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  • Simon Howard

ANGLO-TUSCANS a tale from the Italian hills

Updated: Dec 30, 2020

Chapter 1 - Positive Thinking


Belinda Duguid lay alone under the mosquito net draped over her large old double bed, trying to shut out the sound of grillos chirruping below in the garden. Like most English people, and unlike the old Tuscan peasant couple who’d lived here before her, Belinda had left the windows and shutters open, hoping against hope that a tiny touch of breeze might ease her discomfort on this hot July afternoon. It had merely helped to increase the heat in the room throughout the morning.

Now she focused all her attention on an American woman’s voice speaking from the CD player at her bedside.

‘I love my face!’ said the voice enthusiastically.

Belinda quickly looked around the empty room before sheepishly repeating what the American woman had just said.

‘I love my face,’ she whispered.

‘I love my nose!’ said the voice on the CD.

Belinda was unconvinced, so she only mumbled the refrain.

‘I lovemynose.’

‘I love my mouth!’

‘I love my mouth.’

‘I love my chin!’

‘I love my chin.’

‘I love my body!’

Oh, I do want to, thought Belinda.

‘I love my navel!’

‘I love my navel.’

‘I love my vagina!’

‘Oh, really!’ Belinda said out loud. ‘The Americans!’

She wasn’t fond of the Americans anymore. Not since the success of Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun had made all the prices rise in the shops in and around Cortona, the beautiful hill town a few kilometres away which could be seen from several other hill towns in this part of Tuscany. A glass of wine now cost four times what it had three years ago. It was almost impossible to park in the town, and the roads were sometimes blocked by charabancs of American tourists making their pilgrimage to glimpse the author’s house, now a more important sightseeing destination than the Duomo Museum which housed its famous Annunciation by Fra Angelico.

In fairness, Belinda believed, no-one had been more surprised by her literary success than Frances Mayes herself but, nevertheless, life in the Cortonese hills had become tougher for everyone except the shopkeepers and bar owners – and the estate agents, of course, several of whom seemed to come, for a reason Belinda could never understand, from Essex. There were times when her idyllic life in Tuscany owed less to Signorelli and Fra Angelico and more to Romford and Braintree than she liked to admit.

She sat up and looked at the CD cover. It was called New Ways to Positive Thinking.

The Americans always use shock tactics, thought Belinda. That’s why she’d given up EST years before. (Her fads went back a long way.) At one EST gathering, she’d been persuaded to sing One Currant Bun in The Baker’s Shop to an audience of three hundred strangers at a large church hall in London. It took her several years to live down the embarrassment, and even now, on hot sticky Tuscan nights, she sometimes relived the shame lying here, perspiring on this huge empty bed, under this same protective mosquito net.

Suddenly she was disturbed by the sound of a motorino skidding on the gravel outside, followed by a crash and a voice crying ‘Ohfuckinellnotagain!’

‘I love my toes!’ said the American woman’s voice on the CD. She’d been travelling down her imaginary leg while Belinda was thinking about the Americans and her own humiliation through EST. At least Tony had been around in those days, though, to help her through life’s minefield.

Hurriedly Belinda got up from the large old bed, pushed aside the mosquito net and switched off the CD player before rushing downstairs, thinking what can she have done this time?

In the kitchen stood a beautiful young woman with her arm in a sling and bits of elastoplast dotted about her tanned forehead. Scabs covered her bare shoulder, and blood dripped onto the tiled floor from a fresh wound on her knee.

‘Julia!’ shrieked Belinda.

Julia hiccupped back at her.

‘Bloodyrottenroad,’ she muttered, fumbling around in a torn shopping bag. ‘I’m afraid we can’t have a frittata because all the eggs broke.’ She hiccupped again. ‘But I could probably scrape enough off the drive to make a carbonara.’

She hiccupped once more in celebration of her culinary escape.

***

‘I love my ass!’ said the American woman’s voice vibrantly.

Oh, I really wish I did, thought Belinda. I really do. Ass seemed so inappropriate, buttocks much more real.

