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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 redun-dancy 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 depart-ment 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 exploit-ers, 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 grand-parents’ house.
Tuesday 22nd August
Susi’s mother, Zia, had been another one of those peasant children. Zia means ‘aunt’ in Italian. But in Sicily it is used as a term of respect for older women, as is zio for older men. Also, Susi’s mother is a ‘donna d’onore.’ That is ‘a woman of honour,’ which implies that she is to be handled with utmost care because she has mafia links. So ‘Zia’ is the least you can call her. But, as coincidence has it, she is also my real aunt. And, although she is less than transparent, I am fond of her. I’ve kept her at arms’ length to protect Humps, but he is now nearing the end of his career, so I need not fear an entangle-ment as much as I did before.
Seems like a lifetime since I saw her. Years. She is eighty-seven and lives on the other side of London from us, the East End. To get there, I walk about a mile down the Thames towpath, along the edge of a football field, and up a main road to the nearest underground station. I could take the bus but I’d rather get the exercise. Then, forty minutes by train with a change. It isn’t exactly next-door. But the distance isn’t the reason for not going to see Zia, it is an excuse.
My mother died young, when I was still at university. For five years, during my mother’s illness, Zia had helped look after her and was often round at our house. The two sisters were very close, always had been. They have another sister in Sicily called Peppina. I did what I could to help during those years, but, emotionally, I was all at sea. Trying to deal with my teenage issues as well. Because I am an only child, I couldn’t share the burden. My father stayed away from home for as much as possible. I never saw them exchange gestures of affection. No conniving glances. Even worse, at times they fought each other, never mind that I was present. My mother would growl at him like she did at me, and I remember objects and even furniture flying in our living room. When her illness became serious, he moved into the spare single bedroom, and started thinking about a new wife. A dark brooding atmosphere had always hung inside our house.
As if it hadn’t been black enough, it became blacker when her incurable disease was found. Zia kept my mother company and livened the place up a little. I didn’t know the full force of the illness, the gravity of it. Until I accompanied my mother to the doctor one day. I had to translate what the doctor was saying to her. He wanted her to have a compli-cated operation. She was scared and refused point blank. Sitting opposite the doctor, and with my mother at my side, he dropped a bombshell that I wasn’t, even remotely, expect-ing: “If she has the operation she could live for another four to five years, if she doesn’t it’ll be six months.” I was gob-smacked. It was as if a ton of bricks had come down on me. I felt deeply sorry for her.
On the tenth ring, Zia answers the phone with a forceful “Hallo!” Zia doesn’t talk, she shouts, as my mother used to do.
“Zia, it’s Maria, your niece.”
“Maria, I no believe you call me. Long time no hear. Why you no call?”
“Sorry, Zia, I’ve had a busy life, what with the house, work, family...”
“You make excuse. You no make time for you Zia.”
“But I’m calling you now,” I say. “I’ve got a grandson, you know? His name’s Benjamin.”
“I know. Susi she tell me. Ah, you daughter give baby nice name?”
“Zia, he’s the most gorgeous baby you could ever hope to see. Anyway, Zia, I wanted to check you were at home this afternoon.”
“Cousin here, but you come. You remember Angelina and Provvidenza, yeah?”
Zia doesn’t do plurals. Like many native Italian speakers of English, she finds an ‘s’ at the end of a word difficult to pronounce.
“Yes, I remember, I think.”
Actually, they aren’t our cousins at all, not even ten times removed. But Zia likes to collect cousins. So any Sicilian she’s been on particularly good terms with is awarded the status of an honorary cousin.
“Angelina?” she shouts even louder, irritated that it took me a moment to retrieve the women from my memory. “She has daughter, Provvi. You know, she have bad leg, she limp.”
“Oh, yes!” I say. “I know.”
I sincerely hope that Angelina and Provvi are in another room and the doors are closed, so that they haven’t heard what she just said.
“See you later, Zia.”
