Authors: Mario Giordano
Heads were shaken again and spoons tinkled against sundae glasses. Poldi didn't believe them. Meditatively, she licked her spoon. The chocolate and pistachio ice creams had run into each other; they tasted sweet and bitter and salty. Like tears and unfulfilled hopes, she thought. All at once, too, as usual in this country.
“Please don't misunderstand me,” she said, mustering her best Italian. “I don't mean to interfere in your private affairs, but I can see you're worried. I'm worried too. Becauseâ¦ well, he may be in trouble.”
They both winced at the word “trouble”. Something deep inside Maria seemed to break adrift. It came bubbling up to the surface in the form of an anguished sigh.
“It was when I heard that sigh, if not before,” Poldi told me later, “that I knew Valentino was really up the creek in some way. I'm an expert on trouble and sighs like that, that's why. Red alert, know what I mean? I guessed his parents had already given him up for lost, and that they wouldn't tell me anything more.
and so on. That was when this idea popped into my head: that I had to find him â Valentino, I mean â and find him in a hurry. And that was the only reason why I pinched that little bit of mosaic.”
Poldi resolutely laid her spoon aside and looked Maria in the eye. “Might I see his room?”
“Many thanks for the ice cream, Signora Poldi,” Angelo said formally, “but it would be better if you left now.”
Maria glanced sharply at him and rose to her feet. “But first, of course you can see the boy's room.”
Valentino's room resembled that of any young man who still lives at home. An unmade bed, clothes scattered around, an ancient laptop hooked up to a game console, Ferrari posters and pin-ups on the walls. The place smelt of mothballs and weed. A magnificent cannabis plant was thriving in a pot on the window ledge.
While Poldi was looking around keenly, Maria lingered in the doorway as if afraid of disturbing the spirits that inhabited the room.
“That's a variety of cannabis you can't smoke,” she said. “He only keeps it for decoration, because it's so pretty.”
Poldi kept her thoughts to herself. On a chest of drawers she spotted some German textbooks, some Japanese mangas, and a row of colourful little tesserae that glittered in the sunlight â bright shards of ceramic glazed on one side, none bigger than a fingertip. Lying at the outermost edge of these was a yellow crystal of the kind one can sometimes be lucky enough to find on Etna. Pretty to look at, it was a rhomboid prism about an inch across and growing on a porous stone. Poldi picked it up, and when she replaced it her fingers smelt faintly of sulphur. She took a picture of the little ensemble with her mobile phone, and whoops, before she knew it she'd surreptitiously snaffled one of the glazed shards. Unacceptable behaviour, but she'd acted on impulse â genetically programmed, as she put it to me. The thing is, there's something else one should know about my Auntie Poldi: her father had been a detective chief inspector in Augsburg. Homicide. Georg Oberreiter solved the NÃ¶lden case, as one or two people may recall, and even though Poldi had spent her life trying to slough off her parents, her parental home and her claustrophobic suburban background like a cat shaking water off its fur, it has to be conceded that blood is thicker than water, Oberreiter blood included. Poldi was simply preprogrammed.
Maria accompanied her to the door. “Thanks again for the ice cream. If we hear anything from Valentino I'll call you at once.”
“Perhaps you'll pay me a visit sometime â then we could have a little chat. I'd like that.”
Maria shook her head and sighed again as only a mother can sigh who knows her child is beyond help.
“He used to work for Russo sometimes,” she whispered. “At the
, you know?”
Poldi remembered the lorryload of palm trees that had missed her by a whisker.
“You mean the big tree nursery beside the Provinciale?”
Maria nodded. “Yes, near Femminamorta.”
That triggered another vague memory. Diminutive and already half eroded by oblivion, it whirled around the convolutions of Poldi's brain and then, silent as a snowflake, drifted down to join her images of the last day Valentino was with her. Images of a nervous Valentino who was toting a half-full sack of cement up the stairs to the roof to patch a leak there. A somewhat dejected Valentino, she now recalled, who smoked too much, activated a brand-new mobile with a TIM card, and spoke of having to go somewhere that evening. Somewhere by the name of Femminamorta.
