short stories in instalments

occasional short stories posted in two or three parts, from the imaginary coastal town of Alba in Central Italy

written by

Tamsin Hickson who lives not far from the imaginary town of Alba.

Vincis Grasse 2

tortelliniI scheduled our first date for Ferragosto, the fifteenth of August, when Romina’s three boys were going to spend Italy’s favourite national holiday with their father. From June through to the end of July I made a large dish of vincis grasse each week. I drew up charts which I used to record the details of each batch, trying different proportions of vegetables and meat, changing the timing of each stages.  My freezer was almost completely full of foil covered dishes by the time I’d perfected the dish.

I put the penultimate sauce on to simmer for the required five hours when I left for work at seven thirty in the morning on the twenty eighth of July, the day I’d chosen to issue my invitation for Ferragosto.  At eleven I went through to Admin and found myself pushing through a knot of women to get to Romina and Giovanna’s desk. 

“He’s got her pregnant,” said Romina, pushing her hair back from her forehead with the back of her hand, fanning herself with a drivers licence, “They’ve set the date for Ferragosto. Of course he wants the boys there, and he’s even invited me.”

“What, another shotgun wedding?” Giovanna’s profile reminded me of a question mark, with her bony concave chest and her chin tipped forwards. “Will you go?” 

Romina nodded vigorously, her hair, curlier than ever in the humidity, springing around her face. I clutched my pile of papers against my chest and wondered at the man’s lack of originality and forward planning. He was undoubtedly someone who never checked his brakes.  

I ate a lot of vincus grasse that long hot summer. The Motorizzazione closed for the month of  August and I took to walking around the town walls around midnight every evening to work of my rich suppers. I often met up with other members of the 70 Club and heard more about their ambitions to known as the wildest in town. They were way behind the 48 Club, who, despite their decline in numbers due to natural wastage, were banned from every local restaurant whenever there was an eight in the year. People like celebrating decades in our town and tight trousers or not I had to take Romina.

Back at work in September I consulted my late mother’s well thumbed collection of recipes and listened carefully to Giovanna and Romina’s discussions and after due consideration I scheduled Christmas Day. The boys were going to their father and his new wife for the day and Romina had announced her intention of doing nothing at all.

The traditional dish for Christmas Day in Le Marche is tortellini, little parcels of pasta wrapped around meat filling, cooked in broth.  I’d watched my mother making pasta but I had never tried it myself, but I was sure that Romina would know that a man who makes pasta is a man you can rely on. It took a lot of work, and a lot of odd pasta ended up in my freezer before I got the recipe right. I planned to use my mother’s recipe for broth, using one of my uncle’s Christmas capons, boiled for five hours with a stick of celery, a carrot, and an onion with just five cloves stuck into it, seasoned with salt. I’d decided to invite Romina on the seventh of December and on the day itself, after studying the new regulations requiring all articulated lorries to have five mirrors, I went through to Admin where the radiators were struggling to bring the large space up to a reasonable temperature..

“Bleeding, you say? With just three months to go before the baby’s due?” asked Giovanna, wrapping her scarf so tightly around her neck that she began to look like a giraffe.

“Nothing too serious, they tell me,” said Romina, shivering slightly in a tight bright red jersey that enhanced her curves. “But she has to stay in hospital until New Year so the boys will be home with me after all.”

 I alternated tortelloni with vincus grasse throughout the festive season, catching up on old films and reruns of Italian comedies.

“The guys suggested I ask you for tips,” said Marco, on the phone on New Year’s Day, “a bachelor like you must know all the fun places.”

His sniggering pushed me back to studying the calendar and my mother’s recipes. I had bought new trousers one size up and a new chest freezer so I wanted to avoid pasta. I chose Easter, with our traditional dish of lamb and potatoes, which I cooked every weekend from Christmas until mid March. By the time my lamb was coming out of the oven with a herby crust of rosemary and garlic crust, the meat inside tender and pink, it was time to invite Romina.  

Easter was just one week away when I gathered together the courage to invite Romina. I spent the morning with the technicians discussing the details of the five mirror regulation. No matter how carefully the mirrors are placed unexpected hazards can appear as if from nowhere, with no advance warning.  

