WHEN ELIZABETH MEREDITH MOVES TO TUSCANY AND TAKES COOKING LESSONS FROM A LOCAL WOMAN, HER ATTEMPTS AT FRIENDSHIP ARE MET WITH STONY SILENCE. BY ALEX WILSON
Carlo was meant to have told his mother what time I was coming, but when she opened the door of the Villa Conti, it appeared I had caught her unawares.
“Buon Giorno, Signora Antonelli,” I said, o ering my hand, “Elizabeth Meredith, I hope you are expecting me?”
She was certainly not what I was expecting, dressed all in black and tall and angular, unlike her rounded cheerful son, Carlo.
There was a moment’s pause, but no welcoming smile before she gestured for me to follow her down a dark hallway, where she melted into the shadows. Just as my eyes were growing accustomed to the gloom, she opened a door into a large kitchen. Bunches of sage, rosemary and basil hung from hooks in the whitewashed ceiling, and a cast iron pot simmered on the stove. A long, narrow wooden table stood in the middle of the agstone oor, and tall windows opened out onto a terrace, where tubs of scarlet geraniums blazed and bougainvillea tumbled down stone steps to the terraces below.
I clapped my hands in childish delight. “What a fabulous kitchen! This is exactly what I would love at the Casa Massimo; at the moment it’s just a pile of bricks,” I said, but Signora Antonelli merely inclined her head, indicating for me to sit at the table before muttering “Scusi” and leaving the room. The cookery lessons had been Carlo’s suggestion. Peter and I had spent holidays in Tuscany for years.
Our love a air with the country was consummated when we stumbled across the small ruin of a house in the hills near Barga. On an impulse we’d bought it, spending the expected inheritance from my mother. Our project was to renovate Casa Massimo, however it needed a lot of work to make it habitable. Carlo was a godsend, not only helping us nd builders who wouldn’t rip o two ex-pats who only spoke phrasebook Italian, but also for being a fount of knowledge on such matters as when the tru e season began, and where to buy the best wine.
The building work was expensive and, as Peter kept reminding me, while we were still paying the enormous fees for mother’s nursing home, our future inheritance was dwindling rapidly.
“It’s not that I wish your mother would… you know,” he pulled a face, “but I doubt if she will even notice you’ve been gone next time you visit. I suppose that’s an advantage in some ways.”
One evening over a delicious meal in
the local trattoria, where the speciality was roasted meat over an open re, I’d mentioned to Carlo that I was keen to learn Italian cooking.
“Real Italian cooking, to impress my friends back home.”
“My mother is best cook in Italy, she will teach you!” said Carlo. So here I was, alone in his mother’s kitchen, the only sound that of a y buzzing, trapped on a sheet of brown sticky paper hanging from the ceiling. Where had Signora Antonelli gone? Hearing a noise outside, I looked down into the garden and was surprised to see her with Carlo. His head was bowed, and she was waving her arms around in the air gesturing wildly. Were they having a quarrel about me? As I stared down at them Carlo looked up, and I drew back embarrassed. ‘Really, this is absurd,’ I thought, ‘I’m not a child, and if she doesn’t want to teach me how to cook, she should tell me herself.’ An unexpected wave of homesickness swept over me, and for the rst time I thought about my mother’s pale face at her bedroom window as we drove away from the nursing home. “She’ll settle when you’ve gone,” the nurse had said.
Carlo’s mother re-appeared holding a bag of our. There was no explanation of where she’d been, and no smile. Opening the our bag, she tipped some out onto the table, heaping it into a mound and making a hollow in the centre. Taking an egg from a green glazed bowl, she cracked it into the hollow.
“Pappardelle,” she said, and with small deft movements began to fold the our into the egg before gesturing I should copy her.
“Like this?” I asked. She shrugged as I proceeded to make a sticky mess. “Sorry, I’m not very good with my hands,” I said, and unaccountably felt my eyes prick with tears. Silently she rolled up her sleeves and plunged her hands into the mix. After a few minutes pounding and kneading, she produced a smooth, golden ball of dough. When Signora Antonelli nished her kneading, her black dress was still pristine, but my blue sundress was streaked with our.
Standing at the stove, the signora stirred something in a small pan, and soon the sharp smell of garlic and lemon permeated the kitchen. I helped roll out the pasta before cutting it into thick ribbons. Standing side by side, we watched it sink and then rise again in the boiling water. Taking a large ladle from a hook, she spooned some onto a white plate and ladled a spoonful of the creamy, lemon sauce over it before placed it in front of me. “Pappardelle al limone,” she pronounced. I smiled at her, “Bellissimo,” I said, but she sat in stony-faced silence at the other end of the table while I ate.
“Perhaps she doesn’t understand English?” Peter suggested.
“She understands what I say alright. I know she does.”
“Then maybe she just doesn’t like
Brits darling. You can’t blame her, we are the invaders.”
