Authors: Lucretia Grindle
Tags: #book, #FIC022060
The Villa Triste
Lucretia Grindle was born in the United States and now lives in Devon with her husband.
Also by Lucretia Grindle
The Faces of Angels
The Villa Triste
McArthur & Company
First published in Canada in 2010 by
McArthur & Company
322 King Street West, Suite 402
Copyright © 2010 by Lucretia Grindle
All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise stored in a retrieval system, without the expressed written consent of the publisher, is an infringement of the copyright law.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Grindle, Lucretia W.
The villa triste / Lucretia Grindle.
1. Guerrillas--Italy--Florence--Fiction. 2. World War, 1939-1945--Underground movements--Italy--Florence--Fiction. I. Title.
PS3557.R552V55 2010 813’.54 C2010-903983-1
Cover illustration by Mel Curtis/Getty Images
Typeset by Ellipsis Books Limited
For Susan and Darci,
my own Isabellas
Although the characters in this book are fictional, they are inspired by the lives of real people and the events of 1943–1945 that are described are true. By the end of the war, over 200,000 Italians were formally recognized as members of The Resistance. Some 55,000 of those were women, 35,000 of whom were named as
, Partisan Fighters. This is only a tiny portion of their story.
My wedding dress slid over my head, the ivory satin cool and slippery. The day was hot. It was barely noon, and already a blanket of stuffy air hung over the city, turning the sky a pale dirty blue. I could feel my hair wilting, loosening from its hairpins and sticking to the back of my neck as the seamstress’s assistants, a cadre of silent young girls in pink pinafores, fastened me into the dress, their deft fingers working the rows and rows of tiny buttons. When they were finished they took me by each arm, like an invalid, and stood me on a stool, ready for the final fitting.
I could hear a clock ticking in the front of the salon, loud and slow, marking the time in thick syrupy drops. I tried not to count in my head. Crazy people count in their heads. Hysterics and lunatics. Thirty-two seconds passed before the Signora herself came into the fitting room. She looked at me and made a clicking sound with her teeth. Then she went to work. With every tuck and pinprick the dress tightened, until I began to wonder if this was how a snake felt just before it shed its skin.
My sister, Isabella, had vanished. She had put in a brief appearance at the salon but now, through the fitting room’s half-open door, I could see her hat, abandoned on a pink tufted settee.
The hat was ugly, and had been insisted upon by our mother. It was Mama’s fiftieth birthday today, and instead of coming with me, she had stayed at home to oversee the preparations for the party we were giving, and deputized Isabella in her place. Before we left the house, Mama had reminded us that the Signora was, under no circumstances, to have her way with the number of buttons on the cuffs of my dress, and then insisted, almost as an afterthought, that we wear hats. Mine was pale green and matched my dress. Isabella’s was blue straw with a pin in the brim. Neither of us particularly cared for hats, but Isabella especially resented being told what to wear. She was nineteen and had just begun her second year at the University, where, she informed our mother, no one wore hats. As we left the house, she jammed the offending article down onto her forehead muttering that ‘she wouldn’t be surprised if it blew into the river’.
But that had not happened. Because by the time we had got our bicycles out of the shed, and made our way down the hill and through the Porta Romana and along the canyon of the Via Ser-ragli and finally arrived at the river, we had forgotten all about hats, ugly or otherwise.
As we came out onto the Lungarno, Isabella and I both realized at the same time that something was wrong. The knowledge passed between us, swift and sure as an electric jolt. There was never much traffic any more, due to the endless shortages of petrol, but now there was none. Pausing, we looked both ways and saw that the long straight avenue was eerily quiet. Below the walls, the reed grass was dull and still, the Arno glassy and sluggish. A haze shimmered over the brown water. Yet despite the heat, no one was walking on the bridge ahead of us, or lazing against the balustrades. Instead, people were gathered in tight little knots. Groups clustered and spilled off the pavements. Voices hummed like a swarm of bees.
Isabella and I exchanged glances. The strange electricity that hung in the air was not altogether unfamiliar. The city had felt like this before, as recently as six weeks ago when Mussolini was deposed. In fact, ever since then the country had felt slightly stunned, as if it were wandering along trying to wake up from a very deep sleep. Now it appeared that something else had happened, but I couldn’t imagine what it was. It was true that the Allies had made a first attempt at invading the mainland in Calabria – but that had been days ago. Old news. And was so far away that it might as well have been happening in another country.
