Thursday, 28 February 2013

The 39th Step, And The End Of My Challenge Year

So that’s it. My Beethoven piano sonata was the 39th Step. And just in time, as I turn 40 next Wednesday. There's just the little matter of a special birthday lunch remaining before I tick off the last of my 40 challenges. It's all arranged for the Saturday after my birthday - we just have to hope that the little lady doesn't start vomiting 20 minutes before we are due to leave.

Over the past year I have:

..completed an introductory British Sign Language course, translated a chapter of Die Vipern Von Montesecco from German into English, played a Beethoven piano sonata, learned about the history of chocolate and sweet manufacturing in York, written Charlotte a short story, solved a medium level Sudoku puzzle, learned to count to 100 and three swear words in Welsh, read Hard Times by Charles Dickens, drunk cocktails in a party dress and heels, drunk German beer in Leeds, eaten lobster for the first time, eaten something different coloured for breakfast every day for a week, grown broad beans, cucumbers and tomatoes, had an Italian cookery lesson, burnt raspberry jam, made and iced Charlotte a birthday cake, baked over 40 loaves of bread, organised for a new window to be fitted in our attic, built a table and two chairs for Charlotte all by myself which are still standing nearly a year later, learned how to knit and make stained glass, sacked my hairdresser, snogged Dave on the back row of the cinema, volunteered at a couple of NCT nearly new sales, been to the Olympics and my first international football match, bathed in a Lakeland tarn, swum over 40 lengths of a swimming pool, done pilates every day for a month, stood in mist on the summit of Snowdon, seen the Queen drive past in a car, met an Olympic torch bearer, been to Clifford’s Tower, been on the Settle-Carlisle Railway, spent a week on Jersey, been to Clapham in North Yorkshire and Clapham in South London, been to my former home towns of Bishop’s Stortford and Crouch End, taken Charlotte to The Deep no less than three times, and made a Christmas box for a needy child.

I did not get to meet Noel Edmonds. 

Oh, and I wrote a blog about the whole thing. Which I have absolutely loved doing. And don’t really want to have to stop. Thank you to all those who have taken the time to read it. I wasn’t really expecting anyone to be interested so I was surprised to see how many of you were. There was a definite trend towards people reading posts which involved me doing something ridiculous – dressing up, having bad hair, wearing a swimming costume. But the entry that has been read the most times (nearly 200 hits) was the one about chocolate, so I suspect that one is being picked up by a few tourists on Google. Which is quite exciting really. Either that, or I owe a lot of people KitKats. Anyway, I hope that you have learned a little bit more about me by reading the blog. And I hope that everyone who set me a challenge found it completed.

Without wishing to turn this into some sort of Oscar-acceptance speech slush, I must also say a big thank you to my lovely husband for all his support during the challenges, for driving me across the country on my mad-cap missions without a word of complaint, and particularly in the latter months, for taking Charlotte away from me for a few hours here and there so that I could write and learn as required. Dave is turning 40 in December, and while he won’t be doing 40 challenges himself, he does hope to run 40K spread over four 10K races, for which he is now in training. 

But at least three friends that I know of have taken up the challenge mantle in a similar form. Nice to know that I have inspired some of you and that the idea lives on. (I in turn was inspired by a friend so can’t take any credit for the challenge idea anyway.) One friend is doing 13 challenges for 2013, one is doing 40 challenges for the year after her 40th birthday, and one is going to take a decade over it and do 40 challenges in her 40s. I wish you all the best of luck! It’s all about what’s comfortable and manageable for you in your current circumstances  – challenges in this sense are all about new experiences, having fun and – if you are a mother – perhaps attempting to reclaim a bit of your own identity and a little time to yourself. Though of course if your children participate in your challenges and enjoy them, then they are all the more rewarding.

What did I learn about myself while doing these challenges? Primarily that I have a small child (not that I was unaware of this previously), and my life is never going to be my own again. Without Charlotte, I could have swept through the challenges I set myself in no time – and would have therefore been able to have been far more ambitious. But it doesn’t matter – I’ve so enjoyed the sense of accomplishment that completing each task has given me. It’s an important lesson in overcoming perfectionism – you can get a far greater sense of achievement over the tiniest of things than all the big things put together.

And I’ve learned that I need some sort of structure in order to be able to pursure sports or hobbies – like a set goal, or the knowledge that people are watching and waiting to read about it. Whenever I have been at work, I’ve craved free time to do arts and crafts, to write, to get fit. Yet when I do actually have a moment, I haven’t taken up these things as readily as I should have. It’s certainly a lesson for future retirement (should any of us be able to take it) – activities do need to be mapped out and formalised, otherwise days can slip by in apathy. But at the moment, my priority is always going to be sleep if I get a second to myself.

I also realised that I am also not very good at doing things for charity. I prefer paid employment to voluntary work, it seems. But as an update to my “do something for charity” challenge, I believe making the Christmas box for a needy child fitted that bill nicely. I have also been volunteering as the local representative for the NCT coffee group in our area for the past few months. Not that pro-actively, it must be said, but volunteering nonetheless.

It certainly struck me how much my mind went back to my school days while writing about these challenges. Is that in fact where I left my true self behind, or is it just because that was really the last time when the world was my oyster and could do anything I wanted, even though it definitely didn’t feel like that at the time? I certainly wouldn’t want to go back to being the person I was then, totally lacking in self-confidence and in a horrible transatlantic relationship. Though I was someone who still had a touch of creative flair, had foreign languages at the height of their powers and was still competent at playing the piano. I just didn’t believe it at the time.

Am I any nearer to knowing what I want from life? Yes and no. To be physically stronger, to make time for that hobby, to go back to work, to translate. To not hang out at toddler groups and manage tantrums over sharing every day of the week. But what the challenges have done is shown me that despite all the limitations of motherhood I can still do all sorts of things when I set my mind to them, and that lurking within me are all sorts of abilities that I thought I might have lost. But it must be said that no matter how hard I have found the past two years, Charlotte will always be my greatest achievement.

This year has been a fantastic journey for me. But looking back further, a lot can happen in ten years. On my 30th birthday, my mother paid for me to spend a day at the Sanctuary day spa in Covent Garden. The following day I went out with her and my godmother for lunch (also in Covent Garden) to a smart French brasserie, then Mum came back with me to my rented one-bedroom flat in Earlsfield to help me set up a party I was having for my friends, a party which involved juicing piles of fruit and making cocktails. That weekend, I headed off with my boyfriend Dave for a luxury weekend break at the Hotel du Vin in Winchester. I was working full-time as a translation project manager for the European Captioning Institute in Fitzrovia. Dave had moved into the flat just three months prior, having got a new job as a political assistant for Surrey County Council. Which was just as well as paying rent for a one-bedroom flat (the first time I had been able to live by myself) was killing me financially, even though I was getting mates’ rates as the flat belonged to a friend. That year Dave and I got engaged, Dave proposing beside the harbour in Stockholm as the sun set into a very late-night dusk, with dozens of hot-air balloons flying overhead. Then Dave got another new job as a cabinet officer for Barnet Borough Council (which is in itself a sign of the times – local government vacancies were in abundance). His new job and increased salary meant we could afford to buy our first home together, our one-bedroom flat in Crouch End. Once we moved into the flat, I quit my stressful job a few weeks later and went freelance. Briefly, everything seemed to be working out perfectly (I wasn’t facing eviction, was happy at work, happy in love), but it was a short-lived happiness as the following summer, Mum was diagnosed with cancer three weeks before our Lake District wedding, and died six months later. My godmother, also present at that 30th birthday lunch, now has Parkinson’s to battle with.

So a lot of cruel things can happen in ten years, but a lot of good things can too. In the past decade I have seen so many amazing sights – the Pyramids, Petra, Pinot Noir growing on a New Zealand vine, the Pedrera in Barcelona, the peaks of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. And those are just the ones beginning with P. Though none of them can even come close to the moment when we met Charlotte for the first time. All of these things mean that I have never doubted that this is a beautiful world, even at the hardest of times. I hope that this belief will remain as steadfast over the next ten years.

Who knows what they will bring? I take nothing for granted, and will endeavour to take the rough with the smooth, the good with the bad. And I will continue to set myself challenges along the way. Because this has been just great.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Challenge Number Four - Perfect A Beethoven Piano Sonata

My brother set me this challenge. And being a professional musician, he knew how hard I would find it, since the majority of Beethoven piano sonatas contain at least one movement which is virtually unplayable. He also knew just how rusty my piano playing was.

I started to play the piano when I was seven years old. My grandmother on my mother’s side played well and one weekend when we were staying at her house in Roundhay, she gave me a lesson, teaching me to read music and learn the notes of the scale in a surprisingly short space of time. Brains must be geared up to learning symbol systems (letters, numbers etc) quickly and easily at that age.

Thereafter I convinced my parents to let me have piano lessons. In typical fashion, they located the cheapest teacher in town and they also found out that a friend was selling an old workhorse of a piano third-hand, which they duly bought. To be fair, my parents’ financial situation was fairly dire at the time - this was during the height of the recession of the early 80s, with interest rates at 15%. My mother was at home full-time with me and my brother and not earning any money, and my father had been told to relocate from Harlow to Wakefield or face redundancy. In fact that’s probably why we were up at my grandmother’s house in Leeds in the first place - we must have been house-hunting. So it was possibly not the best moment for their daughter to announce that she wanted to take up an expensive new hobby. (The move north never happened in the end though as my father was subsequently redeployed in Harlow.)

So my first teacher was fairly rubbish, which my brother would confirm. You’d like to think that it doesn’t really matter in the early stages but actually it does. Particularly, for example, when a teacher never mentions things like the need to keep time by counting when you play. I can’t keep time to this day. My rhythm is always at best rubato, and at worst all over the place. But at least this teacher wasn’t strict with us – my mother always told us tales of how her piano teacher had rapped her over the knuckles with a ruler whenever she made a mistake, which is why she gave up playing the piano at a very early age.

