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  • Simon Howard

LIVORNO! (From Anglo-Tuscans, Chapter 2)

Updated: Aug 29, 2020

Belinda and Julia were driving to Pisa to pick up friends from the airport. Julia was sitting in the back of the car so that she could stretch out her bandaged leg. Belinda was confused by the road around Camucia which had been altered since last year. Unlike the lovely hill towns, the new sprawling urban complexes of Tuscany had no beautiful churches or palazzos to navigate by, and all looked the same to Belinda. She was always getting lost, every time she visited the outskirts of Sinalunga or Arezzo or even the outer reaches of Florence. Camucia, though not large, was impossible.

Added to that, it was a bank holiday, a festa nazionale, even if she couldn’t remember which one was being celebrated. Belinda was knowledgeable about the Renaissance, but not so good on contemporary Italy. Also, she’d been foolish enough to drink more than one glass of her old neighbour Alberto’s revolting wine last night.

She couldn’t decide whether to take the autostrada via Florence or the superstrada past Siena. She asked Julia’s advice, principally to keep her involved in what was going on, as a kind of therapy, but got no answer. When she looked in the mirror, she saw that Julia was fast asleep, and felt concerned. She couldn’t help noticing that Julia always seemed to fall asleep if she hadn’t had a drink for about twenty minutes.

Then she spotted two women getting into their car outside a shop. One was middle-aged and the other about twenty, probably her daughter. Belinda thought they looked friendly, so she pulled up and asked them in faltering Italian the best way to Pisa.

‘O Pisa!’ they shouted enthusiastically, then had a heated discussion together about the autostrada, the superstrada, the festa nazionale, Firenze, Siena and several other things, as far as Belinda could tell… She tried her best to follow them, but soon became hopelessly lost. At last the middle-aged woman, smiling kindly, told Belinda to follow their car.

She drove behind them out of the town and along a winding country road for several kilometres. For the whole journey the mother and daughter kept up an animated conversation inside their car, which swerved from one side of the road to the other as they looked at each other rather than the road and waved their arms frantically. Several times Belinda thought they were giving her signals to turn left or right, but they were just being Italian.

Eventually they stopped opposite a large old house and beckoned Belinda to follow them inside. She left Julia asleep on the back seat: an elegant, injured mound of rising and falling plaster and bandage. Grateful to be out of the heat, Belinda followed the two women into a large dark hall. A map lay on a round table.

‘Babbo!’ called the mother, picking up the map. Even Belinda recognised this as the familiar word for a father, though she had no idea whether it was used outside Tuscany. ‘Babbo!’

There was no reply, so they started to walk through the large old house.

‘Babbo!’ the mother called into one room after another. ‘Babbo!’

Eventually they entered the last room on the ground floor and there they found him: a frail, gaunt old man sitting in an old leather armchair, gazing into space. Belinda thought he looked as though he was in a trance. His daughter and granddaughter glowed with optimism when they saw him.

‘Babbo! Per arrivare a Pisa, che strada deve prendere – Firenze o Siena?’

The old man continued to stare into space.

‘Autostrada o superstrada per Pisa, Babbo?’

‘Eh?’ said the old man at last.

They shoved the map under his ancient nose.

‘Babbo! Per Pisa – Firenze o Siena?’

The old man’s glazed eyes wandered over the map, and then his stare settled on the far wall. The women leant forward to receive his verdict.

‘Babbo…’ they whispered expectantly.

Belinda was not hopeful, but she tried her best to think positively. Suddenly the old man looked up to heaven, then down at the map again. His frail old body gave a little tremble, and his lips began to move. His daughter and granddaughter strained to get closer to him. At last he spoke in what Belinda considered a gaunt, proclaiming voice.

‘Livorno!’ he said.

‘O Babbo!’ shrieked his daughter, glowing with pride. Her daughter also glowed beside her.

‘Livorno!’ shouted the old man again. ‘LIVORNO!’

Belinda worried that he might give himself a heart attack if he went on shouting Livorno! like this. Hurriedly she looked at the map, and it confirmed her worst fear. Livorno was beyond Pisa, further along the coast, and being told to drive towards Livorno didn’t in any way help her to decide between taking the autostrada towards Florence or the superstrada past Siena. Life in a foreign country could sometimes be so difficult. Especially Italy. She bade farewell to the frail old oracle.