At eleven fifteen I was watching Romina’s slim fingers flying over the computer keyboard, going over my opening line in my head while I waited for Giovanna to be distracted by a phone call or some timely irate member of the public.

“Paolo, you’ve put on weight,” said Romina, looking up at me. I held my breath to decease my silhouette.

“Do you eat a lot of fast food, Paolo?” Giovanna asked, taking her glasses off to study me, “Why don’t you learn to cook?”

One of the flashier driving instructors wearing a suit that looked as if it had been ripped apart and then sewn back together again tapped on the glass of the cubicle.

“Romina, meet you at the cinema at eight?”

Giovanna and I studied his absurdly shiny hair and the way his sunglasses teetered in his eyebrows but when I turned back to Romina she was studying her computer screen, a tiny smile tugging the corners of her mouth. 

Vincis Grasse 1

vegstall

In Le Marche we believe that our local dish, Vincis Grasse, represents the very best of Italian cooking. Tourists to our corner of Central Italy frequently mistake it for lasagna, but there is little comparison. The full flavour of the sauce is the result of hours of slow simmering, combining four types of meat, vegetables simmered in our finest olive oil and a splash of local wine, seasoned with a delicate balance of herbs and spices. The distinctive texture, the meat sauce layered between wafer thin slices of fresh pasta and rich bechamel, makes the dish good enough to win a woman.

Which is why, after I put down the phone after a conversation with Marco in June 2009, I decided to test different recipes in search of the best vincis grasse ever tasted.

“Paolo old friend, put the fifteenth of September, 2010, into your diary. That’s the day chosen for the 70 Club’s big fortieth birthday party. You could bring a woman,” he said, and I could picture his sardonic smile, “or follow tradition, and come on your own.”

“Put me down for two,” I said firmly.  I’d loved Romina for five and a half years and I had sixteen months to make her mine.

Romina joined the administration office at the Motorizzazione, the Road Traffic Office, six years ago. Some people might think her nose too big or her hair too curly, but I can find no flaws in her. I love watching her laugh while she works, and if the hectic hubbub of Italian bureaucracy at its most intense drowns the lilt of her voice I’m content to gaze at her, studying the way that she sweeps her hair behind her ears, tucking it back only for it to spring out again seconds later.

Once the decision was made I drew up a schedule. It was my organisational capabilities that led to my promotion to Chief Engineer of the Motorizzazione testing department (Lorries) four years ago. Lorries of all shapes and sizes form a queue of giants outside my office every morning, turning the air blue with their impatient puffs of exhaust by eight o’clock when I emerge with the order of the day. Drivers desperate to get back on the road try to jump the queue but I always follow the schedule. Of course, I know that women are more complicated than lorries, which is why I turned to vincus grasse.

I was confident that my groundwork had been thorough. At eleven every morning I take my paperwork through to Admin and while Romina and her skinny friend Giovanna enter the test results into their computers we chat. Giovanna and I have followed every detail of Romina’s divorce, we’ve worried about her oldest son’s love life, wondered why the middle son won’t come off his computer and puzzled over the youngest’s refusal to cut his hair.  We knew what her ex-husband liked to eat for lunch and we both saw the warning signs before Romina did, listening to her stories of him bolting down his food every lunchtime, and rushing off to play cards at the bar.

Roadkill 2

The next day Luca realised that he was looking for someone who was confident that their presence early in the mornings would not be noticed. This mean finding someone who was frequently working from early in the morning, someone driving on roads where animals were regularly killed by cars late at night. He began to work up a sweat just thinking about who wanted to harm Veronica, aided by the recent retirement from active duty of the office fan. He went through to the Tenente to hoping that she would let him go off to carry out further investigations at the scene of the crime.

“Go on,” she flapped a hand at him, barely glancing up from her pile of paperwork, “Off you go, I don’t need you.”

Luca drove alone Lungomare, past crowds of happy holidaymakers to the country road that led to Vernoica’s veterinary surgery. He was thinking of the way she bit her bottom lip when a Forestale grey jeep barrelled out of her driveway, narrowly avoiding his car.