That’s what Zia is like. If she has to describe anyone, she distinguishes them by their physical faults: the one with the crooked teeth, hawk nose, squint, big mole, shrill voice...
Though, of course, Zia herself has never been an oil paint-ing, nor is she ugly. One might describe her as nondescript, quite short and thin. She wears flat sensible shoes, pleated skirts and blouses. I’ve never seen her in trousers. Her move-ments fast, darting around all over the place. And she throws her arms about a lot. Walking with Zia was exhausting, as a child I had to run to keep up. She has acquired a hunched back. It makes her head stick out at the front. It isn’t parallel with the rest of her body. Her hair is always clipped back by a large tortoiseshell slide. Overall, she has an odd schoolgirl style. Her appearance is deceptive, though, because there’s nothing, absolutely nothing, naïve about Zia.
I swing our Residence’s heavy gate shut behind me and step onto the towpath. Strolling along the Thames always makes me feel good, that fresh light breeze in my face and in the trees, the clouds floating by... But today, I am more absorbed in my thoughts. Going to see Zia after all these years has brought back memories of my family as a child. I’d heard that Zia had been involved in things not quite above board in her past. I don’t know what exactly. I couldn’t ask and, even if I did, she wouldn’t tell me.
My earliest memory of my extended family in Sicily was when I was there as a nine-year-old when we stayed with my grandparents and Aunt Peppina. Zia and her family were in Sicily, too. Though Zia’s family stayed with her in-laws in the same village, within walking distance, as there wasn’t space enough for all of us at my grandparents’ house. Zia and Susi spent most of their day with us, though. Susi and I were very close and we loved playing together. Our grandfather didn’t like us. I vaguely remember him. A severe man. He never spoke to me, or to Susi, come to that – only to Silvio and Stefano, Susi’s brothers, out of his grandchildren. He had a deep revulsion for females. Susi and I were playing in the courtyard with other girls in the neighbourhood. My memories are those of hearing the sound of the hooves against the cobble stones, then looking up to see him arriving sitting proudly on his mule. You could even describe him as arrogant. Getting off, he landed lightly on the ground causing some dust to lift. Then he spat not far from his boots, led the mule to the stable, and yanked the reins hard, on the sharp corner, to turn the mule round, and force it in. At that moment, my grandmother came down to the courtyard all in a tizz, like she did every time he arrived home. He didn’t acknowledge her, so much was his disdain of the sight of her.
The mistreatment was due to the fact that she hadn’t been capable of giving him a son. I remember he insulted her in front of visitors and threatened to hit her by raising his hand into a slap position. Once I overheard some women saying that when my grandmother and grandfather were out in the village together, they bumped into the mayor and stopped to talk to him. My grandfather slapped my grandmother in the face, while she was standing there silently, just to prove he was boss in his house. A real man.
Our grandmother signalled to Susi and me to go back inside the house. So we followed them upstairs. He sat on a chair in the kitchen, lifted one of his feet for my grandmother to pull off his boot. She tugged so hard that she jolted backwards as the boot came off. Then the other boot. After which she took the boots out to the garden where she gave them a wash and brush up.
It was also during this holiday that Ziuzza’s husband died in the unforgiving campagna. It was summer. Not under-standing what was going on, all I could do was to listen to the shrills and shouts in my grandmother’s house. She sat down and slid her hands into her hair, rocking backwards and forwards in the chair, in a kind of distressing trance, yelling and repeating in Sicilian dialect “Ammazzru me cugnatu, disgraziati. Ammazzru u marito di me sorru!” meaning: “They’ve killed my brother-in-law, the villains. They’ve killed my sister’s husband.” I was frightened and couldn’t understand what was going on. She knew that Ziuzza would be left vulnerable, without a husband, and on the wrong side of victory. And Ziuzza had always been defiant. Her enemies knew she wouldn’t back down, that she had been the driving force behind her husband. And that she was more than capable of taking the helm.
