Acquedolci, Sicily

Il Signor Geraci’s Secret

The sun shone. It was warm, even for February, and after their Sunday morning stroll, the inhabitants of Acquedolci had retired indoors for lunch. Now all that stirred in the air outside was the smell of cooking; grilled fish, Sicilian sausages, peppers. Even the metalworker opposite had broken his exhaustive hours, closed his workshop and gone home to eat. For a short while, this brow-beaten Sicilian village would be spared the din of arc-welders, panel-beaters, mopeds. We too sat down to lunch, but the story of a murder on the one o’clock news distracted me from the spaghetti alla carbonara on my plate. I flicked up the volume on the remote control.

Nine hundred miles away in the scrawling Milanese hinterland, a body had been discovered at dawn, sprawled in the mud by his car, killed with a single pistol shot. The camera panned across a foreground of rubble and an empty horizon heavy with mist, to settle on a mint-white Opel Corsa. It zoomed in on a body, thankfully anonymous beneath a blue anorak, then highlighted the stain of blood dashed beneath the passenger door. The victim had been found with his trousers round his knees, his loins naked but for a condom. The wasteland, a voice told us, was the reputed playground of Nigerian prostitutes and their clients. “A thirty-five year old Sicilian brick-layer, surprised and robbed during the sexual act, then brutally murdered,” the report concluded, before the transmission skirted on to more mundane, less miserable affairs.

It was a humiliating way to die and its reportage on the national news a further indignity to the victim. I tried to dismiss the case from my mind and concentrate on spiralling the unwilling spaghetti onto my fork, but my wife continued to brood. Something was troubling her.

The next day she returned from school in a fluster, slumped down at the dining-room table and buried her head in her hands. White-faced, she told me how her fears had been confirmed the moment she walked into the classroom. The empty desk at the front had said everything. The murdered man was Carmelina’s father, Calogero.

I fell silent with despair.

Until the previous summer, on my daily jaunts to the post-office or newsagents I used to come across Calogero at the cross-roads, indolently leaning against the side of his rusting ape - one of those ubiquitous three-wheeler motorbikes conjured into a truck that have become the Italian peasant’s post-war donkey. It would be heaped with a few kilos of grapes, aubergines, tomatoes, courgettes, the odd lettuce or cucumber he’d gathered from roundabouts. The other fruit vendors in Acquedolci had to hawk their wares round the neighbourhoods rasping their thick dialect on home-made Tannoys strapped to their cabs, but Calogero just parked by the traffic lights and waited coolly, smoking his cheap tobacco and gazing dreamily out to the Aeolian islands beyond. What did he care? He wasn’t in a hurry to be going anywhere. What was the point?

It was the perfect exposition of what Italians call menefreghismo, or “couldn’t give a damn attitude”.

His nonchalance reminded me of the happy-go-lucky character in the Sicilian folk-tale, who, to spare himself even the labour of lifting food to his mouth, dines by lying on his back, open-mouthed, under a bountiful fig-tree.

Small and sanguine, Calogero was a risible man, with a tangle of hair escaping from beneath the bobble hat worn against the August heat and a debonair face that caught your gaze as you passed. “Sulu ottumila o kilo i caccioffuli…” he would croon and I often stopped. Who could resist the offer? “Sunnu troppu boni ‘sti caccioffuli…” he would grin at me, and heaping the artichokes into a plastic bag, he would sell me far more than I could eat in a month. His laceless brogues boasted blithe unconcern and his filthy jeans, unchanged from one week to the next, fell off his sheer behind like goods from the back of a Palermitano lorry. I would hand him a ten thousand lire note and inevitably he wouldn’t have any change. “Ti dugnu un kilu di ‘sti pummadoru…” and he would fill another plastic bag with tomatoes, which he scarcely bothered to weigh before he thrust them into my hand. Our salutations, as I headed for home, were heartfelt.

He and his family were near neighbours of ours. Their single-room dwelling, which they shared with Calogero’s horse, was little more than a hovel carved out beneath a derelict block of flats in a road sardonically named Via Vittime di Guerra; Victims of War Street. Even the vase of pink geraniums on the doorstep did little to tone down the grim facade. Now, its forlorn garage-door entrance advertises the family misfortune with a thin slip of paper pasted to its slats; lutto per mio marito - “mourning for my husband”. Mourning, in Sicily often lasts the remainder of a lifetime. Or until a greater misfortune eclipses it.

