Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions (5 page)

BOOK: Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions
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“I hardly knew my father, but when I heard he was leaving me this place I thought it was time I got to know him. So I learnt Italian and moved here. But,
mon Dieu
, we were going to have some coffee.”

In the drawing room, some decrepit armchairs covered in faded upholstery were clustered around a coffee table piled high with a mixture of old tomes and tattered paperbacks. There were books everywhere: on the tables, in bookcases, in display cabinets and in the library, which, said Valérie, dated from the eighteenth century.

She produced some stale biscuits and an espresso so awful that Poldi marginally improved its taste with the contents of her hip flask. Valérie helped herself to five spoonfuls of sugar. Poldi was finding her more and more likeable.

Femminamorta, she learnt, was all that remained of the Raisi di Belfiores' once immense estate. In order to hang on to the house and keep the wolf from the door, Valérie rented the unused rooms to holidaymakers.

“Most of the surrounding land belongs to Russo.”

Poldi pricked up her ears. “Do you know him?”


Mon Dieu
, I certainly do. He's been trying for years to talk me into selling Femminamorta.”

“Is he married?”

“Divorced. He has a grown-up daughter who's about to get married.” Valérie laughed. “We have quite a stable relationship, actually, though lately he's taken to adopting drastic measures. Did you notice the lion guardant at the entrance?”

“Yes, but its twin is missing.”

“It certainly is. Russo denies it, but I know, of course, that he's behind its disappearance. An unmistakable warning that he's running out of patience.” Valérie sprang to her feet abruptly. “But what am I doing, chattering away like this? Would you like to see another room before you decide? You can stay as long as you want – we'll agree on the rent in due course.”

Poldi suddenly remembered the original reason for her presence and realized that it had been misunderstood. “I came looking for Valentino, actually. Valentino Candela – does the name mean anything to you?”

Valérie looked at Poldi for a moment as if she needed to adjust the focus of her gaze in order to see her visitor in a new light.

“Of course,” she said cautiously. “Valentino. A good-looking fellow. Works for Russo, but he sometimes helps me in the house and garden.”

“He's been missing for three days.”

Valérie looked dismayed. “
Mon Dieu
. Now you mention it, I haven't seen him for quite some time.”

“On Monday he told me he had something to do at Femminamorta that evening.”

Valérie thought for a moment, then firmly shook her head. “Not here he didn't, I'm absolutely positive.”

Poldi handed her the tessera she had pocketed at the Candelas'.

Valérie merely shrugged and handed it back. “Very pretty. But what's it got to do with Valentino?”

Poldi rolled the piece of mosaic around in her palm. “I don't know.” Then, enlivened by coffee, brandy and an abundance of positive energy, she had an idea. “But I'd like to ask Signor Russo, preferably without having to give him much prior notice.”

“I doubt if he'll see you.” Valérie suddenly smiled again. “But I can show you a short cut to his office building.”

The narrow path that ascended a gentle slope from Valérie's garden traversed a small almond orchard before skirting a football pitch and a vegetable garden. Poldi could already make out the chunky, sand-coloured administration block bearing Russo's logo. Beyond it were rows and rows of palm trees on parade and, further away still, Etna. The setting sun had already imparted a pink and violet tinge to the volcano's plume of smoke, but it was still hot. After the cool interior of Valérie's house, Poldi had broken out in a sweat again, and perspiration was daubing grey shadows on her white caftan. Never a great walker at the best of times, my aunt cursed the heat and the dust that was ruining her slip-ons and besmirching the caftan up to knee height. To crown everything, two dogs – two scruffy mongrels – came lolloping towards her barking furiously. My Auntie Poldi was fond of dogs, especially little mongrels with pug faces and loud voices, so she couldn't resist clapping her hands and calling out, “Wellwellwellwhat'sallthisthen?” Which, in mongrel speak, meant, “Yes, that's right, you're welcome to jump up and scrabble me with your dirty paws.” The two mutts, which needed no second bidding, left big, black smears of volcanic soil, humus and dust on her caftan. Then, before Poldi could curse, they scampered off in search of rats and more adventures.

Dusty, sweaty and grimy, Poldi was promptly intercepted in the lobby of Russo's palm-tree empire by two security guards in black tracksuit bottoms and sports shirts and ushered off the premises. “Very sorry, signora, but you need an appointment – no, nothing to be done without an appointment, Signor Russo's a very busy man – no, you
really
can't see him without an appointment, no, not even if you have come specially from Germany, send us an email or phone for an appointment with one of our garden consultants, they'll gladly call on you without obligation and give you an estimate, but you're also welcome to order online, have a nice evening, signora.”

“I did tell you,” Valérie sighed when Poldi returned, crestfallen, to Femminamorta.

