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  • Simon Howard

LOST HOUSES (From Anglo-Tuscans, Chapter 3)

Updated: Dec 30, 2020

Balancing a tray on one splayed hand, Anglo-Tuscan Belinda gently knocked on her god-daughter Julia’s bedroom door with the other.

‘Uuuuuhhh…’ sounded from inside.

Belinda opened the bare old wooden door and stepped over the threshold cautiously, as though she were entering a foreign country, or possibly a distant planet. White bandages showed behind the whiteness of the mosquito net. Most of Julia’s lovely hair was hidden by a large bandage wrapped around her head, and other bandages covered an arm and a hand. Bloodstains speckled the pillow with vivid red. She had a closed black eye, but the other one slowly awoke and focused on Belinda.

I’m going to love your body, thought Belinda, even if you won’t, and I’m going to save it from you. Now that’s positive thinking.

She placed the tray on the bedside table, then sat down on the bed and began to pour porcini soup into Julia’s lovely mouth.

‘Julia dear, I thought we might go and spend a few days by the sea when you’re feeling a little better. Nice sea breezes and everything…’

Since the complications of a trip to Pisa Airport to pick up her friends, Hermione and Marjorie, Belinda had become aware that she didn’t know nearly enough about coastal Tuscany. She clung to the hills and their beautiful towns for comfort, and perhaps it was time for her to learn a little more about contemporary Italy. Seaside towns often tell you a great deal about life as it’s lived now, she thought, though she shuddered at the idea of Blackpool conveying to foreign visitors anything at all about English culture. However, a trip to the sea would be a good way of discovering more about the workings of Julia’s impenetrable mind.

There you are, she told herself – the power of positive thinking. She felt quite elated.

‘Mmmmm…’ said Julia, whose injuries had been caused by her third motorino accident this summer.

The Positive Thinking CD started playing loudly from Belinda’s room.

‘I love my health!’ shouted an American woman’s voice.

‘I love my health!’ Marjorie and Hermione shouted back.

‘I love my money!’

‘Jesus Christ!’ boomed Hermione.

I wish I had some, thought Marjorie, though she wasn’t nearly as poor as she suspected.

It gets a lot worse than that, the poor could have told her.

Hurriedly Belinda jumped up from the bed and ran onto the landing.

‘Dears!’ she implored them. ‘Think of poor Julia.’

At that moment a car drew up on the gravel outside, and almost immediately a dog barked. It was Pasticcio, the parish priest’s mongrel. Belinda rushed downstairs and opened the front door in time to see him urinating against the capànna where he had sired one of many litters years ago. Don Ettore was climbing out of his car, beaming at Belinda.

Buongiorno, Signora!’ he called to her, before saying proudly: ‘Good morning.’

Belinda knew that Don Ettore was learning English in order to increase his flock from among the foreign newcomers. He was spoilt for choice really: now there were British, Irish, American, Dutch, German, French, Belgian, even Australian people here, and several other nationalities too. And all of them living in case caloniche which the locals had long ago found too old and uncomfortable to inhabit anymore. They’d all moved into comfortable new housing developments in horrible places like Camucia.

Though for the first few years that Belinda and her late husband Tony occupied the now renamed Casa Cimabue, its previous owners, an old peasant couple forced to move out by their greedy offspring (who pocketed all the money paid by Tony), made an annual pilgrimage to see the old place and inspect the olives, tutting as they hobbled between the trees – till one year they were killed in a car crash on their way home to Camucia. A little Madonna beside the road marks the spot.

Don Ettore wasn’t too fussy about whether the newcomers were Catholic or not, and welcomed them all to Mass and church events - from the school play to the many concerts he encouraged in the little church grounds. He even laid on an annual festa degli stranieri, a party for foreigners at which the locals would force huge amounts of food on them. Alberto, who had mis-tended Belinda’s olive trees for years, poured out endless glasses of his foul wine for the unsuspecting newcomers in the hope that they would buy cases of it the next day. Don Ettore had been giving Holy Communion to Belinda for years without acknowledging what he must have heard or at least suspected: that she was a faithful member of the Church of England.

‘Ow is the invaleed?’ he asked Belinda, waving a bag of peaches at her.

Before Belinda could answer, the American woman’s voice blared from the open bedroom window above.

‘I love my sexuality!’ she shouted.

‘Oh shut up!’ boomed Hermione back at her.

Then she must have somehow interfered with the CD, because it started playing manically, making it sound like a stylus had got stuck in the groove of an old vinyl record. The American woman’s voice said the same thing over and over again, faster and faster, like a mad mantra.

‘I love my clitoris I love my clitoris I love my clitoris I love my clitoris…’

Close to despair, and feeling far from positive, Belinda hurriedly ushered in the devoted priest to see her drunken, self-mutilating patient for whom she felt so responsible – and whose mother, her oldest friend, Belinda was keeping very much in the dark about her daughter’s youthful alcoholism.


*****




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