Calogero’s wife was Marta; a taut collection of nerves who I would often pass in the street. She was always in a rush and padded hysterically down the road, clinging nervously to the talisman of her Nokia mobile in the manner I imagine Sicilian women once clutched at rosaries, crucifixes. I never saw her dressed in anything other than the black tracksuit, which she wore lose like pyjamas, and a whirring pair of Nike trainers. She was short, waif-like, with the body of a teenager and a maelstrom of thick hennaed hair, but her face was mortal terror. Only in her early thirties, her magnesium intensity, crazy eyes and expression of utter torment spoiled what, in a different life, might have been a beautiful woman. Enervated by adversity, she was a crone at thirty. Their invalid daughter, Carmelina, was confined to a wheelchair. Now twelve, a quiescent girl with eyes like blackcurrants, she was a pupil in my wife’s class at the village middle-school. In Italy, children with handicaps enter mainstream education, but special provision is supposed to be made for them by the school. Two years ago, the school advertised for a full-time SEN teacher to follow Carmelina through her classes. No-one applied. Acquedolci, with more than its reasonable share of arc-welders and panel-beaters, was unable to rustle up a single candidate with the necessary willing.

For a while the cleaners would help out if Carmelina needed to go to the toilet, but eventually they became disaffected with the chore and touted their job description. Now the child can only pee on the floor to attract attention.

Then, last Autumn, Calogero’s ape disappeared from the streets of Acquedolci.

It was a bright October’s afternoon, a few weeks since I had last seen Calogero, and I was sitting in our landlord Giacomo’s kitchen. I asked him if he knew what had happened to the chirpy fruit vendor. Giacomo told me he had given up selling vegetables. The profit on a few kilos of grapes a day is hardly enough to pay the rent and feed a family of three plus a horse, and he must have realised it was no way forwards, he explained. “There’s hardly any point in working in this village. You earn nothing. Nobody has any money to pay you. Everything you do is a favour for someone. Until you ask a favour in return. And then they conveniently forget. You have to go away. Take a look at all the car number-plates here. MI - Milano, BS - Brescia, VA - Varese; all cities in the North of Italy. Icons of the men who have torn themselves away from their families to go and work away, for five, ten, fifteen years. And look what they buy: BMWs, Saabs, Mercedes.” Giacomo himself drives a twelve year old Fiat Panda.

His arguments were arresting. A youthful looking fifty year-old, Giacomo speaks phlegmatically, in a deliberate manner unusual for a Sicilian and though he only finished middle-school, he is motivated by a bright curiosity. He too went away to work when he was younger - to the Fiat factory in Dortmund - and for a while, on his return to Acquedolci, he ran a mechanics business in the village.

“But it was hardly worth it. By the time you’d paid your taxes, the protection money to the mafia, your accountant, you had nothing to show for it.” Then by further misfortune, his second daughter Teresa, like Carmelina, was born an invalid. She too is confined to a wheelchair, and Giacomo is the first to admit that her condition is worse than Carmelina’s. After a few more years waging the feckless struggle of earning a living, he gave up his job. Now, apart from some part-time bee-keeping in the summer months, he dedicates himself full-time to his daughter, making her furniture and games, inventing exercises, taking her to physiotherapy or haranguing the town hall with what they should be doing to make provision for such children at school. His only income is the rent from his two flats and from the odd jar of honey he sells to the local supermarket.

Beside us as we talk sits his daughter Teresa. She is conquering a shape-puzzle that Giacomo designed for her. It’s little more than a few pieces of plywood cut out with a jigsaw and coloured in by her elder sister, but Teresa is utterly absorbed.

Giacomo is discontented with the primary school’s provision for his daughter and he tirelessly campaigns for them to improve it. He pities Claogero’s plight, but he is critical of his apparent lack of willingness to help his daughter.

“After the middle-school failed to find a special educational needs teacher for Carmelina, I suggested to the headteacher that Marta be given the post. She, after all, knows her daughter’s needs and the salary would be a useful income for them. But Marta turned down the offer. Apparently, she’s busy in the mornings.”

You could tell from the way Giacomo intoned the last sentence, puckered his mouth as he spoke, that he didn’t believe it, that it was just an excuse. Already another story was emerging. Calogero meanwhile, had taken to drinking and this drove Marta mad. I too had noticed, whenever I passed her in the street, how her aquiline features had in the past weeks grown more haggard. And to escape his wife’s wrath, Calogero truanted from home and found inevitable refuge in the village bars. It was a precipitous cycle of decline. Then finally, in November, his brothers persuaded him to go and work on a building site in Milan.

When Calogero came back at Christmas, it seemed things were going well in the North. He had bought a car: a mint-white Opel Corsa. It was the proof that at last he was earning some money.

But Giacomo was not convinced. In January he was due to take his own daughter, Teresa, to a therapy centre in the middle of Sicily for three weeks. They had gone there the year before and in little over a month, Teresa had made remarkable progress. This time, he had suggested to Calogero and Marta, he take Carmelina too.

