Twenty years ago I published a novel set in Germany before and after the Second World War, a trauma which left gaping holes not only in the fabric of German cities, as well as in the fabric of the German psyche, but in the weave of German literature. Few writers wanted to address the battered world of the Nachkriegsjahre, the post-war years. What would have been their subject? Shame, justified punishment, the emptiness of defeat? By contrast with its aftermath, the war itself remained a challenging, almost irresistible subject, and remains so to this day. The death camps, too. How could they have come about? The question has drawn novelists like a whirlpool. It’s the Big Question. But the years after 1945 were unappealing material, not only for German writers but for all authors. What would they describe? The lack of food, the bombed-out streets? The zones of Allied occupation with their de-Nazification programs, the glossing over of crimes lest there be no-one left who was equipped to run Germany, the installation of new myths in place of old? The propaganda game? Germany was to be re-introduced to the polity of nations as a bulwark of Western civilization, our chief ally against the true enemy, until so recently our ally: the Russian bear.
To me this was intriguing material for fiction. Old lies being replaced, not by truth but by new lies. (My hero, I intuited, must be a liar par excellence.) And there was a horrid, fascinating continuity between the pre-war and the post-war world. Turning Germany around from fiend to friend wasn’t as outrageous a transformation as it might have appeared to some. Many in the West, including most of its leading politicians, were contemplating the resumption of the real contest: capitalism versus communism. In the light of this ‘big picture,’ Hitler and the Nazis were an aberration, and Germany a natural ally. Germans, too, had always pictured Russia (not Britain, much less America) as ‘the enemy.’ Hitler admired the British, loved Hollywood, adored Paris. Seen from this angle, World War Two was an aberration, a spectacular mistake and the most expensive sidebar in history, costly not only in lives but in sheer cash. Someone with an odd turn of mind once calculated that every family on earth could have had a swimming pool, for the price of the war. Now that this absurd diversion was concluded, the pieces would be set up on the board again, this time pointing the right way. Some scapegoats would be executed, others allowed to scuttle away unscathed, and a brand new day would be declared.
(And what stories, I soon found, lurked in the era of German reconstruction! The tale, for instance, of death camp survivors who returned, after the war, to the barracks in which they’d been interned, and lived there — lived there because they could no longer face living anywhere else — sprucing them up, introducing furniture, and glass in the windows, and bright window-boxes full of flowers. A true story. The many tales, too, of a nation populated by people reinventing their past, people without a past, who could not discuss the past. An existential nation, not only a nation of criminals and those complicit with them, but of criminals on the run: everyone on the run from the past, while all around them murderers are re-elected to positions of power.)
Decades later, some novelists found strong material in this distasteful period. Len Deighton explored it, and Joseph Kanon’s The Good German comes to mind. Published in 2001, Kanon’s novel gives us the postwar scrimmage over Germany’s rocket scientists, East and West vying to claim or woo or kidnap them. Some had certainly been complicit with crime, with deaths of tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands in the murderous labor camps that accelerated Hitler’s rocket program. They had certainly looked the other way, these men of science. But no matter; enough Germans with far dirtier hands were back in place in boardrooms and in local government. One instance haunts my mind: with sovereign cynicism, the company who designed the gas ovens for Auschwitz and other death camps renewed the patents for these monstrous devices, in the 1960s.
The Good German also gives us a character with an unforgettable role, a true one, in wartime history: Lena, a Jewish woman allowed to survive if she consents to become a ‘catcher,’ one who identifies other Jews still living freely in Berlin, Jews lying low, perhaps frequenting cafés now and then, and swiftly recognized by the renegade Jew, a human sniffer dog. She’s a character brought memorably to life by Cate Blanchett in the film of Kanon’s book. I felt rueful admiration for Kanon’s evocation of Lena, no less than for Blanchett’s performance. The long gestation of my own novel, begun in 1980 and published in 1992 by Heinemann in Britain, and then by Henry Holt and Ivy Books in the U.S., had allowed me plenty of time to research the dark corners of post-war Germany, but I had missed the figure of the ‘catcher’. There were more such rueful moments coming to me: by the time Steve Erickson’s novel, Tours Of The Black Clock, came out, in 1989, I was too far along with my own book to do anything but shake my head in envy at Erickson’s perverse imagination: for his novel, he devised a character who is Adolf Hitler’s personal pornographer. What an ingenious, gruesomely delicious creation! Discovering this, I felt as if Erickson had picked my mental pocket.
But for the most part, during those 12 years of work on my book, Richard’s Feet (intermittent years of work, whenever I could earn time, of which perhaps five were entirely devoted to the novel), I felt I was wandering happily unhindered and alone, in a forest full of lurid plants awaiting only a name and a place in fiction. Richard’s Feet was the sequel to my first novel, and it turned out to be the second of a quartet of novels; the first book, Cley, had grown out of a screenplay which was about to begin filming when the money disappeared leaving me high and dry with a story I wanted to tell. Cley concerned a young man whose life was overshadowed by the death, in the young man’s childhood, of his father. At the end of the book the father returns, leaving its hero speechless and both he and the reader in need of explanation. I knew that this explanation would be a lengthy one. Where had the father been all this time? I barely had to think before I knew: Germany. Germany was a deep well, calling to me. It was my mother’s country. And I had a British godfather, my uncle by marriage to my mother’s older sister, who had been so fascinated by pre-war Germany that he had fled his marriage to return there, some twenty years after the war. He faked his death in a manner that convinced no-one, leaving his clothes on a clifftop and disappearing into a new identity.
My uncle’s was not the story I wanted to tell, but it was the thread that would lead me into my labyrinth. What would await me there? First of all, I needed to turn the solemnity of Germany, as a subject, on its head. German seriousness, like all humorless poses utterly absurd, would light my way. And there were counter-intuitive shapes haunting my path – German drolls, despairingly witty as humorous Germans have always been. What was my hero, a Cornishman of Irish extraction, doing in Germany? Why, pursuing a lady, surely. He becomes the beneficiary of a car crash in which he is mistakenly believed to be the victim; of the true, incinerated victim nothing is left except the feet, saved by a pair of army boots which had, indeed, belonged to Richard, our hero. Into his British grave go Richard’s feet (mourned by wife and son), while the novel, like Richard, slips away offstage, tracing Richard’s further footsteps across Europe. Soon I found myself inserting my disgraceful hero — a different type of fellow from my uncle/godfather, but a renegade like him — into the postwar German underworld. Using as a viewpoint this modest hell of Teutonic decadence (German hippies!), I would chart Germany’s opportunistic recovery from disgrace, their journey to a prosperity propped up by willing international partners. I would place it all in severe, bourgeois Hamburg (a city I would have to come to know) rather than carnivalesque Berlin, already so fully explored by earlier writers. And Hamburg had the Reeperbahn, the European red light district par excellence, centuries old and famed worldwide.