‘Molto grazie, Signore. Arrivederci.’

The old man was by now gazing into a corner of the ceiling.

‘Arrivederci’ he said frailly.

The two women escorted Belinda through the various dark rooms and corridors towards the blazing heat of the summer morning as the old man’s voice rang out behind them.

‘Livorno! LIVORNO!’

‘Grazie, Babbo!’ his daughter called over her shoulder.

She tried to make Belinda take a cool drink, but she declined politely in her heavily English-accented Italian.

‘E molto gentile, ma…’

‘LIVORNO!’ wafted down the corridor and into the hall where they were standing.

‘LIVORNO!’

‘Grazie, Babbo!’


***


Belinda stepped into the road, where she found Julia standing beside the car, trying to improvise another sling around her other hand, which was dripping bright red blood in the sunlight.

‘Snothing,’ she said, smiling sweetly, ‘bloodydoorbangedshuttoo-quickly.’ She hiccupped.

You really should try to love your body a little more, thought Belinda. God knows, enough men do – especially around these parts, where Julia was never short of admirers – even if they were a little alarmed by the excesses of her drinking.

Belinda got into the car and started the ignition while Julia arranged herself on the back seat, spilling only a small amount of her blood onto the floor. Soon she was fast asleep.

Botticelli or Simone Martine? Belinda wondered as she tried to force herself to make the decision about travelling via Florence or Siena. It was the only way she’d be able to choose. Everything was so much more difficult without Tony. He’d have known which route to take, even if he wasn’t so good at telling a Piero from a Raphael.

Verrocchio or Duccio? she asked herself. Lorenzetti or Giotto, Pisano or Brunelleschi? It was enough to drive you mad. Even here in heavenly Tuscany.


***


A lizard rested under the shadow of a flower-pot filled with basil. Ants scurried across the stone path outside the kitchen, carrying away crumbs from a loaf and other kitchen scraps dropped by Julia as she cleared up after lunch. Upstairs, three middle-aged Englishwomen lay, sated, on Belinda’s huge bed under the mosquito net.

‘Are you absolutely certain it’s safe for her to cook in that condition, Belinda dear?’ asked Marjorie Lovejoy.

‘Oh yes, surely…’ said Belinda uncertainly.

‘As long as bits of her don’t start dropping into the pasta,’ said Hermione Ember, always given to blunt statement.

‘She drinks so,’ said Marjorie.

‘Obviously trying to forget,’ said Hermione. ‘What, I wonder?’

Belinda saw her opportunity to say something positive.

‘She seems to fall asleep without alcohol inside her.’

‘Then she should become a teetotaller and stop trying to kill herself,’ said Hermione bluntly.

Belinda pushed the play button on the CD player’s remote control and waited to be annoyed by the American woman’s voice.

‘I love my life!’

‘I love my life,’ echoed Belinda and Marjorie. Hermione remained silent.

‘I love my work!’

‘I love my work!’ boomed Hermione. She was Belinda’s literary agent.

Do I love my work? wondered Belinda. I certainly should do. What could be better than spending the whole of your adult life studying and writing about the Italian Renaissance, staying several months a year in Tuscany, knowing practically all the churches and chapels between here and Montalcino – and between here and the other side of Florence? Between here and the far side of Siena?

She’d studied every inch of some of these churches. If only she’d studied the Italians’ language as thoroughly, but she hadn’t, and she felt ashamed, comforting herself with the thought that, for all their love of talking, the Italians are basically defined by their visual sense.

That’s why the thrice daily passeggiàta is so important to them, she told herself. It doesn’t just provide an opportunity to catch up with local gossip, but gives people the chance to show off their latest Prada handbag, Ermenegildo Zegna shirt or Gucci shoes. So, people who thought you had to speak the language fluently to understand the Italian character were wrong. You had to know their great art: their duomos, their Michelangelos, Titians, Caravaggios and their wonderful frescoes. And Belinda certainly did.

Not only did she understand the spirit of the Italian Renaissance, she even knew the exact measurements of some of its great masterpieces, down to the last millimetre. What could possibly be better than that? Well, having someone to share it with, of course, and Tony had tried so hard, even though he wasn’t what you’d call arty. More mechanically inclined, really. Into digging dams and wells and terracing. That sort of thing.