She was back on the huge empty bed after lunch, veiled by its mosquito net, though the mosquitoes weren’t usually about at this time of the day. The carbonara had been surprisingly good, and though she’d detected a tiny piece of grit, and possibly some bark from one of the cypress trees, Belinda had forced herself to think positively about it. She always tried to be as encouraging as possible to Julia, whom she worried about much of the time and had taken on as cook for the summer. Julia was the younger daughter of friends in Oxford, where Belinda lived when she wasn’t staying at her Tuscan farmhouse – her casa colonica – to which she’d come early this year to complete the first draft of her fifth book on Italian design, the epic Marble Patterns In The Marbleless Churches And Chapels Of Tuscany.

‘I love my cellulite!’ proclaimed the American woman.

A loud crashing sound from the kitchen made Belinda push aside the mosquito net once more and run from the room as the American woman’s voice pursued her down the stairs.

‘I love my wrinkles!’ she called.

In the kitchen Julia was pulling a shard of glass out of her lovely hand.

‘Snothing,’ she mumbled drunkenly.

‘Julia, dear…’ said Belinda, unsure how to deal with this not uncommon situation, or even what to say next. Her mother was a very old friend, so Julia was almost a daughter to her. But the truth of it was that Belinda’s own youth had been so terribly different from this wild and beautiful girl’s – this was a youth which seemed to revolve around alcohol and injury, and a lot of both. She felt almost grateful when she heard a car drawing up, and went outside to see who had come.

‘Signora!’ cried old Alberto, stepping out of his Cinquecento.

White as bread, Alberto nevertheless spent much of his time out of doors tending, among other things, Belinda’s two hundred and forty three olive trees. In exchange for a few flagons of oil which she stored in an outhouse called the capanna, Belinda allowed him to harvest and sell the crop. An English visitor once estimated that Belinda’s thirty litres a year cost her one and a half million lire in those pre-euro days. However, she was determined to support local enterprise, play her part in the affairs of the village, and ensure the health of her trees. She refused to shop at the Co-op (Coop in Italian) in the growing sprawl of Camucia, down on the plain, which she believed was putting people like Alberto out of business, even though English neighbours reported seeing Alberto shopping there himself.

Belinda bought all her household provisions from Giancarlo’s shop in the village, where she kept a tab all summer long with Giancarlo’s indecipherable writing on it. (Alberto and Gian-Carlo were implacable enemies, which explained why Alberto shopped at the Coop. Belinda had a vague idea that one of them had been a Fascist during the War, and the other a Communist, but she couldn’t remember who’d been which.) At the end of each summer’s visit she and Giancarlo would go through the mountain of indecipherable receipts together till Giancarlo wrote down an astronomical total in surprisingly clear handwriting. Year after year, Belinda was too honourable to question the figure. And every year in recent times, she wondered how Tony might have dealt with the situation.

‘Signora!’ cried Alberto, beaming his white-faced smile. ‘Tutto bene?’

From the tiny car he took an oil flagon and a couple of bottles of his undrinkable home-made wine. People in the village said this opaque muck was the cause of his deathly complexion. As he strode towards Belinda waving his offerings, the American woman’s voice wafted down from the open bedroom window.

‘I love my nipples!’

Belinda suspected that Alberto secretly loved hers, and she was grateful that he couldn’t speak a word of English to tell her so. Another crash sounded from the kitchen.

‘Snothing really!’ shouted Julia from the shadows.

Then a second crash told Belinda that the shelf holding the saucepans had collapsed, presumably after being fallen against by a beautiful drunk body.

***

Older than Troy. That’s what they say about Cortona. It’s been in perpetual occupation for nearly 5,000 years, or so the claim goes. And there have been various occupations along the way. The most recent is by the foreign incomers and tourists and Frances Mayes’ devotees. Before that it was the Wehrmacht and the SS.

‘A lot of women were raped during the Occupation,’ says an English tourist drinking her expensive glass of wine and nibbling on a free crostino at one of the many new bars on the Via Nazionale.

‘Not only the women,’ says her French companion, a retired diplomat and naval officer.

‘And it’s said you can see a paint skid-mark on the wall at the Palazzone where Signorelli fell off his ladder and died doing his last fresco.’

‘Eh bien…?’

*****




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