Ziuzza’s husband’s body was brought to my grand-mother’s house because it was bigger. Ziuzza’s house had a narrow spiral staircase up to the first floor and there was no way they could bring a coffin down, if not vertically. Like my grandmother’s house, Ziuzza’s house had a stable on the ground-floor. It would have been disrespectful to hold the wake there.
I can still remember the day when they brought his body back to The Village – it’s impressed on my memory. I’ve forgotten a lot about my childhood, but I will never forget this episode. Ziuzza needed support when the body arrived in The Village, so my grandmother and other women were there to comfort her. Ziuzza had two sons. They had both emigrated to England and could not console her. So she was accompanied by a couple of men, while others went before them and cleared the roads by telling people to go inside. With a sheet over her head, she walked to my grandmother’s house through, what was at that point, a ghost village. Even the two little grocery shops and the chemist pulled down their shutters. Only stray cats and dogs roamed the streets.
My grandfather and two other men, all on mules, went to fetch the body. They knew exactly where his land was. A man whose land was next to his had noticed that his sheep had strayed. That meant they weren’t being herded. He went to inquire and found Ziuzza’s husband lying perfectly immobile face down where his blood had coagulated with the dust. Flies hummed around him and feasted on his injuries. The peasant rushed to The Village to raise the alarm.
The grown-ups stood at the entrance door and in the courtyard to wait for his body to come into sight. Susi and I weren’t allowed to be there with them. Silvio and Stefano, had been sent to their other grandparents. Susi and I were told to go out and play in the garden at the back of the house. But we knew something extraordinary was happening and didn’t want to miss it. So we went to sit quietly on the balcony, on the first floor, and kept our heads down. We had a wide open view of the whole courtyard and, to the left, we could see the women spilling out of the entrance door while they waited for the body to arrive.
My grandfather on his mule appeared first around the corner. Following him, close behind, was another mule tied to the first one by a thick rope. Both animals dribbling foam from their mouths. Slumped over the second mule, face down, hands and feet dangling, was Ziuzza’s husband’s body wrapped in a blanket with blood seeping through it. A man walked by the side of the mule to keep an eye on the body. All you could hear was the clip-clop of the hooves in the stillness under the outrageously hot sun, until the women caught sight of him and began howling to the sky, hitting themselves, pulling their own hair, and out of rage Ziuzza tore the black skirt she was wearing. It was a sorry sight.
As the body was being brought up the stairs, Susi and I scarpered to the garden. But when the body was laid in the middle of the room, we crept into the kitchen and watched through a slither of the open door. They washed the body, put a suit, shirt and tie on him, combed his hair, pulled his legs straight and folded his arms across his chest. Everyone sat in a circle around the body. Peppina led the rosary. The room filled up with visitors who’d come to pay their respects. Standing room only. The people who had killed him were there, too, offering their condolences to his widow. Ziuzza spat at one man in the face. He slowly wiped the spittle off, grinned, turned around, and left.
When my family went back to Sicily, when I was aged fifteen, my grandfather had already died. My grandmother in Sicily had a similar lifestyle to Zia’s in London: family, friends, drinks, and cake. Hospitality is a Sicilian custom. Guests are always welcome. But there was a big difference between the entrance to my grandmother’s house and Zia’s house. Grandmother’s front door was always wide open during the day. My aunt Peppina used to go and pin the door back at 6.30 every morning. From then on women, mostly dressed in black, would parade in and out of the house until sunset.
My grandfather died years before my grandmother. She died at a ripe age. Just like Zia, grandmother was a widow for years. Left on their own, aunt Peppina and grandmother used to squabble no end. Aunt Peppina had never married. And if you didn’t marry in those days in Sicily, your only way out of your parents’ house was in a wooden box – a white one. Grandmother used to get me breakfast: yester-day’s leftover bread soaked in milky coffee and sprinkled with sugar. I’d usually have a different assortment of ‘godmothers’ or women relatives, clad in black, watching me having breakfast. And, as mentioned before, Ziuzza, was among them until she was killed.
