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Memories of a trip to Eboli

Mum's determination was boundless. She'd find the house that Vito lived in if it was the last thing she would ever do. Houses with blackened stone may all look alike to normal people, but to Mum, a Campanian, they were as different as fingerprints: she just had to remember the shape of the windows and the fall of the sun as it set, and when she found it, Vito would know that we wanted to travel to Eboli, where Mum had an aunt, as old as the hills and who didn't know we would be coming. We would just hope she was at home when we arrived.

That's how we always did it; there was no phone call, just an arrival in a street or lane, hot and dusty, cicadas chirruping. Often we didn't know the door, or the house, and then Mum would shout out the name of her cousin, her friend, her aunt. And from a window a head would emerge, often one that didn't belong to the person we were looking for, to tell us that Giovanni has moved to Battipaglia. Or our luck would be in and we'd be told that three doors down, Giovanni could be found.

They would tell us to wait whilst they came down and they would show us where to go and Mum would thank them, not in the least embarrassed to have disturbed the day of this unknown neighbour of whoever it was we sought. But this neighbour was nosey - they all were - they wanted to know who this stranger and her children were and what better way to find out than facilitate a reunion?

The neighbour would begin digging straight away, asking if Mum was related to Giovanni and she would reply that she was his cousin who she hadn't seen for years. But the neighbour is only just getting started because next comes the questions about family names and Mum always answered by saying her maiden name and then adding that she had married Francesco Volpe, "figlio di Luigi Volpe, da Sant' Eustach', Montecorvino'. It was like a script that she trotted out, every time.

"Ah, Luigi Volpe, un uomo buono."

I never liked that. Everybody said my grandfather was a good man, but I know he took Dad's side. He came to London and never came to see us because Dad was his first born and he couldn't betray him. How did seeing the grandchildren of his first born become a question of loyalty? How is he a good man for having such a fucked up view of the world? Mum never argued with whoever said it though, despite finding it as laughable and as ironic as I did. She had every reason to fire a fusillade of pent up bitterness and anger at the neighbour but she was more interested in finding her cousin. Now wasn't the time. I wonder if every episode like this bit a small chunk out of her, again and again?

Vito, for whom we have been searching for at least an hour, is an old friend of Mum's and his work is as a taxi driver. He will take us to Eboli where we will search the streets, vaguely in the right area, but it has been decades since Mum has seen her aunt. The streets, narrow and dark have to be reconstructed in her mind, from memory. The day is hot and it will get hotter and I don't want to go to Eboli, I don't know this Great Aunt for whom Mum has a religious affection. I will have to sit in a living room, shrouded in blinds and curtains to keep out the heat while Mum drinks coffee and speaks to a decrepit old woman who Mum will tell me used to be the most beautiful woman in Eboli. I want to go to the beach.

Why don't they have phones in Montecorvino? Here, we trudge the streets in the heat, eyes from every corner and doorway on us because even Mum looks different these days, with her coloured blouses bought from the North End Road market and her highlighted hair. People from Mum's past greet her but I see their suspicious eyes scan her up and down. She isn't one of them any longer, but jealousy would drag less in their chests if they knew what she ended up with.

When Vito's head pokes from the window to answer the shrieking of his name, it is bald. His eyes are tired so I reckon he has been sleeping, and he doesn't seem pleased.

"Chi é?"

"Sono Lidia! Lidia Perillo."

From the way his eyes light up in recognition, I can tell he has always had a soft spot for Mum. Mum said he used to work with her in the tobacco fields. I think he had other ideas for them, but Dad got there first. I am already wondering if Vito would have been a better father. Would he have stayed with Mum?

Because Mum was shouting up to Vito, the whole square discovered that we wanted to go to Eboli. He told us to wait - twice. He emphasised the second "aspett' as though he thought Mum might run off with someone else again whilst he trotted down the stairs.

Vito has a kind face. He looks at Mum like a man who shared a youth with her. I don't know what they are saying exactly because they speak too fast for me to catch it all. Mum explains that she wants to go to Eboli and Vito is clearly saying he will take her. I know they are arranging a time for the next day, then they start to reminisce, remember other friends and Vito's hand rests on Mum's arm. Then he looks at me and asks my name and age and Mum tells him I am her baby. I hate it when she says that,

"Egli è un bel ragazzo . Ti assomiglia."

