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1940s Italy. Life is largely tranquil in a fishing village on the Po river not far from the city of Ferrara. The highlight is sturgeon season, which is when a genteel, elegantly dressed lady makes the journey from the city to buy caviar from the fishermen. Twelve year old Nello, the narrator, tells of goings-on in the community, friendships, first loves, school days and sturgeon fishing, and introduces us to the key figures in the story: the Turk with his mysterious past, and beautiful, enigmatic Bechi, as well as Nello's mother, his uncle the stationmaster and his best friend Nicola. Everything changes with the outbreak of World War Two and Nello's world is turned upside down, starting with the sudden disappearance of The Caviar Lady. When the war is over, important secrets come to light and mysteries are solved, but peacetime spells the end of an era and a way of life - that of sturgeon fishing on the Po River.
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The Caviar Lady
La signora del caviale © 2017 Antonio Tombolini Editore
Via Villa Costantina, 61,
60025 Loreto Ancona
Translated from Italian by Anna Carruthers © 2017 Antonio Tombolini Editore
Editing by Radici Translation and Wordcraft Ltd - Canada
email: [email protected]
Cover design by Marta D’Asaro
This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people or real places are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places and events are products of the author’s imagination.
In memory of
Domenico Tommaso Marziani,
my grandfather, station master
“A whopper! A whopper!” The cries go up and all of a sudden there are children streaming excitedly along the main embankment. I jump on my bike and pedal along to catch up with them.
“Who caught it? Whose is it?” I question them urgently.
“The Turk, it’s the Turk’s,” they shoot back, hardly pausing for breath. Amelia who grows hay for rabbits shouts over: “What are you lot doing going to the Turk’s house? You know he’s got no family.”
“He’s got his niece now,” the children reply breathlessly, and when they run you can almost hear their labored breathing interspersed with the sound of their clogs: “A whopper! A whopper!”
The blur of criss-crossing legs flashing along the embankment soon attracts the attention of other children weeding the vegetable patches by their homes or mending the nets, who rush to join us. Their muscles are not tired and they race to overtake the others, because only the first to deliver the news gets the reward, the coin. The others can expect a piece of bread if they’re lucky. But not from the Turk, now Bechi lives there. Now that’s the house we all like best: because apart from the coin there are barley sugar sweets for everyone. Sweets you suck slowly, carefully, praying they’ll last forever. Mario and the other children say there’s never been anything like it among the fishing families. But the Turk comes from the East, they always say, respectfully. He’s not really like us.
And it’s long-legs Mario who puts on a sprint finish and gets to the Turk’s house first, pulling up short at the last minute and almost falling over his feet, stirring up a cloud of dust with his clogs. He’s beating on the door with his fists when the others rush up yelling. Bechi opens, smiling. Mario looks at her but has no breath, or strength, left to speak.
“A whopper! A whopper!” shout the others, piling in behind him, pushing and jostling to get to the front, to be in his place, mouths open showing teeth, pulling at each other's sweaters and jackets. Mario catches his breath, swallows and blurts out:
“We don’t know if it’s a female, but it’s big, really big. The others had to help him get it in the boat. Nicola almost fell in the river, the Turk was all red and swearing every time he pulled up the net...”
Bechi smiles. I peek at her and I think she looks like a fairy queen: what does she care about how they caught the sturgeon? No one even knows where she’s from, I remind myself. All that counts is the money: one fish, if it’s really that big, will see you through the season. Bechi sees me and gives me a little wave:
She tells the children to wait, then goes back into the house. She returns with the coin and barley sugar sweets for everyone. There’s never been anything like this here before, down on the riverside among the fishing families. I set off again and pedal furiously along the embankment: I have to see the look on Nicola’s face. I cross paths with the boat on its way back to the riverside. Oh my goodness it really is big: I can see it from here on the bank. It’s lying in the middle of the boat with its tail sticking up out of the net they’ve put over it to keep it still. The Turk puts a piece of wet sack cloth over its head so it can’t see, to stop it from thrashing out with its tail. Then just to make sure, he leans over it with his body, to stop it jumping out of the boat. He looks like a mother protecting her child, that’s the image that springs to my mind. But really it’s just a fish, a sturgeon. The god of fish, that’s what the Turk calls them, but everyone knows he’s not exactly a good Catholic.
