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Preview of The Sicilian Woman's Daughter by Linda Lo Scuro
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Listen to the prologue, or read it and also Chapters One to Three, below
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Rumour had it that Ziuzza, my grandmother’s sister, on my mother’s side, carried a gun in her apron pocket – both at home and when she went out. She wore her apron back-to-front, resulting in the pocket being propped up against her belly. She kept her right hand poised there, between her dress and apron as if she had bellyache. I had noticed this suspicious behaviour when on holiday in Sicily with my family when I was twelve. At that stage, never could I have imagined that she was concealing a gun, while she stood there in my grandmother’s kitchen watching me have breakfast. I never saw her sitting down. She brought us thick fresh milk, containing a cow’s hair or two, in the early mornings and often stayed to chat.
She had a dog, Rocco, white and brown, which she tied to a wooden stake in my grandmother’s stable downstairs. It was a lively animal, snapping at whoever passed it, jumping and yapping. The mules, the rightful inhabitants of the stable, were out in the campagna with my grandfather from the break of dawn each day.
A tight silver bun stood proudly on Ziuzza’s head. Her frowning face always deadly serious. Fierce, even. An overly tanned and wrinkled face. Skin as thick as cows’ hide. Contrastingly, her eyes were of the sharpest blue – squinting as she stared, as if viewing me through thick fog. I was scared of her. Truly scared. And all the other women were frightened, too. You could tell by the way they spoke to her, gently and smiling. Careful not to upset her, always agreeing with her opinions. They toadied up to her well and proper. An inch away from grovelling.
And, I found out the rumours about the gun were true. Ziuzza would come and bake bread and cakes at my grandmother’s house because of the enormous stone oven in the garden. I helped carry wood to keep the flames alive. Did my bit. One day the sisters made some Sicilian cakes called cuddureddi, meaning ’little ropes’. They rolled the dough with their bare hands, into thick round lengths in the semblance of snakes. Using a sharp knife, they then sliced the snake-shape in half, longways, spread the lower half of the butchered snake with home-made fig jam. They put the snake together again, slashed it into chunks. Then the chunks were dealt with one-by-one and manipulated into little-ropes by pinching them forcefully into shape with their nimble fingers.
As Ziuzza bent over to wipe her mouth on the corner of her pinafore, I caught a glimpse of her gun. I was sitting at the table sprinkling the first trayful of cuddureddi with sugar. No doubt about it. It was there in Ziuzza’s big inside pocket of her pinafore. While I was looking at the bulge, she caught me out. We exchanged glances, then our eyes locked. She narrowed her hooded eyelids into slits and crunched up her face. I blinked a few times, then looked around for some more wood to replenish the oven, grabbed a few logs and vanished into the garden.
After she received a sickening threat and Rocco’s bloodied paws were posted to her in a box, she, like her dog, came to a violent end. Ziuzza was shot in her back, in broad daylight, by someone riding by on a Vespa. People with line of sight, from their windows to the body, hurried to close their shutters. Nobody saw who it was. Nobody heard the gunshots, though the road was a main artery from one end of The Village to the other. And nobody called a doctor. It would be taking sides. Which you certainly didn’t want to do. Added to that was the fact that Ziuzza at that moment was on the losing side. She was left to bleed to death in the road like an animal. It wasn’t until the dustcart came round that they removed her body because it couldn’t get by. But nobody commented, it was as if they were removing a big piece of rubbish. It was nothing to them. But instead of throwing it away, they took the body to her home. Nobody was in. So they brought it to my grandmother’s house instead.
This was the lowest point in our family’s history. With time, though, Ziuzza managed to triumph through her son, Old Cushi, who began the escalation. And, later, her grandson, Young Cushi, completed it by becoming the undisputed boss of our village, of the region, and beyond. But the transition was not easy. A bloody feud ensued. Lives were lost on both sides. Some might know who Ziuzza’s enemies were. I didn’t get an inkling. Most of the information I came across was from listening to what the grown-ups in our family were saying. And they never mentioned her rivals by name. Some faceless entity fighting for control of the area.