But I don't look like you, do I Vito?

When, the next morning, we stand at the side of the World War Two field gun that sits in the small main square of Montecorvino, an ornamental reminder of the destruction of the past, I pray Vito will forget his promise. Eboli felt no more appealing than the day before and when Vito arrives my heart sinks. He has a small, green van with windows and when he gets out to open the door for us, he can look down on the roof. And he isn't alone; there are two people already in this little bus and worse, Vito says he has more to pick up. This is going to be a bad journey. It is only eight in the morning and already the heat is crushing.

Vito ushers us to the side door and tilts the rear seats forward, revealing a makeshift bench on which Mum and I will sit. But there is a large box on the other half of it so I will have to sit on her lap.

"Mum, I don't want to sit on your lap!"

"Shuddup," she says, glaring at me.

The door slams shut.

I look at the people in the van. A woman with a hairnet sits in the front seat next to Vito, her fat shoulder brushing against his arm as he changes gear, and she is talking at break neck speed to Vito, as though just picking up with the conversation they had been having when they stopped to collect us. Actually, she is talking at Vito. I can see Vito's eyes in the rear view mirror and he looks back at me and winks. He never looks at Hairnet, even when answering her. Hairnet turns to look at Mum, smiles and says "Buongiorno". Mum, peering around me, returns the greeting.

"She doesn't stop talking," I whisper to Mum.

"Shuddup," Mum says through gritted teeth.

The other passenger is a young man, thin, wearing a checked shirt with a large collar and he is behind Hairnet. He never looks at anybody and is reading a folded newspaper on his lap. He is sitting on the row of three tiny seats in front of our bench so I guess we'll be picking up two more passengers for those seats. This van is struggling up the mountain roads already so I worry what will happen if we fill it with even more people. At the next stop, by a stone fountain in a village I don't know, Vito yanks the handbrake and leaps out to open the door for an old man in a flat cap and baggy trousers. How did these people manage to tell Vito they wanted to make a journey somewhere? Did they shout up at his window, too?

"Ciao, Vito," he says, as Vito opens the door for him. The door slams shut and the van rings from the shock, the air pressure changes. Flat Cap slides the little side window open and lights a cigar, and he greets Hairnet as though he knows her well. Checked Shirt just glances up and nods. Vito revs the engine to get the reluctant van moving again. Flat Cap half turns, as though he has a stiff neck, to look at Mum and me and I stare at the cigar hanging from his mouth whilst he stares at Mum, trying to work out who she is. Hairnet is laughing at something she said, Vito gives me another wink, Flat cap nods at Mum and ignores me. Everybody looks at Mum in the same way; they are trying to work out who she is. Sometimes they recognise her and they talk, remind each other who they are related to, and then they invite us to lunch, long lunches, with people we don't know. And it is hard to refuse such an invitation in Montecorvino. People take offence very easily.

It is so hot in this van and it doesn't seem to have suspension. As Campania crawls by the window, I am wishing I was on the beach with my brothers where the day before we had been surrounded by jellyfish on the three tiered raft we had hired. For an hour we splatted the jellyfish with the raft's oars. I wanted to see if they were back today.

Vito calls back to Mum that she should come and visit he and his wife for lunch one day. Hairnet looks sideways at him suspiciously and Flat Cap blows a cloud of blue smoke up into the roof.

"Si, certo'" replies Mum.

Great, another long bloody lunch with someone we don't know. I am just glad that Flat Cap doesn't recognise Mum because I wouldn't want to have lunch at his house.

This journey is longer than I thought but there is one more to pick up, and the heat is withering so I open the small triangular window which levers out just far enough for me to hang my arm into the breeze. We stop at a small row of shops in a larger town I have never heard of; it just appeared at the bottom of a mountain road. Vito can't seem to see the person he is collecting and we wait, but eventually, after some discussion with Hairnet, who looks disdainful, Vito releases the handbrake and begins to pull away.