“But they didn’t agree. I can’t understand them. They don’t even have to lift a finger. I would have taken her in my car. But they still didn’t agree. They just won’t accept the responsibility. What can I do, short of kidnap the child?.”

Then, at the end of January Calogero returned to Milan and within two weeks he was dead. The article on the front page of the local paper was a forgiving one, it spoke of a family man, who phoned his wife without fail every evening, a man who was respected and loved in the village, but it spared no details about his ugly death. As if the horror of losing a husband were not enough, Marta had to bear the shame of her husband’s indiscreet whoring.

Three days later I watched the funeral cortege pass beneath my balcony. It was a large, ostentatious display of public grief, though at the last minute, the horse-drawn catafalque Marta had requested, had had to be substituted with a more conventional hearse. The line of cars edging towards the cemetery stretched to thirty, maybe forty vehicles. Children playing ball by the side of the road stopped to weep and I too couldn’t help shedding a tear for the unlucky fruit vendor who had made me laugh with his ribald humour. On an island so divided by self-interest, it seems mourning at least is a communal duty.

As the cortege nudged towards the cemetery, I pondered the lethal cocktail of Calogero’s folly and misfortune, knowing all too well that the Sicilians would only disagree with me. They would insist it was simply his Fate. Fate, say Sicilians, cannot be wrestled with. Its merciless claws are dug deep in the populace and beyond invocations to the Virgin, humanity is powerless to change it.

Except when the August sun scorches everything to dust, and the mountain springs finally choke dry, Sicily is as much a paradise as one could wish for. In a landscape studded by prickly pears and acres of citrus fruit, arched over by a firmament of intense cerulean, bounded by an endless horizon of sea, it seems hard to account for the poverty that still certainly exists here. One has to look to the island’s history for clues. Successive exploitation by the ruling Greeks, Romans, Normans, Aragonese, Arabs has hardened a populace into being understandably suspicious, fiercely protective of their small lot. Amongst such an environment, any attempts at initiative or self-advancement are viewed, at best with envy, at worst they are recriminated with violence.

Rosaria, an ex-colleague of my wife’s who also came from Messina, had been posted to Tortorici, a village in the Nebrodi mountains above Acquedolci. She was not a car-driver and the municipal buses adhered to a prohibitive timetable. She had a two year old daughter at home, and a husband whose job entailed frequent travel. Renting a flat in Tortorici was not an option she could seriously consider and she would have to suffer a punishing journey to work each morning. It was a story I had often heard before and one not unusual for teachers in Italy at the beginning of their careers. We too had been on the receiving end of this, when I was still working in Rome and my wife was posted back to Sicily.

Leaving her son with her mother in the morning, Rosaria travelled by train from Messina to Capo d’Orlando. From there she took a taxi - a distance of some thirty kilometres - up into the mountains. After forking out the money for the taxi each day I doubt she was left with much salary, but it was a sacrifice she was prepared to make. With luck, the following year she would be posted nearer to home.

“Then,” she explained to us, “in January another teacher from Messina was posted to Tortorici. He had a car and was driving to school every morning, so I suggested we travel together and share the cost of the petrol. It would be cheaper for both of us and I wouldn’t have to get up so early. But the taxi-drivers must have missed my custom. After only two days, we came out of school one lunchtime, and found his tyres slashed. All four of them.”

It didn’t take much guessing to know who had done it and Rosaria and her colleague knew the village code well enough to know it was only a warning. Next time they would find the car gone.

“So what could we do? Of course, no-one had seen anything!”

After that, Rosaria and her maths-teacher colleague were forced to go back to the time wasting exercise of getting up at five in the morning to catch the train from Messina. The taxi-drivers still got their money, and the teachers were forced into the hands of the ones who had wronged them.

The lesson was simple: too much initiative, in Sicily, just doesn’t pay. Initiative in Sicily is a slippery concept. It has to be exercised in the right direction, against or with the right people.

It was the day of the European elections. I had gone to the bar to buy some dolci for lunch. Sitting at one of the tables was Signor Geraci, a civil servant in the town hall who had once written me out a pass allowing me to use the municipal tennis court. We recognised each other and he wickedly asked if I’d found a partner yet, then delighted in telling me that mine was the only pass he’d issued that year. He was a torpid kind of man who now sat hunched over his cappuccino with the look of one in possession of a dastardly secret.

The talk in the bar that morning was humming with the excitement of the elections and I asked Geraci who he had voted for.

“For Benevento!” he told me proudly.

“And which party is he representing?” I asked.

Geraci didn’t know. He didn’t even care, it wasn’t important. All that mattered was that if Benevento got elected, Geraci had been promised a promotion. It was a feather tossed to the wind, the only chance this small-time bureaucrat might ever have of bettering his position in life. I paid for my dolci, wished Signore Geraci a buona domenica and stepped out into the blinding sunlight, shaking my head. It seemed typical of the way things get done here. But I had just glimpsed at Geraci’s secret: hard work, in Sicily, gets you nowhere. It only earns you disrespect.