This is just one of the episodes I remember from our holidays in Sicily. There are many more. Every three years, I went to Sicily with my parents. Those I remember were when I was nine, twelve, fifteen and eighteen. The last time we went my mother was ill and we travelled by plane. All the other times we travelled by train because poverty accompanied us wherever we went. I think we had some kind of subsidy from the Italian Consulate in the UK for the train fare. It was a three-day-two-night expedition. I remember setting out from Victoria Station carrying three days’ supply of food and wine with us. Especially stuck in my mind was the food: lasagne, roast chicken, cheese, loaves of bread. We’d have plates, cutlery, glasses, and an assortment of towels with us. At every transfer all this baggage had to be carried on to the next stage. No wheels on cases in those days. Then we’d get the ferry from Dover to Calais, and so began the first long stretch through France, Switzerland, until we finally pulled into Milan Station. Where our connection to Sicily was after a seven-hour wait.
We used to sleep on the waiting-room benches, though it was daytime, until someone complained about the space we were taking up. The Italian northerners had a great disdain for southern Italians. They saw us as muck, rolled their eyes at us, insulted us openly calling us “terroni”, meaning “those who haven’t evolved from the soil.” Even though I was young, I noticed it, and felt like a second category being – a child of a minor god. There was the civilised world and then there was us. My parents didn’t answer back. And it was probably the time when I came closest to feeling sorry for them. For us.
The journey all the way down to the tip of Italy – the toe of the boot – was excruciating. The heat in the train unbearable. When there was water in the stinking toilets, we gave ourselves a cursory wipe with flannels. Sometimes we used water in bottles. Every time we stopped at a station, my father would ask people on the platforms to fill our bottles. Then came the crossing of the Strait of Messina. At Villa San Giovanni, the train was broken into fragments of three coaches and loaded into the dark belly of the ferry. My mother wouldn’t leave the train for fear of thieves taking our miserable belongings, until the ferry left mainland Italy. While my father and I went up on the deck to take in the view. But we had orders to go back down to the train as soon as the ferry left. Then I’d go up again with my mother. She became emotional when Sicily was well in sight. She would become ecstatic. Talk to any passengers who’d listen to her. Some totally ignored her. She’d wave to people on passing ferries. Laughing and, surprisingly, being nice to me.
Reassembled together again, the train would crawl at a tortoise’s pace along the Sicilian one-track countryside railway, under the sweltering heat. Even peasants who were travelling within Sicily moved compartment when they got a whiff of us. Another event that excited my mother was when the train stopped at a level crossing. A man got out of his van, brought a crate of lemons to our train and started selling them to the passengers hanging out of the windows. My mother bought a big bag full and gave me one to suck saying it would quench my thirst. Another man came along selling white straw handbags with fringes, and she bought me one.
By the time we reached The Village our bags of food stank to high heaven and so did we.
Sunday 20th August
It all begins quite innocently enough.
“I just got an email from our landlord asking us to remove our bikes from the garage,” Humps says, as we are having dinner. He’s in his stay-at-home clothes today – a Tattersall shirt worn loose over his jeans and rolled up at the sleeves, frayed at the collar from countless washes. I still find him attractive, even in his rumpled look and with his receding salt-and-pepper hair.
“Why?” I ask.
“Apparently, someone pointed out, at the Annual General Meeting, that our bikes are taking up precious space, have cobwebs on them, and that we hardly use them.”
“Look, darling, you know they’re snobs here. They just don’t want our old bikes next to their latest generation, shiny contraptions.”
We have lived in the Riverside View Residence in West London for four years. I’ve never felt comfortable here with the attitudes against foreigners of some of our neighbours. That irked me. But the proximity to the Thames with a spacious balcony within a stone’s throw of the river, where I can sit sipping tea and reading, helps me overlook their behaviour towards me, especially when Humps is not around.
“What are we going to do?” I say to my husband, “You do realise that there’ll be friction, if we don’t comply, don’t you? Shall we remove them?”
“Never!”, he says firmly, over his salmon en croûte. “Mary, as you know, mine is a memento of my Oxford University days. I’ve had that bike for over forty years, and there’s no way I’m getting rid of it – it stays where it is! What’s more our sky-high rent gives us the right to keep as many bikes as we want in that bike-store. One resident has six!”
So Humphrey said ‘no.’ Emphatically.
“Well, I’m getting rid of mine because it’s so old,” I say. “There’s a charity, I’ve heard, that does up old bikes and sends them out to Africa. They can have mine, and I don’t think Clara will want hers now she’s moved to central London. She should have taken her bike with her, anyway.”
“Even if we get rid of your two bikes, it won’t free up any space because all three are leaning next to each other against the wall,” Humps says.