Nicola rows to the shore and shouts over to me:
“Hey Mr. Perfect! If you don’t mind getting those white hands of yours dirty, run to my house and get two ropes so we can tie it to the pole, then go and tell your uncle.”
“So, it’s a female?”
“Oh yes Adam, there aren’t any males as big as this in the Po River...”
It took me a while to figure out why the Turk calls me Adam. It means "man" in the language of the Turks. He told me the night I plucked up the courage to ask. He calls me a man, but always with that half smile so it’s like he really means mummy’s boy. But he calls me Adam all the same, at least when I have to learn something. Otherwise it’s Nello. Nellino is what everyone else calls me, but the Turk hardly ever does.
I like it when he calls me Adam, but there’s not much that’s manly about me: I’m nearly twelve, in short trousers and my Fascist Youth uniform with the black shirt. It’s Saturday, the Fascist Saturday dedicated to the character-building activities of the youth movement. If I really was a man and not a boy I would be in the Militia Corps, even if my Uncle wouldn’t like it. And the Turk probably doesn’t either. Maybe it’s not really my kind of thing anyway, seeing that instead of going to the rally in the village I’m here tying up the fish in the stretch of river in front of the Turk’s house.
“This’ll take us right through to the autumn if the river doesn’t carry it off,” decrees the Turk, spitting on the ground. “No doubt it would have been easier if we’d caught it on a Monday. Now we need to keep watch and make sure it stays alive till the errand boy gets here...”
“Doesn’t the caviar Lady come herself anymore?” I ask.
“No, not at the moment, I mean, I don’t think she’ll be coming for a while...” stutters the Turk, momentarily losing the quiet self-containment that lends him dignity even when he has sweat running down his forehead and his hands are all cut from the sturgeon’s scutes, his hair is damp with water from the Po and all sticking up, and his clothes are so threadbare and filthy he looks like a beggar. But there’s something noble in his bearing, in his whole approach to fishing. He’s different from everyone else down here on the riverside, it’s probably something to do with his name, the Turk. I’m probably too young to put my finger on it exactly. I’m not really Adam, I’m just little Nellino.
“If you want I’ll come and help guard the sturgeon,” I say, to make myself useful.
“Yes, and in that get-up you’ll soon have it standing to attention,” the Turk laughs, and I feel awkward in my uniform even though I really like it.
I wear it for my country, for the heirs of Rome. We are all Italian and we are all Fascists. Well, almost all of us are. Mother definitely isn’t, because of my father who went off and got himself killed in Spain. Uncle I’m not sure, because when the Federal Secretary comes to the station, or the squads pass by on their way to a parade, he puts on his black shirt to blow the whistle and hold up the signaling disk, but when we’re supposed to gather in the square to listen to the radio through the big speakers to hear the Duce’s speeches, he always has something else to do. And when he speaks to the Turk he uses the old “lei” form of address, not “voi” like Mussolini wants us to.
But I’m just a boy, and like he says, children shouldn’t go poking their noses into certain things. I don’t think the Turk is a good patriot either, a good Fascist, he’s from too far away. He only deals with sturgeons anyway. But me and his son Nicola are friends, we went to school together. He had to leave at the end of primary school: the Turk needed a hand in the boat and Nicola’s mother died giving birth to him. When Nicola was little the Turk managed by paying a deckhand, but after elementary school it was time for Nicola to start pulling his weight.
