shock and anger at his presumption. Now she had put his hand on her small, firm breast and he could feel her nipple tightening against his palm. He could feel his erection pushing against her belly through his trousers and he felt himself losing control of his thoughts. His entire consciousness seemed to be composed only of her, of her smell, her taste, her touch. She began to kiss his face with little kisses, on his cheeks, his eyes, his neck. She put her hand on top of his as he continued to caress her breast, and he wondered if she was going to make him take his hand away. Gently she took his hand and moved it away from her breast and then, in one quick movement, she pushed his hand between her legs. Marco couldn’t stop; he pulled off his belt and let his trousers fall. He had his eyes tightly closed as Celeste’s fingers tightened around his erection. And there, in the corner of the olive grove they made love for the first time under the stars. When they were finished he held her tight, as though unwilling to ever let her go.
‘I’ll come back for you, Celeste.’
‘And I’ll wait for you, Marco. Just like Penelope.’
‘I’ll write to you every day.’
‘I’ll pray for you every day. Pray that you’ll be happy. Pray that things will go well for you.’
They stood at the bus-stop. Marco in his new suit and boots and his father’s old suitcase at his feet. Gerardo looked at his fob-watch.
‘Should be here in a moment or two. You know what to do?’
‘I do papa. I’ll buy my ticket at the railway station.’
‘And you change?’
‘Yes, papa. At Modane.’
‘Good boy. Make me proud of you.’
‘I will papa. I will.’
‘You have your identity card?’
‘Of course, papa.’
In the distance they heard the klaxon of the bus sounding its impending arrival.
‘Oh my God. Marco, I love you my boy. God be good to you.’ Elena wrapped her arms around her first-born and hugged him.
‘I’ll be fine, mamma. Don’t worry about me.’
He kissed her on both cheeks and held his arms out to his father.
‘Goodbye, papa.’ They embraced, and were still embracing as the bus pulled up. Quickly Marco kissed Vanni and Pietro, and with a wave and a smile he was gone. They stood and watched the bus disappearing round a bend, a cloud of dust marking its departure, and then the silence returned. They didn’t move for a long time, as though they wanted to take in their last memories of Marco and store them forever. The world is a cruel place, thought Gerardo, it’s not out of the question that I’ll never see him again.
‘Come,’ he said, composing himself. ‘Let’s go home.’
The bus pulled up outside the train station in Barrone. It was a handsome new building, imposing and square-built with colonnaded arches all along the front. It was new, and was a wonder of fascist architecture. Faced in travertine it gleamed in the late morning sun. There was half an hour until the train was due, and these days, under the benign rule of il Duce, you could be sure that the train would arrive on time. Inside, in the entrance hall, there was a huge picture of the Duce himself, chin upturned, his eyes fixed firmly upon the future, upon the destiny of Italy which had been entrusted to his hands. Marco looked at the noble profile, thought about the new empire in Abyssinia, and felt proud to be Italian.
He bought his ticket and asked for instructions about the change at the border in Modane. It wasn’t complicated, you just moved from one Italian platform to a French train on another. He sat on a bench on the platform and looked at the station clock. Ten minutes to go. He thought about eating one of the sandwiches his mother had prepared for him, but decided to leave them for later. This was it. He was about to embark on the journey of his life. He’d never been further than Barrone before, and now, in a few minutes, he’d be travelling through places he’d never been to, he’d be seeing sights he’d never seen before. And then he thought of Celeste. He smelt his hand. He thought he could still smell her scent on it – he wanted to believe he could. He’d make lots of money, he’d get rich and come back to San Gennaro for her. Buy her beautiful clothes, give her big diamonds, make her proud to be his wife. God, how he loved her. Even with all this excitement she was never far from his thoughts. A whistle blew from the South, the train was coming. He gathered his belongings and got ready to leave.