But I made progress, nonetheless. However, when I was about 14, the term before I was supposed to take my Grade 8 exam, my piano teacher suddenly ditched me, announcing that I was now too advanced for her. So I started learning with the lady who held the Associated Board exams in her house. This was in fact my main motivation for lessons with her - I thought getting to regularly play the piano I had to use in exams would give me an unfair advantage (since otherwise you had to just go in and play it cold, with no idea of how it would feel or sound). What I didn’t know when I signed up was that that teacher didn’t let her riff-raff pupils play that piano, a baby grand in her living room. No, we were stuck in some shed out the back to play on a bog-standard upright.

My new teacher said there was no way I could take my Grade 8 at the moment and needed to go back to Grade 6 level music to work on my technique. Which I was fine with, in principle. But there is work on technique and work on technique. This new teacher was beyond pedantic. She was painstakingly slow about everything she did, from writing notes to rifling through music to explaining anything to answering the door. And she would make me play the same bar over and over again for an hour. And it was usually a bar of a technique exercise rather than a piece of music. The only piece she ever let me play was the first page of a Bach Invention.

What’s worse was that she had a smelly old cocker spaniel called Amadeus who used to sit on my feet and fart. And when he wasn’t farting, he howled along to the music about as musically as you would expect a very old dog to howl. To this day, I cannot abide the smell of dogs. Even though hardly any dogs are as smelly as Amadeus, the slightest whiff of puppy sends me straight back to those tortuous hours of piano lessons. After a year of dog farts and only playing bars of technique exercises, I was about ready to slash my piano-playing wrists, and gave up.

Thankfully, after a year or so away from lessons, I began to miss it, so sought out another teacher. A really lovely new teacher had just joined the music department at school and she offered piano lessons. I had a lot of fun learning with her, and she quickly spotted (from my ever-present rubato) the sorts of music I would like to play, like Débussy Preludes and Chopin Nocturnes. She did try and make me take my Grade 8, and I even submitted the application, but a few weeks before the exam I cracked, and withdrew. It was too much to take on in my A Level year, most of which I spent on anti-depressants as I was suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Piano exams involve so much more than playing pieces – scales and arpeggios, aural tests and sight reading. It was the aural tests that were always my downfall, not least because I was terrified of singing on my own in front of somebody else. But even performing the pieces for a stranger was a daunting enough prospect, especially in the formal situation that is a music exam. There were too many other exams looming in my life at that stage, and I just wanted music to be a hobby and therefore enjoyable. It’s hard to have fun playing the piano, as it’s very much a solo instrument. You don’t get to play in orchestras or bands that give you a sense of camaderie, silliness or a social life like you do if you play something like violin or flute. And playing a piano to accompany others is a very different kind of skill, which I never really got the hang of. Probably because no one else does rubato quite like me.

I had no confidence in my ability either. It didn’t help that my father’s idea of encouraging me as a child was to take me to see Alfred Brendel in concert, then turn round to me at the end and say “Well, you’ve got a lot of practising to do, haven’t you?” Obviously, it was brilliant that I got to see Alfred Brendel, one of the world’s greatest ever pianists, but why did my father have to make a direct comparison between my eight-year-old self, who had barely anything other than Für Elise in her repertoire, and a genius? (A genius who had been playing for seven hours a day for nearly seventy years?) Could my dad not have compared me with my peers, like someone in my class at school? Or even himself, who couldn’t play a note? (Though I am genuinely sure it was his intention to be encouraging.)

And then there were the nerves. They completely took over whenever I had to sit a piano exam or – worse – play in a church concert. My legs would turn to jelly and my shaking, sweaty fingers would slip off the keys. No matter how much I’d practised I would feel like I was sight-reading the music in front of me, and I’d make mistake after mistake after mistake. Even though the audience at a church concert mostly consisted of very deaf old ladies and the church piano was so horrendously out of tune that even the right notes sounded like mistakes, I was totally unable to put the performance into a rational context and rise above it. Every time, I would run off the stage in tears at the end. From being a teenager onwards, I flatly refused to play for anyone.

Then I left home and I couldn’t play any more anyway as I had no instrument. That’s the trouble with learning the piano – you can’t take it with you. You can buy portable electronic keyboards, but even those are massive if they have the full range of octaves you need to play most classical pieces. For 12 years after I left home I was either travelling, living in student accommodation or in a small bedroom in a London flatshare, none of which gave me room for a piano. At university I joined a music society which gave me the right to book practice rooms on campus, which all had pianos. But by then I had got more into singing (an instrument you can always take with you) and was having weekly lessons, so I usually used the practice rooms for that instead, and let my piano playing lapse completely.

Once I was living in London, I only got to play the piano when I was back home visiting my parents. Even when Dave and I bought a flat together, it wasn’t possible to have a piano, as not only was the flat on the first floor, but the lounge was round an L-shaped bend from the front door, and pianos don’t bend. It could have been winched in through a window, but that level of Laurel and Hardy style palava was not something we were prepared to consider, as we knew we wouldn’t be living there forever anyway.

So when we moved up to York, it was a deal-breaker that whatever house we bought would have to, without question, have room for a piano. And so it did, and we paid to move my piano from Bishop’s Stortford up to York. The piano is a Welmar, made in Clapham, funnily enough, where I used to live in London. Sadly, the Welmar workshop closed down for good about the time that I lived there, unable to compete with the mass production lines of the likes of Yamaha in Japan. The piano has a lovely tone and a very light touch, though I have to say that – after all that - it isn’t very happy in our house in York. It seems to go off-key within weeks of being tuned, which it never did before. I can only attribute this to the air in our house being so damp and cold. It’s also in a centrally heated room for the first time, as well as being in a permanent draught. And steam from whatever is cooking in the kitchen comes into the dining room as there is no door to block it off. I am also slightly concerned that it has a dead mouse in it at the moment, but that’s another story.

But soon after the piano’s arrival came the realisation that I couldn’t play that well any more. Funny that, if you don’t practise for nearly 20 years. The only music I owned was Grade 8 level stuff that I could no longer get my fingers round. And psychologically, taking myself back several steps just felt humiliating. It’s that memory of what I used to be taunting me. I could remember how I used to play the pieces, but no longer had the dexterity or nimbleness of touch required to manage the speed or the dynamics that they should be played at. We live in a terraced house, so I was very conscious that the neighbours were all being tortured by my musical massacres. I did intend to seek out a few lessons, but at the time I didn’t know anyone in York who could recommend a piano teacher.

And once we had Charlotte, I had no opportunity to play at all. I could (and should) have been serenading her with lullabies as a baby, but she wasn’t going to find anything about my clumsy renditions soothing. The only time I could practise was when she was asleep, but as her bedroom is directly above the piano and we had the terror of Waking.The.Baby, I never dared.

So I was very grateful to my brother for setting me this challenge, to make me play the piano again and face some of my demons.

First, I had to pick a Beethoven sonata to learn. One immediately sprung to mind. I had heard Steven Osborne play it in a wonderful concert at the Jack Lyons Concert Hall a few years ago. It had a beautiful second movement and glorious section in the first where the left hand crossed over the right. I looked through my books of Beethoven piano sonatas until I found the right one for the tune I had in my head. It turned out to be the Sonata in G, opus 79, composed in 1809, with movements Presto alla tedesca, Adagio and Vivace. I liked the fact it was in G major, as it reminded me of some crazy man I once met in a Crouch End folk club who said that Seth Lakeman was “really, really BORING!” because he always played his pieces in G. Somewhat annoyingly for my challenge, Beethoven had given this particular sonata the sub-heading “Sonata facile” or Sonatine, as if he was deliberately giving someone an easy ride. But Beethoven’s version of easy still gives you two movements that have to be played at lightning speed, full of runs and arpeggios, and a the third movement that has whole sections of triplets against semi-quavers, which are an absolute bugger to master. And then you turn a page and Beethoven makes the first of the triplets be a rest, and the whole thing goes completely to pot.

Then I had to get the piano tuned, since it had sat idle for so long. The tuner said the damp had made the wood swell a little and the keys therefore very stiff, so he spent a whole afternoon taking the piano to bits and adjusting the actions. Anyway, I was slightly heartened to realise that it wasn’t just a complete loss of muscle control and ability making me find it so hard to work the piano. He definitely made a vast improvement to the touch of the keys and my runs became a little less stumbling. What he couldn’t do anything about was the loss of vision I have experienced as the result of ocular migraines, which have left me with permanent blind spots, particularly when looking at black on a white background. This means I now find it difficult to see the lower stave for the left-hand. But I can work around it.

Then I had to find time to practise. I needed an empty house, which I never had. I occasionally got a bit of time on weekends if Dave took Charlotte out somewhere. But it was never going to be enough. However, after the terrible twos finally got the better of me, Charlotte started to go to nursery one morning a week in December, so this gave me about an hour extra a week to work on my Beethoven playing. Gradually, the sonata started to take shape. There are some sections that without hours of practice every day, I am never going to resolve. I can hear exactly where needs the work and how it needs to sound, but there isn’t the scope in my life to achieve that level at the moment.

So to complete the challenge, I felt I had to play it for someone. (I realise that in theory this should probably have been my brother, but he lives 200 miles away.) Knowing so many more people these days in York, I do now have a friend who is a piano teacher. She kindly gave me some time one morning while Charlotte was at nursery. I was really nervous beforehand, but being with a friend put me more at ease. And maybe over the years, overcoming grief and childbirth, I have just learned to be a little less afraid. My friend asked if it was OK to write some notes while I played. What I was quite surprised about was that her notes were actually things that were good about the performance, rather than bad. (Mind you, I could have told anyone the bad myself: the rhythm, the dynamics, the inability to maintain consistent tempo, the missed notes, the jerky tension that predominates throughout...) And she actually liked my rubato. But apparently, I did learn something with the pedantic dog-owning teacher from hell, as she said my hand position was excellent. The lesson gave me a few pointers on how to work on the sections with the triplets and plenty of other things to think about.

The main one of which is that life is too short to be scared. When it comes to playing the piano, I no longer have anything to fear. 

So I was actually going to put a video here of my Beethoven piano sonata, for all of you. I was even going to let you listen to my total balls-up of the third movement. Even though on my computer, the sound and video play out of synch which makes me look like I am miming. Yes, I really was going to play the piano. In public. Even if my dad thought it was crap.

But Blogger won't upload the videos. Boo hiss.