Balancing the comic potential of this mise-en-scèné, I built into the book a revenge tragedy, the story of a doomed search for justice on the part of one of Hitler’s countless victims. The victim would be a survivor maimed in spirit by the Hitler years, seeking justice for her murdered father, a journalist who criticized the Führer. This character would not be a Jew; would not need to be a Jew; the arc of her despairing attempts to achieve the conviction of her father’s killer was the same as it was for so many other victims of the Nazis, both Jews and gentiles.
As it turned out, writing the book was a process of teaching myself to write a novel. Its predecessor had been already shaped, as a film. This one, looming in a fog, was a monster, in length no less than subject matter. When at last the book reached the light, its reception vindicated the long years of work, and I thought I was quits with Germany (which I was — I haven’t returned there, in fiction), and with the Second World War (which I wasn’t —I had yet to write Clear To Kill, a novel about a botched assassination attempt in occupied wartime France), and quits, above all, with the great narrative powerhouse: revenge.
A dozen years later a single sentence in a newspaper drew me back again. The sentence appeared in a review of a historian’s account of mid-century Europe, and it informed me that ten years after the end of the war every single senior officer in the former Fascist police forces of Italy was still in place. None had been removed; not one. Knowing something of the crimes committed and condoned by many of these men, I carried this dismal item around with me until I could stand it no longer. Italy, far more than Germany, was the territory I knew, the place where I’d partly grown up, the world I had not written about because my love for it would, I feared, overwhelm the material, whatever that material was. But now the time had come.
Here is an excerpt: the beginning of the novel, whose title, plain and unadorned, is Justice. Call it work in progress. It’s hard for me to be quits with this one.
“YOU KILL HIM, SIGNORA CONTESSA. WE’LL look the other way.”
The young police chief’s words were already beginning to blur in Miri Gottlieb’s mind as she emerged into the sunlight of the esplanade. Astonishing sunlight, after the shuttered penumbra of the police station. It was like jumping from one phase of a dream to another. And the words had been senseless, absurd. “We’ll look after it,” Andrea had said. Ci occupamo noi. Not “We’ll look the other way.” But it came to the same thing. It was what he meant.
Ammazzalo lei, signora Contessa. You kill him.
CONTE, COUNT, WAS a title Piero had renounced long before they were married. Before Miri had even met him. But no-one in the town or the neighbouring terre paid any attention. “Si, signor Conte,” tripped off their lips as readily, as naturally and unstoppably, as it had off the lips of their father and grandfather when addressing Piero’s forebears. They liked saying “Si, signor Conte.” Miri had liked saying it too (wasn’t there something pleasing about the syllables, and also something pleasing about the act of deference in itself? — wasn’t it consoling to have a title to nod to, regardless of its owner’s worth?), and she had sometimes addressed her husband that way herself when he was being lovable, or when he was being impossible.
No, the deference was anachronistic and offensive, and the title itself was meaningless now, Piero had always insisted, rather loudly and dramatically, Miri always thought, for someone really wanted to be done with aristocratic labels and be unobtrusively re-absorbed into the bosom of the popolo, la gente, people. Piero had been an ardent Communist, greatly vexed, it seemed to Miri when they first met, by his hereditary title. Later, it had come to seem to her that he enjoyed occupying both camps, exclaiming to all with earshot that he was plain ‘Piero’ but enjoying the feudal forelock-tugging of the obstinately subservient contadini.
Not only were titles themselves ridiculous, but his own in particular, Piero would say less loudly, was especially absurd. His grandfather Gian Carlo had been so inveterate and so inept a gambler that he had been obliged to sell all the family land, every last vineyard and property, to pay for his compulsion. Only the pride and kindness of his own peasantry, the contadini, had spared him a life in a debtor’s prison. They themselves had banded together and raised the money to pay il signor Conte’s debts. “I should be bowing down to them,” Piero very reasonably argued, mimicking it: “Buon giorno, signore e signori contadini. It’s only thanks to them that we have a roof over our heads.”
It wasn’t even their roof. The house in the steep, narrow valley behind the little beach belonged (as did the beach) to a wealthy peasant farmer — he was especially obsequious in his “signor Conte”s — whose family had let both house and beach to Piero’s family for three generations now, at a peppercorn rent.
They had met, she and Piero, when Miri Gottlieb came to Italy on holiday with her parents, who were intimates of the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, a British luminary with a summer residence in Liguria. The Berlins had invited the Gottliebs to stay in their villa across the valley from il conte Piero’s house. The villas straddled adjacent ridges. You could wave from the Berlins’ terrazza to Piero’s, as Miri and Piero soon discovered, across a plunging green abyss of pine and bramble and scrub. Miri was then 19 and entirely ready to fall in love with the astonishingly handsome and athletic young man Piero had been. To her it was as if he had leapt off a Greek vase or a classical fresco with his golden locks, bronzed supple limbs and soft skin. Miri had been sick with love for him on sight, and so amazed at the existence of such a being that she had stood simply staring at him and forgotten to take off her glasses and make ‘the best of herself’ in her mother’s dispiriting phrase.
She first saw him on the little beach. Piero let anyone use it whom he knew and was inclined to like. This included the Berlin household. The beach was sandy, a rarity on this rocky, volcanic stretch of the Ligurian coastline, which was otherwise liable to tear at feet and legs and even arms and torsos with its sharp edges above and below water, and its sea urchins, whose spines stabbed deep into human flesh and broke off there, to be picked at laboriously and painfully.
Every day, Piero was on the beach with his friends; better said, his acolytes. To Miri it seemed that Piero moved and spoke as if the word ‘dashing’ had been coined for him, and as if he were committed to incarnating it in every word and deed. He jumped up onto tables and sang (loudly, badly, but with maddening charm), dove spectacularly, and with an Olympian’s skill, from the highest board, drove like a demon and danced like a god — so it appeared to Miri’s besotted eyes.
And in truth there are such bewitching creatures. A beautiful, blond Italian! And interested in her, it seemed, of all impossible things. On their first date, Piero had demanded that Miri put her glasses back on. Standing back, he studied her. “Now I can see you better,” he had said in English, smiling, delighted at his own joke.
