Chapter 12 – Spring, and time to move on

There were now beginning to be signs of Spring, one of which, unusual to us, was the sight of Federico crawling about on the roof of the house, inspecting tiles and marking some of them with chalk. I thought that he was perhaps about to do some repairs, but in fact he was making a check on where sparrows were nesting. The big curved tiles fitted together fairly loosely and there were plenty of places where birds could get under, making ideal sites for nests. Ideal, that is, if it had not been for the plans of Federico. During the next week or two he kept a close watch on the marked tiles and the progress of the nestlings beneath them. As each brood reached optimum plumpness, just before becoming fully fledged, they went into Federico’s bag and were eaten for supper. I must say, callous as it sounds, that they were delicious, and excuse myself and Federico by pleading the shortage of meat in the diet. The Italians had a strictly utilitarian attitude to wildlife: earlier, when the snow was on the ground, many small birds who normally, but wisely, kept well away, were tempted to the farmyard in search of food. The sheltered side of a hay­stack offered the prospect of chaff and seeds, but was also a mass of improvised nooses and traps of various sorts, including bricks held up by balanced twigs. Even robins did not escape – I was still sentimental enough to think that a robin in the snow should have been something rather special. All this in the land of St Francis, and Assisi was no further away than forty miles as the crow flies – but then there were not many crows about, and the Sibillini mountains, five thousand feet high, were in between.

A task for the whole family, including us, was weeding the wheat, which was now several inches high. We all walked through the fields, in line abreast, removing the weeds by hand as we went. Although this sounds simple enough, and there were obvious interlopers which even I could recognise, the difficult one was the wild oat, which to me seemed to be just a grass like the wheat itself. The Cardarelli had no difficulty in detecting the difference but, in spite of their patience in showing me, I was never able to do it with real confidence, and sometimes had guiltily to conceal the shoot of wheat which I found I had uprooted.

On Shrove Tuesday, Elvira made what she called frittelle and which really were not unlike pancakes, being a batter fried in lard. Martedi Grasso – Fat Tuesday – was aptly named in that it was the last opportunity to use animal fat or meat, normally forbidden during Lent. This was not a normal year, however, as the priest had announced in church a dispensation by which, because of the shortage both of olive oil and of fish, they were allowed.

As Spring advanced, we became aware of a general lowering of morale among the Italians, and we too had some anxiety about the progress of the war. Where was the offensive which we had hoped for? The Anzio landing had become bogged down almost at once with very little progress, and further South the position remained as it had been throughout the Winter. It was said that the fascist administration was establishing itself with greater confidence in Macerata and was spreading out into the province. There was increasing talk of spies, and tales of peasants having their houses burned down as punishment for helping prisoners. Such stories could have been true, although exactly where they had happened was never quite clear. They were never anywhere which was actually known to our family, but obviously such things were possible, and speculation about them made everyone a little uneasy.

One afternoon, Riccardo, wearing his serious expression, took us into the stable and told us of a conversation he had had with the padrone, the upshot of which had been that it wou1d be better if Hoop and I moved on. “Better for us, better for you,” said Riccardo, a proposition which we accepted as gracefully as we could. I have no doubt that it was the padrone who was responsible for this, but I think too that neither Riccardo or his father put up very much opposition to it, and were perhaps rather relieved that it could be decided without it being their own responsibility. We began to prepare ourselves to go later on in the week.

At the Di Luca, it seemed that their padrone – he was a cousin of Filippo – had also put pressure on for Freddy and Norman to leave. This was resisted however, not only by Guiseppe, but very strongly by Palmira who was a very determined woman. Eventually a sort of compromise was reached: Freddy and Norman were not actually to sleep in the house but were to spend the nights in an old shed which was on their land, some distance down the hill towards the river.

We left Picacchi on the morning of 6 April, the Thursday of Holy Week. As we were about to leave, Lina, who had been chronically ill for so long, finally died. The household erupted into a storm of grief to which the little drama of our leaving was but a minor addition. What to our ears and eyes seemed like violent overacting, her brothers howling and throwing themselves to the ground, was nevertheless a genuine expression of feeling. The conventions of behaviour would have made anything less appear callous. Poor Lina, she had not had much of a life. There had been nothing worthwhile to occupy her attention, she was not capable of the ordinary tasks of the household, and without these there had only been boredom in a community with no tradition of reading or of any sort of leisure activity. Her suffering had merely made her shrewish and ill-tempered.

We could not match the family display of emotion but nevertheless made our farewells with real sorrow, and certainly without hard feelings for our having been asked to go. The Cardarelli had looked after us for six months with what one must describe as Christian charity, and under the circumstances more could hardly be expected of them. We took our packs and set off up the track towards the provincial road.

Chapter 12 Supplement – November 1990

During the Spring, little Elvia Di Luca received her first communion. The district was by now too disturbed and uneasy for any of us English to go up to the service at Gualdo and even the Bishop of Camerino, who officiated, came on horseback because of the danger of vehicles on the roads being attacked by aircraft.

The Di Luca chickens were infected by some sort of fowl pest and many died. Freddy says that they were then taken to Sarnano and sold to the Germans.

When Norman and Freddy moved out of the Di Luca house after pressure from their padrone they slept in the ruin where the chimney was used as a grain store. Freddy says that the rats sat on the beams and rafters to watch them at night.

Link to chapter 13