So a perfect Beethoven piano sonata? No. For that I could point you towards my CD of Daniel Barenboim playing it faster than is surely humanly possible with an almost celestial grace. But able to bash it out? Yes. Better than that even. At times.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Challenge Number 16 - Write a Short Story

This ended up having to be a short story for Charlotte, as I just didn’t manage to find the time or inspiration to write something more grown-up. But that’s OK, I think. Besides, all the adult stories I could come up with had morbid overtones, involving Second World War bombing, post-natal depression, or the death business that will be the centrepiece of my great as yet unwritten novel, The Funeral Hotel. So writing a children’s story was not only quicker but also much more fun, and it’s so personalised that I have an interested audience (almost) guaranteed.

You will quickly see that I am no Julia Donaldson. This is not a tale of a tiny snail and a great big grey-blue humpback whale, or a Gruffalo’s Child feeling bored, or a school many moons ago that taught young dragons all the things that dragons ought to know. It’s a story about a little girl and her toy monkey, and in a moment of careless anger the monkey gets lost. It is hardly the most riveting of adventures, and it's a bit too long, but any parent whose child has to take a favourite toy with them wherever they go can probably relate to the panic involved when that toy goes missing.

And full marks for effort to me for looking quite ridiculous taking photographs of a cuddly toy at various locations around York. Anyone familiar with Stripey and his rather disgusting levels of hygiene will think he looks suspiciously clean in most of the photographs. This is because I had to use our back-up Stripey, since Charlotte won’t be parted from the real original Stripey for long enough to let me take pictures of him on his own. (Won’t be parted from him for long enough until she randomly drops him somewhere, that is.)

So – enjoy. I plan to make up a photobook of the story for Charlotte when time allows, but for now she is happy reading “Stripey on the cuter”. Though she still prefers Mr Tickle.

The Adventures Of Stripey The Monkey: Lost!

Once there was a little girl called Lottie, and she had a little toy monkey called Stripey. Lottie loved Stripey very much. She snuggled up with him in bed every night. She wanted to take him everywhere she went - in the car, in the push chair, on her trike, out for a walk in the park. 

The only place she didn’t take him was out on her sledge in the snow, because monkeys don’t like snow very much.

But sometimes Lottie was a bit careless with Stripey, and would drop him out of her push chair. Lottie’s Mummy always tried to watch out for Stripey falling on the ground so that she could pick him up again. But Lottie’s Mummy didn’t always see him. Mummies often get distracted.

It was always stressful for Lottie’s Mummy when she realised that Stripey had gone missing, as she knew that Lottie couldn’t fall asleep at night without Stripey. And Lottie’s Mummy didn’t like it when Lottie couldn’t sleep, as it meant that Lottie’s Mummy couldn’t sleep either. Fortunately, Lottie’s Mummy always managed to find Stripey before bedtime.

One day, Lottie and her Mummy were on their way into town. Lottie’s Mummy gave Lottie some of her favourite rice cakes to eat. Stripey was hungry too, and he asked Lottie if he could have a rice cake. But Lottie didn’t like sharing things. So she didn’t want to give Stripey a rice cake. She got angry and threw Stripey onto the ground.

They had just reached some traffic lights. Lottie’s Mummy was busy watching the little red man opposite and waiting for him to turn green to tell them it was safe to cross the road.

This meant that Lottie’s Mummy didn’t see Stripey land on the ground. Stripey called out for help, but the cars on the road were very noisy so nobody heard him.

Poor Stripey was alone on the pavement. He tried to run after Lottie. But Lottie’s Mummy turned a corner with the push chair and Stripey couldn’t see where they went after that. So Stripey had to guess where Lottie and her Mummy had gone. He decided to look in all of Lottie’s favourite places to see if he could find them.

First Stripey tried the park. Lottie loved the swings and the slide and the seesaw. Stripey had a go on all of those, but he couldn’t find Lottie anywhere. 

So he went to the ponds to see if she might be there. But she wasn’t. 

Stripey asked the ducks on the pond and the doves near the dovecote if they had seen Lottie but they weren’t very helpful at all.

So Stripey went to the river. Lottie often spent hours watching the boats sailing up and down. But today there were no boats, and there was no Lottie. 

And Lottie wasn't up on the bridge with the benches that she loved climbing on.

So Stripey went to the train museum. He had a lovely time seeing all the big steam engines and the turn table and the model railways, but he couldn’t see Lottie anywhere.

So Stripey went next door to the station to see some more trains, but Lottie wasn’t there either.

So Stripey went into town. He knew that Lottie liked running up and down the ramps outside the dinosaur museum, but she wasn’t there either.

Then Stripey remembered one last train that Lottie liked to visit. So Stripey went to the shopping centre to find it. But Lottie wasn’t riding on the train today.

So Stripey went to the ice cream café. Lottie was the café’s best customer, but not today.

By now, Stripey was very worried indeed. He had been to all of Lottie’s favourite places and couldn’t think of any more. What if he never found Lottie again?

He decided he had better go home. He hoped that wherever Lottie and her Mummy had been, they would soon need to go home too. Stripey was very tired now. It was getting cold, and he was worried that it might snow. Stripey didn’t like snow AT ALL.

It was a long, hard journey. Stripey had to rest a lot.

At last he reached Lottie’s front door. He was overjoyed to see that CBeebies was on the television, which meant that Lottie was home. Lottie and her Mummy must have been just ahead of him at one of the places he had been looking.

But Stripey couldn’t reach the doorbell because it was very high up, and his paws were so soft that Lottie couldn’t hear him knocking on the door.

Stripey could hear Lottie crying and calling out his name. “Stripey! Stripey!” He could also hear that Lottie’s Mummy was cross with Lottie. She was saying, “Where did you leave him? You must be more careful!” Stripey knew that this meant that Lottie and her Mummy had realised he was missing and that they were looking for him. But he couldn’t make them hear that he was just outside the front door! What was he going to do?

Stripey thought for a minute. And then he remembered the two cats, Ingo and Otto, that lived in the house with them. They also were too small to reach the doorbell and had soft paws that wouldn’t make a noise when knocking on a door. 

So Ingo and Otto had a special door called a cat flap that they used all the time when they needed to go in and out. But it was round at the back of the house. So Stripey set off again to find it. He had to walk all the way to the end of the street to get to the alley that led to the back yard. Stripey was so tired, but he knew he had to carry on if he was going to be able to stop Lottie crying.

Eventually he recognised the right gate. Using his best monkey skills, he climbed up over the back wall, jumped down, and found the cat flap in the yard. 

It was quite stiff but Stripey managed to push it open. He climbed through and landed in the kitchen.

Stripey fell in a heap on the floor and was simply too tired to go any further.

Fortunately, Lottie heard the cat flap banging. Lottie loved Ingo and Otto almost as much as she loved Stripey, so she came running into the kitchen to see them, hoping they might cheer her up, even though they usually ran back outside again whenever they saw her. 

But it wasn’t a pussy cat she had heard, it was Stripey! Lottie was overjoyed to see him. And so was Lottie’s Mummy. Lottie’s Mummy had to lie down for a few minutes to recover from worrying so much about where Stripey was. She had worn a hole in her sock from pacing up and down.

Stripey was quite dirty from all his adventures and needed a good wash.

Lottie said sorry to Stripey for not sharing her rice cakes. She said from now on, she would share her food with him whenever he wanted. And she promised that she would never throw him out of the push chair again.

That night Lottie and Stripey curled up in bed together, cuddling one another tightly, and everybody in the house slept through until morning.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Challenge Number 34 - To Bake 40 Loaves Of Bread In A Year

..and not all of them in a bread maker.

The challenge is finally complete! Below are photos of loaves 36 through 40. To finish with, I made a loaf of soda bread from scratch. OK, so that is not as much physical effort or as time-consuming as making a loaf with fresh yeast and kneading it properly with your bare hands and letting it prove in an airing cupboard (not that we have one) etc, but it still met the "not made in a bread maker" criterion (as did my banana breads and cheesy courgette bread). Soda bread was in fact quicker to make than the rapid bake setting on the bread maker, and so easy to do. Everyone should try it! I used a spelt flour mixed in with self-raising for this loaf.

I hoped I would also get to try focaccia, ciabatta and other sorts of bread over the course of the year (even just basic pizza dough), but sometimes you just have to stick to the necessary rather than the fanciful.

I am very glad I set myself this challenge as the bread maker had sat far too idle since Charlotte was born, and home-baked bread (even if done by machine) tastes so good!  And the aroma of a loaf baking fills the air with something wonderful, and not just the illusion that you are a natural domestic goddess.

But it is a great relief that I will now be able to continue my bread-making without having to take a photo of every single loaf that I bake...

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Challenge Number 15 - Learn Something Crafty

I really envy people who manage to fit craft activities seamlessly into their everyday lives. (As well as people who naturally fit in exercise.) For some, these hobbies must just be naturally under their skin. I’ve always really enjoyed doing art and craft activities (particularly drawing and painting) but once they stopped being part of the school curriculum I have always struggled to keep them up. I’ve always meant to, but hardly ever do. The year after my mum died, the realisation that life can be far too short and that nothing should be procrastinated propelled me to do all sorts of things - buy new clothes, go to New Zealand, stop working so hard, blog for the first time. And as part of this, I did some watercolour and drawing classes at City Lit. But unfortunately I haven’t done anything since we moved up to York, despite meeting a couple of fanatical quilters and going to the artists’ open studios every year, which I always find really inspiring. Hence the challenge, although – as suggested by several friends - this was about learning something new.

A few months into the challenge year, I realised that my learning of something crafty would have to be accomplished in a single day rather than a series of evening classes, and returned to and properly practised when Charlotte starts pre-school and I might have a little more energy left by nightfall. It would also have to be something that wouldn’t cost a fortune in teaching costs and materials since we are flipping skint at the moment. And something that wouldn’t make too much mess or take up too much space, since we have a house full of toys and splats and stains as it is.