Breathing faster, he parked the carabinieri blue and white car and went to the door. The surgery was on the ground floor of an unpretentious small square modern house. He rang the bell, picturing his parent’s fifth floor apartment off the Campo San Marguerita, with its pointed gothic windows and high ceilings. The door swung open and Veronica stood there, more feminine than he remembered, pushing a strand of blonde hair behind her ear.

“Goodness, officer, come on in. Do you have news for me, already?”

The waiting room was completely pink, including the ceiling. Peering past her he could see that the surgery was pink too.

“My favourite colour,” she followed his gaze, “but it came out a bit pinker than I thought it would. Still, it’s cheerful.” Her smile seemed a little forced, as she went to the neon pink coffee machine in the corner.

“Can I offer you a coffee, officer?” Luca thanked her and watched as she filled the coffee filter, put two small cups under the nozzles, and pressed a button. After a few seconds Luca went over and plugged the machine into the power point.

“Oh, thanks,” she stared up at him,  “Giorgio, my ex, is always saying I need looking after.”

Luca remembered Giorgio, the thick set man who had collected her from the caserma. He swallowed his coffee in one mouthful, hoping his expression would be taken as a reaction to the bitter drink.

“I passed a Forestale car coming out of your drive.” The Forestale officers, patrolling the Forest reserves on the coast, would have ample opportunity to find animals recently killed in the early mornings.

“That was Giorgio,” said Veronica, “he has been very supportive throughout all of this.”

A ring at the door announced Veronica’s first patient. Luca passed a wheezy bulldog in the waiting room, promising to be back when her visiting hours finished. He went straight to the Forestale station, where he asked to see Officer Giorgio Contigiani. The thickset man came through, running his hand down his face as though rearranging his expression. The result was anything but welcoming, his attitude indicating clearly that any idea of a sense of brotherhood of two of the forces of law and order was entirely lost on Officer Contigiani.

“Yes?” he said aggressively.

“I believe Dottor Veronica Deluca was once your fiancee?”

“Yes. And there is still an understanding between us. What of it?”

Luca lent on the counter and watched as Giorgio folded his arms, his feet hip width apart.

“Have you been carrying dead animals in the back of your jeep?”

The man’s head jerked up and his eyebrows pulled together in a frown.

“Are you implying anything?” he asked.

“Your jeep has been seen outside Dottor Deluca’s surgery early in the morning, on several occasions,”said Luca. Impressed by his ability to lie he carried on, “Several witnesses will attest to this, but I am hoping we need not take things that far. I think you know what you need to do? A charge of stalking would have severe repercussions on your career…” he waited, as Giorgio shifted his weight from one foot to the other, “but as long as you stay away from Dottor Deluca we will leave the matter as it is, for the time being.”

Luca didn’t tell Veronica every detail of his conversation with Giorgio, just enough to make her appreciate the need of someone reliable to take care of her. And for once in his life Luca found himself in the right place, at the right time, in a situation that he had little imagined could take place within his working day.

Roadkill

Being in Alba made Lieutenante Luca Venanzoni feel homesick. At least that was his diagnosis of the odd aching sensation that struck him somewhere in the middle of his chest at odd moments, usually triggered by the smell of the Adriatic, a feeling that he was sure would only be cured by smelling the more complex smells of the air in his hometown. It seemed absurd to be suffering homesickness seven years after leaving home and he was certainly not going to mention it to his mother, who would use it as a major weapon in her constant campaign to him to ask for a posting back in Venice.

He longed to be busy but his boss, Tenente Tasso, greeted him with vaguely puzzled air every morning when he reported for duty at eight, as though like him she was unclear as to what he should do all day. Most days she sent him off to find things to do elsewhere in the caserma, which was why it was he who took Veronica the vet’s statement.

He was sorting out a computer problem for the duty sergeant when she came in and his first thought on seeing her was “Ma would like her.” His mother preferred sturdy girls who obviously liked eating to the slender type, whom she claimed were too neurotic to learn to cook properly. The girl, dressed casually in jeans and a white t-shirt, was just the right height too, her blonde head coming up to his shoulder. She turned and looked at him and he felt his cheeks heat up.

