Chapter 11- More winter tasks, a doctor and a chicken-thief

Surprisingly, the electricity supply system had survived the heavy snow; certainly it had gone off once or twice, but only briefly and hardly more frequently than in normal weather. The current came from a small hydro-electric station known locally as Molinaccio – the ‘ugly mill’ – on the River Fiastrone, only about six miles away, where it came down from the mountains. On the farm they had no electrical appliances; the supply was used only for lighting, and although it was supposed to be 100 volts, the bulbs often glimmered so dimly that it must sometimes have been a good deal less.    The Cardarelli had come to terms with the technology – Nazarena had a couple of bent wires which she often hooked on to the cables at the point where they reached the house, and from these there was a flex which by-passed the meter. No doubt everyone in the district had a similar system.

The Italian language is ideal for calling out over long distances, with the vowels, especially the final ones, being drawn out into a sort of yodel. A consultation might be made with the neighbours, for instance, to find out if their electricity had also gone off, or members of the family could be summoned in from the fields at mealtimes:

Maria: Oooooh, Riccarrrrdooooooh. (A few seconds of silence for the sound to travel.)Riccardo, distantly: Oooooooooh
Maria: Vieni Suuuuuuuuh, a mangiaaaaaaaaah.

Quite often, conversations between people miles away could be heard echoing around the hills.

While the snow was still on the ground, Lina had a bad attack and the doctor had to be sent for. He arrived on skis – the only time that we saw them used – but he was not able to do much although the poor girl had improved slightly by the time he arrived. The doctor was a jolly man who had served in the first war, and for our benefit sang, in English, the chorus of ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ to prove it. A few weeks later, he was summoned again, this time to look at Flavio. During the night Riccardo and Maria had wakened to find that the little boy – he shared their bed – seemed to have stopped breathing. Understandably they were very frightened and woke the household with a great hullabaloo. By the time I was awake Flavio was recovered, and when the doctor arrived next morning was found thankfully to be unharmed.

It must have been in February when Alec left the Di Luca house and went to live and work with Nello, a watch­repairer who lived near Gualdo on the provincial road that led to Sarnano. Nello, who had been impressed with Alec’s skill, had invited him with the approval, and I expect encouragement, of the Di Luca, who must have been feeling the burden of feeding three extra people.     Nello, who was in his mid-twenties, lived and had a workshop in his parent’s house, and the atmosphere there was much to Alec’s liking. The shortage of spare parts and materials only provided a spur to his ingenuity and his ability at improvisation.      He also enjoyed the company, which included Nello’s two lively teenage sisters.     The family seemed to be quite well off, but the thing which impressed me most on visits there, was that in the garden there was an actual earth closet. It was a simple hole-in-the-ground affair, but was the first I had seen since leaving prison-camp.

One important outdoor job of the winter was the cutting and stacking of firewood, and this task was now renewed after the snow had cleared, with the advantage that many branches and some whole trees had been brought down.   Logs were cut into convenient lengths and piled at the side of the track to be collected by ox-cart later in the year as required. Twigs and brushwood were made into bundles and tied with twisted willow or other pliant branches, a skill which I eventually learned although not with the same neatness and speed of the natives.

Riccardo had begun to prune the vines, a job which needed a great deal of experience and which he was quite proud that his father now allowed him to do. It was important that it be finished before the sap began to rise in the Spring. On one hillside a few new rows of vines were planted.

ch11 - planting vines

Planting Vines – the Padrone watching Vivenzio and Riccardo

The young maples, which were to be the supports, were put in at the same time: these were completely bare stems about six feet high and they were lined up and spaced with great care. The Padrone, who had paid for them, did some of the supervision. Next season, these saplings would have all the new shoots removed except for the four highest ones which would be trained out on to a horizontal cross of bamboo nailed to the top of the tree. Eventually this would form the open framework on which the vine could grow, and have space for the bunches to hang down.

One morning Guerino carne into the house rather excitedly to say that he had seen someone stealing chickens. This was not from the farmyard, but from an outhouse several hundred yards down the hillside where another small flock of hens was kept. Guerino had recognised the culprit as an Englishman who was living with a family at Castello, a hamlet only a couple of miles away.    We took a very poor view of this, as likely to affect the local popularity of the English in general. With Guerino, we went over to Castello and, while he chatted to the family – he did not want a confrontation with them – we talked in the stable to the Englishman, who had not previously been known to us. He produced the dead fowl and said it was the only one, although Guerino had thought that two had been taken. We advised that he should leave the district, and said that if he did not do so we would return next week and force his eviction. We left with the chicken hidden under my jacket, and without the purpose of the visit being disclosed to the family.   On the way home Guerino said that they were a bad lot and that they had probably instigated the theft.  Our threat to return later with reinforcements could have proved rather humiliating as neither Freddy nor Norman would come, because, they said, the Di Luca were against it. The Cardarelli were not much in favour of our going either; a policy of not making enemies of your neighbours was clearly important to the peace of the community.   Fortunately the chicken thief had himself decided to move on, and nothing more was heard of him.

Chapter 11 Supplement – November 1990

When electricity failed, after the first heavy snow, Hoop says:
“Alec examined the system by which power was supplied to Picacchi and through his skill as an electrician the contrada soon had light restored, the only area to do so and the local people expressed the opinion that the light had never been so bright.”

We were all fortunate during this time in having mainly good health although I did at one stage have an enormous boil on my cheek which Nazarena took very seriously and I was even made to stay in bed. I understood her to say that what was needed was to have apples put on it. This seemed strange to me but after some cross-purposed discussion it became clear that what was wanted was honey – (miele not mele)- but this was an academic recommendation, as they hadn’t any.

Nazarena knew of other homespun remedies for minor ailments; for headache for example, from which Lina suffered frequently, it was necessary to put a few drops of olive oil into a saucer of water, make the sign of the cross over it and then sprinkle it on the forehead.

One experience Hoop recalls, for obvious reasons, very vividly:
”….when I had raging toothache, Riccardo, Paul and I went into Gualdo to the local surgery. This must have been immensely courageous on Riccardo and his family’s part as the doctor, who was also the dentist, was reputed to have strong Fascist – and Axis – sympathies. He examined my mouth, diagnosed an abscess and proceeded to extract the tooth causing it, without any form of anaesthetic. It was in the lower jaw; he pulled up and, gripping the arms of the chair, I pulled down for some five minutes, the pain was so excruciating it felt like hours. The relief when the tug of war was over was such as I have never known before or since. The doctor explained that the lack of anaesthetic was not because I was not paying, but because the position of the abscess made an injection impossible. Riccardo, very impressed with what he had seen, took us into a bar and ordered us both a very enjoyable short drink, probably a liqueur, before we returned to Picacchi. For many weeks after my name and the words ‘Niente inizione’ [‘No injection’] would crop up as the Cardarelli talked with their friends.”

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