"O! Vito! Vito!"

The voice is shrill and panicked. Vito slams on his brakes and looks out of his window. The side door in front of us opens and a young woman, carrying a shopping bag, leaps in, panting, as Flat Cap shuffles quickly to the centre of the row of seats. Shopping Bag babbles that she thought she had missed him, that she was sorry that she had kept him waiting. She is adjusting her feet, finding a space on the floor to squeeze her shopping bag into. The door is still open and I find a space in its frame to grip.

And then the door slams shut.

The violent forwards contraction of Shopping Bag's head into the back of Vito was not because the tip of Flat Cap's cigar had showered her with hot embers, it was because of the scream that had made him convulse and jerk his hands into the roof of the van. The scream was still at its full pitch and volume as Vito drew to a sudden halt and Checked shirt was exclaiming "Che cazz'?! - his first words of the journey. Mum's face was pressed hard into my back because I too had gone straight and rigid.

"Whaddapen!? Whaddapen?!" Mum had to bellow it from the side of her mouth. Vito had turned back towards us with a look of alarm and was asking the same. Shopping bag was recoiling against the back of his seat, utterly bewildered at the sound that had erupted as she slammed the door shut. She hadn't even noticed we were behind her.

My fingers were trapped in the door and I had begun to worry that they will have been severed. I don't want to lose my fingers, not even the tops of two fingers.

"The door!"

"La porta!" Screamed Mum.

"The fucking door!"

"La fucky porta! Mannaggia!"

Mum was beginning to panic too because she didn't like to hear her children scream unless she was giving them a good hiding; she knew what was causing it in those instances. Otherwise, she hated to even hear us cry.

Vito leapt from his seat and came to the door, a look of concern on his face that would have passed muster at a funeral.

"Don't open the door! My fingers will fall off!"

But he opened it anyway and my fingers didn't fall off. Everybody slid quickly out of the van and Vito tipped the seat forwards so I could get out, grabbing my wrist to help me.

"Don't fucking touch me!"

Mum gave me a shove, propelling me into Vito who kept repeating, "calma, calma".

Nobody was calm, however. Not Mum, for sure, who was traumatised. Vito told her that it was OK, that my fingers were not on the floor. Mum screamed some abuse at Shopping Bag and Vito gently remonstrated with Mum and said that she shouldn't blame Shopping Bag.

My fingers were not bleeding but two open slices adorned the top knuckles of my index and middle finger and I could see the whiteness of the bone. Two angry little smiles. Hairnet had come to the side of the van and was chanting "Mamma mia" to herself.

"Acqua!" shouted Flat Cap and Shopping Bag took a bottle of water and began to pour it on my fingers. More screams.

"Noooooooo!" shouted Mum.

Shopping Bag shrugged her shoulders and said something in response but Mum told her to go fuck her mother. I always liked this and I almost laughed. Vito seemed undone by it all and could only stand there watching, with a hand on his forehead and the other on his waist. Hairnet was still just saying "Mamma mia". And then everybody began to argue about what to do whilst I cried. Vito looks close to doing the same. Poor Vito, you would have made a decent dad I reckon.

"Fuckinella, I godda 'eadache now," complained Mum.

Checked Shirt hadn't said or done a thing whilst they all fought over the best course of action. I expect he was used to it at home, perhaps this was how his family behaved, verbally abusing each other over the amount of salt in the pasta. He didn't seem the type to tell anybody to go and fuck their mother, even over something important. Whilst the fury and confusion grew at the side of a road, in a town I didn't know, Checked Shirt ushered me into the pharmacy that we had happened to have stopped beside. It was only when the pharmacist was halfway through dribbling iodine into the cuts that anybody noticed we had gone and by the time she had strapped the fingers together with gauze and a strip of plaster, Vito's passengers were stood watching, murmuring their approval. Checked Shirt had left and was sitting in the van. Vito placed a consoling arm on my shoulder and helped me climb back into the van and onto Mum's lap again. He looked at me in the rear-view mirror a few times more, with concern.

"Mum, was Vito ever your boyfriend?"

"Fuggoff."





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