Initially I booked myself onto a one-afternoon fused glass jewellery making course at York Central Library. I know, I know, this requires a kiln, which is hardly cheap or small, but the course at least was reasonably priced. But unfortunately, the course was cancelled at the last minute owing to low numbers. I was pretty disappointed, and there were no plans to reschedule. Glass appealed as a medium as it was something I had never worked with before. So I was pleased to discover that a friend who makes rather wonderful stained glass (here is a link to her website) also gives two-hour one-off lessons so I arranged one with her for a Monday morning when the little messy toddler would be at nursery. 

The two-hour stained glass lesson with Naomi cost £25 (including materials and a cup of tea and biscuit) and you choose to make either a butterfly or a boat. Naomi recently moved to the neighbourhood’s most spectacular house, which gave her enough space to convert a room into a proper workshop for herself, which contains any mess and stores all that she needs. How lovely to have everything permanently set up ready to go, so you can just start work immediately whenever you have a spare second, rather than needing to constantly unpack things then tidy them all away again, wasting precious time. Naomi does Tiffany-style stained glass rather than the traditional leaded stained glass used on church windows. Tiffany-style glass is soldered, whereas leaded windows have the glass slotted into grooves within strips of bent lead. I decided to make a purple butterfly for Charlotte, purple being Charlotte’s favourite colour, and the butterfly houses at Tropical World in Leeds one of her favourite places.

Naomi is fanatical about reuse and recycling (she is one of the moderators for York’s Freecycle website), so it was no surprise to see that there was to be absolutely no glass wastage in Naomi’s workshop. We chose the glass colours (there were three for this particular pattern) and then looked for smaller pieces of the same glass from her boxes of odds and ends.

You start the process by drawing the shapes of your template onto glass – as glass is see-through you can just trace the pattern from a piece of paper underneath. Naomi uses paint pens for drawing as they are more waterproof than marker pens.

You then have to cut the glass. You use a cutting tool to score a line across and then snap the glass along the line using either pliers or your bare hands. The cutting tool is like a cross between a pen and a set of compasses and has a tiny circular blade. It’s amazing how scoring a thin line that barely seems to penetrate the surface causes the glass to break so neatly. It’s quite tricky learning to hold the pen at the correct angle and apply just the right amount of pressure. The pliers have to be held a certain way up to snap the glass, and you must snap the glass in the same direction as if you were breaking squares off a bar of chocolate (now that IS something I am better practised at). Goggles are necessary, needless to say. Work is done on top of a plastic mesh of squares so that the little shards and splinters have somewhere to fall.

You may not necessarily cut and break the glass along the lines of your template (and you certainly don’t if you are a complete amateur like me) but you aim to get as close to them as possible. You must of course take care never to go inside the lines so the glass pieces don’t end up being too small. To get the glass to fit the lines of the template exactly, you smooth it down using an electric grinder. In my lesson, Naomi tidied up my cutting a bit first so that I didn’t have to spend too long grinding. As you are holding sharp-edged glass, you need to wear rubber thumb protectors during grinding. Grinding was immensely satisfying as it neatened everything up so beautifully. The grinder uses water which does still manage to wash off the lines of the waterproof paint pen eventually (partly because the rubber finger protectors also rub against the pen), so you will have to redraw from the paper template from time to time. You need to keep matching the glass against the original template anyway to check that the lines are as they are meant to be and the size is correct. For a butterfly it is also important to check the symmetry for a perfect result.

Then the edges of all the pieces of glass have to be covered with a thin strip of sticky copper foil tape. You wind the tape around the glass, making sure that the edge of the glass runs down the middle of the tape. Then you either use your fingers or take (of all things) a dolly clothes peg to smooth round the tape, and then you press the edges of the tape down over the sides of the glass (with either your fingers or the peg). Once you have gone all the way round you use the head of the dolly peg to gently bash along the sides to ensure it has stuck. Naomi claims you can do the foiling in front of the television, but I found it needed full concentration and made you go slightly cross-eyed. Stained glass making really is a painstaking and time-consuming process, especially when making designs as large and complex as the ones Naomi does. I am full of admiration for her skill and patience!

Then you arrange the foiled glass pieces on top of the template ready to solder them together. Naomi did the first few daubs of solder to ensure that the pieces were attached to one another. Then you no longer require the paper template. To get the solder to stick to the copper foil, you brush the edges with flux (a solution of crystals dissolved in water). Then magically, solder sticks to the copper foil unbelievably neatly, and doesn't stick to anything else. The soldering iron reaches a ridiculously hot temperature, so this bit is best done sitting down. You have a strip of solder in one hand and the iron in the other, and you just touch the tip of the iron onto the solder, melt a blob, then run this blob around the edge of the uppermost surface of the glass object. Then you work on the central seams, which require a thicker amount of solder. To get a smooth finish, you can melt and rework at whim. The solder hardens instantly as it cools. Any dollops that end up on the glass can be lightly rubbed or picked off.  You work on the top and bottom surfaces with the glass flat on the bench, but have to do all the side edges holding the glass upright in a standard clothes peg (which means you can’t hold the piece of solder any more, but this isn’t a problem when you have a teacher standing beside you). It’s not that fiddly but I nonetheless got what felt like writer’s cramp after a while. For the butterfly antennae and to create a means of hanging it up, we folded a strip of tinned copper wire into the right shape and then attached it with solder.

Then the glass is cleaned with Vim powder and scouring pad. To make the solder turn black, you coat it with patina, an acid that is applied with a sponge. Rubber gloves must be worn. Then the glass is smeared with car polish and left to dry. At this point in my lesson, as it was being transferred to the drying rack - gasp! - my beautiful butterfly flew out of Naomi’s hands on to the floor, but thankfully it simply bounced and remained intact. Time then for the cup of tea and a biscuit and a chance to admire Naomi’s works of stained glass around the house. (Her panel of a view of Rowntree Park is simply stunning.) Once it has dried, any excess car polish is removed with a shoe brush, and the glass gets a final buff up with a cloth.
The finished butterfly

I really enjoyed the lesson and it was great to do something completely different. But I think I am too clumsy to take up making stained glass as a new crafty hobby. A butterfly for the butter fingers: glass would be lethal in my hands, and the thought of any little shards getting near a toddler’s foot makes me cringe. It would be expensive to get all the kit and to buy the glass, and we just wouldn’t have the storage space required. It’s definitely a hobby requiring a big investment and a lot of commitment.

So I needed to have a go at something a little more cost-effective, compact and portable. Therefore I asked my friend Sam, from whom I borrowed the 40 challenges idea in the first place, to give me a knitting lesson. There are a lot of knitters in my family - both my grandmothers, one of my aunts and now three of my cousins. Even my mother was known to have a go from time to time. But I haven’t tried to knit since I was seven years old, when my aunt Judy tried to teach me and it all ended in a tantrum and tears. (So technically this isn't a new craft for me, but I think doing something only once when you were seven still counts as pretty new.) Certain wools give me eczema so I’d never been that keen to take it up again. But the wool used for baby clothes is so soft and there are so many trendy garment patterns and beautiful multi-coloured wools on the market these days that I found fresh inspiration.

Sam and her family came down from Newcastle to York on a very rainy day and, while our respective husbands and children went off to the railway museum, she and I spent the morning with two needles and a ball of purple wool, ready to knit and natter, purl and patter or just plain stitch and bitch. Sam is very patient. I am not. My hands and fingers felt like lead as I inarticulately tried to cast on and twine wool and slip a needle in and out of loops. Stitches dropped more than they were made, and I was as usual talking far too much and failing to concentrate. I kept giving up and thrusting the wool over to Sam, back to my seven year old self stropping with Charlotte's stock phrase “Mummy fix it!” 

Sam is left-handed so prefers to use a rather unusual way of stitching taught to her by her mother. I decided to give this a go too as she made it look so easy, but in the end we just went for the more conventional way of doing garter stitch which I started to pick up more quickly. But by the end of a couple of hours I was pooped. Charlotte, Dave and the others then arrived home for lunch. Charlotte was very excited to find “Mummy knitting!” just like Pingu’s mummy. “Charlotte do it!” she then announced, snatching the needless off me and starting to unravel the ball of wool. It was time for the hobby to be placed safely out of reach upstairs.

Here is a photo of my feeble efforts. You can probably spot the bits that I did and the bits that Sam either demonstrated or rescued, though the last few rows are all my own work. We didn’t even start purling, or get round to learning casting off. There’s only so much you can fit into a first lesson. However, I found casting on so confusing that I’m not sure I’ll actually ever be able to start another piece of knitting. In the afternoon, we went into town and went into a couple of knitting shops to look at what they had in stock. In one of them, the very friendly shop assistant invited me along to her knitting circle, which meets in a pub on Wednesday nights for knitting and beer. Which sounds like a very good idea indeed. As long as someone will cast on for me.

So two purple crafts for patient people. I probably still haven’t quite found the definitive one for me.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Challenge Number Three – Translate At Least One Chapter Of A German Novel Into English

I’d really love to be a translator. Whenever I’ve been given translations to do, right from when I was at school, it’s never really felt like work. I’ve always found them stimulating, absorbing, challenging, educational and – what the hell – fun. I don’t suppose I’ll ever actually manage to be one, since officially I don’t have a foreign languages degree (no doubt a prerequisite for taking a postgraduate qualification in translation) and don’t want to pay £36,000 plus living costs to go back to university with a load of 18-year-olds to get one.

My one-time decent German did mean that I occasionally got to do some translation work as a subtitler, but with the exception of some work on Lola Rennt (Run Lola Run) for Film Four International and one ancient Wim Wenders film (Der Scharlachrote Buchstabe) it was mostly porn. Porn with a plot, at least. More often though I was doing reviews of subtitles that had been translated into English by the Germans employed by my company, who typically did an outstanding job. (And I’m not just saying that because some of them are reading this blog.) I kind of wasn’t needed. Besides, translating German film and DVD extras if you aren’t a native speaker and you haven’t been provided with a script (and you hardly ever are) can be quite difficult as the sound quality of a digitally converted video file (possibly a copy of a copy of a copy of the master tape) makes things hard to hear, especially if the film is in dialect.