“I’ve come to make a report,” she paused, catching her upper lip between her teeth,  “I don’t want to waste your time but I thought I should.”

He closed the computer and ushered her into one of the interview rooms, taking down her name as she sat opposite him.

“Perhaps I’m being silly, but my boyfriend, well, that is, ex-boyfriend, I think,” she stopped, biting her lip again. There was a slight gap between her two front teeth and Luca noticed how full her lips were before tearing his eyes away and writing her name at the top of his pad.

“Is your ex giving you problems?” Luca sat straighter in his chair.

“Goodness, no, the problem is dead animals. I’m a vet, you see…”

“I suppose you must lose some animals, with operations and so forth,” Luca hazarded,  but she shook her head and laced her fingers together on the table. She had practical hands, with short nails and no jewellery.

“No, not patients. Not animals that I know. Dead animals. Outside my flat.” Luca wrote “dead animals” on his pad and waited.

“It started about four months ago. Giampiero, that’s my ex, nearly stepped on a dead animal coming out of the front door. It had obviously been run over, and I thought someone put it there to see if I could save it but it was dead when we saw it. Giampiero was very upset. But then a month later it happened again. And that one wasn’t in such  a mess as the first one so I could tell it had died instantly. Then two weeks later there was another one. This time Giampiero suggested that he sleep at home, and one thing led to another. Well,” she shrugged and looked away, “perhaps its for the best.”

Luca nodded in agreement. What sort of man would leave a girl with lips like hers just because of a few dead animals on the doorstep?

“Giampiero never liked thinking about my job, he couldn’t even cope with the smell of the disinfectant. He works in the comune, he likes things to be clean, sterile.” She shrugged and Luca watched as she quickly ran her forefinger under both eyes.

“So these animals,” he said gently, steering her away from thoughts of Giampiero, “how have they died?”

“Run over,” she said succintly. “All of them. And there have been six so far.”

“Why didn’t you come in before?”

She shrugged. “It seemed silly. I couldn’t think what was going on, but it is beginning to upset me now.”

There was a knock on the door.

“Entra” called Luca and the duty sergeant put his head around the door.

“There’s a man here, for the Signorina.”

“Oh, that’ll be Giorgio. I won’t waste anymore of your time, officer,” she said, getting up. They shook hands and Luca noticed how firm her small hand felt in his. He followed her to the door where a thickset man of about her age was waiting for her. It was disappointingly clear that he wasn’t the only man to find her attractive. He watched them walking out to the carpark before filing his report. Half an hour later he took it up to the Tenente with the post.

“Odd,” she said, reading it through, “it’s quiet today, why don’t you make some enquiries. I’d have a look at who has access to dead animals.”

“You mean who would find them?”

“Exactly. I sometimes see dead cats on the road in the mornings. Dogs get run over too, maybe the owner of an animal who died under her care is taking revenge on her.”

It was a few hours before Veronica returned his call.

“Could any of the animals have been cats or dogs that were your patients?” he asked, noticing that despite her businesslike tone she had a warm voice.

“Sorry, I should have explained. They were all wild animals. Two badgers, two foxes, a porcupine and a hare.”

“Do you think an owner of one your patients, of an animal who had died…” Luca’s voice trailed off, not wanting to finish the sentence but her voice was brisk and practical.

“Obviously some animals die on the operating table, but I’ve not had any unexpected losses this year. You mean is someone taking revenge on me?”

Luca looked down at the map of Alba where he had found her address. Her home was near the centre so the animals wouldn’t have died anywhere nearby. It was at least fifteen minutes by car from her house to the forest near the road on the way to Urbino. Someone was scraping animals off the road and putting them outside her door. He felt a pang of fear for her.

“Can you go through your records, and double check?”

She agreed but after the conversation ended Luca sat for a moment staring at his phone. Her casual tone made it clear that she had no idea that she could be in danger. He was going to have to find the perpetrator, without delay.