Without speaking, Isabella got off her bike and passed it to me. I propped the handlebar against my thigh and watched while she crossed to the nearest group of people. A few moments later she came back, one hand holding the silly-looking hat, the other gesturing, as if I was supposed to guess what it was she had to say. When she reached me she became very still, her face turning inward, as if she was trying to understand what she had just heard.
‘Issa?’ I asked finally. ‘Isabella? What is it?’
I suppose from the look on her face I thought that perhaps the king had died, or Winston Churchill, or Stalin or the Pope. But it was none of those. My sister looked at me, her blue eyes dark.
‘They’re saying it’s over.’
‘Yes.’ She nodded.
I stared at her.
‘At least for Italy,’ she said. Then she added, ‘It’s just a rumour. But they’re saying Badoglio’s left Rome.’
Isabella took the handlebars of her bike but did not get back on. Without thinking I slipped off mine.
I knew I was sounding like a parrot, or an idiot, or both. But I couldn’t take the words in. Surely the Allies hadn’t somehow reached Rome and chased the Prime Minister away? In less than a week? Without us hearing a word about it?
‘Why would he leave Rome? What do you mean?’ I asked. ‘What are you talking about?’
My sister began to walk. I fell into step beside her. As we neared Piazza Goldoni I could see people coming out of buildings and milling about.
‘An armistice.’ Isabella looked at me, her eyes sliding sideways under the brim of the hat.
The parrot again. A look of exasperation crossed her face.
‘They’re saying that Badoglio has signed an armistice with the Allies,’ she said, very clearly, as if she were speaking to someone deaf. ‘He’s supposed to make an announcement on the radio, at eight o’clock tonight. To say that Italy is no longer at war. With America or England or anyone,’ she added, in case I hadn’t understood.
But I had. Too well. I stared at her. We were crossing the piazza by then, turning into the street where the tiny and fearsome Signora had her salon.
‘But—’ I said.
Isabella nodded. ‘I know.’
She looked down, apparently concentrating on the toes of her shoes. We turned into the street and stopped. Bolts of satin, a basket of white roses made of ribbon, and several pairs of small pink shoes surrounded by wisps of tulle featured in the salon’s window. Beyond them, we could see the interior of the front room, soft and pink as a womb, and the door that led to the fitting rooms at the back, ajar.
‘I know,’ Isabella said. She looked up, reading my face, finishing the thought I had barely even begun. ‘I know,’ she said again. ‘If we are not fighting the Allies, then what about the Germans?’
I felt my mouth go dry. My fiancé, Lodovico, was a naval officer, a medic on a hospital ship serving off North Africa. He was due into Naples any day. In two months, he would have leave, and come to Florence, and we would be married.
‘You’d better go in.’ Isabella nodded towards the door of the salon and took the handlebars of my bicycle. But nothing happened. I stood rooted to the pavement.
, Lodovico’s last letter had said.
Eight weeks. Here is a kiss for every one of them. Then I will be home
Now, I tried not to shift, to stamp from foot to foot in my matching satin slippers like a horse bothered by flies. There was no point in asking the Signora. Her world was composed solely of seams and hems, of pleated lace and the exact placement of tiny satin rosebuds. Moreover, she had made it amply clear, more than once, that she did not care for ‘chat’. Mothers might occasionally intervene on matters of necklines and bodices. Brides, however, were to be poked, prodded, grateful, and silent.
It was almost half an hour before the Signora stood up. For the final ten minutes she had been squatting on her haunches behind me. Oblivious to what might or might not be happening in the world beyond the salon – to anything but the quality of available silk, and whether or not the right ‘foundation garments’ could still be found in Milan or Paris – the little woman muttered something. Two of the pale silent creatures who shadowed her handing out marking chalk and measuring tapes stepped forward and helped me down from the stool, one on each arm again, and stood me, like a giant doll, facing a large standing mirror that was covered with a sheet. Without speaking, they arranged the train of my dress, smoothing it across the floor. A third girl appeared, carrying a swathe of tissue paper, holding it in front of her with both hands. She laid it on a bench behind me. I heard a faint rustling. Then they placed the veil on my head.