So really, in my dream world, I’d be translating novels, with a nice written text in front of me. Especially as this way, you get to write a novel without needing to think up a storyline. Now, I am under no illusions that this is in any way a possible dream, even if I were allowed a place on - for example - the University of East Anglia’s MA in Literary Translation. For starters, how many German novels are actually ever translated into English? Possibly only a few every couple of years (Charlotte Roche, Bernhard Schlink, Hans Fallada, Pascal Mercier, Jenny Erpenbeck) and I am sure that publishers already have plenty of translators lined up to work on them. These same translators will no doubt also be given a ridiculously short deadline and be paid peanuts for their work, if my experience in translation subtitling is anything to go by. I am sure that they translate novels for love rather than financial reward and will actually be making their proper living from translating washing machine manuals or teaching or cleaning or prostitution or something. (Probably not prostitution.) And some of them will rely on translation software programmes to get the job done on time and on budget.

But nonetheless I often find English translations of German novels fairly horrible and would like to think that I could do better. (Ha!) They just sound so stilted. Often they have been done by non-native speakers (and clearly not the brilliant people I used to work with), presumably because there just aren’t that many British people who speak German well enough to translate novels. Or maybe because they've been partially translated by computer.

I keep telling me that this gives me a little niche in the market, but frankly, these days my German is shocking and I can barely string a sentence together. Though this means I’d probably fit in quite well with a bunch of 18-year-old undergraduates these days, given the state of German language teaching in most of our schools. Bitch, bitch.

So no doubt the dream must remain a dream, and it’s just another thing to get depressed about as I career towards my mid-life crisis with a total lack of career. But I’m definitely never going to be able to translate novels if I don’t practise, so this is what this challenge was about.

Having initially had fanciful notions of working on something by Hermann Hesse or another of my favourite German authors, I eventually decided I had to go for something mainstream and straightforward. I also needed to pick a novel for which there was no existing English translation otherwise I would have probably been inclined to cheat.

So I chose the first chapter of Die Vipern Von Montesecco by Bernhard Jaumann, which I’d picked up in a bookstore in Mainz back in 2008 and read the following year. It’s a thriller set in Italy and was a very enjoyable read, in easy but well-written German. I can’t remember whodunit now, which may yet spur me to carry on with the translation.

I loved doing the translation, though it did much to highlight my inadequacies in the German language and how absent the subtle nuances are from my knowledge. One of the hardest things was translating conversations and trying to make them sound natural. A translation has to sound so fluent that no one would ever guess that the novel wasn’t written in anything other than the language you’ve translated it into. Getting the pitch of slang wrong sounds excruciating and it’s precisely things like slang that make me realise how out of touch my German is. Though in this book, you also have to think about the sort of things that a group of old men in an Italian village might be saying to each other. “Guten Morgen, Angelo, wir sind beim Wein” was an utterance I really struggled with. “Der Papst kommt nicht. Der ist zu alt und er muß keusch bleiben” another. (The book is, übrigens, written in old spelling.)

And then there are things I just don’t know about in German, even if I might have done once. Thankfully these days you are no longer reliant on just your Collins German-English dictionary for words and phrases you’ve forgotten or have never encountered before. There are numerous regularly updated online dictionaries and loads of translator discussion forums. Some things would have been cleared up with just a quick chat with a native speaker. For example, the sunflowers in the fields are described as “halbstark” which actually is a German term for beatnik (which sunflowers can’t be) or rowdy adolescent, but the sunflowers are standing in orderly rows (Reih und Glied), which doesn’t make them seem so rowdy. So should halbstark actually have more of a literal translation (=half-strength) here? I considered “diminished” – the paragraph is describing the eternal heat of that summer and how it was wreaking havoc with the crops, so no doubt the sunflowers would have been struggling too, but “diminished” could also have the other implication of something like “diminished responsibility”, which might bring to mind the other rowdier meaning too. But “diminished sunflowers” sounded stupid so in the end I went for “dishevelled” which is either bang on or utterly far removed from what the author intended. And everything in the village was schräg gegenüber (diagonally opposite) – a precise term which you hardly ever hear in English and which also sounds too organised to be in an Italian village.

As an aside, I wonder how much contact you are allowed with the author if you are commissioned to translate their work? After all, they are the only ones who really know what they mean. I ask this merely because when you translate a film you would be unlikely to have any communication with the director or script writer, at least for DVD release. Maybe you would for original cinema subtitles, but I have never worked for a company which has produced those. I can tell you that if you were translating a British or American film or television series for a DVD being released with subtitles in several foreign languages you would be provided with an English subtitle template to work from (so you would have no hearing issues) and some translation notes on any slang terms. (Think of the need for a glossary in The Wire. Think how hard it is to write such a glossary!).

There’s also things you don’t know because they involve subjects you’ve never had to know about before. As a translator you potentially have to know everything about everything, and not just if you specialise in technical translation. In this book, the subject entirely new to me was olive tree cultivation, and how shoots are grafted on to older trees in order to improve their fruit bearing capacity. Thanks, Wikipedia, for explaining that one.

There’s also clever little linguistic touches in German that are very hard to make work to a similar degree in English. For example, in the section on the television footage of the assassination in Palermo, the following exchange takes place:

..daß das Attentat ein Anschlag auf den demokratischen Rechtstaat gewesen sei.
“Dann ist er jetzt tot” sagte Catia
“Der demokratische Rechtstaat.”

Er” (he) doesn’t really work in English as our nouns don’t have genders so there can’t be the same confusion or reaction from the listener. But there’s not really any other way of translating it.

This leads on to how creative you are allowed to be – it’s someone else’s words you are translating, so you can’t rewrite the novel as you think it should sound, you have to make it sound as though it was the author himself writing in English. So how good a writer is Bernhard Jaumann really? Just how imaginative are his heat metaphors? Do I personally have the confidence and ability to be the judge of that? How do you make your English writing as good or bad as his German writing? Is it OK to split up crazily long German sentences into shorter English variants and be a bit meaner with the commas? Only years of study and experience could give you the skill to make these fine judgments.

Anyway, I am putting the translation in below, but I am not sure whether I am allowed to do so. It’s entirely my own work, but it’s an unauthorised translation of a published book, so there may be copyright issues here. Please note that I am not intentionally breaking any laws by including it. I wouldn’t say I was happy with all of it. It’s the sort of thing you could keep tweaking forever. But I don’t have any more time to spend on it right now, unfortunately.

The Vipers Of Montesecco by Bernhard Jaumann

Tourists do not stray into the sleepy village of Montesecco. Only a few dozen people live there, in the back-country of the Adriatic. Thunderstorms lie heavy in the hot July air. One from their midst is dead - a poisonous viper has bitten Giorgio Lucarelli. What looks like an accident turns out to have been a meticulously planned act of revenge. The father of the dead man forbids his burial before the perpetrator is caught, and is himself killed in an accident shortly thereafter. All of Montesecco is looking for the murderer and nearly everyone in the village comes under suspicion. While two corpses await their funeral in the heat, the vipers’ poison spreads like wildfire.

Now holding fast the laws,
His country's sacred rights,
That rest upon the oath of Gods on high,
High in the state he stands.
An outlaw and an exile he who loves
The thing that is not good,
In wilful pride of soul.

Sophocles: Antigone

It couldn’t be Beppone. Beppone hadn’t even been a young dog fifteen years ago. At best, his bones were bleaching in the sun somewhere. And yet the dog by the street fountain in front of the Palazzo Civico looked exactly like Beppone did back then. The watery eyes, the shaggy brown fur, the mutilated tail.

Matteo Vannoni put the suitcase on the lowest of the steps that linked the piazza with the upper part of the village. It was deathly quiet. The dog was the first living creature to greet him in Montesecco. Did they think he’d come back with a shotgun under his arm?

“Hey, Beppone,“ Vannoni said. The dog stretched, yawned and trotted away over the glowing piazza.

“Rule number one: life goes on,” Vannoni murmured.

The midday sun blasted in the sky and pounded undiluted heat onto the roofs. The shutters on the windows were closed. Vannoni thought it possible that pairs of eyes were peering out between the slats from the semi-darkness, but he wasn’t sure.

Lucarelli’s house opposite had been painted grey. The windows were possibly new too. The dog crept under a parked car. A VW Golf. Fifteen years ago there had been only Fiats and Ape three-wheelers in the village.

A foreign car, a different-coloured wall and a strange dog who looked like Beppone. Otherwise, everything was just the same as before. The facades, the uneven plaster, the walls of rough stone on the hill, the white plastic chairs next to Lucarelli’s front door. The blue Tabacchi sign still hung above the door of Rapanotti’s shop, which had closed down even before Vannoni’s time. They also hadn’t done anything with the old wash house to the side. It must have been decades ago that the stone basins had last seen any water. Even the hands on the clock on the Palazzo Civico were still stopped at twenty past eight.

Vannoni had grown up in Montesecco. He had suffered long enough from how life was there, and yet he had naturally assumed that everything would have changed. After fifteen years. But they hadn’t even managed to fix the broken clock!

Perhaps life hadn’t gone on at all. Perhaps it had simply stood still and...

Nonsense. Maria was dead, Catia had celebrated her seventeeth birthday a month ago, and he’d had fifteen years to think about things. Suddenly he realised that he’d not been thinking about the right things.

“Rule number two – don’t take yourself too seriously,” Vannoni said to himself. He picked up the suitcase, climbed up the steps, turned left, twenty metres up the steep footpath. The two large terracotta tubs still stood in front of his house. The oleander was covered with red flowers. A note hung on his front door. “We didn’t know if you’d want to be alone. Come over if you feel like it. Catia, Elena, Angelo.”

Vannoni pushed down the handle. The door sprung open. The air that flooded out made him stop for a moment. They hadn’t discussed it during any of his sister’s visits, but he was sure that Elena had regularly aired the place out, dusted, and swept the cobwebs aside. It didn’t smell musty inside the house. It didn’t smell of anything at all. Not a trace of stale smoke, cooking aromas, sweaty armpits. The air in his house was dead.

Get out, get out of here, something inside urged Vannoni. He had to force himself to put his suitcase down. His hand was shaking as he let go of the handle. Then he inhaled deeply. He didn’t have to come back here, yet he had decided to do so. Now he was here, he wouldn’t instantly drop a decision that had been slowly maturing for fifteen years just because a smell was coming out of his house that he didn’t much care for.