A beautiful, blond Italian, so young and already a count, to boot — Piero’s father Vittorio had died young at the wheel of his car, an Italian death, it was generally agreed, and one whose likelihood Piero seemed eager to inherit along with the title. Miri had a father, something Piero’s charm and title could not buy. She always thought it was her family Piero had fallen in love with, not her. Nonetheless, Piero had loved to show Miri off — the bespectacled, not especially pretty Jewish girl, as she felt herself to be — and had immediately flashed Miri under the noses of his racehorse-sleek Riviera girlfriends, as if Miri were the latest in socialist accoutrements. A plain, relatively poorly dressed — (well, English, so what could you expect? Miri felt) — Jew in glasses. Could you get much more left-wing that that? It was 1928, the year of the Sixth Communist International Congress, the year of Trotsky’s exile from Russia. If a pedigree were required for Miri Gottlieb, her father Avram was not only a friend of Isaiah Berlin’s and a real live Communist, but a celebrated one. His book-length attacks of capitalist economics were known to and read by all his friends, Piero said, though Miri saw no evidence of this. Piero was certainly excited to know Avram Gottlieb’s daughter; it was her father, specifically, with whom Piero had fallen in love, Miri suspected, not with Avram’s small, stout, bearded person but with his fame and impeccable socialist credentials.
“We shall marry in Moscow and attend Karl Marx University together,” Piero announced within a week of meeting Miri and before marriage had even entered Miri’s most outrageous daydreams, as besotted with Piero as she was. Marry in Moscow? Karl Marx University? (Where and what on earth was that?) She was in ecstasy. As a suitor Piero was tireless and inventive (couldn’t he see, Miri sometimes wondered, that he didn’t have to be so industrious, or was he just doing it to glory in the role?). He brought her roses every single day, on foot and perspiring from the climb to the Berlins’ eyrie, an entirely unnecessary pilgrimage since the Berlins had installed a lift, at great expense, which rose through the mountain — you reached the foot of it via a tunnel at sea level, leading into the hillside from the coast road — to reach their lovely hilltop villa. But it was the unnecessariness, Piero would point out calmly, that was the whole appeal of it. He knew how to delight and surprise Miri, although for her he was miracle enough in himself; she would have loved him without bribery, without romantic paraphernalia. He arranged cruises for her, and underwater dives in search of sponges and oysters. There were no oysters in the bay, but Piero had reconstituted some restaurant oysters, inserted a pearl in each one, and paid the diving instructor to lead her to the spot where she would ‘discover’ them. He always owned up to such pranks (in this case he did so by putting a small emerald in one of the oysters), knowing he had more substantial cards to play. He took Miri to Milan, to La Scala. There she saw Caruso’s successor, Beniamino Gigli, as the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto, her favourite opera. For Miri, who adored Verdi, it was one of the highlights of her life.
Three more years it took, nonetheless — years during which people around her and even Miri herself began to realize that far from being a plain girl, she was something of a beauty with her dark, bruised-looking eyes and small features in her pale, round face — and three more anguished summer visits to Liguria, as well as a great deal of letter writing, tears and parental finger-wagging to convince the Gottliebs that this wild Piero boy was serious. Not only the Berlins but the Berlins’ cook, maid and gardener were suborned to report local gossip, if any (and there was always plenty) about Piero’s goings-on when Miri was in England. But serious Piero was. He had been serious about Miri, if about little else in his life. And when Miri had literally shuddered, at times, during the years of courtship, in the presence of the ‘racehorses’, the groomed girls of Piero’s set, Piero had always applied himself to reassuring her in his most focused, charmingly serious tone. They are painted shadows, amore mia, he had insisted. You are a person. A woman. I could never love one of them. Only you.
Was she a person? At 22, newly graduated and newly engaged to be married, she was stuffed with books and book-learning, Miri knew. Nothing else had mattered much to her, until she met Piero, who seemed to have sprung from literature straight into life without pausing for any of the doubts or glooms in which most humans were baptized. Later she learnt about Piero’s doubts and glooms. Later, after Vittorio was born.
THEY NEVER WENT to Moscow. The wedding had taken place in Muswell Hill, London. Miri’s parents were no longer observant Jews, and their eldest daughter’s wedding to an Italian gentile, a socialist (but also, it was whispered, a Count), was, in theory, perfectly satisfactory. The Gottliebs had their doubts about Piero himself. Miri wept when Avram tried to discuss them with her, and Avram couldn’t bear it when Miri wept.
Unknown to the wedding guests — even Miri herself didn’t know for sure yet — Miri had been pregnant when she married Piero. The birth of their son before nine months were up embarrassed nobody, however. Since Miri and Piero were wed in England, the couple’s Italian neighbours had only an inexact sense of the date, and the Gottlieb family were untroubled. These were sophisticated times. They were also perilous times, and Miri had been shocked to discover an Italy from which Piero had shielded her during three successive, idyllic summers. Like the country itself, cities and towns and often households too were divided against themselves as Fascism and Il Duce made steadily greater demands on loyalty.
As his contessa (in the people’s eyes), Piero assured her, she remained protected from such vexations. Everything in Italy, he liked to say, was a local matter. Sometimes he said this with wry pride (this was the signor Conte in him speaking), sometimes, speaking as a socialist and internationalist, with exasperation. The good news in this regard was that, at the administrative level, among the Commendatores and Dottores who seemed to inhabit the decision-making strata of local government, matters could be settled between personalities, between friends on both sides of a political question; the bad news was the same aspect of local government life, but with enemies factored in, and, instead of tolerance, old enmities and feuds that had little to do with political allegiances at all. One such long-standing hostility was between Piero and a man called Cipriano, who became mayor, despite Piero’s opposition, and later police chief, having been deposed as mayor. As comandante di polizia he regarded himself as a kind of political commissar, working to make sure that the buddy-buddy world of local friendships and business connections, not to mention marriage connections, didn’t obscure the ancient rot still haunting the foundations of the new Italy, a rot which had to be located, exposed, and rooted out. Jews, in other words. Jews and the network of Jewish finance that held the Western world to ransom. In this regard he was way ahead of Benito Mussolini, who had welcomed Jews into the Fascist Party. Cipriano was ready to bide his time, confident that Il Duce would eventually see sense.
Miri had never met Cipriano, although Piero once or twice pointed him out in the town, walking the streets, or sitting in a café, but Miri was never sure that she had identified the man Piero meant, since no sooner had she turned to locate him than Piero always hissed, “Don’t look!” in an alarmed and alarming tone. Cipriano the Faceless (faceless to Miri, as he was to remain for nearly twenty years) was the subject of weekly, if not daily conversation among Piero’s friends. The tension between Cipriano and Piero was not only ideological, since they stood at opposite extremes of what was then regarded as the political spectrum, from Communist to Fascist — neither would have been gratified to learn that the young Joseph Goebbels had reportedly flipped a coin to decide which party he would join, the Nazis or the Communists — but also personal. It was an old grievance. Piero himself had nothing to do with it, since its origins dated from before he was even born, rather than in any dealings between the middle-aged Cipriano and the youthful Piero, who was 25 when he married Miri.