“Could you tell me where it is?”
Femminamorta wasn't easy to find, for it was neither a town nor a restaurant, so not signposted, but merely the unofficial name of an estate bordering the Provinciale and right next door to the Russo nursery. Since the lava stone wall beside the road obscured any view of the properties beyond it, and since there was no signpost and Poldi saw no one she could ask, she had to drive back and forth several times before she finally spotted the narrow entrance. From there an almost impassable farm track skirted the nursery's stone wall for several hundred yards. Beyond it sprinkler systems hummed and diggers roared as they transported mature palm trees to and fro.
Guided by Maria's description, Poldi sent the Alfa labouring over hundreds of potholes to an old archway wreathed in bougainvillea and flanked by two columns. Enthroned on one of them sat a sullen-looking lion guardant with a coat of arms featuring lilies in its paws. The lion on the other side was missing.
Beyond the archway lay a miniature paradise.
A somewhat dilapidated Sicilian country house from the eighteenth century, built of tuff and limewashed pink, almost entirely swathed in bougainvillea and jasmine and set in the midst of a subtropical garden thick with palm trees, oleander bushes, hibiscus, and avocado, apricot and lemon trees. And, not far away in the background, with its flanks outspread like the wings of a dark guardian angel: Etna.
Not a soul to be seen. All the shutters were closed, but one upstairs window beside a sun-bleached sundial was open.
Poldi parked the Alfa and made her presence known.
Louder, then. “
Fair enough, thought Poldi. She went for a brief stroll through the enchanted garden. The wind rustled softly in the palm trees, house and garden were bathed in scintillating sunlight. There was nothing else to be seen or heard, as if the place needed to be roused from its slumbers. By a laugh, perhaps, because Poldi had realized at once that this was a good place â that the ice here was thick enough.
Some washing was hanging up behind the house. Poldi was about to call again when she was attacked, out of the blue, by a very angry, very large gander. Hissing, with wings extended, it darted out from under the washing on the line and menaced Poldi, who, in default of a walking stick, held the bird at bay with a barrage of Bavarian invective.
“Piss off, you miserable creature. If you think I'm scared of your antics, think again. Get lost, or I'll turn your liver into foie gras.”
Hisses on the gander's part, curses from my aunt. Attack, retreat, more hissing, more cussing.
. Who's there?” a woman's voice called from overhead in French-accented Italian.
,” Poldi called back.
The gander instantly calmed down.
A slim young woman had appeared on the balcony. Palefaced, jeans, threadbare roll-neck sweater with the sleeves rolled up, sunglasses, her short, dark hair tousled as if she'd just got out of bed.
“Every chain-smoking French film director's dream,” Poldi told me later. “If you know what I mean. A total clichÃ© â the quintessence of a nervous, incredibly capricious, unbearably lonely, ultra-sexy, Sartre-reading Gallic beauty.”
“I get it,” I said. “She wouldn't suit me, you mean.”
“My, aren't you sensitive.”
“Did you really say â
“Yes, of course. I pegged the accent spontaneously. I didn't have to think twice.”
Ah, vous Ãªtes franÃ§aise?
” the girl called down delightedly.
“No,” Poldi called out in Italian, one eye on the now pacified gander. “But don't tell your macho goose.”
The girl laughed and came downstairs. The gander withdrew to its lookout post.
, he is intimidating, isn't he? I suspect he even charges the dogs protection money.” She spoke fluent Italian, but with a really strong French accent. Having eyed Poldi for a moment, she laughed again as if that brief inspection had proved thoroughly satisfactory, and extended her hand. “ValÃ©rie Raisi di Belfiore. Call me ValÃ©rie.”
“Isolde Oberreiter. Poldi for short.”
“What was that funny language you were speaking just now?”
“Ah, you're German.”
“It's a bit more complicated than that.”
“I'd never have known it from your Italian. But,
, I'm the last person to judge. I've lived here since I was twenty, but everyone keeps telling me, âDon't worry, signorina, another few months and your Italian will improve a lot.'” The girl laughed again â something she did almost as often as she said “
”. Impulsively, like an old friend, she took Poldi by the arm.