The two mongrels, Oscar and Lady, were good-naturedly rollicking around her and biting each other's tails. Grumpy and thirsty, Poldi flopped down behind the wheel of her Alfa. She badly needed a beer to dispel the frustration and thirst that were warring within her.

Valérie came over to the driver's window. “Do you really think something has happened to Valentino?”

“I don't know,” Poldi grunted wearily. “I simply want to find him before it does, know what I mean?”

Valérie nodded. “But Russo employs more than a hundred people. Why should he know where one of his part-timers has got to?”

Poldi was feeling really thirsty now. She needed a beer. Or two. Or something stronger. Most of all, she wanted it quickly, but she gave Valérie's question some thought.

“Know what it's like when you wake up in the morning and something is troubling you? An almost imperceptible change in the temperature? The wind has veered, the light is different, something is creeping up on you, the ice beneath your feet is creaking softly. Perhaps you had a bad dream that was meant to warn you, but you can't remember it. There's nothing left but this sense of unease that pursues you all day long, whispering unintelligibly in your ear.”

Valérie stared at her.

“What I mean is, Valérie —”

The young woman made a dismissive gesture. “I think I get it. Would you care to accompany me to an informal little
serata
this evening, Poldi? The host is a cousin of my father's. He's a frightful bore, but his wife Carmela is a fantastic cook. She's recently been doing a show on Channel Five where she presents clever variations on traditional Sicilian dishes.”

“Isn't there some young man who would give his right arm for the chance to escort you?”

Valérie laughed. “Maybe I'd sooner go with a woman friend. Besides, Russo is also invited.”

Poldi beamed.

The
serata
proved to be rather less free and easy than expected because the host, Domenico Pastorella di Belfiore, known as Mimì, was a great admirer of the German poet Hölderlin.

3

                  
Tells of Poldi's introduction to Hölderlin, of some less impoverished descendants of the Sicilian Bourbons, and of what there was to eat. In a fit of melancholy, Poldi really lets fly. When she's sober again she makes an unpleasant discovery and dials the wrong number.

Shortly before nine, when Valérie collected Poldi from Torre to chauffeur her to Acireale, the French girl was wearing a strapless, figure-hugging black dress and sneakers. Poldi, freshly showered, titivated and discreetly scented, had opted for a flowing, very low-cut red silk fantasy adorned with gold dragons, invested with a tasteful exclamation mark by an enamel yin-and-yang pendant. Quite unnecessarily, it should be added, but having been a costume designer she ought to know.

“A woman's supreme rule for success in business,” she told me later, “is: when the chips are down, show plenty of cleavage.”

“Uh-huh,” I said, unconvinced.

“Uh-huh be buggered. I was a costume designer with Bavaria Films and I should know. Get this – you, with your ripped jeans and navy blue sports shirts:
Always overdress
, that's what matters in life. Get it?
Always overdress
– Karl Lagerfeld told me that. It's an old theatrical rule: moderation is a sign of weakness. Get that into your fat head.”

I think she only meant me well, even when she made me wear those Indian cravats that had belonged to my Uncle Peppe. Style-wise, though, I was on a different planet.

“You're always well dressed in a sports shirt,” I said defensively. “I'm quoting Dad.”

“Except, my boy, that your father had genuine style and personality.”

She really did mean me well.

Valérie drove her Fiat Panda like a Formula One Ferrari. She roared along the winding Provinciale, headlights blazing, sounding her horn before every bend and seeming to consider the use of brakes a symptom of nervous debility. My Auntie Poldi, no longer sober and rather hungry, clung to the grab handle and tried to breathe calmly.

“The Pastorella branch of the Belfiores is the only one that wasn't strapped for cash after 1861,” Valérie said blithely. “Uncle Mimì hasn't had to do a regular day's work in his life. He's been writing a book about Hölderlin for the past thirty years.”

“Good for him,” groaned Poldi.

Valérie described her uncle as a
leone di cancello
, or paper tiger. Poldi, rather preoccupied with trying not to faint, gathered only that Mimì's great-grandfather had managed to do some kind of deal with Garibaldi that stripped the Pastorellas of only half their assets – roughly the equivalent of half Bavaria and all its castles. Since then the Pastorella di Belfiores had survived by selling off the remains of their estates: a parcel of land here, a vineyard there, a country house here, a cottage there, a hectare here, a hectare there. There was enough to spare. By Valérie's reckoning, the sheer quantity of land and buildings would suffice for another generation. Then it would be
finita la commedia
, but since Mimì and Carmela were childless they had no need to concern themselves with questions like the finite nature of natural resources. Mimì much preferred to think of Hölderlin, or, better still, to pontificate about Hölderlin, preferably to unexpected German guests. However, Poldi didn't know that at this stage.