I tell Nicola about what we’re doing in history and geography when we’re out hunting for duck eggs or fishing for frogs. And now of course there’s his cousin Bechi, who came to live here a few months ago. Her parents died and she almost ended up with the nuns. That would have been a shame because she’s really pretty. I know, I’m still young to be saying this, but when I watch her doing the housework I sometimes feel my pecker stirring in my pants. It’s nothing to be ashamed of: a good Fascist is supposed to be virile. That’s what Orlando always says and his dad’s in the Militia Corps so he knows about these things. Bechi, as well as being pretty, arrived with a whole trunk full of books that she keeps in the tool shed, behind the nets. Nicola showed me: at least he’ll have the chance to read and, as Uncle says, further his education.
In the village everyone respects the Turk, but down on the riverside, by the bridge, among the fisherman, he’s a genuine institution. Uncle says that on the Po the Turk has more clout than the priest in church. Not only because he can read and write and comes from far away, but because he knows about all the different kinds of sturgeon and can tell which ones to sell to make money on and which ones are not worth much. If the Turk takes a sturgeon to the broker or auctioneer he comes back with good money and keeps nothing back for himself. He knows if it’s the size of fish that city folk like to eat, and takes it to the restaurant.
Mr. Otello, the owner of the restaurant, who never mixes with the people from the riverside, willingly comes down from upstairs to do business with the Turk. Mr. Otello only buys sturgeon from the Turk, and sends the other fishermen packing - he says they’re time-wasters who can’t tell a tiddler from a sturgeon. That’s what people say about the Turk, though others remember that when he arrived people gave him a wide berth. There were already thirty sturgeon boats belonging to the fishermen who lived on the riverside and when the Turk turned up he didn’t look like he was used to hard work, with that blonde wife of his, who Mario’s father says couldn’t even speak Italian. They came here and bought a house, just like that. It was easy to buy a house in 1917, all the men were away fighting in the war and the houses on the riverside were empty, so it was no problem if you had the money. The Turk made a song and dance about it but I reckon that he did have money. When Mario’s dad tells the story he lights a cigarette, a cigarette that stinks, it’s not even tobacco. Then he puffs out the smoke, coughing. He likes it when I ask about the Turk, because like everyone else round here he respects him, but I think he’s a bit envious of him too, so he likes talking about him, especially if he has a bottle of wine in front of him.
“You’re young,” he says, “but in those days everyone was away fighting in the war, and there was so much poverty here you could cut it with a knife and serve it up for dinner. I only stayed behind because of my leg.” He looks down at his twisted foot, that makes him hop and jump when he walks, but doesn’t stop him from hoisting sturgeons into his boat. Quinto, Mario’s father, is a great fisherman, I’ve seen him pulling in sturgeons that weigh almost a hundred kilos and lifting them up by himself on the harpoon. Then again, he wants Mario to go to school so he goes out in the boat with his wife who’s all skinny and doesn’t have enough strength in her arms to hoist up the big fish.
“To cut a long story short,” he continues, “at first we didn’t like the Turk. We were sure he was hiding something. The Great War had just finished and the police went to talk to him, but all his papers were in order so they couldn’t say anything. Then the whole thing with the music started and we all thought he was a bit touched in the head. Him and his wife, a fine woman she was that’s for sure, nothing like our wives. She had eyes as blue as ice, golden hair like wheat and alabaster skin. Her arms were strong and shapely, and what legs! When she stood in the stern she looked like a captain. The Turk was always proud when he called her name. I still remember it: “Lukina, Lukina!’ I don’t know where she got a name like that, though...”
“And the music?”
“Ah yes, before the Turk showed up no one played music to catch sturgeon, not like it is now with people paying bands to play on their boats. No, back then we would just put down our nets, and pass them along, and if we got something, fine and good. If not, we would just have to queue up behind the other boats and wait our turn to pass along again.”
“Yes, but the music?”
“Be patient, I’m coming to that.”
Mario’s father pours himself another glass of wine, leaving me on tenterhooks. I wish he’d get on with it because Mother will probably be waiting for me by now. But I have to know about the Turk, because he’s Nicola’s father, because he’s strange, and because I came here on purpose to find out. When Mother gets cross with me she says I’m as nosey as an old woman.
“And the music?”