“But why are we standing around out here? Would you like a coffee? Then you can tell me what friendly tide has washed you up on these shores.”
ValÃ©rie led Poldi into the house, which was cool and shadowy and redolent of dust, books, mothballs and the luxuriant sprigs of jasmine she had distributed around the interior in numerous vases. Time seemed suddenly to slow as if compelled to find its way through scented oil. A dog barked somewhere, but that was all that could be heard of the outside world. The interior of the pink house, too, seemed timeless, abraded by the centuries but in almost pristine condition. The floor was tiled with pale terracotta and black basalt. Here and there, colourful mosaics glowed beneath the worn carpets. The ceilings displayed shimmering floral ornamentation, pallid nymphs and their attendant fauns cavorting through tropical scenery, peacocks fanning out their tails, cranes soaring over misty landscapes, and patches of mildew. Huge krakens, dolphins and glittering goatfish cruised a mythical ocean populated by water sprites and sirens, and a lustful Cyclops leered down at my speechless aunt from behind the slopes of Etna.
“Well, tickle my arse with a feather,” Poldi exclaimed in German. And, in Italian, “This house is sheer magic.”
Delightedly, ValÃ©rie laid the espresso jug aside and showed Poldi a guest room that had once been the family chapel. Although plaster was flaking off the vaulted ceiling, luminous frescoes depicting the Garden of Eden and the expulsion of Adam and Eve could still be seen between the mould patches.
“Last year I had a dowser to stay,” said ValÃ©rie. “A German who said he'd never detected such a charge of positive energy anywhere else.”
Hanging throughout the house were gloomy old portraits of the former residents of Femminamorta. Melancholy youths, old men with spiteful eyes, and powdered belles encased in corsets and silken gowns.
, my paternal ancestors, the Raisi di Belfiores,” ValÃ©rie explained. “Bourbons, cowards, whoremongers and visionaries, heroes and poets, saints and ghosts â they're all there. Until 1861, when Garibaldi dispossessed and shot a random sample of them.”
Poldi nodded. After all, she had seen
with Claudia Cardinale and Alain Delon some twenty times.
“Everything has to change so that everything can stay the same,” she said, quoting from the film.
For the surviving Belfiores, however, change had meant growing more impoverished from generation to generation and, to prevent their old house from succumbing to the forces of gravity, selling off land bit by bit and â
â taking up middle-class professions.
“I'll bet some of them still haunt this place,” Poldi said, contemplating the portrait of a particularly disconsolate-looking ancestor.
, and how.”
Since her GermanâBavarianâItalian visitor was so obviously taken with the house, ValÃ©rie showed Poldi the adjoining wine cellar, an airless vault containing a big wine press of age-old oak, various brick basins for the fermenting must, and some old wooden casks in which a grown man could have stood upright.
“This was where the dowser detected the focus of the positive energy.”
“It must be ages since any wine was made here, though.” Poldi indicated the dusty casks and the rubbish and mattresses piled up behind the press. “A sad waste of all that positive energy.”
Oui, mon Dieu
,” said ValÃ©rie. “Originally this was all a wine-growing area. The Raisi de Belfiores only lived in Femminamorta once a year at harvest time. At the end of the nineteenth century there was an earthquake that brought half the ceilings down. My great-great-grandfather promptly quit the house for fear it would collapse, and he never set foot in it again. Nobody did so for a century after that. Then, in the 1970s, my father inspected the place and found it was relatively intact. All the earthquake did was dislodge some plaster.”
“And the wine?”
ValÃ©rie shook her head. “After the
the Belfiores gradually sold everything off, just to avoid having to do any work.”
Poldi learnt that ValÃ©rie had inherited the little estate from her father, who had left her mother shortly after her birth.
“They loved and hated each other. That kind of incandescent passion will destroy any relationship.”
,” remarked Poldi, who knew a thing or two about such matters, thinking of my Uncle Peppe.