He was woken by a scratching at the window shutters. Therefore he must have slept. ‘The baby is coming!’ someone called. ‘Signor il dottore!’
In his great confusion he thought they meant his wife’s baby, and was up and at the window in a knot of bedsheets before he recalled that she was sleeping beside him. The face at the window was the peasant Rizzu’s, floating like a moon in the dark. ‘Whose baby is it?’ asked the doctor.
‘Signor il conte’s baby. Who else?’
So as not to wake his wife, he went to the door. The moonlight in the courtyard imposed on everything an odd clarity. Even Rizzu was altered. The peasant had on his Sunday waistcoat and tie; he wore them stiffly, as though nailed into them. ‘This is a mistake,’ said the doctor. ‘I’m not under instructions to deliver the count’s baby.’
‘But I was ordered to fetch you by signor il conte himself.’
‘I’m not under instructions to attend la contessa during her labour. The midwife has had charge of her pregnancy all along. D’Isantu must have meant you to fetch her instead.’
‘No, no, they already have the midwife. The count wants you, too. Urgently, he said.’ Rizzu was puffed up with the importance of his message. ‘Will you come? At once?’
‘My own wife’s baby is due very soon. I don’t want to go far from home if it can be avoided.’
But Rizzu would not relinquish his mission. ‘The contessa’s baby is due right now, this very moment,’ he said. ‘I don’t think it can be avoided, dottore.’
‘And the midwife can’t handle it alone?’
‘No, dottore. It’s . . . a complicated birth. They need you, because the baby won’t come out without those silver sugar-tong things of yours.’ Rizzu pursed his lips at having to speak directly of such matters; he had witnessed the births of none of his own nine children, preferring to think of them as having sprung out of the earth like Adamo and Eva. ‘Will you come?’ he said again.
The doctor cursed inwardly, for it was plain that he must. ‘I’ll get my coat; I’ll get my hat,’ he said. ‘I’ll join you in the road in five minutes. Have you got your donkey cart or are we to walk?’
‘No, no, dottore, I brought the cart.’
‘Have it ready.’
He dressed in the dark. His watch stood at a quarter to two. He packed his instruments: forceps, steel scissors, a set of syringes – all of which he had prepared for his own wife’s impending delivery – as well as morphine and magnesium sulphate in case of emergency. When all this was done, he disturbed his wife. ‘How often are the pains waking you, amore?’ he said. ‘The count’s wife has gone into labour early – curse her – and I’m called away to attend.’
She frowned at being woken. ‘Still a long time . . . let me sleep . . .’
God willing, he should be able to deliver la contessa’s baby and be back in time for his wife’s. Before leaving, he ran across the piazza and woke the ancient Gesuina, who had been the island’s midwife until she began to lose her sight. ‘Signora Gesuina, mi dispiace,’ he said. ‘Will you sit with my wife? I’m called to attend to another patient, and my wife has been suffering labour pains.’
‘Who’s the other patient?’ said Gesuina. ‘Blessed Sant’Agata, is some other poor soul in the process of dying on this godforsaken island, that you have to leave her at such a time?’
‘The count’s wife has gone into labour early, and there are complications – they need me to bring the forceps.’
‘The count’s wife, eh? And you’ve been called to attend her?’
‘From what I’ve heard, you’ve your reasons for preferring not to deliver signora la contessa’s baby.’ The old woman fell into a silence full of portent.
‘What have you heard, Signora Gesuina?’ The doctor was unable to suppress his irritation.
‘Rumours,’ said Gesuina.
‘Anyway, will you come and sit with her?’
Gesuina collected herself. ‘Yes, by Sant’Agata, of course. Where are you, boy? Let me catch hold of you, so I don’t lose my footing on these troublesome stones.’
The woman really was almost blind. Gesuina followed him across the square, holding the hem of his coat, and installed herself on a chair in the corner of the bedroom. He hoped the sight of the ancient figure would not alarm his wife if she woke.
Already it was past two. He kissed her forehead and left her.
Still cursing, he went in search of Rizzu and his donkey cart. Damn the count and his wife. She had refused to have him attend to her pregnancy, preferring the ministrations of the island’s midwife. Why now this haste in calling him to the villa, at two in the morning? This complication of hers was probably no more than a twisted cord or a particularly violent pain, and there was no need of the forceps at all – and yet his own wife must be left unattended while he rode across town on their orders.
Rizzu was waiting, with his hat in his hands as though at Mass. They mounted his donkey cart, a fanciful contraption in green and yellow. Its painted panels told the stories of great battles, shipwrecks and miracles belonging to the island. It was not a vehicle designed for haste. In a silence threaded with the blue crash of the sea, they travelled the sleeping streets. The moon burnished the palm leaves and lit the dusty back of the donkey. ‘Two babies due on the whole island,’ grumbled the doctor. ‘My wife’s and the contessa’s, and both of them come at once. Who would be a medico condotto?’
‘Ah,’ said Rizzu, who was not much inclined to express his opinion on the trials of country doctors. ‘It’s a double blessing, though, dottore, isn’t it? Two babies born on the same night – it’s never happened on the island before.’
‘It’s a double inconvenience.’
They reached the count’s gate at twenty past two. The doctor took his coat, his hat, his bag and stethoscope, and made off down the drive at a jog, the sooner to be finished with this business.
The count was standing sentinel outside his wife’s bedroom in the modern part of the house. The electric glare on his face gave him a sweaty, reptilian look. ‘You’re late,’ he said. ‘I sent for you nearly an hour ago.’
‘I wasn’t under instructions to attend this birth at all.’ Irritation made the doctor forthright. ‘My own wife is in the early stages of labour; she’s had pains on and off for days. It’s damned inconvenient to leave her. And I thought la contessa wanted only the midwife in attendance.’
‘She did. It was I who sent for you. Carmela is in here; you’d better see for yourself.’
The count stepped aside to allow the doctor to push past his bulk and into the countess’s room. The electricity, newly installed, made everything pallid. The midwife was at work with a primal rhythm: breathe, push, breathe, push. But Carmela did not breathe, did not push, and he could see now that it wasn’t just a matter of a twisted cord or a particularly violent pain. For a patient at this stage not to push was never a good omen. He did not often feel fear at his work, but now he felt it, dragging like a cold current across his shoulder blades.
‘At last, you!’ said the midwife in contempt.
A tiny maid quaked at the foot of the bed – what was her name? Pierangela – he had treated her once for bunions. ‘Bring me something to wash my hands,’ he said. ‘How long has the patient been like this?’
‘Oh, Lord – hours, signor il dottore!’ wept Pierangela, bringing soap and hot water.
‘She’s been suffering convulsions for an hour,’ corrected the midwife, ‘and then these fits of exhaustion when she seems to see nothing and nobody.’
‘When was the onset of contractions?’ asked the doctor.
‘Early yesterday morning I was called in. Seven o’clock.’
Seven o’clock. For nineteen hours, then, they had been at this struggle. ‘And it was a simple pregnancy?’