Marble Patterns In The Marbleless Churches And Chapels Of Tuscany. Her latest book. It was only a working title, but it helped to keep her eye on the ball. It was a cataloguing and description of all the surfaces painted to look like marble: the green and white Apollino from Euboea which the Romans took with them as far as Colchester; Rosso antico in various shades of dark red, a name taken up by Josiah Wedgwood to describe his red stoneware; the oranges and yellows and off-whites and other variations or hues developed by masters and lesser painters to emulate the look of marble in churches where marble wasn’t to be found – or had been once, before it was stolen by invading armies.

Yes, surely she enjoyed – loved – this work, which bonded her, Belinda Duguid, to the aims and ambitions of those Tuscans who set out to define their culture and to change the world’s. Surely. It was certainly a sort of love. And then she started to worry about Julia again. Does she love her work? Oh, dear, I feel so responsible…

‘I love my orgasms!’ declared the American woman.

I can’t remember, thought Marjorie.

‘I never loved any of mine!’ shouted Hermione.

‘Oh, I very much enjoyed some of mine,’ said Belinda – at first surprised, and then appalled, by her own candour. She feared a return to that EST frame of mind when she so foolishly sang One Currant Bun In The Baker’s Shop to those three hundred strangers. She shuddered at the thought.

And then she remembered the time she’d spent here at Casa Cimabue with Tony: all his plans for the property, and his crazy inventions. Once, before Alberto had taken over the tending of the olive trees, Tony had designed and built an olive-picking machine. It was his pride and joy, and he named it Leonardo.

The whole neighbourhood turned out to see it one October morning at the start of the olive-picking season. Don Ettore Caballo the parish priest blessed the machine, while his faithful terrier Pasticcio sired yet another litter behind the capànna with one of his parishioners’ mongrels. Alberto broke a bottle of his undrinkable wine against the engine while Gian-Carlo announced to everyone that this was the best thing to do with it.

The whole congregation tensed as Tony’s great invention approached the first tree. It spread its long tentacles, grabbed dozens of olives and hurled them half a kilometre across the fields and down the hill. That was its one and only outing for years. Later that day, drunk on Alberto’s vile brew, Tony and several villagers wheeled the olive-picking machine into the capànna, where it would have stayed forever had it not been destined to make one more public appearance. It was used one starry night to help a man of God.

An English Jesuit, an old friend of Belinda and Tony’s, was driving away from the house after enjoying an excellent dinner prepared by Gian-Carlo’s wife Ines, the best cook in the area. The Brunello had flowed freely that night as well, since Jesuits always like the best of everything. Instead of going forward as he intended, Father Peter Hewitt, SJ shoved his gear-stick into reverse by mistake and sent his car flying off the terrace into the branches of one of the larger olive trees. Fortunately it was a sturdy old tree, so the Rev Hewitt’s vehicle remained suspended aloft and didn’t crash to the ground, as Belinda feared it might.

Word went round the village in no time, and soon a crowd had assembled around the Casa Cimabue.

Che cosa? What’s up? What to do? Nobody could work out how to get the car down, till someone had the brilliant idea of trying Tony’s olive-picking machine, Leonardo. A group of men crowded into the capànna and uncovered Leonardo, which was by this time full of rust, and poured benzino into the tank. They wheeled it out, and Tony cranked up the engine till it croaked back to life.

Shuddering and spluttering, the olive-picking machine approached the tree below the terrace and gently plucked both the car and the Jesuit from its branches before placing them safely on the terrace. Forever afterwards Tony’s contraption was known as la macchina divina, and Father Peter Hewitt as il padre volante, the flying priest.

‘I love my attitude!’ shouted the American woman.

‘Huh!’ sneered Hermione.

‘I love my determination!’

‘I love my determination,’ said Marjorie quietly.

‘I love my superiority!’

‘Mmmm…’ they all mumbled.

A crash outside let them know that Julia’s motorino had skidded on the gravel and crashed into the capànna housing la macchina divina.

‘Aaagh!’ wafted through the bedroom window from below, followed by a silence which suggested that Julia might have knocked herself unconscious this time.

All three rushed from the security of the mosquito net and downstairs to investigate.


*****




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