Harvesting olives 3 Andrea (the demise of the television)

An hour later a somewhat windswept Andrea went into the tiny antique shop in the main Piazza, next to the pharmacy. As Tenente she had to get used to being driven everywhere by Lieutenante Luca Venanzoni, which meant learning to accept his combative relationship towards their car as well as all traffic sharing the road with them.

Luca followed her into the shop and a ball of fur with a surprisingly deep bark waddled towards them, followed by a man fighting off middle age with unconvincing dark blonde hair and an overtight shirt.

“Hush, Valentina. Ciao, Captain.”

“Tenente Tasso,” Andrea held out her hand, introducing herself. Pietro’s nephew seemed unmoved by the news of his uncle’s death until he saw Andrea looking at an old fashioned treadle sewing machine.

“That machine was my mother’s. Now that Zio Pietro has gone that is all I have to remind me of her.” He took a pale pink silk handkerchief out of his pocket and dabbed the corner of his eyes. “There’s his old television next to it. Wonderful old model, historical really. He said the sound didn’t work, but actually he wouldn’t admit that he was going deaf. Down! Valentina!” he scooped up the angry ball apologetically, “She’s  suffering a phantom pregnancy, and the hormone drugs make her rather excitable. I blame the chemicals in the air around us, making our environment dangerous. Why even poor Zio suffered. He developed an allergy to olives last harvest and he came up in terrible hives if he didn’t wear gloves.”

Andrea rang Giuseppe as the car was being flung around the sharp curves on the road from Urbino to Alba.

“Now that you’ve informed the nephew, can I sign off the body?” Giuseppe was even more abrupt with Andrea on the phone than he was in person. “Tenente,” he added, as an afterthought.

“Was Pietro wearing gloves?” Andrea asked, bracing herself against her door as the car teetered on a hairpin bend.

“What?!” Andrea could hear him tapping his fingers on his desk, “No.”

“Did you find any gloves near his body?”

“None. Why do you ask?”

Andrea ignored his impatience. “I gather from his nephew he was going deaf. Do we know anything about his neighbour?”

“Stefano? He’s the silent sort. Apparently he had hearing problems too.”

“What sort of problems?”

“I don’t know. Does it really matter? Pietro Deluca fell out of his tree, at least one old person goes that way every autumn.”

Andrea lent forwards and asked Luca to stop outside the hardware store on the outskirts of Alba.

The long wooden counter was piled high in equipment for the olive harvest, including several brochures on different mechnical harvesting systems.

“Can I help you, Officers?” The young man behind the counter was clearly disconcerted to have two carabinieri officers in his shop.

“I am investigating the death of Pietro Deluca.” The young man tilted his head with an appropriately sad expression as Andrea carried on, “I believe he’d booked an electric harvester this year?”

“That’s right,” he said, pulling a notebook out of a drawer and opening it, “he’d booked the mechanical harvester for the 4th December, three weeks from now.”

Andrea sat in the car thinking as Luca turned the engine on.

“What was he doing up the tree?” she asked, not expecting an answer.

“Perhaps he was checking the condition of his olives?” said Luca.

“There was no need to climb a ladder for that,” said Andrea, remembering the crime scene photographs, with the olive net and plastic combs. The sky was still light but it would be dark in a few hours time. “Drive me to his house,” she said.

On the way she rang the force doctor.

“Cause of death was a head wound,” the doctor said slowly, “I assumed that he was struck by a branch as he fell, but it could have been anything. The shape of the sound indicates something like a pole, possibly the handle of a shovel?”

“What about his general state of health?” Andrea asked.

“Apart from his deafness, he was in excellent condition.”

Luca had reached the lane down to the two isolated houses and she saw a thin plume of smoke winding into the sky above Stefano’s house.

“Giuseppe Rossi tells me that his neighbour Stefano had hearing problems too. Could you tell me anything about that?”

“I’ve been treating him for super sensitive hearing for the last year. All sound has become painful for him. He’s on painkillers, sleeping pills, but the prognosis isn’t good.”