‘Not at all.’ The midwife thrust a stack of papers at him – as though it would help to read her case notes now! ‘La contessa has been confined to bed this past month with swollen hands and violent headaches. I’d have thought you would have known,’ she muttered.
‘Swollen hands!’ said the doctor. ‘Headaches! Why wasn’t I called?’
‘La contessa refused,’ said the midwife.
‘But you – you could have called me.’
‘Signor il conte’s mainland doctor saw her last week. He said it was nothing. What could I do?’
‘She should be delivering in the hospital in Siracusa, not here!’ The doctor rounded on the midwife and the terrified Pierangela. ‘I don’t have the tools to perform a Caesarean section! I don’t even have enough morphine!’
‘She refused to see you,’ said the midwife. ‘I suspected a pre-eclamptic state, dottore, but no one ever listens to me in such matters.’
This throwing up of hands enraged him. ‘You should have fought to get her into the hospital,’ he said. ‘You should have insisted on it!’
Pierangela began a spontaneous lamentation: ‘Holy-Gesù- and-Mary-Mother-of-God, Sant’Agata-saint-of-misfortunes- and-all-the-saints—’
The knowledge of what had to be done came to steady his hands. It always did, sooner or later. ‘Get everybody out of the way,’ he said. ‘Prepare boiling water, clean sheets. Everything must be clean.’
The water was brought, the sheets stripped from under the limp body of Carmela. The doctor sterilised a syringe, loaded it with magnesium sulphate, and injected it into her arm. The work led him now from task to task as though it were some ritual, the noon angelus or the rosary. He prepared morphine, steel scissors, forceps. ‘Find a needle and thread,’ he told the midwife. ‘Prepare swabs, prepare iodine. You’ll find it all in my bag.’
Carmela, in a moment of clarity, spoke. ‘I wanted only the midwife,’ she said. ‘Not you.’
Without addressing her directly, the doctor said, ‘That can’t be helped now. We need to deliver the baby as soon as possible.’
He prepared the morphine and injected her slender arm once more. While Carmela sagged under the weight of the drugs, he lifted the scissors and planned his incision, making it first in the air. One neat inch-long snip. The sheets – where were the sheets? ‘Bring the clean ones,’ he ordered. ‘At once.’
Pierangela stumbled about in consternation. ‘Everything must be clean!’ raged the doctor, who had learned his trade in the mud and ice of the trenches at Trentino. ‘Everything. If the fits don’t kill her, sepsis will.’
Carmela, again lucid, met his eyes, and her own were sharpened with fear, the way he had seen a hundred etherised soldiers look during the war, when they surfaced. He put the back of his hand on her shoulder. Something altered in her at his touch, as he had known it would. She lifted her head and, with all the force of a malediction, said, ‘This is your doing.’
‘Give her more morphine,’ he told the midwife.
‘This is your doing,’ Carmela said again. ‘The child is yours. Everyone suspects it but you. Why won’t you look at me, Amedeo?’
He injected her without even glancing at her face, but he could feel the room tighten under the force of the accusation. As soon as Carmela sank again he knelt and made a single incision, reached inside for the baby, and turned it by a quarter. Then, with the aid of the forceps, he delivered it in one motion into the room.
A boy – already breathing. He cut the cord and deposited the baby in the arms of the midwife. ‘She still isn’t safe until the placenta is delivered,’ he said. Then, in a slither, the whole mass of it came free, and everything was over in a confusion of blood and weeping.
Carmela began to revive in the following minutes, as he had known she would. She hauled herself up on the damp sheets and demanded the baby. Relief, and the burden of hiding it, made him nauseous. He went to the window. He looked down the avenue that led from the count’s door to the road. He saw how the lamps among the trees made spheres of green light. He saw how, beyond them, the vista was melancholy, just the empty hillside and the black and endless sea. Everything was altered since he had last looked upon these things. The room was altered. Carmela was altered. He would not have recognised either.
When he had steadied himself, he returned to his patients. He checked Carmela’s heartbeat, the baby’s heartbeat. He stitched the incision he had made and swabbed everything with iodine. He presided over the burning of the placenta, the bloody sheets, the swabs and bandages. Only then did he allow himself to look properly at Carmela. Absorbed in contemplation of the baby, she was unaware of him now. Strange to think that the body which labour had so assaulted, which he had injected and incised and manhandled on the bed just now, had been whole and young when he had last seen her. This is your doing, she had said. The child is yours. He allowed himself one brief glance at the baby. A lusty boy with a puff of black hair – why, a baby at this stage could belong to anyone. It seemed as he studied it to assume the count’s features, his jowly neck and protruding eyes.
But either way, she had accused him, and that was what mattered.
A great tiredness came over him now that his work was accomplished. The count came to the door, and Carmela was hastily wiped and covered. It fell upon the doctor to announce the birth. This he did, with more bravado than he felt, playing his own part, bringing forth the expected phrases: ‘A fine child . . . a strong boy . . . case of eclampsia . . . hope for a good recovery.’
The count inspected the baby and inspected his wife, then gave the doctor a nod, and he understood that he was dismissed.
Unwanted now at the scene, he cleaned his instruments, packed them, and made his way through the dim passages of the villa and out into the light. The sun was breaking, with the quiet brightening belonging to the Mediterranean. It was just past six o’clock.
A figure came running between the palm trunks. Rizzu. ‘Signor il dottore,’ the old man yelled in exultation, ‘you have a baby boy!’
In his extreme tiredness, he did not at first understand. ‘A baby boy!’ cried Rizzu again, startling the doves from the palm trees. ‘Your wife is delivered of a baby boy!’
Cazzo! He had forgotten. He met Rizzu at a run. ‘A very quick birth,’ said Rizzu, his modesty forgotten. ‘One hour, and Gesuina said she could have delivered the baby with her eyes closed!’ The old man reflected a moment. ‘Which is just as well. Ha! Praise be to God and Sant’Agata, praise be to all the saints—’
The doctor refused the tiresome donkey cart, and went at a run through the waking streets. The cicadas had begun to sing. Light entered the alleyways and the squares. A hundred widows in a hundred courtyards were sweeping with a brisk, impatient sound. As he ran, he felt a great converging of the light inside him and without him, so that the whole world seemed charged with it.
The bedroom smelled of blood and exertion. Gesuina dozed, sitting upright, on a chair at the foot of the bed. The baby was sleeping too, hunched in the fold of his mother’s waist. ‘I’m sorry, amore,’ he said.
‘It was easier than I expected,’ she said, with her usual practicality. ‘All that dreading, and it was over in an hour! Gesuina and I managed very well without you.’
He wiped off the last of the afterbirth. The child was a little stretching, mewling creature, as alien as a newborn kitten. He took the tiny weight of the boy and inspected the legs and arms, pressed the soles of the feet, separated the fingers and – with a thrill of pride – listened through his stethoscope to the bird-like beating of the heart. In the extreme joy that broke over him he waxed tender, even poetical. Oh, it was different to be a father than merely a lover – he saw it now! Why had he waited so long to beget a child? He understood that no other part of his life had mattered; all of it had only been a gathering of pace towards this hour.
