Ric can hear two men arguing. One of the men begins to scream and plead, “No, per favore, no, Ci–.” followed by a muffled choking and the scuffling of feet. And then, silence: both profound and chilling, and pressed beneath the enormous weight of the fog.
Arriving on the unspoiled island of Lipari, off the coast of Sicily, Ric Ross carries with him a letter of introduction to Valeria Vaccariello, an aging star of Italian cinema who lives alone in the La Casa dei Sconosciuti, the House of Strangers; a woman known locally as La Strega – the witch.
Ric is also befriended by Il Velaccino – the sailmaker, who seems to know everyone and everything that goes on in the island. But when a politician is shot dead, Ric’s search for his family’s history soon grows into a quest to prove his innocence.
Told through the eyes of a young man who comes to Lipari in search of his forebears, Ontreto is the standalone follow-up to Peter Crawley’s first novel, Mazzeri.
Published by Matador May 2015
ISBN 9781784622213 (pb)
ISBN 9781784629298 (eBook)
Tonio scrambles up the steep, narrow path, the earth crumbling beneath his hands as he reaches out to grab hold of anything that will stop him from slipping. To Tonio, it seems as though the world is hurrying only to go nowhere.
He mutters constantly, urging himself to greater effort and at the same time scolding himself for making so much noise: there is a checkpoint manned by the Carabinieri on the road not a stone’s throw below him and the last thing he needs is to stumble across some dark-skinned oaf from Perugia taking a piss in the scrub.
They are lazy good-for-nothings, the Carabinieri; thugs and bullies recruited from the dregs of mainland barrels; men who would sell their own mother for a weekend with a whore in Naples. “I bet your sons wear Balillas and sing the Giovinezza –” he whispers of the black shirts the school children are ordered to wear and the Fascist hymn they are forced to sing “– and your daughters the white shirts of the Piccole. I bet they do.” But, at least their low scruples mean he can bribe them; that is perhaps the only good thing about the filthy bastards. A couple of salpa or a handful of seppia can buy one much valuable information.
Although it is nearly midnight, the full moon and the stars light the winding path up over the saddle that connects the twin peaks of Monte Rosa to the island.
“One day,” Tonio murmurs, “they will dig a tunnel to connect the two bays and when they do I will not have to climb this ridiculous slope every time I need to get into town.” But then it dawns on him that even if there was a tunnel, he would still be scrambling up the dusty path, as the Carabinieri would be too suspicious of him skulking about at such a late hour.
But the conversation between the two policemen he has just overheard in the café in Canneto has chilled him to the bone, and if he does not make it over to Capistello in time, there will be three less deportees for the islanders to feed.
There is no breeze and Tonio pauses to breathe in the sweet fragrance of honeysuckle and rock carnation. He knows he shouldn’t talk to himself so much, but the sound of his own voice heartens him. And creeping about in the scrub at night is strictly for fools; he knows that too. He is as likely to be shot out of boredom as he is for breaching the curfew.
He slips and reaches out to the branch of a carrub tree, but grasps instead that the thick fleshy leaf of an agave and as his hand slips down the spiny edge he cuts his palm: “Merda!”
If the long, hot day grading pumice in the warehouse up at Porticello didn’t tire him enough, hurrying to find Vincenzo to repeat the conversation he’d overheard did. And when he finally found him and related the conversation, Vincenzo told him he would have to go at once to the house at San Giuseppe as fast as he could to warn the others, and San Giuseppe is beyond the main part of the town – and the town lies on the other side of the citadel. Even if it was daylight and he could run by the most direct route, it would take him over an hour. But in the dark, and trying to avoid the patrols, he knows it will take him twice that long. He can’t risk going by the road. He’ll have to scuttle round the back of the Timpone Croci, steal through the small lanes at Diana and pick his way through the little alleyways that lead round the back of the town through to San Nicola. He shakes his head, knowing it is asking too much not to get stopped at least once.
Tonio scolds himself for his grumbling; the full moon makes him easier to spot, but the pitch black shadows make it easier for him to hide. That is how it is; some bad, some not so bad.