Andrea thanked the doctor as Luca parked in front of Pietro’s house. They got out of the car and Andrea ran over to the wall between the two properties. She looked over and saw Stefano standing with his back to them. He lifted the shovel he was holding high above his head and brought it down with blow so loud the sound shattered the air. The television screen splintered beneath the force of the blow, its innards melting and shriveling in the flames

Harvesting olives 2 Otto (according to the aunts)

Otto preferred the lunch shift to breakfast. Opening at five, even in the summer when the early sunrise over the Adriatic could be spectacular, gave him a jarred feeling which could take all morning to lift. He preferred to get up slowly, arriving at Il Faro after the worst rush of the morning.  Relieved of the necessity of coping with his customers search for the perfect brioche, of balancing the complaints from one that the milk in his cappuccino was too hot whilst another stood over him asking for it to be tepid, he was able to prepare lunch in peace. This morning he had come in late from the market and was thus better prepared to cope with his sister-in-law Giovanna’s aunts settling into their favourite table.

The oldest, Zia Ornella, her hair a determined black at eighty two, waved him over with an imperious gesture.

“What is the special today? And where is Andrea? Surely she usually comes here for lunch?” she asked. Giovanna, and most of her family, firmly believed that Ornella was psychic. Otto wasn’t sure which was worse, the idea that she had noticed his habit of constantly checking the door for Andrea or the possibility that she really could read his mind. “She must be investigating Pietro’s death. What is she in the caserma? Maresciallo?”

“Today, ladies, we have risotto al mare,” said Otto but they were not to be distracted.

“Tenente,” said the second aunt, appropriately named Seconda. Her hair was a dark chestnut, but like her older sister she too had it styled into a bouffant bubble over her wrinkled face, “I suppose she must like being in charge of them all, but I’m not at all sure that uniform suits her. Don’t you think the stripe down the trouser leg makes her look even longer and thinner? That silly man, Pietro, wasting everyone’s time. We all know he didn’t tie his ladder to the tree.”

“I have some good Metauro,” said Otto, “it goes well with the risotto.”

“Who designed it? Was it Armani?” asked Ornella, then without waiting for an answer she carried on, “I thought he was moving over to those long handled olive harvesting tools. No need for a ladder with those.”

“Ferragamo, I think,” said Rosa, the youngest and also the only one with white hair, “sad though, old Pietro dying when he was so happy, with that new television.”

“Three risotto, then, and a bottle of Metauro.” They waved Otto away.

The door of Il Faro swung open and Paolo’s long frame came rushing through. He bent over the bar to regain his breath as Otto opened the aunts’ wine.

“Ba,” he said between pants, “there’s been a death.”

“That’s old news,” said Otto, getting down the glasses, “I need you to take this tray over to the aunts, so get your apron on.”

His son swung him a resentful look as he stashed his heavy rucksack under the counter. Otto didn’t share his ex-wife’s certainty that a year in Alba would do their seventeen year old good. Parenthood up close seemed hard work, and although Paolo helped in the restaurant at lunchtime it was the real parenting tasks, things like explaining why having the words of his favourite song tattooed down his forearm was not a good idea, that made him wonder whether Pina’s new job in Rome had really been a bolt out of the blue.

“Has Andrea,” Otto watched the deep red of Paolo’s flush rise up his cheeks, “that is, the Tenente, come in yet?” Paolo looked around eagerly, his face falling when Otto shook his head. In all the years since his divorce, with Paolo living in Ancona with Pina, he could have had a relationship with Andrea. But no, life had made him wait until now, timing things perfectly so that Paolo, enslaved by Andrea, could dog their every move. Otto left Paolo swishing a cloth over the bar and when he came back, with a bowl of steaming risotto for the aunts, Andrea had arrived. She stood upright against the counter as Paolo lent across it towards her, unaware of his father’s approach.

“Ciao, Andrea,” Otto said casually, “a glass of wine?”

“No, I’m not staying,” she said as Paolo turned to glare at his father. She put her hand through her short blonde hair, ruffling it up. Their eyes met for a moment then she looked away. He thought the skin under eyes looked a very faint violet. She was obviously overworking. “I can’t track down Pietro’s nephew, and I thought someone at Il Faro would know where he works?”

“The aunts will know,” Otto said, and led the way to their table, Paolo on their heels.