But now there was the problem of the other baby. By afternoon rumours would be at large in every corner of the island, thanks to that witch Carmela – a miracle, twins born by different mothers, leaping into the world as though by agreement! He knew how they would talk.
His wife lay with the lassitude of a distance runner. He checked her all over, covering her with kisses – more than he would have given, true, if guilt had not been goading him. He knew that a storm of trouble was coming: the midwife and Pierangela had heard Carmela’s accusations. A rumour like this would be enough to make an enemy of his wife, his neighbours, perhaps to drive him from the island. But just now all that he permitted to dwell within him was the light.
His own birth had been an obscure thing, uncelebrated, unrecorded.
In the city of Florence, above the Arno River, lies a piazza of dim lights and marine shadows. On one side of this piazza is a building with nine porticoes, and in the wall of this building is a window with six iron bars: three horizontal, three vertical. The bars are darkened with rust; on winter nights, they take on the chill of the air, its damp, its fog. Behind the window, in those days, stood a stone pillar; on top of the pillar lay a cushion.
Here the doctor’s own recorded life began, one night in January, when he was unceremoniously shoved through the iron bars. A bell rattled. Both naked and alone, the baby began to weep.
Footsteps approached from within. Hands lifted him. He was folded against a starched chest and borne away into the light.
When the nurses of the foundling hospital unwrapped him, they found that his body was still tender: a newborn, in spite of the size. A saint’s medallion, snipped in half, was looped around his neck on a length of red ribbon. ‘It might be San Cristoforo,’ said one nurse. ‘See – two legs and three wavy lines, like water. Or some kind of southern saint.’
The baby seemed to be in good health. They assigned him to a wet-nurse for the night.
At first he was unable to suckle, but the nurse, Rita Fiducci, a dauntless woman, continued to push her worn teat at his mouth until he began to take great sobbing gulps. Sated, he slept. Rita rocked him and sang to him, a little scoldingly: ‘Ambara-bà, cic-cì, coc-cò!’ A song for an older child, but this baby seemed far too robust to Rita for ordinary lullabies. It was a song that would return to Amedeo, at odd moments, all the days of his life.
The director, before leaving for the night, looked in on the new arrival. Five babies in one night! It was becoming an epidemic. A third of all children born in Florence now passed through the iron window of the foundling hospital, to be parcelled up, named, fed, cured of their ills, and sent back out into the world that had abandoned them. The director opened a new entry in the great yellow book Balie e Bambini and noted the time of the baby’s arrival, the wet-nurse who had been assigned to him and a description of the blanket in which he had been found (‘blue, somewhat bloodstained’) and of the medallion (‘possibly San Cristoforo’). He also recorded the baby’s abnormal size, ten pounds and eleven ounces, the largest the hospital had ever seen.
The director took the tin medallion, which he folded up in a square of paper, and led it in the box marked ‘January 1875’. The box was already stuffed with other trinkets in square envelopes: a perfume bottle on a silver chain; a paper silhouette of a lady cut down the middle; tin medallions halved and quartered, like tickets at a left-luggage department. More than half the children carried something with them.
He considered for a moment, then assigned the baby the name ‘Buonarolo’. In the recent tide of babies – two thousand deposited in the previous year alone – the director, the chief nurse and her staff had resorted to changing one or two letters at a time to fashion each child a surname: thus tonight’s five babies had become Buonareale, Buonarealo, Buonarala, Buonarola, Buonarolo. And ‘Amedeo’ for a first name would suit this giant infant – a solid, God-fearing name. The director added it, then closed the book.
The baby woke again and sucked at Rita’s teat, this time with a sense of purpose. Already unfurling within him was the great ambition of his life: to live, to grow up, and to find a home and a family.
Not only was he the largest baby the foundling hospital had ever seen, he also grew twice as quickly as the babies Buonareale, Buonarealo, Buonarala and Buonarola. It took two wet-nurses to feed him, and a special cot had to be purchased and placed between their beds, rather than the usual white-starched cradle, because Amedeo fretted whenever he was placed in the cradle, already straining against its sides. He grew up by great leaps: ‘an ungainly little thing’, his second nurse Franca said (‘a blessed angel’ was what Rita called him). Rita held him on her knee and sang ‘Ambara-bà, cic-cì, coc-cò’, so that sometimes he forgot that she was not his real mother.
When he was a little older, Rita told his fortune from a torn pack of tarocco cards. The director caught her and forbade it. Amedeo remembered nothing about the fortune, but he remembered the cards and loved the stories furled within them: the Hermit, the Lovers, the Hanged Man, the Devil, the Tower. He begged for others. Instead of the card stories, Rita taught him a tale about a girl who became an apple, became a tree, became a bird. She taught him a story about a cunning fox. Afterwards he longed for a little fox to sleep beside him on the stone floor of the dormitory. His thirst for stories grew. Franca taught him two: the first about a demon named Silver Nose and the second about a sorcerer named Body-No-Soul. After these stories, Amedeo had to shut himself uncomfortably up in Rita’s bedside locker, in case the demon and the sorcerer should come for him, but he still loved the tales.
When he was not yet quite grown, Rita went away, and no one said anything more about her. For a while he was sent to the country, to a little house with a dirt floor, where he had a new foster mother and foster father. If you stood on the seat of the latrine and peeped through the window, you could see the bowl of smog that was the city of Florence, where he had been born, and the shiny serpent that was the Arno.
It cost too much to feed him, his foster mother said; she claimed the boy grew out of his clothes. He was sent back.
By the time he was six, there were mostly girls left in the foundling hospital, and Amedeo. The window where he had been delivered was shut up now. Babies had to be brought to an office in a basket, because that was what his nurse Franca called ‘civilised’. Otherwise, she said, bad people abandoned their babies out of convenience. Amedeo, as he grew, wondered if he had been abandoned out of convenience (he took the phrase to mean ‘by accident’). He developed the habit of stationing himself on the steps beneath the closed-up window, in case his real mother should ever come back for him.
One afternoon in May, the visiting doctor found Amedeo there on his way to inspect the babies. Always, the visiting doctor had kept a special eye on Amedeo. The boy’s abnormal size caused him pains in his legs and made him prone to all kinds of accidents, bringing him under the visiting doctor’s care more often than the doctor would have wished.
‘Now, my little man,’ said the doctor (who had difficulty addressing the children sensibly once they passed nine months), ‘no injuries in the past few weeks, eh? That’s good progress. But what’s to become of you?’
Amedeo, on this particular afternoon, had been troubled by a vague melancholy that now found a focus and a shape. He took the question rather more seriously than the visiting doctor had intended, and wept.
The visiting doctor was discomposed, in spite of himself. He rooted in his pockets and offered the boy in quick succession a violet pastille, a lira coin, a used theatre ticket and a handkerchief with the letters ‘A. E.’ on it (this last Amedeo wetly accepted). ‘There there,’ said the doctor. ‘They aren’t quite your initials, but they’ll have to do. The first one is right – an “A” for Amedeo, see, for my own Christian name is Alfredo – but not the second. Can you read yet? I don’t suppose you can. My surname is Esposito. A good name for a foundling like you; it means abandoned. Of course, one wouldn’t be allowed to give that name to a foundling nowadays for fear of prejudice.’