When Cipriano had been a medical student, travelling every day to Genoa’s San Martino hospital, he had regarded himself as unofficially engaged to a girl named Rosanna Lanfranchi. Cipriano’s studies left Rosanna perilously unattended, for weeks at a time; Piero’s father, Vittorio, had stepped in and won the day (with, as Cipriano understandably saw it, the title of contessa as an egregious lure). Thirty years had passed, and now contessa madre Rosanna, the dowager countess, was a widow of fixed and largely sedentary habits who occupied a set of second floor apartments in the Casa Rosa. This was the pink-washed, bougainvillea-crowded house above the little beach, where Piero had been raised and now lived with Miri and their child, Vittorio. Had Cipriano been of a different temperament entirely, he might have regarded Piero as the son he never had, and even offered the boy an element of surrogate fatherhood after Vittorio senior’s death at the wheel of his sports car. An idealistic speculation, perhaps; but there are such people… just as there are preternaturally beautiful young men, as Piero was — offensively beautiful, as he must have seemed to Cipriano.
A fatal heaviness attends provincial life. Events that, in a city, are swiftly trampled and soon obliterated by life’s traffic, resonate for a lifetime in a small town, and Cipriano, the embittered loser, made of his youthful betrayal by Rosanna and the treachery of Piero’s father Vittorio, once Cipriano’s friend, the cue for the rest of his days. Vittorio’s death brought no appeasement to Cipriano, only a keener sense of their blighted lives, his and Rosanna’s, and the waste of it all. Cipriano had never married, whether by spontaneous devotion to Rosanna or determination not to surrender the resentment around which he had coiled his life like a serpent guarding a treasure. Piero (whose features were the very image of his mother, rather than his father) was now indeed the son Cipriano would never have, a cruel and perpetual reminder of his barren domestic life.
Fate often seems to compensate those whose hearth is cold by a measure of public success — or perhaps it’s simply that such men and women have more time and energy to devote to the public arena than those whose spirit is, in part, detained at home. And Cipriano thrived, both as a medical man renowned for the long hours he worked, and, in time, as sindaco, the town’s mayor.
He was never popular, although he was praised for his hard work both as a doctor and as an administrator; he was respected, and later, under Mussolini, he acquired a loyal following; but he let the shadow that he felt had fallen across his life fall on those around him. He held his grief before his face, distancing him from those he met, like a cross that not only he but they too must kiss. The very pains he took, the long hours, the unfailing punctuality, were a reproach to destiny for the way it had spurned him.
Cipriano’s severity as a person hid years of patient intrigue. (The severity was not his choice; it was chosen for him, he would surely have said, if there was anyone who could have got close enough to him to elicit such intimate reflections, and in being faithful to his suffering he was obeying the accidents of life itself rather than the dictates of his character.) By opposing the reckless, erratic but much-loved Piero, as Cipriano regularly did in matters of public policy, he was already putting himself in the wrong where many inhabitants of the town and the surrounding countryside were concerned. At the same time, there was a core of obstinately puritanical men and women who found Piero and his cavalier ways obnoxious, and rallied to Cipriano regardless of the issue. But Cipriano didn’t want to be the rallying-point for and leader of the resentful — or not of the resentful only. The problem was that Piero had cornered not only the conservative element, since in their eyes he was il conte whether he liked it or not (and they doubtless sensed that he did, no matter what he proclaimed), but the left as well, by virtue of his Communist views and speeches. Cipriano had to move carefully. His one open confrontation with Piero led to his rejection by the voters, after one term in office, as mayor; it was a mistake he would not make again.
Fascism arrived in time to divide the conservatives and also rally those of no affiliation, which is to say those long since bored with or contemptuous of politics, and give Cipriano a platform at last. But still, where Piero was concerned, caution was required. Deference and, no less powerful, sentimental attachment were at the young man’s command. For many the Count was the town, symbolically; his achievements were the town’s — even his glorious looks, his acrobatic dives and fast driving ennobled the town, as any failure of Piero’s would disgrace it. He was their king. This ran too deep, both historically and at an instinctual level, to be easily overthrown. The town knew perfectly well that their Contessa was a Jew. They said nothing and made nothing of it. Anything else would be disloyalty to il signor Conte. And wasn’t she a delightful girl, kind, sober, polite, a loving mother to the contessino, the future Count? Besides, she was a foreigner, and that was a category that overlapped and blurred some of the edges of the word ‘Jew,’ which for many if not most Italians lacked the automatic stigma it evoked elsewhere in Europe.
Not for every Italian, of course. Despite Mussolini’s relative benevolence towards the race (until at last Il Duce capitulated to Hitler’s urgings), for some, a Jew was a Jew, and “Buon giorno, signora Contessa” came low and bitterly from their mouths. The fact that Miri probably disdained the title, sharing her husband’s views (so people suspected, because of her diffidence, her gentle ways and lack of aristocratic hauteur), was only an added irritant to those who resented Piero’s choice of bride.
Miri and young Vittorio were not the only people of Jewish blood in the town. Baldini the bookseller was Jewish, although no-one knew this. (Except Cipriano, who made it his business to know such things.) Baldini had a cousin, too, who lived with his family in the hinterland, high up, overlooking the Mediterranean, where he kept goats, and grew peaches and figs, in idyllic seclusion. And then there was il tedesco, Enrico (originally Heinrich) Schmitz, ‘the German’, who was known to everyone for his poor Italian and his loving photographs of the town and its district, which he sold as postcards to the tabacchi and as individual enlarged prints to tourists on the esplanade, signed “Schmitz” with the “z” on its side and made into a bow-tie, with a smiling face and cat’s whiskers above it — Schmitz’s logo. Schmitz and his wife were thought to be yet another German couple on their Italienreise, the journey to Italy that had a place in the hearts of all Germans, who had fallen in love with the place and simply never gone home. Sehnsucht nach Süden, Schmitz would say to Miri, who had some German (it was her parents’ native language); ‘longing for the South.’ Schmitz was as much a victim of it as any of his compatriots, but the truth was that he — wiser and earlier than most — had read Mein Kampf and decided that as a Jew he would not have children in Germany while Hitler was in power. Heinrich became Enrico. He and Hannelore, his wife, had found Liguria and with it the bay and the town and a coastline that never ceased to excite the eye.
How beautiful and how unusual it was, Piero’s paese! A succession of little inlets led to a peninsular formation on the horizon, visible from the esplanade and from every ridge above the town, that looked as if a dinosaur had immersed itself in the Mediterranean, leaving only three conical flaps projecting from its incompletely submerged back, like a stegosaur taking a bath. These three pointed hillocks, Japanese in their triangular symmetry, reached out from the Italian coast towards Africa, each a little smaller than the other, as if they were land’s last gasps. Northwards the coast stretched towards Genoa, beneath steep volcanic cliffs. The water at their foot was correspondingly deep, the deepest trench in the entire Mediterranean. Southwards, the bay swept round in an immense enfolding arm, recouped its geologic energy and unfurled a long succession of fishing ports in the direction of Rome and the Campagna, past enchanted Porto Venere, past the Cinque Terre with its vineyards, La Spezia and its naval base, and, before Rome beckoned, Livorno, or Leghorn as the British had called it when Shelley took a fatal swim off its coastline.