How should a house smell that hadn’t been lived in for fifteen years? Vannoni lit a cigarette and blew out the smoke. Now he would go through the house and open the windows. He would examine the rooms. Everything would either be the same as before or different. He wouldn’t care. He’d observe the facts and it’d be all right. However it was. He stubbed the cigarette out on the door frame.

Vannoni went through the house. He began in the kitchen. He’d told Elena to take whatever she wanted, but apparently she hadn’t wanted anything. The bathroom was also unchanged. In the lounge, the calendar of the Cassa di Risparmio from the year 1978 was still hanging on the wall. The photo for July was of a sunset in the Dolomites. Catia’s room was empty apart from a large cupboard. Of course she’d have taken the child’s things. Everything was all right.

Before he went into the bedroom, he hesitated for a moment. Then he opened the door. The shutters of both windows were closed. The room was in semi-darkness, through which fell the pale stripes of the gaps in the shutters. Vannoni turned the light on. Back then, he’d turned the light on too. Back then, Giorgio Lucarelli was already halfway out of the window. His hairy back and naked white buttocks were the last he saw of him. The cupboard in which his lupara had been waiting for the start of the hunting season was still in the corner. Before he’d managed to load the weapon, Lucarelli had vanished into the night.

Vannoni opened the window and the shutters. His hand stroked along the sill. He turned around. A lightweight cover was on the double bed. The mattress underneath it was unmade. Back then, the linen sheet had been rumpled on the right-hand side. Maria hadn’t moved from the bed. She had sat up sideways. She pressed her naked back against the wall and pulled the sheet up to her chin. She looked at him. He’d never forget that look. He hadn’t understood what he was witnessing. It was neither shock nor shame, sympathy, mockery or defiance. He’d seen what was going on but he hadn’t grasped any of it. Not then, not now.

“Why?” he’d asked softly.

“Why?” he’d hissed at her and she’d looked at him like a creature from another planet.

She’d only had to say something.


Just one word that would have given him the possibility of yelling, of bursting into scornful laughter, of shouting her down. But she didn’t say a word.

It was quiet.

It had been quiet then too. Apart from the cracks as he’d cocked the old lupara.

“Why?” he’d asked again, and she had pressed her lips together and looked at him in such a way that he’d never understand his whole life long. Then he’d pressed the trigger. Once, twice. He hadn’t killed his wife because she’d cheated on him with Giorgio Lucarelli. He’d wanted to extinguish that strange look in her eye. Forever. He had to be sure. That’s why he’d reloaded. Twice. Because of that, his defence lawyer had allowed him to plea for a crime of passion, while the state’s lawyer would not tire of trying to prove that he had a tendency towards radical, violent behaviour. Vannoni was sentenced to twenty-one years in prison, of which he’d served fifteen.

Six bullets in her body and blood everywhere. He would have gone on if it hadn’t been for all the blood. Vannoni went over to Maria’s side of the bed and pulled the cover back. There were no spots of blood on the mattress. He bent down and ran his fingers over the surface. Not the slightest trace of blood. You’d surely have to see something. At least be able to see where people must have scraped and scrubbed for hours on end. They surely wouldn’t have bought a new mattress. For the bed of a dead woman? That was ridiculous. He didn’t know why this thought made him so livid.

Vannoni felt the blood come to his head. He was hot. He went into the bathroom and ran the tap. The water leapt out in gurgling brown spurts. In prison, Vannoni had told himself a thousand times that the past is the past. He would leave it in peace. He would take flowers to Maria’s grave. He would bid Giorgio Lucarelli a friendly hello when he ran into him on the piazza. He would deal with everything that happened to him out there openly, quietly and in a composed manner.

Intentions are all very well. Vannoni couldn’t fathom why everything suddenly collapsed around him. Just because he hadn’t found traces of blood on the mattress didn’t mean that all he thought he’d understood over the past few years had to shrink to nothing. He had to reconsider. He wondered what Giorgio Lucarelli was thinking at that moment. He wondered if what Giorgio Lucarelli had been thinking for the past fifteen years could also suddenly turn to rubble.


The red sun sank behind the hills on the other side of the Censano valley. Mist clung to the horizon, but an unreal bright light lay over the fields below Montesecco. As if flames were licking out of the cracked earth. As if it was steaming the heat back out that had been scorching it for 14 hours. Burnt grass, barley stubble, wheat fields. Dishevelled armies of sunflowers stood in rows, their heads hanging low. The gorse had mostly finished flowering, but here and there dirty yellow flecks pierced through the tatters of woodland.

On the hilltop, the houses of Montesecco pressed closely together. Many of them were uninhabited or were only used sporadically by those who had left Montesecco in search of employment and had ended up in Milan or Turin, Belgium, Germany or America. The exodus had begun in 1959, when the largest sulphur mine in Europe near Cabernardi had been shut down. The miners emigrated first, but then the crisis hit the craftsmen, hauliers and farmers. Montesecco’s three shops went bust one after the other, the school closed, and the only thing that grew as the years went by was the number of graves in the cemetery. People always wanted to be buried at home, even if they had had to spend their whole lives in foreign parts. But twenty-seven people still lived year-round in Montesecco and they wouldn’t have swapped it for anywhere else in the world.

In the middle of the village a long piazza opened up that was connected by narrow steps and twisty thoroughfares to the few streets and alleyways across which the houses looked at one another. The Torre Civica on the front end of the piazza was lower than the church tower of Santa Maria Assunta further up. In front of the church door, a piazzetta jutted out to the east that was protected from the sheer drop below by a waist-high parapet. On a clear day, you could see all the way to Monte Conero to the south and almost as far as Ravenna to the north.

It wasn’t just the view that made the residents of Montesecco refer to the piazzetta as their balcony. On this airy square you felt at home. Here beat the heart of the village community, here people met each other in front of the only bar in the village, an inconspicuous little house with peeling pink plaster that leaned against the chapel of Holy Sebastian.

Invisible lines divided the balcony in two. The two stone benches at the far end and a few square metres directly in front of the bar belonged to the women. Milena Angiolini was sitting there, a blonde beauty who would have cut a good figure on any catwalk in Rome or Milan. She fanned herself with a plastic plate and whispered with the landlady Maria Garzone. Their children were chasing a small brown dog with loud whoops and had cornered him up against the balcony parapet. In this area, which the men kept for themselves, a few folding chairs stood around a table. On its plastic surface, Ivan Garzone placed a bottle of Bianchello and a tray with a dozen glasses.

“Well? Is he coming?” asked Ivan Garzone.

“Who?” asked Angelo Sgreccia in reply.

“Who do you think? The Pope!”

“The Pope isn’t coming. He’s too old and has to keep himself pure,” said old Marcantoni with a snigger.

“So?” Ivan asked Sgreggia. “What’s Vannoni got to say for himself?”

“At least let him talk to his daughter first,” said Angelo Sgreccia.

“What about when he’s spoken to Catia? Will he come then?” asked Ivan Garzone.

“No, he won’t,” said Sgreccia. He would know. He and Vannoni had been inseparable when they were children. There hadn’t been a single day when they didn’t hang out together and get up to all sorts of mischief. The teacher in Pergola had given them the nicknames Castor and Pollux, and soon that’s how they were known by the whole village. Even though the young Vannoni had become distant and expressed opinions that Sgreccia could relate to as little as everyone else, their joint childhood was something he couldn’t make himself forget. Vannoni going on to shut himself out of the village community by an act of violence was another story. But looking back, he and Sgreccia were still seen by the whole village as twins who happened to come from different families. It seemed natural to everyone that Sgreccia went on to marry Vannoni’s sister Elena, and was as a result at least his brother-in-law.

“Do you want a drink?” asked Ivan’s cousin Paolo Garzone. He reached for the wine bottle. It seemed fragile in his paw.

Ivan shoved a glass towards him. Sgreccia shook his head.

“I’ll have it mixed with Sprite,” mumbled Franco Marcantoni with his toothless mouth. He swallowed the T and pronounced the vowel so that the word came out as “spray”.

“Hey, Marta, a Sprite for Franco,” Ivan called to his wife.

“Not even a small glass, Angelo?” Paolo asked.

Sgreccia shook his head. It was well-known to all that he never drank. As a van driver, he couldn’t do without his driving licence and for that reason didn’t want to start boozing, he once explained. Nobody believed that was the real reason for his abstinence, but nothing more could be got out of him, not even after persistent prodding.

“He isn’t drinking today,” said Paolo and poured out two glasses.

“Did your wife ban it?” asked Marcantoni.

“He’s just too lazy to go for a piss,” said Ivan.

Nobody laughed. They remained silent while little Paty brought out the can of Sprite. Gigino toddled behind and watched Marcantoni make his special blend. The evening gradually began to breathe a sigh of relief. The first gentle breeze rose over the parapet and made the leaves on the two ash trees rustle softly. The two Lucarelli girls appeared and tapped their fingers around on the ice cream board next to the entrance to the bar. Marta waited until they had decided on the Crocchino, as they always did, and went inside with them. The fly curtain swung out a little behind them.

“It would be appropriate if he stopped by for a moment,” Franco Marcantoni began again eventually.

“Stopped by for a moment?” Ivan leaned his elbows on the table. “On his first night of freedom? If I’d spent fifteen years behind bars I wouldn’t go confidently into my local pub, sit down at a table and say, ‘Barman, I am a free man, it’s a beautiful evening, so bring me and my friends the finest wine from your cellar so that we can all...’”

“You don’t know Vannoni,” said Paolo Garzone.

“What of it?”

“And you don’t have a wine cellar,” muttered Marcantoni.

“Not yet. But just you wait! As soon as there’s some money in the bank, I’ll make something of this place.” Ivan gulped down the contents of his glass. “But first-class wine I do have. Will you not have a glass after all, Angelo?”

“He knows that Giorgio Lucarelli will be here,” said Sgreccia.

“Well, of course, Angelo, we’re drinking wine!” said Ivan.