The drive ended in the centre of Acireale. Just behind the cathedral, plastered with advertising posters, was a high but unremarkable wall with a plain iron gate set in it. Paved with basalt cobblestones, the narrow one-way street was barely wide enough for a car and only dimly illuminated by isolated sodium lights – not a place Poldi would have associated with baroque splendour.

But Valérie rang the bell beside the iron gate, which automatically opened at once. Even Poldi caught her breath for a moment at the sight of what lay beyond it.

Immediately inside was a formal garden with neatly manicured hedges, flowerbeds and an illuminated fountain.

“Mimì claims that Goethe spent the night here on his tour of Italy and wrote a poem about it. Don't ask me which one – he's bound to tell you.”

An avenue of carefully espaliered orange trees lit by LED floodlights culminated in a U-shaped baroque country house which was also bathed in bluish radiance by ground-mounted floodlights. As if that were not enough, big torches were burning on either side of the entrance. Poldi was amazed at how secluded this mansion was. Unlike Femminamorta, however, it had about as much charm as the HiperSimply car park. She also doubted whether Goethe had really overnighted or written a poem there.

But Hölderlin, not Goethe, was the prevailing spirit in the Pastorella household, and Poldi encountered him as soon as she crossed the threshold. She glimpsed the shadowy form out of the corner of her eye as it almost soundlessly darted towards her out of the gloom.

My aunt was fond of dogs, as I have said.

With one exception: dogs with sharp muzzles, slit eyes and bat-like ears – long-legged, glossy black packets of muscle. Poldi considered them the embodiment of malignity.

The Dobermann suddenly materialized in front of her. An adult male with enormous balls, it came up almost to her chest. Its growl was so spine-chilling that Poldi's scream died in her throat and all that emerged was a strangled squeak. She stood rooted to the spot.

So did Valérie, but she recovered herself in an instant. “Shush, you brute,” she cried. “Shush, 'Ölderlin. Piss off.”

The Dobermann had no intention of doing so. On the contrary, it bared still more of its immaculate teeth and tensed its muscles in readiness to spring at their throats. Poldi felt sure her time had come, and for one brief moment she found that prospect a lousy idea.

“But you don't mind dying of cirrhosis of the liver, eh?” I blurted out later, when she was telling me the whole story.

“Now you're talking like Teresa. You don't know the meaning of genuine despair.”

“Carry on, I'm listening.”

“No, you aren't, you keep on interrupting me. You were like that as a boy. Know what your father said to me once? It was lucky you didn't speak better Italian, or you'd talk us into the ground.”

“So why are we sitting here, then?”

“Because hope is the last thing to die,” said my aunt.

Which brought us back to the subject of death, hope and Hölderlin.

“Hölderlin. Sit.”

Salvation appeared in the shape of a white-haired gentleman with slender hands, dainty gestures and a mellifluous voice.

Hölderlin responded to his command as if Jupiter himself had spoken. He throttled back his growls from volume ten to three, lowered his bat-like ears and meekly sat down on his huge balls.

“Beg your pardon, my dears,” the master of the house said softly, fondling the Dobermann's head. “Hölderlin is in his
Sturm und Drang
mode, but he's really such a sensitive soul.”

Mimì kissed Valérie lightly on both cheeks before turning his full attention to Poldi. Or rather, to her cleavage.

“You must be Donna Isolde,” he said in German, and kissed her hand. “Delighted to make your acquaintance.”

“Poldi. Plain Poldi,” replied my aunt, who was gradually recovering her habitual composure.

“But how mundane that sounds for such a…” Mimì gulped, “… for a beauty such as yourself, signora. Where have you sprung from?”

“Torre Archirafi. Via Munich.”

“Ah. Munich isn't far from Hölderlin's Tübingen, is it?”

“Just around the corner, so to speak.”

Mimì beamed at Poldi and offered her his arm. “Are you fond of Hölderlin?”

Poldi squinted at the Dobermann, which was just trotting off with a blasé air. “Well, we've had a rather difficult relationship up to now.”

“Trust me, Donna Isolde, I shall open your eyes to a new cosmos.”

Without paying any more attention to Valérie, Mimì led my Auntie Poldi into the house and introduced her to his wife. Carmela looked a good thirty years younger than him, but Poldi wasn't entirely sure because she'd obviously had a few things tweaked. Her retroussé nose, slightly bee-stung lips and host of dimples didn't really go with her otherwise classically Greek physiognomy. Her nails were perfectly manicured, her figure was eloquent of great self-discipline, and she spread her fingers every time she gestured, activating a whole orchestra of bangles, chains and earrings. Poldi's idea of a hands-on cook had been rather different.