“Well, he sorted out his house in that funny way of his, with roses around the vegetable patch and by the door. Then he started working on the boat. He didn’t ask any of us for any help, he got it looking spick and span all by himself. And the nets too, they were all tangled, and he bought the hemp and knotted it himself. He had money for hemp when the rest of us were dirt poor.” Mario’s father spits on the ground again, enviously.
“We wouldn’t have helped him anyway,” he continues, taking breath. “We were scared of him, he wasn’t one of us, even though he says he comes from who knows what village on the Po, in the Delta. He mentions it from time to time but I can’t remember the name and it’s probably not even true. Anyway, spring comes round and he and his wife put the boat in the river. Now we’ll have to wait even longer to pass our nets, we all think. More mouths to feed. And people who aren’t even from around here. But in the end the Turk fed us all, there’s no two ways about it, he looked after us all. He knew we didn’t like him so he didn’t fish with us but went further downstream, where the river bed wasn’t dredged, so he risked his nets every time he went out. But then of course he didn’t pass his nets along the river bed, so there was no way they would get caught on something.
He would stand with his boat across the current, then get out his ocarina and start playing. Then his wife would shout: “There it is! There it is!”
And he would put down the ocarina and pull in the net. That year the Turk caught more than anyone else. We tried putting the evil eye on him, but for the whole of the season he always came back to shore with a sturgeon. He would play his ocarina and catch fish, just like that. And when the buyer came the Turk would bargain with him, man to man, not just looking at his feet like the rest of us. He would talk and argue his point and hold his arms out. You could see he knew what he was talking about. We’re just simple folk Nellino, and that’s why we’re still living like beggars on the riverside.”
And he pauses again to spit, smoke and fill his glass.
“And then what?”
“And then in the get-togethers on the long summer nights there would be talk of burning his house down, sinking his boat and...”
“No, these are not things for children’s ears.”
“Tell me what.”
“No, you’d go straight to hell.”
“You’ll go if I tell your wife that instead of mending the nets you’re here drinking and talking to me...”
“You dirty scoundrel!”
“I was only joking.”
“Show more respect to your elders.”
“Yes, of course.” I lower my eyes.
“Well, we thought we’d have some fun with the Turk’s wife, you know what I mean?”
I don’t really, but I pretend I do and keep on with my questions.
“So did you do it?”
“No! The priest, not Don Antonio, but the old one, Don Armando, brought us to our senses. He called us a bunch of ignorant heathens and told us that if the Turk was catching more fish than us then it was up to us to learn how to do it, and what was all this talk of burning down people's houses. So the next spring two of us took it in turns to go and spy on the Turk instead of going fishing, until he noticed what we were up to and came to speak to Anselmo, the oldest fisherman - Pietro’s grandfather, you know who I mean.”
I nod, of course I know him, but I wish Mario’s father would get on with it, because they’re bound to be waiting for me at home and I don’t want my ears pulled for being late.
“Well, the Turk went to see Anselmo to say that there was no need to spy on him, and that if we wanted to learn his way he would teach us. So we got together one evening to decide what to do. Some people were against it, and reckoned that he wasn’t a real fisherman. Others thought we should give it a try and see what he had to say. In the end we decided to put him to the test, so we invited him down to Nena’s tavern. It was just us fishermen in the tavern that night. We put a big bottle of grappa down in front of him and start pouring. It was a big thing for us, paying for all that grappa, but we had to see whether he was one of us. So we keep pouring out the grappa and knocking it back, holding up our glasses and shouting ‘Down the hatch!’ And he drinks and drinks, and never says a word. Till Anselmo says: ‘So what is it with the music?’
And the Turk tells us that fish like music, and that he uses his ocarina to attract the sturgeon. He says that in other places they use whole orchestras, violins, trombones, the lot. So Anselmo says: ‘You mean people fish for sturgeon in other places?’
And the Turk bursts out laughing.
‘Astrakhan,’ he says. ‘Astrakhan is the capital of sturgeon and beautiful women and caviar.’
‘But what about Ferrara?’ says Toni. ‘And Pila? And Milan?’ ask the others.