I glanced through the open door. The hat remained on the settee, but Isabella was nowhere in sight. I suspected she had gone to try to find a newspaper, or listen to a radio, and I could hardly blame her, but I wished she would come back, all the same. My heart felt strange, like something in a cage. A few more of the girls materialized. Standing behind me, they formed a semicircle in order to witness the final creation. Faces full of studied expectation, hands folded in front of them, they waited. Then, finally, the tiny Signora rose on her toes. Her hand reached up, fast as a cat’s claw, and whipped the sheet away, revealing the mirror like a magician revealing a lady sawn in half.
A tall girl blinked back at me. Her hair was hidden, covered in what looked like a spider’s web. Her eyes stared. Wrapped in white, she looked like a column of smoke. Like a woman in a shroud. Like Lot’s wife, who stopped and looked back, and turned to salt.
Isabella had found a newspaper, but it said nothing. Officially, there was nothing to say, because nothing had happened. But everyone knew that wasn’t true. During the almost three hours since I had entered the salon, the streets had changed. The stunned, electric feeling had gone. The storm had broken and this time no one was asleep. As we cycled home, abandoning the hats – Isabella’s on the settee and mine kicked to the side of the changing cubicle with a viciousness it probably didn’t deserve – we found ourselves swerving. Braking. More than once we almost collided, trying to avoid people who ran into the street throwing their arms up, shouting and grasping one another.
At home, the house was in an uproar. Emmelina, who had been our housekeeper for as long as I could remember, stood in the kitchen marshalling delivery boys and three local women who had come in to help. In the dining room, her niece sat at the table. When I had come down that morning, I had found the girl – a small solid creature with eyes as black as river stones – polishing silver and arranging tiny spoons and flat-pronged forks in fans on the sideboard. Now she was folding white linen napkins, her square, blunt-fingered hands creasing them into triangles. On the terrace, two men in blue overalls were setting up tables and chairs. A string quartet was coming. There would be dancing. In the driveway, the grocer’s old horse stood resting against the shafts of the cart that had been called back into service since petrol had become too expensive for tradesmen to use.
Our mother was not in evidence, so we escaped being berated about the hats. According to Emmelina, as soon as she had heard the news, she had gone upstairs to ‘turn out Enrico’s room’. My older brother had recently taken up his commission in the army and was stationed outside Rome. Emmelina said that Mama was absolutely certain, with the war now over, that his arrival was imminent. She had told Emmelina that his dinner jacket must be got out of his wardrobe and ironed.
I did not even bother to wash my face, much less change out of my rumpled, sticky dress. Instead, I went straight to Papa’s study. Inside, I closed the door, and leant against it, savouring the dark, cool room that smelled of my father. Of his books, and his dusty papers. And of the Acqua di Colonna he wore and the faint, heady perfume of the cigar he allowed himself every Sunday afternoon.
I took a breath and wandered across the dark patterned carpet. There was a photograph of our mother on Papa’s desk, a tall blonde girl with a wide smile. It was taken almost thirty years ago, but she did not look so very different. At fifty, she was still a handsome woman – strong boned, with fine skin and the dark-blue eyes she gave to all her children. Enrico and I had Papa’s dark hair. It was from Mama that Isabella got her lion’s mane.
Lodovico had cousins in Caserta, and I was sure – being close to Naples, which after all was his home port – that they would know where his ship was. I knew that it was due in, carrying its cargo of the maimed and dying. His last letter had promised that he would write, or if he could, telephone as soon as they arrived. But I couldn’t wait. On the bicycle ride home, I had become gripped again by the absolute certainty that they had been bombed. That the Germans must have attacked them at sea as soon as even a rumour of an armistice leaked out. I was sure of it. I sat down in Papa’s chair and picked up the telephone. My hand was damp on the receiver. All I could hear was a dead, empty buzzing.
People tramped up and down the hall. From the dining room, I heard Emmelina fussing at her niece. I tried and tried again. But on the one occasion I did get an operator, she assured me that it was futile. All of Florence, all of Italy, was trying to get a telephone line. It was past five o’clock when the door opened and Papa came in.