‘Were you a foundling too?’ said Amedeo, leaving off his crying for a moment.
‘No,’ said the doctor. ‘I think perhaps my great-grandfather was, since we don’t have any record of him.’
Again, the boy cried, as though personally insulted by the fact that the visiting doctor was not a foundling. ‘Take a violet pastille,’ urged the doctor.
‘I don’t like them,’ said Amedeo, who had never tasted them.
‘What do you like?’ said the doctor.
The boy, still crying, said, ‘Stories.’
The visiting doctor cast about in his memory and brought forth a story that he half remembered his own nurse telling him. It was a story about a parrot. This parrot wanted to prevent a girl from betraying her husband, and managed this by means of a fantastic, ever-expanding tale. The parrot flew in the girl’s window and told her this tale, and it kept her so absorbed that whole days and nights passed in its telling. Her husband came back and all was well. Or something like that.
Amedeo sat up, wiped his eyes, and said, ‘Tell me the story properly.’
The visiting doctor could not remember it. But the next week he brought Amedeo a copy, transcribed into a red leather notebook by his housekeeper, Serena, who knew the story well, at least in the particular version belonging to her grandmother’s side of the family, who were known to be formidable storytellers. Why he had taken the trouble of getting the story for the boy, he could not quite tell. The notebook had a gold fleur-de-lis on the cover. It was the single most beautiful thing that had passed through Amedeo’s hands. Seeing his joy, the doctor made the boy a spontaneous present of it. ‘There,’ said the doctor, satis ed. ‘You can add more stories to it, or practise your reading and writing.’
After that, Amedeo developed the habit of listening to everybody’s stories – nurses, nuns, the priests of the Santissima Annunziata who passed by the steps of the foundling hospital, visiting benefactors – and whenever they pleased him, he recorded them in his book.
When they asked him, at thirteen, to which trade he should like to be apprenticed, he told them he should like to be a doctor. He was sent to a watchmaker. The watchmaker sent him back after three days: the boy’s large fingers broke the tiny mechanisms. Amedeo was then sent to a baker, but the baker found himself tripping over the gigantic apprentice, and after several months of tolerating him he sprained his ankle in this manner and would tolerate him no longer. Next, Amedeo spent several months with a printer. This he liked, but he was returned to the foundling hospital on account of his unfortunate habit of pausing in his work ten times a day to read the stories, which was costing the printer clients and money.
And so the boy was without trade or calling. He was sent back to school, though he was really too old. Here he finally distinguished himself, finishing every year in first place ahead of the small sons of clerks and shopkeepers in whose ranks he laboured. Still he persisted in his wish to be a doctor. He would be the first child from the foundling hospital, as far as anyone could remember, to study medicine, and the director consulted the visiting doctor Esposito for advice. ‘Could it be done?’ he asked.
‘It could,’ said Esposito, ‘if someone were to pay, and someone else were to take charge of his guidance and education. And if his clumsiness can be overcome, but I daresay it can if the boy puts his mind to it.’
Under pressure from the director of the foundling hospital, a benefactor offered to pay for part of Amedeo’s medical studies, another to supply his books and his clothes. Another two years were lost in military service, but when Amedeo returned, Dottor Esposito submitted to the inevitable (he had really become quite fond of the ungainly boy over the years), and allowed Amedeo to be sent home to live with him. The boy would board in the little box room at the back of the doctor’s house, and eat his meals with the housekeeper Serena, and the doctor would oversee his medical education. The boy was almost twenty-one years old and could be expected to look after himself for the rest. The doctor arranged for him to attend lectures at the surgical school of the hospital at Santa Maria Nuova, and in the evenings to earn his keep by washing glasses in a bar between Via dell’Oriuolo and Borgo degli Albizi.
The arrangement was a success. The boy was accommodating, rushing to light the fire or rearrange the doctor’s chair as he came in, in a way that the doctor, a bachelor on the edge of old age, found touchingly filial. Amedeo was also a satisfactory companion in conversation, on account of the fact that he studied daily every page of the newspaper and was working his way systematically through the doctor’s library. All in all, Esposito was glad that he had taken the boy in. Sometimes, the doctor invited Amedeo to dine opposite him in his dark study, where he was accustomed to take dinner at his desk, surrounded by a mess of scientific periodicals. The doctor was a collector, and the study was full of specimens: butterflies, white worms in jars, sculptures of coral, stuffed Polynesian rodents, and other curiosities of nature that he had gathered during his long and solitary life as the last in a lengthy dynasty of scientific men. The boy was especially fascinated by a medical wax of the human eye, the surface peeled back to reveal the network of veins beneath, which stood on the hall table beside the umbrellas. Dangling alarmingly above the staircase on two wires were brushes from the mouth of a whale. Amedeo was not unnerved by these relics; on the contrary, he grew as fond of the collections as of the old doctor himself. And he privately resolved that one day he would have collections of his own: a parlour full of scientific specimens and a library full of books. His red notebook was filling up with stories, and his head with the longings of a half-educated man.
When at last he qualified (everything, in Amedeo’s experience, took twice as long when you were a foundling), he became not a hospital surgeon like his foster father, but a medico condotto. In deference to his foster father, Amedeo took the surname Esposito. He could find no permanent job, but practised his trade in villages where elderly doctors had died or overworked doctors had fallen sick. He had no horse or bicycle. Instead, he walked between the stone cottages in the rain-laden dawns and chill nights. On the hillsides below Fiesole and Bagno a Ripoli, he bandaged the broken ankles and gored shoulders of peasant farmers and delivered the babies of their wives. He sent letters of application to every village in the province, looking for a place, without success.
Meanwhile, he gathered stories with each year that passed. His vocation and manner seemed to invite confidences. The peasants told him of daughters lost at sea, of brothers parted who, reunited at last, mistook each other for strangers and slew each other, of shepherds blinded in both eyes who navigated by the sounds of the birds. The stories that the poor loved best, it seemed, were sad ones. And stories still held a kind of magic for him. Returning home in the grey dawn to whatever temporary lodgings he inhabited at the time, he would wash his hands, pour coffee, throw open the windows to the reassuring sounds of the living, and transcribe the stories into his red book. He did this whether the fate of his patient had been life or death, and always solemnly. In this way, his book became full of the bright vistas of a thousand other lives.
In spite of this, his own life remained narrow and shallow-rooted, as though he had never really begun it. A large and hawkish man with one straight bristle of eyebrow across his forehead, he was tall without being apologetic for his tallness, unlike most men of high stature. His height and the obscurity of his background made him out of place, a foreigner everywhere. When he witnessed the young taking photo- graphic portraits in the Piazza del Duomo of Florence, or drinking chocolate at little bandy-legged tables outside the bars, he felt that he had never belonged to their species. His youth had passed and he felt himself to be at the beginning of middle age. He was a solitary man, grave of dress, reserved of habit, who spent his evenings in study of medical periodicals and his Sundays in his elderly foster father’s parlour, discussing the newspaper, examining the newest specimen in the old man’s collection, playing cards. As his hands moved, he remembered the tarocco tales of his childhood: the Hanged Man, the Lovers, the Tower.