Custom was that when your husband died, you wore black for the rest of your life. That included black shoes, stockings, and handbag. If you didn’t wear black, it meant you were on the lookout for another husband. Widowers, bachelors, any man, both far and wide, could come knocking at your door asking your hand in marriage. For the first year after a husband’s death, women also wore a black headscarf when going out. If you didn’t, your sadness for your husband’s loss was fake. Who made up all these rules called customs? Why were women always expected to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune?
The default for women was that they were loose, ‘troie.’ They were born hussies. A kind of original sin. So only by her ‘good’ behaviour could a woman climb out of the troia category and become a decent woman. Women were obsessed with not putting a foot wrong. And the most rigorous enforcers of women’s morality were women themselves.
You could be a troia for no-end of reasons. Because you smiled at a man in the street, because you wore make-up, because you wore high heels, because you wore revealing or tight clothes... Once when I was in Sicily, Peppina decided that all the clothes I’d brought over from England were troia clothes. She ran up a couple of dresses, or should I say sacks, on her Singer sewing machine. I still remember how she saw lust in everyone and sought to cover my body in long-sleeved, baggy kimono-like things.
Zia called Ziuzza’s son Cushi. The name means ‘cousin’ in Sicilian. He died about ten years back in about 2007. He emigrated to England when he knew he’d be killed if he stayed. After his mother, it would have been his turn as the eldest son. However, he kept going backwards and forwards between Sicily and London. Doing God knows what. With God knows whom. Cushi had worked a few years for British Rail – cleaning trains – but he was caught sleeping on seats more than once, when he should have been working, and finally got fired. Since then, he refused to look for any more work. If he was unlucky, as he used to say, work would find him.
He bought a few huge run-down old houses in a run-down part of London, and rented out rooms to anyone: prostitutes, drug pushers, all low-life seemed to be there. Weekly payment on Fridays in cash. No contracts. “If you no pay, I keep your nice things and chuck rest out of window, you no come back.” He actually threw a woman out of a window once, or so it was rumoured. And he got into trouble with the police over it. He diddled electricity meters, he found a way. His hobby was poaching on country estates. If anyone questioned him about the latter, he’d say he was the gardener. The lord of the manor had given him permission.
The most horrendous episode he was involved in was the abduction and rape of a young Sicilian woman. An honour rape. His brother had fallen in love with her, she wouldn’t have anything to do with him. Her family had no mafia connections. She was easy prey. To be refused by a woman from an ‘inferior’ family is an insult to one’s honour. One morning when she was going to work, Cushi, his brother, and another man, frogmarched her into a white van. They parked the vehicle in a quiet spot. Cushi and the man kept guard while the brother attempted to rape the woman. They had the radio on loud to disguise the screaming. But, she was resistant. Cushi and the other man had to go into the van to hold her down and silence her. Word was then put around that she had been raped. She was dishonoured and had to marry him. It’s called a matrimonio riparatore, meaning: ‘a marriage that repairs.’ By marrying her, he was repairing the damage he had done. Making an honest woman out of her.
This kind of mindset was exactly what I chafed against. The reason why I have been a feminist ever since I can remember. Going on marches when I was at university and standing up for women whenever I could. Though I would never tell my daughters about these heinous acts taking place in our family. I sometimes wonder how they would react given that they do not seem particularly interested in feminism. The fighting was done by my generation, and the generations of women before mine.
Back in The Village, Cushi had become bosom friends with the Mayor. Zia helped him recruit relatives and friends to go to Sicily and vote for Cushi’s Mayor. Cushi would already be there in The Village piazza doing the meeting and greeting, simultaneously giving everyone voting instructions, along with subtle threats. Voting in accordance with your political outlook wasn’t an option. Votes were for Cushi’s candidate. The opposition would only get his family’s votes. That was allowed. There had never been a woman candidate.