Who could resist that sea and its loveliness? In those days of our youth, the mer mère, mare nostrum, the inland sea that had been the jewel of all waters since man’s earliest sea travels, the Great Green as the Egyptians had called it, was full of fish and darting squid, and ricci di mare or ‘sea hedgehogs,’ the sea urchins whose shells reached the size of little pumpkins, fine as lace (fine as the parchment-coloured lace spun by a dozen pairs of elderly hands, on our esplanade), in a dozen hues, red, yellow, purple, green and brown and all gradations in between. Jelly-fish, too, sometimes huge and sometimes tiny, invaded the bay, blown across from Africa. Waterspouts danced on the waters like sailing ships, leaning and swirling past each other as if in battle – – a sea battle recast as a deadly water ballet. At night the fishing fleet, now long a feature of the past, went out with their great globe lights, to draw the schools of fish up from the depths, dentice, branzino, orata. What culinary genius, or what accident first devised orata al cartoccio, sea bass cooked in a paper bag (slathered first with herbs from the hillsides about the town)? Only in Liguria, where pasta itself was born, could such a delicacy be conceived. All night the fleet’s huge round lanterns bobbed in the bay like fallen planets. Dawn brought the slow, thudding engines of the concerted fleet’s return, a team of giant snails chugging back together into port, their course plotted directly to the quayside, to the housewives and to those who, like Ettore, the Berlins’ gardener, and Piero’s man, Leandro, were sent out by the housewives to meet the night’s catch on the dock. This was the heartbeat of the town; its nightly breath, in and out. Without the fishing fleet, the town’s lungs, what would the town be? How would it live? On pebbly slipways in small, cavernous inlets along the coast the great brown fishing nets hung like a stage set for Ulrica’s cave in Un Ballo in Maschera (another favourite of Miri’s). Who would take these triumphal curtains down? It was unimaginable then.
The hills of the hinterland, in any case, would never change. Their savage smell of hot earth, pine, dry herbs and salt had been there long before the first fishing net was woven, and nothing, not even the forest fires that blackened the hills every summer, could alter it. Wild fruits grew there, wild blackberries the size of plums, pine nuts, aniseed amid the wild garlic, the wild sweet peas and the foaming umbellifers. At night the fireflies massed like drunken starfire. “A-ooo,” came the hoarse cry of Dario the muleteer, echoing from ridge to ridge in those bygone days, as he marshalled his beasts, driving them home into the hills.
MIRI LOVED IT beyond anything she could ever have imagined even in the days when she had fallen for Piero, when she saw him, perfect, barefoot, running furiously across the little beach pursued like Pentheus by a horde of Bacchants; Piero hard and aggressive, tough-sinewed, his feet like cured camel-skin, Piero soft and golden, his smooth cheeks unmarked, as if the gods had chosen him to be their darling.
It had all been about Piero then. The background had been obligatory, but incidental. You couldn’t picture Piero in a different setting — (in truth, he’d looked less glorious in Muswell Hill; no less pretty, but smaller, less at ease and as a result less compelling a presence) — and so the town, the sea and the hills had also been Piero. The little beach was not a beach but Piero, even when his figure was absent.
Gradually the outline of Piero detached itself from the landscape, and the landscape assumed an identity that didn’t speak of Piero or require Piero in it (as the little beach, when empty, had heretofore been a question: Piero dov’è?—where’s Piero?), and finally acquired a character all its own.
Miri was aware of this process, and was given to wondering whether it would have happened if Piero himself had not detached himself from his own identity, at any rate from his bachelor identity, and become the restless spouse he had perhaps always been destined to become. He was gone for days, often without warning. Rosanna, Miri’s mother-in-law, shrugged tolerantly (no doubt, Miri thought, her Vittorio had been the same). It was nothing to be wondered at, Piero’s friends assured Miri if she betrayed any sign of impatience or distress. He was becoming his father. Didn’t they all? He was in Rome perhaps; more likely Genoa, at the club. Miri had been mildly startled to find that Northern Italian aristocrats had clubs, British in décor as well as in conception, to which they repaired like the drones in 19th century novels, and sat in paneled rooms in dark leather armchairs, under portraits of racehorses, wearing blazers (she had extracted these details from Piero one by one, in disbelief, while he stared in puzzlement at her mixture of amusement and contempt) and toasting ‘the ladies’ in imported Scotch. It was such a far cry from dolphin-Piero, barefoot running Piero on the beach, that she wondered whether she’d ever have fallen for him if she’d met him in a blazer.
Why was he in Genoa, at the club? Or in Rome, without taking her there? Was there something she was failing to supply, at home? Piero laughed at the question, genuinely amused. She had the child; he had his pastimes, as he expressed it.
Can’t I come? Miri asked. Rosanna would look after Vittorio for the day.
Come to the track, amore mia? You’d be so bored. You wouldn’t like it. And even if you did, Piero said quickly, where would you go afterwards? Women were not allowed in the club.
It mattered less and less, Miri was a little shocked to find. At first it had seemed to her a kind of falling out of love, the way the landscape outside her window, both the seascape and the warm, green terraced hillsides, were increasingly no longer Piero. She still loved Piero, and his presence in her arms still filled her quite literally with wonder at the sense that such a being could ever have allowed itself to submit to her embrace, like a tame cougar. But the place and Piero were no longer one. Perhaps they didn’t need to be, any longer. Or rather, perhaps the landscape had to become its own thing now that Piero was so much less frequently in it, silhouetted against it; of it. And what had felt at first like a loss, something being slowly torn out of her — the union of Piero and the very colours and temperature of the day — made way, created a space, for a new, separate passion for her new home, as intense as her feelings for Piero and, in its differing forms, more diverse.
Their variety gave her room, and choice — a different spot, and view, according to her mood. She walked, with Vittorio strapped to her, and later with his toddling form beside her, hand in hand, through the hills, each walk a landscape as distinct as if they were a different country. Some she named for the country they evoked. There was a Switzerland of open, grassy slopes with rounded boulders, a Scotland of shaded ravines with rushing streams, and an Africa of umbrella pines and harsh, uninhabitable and unfarmable slopes where the volcanic cliffs became a precipice over the sea.
She felt herself to be fully at home in each of these countrysides, as though she had dreamed them beforehand, as a child. Now they had adopted her as much as she them. Their inhabitants too, the contadini, had adopted her; they were telling her she belonged there, in every way they could. Yet the appellation, the signora Contessa, stood between her and them, and made her feel distinct once more.