“Well, I’m giving mine to the charity. Make a child happy. I’ll phone Clara and ask what she wants to do with hers.”
I had my left kidney taken out when I was young due to a violent kicking. My doctor suggested that I give up cycling in traffic so as not to endanger my other kidney. No motorbikes or skiing either. “Look after it,” he said, “if I damage one of my kidneys it wouldn’t be as serious, but for you it’s a different kettle of fish...” I only cycled in parks and on towpaths after that.
I phone our daughter in the evening, ask if I can give hers away. “Yes,” she says, “no way do I want to cycle in London traffic, I’d rather take the tube. Less hassle. Anyway, it’d only get pinched.” There have been some nasty accidents involving buses and lorries lately, cyclists have been killed in their prime. It is a relief to me that she wants to do away with hers, too. She tells me a little about her job. How her boss at the interior design studio exploits her, charging excruciating prices to clients and giving her a miserly salary. She reckons she’s the flair behind the studio’s success.
Right, I have to grab the bull by its horns, or the bicycles by their handlebars, and sort this out. Humps is busy with his high-powered job as a senior banker managing the bank’s own account investments. He still also manages a few important clients’ portfolios. I have more time. I’ve worked part-time since we got married, then I gave up work altogether when we moved to Riverside – we don’t need the money. I taught English. Whether to kids in comprehensives, smart public schools, or adult education. It feels as if, over the years, I have taught the whole of London and her husband. I have given enough, and it is time to think about myself.
The next day, I phone the charity. “Yes,” says the bright young voice on the other end of the line. “We’ve got a man and van. We can send him round to collect the bikes, if you want.”
“That would be great.”
Down I go to the bike-store. Our bikes are a sorry sight – huddled together in the corner against the white wall. I need to clean up the two bikes before handing them over. Separate the three, brush away the cobwebs, and give them good soapy water and sponge treatment. I remove the black saddlebag from mine. A keepsake. Cycling back home after shopping with my saddlebag full and, at times, a carrier bag on each handlebar, down the Thames towpath has been one of the pleasures in my life. Riding under the green canopy with sunlight filtering through it. Or the gentle drizzle falling on me rewarded by a hot cup of tea and cake when I got home. Proud not to be polluting the air and getting exercise at the same time. I can always buy a new bike.
Anyway, one bike is staying, two are going. End of story.
Monday 21st August
My cousin Susi phones me out of the blue. Susi is the only relative I’ve kept in touch with, and that is only every now and then. When some major incident takes place in her life – whether good or bad – she contacts me. Her mother is my mother’s sister. When Susi’s parents emigrated to London from Sicily, they lived with us until they could afford a deposit on a house. This meant that she slept in the single bedroom with me, in a single bed. So, essentially, we are like sisters in that we spent a lot of time together as children. Then her family bought a house across the road from ours. So we could still play together. But, they moved again. This time quite a long way out, to another part of London. I missed Susi so much after that. I also missed Susi’s mum, she was kind to me. Eventually, Susi and I developed different characters and, as a consequence, we now don’t have much in common except for the strong affection that binds us.
“Susi, how are you?”
“Pete and me have just broken up.”
“How many times has that happened now?”
“This is the third and final time.”
“You know you’ll take him back.”
“No, I won’t, not this time. I’ve had enough.”
Pete has been spicing up his boring married life by having an on-and-off affair with Susi. She doesn’t see that. I’ve told her as much, many times before.
“How’s work?” I ask.
“Shit environment,” she says. “Things are not good, some people have been laid off and there’s this threat of redundancy hanging over us.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. I do hope you’ll be alright. Anyway, Susi, you’re so enterprising, I’m sure you’ll soon find something else even if it came to the worst.”
“Mary, my mum’s been asking about you. She says she really wants to see you. You know how close she was to your mum. My mum’s fond of you as well. Try to make an old woman happy, why don’t you?”
“Well... I’ll think about it, Susi.” She was emotionally blackmailing me. The call was probably instigated by Zia, Susi’s mother.
“How’s your retirement going, then? Enjoying being a lady of leisure, are you?”
“I am, actually. It’s nice to have all that time on my hands,” I say, “there’re so many things I want to do and books to read.”
“Yeah, but if you want a tip from me, don’t get bogged down with all that reading. Try getting out of the house. Why don’t you try volunteer work?” Susi says.