“Yes, of course we know Pietro’s nephew. And he won’t be harvesting those olives, not even with the tool thingy. You are going to eat some lunch, aren’t you?” Rosa was looking Andrea up and down with a frown, “you know that uniform might look a lot better if you took that red stripe off the trousers…”

“Pietro’s nephew’s shop is in Urbino,” said Ornella, frowning at her sister, “Andrea has work to do, Rosa, not everyone can sit around gossiping all day. Anyway,” she turned back to Andrea with a smile, “we were just telling Otto what a shame that Pietro had so little time to enjoy that big new television of his. His nephew sells antiques, bits and pieces. The sort of thing we’ve been throwing away for years. Didn’t he take it over from Peppe’s granddaughter?” There was a flurry of disagreement from her sisters and Otto, Andrea and Paolo stood and waited while they batted around different ideas on the shop’s previous ownership.

“Do you know the street address?” Andrea asked. Paolo whipped his pencil out of his pocket and scrawled it in big letters on his order pad, interrupting the aunts’ bird like chirpings as they listed turnings and intersections all the way from Alba to Urbino.

“She’s got GPS,” said Paolo, beaming with pride. Otto thought it would seem churlish to point out that surely all carabinieri cars would have satellite navigation as standard issue. All three aunts stopped talking and looked up at him, their confusion having reached new depths.

Harvesting Olives 1 Giuseppe

Che cazzo vuoi?” Giuseppe swore into the phone.

Scusa, am I waking you up, Tenente?” asked the young duty officer in a low voice throbbing with excitement.

“Not waking me, you’ve already woken me up.  It’s…” Giuseppe squinted over the sleeping form of his wife Giuseppina to see the clock on her side of the bed, but it was impossible without his glasses, “very early. Wait, hold on.” He struggled off the bed, feeling for his slippers on the floor, and then tiptoed to the door.  On the way he tutted disapprovingly at the naked balding man with a large belly and short legs frowning back at him in the mirror.  He inched sideways through the bedroom door and closed it behind him. Giuseppina and their son Claudio had redone the apartment in the spring, replacing all the doors with silly little double doors.  They liked to keep one shut, forcing him to pull his stomach in and slide slowly sideways through each opening.

“What is it?” he said, not even bothering to look at the copy of the incomprehensible twenty four hour clock from the Duomo in Florence hanging on the kitchen wall.  The electronic display on the microwave told him that it was nearly seven.

“Maresciallo, Rosalba the postina, rang from Pietro Deluca’s house, out on the road to Urbino.”

“And?” Things were slow in Alba, but surely not so slow that a phone call from the post lady could generate excitement.

“He’s dead. Pietro, that is. Under his tree.”

“Harvesting olives?”

“Si. His ladder fell. So will you go, Maresciallo? Should I call the Tenente?”

“No, no, don’t call her. But call the duty doctor, tell him to meet me there. And tell Rosalba I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”

Giuseppina kept his uniforms in the cupboard opposite the bathroom, having pointed out several times that they were too big and military looking for the bedroom, a remark which left him wondering whether she was only referring to his uniforms.  He pulled on the grey trousers with their distinctive red stripe, slapped a fresh nicotine plaster onto his upper arm then did up his shirt and shrugged into his jacket, his sense of self slowly improving with each item.  He closed the front door softly behind him and breathed deeply.  The clocks had only gone back a week ago so the mornings were unexpectedly light but an autumnal mist gave the road of modern condominiums an air of mystery. The glowing sign of the supermarket clicked on as Giuseppe started his car, the IPER glowing bright green.

The best part of Giuseppe’s day was his morning drive to work at caserma, weaving around the city walls of Alba heading towards the sea and the beachfront where he had grown up, leaving behind the stark modern suburb so beloved by Giuseppina where he still felt ill at ease. This morning he drove in the opposite direction, following the city wall to the west gate and turning inland. It was already seven thirty and Tenente Tasso would be arriving in the caserma. At the thought of his superior officer he sat a little straighter in his car seat and then put on his seat belt. With any luck he could sign off the body and have the case closed before she interfered. The traffic ahead moved fowards and he cut through the roundabout, turning left and driving inland towards the hills.