The friends she made were largely outsiders like herself, of one sort or another. She visited the Berlins once a week or more, while they were in residence; she saw the Schmitzes more often than anyone else, partly because she liked their tireless bohemianism and the way that she could share with them her delight in so many details of the landscape and the ever-changing sea and sky, as she could not with a native (to whom it would have seemed absurdly turistico to go into ecstasies about Nature), and also because their little son was barely six months older than Vittorio. Tancredi was his name, a perfectly absurd choice despite (or perhaps because of) its literary forebears, including a Lampedusa character and Rossini’s opera of the same name; perhaps it would have fitted well with a more glamorous surname, but Tancredi Schmitz, as a combination, brought to Miri’s mind an undergraduate she had known, with the unfortunate name of Endymion Pratt. Still, it was typical Schmitz; their fearless, unselfconscious love of all things Italian was precisely what she enjoyed in them.
There were townspeople she might have seen more of, had their children been of the right age for Vittorio, like the bookseller, Baldini, a sympathetic soul who followed her perhaps a little too eagerly, with his eyes, when she visited his bookstore. In any case, Baldini’s younger boy was six years older than Vittorio.
Miri’s parents visited at least once a year, and both of her younger sisters visited regularly, hoping to land another Piero. But there was only one Piero, and only one signor Conte.
Much of the rest of the time she spent in Serafina’s kitchen. In Muswell Hill, in her mother’s kitchen, Miri had always been in the way. Bustling, wheezing Serafina, a prey to asthma, seemed to like having Miri there, and gave her things to do, chopping, salting, decanting, while Serafina worked. She seemed proud to have the contessa watching, and she was a patient, forebearing teacher, silent but smiling a huge toothy smile of genuine delight when Miri showed how well she’d learned. Miri might never learn to make pastry as perfect as Serafina’s, or to tease out the pasta until the newspaper that lay between it and the stone table beneath could actually be read through the pasta, as Serafina required. But by sheer persistence Miri learned to make a passable imitation of many of Serafina’s dishes, the veal pounded within an inch of its life before being breaded, the ossobuco, the gnocchi, the arrosto. In Serafina’s kitchen Miri learned not only how to cook but also the rudiments of the Genoese dialect that she heard among the contadini in the hills, and which had so far been a mystery to her. It was a plangent, more French-sounding tongue (descendent, indeed of Languedoc and Langue d’oeil), often quite different in its forms, as when Serafina would say zeen, a word and sound unknown to Miri, as in the insult regularly applied to the town’s interfering bureaucrats, che gondoni che sono!—what contraceptives they are! — which came out che gondooon che zeen!
Manya, fijeu!—(Mangia, figlio, eat, boy, it would have been in ‘educated’ Italian) — Serafina would say to little Vittorio as she handed him an offcut from her meal in progress, for the boy was always there, with Miri, growing up in Serafina’s cramped, steaming, kitchen, while Serafina wheezed and bellowed at her daughter Pina, rested briefly, gasping, to catch her breath, cursed her utensils and imperfect food, appealed to the gods, apologized to Miri, and sent her husband scuttling out for more and better victuals.
Serafina was Miri’s standby, telling her where to buy the best and least expensive items, comforting her if Piero hadn’t returned from Genoa as promised — she had been in service with Piero’s father, knew the family ways, and had known Piero since he was a fijeu himself, underfoot in her kitchen like little Vittorio — and advising Miri on birthday gifts for her mother-in-law.
There was really no-one else, no-one native to the town or the hills that Miri became close to. But to have been lonely, during those years, even for an instant, was inconceivable. She had Vittorio.
Miri hadn’t quite known what to expect of motherhood. It was distantly terrifying, the idea that a great love and a great certainty would simply arrive with a baby, like a set of instructions in a box. It was hard to imagine a reservoir of dormant instinct being switched on like a light in what seemed to Miri the already well-appointed house of her soul, a house in which she had been living (and tidying dutifully, and filling with knick-knacks where there was room) quite unaware that there was a huge suite of apartments in it to which she’d never been introduced. And would she step into them now to find they’d been perfectly prepared, like Vittorio’s nursery, but in her sleep, without her knowing it? Or would she find, behind a locked, reluctant, creaking door, bare mouldy rooms without furniture, with rotting floorboards and peeling walls, staring back at her and saying, What are you doing here?
It seemed like a terrible lottery. You became pregnant, for the first time, without the faintest idea whether you would be at home in the role of mother, yet with the burden of everybody’s expectation — history’s expectation, even — that you would. What if, after all the pain, the creature you clasped to your bosom felt like alien meat (it was the very reddish pinkness of the imagined baby that seemed to radiate all her alarm), and not a beloved person, your child, at all? What if you had to spend the infant’s entire childhood pretending to be its mother?
And whom could she tell about these fears? She’d never felt herself to be a coward before. She had known fear, but it had never cowed her. Her mother, who had borne three daughters, seemed to recognize no possibility of psychic distress (unless, Miri wondered, she knew it all too well herself but was afraid, as a parent, to confess to such frailty — this would fit, Miri thought, with her mother’s personality, her firm, bold front), and perhaps deliberately seemed to misunderstand Miri’s timid questioning as referring only to the physical ordeal. None of Miri’s London friends had had babies yet; there was no-one she could write to; and who was there, in the small Ligurian town where she now lived, that she could possibly engage in such a conversation, with her still faulty Italian? Piero, as she knew from the expression on his face when she expressed even the faintest hint of anxiety, was the last person in the world who could minister to her fears. Hilde Schmitz had experienced nothing but bliss, she proclaimed to all and sundry, during her home delivery of Tancredi in the rear of a fruit and vegetable truck traveling between Siena and Assisi. It sounded most unlikely to Miri. Did everyone simply lie about the terrors of sudden motherhood — or forget, thanks to an autonomic function accompanying the event, as the body itself was said to forget the extremities of pain involved?
Turning tentatively to her mother-in-law for advice, or simply for a measure of womanly comfort, Miri was distressed to find Rosanna evidently ill at ease with the subject, and couldn’t fathom why. Had Piero’s birth been traumatic? (It had not, as Serafina was able to tell Miri.) Was it inappropriate, in aristocratic circles, to discuss such things, even between a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law whose own mother was far away? On this score, as on the whole matter of Rosanna’s evasiveness, it would be many years before Miri came to understand Piero’s mother.
In the end it was Serafina who saw in Miri’s pallor and haunted eyes the full extent of her fear, and took Miri into her own small shuttered bedroom (a room which was never troubled by the light of day), hot as an oven, with its bed and giant bolster that seemed to fill the room like an enormous, swelling soufflé, sat Miri down and talked her through it, holding Miri’s hands in her own, huge, sweaty ones.