And Cushi’s side knew exactly who you’d voted for. Although the ballot-papers were all alike, you’d think that your vote would be anonymous. Nothing of the sort. You gave your ballot-paper to the man standing behind the box. He put a sign on it. He would crease it slightly, on a corner, or tear it a little bit around one of the edges. Then he’d add your name to his list, ‘to remember that you’d voted.’ Next to your name he’d write how your ballot-paper could be singled out. They didn’t even try to hide their dishonesty. I saw him. Right in front of me creasing a corner, the first time I voted in Sicily. Everyone knew. Nobody said anything. The result was that the mayor would be Cushi’s puppet. Cushi was the mayor maker.
I arrive at Zia’s house. She has two front doors, an outer one, and an inner one. The outer one being a wired-glass cage. She obviously thinks one door isn’t enough to keep undesirables out. I remember her reason for this was that “People rob. Get in house.” She opened the inner front door and, if she didn’t like the look of you, she’d shout “No today,” and shut it directly. She’d also had metal blinds fitted on the inside of her ground-floor windows, “Break glass. People come in.” The blinds fastened at the bottom with a good chunky lock. But the smell of freshly baked cakes manages to escape through all the security measures. She is always on the bake. Trayfuls. Free to anyone who visits the house: “Mangia, mangia. Cuppa tea?” Eat here or take away. Incessant coming and going, to and from her house, every weekday afternoon was the norm.
“Zia. It’s me, Maria,” I call out after she has opened the inner door.
“Maria, Maria, trasi, trasi. Long time no see you.” Zia is visibly moved. She hugs me tight then looks me in the eye and says: “You look like my poor sister.”
“It’s nice to see you again,” I say to her, feeling guilty that I can’t quite conjure up the same Sicilian effusions about seeing her, although I actually love her as much as I do Susi and Silvio. They were my childhood.
“I make eclair this morning. Cuppa tea?” Zia says to me, then she shouts “Maria here,” to her guests in the living room, as I wipe my shoes on the doormat.
“Yes, please, Zia. That would be great,” I say as I follow her down the yellow-painted corridor, like Sicilian sun, with prints of saints on the walls on one side, and Popes on the other, chronologically ordered so that Pope Pius XII is the first in line, and the present Pope Francis is nearer the living room door. Though there is space for more before she gets to the door frame.
The eclair is already there waiting for me. I greet Angelina and her daughter Provvi, and another woman who I don’t know. This lady is just leaving. Zia goes to show her out saying “I see you next week.”
The living room floor is still covered with chequered light-blue and black lino tiles. I remember Zia and my mother laying them down after brushing glue onto each tile, then stamping them down into place with their feet. Susi and I did a bit of jumping up and down on the tiles, too. The wallpaper is new: orange roses with big green leaves on a white background. Clara, as an art historian, would be horrified if she saw this décor. Zia still has her wedding photo standing on the sideboard in an aluminium frame. And next to that, she has Silvio and Stefano’s wedding photos, and a few of her grandchildren. Zia has decided to forget about Susi’s disastrous marriage. In the middle of the room is a big wooden table, and on this table a tray of eclairs, a teapot and pink flowered cups and saucers. All very English. Chairs scattered wherever there’s a space. The room is a thorough-fare. It has four doors. Three in a row along one side: from left to right, the pantry door, the corridor, and the sitting-room door. On the opposite side is a door leading to the kitchen. I notice the pantry door is padlocked.
As Zia is still chatting with her departing visitor, I sit with Angelina and Provvi. Angelina has an identical twin living in The Village called Beatrice. Both Angelina and Beatrice’s husbands died together in the same car accident in Sicily years back. There had been a lot of talk about identical twins losing their husbands at the identical time. It was too much of a coincidence, people murmured.
Angelina looks straight at me, squints and asks “Do you live near the Thames?” It comes across as an accusation. As if it were a crime to be well-off. Lucky she doesn’t know about the cottage and the chalet. We keep those secret.
“Ma, you know she lives near the river,” Provvi butts in.