He settled into a compartment with only one other person, an old man with a wicker basket inside which a couple of hens clucked. Marco smiled as he sat down, the old man nodded curtly. So this is a train, thought Marco. Like a long thin sitting room that moves. You sit down, you eat, you sleep, you wake up in another country. Amazing. He pressed his face to the window and watched as the land slipped by. Rolling low hills, covered in olives, and in the distance a town stood on a promontory. Orvieto? Maybe. The hours passed slowly. After Orvieto the landscape began to change. The hills became closer together and long, thin funeral pines dominated the landscape. Florence came and went and the train turned west for Pisa and Livorno. Late in the afternoon, with the last of the light, the train turned again to run northwards alongside the coast and Marco saw the sea for the first time. The blue Tyrrhenian, a red ball of a sunset casting its fire across the shimmering ocean. It was, thought Marco, one of the most beautiful things that he’d ever seen. The darkness came and even on the hard wooden bench, Marco slept.
When he woke up the old man was gone and two young soldiers, conscripts, sat opposite him. They smiled as he rubbed his eyes.
‘You’ve been asleep for a while. Where are you going?’
‘We’re going to Genova.’
Funny, he understood the words they were saying, it was the Italian language, but their accent was strange. Different from anything he’d heard before, even more different than Professor Sicolo’s.
‘Where are you two from?’
‘Near Genova. We’re stationed in Pisa. We’re going home for weekend leave.’
‘What’s it like, military service?’
‘OK. You get used to it. Everyone has to play their part in the new Italy.’
Marco opened his carrier bag of food. He took out two sandwiches and offered them to his travelling companions. They took one between them and Marco ate the other. He pulled out a bottle of his father’s wine and they all drank from the bottle.
‘Good salami, and very good wine.’
‘Thanks. It’s all our own production.’
‘You work the land? You’re a contadino?’
‘No, no. Not me. No, I work in Paris. That’s where I’m going. I was just visiting the family for a bit. But it’s back to work now.’
‘Paris? Full of beautiful women, eh?’
‘Full of them. All perfumed and elegant. I love it.’
By Genova Marco had already invented a life for himself, and was almost beginning to believe that it was possible. Those young guys believed him. Believed everything he had to say about a city he’d never even been to. Maybe there was a value in being somewhere where no one knew anything about you. In San Gennaro if you farted, everyone knew about it.
With the conscripts gone Marco dozed on and off until the train came to a stop in Modane. He saw a board announcing that the Paris train was leaving from platform three. There were customs officers on the platform as he went to board the train, looking at documents. He had his identity card ready and passed though without a quibble. The station clock told him it was now half-past midnight, and although he’d slept a little, he felt tired – maybe the effects of the wine. The French train had padded seats and a carpet on the floor. You’d have to go first class in Italy to get that, thought Marco, making himself comfortable. He slept most of the night, there was no one else in his compartment and he was able to stretch out on the bench using his coat as a blanket.
In the early morning light he looked occasionally out of the window at huge flat plains. Big open spaces, the largest fields he’d ever seen. Fields that were big enough to put all of San Gennaro in. It was too much to take in one go. He looked, and then dozed a little more. Auxerre. Strange name. After a couple of hours he started to see buildings and knew they must be approaching Paris. And yet the buildings kept passing by, the city seemed to go on and on. He opened the window and looked out. There were buildings and houses as far as he could see, and across city, in front of him he could see the famous tower reaching high into the sky. He felt a wave of excitement welling up inside him. Paris, it was magical even to say it. Huge, immense, cosmopolitan Paris. His new home.
When the train eventually stopped he stepped out onto the platform and looked for his Uncle Aldo. Slowly he followed the rushing passengers to the platform’s end. He still didn’t see him. He showed his ticket to the collector, passed through the style and waited. He heard a voice calling ‘Marco’ and turned. It was his uncle, walking fast towards him. He embraced him and kissed him on the cheeks.
‘Welcome to Paris.’
‘It’s good to be here.’
‘Come on, we have a bus to catch.’
His uncle walked briskly on and Marco followed behind, trying to keep his eyes on the back of his uncle’s coat rather than the extraordinary sights that were all around him. The railway station itself was amazing. Vast, high glass ceilings where the cast iron glazing bars swirled and curved in a riot of shapes high above his head. So high that even the pigeons that fluttered there seemed small, like sparrows.
Outside the station they waited at a bus stop.
‘Have you got any French money?’ his uncle asked.
‘I’ve still got three lire and fifty centesimi that mamma gave me. I didn’t spend it.’