What a day it had been, she thought. Relieved to catch sight of a young Moroccan in red livery padding around with a trayful of colourful
aperitivi
as if duty-bound to protect them, she made a beeline for him. Having sunk two in quick succession, Poldi took a third to be on the safe side and then felt sufficiently refreshed and fortified to cope with the rest of the evening.

Enchanted by his unexpected German guest with the spectacular bosom, Mimì led her around, patted her hand, squinted down her décolleté and introduced her in a whisper to the dozen-odd guests who had already assembled in the drawing room. Bent-backed old gentlemen in grey suits and tiny, elegantly dressed ladies, most of whom were the wrong side of eighty. The sight of them reminded Poldi irresistibly of dried figs and candied fruit. However, the main focus of her attention was the man facing her, who never took his eyes off Valérie.

My aunt had pictured Italo Russo quite differently – more like the typical, greasy Mafioso familiar from movies and TV, with a pot belly, pencil moustache and oily hair, wearing shirtsleeves and braces. Uncle Martino had told her that slovenly dress was part of the typical Mafia look, and that the bosses of Cosa Nostra made a point of neglecting their outward appearance in the extreme, but I think that's just a post-war myth.

Poldi was, in fact, confronted by a tanned, good-looking man wearing jeans and an orange sports shirt. He was in his mid-fifties, with no tummy to speak of, but was shaven-headed and endowed with a pair of pale, darting, lizard-like eyes that missed nothing and radiated serene self-confidence. It was as if Russo owned the house and everything in it – or would very soon do so. Despite herself, Poldi couldn't help picturing him in police uniform. The other guests and Mimì treated Russo with the utmost respect, but one of them overdid it. A man in his mid-forties, he bore a closer resemblance to Poldi's Mafioso stereotype: swarthy, ill-shaven, thickset, collar sprinkled with scurf. He munched grissini and nuts the whole time, picked his teeth with his thumbnail, and followed Russo around like a dog.

“Who's that greasy character?” Poldi asked Valérie in a whisper.

“Corrado Patanè, a building contractor from Riposto.”

“Why's he fawning over Russo like that?”

Valérie shrugged. “Probably hoping for a contract if Russo expands his empire further. Smarmy but harmless.”

Instinct told Poldi otherwise, but she pushed between the two men and shook Russo by the hand. “Well, what a coincidence, the two of us meeting here. I needn't have gone to the trouble of getting myself so rudely ejected by your gorillas this afternoon when I asked to see you.”

Russo grasped her hand and looked her keenly in the eye. “I'm sorry if you had any unpleasantness, but we maintain strict security measures.”

“In case someone runs off with a palm tree?”

He smiled. “What did you wish to speak to me about?”

“I simply want to know where Valentino is. Valentino Candela, who works for you.”

“Ah yes, you're the German signora Valentino sometimes goes shopping for, aren't you? Delighted to meet you in person. Valentino is a great admirer of yours.”

“Oh, did he tell you that? Then you surely must know where he is.”

Russo remained calm. If he was nervous, he didn't betray it by so much as the bat of an eyelash.

“I'm afraid I'll have to disappoint you there, signora. Valentino hasn't turned up for work for the last three days. My foreman called his parents, and they had no idea of his whereabouts either. But
bene
, if he doesn't want to work, nobody's forcing him.”

“You sound a little piqued.”

Russo smiled again. “Valentino is a boy with a lot of potential. A shame he isn't a bit more reliable.”

That appeared to conclude the conversation as far as he was concerned, because he turned back to Patanè, who was standing beside Poldi and eyeing her nervously.

“Perhaps you know the whereabouts of Femminamorta's missing lion?” Poldi persisted, but Russo seemed equally unperturbed by this question. He merely turned to Valérie with a look of surprise.


Is
one missing, signorina? That's most regrettable.”

And that was the end of that, because Carmela clapped her hands and said, “Dinner is served.”

Instantly, like stampeding cattle, the guests trooped into the dining room. Mimì seized Poldi's hand and gallantly steered her to the head of the table. “Sit beside me, Donna Isolde. I must tell you all about my Hölderlin biography.”

Poldi saw Patanè practically barge an elderly lady aside in order to sit next to Russo. She would have liked to continue questioning the latter, but she had no chance to do so for the next two hours, which were devoted to food. The menu:

                    
Risotto ai fiori d'arancio

                    
Timballo di pasta ripieno di ragù

                    
Frittata di mascolini

                    
Caponata

                    
Sorbetto di olio d'oliva

                    
Involtini di pesce spada

                    
Sarde a beccafico su finocchio selvatico

BOOK: Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions
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