“You won’t die from just one glass,” said Marcantoni, but Sgreccia did not respond to the dig. Nobody wanted to start the second round of the squabble that normally followed. If you’d lived in the same place for decades and spent every evening together it was only natural that topics of conversation repeated themselves and roles became reinforced. Everyone knew everyone else. Everyone knew his neighbour’s weaknesses and wasn’t afraid to make jokes about them. But on this particular evening, nobody wanted to, because this evening wasn’t like any other. Matteo Vannoni had returned. Nobody knew what that meant. Something was in the air, and for once the usual rituals seemed insipid.

There were no secrets but there were things that were never spoken about. Vannoni murdering his wife didn’t belong to those things initially. He had completely shattered the village and had been the main topic of conversation for months. Factions for and against Vannoni had formed. When the trial was over, people had continued to debate the verdict heavily, but at some point they had all had enough. Hailstorms came, bad harvests and lottery wins, deaths, births, village festivals. Life went on, but Vannoni, sitting in a cell somewhere far away, no longer belonged there.

Now and then, but increasingly less often, Elena and Angelo were still asked how he was, but nobody really wanted to know. His existence for the village had ended in a bloody deed that slipped ever further away and seemed ever more unreal. He had become a shadow. Grey, distant. And unpleasant. Like someone who was terminally ill refusing to die. So people tried to forget about him. Nobody talked about him. Were people now supposed to be ashamed of themselves for it? Should people hold it against Vannoni that he had risen from the dead? Was this old story not done with after all?

“Fifteen years is a long time,” said Angelo Sgreccia. Fifteen years had gone by for him too. Elena and Sgreccia, who had no children of their own, had taken in Vannoni’s daughter Catia after the event. They had raised her as well as they could. They had watched her grow up. For fifteen years. Catia had become their child. They loved her, and the fact that she was difficult and always withdrawn didn’t change anything for them.

“For killing his wife, fifteen years is nothing,” said Ivan. Nowadays in prison you live like a king. Three square meals a day, peace and quiet, sporting activities. You can go to mass on Sundays, do courses and even have your own telly.”

“I’m curious to see what he’ll do now,” said Franco Marcantoni.

“He won’t find work easily,” said Paolo Garzone.

“I didn’t mean that,” said Marcantoni. With his bony hand he poured himself half a glass of wine with Sprite.

“If I were him...” Ivan broke off mid-sentence. Giorgio Lucarelli had appeared round the corner of the chapel. He nodded to the women at the entrance to the bar and pinched Paty’s cheek affectionately. Then he sloped slowly over to the table, pulled up a chair and collapsed into it. He didn’t behave in any way differently to normal but this time it seemed to the others as though an actor had walked on stage.

“Boy, am I thirsty,” he said. Sun and years of working in the fields had drawn deep furrows across his face. He was still good-looking – tough, wiry – but he was beginning to show his forty years.

Paolo Garzone poured out a glass and pushed it over the table.

“So what’s new?” asked Lucarelli.

What was new was that Vannoni had returned. That could not have escaped Lucarelli. And hadn’t Vannoni readily admitted at the trial that he would have shot him too, given the opportunity? Now he had that opportunity.

“We were just talking about...” Paolo Garzone said hesitatingly.

“About vipers,” Ivan interrupted. “Down near Madonna del Piano, one of Luigi the shepherd’s dogs got hit. The dog stuck his nose into the bushes and pow! A jet-black viper, not even a big one.”

“That’s the sweltering heat,” said Marcantoni, “It makes them aggressive.”

“And more poisonous”, said Sgreccia. “It’s as if they’ve been charged up. Pure poison from head to tail, pure poison.”

If he’d been expecting a different topic of conversation, Lucarelli didn’t show it. And yet he must have sensed that the others were avoiding him, either out of consideration or through uncertainty. Lucarelli gulped the wine down and reached for the bottle. It was empty.

“Luigi got the dog into his car straightaway. It wasn’t even quarter of an hour before he got the injection, but there was nothing anyone could do,” said Ivan.

“I am now in my seventies” said Marcantoni, “But it’s never been as bad as this year. They are everywhere. There’s a viper under every stone. You’d almost think the earth was spewing out poison.”

Lucarelli stood up and said, “I’m off. I’ve got better things to do than listen to you lot prattling on about snakes. As if you think the world is coming to an end just because some dog’s gone and died.”

He threw a thousand-lire note on the table and disappeared.

Ivan pocketed the money and said, “Giorgio isn’t doing too well today.”

“Not well at all,” said Paolo Garzone.

“Mm,” said old Marcantoni.

“Four months gone?” asked Matteo Vannoni, dumbstruck. “Why didn’t you write and tell me?”

“I’m telling you now,” said Catia. She was wearing jeans and a white T shirt. She wasn’t showing yet.

“For heaven’s sake, you’re seventeen!” said Vannoni.

Catia didn’t reply. She stared at the television. Telegiornale was on. They were showing footage of a burnt-out limousine behind a police cordon. The umpteenth bomb attack on a judge in Palermo. The pictures were in colour, but otherwise could easily have been mistaken for the ones that had been running over and over in Vannoni’s mind for the past fifteen years. A battlefield that the police had descended on like vultures.

“Well?” asked Vannoni. Perhaps she was showing a little bit. Catia hadn’t visited him in the past two years. He didn’t know if his daughter would have been thinner four months ago.

“Well what?”

Vannoni hadn’t been to visit Catia for fifteen years. He had no right to hit the roof like this.

“Well, how did this come about?”

“You mean you don’t know where babies come from?” asked Catia.

She was watching the flickering images. Her face was soft, her eyebrows thick, her nose perhaps a little too large. She also had blonde hair, otherwise she didn’t resemble Maria at all.

“Who is the father?” asked Vannoni.

Catia stared at the television screen, across which a stretcher was being wheeled. The body on it was covered by a tarpaulin.  The last time Vannoni had watched television as a free man it had been five. Five bodies, five stretchers, five tarpaulins.

“Who is it? Who is the father?” asked Vannoni.

A politician’s face in close-up said the attack was an attack on a democratic, lawful state.

“Then he’s dead,” said Catia.


“The democratic, lawful state.”

A good fifty metres down the slope stood a cluster of olive trees. They had knobbly trunks out of which sprouted a few twigs of pathetic green. Giorgio Lucarelli trudged over the barley stubble towards them. At eleven o’clock in the morning, the ground was already glowing under his work shoes. The air was shimmering and the houses of San Pietro seemed to sway over the crest of the hill to the south like a Fata Morgana.

Corriere Adriatico had forecast a new heat record. And there wasn’t a drop of rain in sight. In any case, the barley had been got in. The wheat still needed a few more days but he’d manage it. Then they’d see. Somehow it was always all right. Lucarelli had never been able to stand the continual whining of the others. If it didn’t rain for a few days, they would see the harvest shrivelling. And if it did rain, they would see the fields swimming in it.

Lucarelli reached the first olive tree. The recently grafted shoot had taken well. It would be three years before the tree bore fruit again, but they would be big, fleshy eating olives, rather than the little ones which consisted of barely anything more than the stone. Lucarelli flicked his knife and began to remove the shoots at the bottom of the trunk.

The locals were exaggerating this whole thing with Lucarelli too. They had avoided the subject on the previous evening while he’d been around, but Lucarelli had sensed that they were absolutely convinced a catastrophe was on its way. As if one had to kill the other in order to survive. Would they challenge each other to a duel on the piazza like in an American western? Him, Giorgio Lucarelli, standing stock still in front of the Palazzo Civico, waiting. Heavy footsteps resounding from the alley leading to the church. Matteo Vannoni stepping out of the shadows on the other side of the piazza and stopping at a distance of 20 paces. Their faces not flinching. A child being dragged by his mother into a house, the window shutters slamming to...

It was ridiculous. Lucarelli went to the next tree and checked the shoot with his gentle hands. Vannoni and he would never be the best of friends, but they didn’t need to be either. They would do their best to avoid one another, but if they did run into each other, they would be able to exchange a few polite words. Vannoni had had enough time to think about things. Back then he’d simply cracked, Lucarelli could understand that. Perhaps he’d have done the same, if he’d found Antonietta in bed with another man. But to get out of prison after fifteen years, only to commit another murder and have to return – this time for good – Vannoni wouldn’t be that stupid.

All the shoots had taken magnificently. Lucarelli would water the trees if the drought continued. Who cared if the parish council had forbidden it? He put his knife away. He wiped the sweat from his brow and set off back. Up the slope.

He stopped at the ruined rustico where old Godi used to live. He must also have been dead for twenty years. He’d died in winter, alone, and had never wanted anything to do with anyone. The body had lain around for a few days and would have perhaps remained undiscovered for longer if Giorgio’s father hadn’t heard the animals howling. One horse, two cows and a few sheep that had been shut up in their pens for days without food or water. The noise had been terrifying, his father had told him, and then he’d gone in and discovered Godi dead in front of the wash basin. He’d taken care of the animals, harnessed the horse and carried Godi’s body to the priest. No, it must have been at least twenty-five years ago now. Giorgio had been a server at the burial.

The walls of the house that were still standing were overgrown with six-foot high thorny bushes. Godi’s heirs lived somewhere up north and had let everything go to rack and ruin. They hadn’t been here once in all that time. The Lucarellis had kept the fruit trees accessible and pruned them - first Carlo and now, for the past few years, Giorgio. Almonds, peaches and the wide overhanging mulberry bush, in the shade of which Giorgio Lucarelli had placed his water bottle. He sat down on the old chopping block in front of the trunk and leaned back. The water bottle was to his left, on a piece of rubble. Lucarelli reached for it, grasped the neck of the bottle, and could feel through the plastic that the water had got too warm despite having been in the shade. He thought to himself a cool beer would now be just... and heard the hiss.

A soft, short hiss incredibly close by. A threatening, monosyllabic hiss that sounded like a “Stop!”. Lucarelli’s fingers froze around the neck of the bottle. Without moving his head, he let his gaze fall down to the side. The viper’s head wasn’t even ten centimetres from his wrist. It was a triangular black head, as immobile as its black torso. Only the end of its tail twitched nervously.

Lucarelli didn’t move. He concentrated on breathing quietly and rhythmically. If he didn’t lose his nerve, nothing would happen. Vipers only attacked if they were surprised or felt threatened. If, for example, a hand came straight at them. Lucarelli had already survived the most dangerous moment. Now he only had to wait until the snake felt safe enough to move away. No sudden movements.