The birth itself, in Genoa’s San Martino hospital, where Piero’s nemesis Cipriano had been trained, brought a volume of pain for which, as Serafina had warned Miri, neither words nor imagination could have prepared her. Serafina hadn’t mentioned the anger that would accompany the fear. Lying there, powerless to do more than help increase the pain, her fury at the excessive violence of it (why did Nature demand that a human offspring be ripped out?) felt more like a summoning of her spirit, of a capacity to endure this experience and survive it, than the rage it mimicked. Unkindly, but needing an image on which to focus the blind desire for retribution — and not wanting to make it Piero, who was nonetheless the proximate cause — Miri focused on Hilda Schmitz and her promises of ‘blissful’ birthgiving. Let her next one be a baby rhino, Miri muttered, knowing she’d be able to forgive herself, and Hilda, in time. Vittorio was big — of this Serafina had warned her, telling her the were all “born big, in this family.” Serafina had been in no doubt that it would be a boy.
But what astonished Miri the most was Vittorio’s beauty. Surely it wasn’t a maternal illusion, though of course she would have loved him regardless (and once he was lying on her breast, it was impossible to even imagine any longer what some unfortunate women had felt — she knew it was true and it had fed her fears — who found themselves indifferent to their baby, or even appalled). But he was so far from the wailing pink meat she had tried hard not to conjure in her mind, that the image now seemed laughable. She had always pictured a tiny Piero; but the baby looked nothing like Piero. He was a tiny replica of her father, only with hair, lots and lots of hair, and with her father’s sweet soulful eyes in a face whose pouches, for the first few weeks, were evocative of Avram Gottlieb in old age. She was breastfeeding her father. It was dizzying, yet somehow not at all incongruous. What she had been through, it seemed to her now, was not the gruesome ripping out of a child from her flesh, but the overwhelming pain of passing from one world to another, giving birth to the past as the future, an extruding of the insides of time — because here in her arms was the past, her heritage (born so evidently a Jew, as if all of Toranic wisdom and Hebraic suffering were encoded in his dark stare), which without knowing it she had been carrying in her body. No wonder it had hurt so much to pull all of that out of her! And now it was breathing, panting, stretching on her breast, unimaginably precious, as if she held the whole consequence of Jewry in her arms.
And what she had never expected — could never have dreamed — was the extent of the companionship she felt with Vittorio, from the moment their eyes met. While he was small, Miri continued to wonder whether this sense that she knew his inmost heart and mind (because, in fact, they were hers, indistinguishable from her) was a fond illusion bred of her love, of blind maternal attachment, and even of the way he looked so familiar, as she always said. (She had seen him before. Was it just the resemblance to her father?) Could it really be true that one person could see so deeply and infallibly into another? Wasn’t it just a story she was telling herself, while the child was too young to deny or disprove it?
Miri had never known this experience before, or anything close to it. In fact, it made her realize how much her defining sense of life had been her sense of difference from others. No-one had been like her, ever, not her mother or father (though he was certainly the nearest thing to a soulmate she had known), not her friends, and certainly not Piero, whose gift to Miri was the surrender to her of his impossibly alien soul and personality. Precisely that, until now, had seemed the glory of her existence, for Miri: that someone at whom she could only wonder, whose thoughts she could only dimly guess at and whose very physical movements seemed to have been bred on another planet, in a different gravity, could lie in her arms and be hers.
What Miri had discovered now, from her first moments with her son, was a universe so new that she could only dread finding that it was a mirage. In Vittorio it was as if she had been cloned. She knew that most parents had no such experience — neither her own nor her friends’ nor even Hilda Schmitz with her blissful birth, who was forever screaming at the gleefully disobedient Tancredi. Miri told no-one, in case they mocked her, or simply disbelieved her, or were somehow able to expose to her the error under which she was living. Yet there was no need to tell anyone; everyone could see their extraordinary affinity for each other, this mother and child. It was not only in the way she looked at him, the look of adoration everyone expected to see; it was his answering look, a quality of trust — later of shared humour — that you might see in a little child, but less often in a growing boy. They were each other’s witness, in the world. They spoke and thought for each other. It wasn’t just that they saw things the same way, were amused or disheartened by the very same events. They woke in the same way, hid their feelings in the same way, ate the same way — it was unnatural! Piero often complained (this was his son, the future Conte, and did he, Piero, have no share in him? Did the boy have no character of his own?) — suffered the same way, grew tired at the same instant, required the same amount of water, loved even the ugliest animals — (bugs, even! Serafina would remark in disbelief) — and fell asleep the same way. This is what it means, Miri thought, to experience your own immortality. After I die, I will still be alive just as fully as I am now, in him.
It was unnatural. It was utterly uncommon, at any rate, and other parents often resented it in Miri and Vittorio, seeing before them an extent of companionship (not entirely healthy, they suggested) that they had not only never experienced but genuinely did not envy. It would be exhausting, claustrophobic. It would take up all their time. Miri, who was entirely happy that it took up all her time, could sympathize nonetheless with people’s doubts and distaste. Hitherto, intense companionship was something which Miri had always experienced as faintly threatening, after a certain time; even Piero’s beloved presence could become cloying, as irritating as a clammy, neighbouring body under too many blankets. As a child she had been known for her love of solitude, and for her constant reading, although she had known her chief impulsion to be the need to get away from her noisy, overly playful younger sisters, who were closer to each other in age than Miri was to either of them. Now she found herself blessedly closeted with a being from whom she could hardly bear to be separated for a minute of any twenty-four hours. Those who loved to see and to be with Miri and Vittorio were always offering to give her a rest — and regardless of this altruism they naturally wanted to hold little Vittorio for a while themselves — but even to them she rarely acceded for more than the shortest time that courtesy permitted. The one exception to this was Serafina, in whose ample bosom Miri saw a version of what she herself felt she had become, the abstractly maternal. She and Serafina were one continuous bosom, to Miri, and to little Vittorio too, who seemed equally at ease on both.
He grew up bilingual (trilingual, if you count Genoese, as you should, as a separate tongue), seemingly without any sense of which language he was speaking or thinking in, fluent in all of them. This meant, perhaps, that there were in him a Piero, a Serafina and a Miri, linguistically and with the temperament appropriate to each, rhetorical, trenchant and discriminating by turns. But when you looked at him, he was all Miri — all Avram, if you knew Avram, and even for those who didn’t the eyes and above all the eyebrows certainly evoked Sephardic origins. Yet Vittorio also looked entirely at home in the gallery of his comrades and contemporaries of the town. He lacked even a hint of his father’s open, golden looks, his wavy blond hair and pale eyes, and for all that you could easily have thought him more Italian-looking than Piero. He evoked some Byzantine icon (those caterpillar eyebrows!), with his long face and long nose. He was entirely Mediterranean in appearance, though hardly in temperament.