He picks his way between the headstones and mausoleums in the cemetery, pausing occasionally to apologise for his haste: Grazia, his sister-in-law, a victim of starvation, or so Innocenzio the communista maintained: Gaetano, his cousin, drowned by the police spies: and Peppino, who Tonio wasn’t certain actually was a distant relation, poisoned by the authorities for taking part in the riot. Ah, that Innocenzio! But, Tonio knows Grazia was consumed by her tumour and that Gaetano fell overboard in a storm – it was the fate of fishermen, was it not – and Peppino? Well, he’d mistakenly drunk from a bottle of detergent thinking it was Malvasia: there was nothing sinister about that; that misfortune happened because Peppino drank anything and everything, and his habit was always going to be his undoing. But, Innocenzio liked to blame everything on the Duce, including his facial warts and his terrible breath. After all, he was a disciple of Bongiorno, the hard-line communista: too hard-line for some, eh?
“Oh, why did I not go with my brother to that place he called Argentina? I bet the people don’t have bad breath there.”
As he leaves the back of the cemetery he glances over at the forbidding mass of the Castello. The fortified gate beneath the Greek Tower is well-lit and he can see quite clearly the Carabinieri beneath it. And he knows the other entrance at the bottom of the broad steps of the Via del Concordato down on the Garibaldi will be watched too. Until a few years before the Carabinieri would have been guarding common criminals, the curse of the island. But the people, Tonio amongst them, rebelled and stormed their own citadel, and so the authorities replaced the thieves and murderers with political deportees – with gentlemen. So while Tonio, his sisters and cousins worked in the pumice quarries, their mother and aunts did their level best to relieve the former members of the Italian Parliament, men like Volpi from Rome, Beltrimini of Como and Rabezzana of Turin, of as much of their living allowance as they could. With over five hundred of them billeted in basements and hovels in and around the town, they are the reason Tonio cannot take the quickest and most direct route through the warren of narrow vicos that make up the città bassa below the Castello.
So, something over half an hour later the moon watches Tonio slip past San Nicola. He is surprised by a patrol near the church of Santa Anna and has to wait for a few minutes in the doorway of Bartolo the cobbler.
“I must be making too much noise,” Tonio whispers, as the old man unlatches the door and ushers him inside.
“If you are going to play spies, Tonio, you really should wash first. They won’t need to see you coming; they’ll smell you.”
They stand and chew the fat for a minute or so, but old Bartolo knows better than to ask Tonio what he is doing out at this late hour: questions only demand answers, and some answers are best not heard.
“And please, stop scratching; they’ll hear you before they smell you. Next time you come to visit, stop by San Calogero and take a bath; your lice are a greater threat to your wellbeing than the Carabinieri. Go on, get out, they have gone now.”
Tonio takes the lane out to Capparo at the southern tip of the island and scurries off towards the sea just before the land rises up to the small settlement of Capistello.
The house at Punta San Giuseppe is difficult to approach: there is only one route in and the narrow lane zigzags down the steep hill side, running out at the small house that sits up on the blunt promontory above the sea.
Vincenzo has told him that a motor launch will come in to the Punta at midnight and that the three deportees will be waiting in the water, perching on Homer’s coffin; a rock that sits just below the surface fifty metres from shore. It is the similar escape route taken by Nitti, Lussu and Roselli the year before – except that they met at a house on the Maddalena and were collected from the point near Portinente. What Vincenzo has also told him is that these other, new men are clearly betrayed, that the Fascist authorities will now be lying in wait for them and that he, Tonio, must warn them. But what Vincenzo has singularly failed to tell Tonio is just how he is supposed to warn them. Is he supposed to swim out to the coffin and casually tap one of them on the shoulder and say: ‘If you please, gentlemen, we are very sorry to have to tell you that we have a traitor amongst us. Perhaps it would be better for you to postpone your departure?’
He knows only one of the three men trying to escape: Farinelli.
It is known that Farinelli is brave, an Arditi from the Great War, and that he started out as a supporter of Annunzio. But, like so many others, when he learned how the poet’s words were nothing but empty promises, he followed Matteoti into the opposition Reformist Party. Then the bastards assassinated Matteoti and Farinelli was deported, first to Lampedusa and then to Lipari.
“That is how it is if you want to be political; that is why I have no interest in such a ridiculous matters”, he mutters. But, Tonio also knows that Farinelli and Vincenzo’s daughter are close. He has seen them out together at passeggiata. And that is why it is only natural that Vincenzo should take such an interest in the man’s welfare: “that is not political, is it?”
