The three older sons – Federico was too young – had been serving in the army at the time of the armistice. Riccardo and Guerino were fortunate in being able to desert, and had returned home to Picacchi only a day or two before we arrived. Their elder brother Gino, however, had been in Sardinia and was now completely cut off from contact with his family. His wife, Elvira, with their son, continued to make her home with her in-laws, even though her own parents lived at the nearest house a few hundred yards up the track. These neighbours – nick-named Felicetto – were additionally linked to our family in that their son Oreste was married to one of our daughters, Dulce. After the war, Federico was to make the link closer still by marrying their youngest daughter. This sort of in-breeding must have been very common in rural communities everywhere before increased mobility allowed the young a wider circle of acquaintance.
Most of the other families in the district also had sons who had deserted, and this made for an identity of interest with us. Harbouring deserters put them in the wrong already, so they were clearly on our side in relation to the authorities. A long tradition of misgoverment had in any case made it inevitable that they should be against the established order. Germans and Fascists were hated not so much on ideological grounds, but for having continued this disastrous war even after it been declared officially to be over.
Hoop and I slipped gently into the everyday routine. It was not the most demanding time of year; the grapes had been the last of the season’s produce to be harvested; the ploughing had been mostly finished and we helped hoe those awkward bits of land where the oxen could not easily operate. Nevertheless everyone always seemed busy, often on tasks which would have astonished an English farmer: Riccardo was busy making an enormous basket about three feet in diameter and nearly ten feet high. When completed it was to be fixed in a tree on the edge of the farmyard with its lower end about two feet above the ground. In the wooden base a two-inch hole had been drilled which could be closed by a slide fitted underneath. In this, acorns were to be stored for the pigs, and during the next few weeks the collection of these was to be the main task of everyone in the family. This turned out to be quite a sociable occasion with us all working in the same area, kneeling or sitting and each with a basket, even under the same tree. On some days it was declared to be cold and a bonfire was lit, around which we could warm our hands from time to time. Over at the Di Luca farm, Freddy, Norman and Alec, with their family, were doing the same; even grandma – the eighty-niner – was squatting on the ground with the others.
At our house one of the younger women – daughter or daughter-in-law – was always left behind to do the domestic work, to cook and to be with poor Lina who sat by the hearth much of the day and never left the house. They also looked after the animals around the yard, feeding the pigs, fowls and so on, and perhaps shepherding the sheep nearby. There were only about a dozen of these and they were allowed out during the day to graze, but as there were no fences, they needed either to be tethered or to be guarded. At night they were kept in a stall so that they could conveniently be milked in the morning. Nannina, Elvira and Maria took it in turn to do a week each of these domestic chores; this duty was unpopular, I think because it was lonely, and the endless chatter which would be going on elsewhere was missed.
In charge, organising and supervising and joining in the work of the house, was Nazarena, called Mamma or Ma by everyone including her husband, and indeed it was some time before I knew her name. She was a tiny woman, not very robust after a life of constant child bearing and rearing. Although her resignation at the clearly hopeless state of Lina was sometimes apparent, her spirits were by no means run down; there was little time to brood in this busy household and she was quite capable of holding her own in discussion and decisionmaking. She also found it necessary frequently to rebuke the members of the family for swearing, making rather ritualised gestures of striking out at the younger ones. Swearing consisted not merely in using words describing bodily parts and functions, as is common in England, but real blasphemy: ‘Pig of a God’, they would shout, ‘Ugly Christ’, or even, rarely but in an extreme case, ‘C–t of the Madonna’. This was in a family which was not just nominally Catholic: all the women, and Vivenzio himself, went to mass weekly; the younger men were less regular, but certainly did not consider themselves to be pagans. No doubt, to a believer, blasphemy is an even greater relief to the feelings, but it did seem to have become so automatic and commonplace as to be pointless.
It was Federico who swore most, and indeed his sometimes boorish manner and impatience with our tiresome lack of understanding, was in contrast to the thoughtfulness of the others.He was a short and awkwardly shaped youth, slightly humped-backed with a large head set low into broad shoulders. Although he was not unfriendly towards us, he certainly lacked the social graces. A sort of rough diamond where the roughness was more apparent than any caret of jewel within.
Riccardo, in the absence of his brother Gino, had assumed the role of senior son, and his opinions were clearly respected by his father. His goodwill towards us was important; moreover he seemed to be able to communicate with us more easily, realising our troubles with the language. Some of the others were difficult to follow and failed to appreciate that to say something in a different way, and more slowly, might be better than merely repeating it. Elvira was the worst in this, and although her good nature was apparent, it was difficult to have a conversation with her. Nannina talked continually and excitedly, in a harsh croaky voice, hardly stopping to consider whether we understood or not. The calmness of Maria was a relief; there was a quiet confidence about her, perhaps due to the more settled state of being with her husband and baby son. She was a charming woman, the most handsome of them too; Hoop and I were very fond of her.
The language which we were gradually picking up was a Marchigiano version of Italian. Fortunately this was not a strong dialect compared with some which I have heard since, being mostly rather slovenly with the dropping of many final syllables. Although a number of local words were used, at least they were known to be dialect and were sometimes pointed out to us. Compared to some of the dialects of the south, this was quite mild – when, later, I met some refugees from Naples, I assumed from their speech that they were probably Yugoslavs.
The language was not acquired without misunderstandings, some of them farcical. Freddy for instance, in early days had reported to us that he had been propositioned by our Nannina. This was so utterly unlikely that I could not imagine how he had come to think it; eventually realising that he had misinterpreted her asking whether he was married. Finding that he did not understand her spoken question, she had tried to indicate the married state by pretending to slide an imaginary wedding ring on to her finger. Freddy, who took this to be demonstrating an offer of a less subtle kind, said that he had grinned sheepishly and gone away.
At much the same time – it must have been within a few days of our arrival – I got myself into a muddle which I was not able to sort out until many years later. I had one or two photographs, and I was showing them to some of the family.One of the snaps, which had been sent to me when I was in prison camp, showed Jeanne holding a young baby in her arms and this was at once assumed to be my wife and child. I should of course have explained to them at once that although this was my girl friend, we were not married, and that the baby was not hers but belonged to a friend whom I did not even know. Instead, I found it simpler to admit to wife and child, not realising that as time went on it would become increasingly difficult to explain this silly falsehood, and that I would have to embroider it rather than admit to it. It was at least twenty years before I had the courage to explain to them how it had come about and I am not sure that they all believe me now, but suspect a skeleton concealed in a cupboard somewhere.
Chapter 4 Supplement – November 1990
Of course, one reason why the routines of rural life were such a novelty for me was that I had lived all my life in London and I would, no doubt, have felt as much the bemused stranger had I found myself on a remote farm in some part of England.
Except when going to Mass on Sunday morning, Nazarena was never seen without her large clasp-knife which hung from a string about her waist to be always available for any one of the multitude of domestic jobs.
After having gone off very early one morning and being away all day, Elvira, Nannina and Maria returned with baskets of chestnuts which had been collected for free ‘in the mountains,’ they said. Also found in the autumn were several varieties of fungus. These were not very plentiful and were usually grilled and eaten by the finder as not being sufficient to make a dish for the whole family. Most common was the field mushroom although it was claimed that the best was a fungus with coral-like branches the name of which I have not been able to trace.
Hoop remembers assisting to embroider the story of my fictitious baby son by pointing out that St Martin’s day – 11th November – was the baby’s Saints day. That evening the best wine was produced at the evening meal in ‘Martin’s’ honour. By this time I had a very guilty conscience about the whole affair.