“Yes, I live in a flat near the Thames towpath,” I nod, smiling at Provvi as if to say ‘It’s OK, I know their ways.’ Angelina, like the others in the community, can’t stomach that I have moved away from them, and have thrived by that decision.
“Good place. You’ve got money. You don’t work. Your husband works for you,” Angelina goes on.
I detect a tinge of envy, and give her a half smile.
“Ma, stop it!” Provvi huffs, red with embarrassment.
A noticeable bruise peeps over Provvi’s neckline as she bends down to pick up her handbag. “We need to go now. We’ve got to get some shopping before we go home.”
They bid me goodbye, kiss me on both cheeks, pick up their cake box and go to the front door where Zia is still yabbering to the other woman. Zia is full of flowery apologies saying that they mustn’t go, that she is all theirs now. But the mother and daughter insist that they must leave otherwise they won’t get their shopping done before Provvi’s boys finish school.
Zia’s expression has changed, softer; she is motherly towards me. “Long time no see,” Zia says looking at me, smiling, and picking up her knitting. She’s still making bed socks. Her bed socks accompanied me through my childhood as my feet grew. Mostly pink, sometimes yellow the colour of lemons and the Sicilian sun, Zia used to say. These were mint green. I knew the style. Ribbed above the ankles, leaving little eyelets for a crocheted cord to run through, then adding a pompom onto each end, nicely anchored so the cord wouldn’t come out when you untied the bow in the morning. She used to make baby-blue ones for Silvio and we’d laugh about them.
Feeling a bit guilty, I say: “Zia, I’m only just getting on top of things. You know, I had the flat to look after, the family and work...”
“You can no make minute for you Zia.”
I feel fleeting pity for her. She has aged so much. Such a thin face. I might not have recognised her, if I’d passed her in the street. I am her only niece. She has some on her husband’s side of the family, but they mean nothing to her.
“Of course, I will make more of an effort in future, Zia, I promise.”
“And you keep promise for Zia.”
I nod. We go on talking for a while about our families. She’s very interested and wants to know everything about my new grandson. Then we talk about neighbours. She tells me an Italian family from Naples lives on one side and an English family on the other. Zia doesn’t have much to do with the English family, while she’s great friends with the Italian lady, when they are not squabbling. “Napoli is not Sicilia,” Zia says. Nobody is superior to Sicilians in Zia’s view of the world. A blessed island.
I shouldn’t have told her, but given it’s been niggling me, I spurt out the bike incident.
“Zia, I’ve had a little problem with one of the residents...”
“You live posh house. You no have problem.”
“Unfortunately, some people behave like children.”
She doesn’t look up, concentrates on her knitting until I tell her about the insulting graffiti. She stops knitting.
“Minghia! They call you arsehole?” she asks raising her voice. “Nobody call daughter of my poor sister bucu du culu!”
“Exactly. It’s bad, isn’t it?”
“And you no break big bastardo face? You know we have cousin, picciotti...”
“Zia, I don’t even know who it is.”
“We no kill. But we make revenge.”
I look at her, “What?!”
“You give him my cake, give him big diarrhoea. He shit for one army.”
“Zia, are you putting laxative into cakes? I don’t believe it...”
“You no believe because you Englishwoman. You marry Englishman. You read book. I tell you, you find this man. I make special cake for him.”
The door bell rings. Zia goes to see who it is from behind the net curtain, “Ah, Bella and Rosa,” she says, looking directly at me, “they du big bagasci, my husband Tony two niece.”
When they come in through the door, Zia embraces them as if they are two long-lost sisters, “Bella! Rosa! Trasi, trasi. I wait for you. I make special eclair for you.”
Amongst all the greeting and shouting coming from all directions, I take advantage of the confusion, say I need to go and cook dinner, bid the ladies ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye.’ Zia grabs me by the arm and says: “Yes, you come back tomorrow. You keep promise for Zia. I have friend. She have problem, she need you help.” Then she shoves a couple of eclairs in my hand, wrapped in aluminium foil, for Humps.
© Sparkling Books Limited 2018
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