The old doctor had retired now. He still visited the foundling hospital, which had modernised in recent years and whose children now slept in specially aired dormitories, and played on great terraces full of drying linen, built particularly for the purpose.
Amedeo continued to apply for a permanent position. He sent letters everywhere, to villages in the south whose names he had never heard before, to comunes in the height of the Alps, to insignificant islands whose inhabitants sent their replies by boat via neighbouring villages because no postal service had yet reached them.
Finally, in 1914, one mayor sent back a letter by such roundabout means. His name, he wrote, was Arcangelo, his town Castellamare. If Amedeo was willing to travel to the south, there was an island utterly without medical assistance that might have a post for him.
The island was a crumb between the pages of his foster father’s atlas; south and east of Sicily, it was the furthest Amedeo could possibly have ventured from Florence without reaching Africa. He wrote back the same afternoon and accepted.
At last, a permanent position. His foster father saw him off at the station, wept in spite of his intentions, and promised that in the summer they would drink a glass of limoncello on a terrace laden with bougainvillea (the doctor’s views of the south were vague and romantic). ‘Perhaps I’ll even move there in my old age,’ said the doctor. He had come to look on Amedeo not as a foster son but as a son outright, although he could not find within himself the phrases to say so. Meanwhile, Amedeo sought about for thanks, but could only shake the doctor’s hand. Thus they parted. They were never again to see each other alive.
Amedeo travelled steerage on a steamer from Naples. It was the first time he had been upon the sea, and he was dizzy with its hydraulic hiss, its vastness. He carried with him a trunk full of his medical instruments wrapped in bundles of straw, and a small leather case in which he had packed his few clothes, his shaving kit and pipe, and his book of stories. Also, a new Kodak folding camera, an unexpected gift from his foster father. Amedeo had resolved in Castellamare to be a different man, a man who had experiences of which photographs could be taken, a man who sipped chocolate on the terraces of elegant bars. Not a foundling, not a penniless jobbing physician. For he still inhabited the world as bare as he had come into it, with no wife, no friend except his foster father, no descendants. Couldn’t life alter? Hadn’t his life begun to alter already in making the journey here? He was almost forty. It was time to embark on the real existence he had always believed to be waiting for him.
Since boyhood he had felt himself to be set against the tide, and so it was now: looking back, he observed that all the steamers leaving the port of Naples seemed to swing to the north as though drawn by some invisible compass, while his own ship cut against the waves and ploughed south, churning white moonlight under its prow. The steamer took in Salerno and Catania, then docked in Siracusa. From here, Amedeo saw Castellamare for the first time. The island was a low and brooding thing on the horizon, no more than a rock on the water. To carry him there, he could find no ferry or steamer, only one fishing boat, which bore the ominous name God Have Mercy. Yes, said the fisherman, he could take Amedeo to the island, but for no less than twenty-five lire because with this wind it would take all evening.
An old man working at a pile of nets was drawn in by their conversation. He mumbled something about the island being a place of ill luck, plagued by a curse of weeping, and began a complicated story about a cave full of white skulls – but he was quickly hushed and sent away by the first fisherman, who believed himself on the brink of closing a deal.
So he was, for Amedeo was not superstitious – and since he was unaccustomed to the south, neither was he inclined to barter. He paid the twenty-five lire, and with the fisherman’s help lodged his trunk of medical instruments under the thwart of the boat.
The fisherman rowed and talked, rowed and talked. The people of Castellamare, he told Amedeo, scraped a living by herding goats and picking olives. Also they fished for tuna, which they bludgeoned to death with sticks. And other fish, all types of fish, ones you could bludgeon and ones you could hook and ones you could gaff with a spear under the gills. Amedeo, who had been seasick since Naples, kept his mouth firmly shut while the fisherman expounded upon these themes. At last, they approached the stone quay of Castellamare.
The fisherman deposited him shortly after nine. As Amedeo watched the mast light of the God Have Mercy dip among the waves, a vast emptiness and silence settled around him, as though the island were uninhabited. Certainly, the few houses visible along its coast were unlit. The stone quay, which still held traces of heat, was scattered with petals of bougainvillea and oleander; a faint scent of incense hung in the air. Leaving his trunk, Amedeo went in search of some farm labourer or fisherman who might possess a handcart. But all he found was an old Arab tonnara with stone arches, in which a few playing cards and cigarette butts lay scattered, and a white chapel, which also proved to be deserted. The altar bore the staring image of a saint he did not recognise; on either side of it were vases of lilies whose stems sagged in the heat.
Amedeo’s letter from the mayor Arcangelo directed him to climb the hill, where he would find the town, ‘past a stand of prickly pears and through a stone archway, on top of the rock’. He was becoming used to the dark, and now he distinguished the outlines of a settlement hanging on the edge of the cliff: thin shuttered houses, the peeling baroque façade of a church, a square tower with a dome in blue enamel that reflected the light of the stars.
Amedeo could not carry his trunk up the hill. The only thing to be done was to make the ascent without it. He heaved it into the shelter of the chapel, which gave him some reassurance that it would be left undisturbed, and set out with only his suitcase. The road was stony and unlevelled; on either side, lizards shifted in the undergrowth. The sound of the surf rose clearly through the dark, and looking down he saw that it pooled and foamed around the entrances of a hundred small caves. Further up, the road twisted away from the coast and another part of the island came into view, flatter and more ordered, cut up into small strips of eld and surrounded by the stone box houses of peasants. He passed under the shadow of an olive grove, between the sombre forms of cacti. Sure enough, there was a stone archway here, faded and peeling. Now that he was at the summit of the island, in the full force of the wind, he saw that Castellamare was no different once you were upon it than it had appeared from a distance, still just a rock in a vast black ocean. To the north, the lights of Italy and Sicily shimmered hazily. To the south, the dark was uninterrupted.
The town itself had the blind stillness of a place unused to visitors. The main street was lit at intervals with blackened lament lamps, the side streets by assorted gas lanterns suspended from the balconies. A profusion of thyme and basil gave off a strong odour in the dark. He was obliged to go all over the town looking for signs of life. He passed a street of shops whose names were painted in black capitals on the plaster, a green-smelling fountain and a belvedere with a vista of the ocean. No people. Just when he was beginning to despair, the sound of singing drew him. After some turns through unlit alleys, a wrestle with a low-hanging washing line, and an unfortunate encounter with a stray dog, he came up a long flight of steps to the edge of a piazza, and there he finally found the inhabitants of Castellamare.