We all want to know more, so the Turk starts telling us about fish six meters long, measuring it out in paces across the tavern floor, fish with a hundred kilos of caviar in them, and the fishermen renting boats with musicians to catch them. The whole thing sounds crazy to us.
‘And just where would this Astrakhan be?’
‘On the Caspian Sea, in Russia, near the land of the Turks.’
He draws a map of the world, but what do we know, for us even Ferrara is miles away. Or Milan, where no one from round here has ever been. Some of us have left the riverside, but only to go to the war, in Libya, or on the Carso plateau, or along the Piave and Tagliamento rivers, but no one’s ever seen a river bigger than the Po. None of us had seen sturgeons anywhere else.
Well, he’d almost made us come round that night, but Toni wasn’t having any of it and shouted over:
‘You’re not a fisherman, you’re a devil!’
It might have been the grappa talking - or maybe it just wasn’t very good grappa - but then he got up on the table too. Nena yelled at him to get down but he yelled louder and pointed at the Turk, shouting,
‘If you’re a fisherman you know what it takes to get the biggest sturgeon... Go on then, tell us, if you can.’
He was ranting away, looking at us as if to say ‘Now I’ve got him. He’s not one of us, he’s the devil, Beelzebub, and even Don Armando will have to face it. People like him deserve to be burned here on earth, without waiting for hell.’
So the Turk got to his feet, and with the grappa he looked taller, and he smiled - he had all his teeth, like a proper gentleman - and he said: ‘A white horse is worth just as much on the Po as it is in Astrakhan.’
no one said a word or moved a muscle, then Anselmo went up to him and spat on the palm of his hand, and the Turk did the same and they shook hands. Toni started hollering again, still standing on the table, but no one was heeding him any more. We opened the old wine, a bottle that Nena was keeping for a special occasion.
That’s how it went. After that he fitted in with us, or rather we fitted in with him, because he’s the one who can talk about fish, he knows about selling, about doing deals on caviar, about what music the band has to play. We were all sorry when Lukina died giving birth to Nicola. All the women, our women, helped out when he was little. A father can’t do it on his own.”
So there it was. Now I knew. Apart from one thing.
“But why is he called the Turk if he comes from Russia?”
“How should I know? The furthest I’ve been is Ferrara!” Mario’s father replies, laughing.
But the question keeps going round and round in my head till I work up the courage to ask the Turk why everyone calls him that. I don’t know what kind of answer I’ll get, after Mario’s father’s stories. But he’s in the mood to chat and he tells me he was once the gardener at the villa in Tarabya, the summer home of the Italian Ambassador to Istanbul.
“A gardener? But how do you know everything about sturgeons then?”
“Because fish need looking after, just like roses.”
I don’t know what to say: I don’t have a clue what he’s talking about.
I started to figure some things out one day when something strange happened at home. It was Sunday and Uncle wanted us all there for lunch in the station. Meaning not just Mother and me, but also the Turk and Nicola. Bechi wasn’t around back then. The table was set with bread and butter and a bottle of Malvasia wine that Uncle got sent by train.
“This might not be embassy champagne,” said Uncle. “But if you’re talking caviar ours is second to none. Just taste this.”
We were flabbergasted, the Turk started saying that he wouldn’t dream of it, no way, but Uncle insisted.
“It comes from the Lady, it’s a present. We could have sold it but I thought it was only right to share it.”
The Turk started up again, but then he gave in. And his eyes lit up, he even kissed Mother on the hand. He took out a little pouch with a tiny gleaming white spoon. It was in the pocket of his jacket. I saw him looking for it.
“I hope you don’t mind,” he said.
And he began picking the caviar off the butter and placing it slowly in his mouth using the shiny spoon, one egg at a time, almost as if he was taking holy communion. He closed his eyes and you could tell it wasn’t his first taste of caviar, and his thoughts were far far away. For us it was the first time, and for Uncle and Mother, as far as I know, it was the last.