The viper didn’t move. It was as if it was nailed down.

“Get lost!” thought Lucarelli. “Shove off!” He felt the plastic bottle grow slippery from the sweat on his hand.

The viper’s head swayed a little bit to the side. As if it was looking for the best angle to sink its poisonous fangs into Lucarelli’s wrist. The viper hissed three times. Short, strained. It sounded like a mocking peal of laughter. Then its head was still again. Lucarelli could see its eyes now. They were looking at him coldly.

Lucarelli felt a drop of sweat trickle off his forehead. It stopped on the bridge of his nose. The trail it had left behind seemed to burn into his skin. Lucarelli felt an almost overwhelming urge to wipe the back of his hand over it.

What would happen if the viper bit him? He’d make a makeshift tourniquet. In 20 minutes he’d be up in the village, then a quarter of an hour in the car to Terracini’s practice in San Lorenzo, or straight to hospital in Pergola. They’d definitely have the antidote. He’d be sorted within a good half hour. By evening he’d be laughing over the story in the bar. It wasn’t half so bad.

The viper didn’t move.

Giorgio Lucarelli didn’t move.

“What do you want from me?” he thought.

The viper’s eyes stared fixedly at him. The viper was as black as death.

“Tell me!” thought Lucarelli. “Go on, talk to me, you wretched animal! Tell me what you want!”

The viper flicked its tongue. Its mouth seemed to barely open, but Lucarelli could clearly see its forked tongue as it shot out and in again. As if it had spat out a curse.

“What?” thought Lucarelli. “What did you say?”

The viper didn’t move a muscle. It was waiting. It had said something to Lucarelli and now it was waiting for an answer. Suddenly he was certain that he had to speak. Only when he talked to it would it go away.

“Right," thought Lucarelli.

“What do you want to hear?” he thought. He would say something. The viper and he would never be the best of friends, but they didn’t need to be either. Lucarelli could exchange a few words with anyone. Why not with a snake?

“Good,” he murmured. “I’m now going to take my hand off the bottle.”

“I’m going to remove it slowly,” he said softly, ”And you aren’t going to move.”

The viper didn’t move.

Good. Lucarelli lifted his index finger first. The finger was shaking a little. The viper watched. Middle finger, ring finger, little finger. The surface of his hand came away from the plastic with a soft squelch. The viper growled. Lucarelli’s hand froze mid-movement.

“Keep calm,” he thought. “It’s nothing,” he thought. He saw the imprint of his hand melting away from the edges of the plastic bottle.

The viper growled.

And rattled.

It growled and rattled like an old car that was jolting over the track across the fields to the ruins of Godi’s house.

Lucarelli made no jerky movement. He didn’t move his head an inch. It was his gaze that swept involuntarily to the side towards the noise of the approaching car. A short panning of the eyes that leapt back again when a hot stinging sensation shot through Lucarelli. More from disbelief than shock, his pupils dilated when he saw the viper with its teeth sunk into his lower arm, its jaw wide open and its triangular head so deeply buried in his skin that it looked like a tattoo, its body stiff and taut like a stick, like a strange black syringe that was pressing its black poison relentlessly into Lucarelli’s bloodstream.

It was only a split second before the viper let go, but Lucarelli caught it with his left hand. He didn’t cry out, didn’t fly into a panic. He looked at the viper, he looked at his arm and felt betrayed. He thought they had bonded, the viper and him, but he had been foolish. It had made a fool of him. Lucarelli calmly bent the upper body downwards, put his right foot directly behind the viper’s head and put all his strength into the studs of his heel. The viper’s tail pounded two more times, then it was over. It was dead.

“Vicious beast,” said Lucarelli. He examined his lower arm. The marks of the poisonous fangs were clearly visible. A drop of blood oozed slowly out of one of them. The bite was no more painful than a wasp sting, but Lucarelli could feel the poison flowing through his veins.

He pulled his shirt over his head, bored his knife into the material, yanked and ripped a strip out of it. He wound it round his arm above the bite. With his left hand and his teeth he pulled it as tight as he could.

Behind Godi’s house, someone switched off the engine of the dratted car that had distracted him. Lucarelli heard the car door open and shut again. At least he’d be spared the footpath into the village. He’d get them to take him to hospital and within 20 minutes at the most he’d have been given the antidote. With his left hand Lucarelli unscrewed the cap off his water bottle. He took a large gulp.

Lucarelli heard plodding footsteps. He turned round and saw a figure coming towards him through the thistles and blackberry bushes.

“You?” he said.

The risotto was ready around one o’clock. The Lucarellis waited until half past one, then Antonietta decided enough was enough. Her husband often turned up late for lunch because he had apparently run into some friend or other. She didn’t care as long as Giorgio reheated his food for himself. There were five of them sat round the table – Antonietta, the two girls and her parents-in-law.

At two o’clock, Antonietta cleared away the plate that she had got out for her husband and put it back into the cupboard. She put the lid on the pan with the remains of the risotto in it and put the pan in the fridge. Then she went into the bedroom and got undressed. She lay down on the sheets. Plaster was crumbling away from a crack in the ceiling. Giorgio would have to fill it. It was hot and airless. Antonietta couldn’t get to sleep and got up again at quarter past three. Her parents-in-law were snoozing somewhere and the two girls were having an argument in the lounge. It was about whether they could listen to the new record by Laura Pausini more than three times in a row. Giorgio still wasn’t back.

It was too hot for working in the garden. Antonietta swept the kitchen. At some point Lidia Marcantoni stopped by and asked her if she knew anybody who could play the organ at church on a Sunday every now and then. Then Antonietta washed and stoned some apricots. She weighed out some sugar and began to make jam. She became increasingly certain that something was wrong. At five o’clock she sent out her older daughter Sabrina to look for Giorgio. She told her to start out at the grafted olive trees, though Antonietta knew that Giorgio had only had about half an hour’s work to do there. Just before half past six, Sabrina came back empty-handed.

Antonietta untied her apron and asked in the bar. Ivan hadn’t seen Giorgio all day. As soon as she got home again and just as she lifted the fly curtain away from the door, Paolo Garzone’s van pulled into the piazza. Paolo had wound the window right down and called out to Antonietta. His voice didn’t sound any different to normal but Antonietta knew straight away what was going on. She sensed it.

Over the past few years, she and Giorgio had lived more or less happily with one another. There were the children, there was work, their everyday lives, they had argued every now and then, all sorts of things had happened which suddenly seemed utterly trivial. All by themselves, the last few years faded away, turned to dust and it was as if they had been blown away by the evening breeze in Capri, where Antonietta and Giorgio had run barefoot along the beach together. The sun had sunk in a glow of red and had coloured the smooth surface of the sea. Antonietta had collected mussels – there were beautiful mussels on Capri – red, black, orange, softly marbled in a sheen of mother of pearl – and whenever she found a particularly beautiful one, she would show it to Giorgio and she would lean lightly against him and he had taken her in his arms and she, she had been happy.

Paolo parked the van in front of the community noticeboard and climbed out.

Capri was a wonderful spot on Earth. Especially for honeymoons. It had just been the one week. Antonietta regretted that more than anything else. They should have allowed themselves at least a fortnight. Back then.

Antonietta sensed Paolo’s hand lightly brush her upper arm.

“Antonietta...” said Paolo in a raw voice. He looked awkwardly at her.

“Come on, sit yourself down somewhere,” he said.

She shook her head in silence.

Paolo pulled his hand back from her arm. He took his cap off.

“I don’t know how to say this,” he said. He squinted and stared at the post box that was fastened to the wall of the old school. The red tin flashed in the evening sunshine.

“Giorgio is dead”, said Antonietta. She didn’t know whether Giorgio’s life had flashed before his eyes in his final moments. At any rate, she could see the images of their happy days in front of her as though they were only yesterday. How Giorgio had stood up proudly from planting the olive tree after Sabrina’s birth. How he had put a far too expensive diamond ring on her finger when he’d had a lottery win. How he had asked her to dance for the first time at the Festa di San Lorenzo. It was a slow waltz, during which he’d trodden on her toes twice. Giorgio had been a terrible dancer. Antonietta smiled.

“I’m so sorry,” Paolo mumbled. He crumpled his cloth cap in his powerful hands.

“Thank you,” said Antonietta. Her voice sounded false, flat, impassive. It sounded to her as if it was someone else speaking.

“He is...”

“Take me to him,” said Antonietta. She didn’t want to know how it had happened. Not yet.

Paolo Garzone nodded.

“Just give me a few minutes,” said Antonietta.

“Can I do...?” asked Paolo. Antonietta left him standing there and went into the house. Her father-in-law Carlo was sat at the table bent over the newspaper. Antonietta couldn’t talk to him now. She didn’t want to talk to anybody.

“Giorgio is dead,” she said, and darted up the stairs.

She got her black blouse and black shirt out of the wardrobe. She got changed and sat down for a minute on the bed, because everything was swimming in front of her eyes. Light breaks into pieces, light breaks into pieces, a strange voice whispered inside her, but Antonietta didn’t have time to think about it. She had to get to Giorgio, had to see him. Straight away. She got up, ran to the bedroom door, turned back round once more and yanked the top drawer of the dresser open. She put the diamond ring that Giorgio had given her on her middle finger. Next to her wedding ring.

Carlo was standing at the foot of the stairs. Antonietta only glanced at him briefly but she knew he had understood.

“What did you say?” Carlo Lucarelli asked flatly.

“Look after the girls!” said Antonietta. She pressed past him. Outside, Paolo was wiping the dusty windscreen of his van with a cloth. The sunset was colouring the sky with blood. Paolo threw the cloth inside the car and ran round the bonnet to the other side. Antonietta did not flinch when a long piercing scream ran out of the house that died in a deep, almost animalistic gargle. She only recognised the voice of Giorgio’s mother Assunta when a rising and falling lament began.

“Thank you,” said Antonietta, as Paolo held the passenger door open for her.

“Antonietta,” said Paolo, “It’s perhaps not the right moment, but, from the bottom of my heart, I am amazed at you. How you’re keeping it all in.”

“Just drive!” she said.