The whole square was in a state of noisy chaos. Women bore fish overhead on great platters; wine slopped into glasses; the circus strains of guitars and organetti rose in the dark. A boy and a girl without shoes plied a barrow dangerously through the legs of the crowd. In one corner a donkey auction was in progress; around the creature, men, women and children jostled and shoved, waving pink tickets. On a pedestal hovered a great plaster effigy of a saint, a woman with a coil of black hair and an alarming stare, fanned by a hundred red ames. Amedeo was soon to learn that he had arrived in the middle of the yearly festival of Sant’Agata. For now, it seemed only a wondrous, magical disorder unlike anything he had witnessed.
Into this disorder, as into a warm sea, stepped Amedeo. He passed through the scents of jasmine and anchovies and liquor, through snatches of dialect and accented Italian and high lamenting songs whose language he did not recognise, through the light of fires and torches and the hundred red candles that illuminated the ghostly saint. At last, emerging from the crowd with his suitcase clutched to his chest, he found himself before an extraordinary house.
A square building in faded amber, it seemed balanced on the very side of the hill, between the light of the piazza and the dark of the hillside and the sea. Its terrace was draped in great profusions of bougainvillea. At little tables, among the flowers, the islanders drank limoncello and arancello, fought and swore over card games, swayed to the whirling songs of an organetto. A sign in fanciful script proclaimed the words ‘Casa al Bordo della Notte’: House at the Edge of Night.
A tiny old man approached Amedeo. Reeling slightly, this man looked up at him and said: ‘Who are you?’
‘Amedeo Esposito,’ said Amedeo, startled into introducing himself. ‘I’m the new doctor.’
The old man puffed himself up with delight. ‘The new doctor!’ he said. ‘The new doctor!’
Amedeo was alarmed as the islanders surged around him, clapping their hands, thumping his shoulders, vigorously seizing his arms. It took him some moments to recognise this for what it was: a welcome. The tiny old man was crowing in delight. ‘Rizzu is my name,’ he said. ‘This bar is my brother’s. The Rizzus are an important family on the island, as you’ll see, signor il dottore. I’ll fetch you a drink. I’ll fetch you grilled anchovies and a rice ball and a plate of mozzarella.’
The doctor had eaten nothing since Siracusa, and all at once began to be hungry. He sat. Liquors were poured for him, a table cleared. The mayor Arcangelo appeared soon after, a stout grocer who moved through the crowd with well-oiled charm, all smiles. He shook Amedeo’s hand, clapped his shoulder, and welcomed him to the island. He then introduced the priest, who was narrow and went by the name of Father Ignazio and was also, Arcangelo said, a member of the town council.
After this hasty welcome, the mayor vanished, but the priest, with a grave cough, sat down near Amedeo. ‘You haven’t yet been introduced to il conte, I daresay. The deputy mayor. This is the first time anyone but he has been mayor on the island, so you find us at a time of great modernisation.’
Amedeo, who had thought that there was no such thing as a count in any part of Italy in the twentieth century, was at a loss for a reply. ‘You’ll encounter the count soon enough,’ said the priest. ‘Don’t worry. Best to get it over with.’
Rizzu returned, bearing plates, with an equally tiny old man whom he introduced as his younger brother and the owner of the bar. Rizzu heaved himself up into the chair on the other side of Amedeo, poured him more liquor, and began to explain the history of the island, and of the saint whose festival was now taking place in the square.
‘I keep telling Father Ignazio he must speak to the pope about of cialising Sant’Agata,’ he told Amedeo. ‘She’s cured all kinds of illnesses. A curse of weeping one time, and another time an epidemic of typhoid. She saved the island from the invaders by bringing a storm of flying sh down on the enemy ships, and on a fourth occasion she showed her grace by mending the legs of a young girl who had fallen into a well, praise be to the saint. Why, there’s the girl herself – there – Signora Gesuina—’
Amedeo looked – ‘No, signore, there!’ – and at last understood that Rizzu was pointing to an ancient woman, swaying blindly to the wails of the organetto. ‘When did the miracle happen?’ asked the doctor.
‘Oh, a few years ago now,’ said Rizzu. ‘But we expect Sant’Agata to bestow another miracle any year now. At her festival we carry her statue all around the coast. Then, to reward us, she blesses the fishing boats, the planting of new ground, and all the babies born on the island. Seven this year – you’ll be busy, dottore, I daresay!’
‘And they’ll all be named Agata,’ added the grave priest. ‘For I’m certain there’s nowhere in the world with more Agatas than this island. There has been an epidemic of Agatas in recent years. It has now become necessary to refer to them by attribute: Agata-with-the-green-eyes, Agata-from-the-house-with-the-bougainvillea, Agata-daughter-of-the-baker’s-sister—’
‘“Agata” is the very best of names!’ protested Rizzu, in drunken high spirits. He clambered down from his seat and went off in search of wine for the doctor, who didn’t seem to like the island’s liquors – for really he was drinking very slowly, thought Rizzu, and with unnecessary coughs and splutters.
Meanwhile, Amedeo delighted the crowd by taking out his book of stories and making a record of Rizzu’s account of Sant’Agata, which had thoroughly charmed him. Like everything this night, it seemed enchanted and not quite real, and he was anxious not to forget it.
When the others had dispersed a little, Father Ignazio leaned towards Amedeo. ‘You’ll have no peace, I’m afraid,’ he said. ‘We haven’t had a doctor on the island since the first Greek sailors landed here two millennia ago. The islanders will be bringing you their bunions and piles, their sick cats and hysterical daughters, their whole backlog of medical complaints. And their stories. Many more stories. Be warned.’
‘You have never had any doctor on the island before?’ ‘None.’
‘What’s the normal practice when someone is sick?’
Father Ignazio spread his hands. ‘For all serious matters, we send the islanders in a fishing boat to the mainland.’
‘And what about when it’s stormy, or when no boat is available? I had some trouble getting here; there was only one man willing to take me.’
‘I have a few medicines which I can distribute,’ said the priest. ‘That good widow, Gesuina, attends the expectant mothers. We manage as we can between us. But no – it’s a sad state of things. We’ll be glad to have you here. It breaks my heart to bury the young when we’ve no medical man to tell us whether it might have been prevented.’
‘But why has a doctor only now been sought?’
In answer, Father Ignazio gave a melancholy, sonorous sniff. ‘It’s a question of politics. The previous mayor was unwilling. He didn’t see the need for a doctor on the island. Now the town council has changed – I’m on it, and the schoolmaster Vella – and Arcangelo is mayor now, and we get things done.’
‘Who was the previous mayor?’
‘Il Conte d’Isantu,’ said the priest.
‘This count everyone is waiting for?’
‘Yes, dottore. Of course, of officially, he’s no count any longer. But since the Unification the islanders – damned fools – have voted one d’Isantu or another in as mayor at every election. Except this time – God and Sant’Agata know why!’
‘This conte has been mayor for years, and he did not see the need for a doctor? How many are the inhabitants?’
Father Ignazio said that he supposed about a thousand, though as far as he knew no census had ever been made. But here, the priest turned abruptly to the matter of Amedeo’s lodgings. ‘You are to stay in the house of the schoolmaster Professor Vella and his wife, Pina,’ he said. ‘They must be somewhere about here – let me fetch them.’