But the whole gardener story began to sound a bit suspect to me so I started spending more time with Nicola, because he was my friend, and to get the chance to bombard him with questions. Who was the Turk? Just who was his father? At the time I was reading Salgari’s books and felt like I was pretty well versed in all things exotic, and ready to uncover this mystery.
As for me, and what I have to do with the sturgeon fishing, well, I am the official messenger, because I have a bicycle and Uncle is the stationmaster. I like it because in the village people know who I am: I’ve heard people saying: “You know, Nellino, the boy who brings word of the sturgeon.” I like my name Nellino and also my surname, Scaramagli. And the fact that I live in the station with Uncle Pompeo and Mother, whose name is Argia.
I am the stationmaster’s nephew, so I am quite important in the village, perhaps more due to that than the sturgeons, and it means I get to wander around among the locomotives, go to the farm supplies store, and Remo’s house. Remo is the signalman who lives right by the rails. From there in one hop you’re in front of the signal box, the front door of which faces the railway, rather than the street, which is behind it. Remo doesn’t know anyone who would come in from the street anyway. As Uncle always says, we’re railwaymen, we know the score.
72 kilos Stop Female Stop Await arrival station Stop.
“What about the greeting? And the sender? You never put anything in these telegrams and people will get the wrong idea and think it’s the post mistress who’s rude.”
“But this is all my Uncle said to put... Look here...” And I show her the hand-written note.
The telegraph operator smiles. But then she grumbles: “I don’t understand why you can’t use the telegraph in the station. Why do you need to come to the post office?”
I just shrug my shoulders but really I know the answer: the telegraph in the station is for official railway business, it’s not something public for all and sundry to use. Uncle often says that. He would never use it. And when the caviar Lady comes we give her the receipt for what we spent on the telegram and she always pays us back, right down to the last cent.
Actually she hasn’t come for a while - her errand boy has been coming. His name is Girolamo but we all just call him the errand boy. He came a few times with the Lady and she called him Gino. He’s tall and a bit podgy, and he’s always out of breath when he gets off the train. He has fat fingers and he sweats like you wouldn’t believe. I’ve never seen anyone sweat so much. He takes his jacket off and his shirt is always soaking wet under the arms.
When he has to hold a fish he opens the top button of his shirt and his tie, and his neck looks like it’s about to explode. Sweat starts trickling down his forehead. He hasn’t got much hair, which maybe is why you can see the sweat so much. Anyway he looks like a pig, I mean a nice, kind pig, not the sort you’d gladly butcher for the Feast of Saint Anthony.
He smiles a lot, but doesn’t say much. He puts ice into the zinc case, his own personal one, or rather the Lady’s one, places the egg sac inside it, seals it shut, says goodbye and goes outside, where he sits on the concrete bench on the platform to wait for the train. As if he was a complete stranger. He lights a cigarette, smokes and adjusts his glasses.
When he cuts open a sturgeon his glasses always slide down his nose because of the sweat. The errand boy is a funny person, but we like him, because the Lady sends him, and because he’s not afraid of hard work, or at least that’s what Mother always says.
But when the Lady came it was different. She traveled in third class but behaved as if she were in first, and she would get off the train and greet everyone and we would all stand to attention. Uncle would invite her into the station for a coffee, which he always manages to get hold of because Remo the signalman has a sort of shop in his house where you can get practically anything. It costs a bit more, but you can get anything there, even things which aren’t always available. And I would run hell for leather along the drainage channel to the main embankment, to shout down to the riverside: “The Lady’s here!” “The Lady’s here!” Everyone knew it was the caviar Lady.
When I tell the Turk the errand boy is here he pulls the fish out of the water where it’s tied like a dog on a leash, and knocks it out. You have to know how to do it properly, because you want the fish to be still but it’s better if it stays alive - it’s better to finish it off in the station. If it’s a small one you can put it in a bag, like a priest in a robe, and tie it to the crossbar of the bicycle. In that case the Turk tells me to get off my bike, then ties the sturgeon tight to the crossbar and sends me back to the station.
“As fast as you can,” he always says.
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