“Could do. Yes, I’ve always felt passionate about defending battered women and mistreated kids. It’s got to have something to do with our childhood, you know?”
“Yeah, tell me about it,” she says.
“We weren’t dealt the best cards in life, were we?”
“You can say that again. I’ve got an even better idea. Why don’t you get yourself a lover? That’ll pep your life up.”
“Really, Susi. I’m still in love with my Humps.”
“Yeah, but it must be all pretty routine in the sex department by now. You need variety. The spice of life,” she says. She wasn’t altogether wrong in that respect.
“Maybe,” I joke. We laugh. She knows it’ll never happen. “Susi. I need to go out now. I’ll phone you some time soon, promise.”
“Right, but you promise you’ll go and see my mum. Please, Mary.”
“OK, Susi, I promise. Bye for now.”
And I keep promises.
Wandering round a cycle shop, I am looking for ideas about how to vamp up Humps’s bike. But, every bit of it needs changing, and then it wouldn’t be his bike any more. So I end up buying a snazzy silver and black cover. You’d think there is a Harley-Davidson standing under that. To my surprise, when I go back to the bike-store I notice, on the wall, someone has drawn a big hand giving Humps’s bike the finger. And, under it, they have written: “ARSEHOLE.” It must have been the person who asked our landlord to tell us to remove the bikes. Who is that? No idea.
If we’d been owners of the flat we live in, we would have known exactly what is going on. We decided not to buy the flat. Instead, we bought a lovely chocolate-box cottage near the sea in Dorset, and a chalet in Cortina d’Ampezzo. When Humps finally decides to retire, we can go and spend our days by the seaside or in the Italian Dolomites. Both of which we love.
While cooking I keep churning the incident round in my mind. How dare someone call Humps an arsehole? No respect. I always taught my students the importance of respect. Respect for their parents, teachers, classmates and for the elderly. At the end of one school day, I once left school with some girls, and asked them to show respect to two old ladies by letting them get on the bus before us, even though they had arrived after us. I am so respectful that I even show respect to those I don’t respect at all.
I need to find out who it is. And when I find out, what will I do? Will it be an eye-for-an-eye? Forgiveness? ‘For they know not what they do’? Can revenge appease anger? Or, does it make matters worse? I have always found forgiving difficult. No doubt, revenge is time-consuming, requires effort, planning, and guts. And I chafe against the Catholic Church for forgiving sinners so easily. Just kneel down, tell the priest your sins, get a gentle rebuke, a few Hail Mary’s, and off you go.
Now, I have a feeling deep in the pit of my stomach, a ball of anger which won’t go away. Is this what my Sicilian ancestors felt when they couldn’t get justice? Shamefully exploited by land barons. Powerless, helpless victims. Whole families, including children, working all day for a pittance, bending down low to the land under the blazing sun. Not even being able to feed themselves properly. Families living in one room, without electricity or running water. Revolting against their masters who were colluding with the State. And there is no sense of State when you have an empty stomach. In those conditions the only resort for justice was to take it into your own hands. Let’s not leave it for heaven to sort out. Let’s get it seen to down here. That was the attitude most Sicilian land workers developed.
The Romans captured Sicily and made it their own. Created a system called latifondo, a feudal system, whereby peasants rented land from the owners, or from a sub-lessor. That system survived well into the 1950s. The mafia emerged from the latifondo. The landowner’s men paid thugs to keep the peasants from revolting; to punish those workers who dared to complain. But workers also sought to rise above their station and either co-operated with their very exploiters, or organised groups among themselves to threaten their own. Thus they could acquire a better piece of land or demand a percentage from their fellow-peasants. A savage survival of the fittest ensued post World War II. Rome couldn’t cope, or didn’t want to cope, with Sicily any more. The island went its own way.
When they grew up, hordes of those peasant children, amongst them my mother and father, emigrated, taking with them the pitiful image of their long-suffering parents. And they also took with them their sense of the violent climate they had grown up in.
My father arrived in England with a broken pair of shoes and a big cardboard box tied up with rope. Without a word of English. When he had saved enough money for the wedding, and train tickets for them to come back, he went to Sicily and married my mother. I still have a couple of black and white photos of their wedding. She is wearing her best Sunday dress. They couldn’t afford a wedding dress. And their wedding reception was in the courtyard of my grandparents’ house.
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