Piero’s smallholding was in a valley down a long white road five minutes out of Alba, off the road to Urbino. Giuseppe drove slowly down the steep gravel road towards the grey plastered house, just metres away from its identical neighbour. A small white car with “Italian Post” painted across the door was parked in front of the door. A dusty cat curled up on the bonnet opened one eye to study him as a small woman came bustling around the side of the house.

“Giuseppe, oh, Maresciallo,” said Rosalba, her bright red hair brushing against his nose as she nearly kissed him,  “you got here quickly. Stefano must be out.” She pointed to the house next door, where a coffee pot on the kitchen table was clearly visible through the front window.

“It’s market day today,” said Giuseppe, “I expect he goes early. So Pietro is around in the olive grove?”

Rosalba led the way around the house and down through the olive trees.

“I had a letter that he had to sign for, and I thought I would try around here. Of course, I knew he was dead as soon as I saw him.”

Long low slanting beams of early November sunshine lit up the body, stretched out next to the base of the tree, parallel with his old wooden ladder. A bright pink blanket had been pulled over him. Giuseppe’s desire for a cigarette was becoming overwhelming.

“I didn’t like to cover his face, although I know they do, on the television.” Rosalba fussed over the edge of the blanket. “He made the best mistra in Montalto.” She looked up, “Come on, even you drank it,  Giuseppe.”

A bright orange nylon olive net lay in a heap under the tree, next to an olive crate and a traditional plastic harvesting comb. A loud crunching on the gravel announced the arrival of the carabinieri doctor. He came around the corner moments later, pushing reflective sunglasses up into his shiny thick hair and checked Rosalba for signs of shock, holding her hand longer than seemed necessary, before kneeling down to inspect the body.

Giuseppe took photographs of the body, the ladder, the combs and the tree while the doctor gently turned the body and studied the back of his head. He stood up, wincing as he did so.

“Too much jogging,” he rubbed his knee, “anyway, I reckon it happened some time yesterday afternoon. He didn’t tie his ladder to the tree and it slipped. He must have hit this branch as he fell” he indicated a branch just one metre above the ground, “There’s a large contusion on the back of his head.”

“My father-in-law broke his pelvis falling just the same way. If only Pietro had tied his ladder to the tree,” said Rosalba, “I wonder how his nephew will take it?”

They had been joined by the hushed presence of Montalto’s funeral director, wearing his work expression.

“Maresciallo, can I prepare him?” he asked. Giuseppe and the doctor helped him manouevre the body onto his stretcher.

“I’m surprised he was harvesting so early,” she said, “Most of these old contadini wait till the last minute, to get the most out of their trees.”

“The flavour is better when you harvest early,” said the funeral director.

“I wonder what will happen to the harvest this year?” asked the doctor, as they navigated the stretcher into the undertaker’s van, “His nephew isn’t exactly the farming type.”

“How has Stefano taken it?” asked the funeral director, closing the van door and looking over at the neighbouring house. “It’s been just the two of them down in this valley for the last forty years.”

“He’s out at the market,” said Giuseppe, “unless he just hasn’t heard us.” He took out his pack of cigarettes and offered one to the doctor.

“Pietro was going deaf, not Stefano,” the doctor said, shaking his head disapprovingly at Giuseppe’s cigarettes,  “I’ve been treating Stefano for super sensitive hearing for the last year.”

Giuseppe could finally light up as the funeral van and the doctor’s immaculately clean car pulled out of the driveway, followed by Rosalba in her little white car. After his much needed cigarette he went inside, but it didn’t take him long to inspect the house. The spartan tidiness and lack of any modern gadgetry made it clear that Pietro had lived alone for decades. Three long salamis hung from a beam out of the way of rats and cats, and several large bottles of illegal home brewed mistra stood under the window, alongside a neat stack of freshly cut firewood. The fireplace had been swept out and laid for a fire that would never be lit. Pietro’s bedroom had a monastic quality, his bedspread pulled tight across the bed, the bedside table empty except for a half filled glass of water with a thin film of dust.