The priest got up from the table and returned some minutes later with the schoolmaster and his wife. Il professore was a man approaching middle age, who wore his hair greased sideways. He clapped Amedeo on the shoulder and said, ‘Ah, good, good, an educated man at last,’ which made the priest sniff. Il professore took possession of Amedeo, and began to recount to him choice facts from the island’s history: ‘invaded by eight separate powers, imagine!’ . . . ‘and no church until 1500’. At about three o’clock, drunk beyond talking, he toppled sideways from his chair.
The schoolmaster was escorted home. Pina, his wife, now came out of the shadows. Il professore had told Amedeo, confusedly, that the islanders were part-Norman part-Arab part-Byzantine part-Greek part-Phoenician part-Spanish part-Roman, and this was evident in Pina, who had black hair like ropes and eyes of a surprising opal colour. She was drawn into the circle and exhorted to tell what the islanders called ‘the real story of Castellamare’. This she did, in a voice hesitant but strong: a story of invaders and exiles, eruptions of liquid re and ghostly weeping, mourning voices and caves full of the click of white bones – a story so dazzling that Amedeo would struggle to remember it properly when he woke the next day, and forever afterwards believed that he had forgotten the most important part of it, that no telling could be quite as good as Pina Vella’s.
Her story done, Pina excused herself: she must check her husband had got home safely; perhaps she would be back for the end of the festival, and certainly for the scattering of the flowers.
‘Pina’s a clever woman,’ said the priest, watching her go. ‘I baptised her, taught her her catechism. Too educated for this island, and for her husband – damned pity – but I can’t persuade il professore to give up his job and let her take it. She’d do much better than he does, for the man’s a terrible bore.’
The old man Rizzu, who had reappeared for Pina’s story, crowed again in delight. ‘Father Ignazio loves scandal,’ he said. ‘He’s almost always causing it. He’s the most unconventional priest we’ve had.’
The priest seemed gratified at this, and swallowed his glass of arancello at one gulp.
A disturbance began to send its waves through the crowd at this moment – a kind of collective thrill. ‘Il conte,’ said Rizzu. ‘Here he is at last.’
‘Ah,’ said Father Ignazio. ‘Another man for whom I have very little patience. Excuse me, dottore – I must make my escape.’
Il conte, an ample man in a velvet jacket, came in sight beneath the statue of the saint. Amedeo was disconcerted at the way he worked the crowd, drawing attention and favour. Some of the islanders bowed and shook his hand; others brought forward gifts – a plate of aubergines, a bottle of wine, a live chicken in a wooden cage – which the count accepted before depositing them in the hands of his retinue. The scene did not seem to startle anyone else – though Amedeo noted that not everybody approached the count, or extended their hands in greeting.
The count, at last, came to rest before them. The priest had fled; Rizzu bobbed and bowed at one side of the table. Amedeo, gathering that it was expected, got to his feet too. The count said, ‘You, I understand, are the new doctor. I am Andrea d’Isantu, conte.’
Amedeo made a hasty introduction of himself. ‘Piacere,’ said the count, without pleasure. ‘This is my wife, Carmela.’
A young woman with a bored aspect came out of the crowd. Her black hair was curled; she wore a hat with an upright feather of the style fashionable in Paris and London, at odds with the decades-old Sunday best of the other islanders. ‘Carmela,’ said the count, waving a hand in the woman’s direction. ‘Bring coffee and spirits. Bring wine. Something small to eat, a pastry or an arancino.’
Having spoken these words, the count drew out a chair, deposited himself in it, and fell into a calculated, brooding silence. ‘So,’ he said at last. ‘When did you arrive? Who met you at the quay?’
‘About nine o’clock,’ said Amedeo. ‘And no one met me – I made my own way. But I’ve been introduced to Signor Arcangelo, and one or two of the town council – Professor Vella and Father Ignazio.’
‘You’re a city man, aren’t you? A northern man? And what are you doing on this rock at the edge of the civilised world? Fleeing something, I suppose.’ The count gave a great bark of laughter.
Amedeo did not know how to answer this, except to say that he had been seeking a post as a medico condotto the whole length of the country, and had found one here.
‘Well, I hope you’ll make a living. Where do they come from, your family? Esposito – that’s an odd sort of name.’
‘I have no family, except a foster father,’ said the doctor. He spoke clearly, for the fact did not usually shame him, though under the count’s interrogation and the continuing heat of the piazza he had begun to sweat a little. He ran a finger around the stiff collar of his shirt.
‘A man with no family?’ said the count. ‘A man out of nowhere – an orphan?’
‘I was brought up in the care of the Ospedale degli Innocenti in Firenze, a foundling hospital. One of the best,’ pride compelled him to add.
‘Ah – I thought so by the name. Esposito. Abandoned.’
Carmela reappeared, Rizzu and his brother in her wake, bearing trays with gold-rimmed cups, a saucer with a fantail of pastries and an unopened bottle of arancello. ‘The very best,’ Rizzu murmured, hovering about the count’s chair.
‘Carmela, pour the liquor.’ Again, the count did not look at his wife. She merely nodded, served the spirits to her husband, then seated herself at a little distance, with respectfully folded hands.
‘We’ve ice cream and proper liquors at the villa, shipped in from Palermo.’ The count gave a mock sigh. ‘You’ll find us a primitive people otherwise, I’m afraid, dottore. No proper electric light, no libraries. The sea air rots the books. Ha! An illiterate people, too – there’s only myself who can read, and the priest, and the schoolmaster, and the grocer Arcangelo in his way. And Carmela, I suppose, though one never thinks of her as literate, somehow, with her fashion periodicals and French novels. Ha! I hope that foundling hospital brought you up with simple tastes, for this island would be a trial to any civilised man.’
‘The main mark of a civilised society,’ said Amedeo, who had only just formed the opinion, ‘I believe, is the employment of a doctor.’
At this the beautiful Carmela – to Amedeo’s consternation – let out a great shout of laughter. The count stirred his coffee and ripped apart a pastry. He attacked it with great bites, swallowed, wiped the crumbs from his mouth. ‘The employment of a doctor has never been prudent on this island,’ he said. ‘The new mayor and the council have got that all wrong. It’s an expense we can’t afford. I certainly hope you’ll make a living here, but times are difficult and you may not last the year, I’m sorry to say.’
A silence descended on the table. Amedeo met the eyes of Carmela, and was discomposed. She leaned forward a little. ‘You must join us at the villa for dinner,’ she said, her face lit with suppressed mischief. ‘You and my husband will find a good deal to say to each other.’
‘That’s certainly kind of you, but I’ll have very little time to spare once I take up my duties.’
‘Well, well – in that case, perhaps you’ll survive,’ said the count. ‘At least you’ve brought no wife with you, or children – and with only yourself to maintain, and no time for social diversions, perhaps you’ll do well enough, in a scraping, bachelor sort of way. It’d be no life for me, but perhaps you can manage it. How convenient to be a foundling, a man without wife or children, a man utterly unencumbered in the world!’ Here he glanced at Carmela, who was still much amused.