“I am determined to get her to speak, one way or another.”
“Well you usually get your own way,” said Peter.
“That’s not true, but I do want to know how to make gnocchi. Celia and Rupert will be mad with jealousy.”
Peter looked at me over the rim of his glasses. “That’s the spirit,” he said.
I appeared at the villa for my next lesson armed with a packet of shortbread.
“My mother’s recipe,” I lied, but she merely nodded politely.
Chopping the onion she’d handed me, I said, “You must be terribly proud of
Carlo. I don’t have any children and my mother is…” I paused, “she does not remember things anymore.”
Signora Antonelli was standing with her back to me at the stove. I could hear something spitting in the pan, and the smell of bacon. She turned to look at me, a wooden spoon in her hand.
“Where mama?” she asked frowning.
“In England being looked after,” I replied brightly, “we hope Carlo will visit us there, maybe you too?”
“I not travel,” she announced sti y, and turned back to the stove.
I felt a mild triumph at getting her to talk, but it was the only thing I got out of her all morning. We made gnocchi that day, and after we’d cooked and mashed the potato and added an egg and our, she stood next to me while I tried to copy her movements as she turned the paste into tiny crescents. I pressed my thumb down to make a ridge in the little shapes, however I only managed to squash them. When the gnocchi were cooked, and she’d spooned tomato sauce over them, she placed a dish in front of me.
“Gnocchi con salsa di pomodora,” she pronounced.
“Won’t you join me, Signora?” I asked, but she didn’t reply, and as usual we sat in silence while I ate.
All my attempts to make friends with Signora Antonelli were met with a cool, but polite formality.
“It is di cult for my mother,” Carlo began when I mentioned her reticence. I suspected he was about to say more, but Peter interrupted us.
“What’s my wife up to Carlo?” he said, smiling. “She’s a manipulator, be careful.”
“What is manipulator?” Carlo looked puzzled.
“Never mind,” I said crossly. “It’s nothing you need to know.”
The colours of the landscape were changing as autumn approached. I loved the burnt sienna and soft olive greens of the hills. It was still warm, and the air smelt of wood smoke and basil; but I was missing the friends who had descended like larks when we’d rst arrived. The holiday season was over, and they had gone back to their centrally heated houses in England. My cookery lessons were coming to an end too. I thought carefully about what to give Signora Antonelli, and decided on a silver photo frame I’d bought in Lucca.
We were to cook a rabbit on our last lesson. Its bony carcass lay on the table next to a pile of velvety brown mushrooms. Outside, someone was burning wood at the bottom of the garden, and plumes of smoke rose into the blue air. I suddenly felt sad that I hadn’t been able to break through whatever barrier there was between
Signora Antonelli, and me.
“I shall miss this, miss you,” I blurted out, surprising myself. I meant it. For all her formality, there was a stillness and consistency about Signora Antonella that a ected me. She looked at me, and for the
“She opened it to show me a photograph of a young woman with
large, sad eyes.”
rst time I felt something soften. Fumbling in my bag, I handed her my gift. She opened it carefully, smoothing out the wrapping paper in the same way I remembered my mother doing when I was a child. “Bellissimo,” she said, with a faint smile. “Perhaps you can put a photo of Carlo in it,” I said, but she turned to open a drawer in the dresser and took out a red leather album with a faded cover. She opened it and tenderly lifted up the sheet of thin tissue to show me a photograph of a young woman with large, sad eyes. “Mama,” she said.
“Your mother? She’s beautiful. Carlo has her eyes, and your father, do you have a photo of him?”
She shut the album abruptly and turned away. ‘I have said something wrong,’ I thought, ‘oh what a bumbler I am.’ Peter was always telling me how tactless I was.
“My father no good,” Signora Antonelli said, nally. “He,” she made a scuttling movement with her hands across the table. “Left?” I ventured.
She nodded. “When I am baby, he in Scotland. He not allowed come to Italy.”
“Oh,” I said startled, “you mean he was a prisoner of war? I am so sorry.” Images of thin, dark men, their faces pressed against wire fences, ashed across my mind. “Did he get back safely?”
“No, never. He meet English lady. My mother,” she placed one hand on her heart. “Broken. She never forget. I miss you, understand? Mi manca il suo.”
She sat down next to me and closed her eyes as though in prayer. Through the window, I watched smoke evaporating into the air.
“I miss my mother too,” I blurted out. “She is alive but it feels as though she is dead.”
I hadn’t been able to admit it to myself but I had lost her. She had gone into a realm where I had no place, where for all I knew she had no memories; a place where time and events were stripped of meaning and she couldn’t even remember her only daughter.
Signora Antonelli looked at me and patted my hand lightly. We sat in silence for some time, watching the sky darken until the rst chill, autumn wind made us shiver, and she got up to close the window.