Vittorio’s manner was what Piero called, with wry amusement (since after all he’d married into it, and what did he expect?) piuttosto inglese, English rather than Italian. Like Miri he spoke little, and then carefully. It pleased Piero to say that the boy had refused to speak until he finally uttered a sentence “as long and as perfect as a sentence from Charles Dickens.” The sentence Piero usually cited (he had several, all invented) was, “Excuse me, Papa, but would you kindly pass me the bread?” Miri knew well how Vittorio hated, as she did, to speak until he knew what he would say and how he would say it, and she tolerated Piero’s mockery as a loving, irritated tribute to herself.
She was not volatile enough for Piero, she knew. It was one of the things he had loved in her at first. Her reserve. But in time, when she would not rise to his sallies, his arias, his operatic rebukes, he began to suspect that this reserve was actually a form of resentment. There was no way to heal this misunderstanding, since nothing could move Miri to the outcries Piero needed. (He got them, daily, from Serafina, whose wails of “La fine del mondo, signore!” announced the end of the world as manifested in the absence of Milanese salami at the butcher.) Now poor Piero had two Inglesi in his household, sitting on their hands, zipping their mouths, and exchanging meaningful looks. Porca miseria!
Miri and Vittorio talked a great deal, in truth. But they preferred to do it on their long walks through the hillsides.
An hour’s walk from the Casa Rosa stood a hill (part of the land Miri called Africa) where the coastline turned and its cliff-fortress journey eastwards from Genoa abruptly yielded, stopping dead as if in sudden amazement at its own monumental resolve. The high promontory where it reared up and halted resembled an act of consciousness, the coastline itself reflecting on its journey like a momentarily puzzled giant. Then it reached back, making the huge scoop of the bay where Piero’s town lay cradled, before continuing to the south-east, resolute once more. The promontory, with the view it afforded, was one of Miri and Vittorio’s favourite haunts. A stand of huge old umbrella pines gave shade to the earthen track beaten flat by generations of clifftop farmers’ feet. Fallen pinoli, pine nuts, buff – coloured with their distinctive little smudge of black as if hastily marked by a charcoal pencil, clustered, awaiting Miri and Vittorio. No-one seemed to want to gather them, or perhaps, seeing Miri picking them up with such care and delight, they left them there for la signora contessa and the contessino. Together, Miri and the child would sit in the shade of the pines and prise open their tender fruit, the fresh, tiny morsel somehow too delicate to be properly called a nut; it was almost halfway to a seed, yet thick and juicy, at once supremely modest and explosive on the palate, like a blueberry, filling every crevice of the mouth with taste. How could these tender buttery-coloured slivers, so pale and vulnerable, contain the lifeblood of the rugged giants waving above them, these kings of the promontory with their craggy aggressive bark and rich green needles? Each pine nut was sacred to her. Each one was a Vittorio awaiting her, soft and trusting and entirely unprotected, a Moses in the tiny canoe of its opened shell.
There were small houses on both sides of the path, where the pines stood and the nuts littered the earth, unusually solid, stucco houses, unlike the ramshackle farmhouses farther along the ridge. They were, Miri supposed, holiday homes. Many rich Milanese bought such properties on the coast, and might visit them no more often than a weekend or two a year. Yet what a waste, Miri thought, of the promontory view, saturnine in one direction where the steep slope of the vallone plummeted to the sea and an outcrop of rock — Vessinaro Point was its name — and where only the occasional merchant ship or cruise liner broke the severity of the immense horizon (but, beyond it, Africa!), while in the other direction, where the bay curved back and around, the astonished eye was met by a crowded, joyous panorama, protected from the wind, dotted with houses, villages, distant sailboats like so many butterflies — a land of milk and honey, Miri called it in her mind, feeling like a pilgrim each time she returned along the ridge and caught her first glimpse of it again. But the walk was long up to the windblown Vessinaro promontory where the stucco houses were, an hour and a half at least of steep climb, and no doubt the citified owners of these houses found that the charm of such an expedition quickly faded when you were carrying several days’ worth of provisions.
One day Miri had felt a presence, a watcher, as she and Vittorio sat by the wayside nibbling their prizes. (How perfectly Vittorio-sized they were, the pinoli!) Yet the windows she could see, over the tall hedges — two were cypress, and another was a dense mass of laurel — were shuttered and blank. Miri decided she was merely imagining a spy, out of residual guilt at scooping up the pine nuts. (Were they anybody’s in particular, the parent umbrella pines, was she stealing from them, or was she perhaps exercising some ancient seigneurial right over the pine nuts?) But, over succeeding months, the sense of watching eyes materialized into faint scuffling noises, behind the laurel hedge. A dog? If so, a very quiet dog — and who fed it? Neighbours, perhaps?
When Miri finally plucked up the courage — the gall, she felt it was (forgive me: I am your Contessa!) — to approach the laurel hedge and try and pierce its dense wall of waxy green and yellow leaves, she could see nothing, and retreated, puzzled.
Then one day there was a pair of eyes, unmistakably human eyes, at a child’s head height, between the laurel leaves. Dark eyes, heavy eyebrows on pale skin — that was all Miri could see. Buon giorno! Miri exclaimed, as if in explanation of her presence on the path outside the house. But no answer came, and the unblinking eyes disappeared without a sound.
Despite the heavy eyebrows, Miri had felt sure it was a female presence she had seen and sensed, and each fresh sighting, always as brief and inconclusive, reinforced this hunch. Who was she then, and why was she so secretive, refusing to answer greetings? La prigionniera, Miri called her in her mind, the prisoner, as if the mystery girl, or woman, belonged to a 19th century romance. No-one in the town seemed to know who it was that Miri might be referring to, when she enquired about the house with the laurel hedge; neither Piero nor Rosanna, his mother, nor Serafina could imagine who this personage might be. Mightn’t she like to come out and play? Miri had tried calling, and ringing the bell at the laurel-hedge house, without reply. Once or twice an adjacent, cypress-sentinel holiday home was inhabited by its vacationing Milanese family, but although they were delighted to answer Miri’s questions, and invite her and Vittorio in for a cup of very English (and very Milanese) tea, they knew nothing of their neighbours, let alone a prigionniera. Was she a phantom, perhaps, summoned — as Miri had felt in the first place — by Miri’s pine nut theft, was she the pinoli–loving ghost of some earlier owner of the umbrella pines? Eventually Miri became comfortable with the guardian eyes that studied her and Vittorio through the screen of laurel (Vittorio himself never seemed in the least perturbed), and over time the mystery became a harmless, familiar feature, for Miri, of her visits to the Vessinaro.
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Carey Harrison is British-born, the son of the stage and screen actors Sir Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer, and was raised in America. He has divided his life between the UK and the US, writing and teaching on both sides of the Atlantic. He is currently the artistic director of the Woodstock Players theater company, and is Professor of English at the City University of New York. Harrison is the author of close to two hundred plays for stage, radio, film and television, and 16 novels; his work has won numerous literary prizes and been translated into thirteen languages.