‘That’s no use here. Here they have Francs. I’ll pay the bus fare, but it’ll have to come out of your wages.’
A trolley bus rolled up to the stop, its shafts crackling electricity on the cable junctions above.
‘Is this an electric bus, Uncle?’
‘Yes, Marco. It’s electric.’
Marco marvelled at a city that had enough electricity to spare to run buses. In San Gennaro sometimes the lights in the piazza would become dim when there wasn’t enough. It was explained that sometimes the Duce needed it for work on grand schemes that would make the empire prosper, and so street lights would have to take second place. The bus travelled in the middle of the widest streets that Marco had ever seen. And the buildings, five or six stories high, they towered up to the sky. They had trees lining the pavements and the people that walked beneath those trees were like no others that Marco had seen. Well-dressed and prosperous, they walked the streets as though the world belonged to them.
‘We get off at the next stop. Get your things together.’
Uncle Aldo got up and moved to the front of the bus and Marco followed. They got off and crossed the street.
‘Here we are. This is Rue de Rennes, and there is ‘Chez Aldo.”
It took Marco a while to see it. He’d been expecting to see a huge emporium of marble and gold. What he saw was better than anything he’d seen, even in Barrone, but it wasn’t El Dorado. Chez Aldo was a small shop with a small window, in which were displayed a dozen or so ice-creams. Marco went close to the window and looked at them.
‘Are they real, Uncle?’
‘No, they’re made of painted plaster.’
Uncle Aldo opened the door and they walked in together.
‘Do you remember your Aunt Giuseppina?’
‘Of course. How nice to see you, Aunt.’
His uncle took Marco by the arm.
‘Come on, I’ll show you where you’re staying.’
Uncle Aldo led Marco through the shop which had cast iron tables with marble tops. There were no customers yet – too early, explained Uncle Aldo. At the back of the parlour was a door marked ‘Private’ which Aldo led Marco through. It led to a room with a smooth concrete floor and smooth concrete walls. Even where the floor met the walls it was curved. A large steel vat stood in the middle of the room. They rushed straight past and into another room beyond that which was full of bags of sugar. Behind that again was a small room in which there was a bed.
‘We’ve had to clear this room out for you. This is where you will sleep.’
Marco walked in and put his bags on the bed. A bare light bulb hung from the ceiling. It was a while before Marco realised there was no window – just plain, bare walls.
‘Right. Are you ready to work?’
‘Yes, Uncle. But I haven’t had any breakfast.’
‘In France breakfast is a cup of coffee. Your aunt will give you one now. Come on. And take off your coat. You have to work in white. Do you have a white coat?’
‘Then I’ll give you one. But it will also come out of your wages. Nothing is free in this world. You’ll learn that soon enough.’
They walked back to the front of the shop where Aunt Giuseppina was behind the dark, polished wooden counter.
‘Give this boy a coffee and a white coat. It’s time he learnt how to make a mix if he’s going to work here.’
Marco watched as his aunt went to an enormous stainless steel boiler and opened a tap at the bottom. Black liquid came out into a deep breakfast cup. From a slightly smaller stainless steel container she topped up the cup with hot milk. She handed it to him.
‘Thank you aunt.’
‘You’d better put this on. Customers should always see you in white.’
She passed a white cotton jacket to him over the counter which he put on.
‘It’s a bit tight around the shoulders, aunt.’
‘Nonsense. You look just fine.’
‘Drink up, my boy,’ said his uncle, ‘it’s time you learnt about the ice-cream business.’
Want the rest of the book? It can be purchased here.
About the author: Paolo Tullio is a journalist and broadcaster, best known as a resident critic on RTE’s The Restaurant. He was born Lazio, Italy. He is writer and a Michelin Star winning chef. Tullio came to Ireland to study in 1968. He studied English, arts and philosophy at Trinity College. After his study he held several jobs, working as a clinical psychologist in St. Brendan’s Hospital, an interpreter and as a cattle-agent. Paolo Tullio has his fingers in many pies. In addition to being a critic, he writes articles on lifestyle and travel for Food and Wine Magazine.
Paolo Tullio married watercolour artist Susan Morley in 1975, after meeting each other at Trinity College; they had two children, but divorced in 2004.
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