As it happened, Benevento didn’t get elected and Signore Geraci is still an administrator. Evidently, he backed the wrong horse.

Alfio, however, must have voted elsewhere, since in recent months, his fortunes have turned remarkably. A squat, muscle-bound anvil of a man, Alfio had a small workshop selling car tyres and on the one occasion we talked, when I had needed a flat repaired, he told me about his one-time ambition of becoming a racing driver. He was a long-standing member of the Ferrari club in the village, he boasted. Now he had a job for life. He had landed a post as a cleaner in a school in Turin. He was the envy of the village.

I very much doubt that Alfio sees his job as a service to the Italian State or even to his compatriots. Sicilians have been exploited for so long that any collectivist ideals they may once have had, have long since vanished. Self-interest is more the order of the day and I suspect Alfio, is doubtless happy that he has at last put himself out of reach of the mafia who had their fists in his pocket for protection money.

He will do several years work in the North and when he has collected enough experience points he will apply to be posted back to Sicily. Eventually, he will work his way home, and, if all goes well, his last years will be spent in the school in Acquedolci. It is a system better than promotion:, the job description doesn’t change, there is no extra responsibility. One merely work one’s way home.

Like most other public appointments in Italy, entry to the job of bidello, or school cleaner, is through a concorso or public exam; the etiquette of which I was honoured enough to witness recently. I had been asked to invigilate an exam for entry onto a course in Special Educational Needs at an Institute in Messina. The course guaranteed a job at the end of it and was naturally therefore, over-subscribed. I recalled with irony the struggles of the middle-school in Acquedolci to recruit an SEN teacher.

There were nine places on the course. A thousand candidates had registered for the exam, by far the greater part of them middle-aged women who looked as if they were competing in a glamour contest. Had I been in the position, I would have turned away over half of them merely on appearance alone. Draconian, and dripping with jewellery, it was plain they had little public-spirited interest in helping handicapped children beyond what they could get in their pocket.

It took over an hour to shepherd them into respective classrooms and check their identity cards, enrolment papers, seating arrangement. Then a bell rang to give the signal for them to tear open the nesting envelopes carefully prepared against copying and to fill out the necessary personal information. Twenty minutes of silence passed before a second bell signalled the start of the exam.

Immediately, they all began talking. In disbelief, I wondered whether I ought to be banging on the desk, shouting Silenzio! Silenzio! and looked over to my fellow invigilator, a large matronly woman far more experienced under such conditions than myself, but she just shrugged her shoulders as if to say, “I haven’t seen anything.” And we let them get on with it.

After five minutes, there was an uproar when someone discovered two of the questions were the same. We called the Institute Director, a dapper man with an ebullient surfeit of manners, who patiently explained that though the questions were the same, the answers were different. Logically of course, he smiled. Then he wished them good luck and left.

The chit-chat resumed, and soon out came the copy-books, arrogantly placed on the desks in front of them. They were stuffed with photocopies of the previous year’s exam and I braced myself to look angry and disapproving while searching the matronly woman’s face for help. She was chatting away to one of the candidates at the back of the hall. I considered tearing up a few exam papers to make a show of enforcing discipline, but thought better of it. I began to tremble with nerves. What if the Director returned? What if I was held responsible for their copying? The matronly woman noticed me sweating and came over to speak to me. “Relax,” she told me. “Nobody cares. The results have already been decided and the nine successful candidates already know who they are. You’ll still get paid at the end of the day.”

I picked up a spare paper and skimmed over the exam questions. They were a hodge-podge of educational theory that even with my PGCE and years of teaching experience I was unable to answer. What were they designed to test? Certainly not the attributes of a good Special Needs teacher.

My eyes fell on an eighteen year old girl, over-earnest and over-timid maybe, but scribbling away furiously, as if her life depended on the result. I vainly hoped she might be one of the nine. At least she looked diligent, resourceful, as if she would invest a job with enthusiasm. But I knew my thoughts were mere fantasy.

At the end of the afternoon I collected my pay and went to get totally drunk. My illusions of Sicily had been shattered and I was a trembling wreck. The whole affair had been nothing but a fiasco, an appalling waste of public money; a perfect illustration of incompetence by people who were too lazy to care. A text-book exposition of menefreghismo.

Slumped over my beer several hours later, I could hear Calogero’s voice in my mind. “E che ti frega?!” And who gives a damn! Nobody else does. So what are you getting so worked up over? You can’t change it anyway. And you’ll only kill yourself worrying.

It’s probably true. Sicilians are all destined to outlive me. At least those who are not victims of their own folly. Or misfortune. Or Fate.

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