The sea is but a short walk away now and the moon shines so bright it might as well be the sun. Tonio shudders to think how anyone is supposed to hide themselves in such a light. And, as he shudders, he makes out the heads of the three men bobbing just above the water out about where Homer’s coffin would be. They are waiting patiently like buoys waiting for a boat, which, he supposes, is exactly what they are doing.
Tonio creeps down between the small holly oaks and cistus. He is afraid. He hates the silence; it has never been a friend to him. Even at this late hour he would expect to hear a fishing boat setting out for the night or the odd herring gull shrieking from the cliffs beyond the point. But there is nothing, only silence; not even the glow of a lamp from within the little house.
He works his way as quickly and quietly as he can down to the water’s edge. It is not easy; in places the scrub gives way to bare rock and the slope drops away sheer into the water.
Tonio loses his footing and slips, stumbles and falls down the last of the slope and pitches headlong a couple of metres down into the black water.
He lands with a loud splash, which knocks the wind out of him. But the water is, if nothing else, cool and refreshing on his skin. “Bah, Vincenzo,” he splutters, “at least there is some pleasure.”
There is little point in his trying to keep his presence quiet any longer. “Signori?” he calls, cupping his hand to his mouth and not really understanding why; in all probability they would have heard his grand entrance over in the Marina Corta. “Signori? È necessario ritornare.”
But as he calls, Tonio becomes aware of the noise of a boat engine some way off shore. It is a growling noise, both guttural and nasal, like the noise of the generator at the quarry, only more urgent.
Tonio begins to swim in the direction of the men; his stroke is raw and uncultured, but it carries him swiftly through the water. “Signori?” he calls again.
The sound of the motor grows louder and echoes around the gullies and the ravines of the hill behind him. He is worried that the boat will run him down if it doesn’t slow up soon. It is somewhere close; he is sure of it, but he cannot see it. He stops and treads water for a moment hoping to catch a glimpse of the boat as it approaches. He can see the heads of the men not fifty metres away: “Signori, gentili!” he calls once more.
He can just make out the white shimmering bow-wave of the boat carving through the night towards him; it is a beautiful sight, bright and shiny, like the silver paint on the statue of St Bartholomeo up in the cathedral. The boat is low and long. It slows and halts, the motor dies and a torch is played over the heads of the men. There is much excited talking.
Then all that is dark is light and all that is silence is noise. And where there were three men waiting for a single boat, there is now a great commotion and more boats than Tonio has ever seen; more boats than even at the September festival.
The long motor launch lies not thirty metres before him. Hunched figures lean over the rail, reaching down to haul the men from their precarious perch in the sea, and Tonio can see this quite clearly because all are bathed in the white light of a thousand candles.
A rifle is fired, then a machine gun and then more guns. The water around the launch boils and jumps, like when fishermen herd tuna towards a net. The figures fall back, some into the boat, others into the water.
A man screams and waves his hands in the manner of a Sicilian puppet.
One man stands still and raises his arms in surrender, pleading. But, the water continues to boil and the bullets continue to strike. And the man lurches and crumples and falls headfirst into the sea.
One of those in the water attempts to climb into the boat, exposing his broad back to the searchlight. It spots black in several places and the man slumps back down, one of his arms slipping so slowly, ever so slowly, from the rail as if in one final, desperate plea for help.
And the side of the motor launch is exploding into tiny fragments and splinters, and someone is shouting and suddenly there is no more shooting because there is no longer anybody left to shoot at. And there is silence once again; a silence interrupted only by a weak, pleading, moaning, like that of a man badly beaten; like that of a man who knows he is about to close his eyes for the last time.
Tonio has heard this moan before. It is the same moan his father gave out as he fell through the floor of the drying house at Porticello and broke his back across the wheel of the cart below. Even Innocenzio had not been able to blame that terrible misfortune on the authorities.
There is little else to be done. The carnage Tonio has witnessed will live in his memory; that is, if he is to live long enough to possess one. He is too late; all his efforts have been in vain. He slips slowly beneath the water, turns himself round and strikes out for the shore, careful not to break the surface with his strokes.
“Oh Vincenzo,” he mutters, when he reaches the shore, “If you have killed me, there will be trouble.”