‘What about you, signor il conte?’ said Amedeo. ‘Do you and la contessa have very many children?’ For some instinct told him they were childless, and he hoped, unkindly, to needle.
The count, though, merely shook his head. ‘My wife is barren.’ Carmela bowed her head, and Amedeo could see the colour spread across her neck at being publicly shamed in this way. By one stroke, the count had defeated her and silenced the doctor, and he began now to take his leave. He seized a final pastry, upended the last of his coffee into his mouth, and held out his hand again to Amedeo. ‘I hope you’ll make a living here,’ he said.
‘I certainly intend to,’ said Amedeo.
As il conte receded into the crush of islanders, Amedeo heard a melancholy sniff and, turning, found Father Ignazio at his shoulder. ‘There,’ he said. ‘You’ve survived your first encounter with il conte. From now on, everything is an improvement.’
‘I feel a little sorry for Carmela,’ said Amedeo.
‘Yes,’ said Father Ignazio. ‘We all feel a little sorry for her.’
Dawn came earlier than expected, with a grey brightening, and still the festival continued. Amedeo, too drunk to trust his feet and wishing very much to go to bed, sat between the priest and Rizzu while the whirling music grew ever more frenzied, the dancing ever more disordered. The card players were immersed in a round of scopa that seemed to have gone on for hours. Each time a winning player swept his cards from the table, the yells grew more raucous, the insults more good-naturedly extravagant. At the last round, Rizzu’s tiny brother had leapt from his seat in triumph, holding his cards aloft, overturning a jug of limoncello. Meanwhile, among the dancers, a young man in the waistcoat and black jacket of a peasant was making a series of perilous leaps around the circle. Then all at once the dancers broke apart, the cards were gathered, and there was a great commotion in the square. ‘Damn – it’s time for the flowers already!’ said Father Ignazio, and rose from his chair. ‘As always I forget!’ Weaving with surprising agility in and out of the crowd, he stopped before the statue of the saint. A group of young men hoisted it into the air. On all sides, shutters were banging open.
‘What are they doing?’ said Amedeo – but Rizzu, too, was gone. Amedeo found himself alone on the terrace of the bar.
The priest intoned a prayer. Then all at once a great unfurling took place, like some natural phenomenon, a wondrous rain of petals. From every upper window, women hurled basketfuls of oleander and bougainvillea, plumbago and trumpet honeysuckle, until the air was full of flowers. Children screamed and cavorted; the organetti and guitars took up a hymn; the saint’s statue was borne swaying above the crowd; and in the confusion the flowers continued to whirl, thickening the air.
Out of nowhere, a thought came to him of the fine photograph it would make. He searched his suitcase and assembled the folding camera. He set it on the table and made his first picture, a grainy, underexposed shot of the bar, the piazza, the rain of flowers.
He developed the image weeks later, in the makeshift darkroom he established in the back of his cupboard at the schoolmaster’s house (a useful hiding place, too, from the lectures of il professore). The flowers were just white streaks against grey, but nevertheless the clarity of the image startled him, a beautiful thing. It was the first photograph he had ever taken. Among the faces of the crowd he could make out the strangers of that night who were to become the daily figures of his life: Rizzu and his brother arm in arm before the bar, its lights blazing like caught stars; Father Ignazio beneath the statue; the dark shadow of il conte; Pina Vella at an upstairs window; and – aloof at the edge of the crowd – the beautiful Carmela.
Later, he would come to see this photograph as portentous, for within it, like the stories hidden in Rita Fiducci’s pack of cards, were concealed the signs of his whole life to come.
Beyond the island’s shores, the world that year of 1914 was undergoing a long, slow heave towards war. Amedeo didn’t realise it at first. The news of the assassination of the archduke in Sarajevo, which happened a few hours after that miraculous rain of flowers, took thirteen days to reach Castellamare – and meanwhile the island was so bright and alive that it seemed to him now the only real world. Yet it could not be denied that Amedeo was a foreigner here. As out of place as the giant in one of his tales, he was so tall that he was concussed several times merely going in and out of his patients’ houses. The beds on the island were too short for a man his size; they had been made for the peasants of the nineteenth century, and he was obliged to push two of them together and sleep sideways until a special one could be built. (Years later, a special coffin would also have to be made to accommodate his height of almost seven feet – for he would remain, to the last, the very tallest man on Castellamare.) So he did not immediately fit, but still he felt himself, in some obscure, important way, to belong. For instance, when he woke at noon the day after the festival of Sant’Agata, he found that someone had carried his forgotten trunk of medical instruments up the hill and deposited it outside his door. Father Ignazio, from the first morning, sought him out to discuss the news from the continent – ‘You’re a thinking man, Esposito, you’ll have opinions.’ The elderly Rizzu brothers waylaid him on his morning rounds and plied him with coffee and rice balls. Within a month, his opinion was sought by the widows of the Committee of Sant’Agata (though he was not a religious man, and had scandalised them the first Sunday by not attending Mass) about the particular colours of thread to be ordered for a new banner dedicated to the saint. After he successfully extracted a sea urchin’s spines from the foot of the fisherman Pierino, the Fishermen’s Guild invited him to the tonnara for the ceremonial presentation of a tuna.
And there were a thousand petty town battles on which one must take sides (for already he had been persuaded on to the town council in an advisory capacity); there were several cases of typhus; eight babies due or imminent. When Italy entered the war, he was on his way to inspect the swamp to see whether it could be drained in order to reduce the risk of malaria, and somehow the swamp and the malaria seemed of more import than the declaration of war, this war here on Castellamare against pestilence and stagnant water a thing more worth fighting. The island seemed a separate country to him, not a part of the Italy in which he had passed his solitary youth.
On Sunday afternoons Father Ignazio taught him to swim, plunging ahead of him into the waves in a black woollen bathing suit. On the terrace of il professore’s house each evening, once the schoolmaster had fallen drunkenly asleep, Pina Vella told him every story belonging to the island.
‘A small place like this is an oppression,’ warned Father Ignazio. ‘You don’t feel it yet, but you’ll come to feel it. Everyone who visits without having been born here thinks it delightfully rustic. I thought so, too, myself. But anyone born on Castellamare will fight by any means possible to get off the island, and one day you’ll be the same. It hit me about the tenth year.’
But Amedeo, who had always felt himself to be weightless, at risk of floating off from the earth altogether, now welcomed the solid heft of the place, the narrowness of its borders. He was amused at the way his patients knew all his business an hour before he did; he was unperturbed when the widows watched him from the wooden chairs outside their houses with narrowed, appraising eyes; he found comfort in the fact that it was possible, from the window of any of his patients’ houses, to look upon the same blue line of the sea. The island was five miles long, and in his daily rounds he walked all over the face of it. He discovered the hollows where wild goats slept at noon, and disturbed the nests of lizards in the ruined houses outside town, so that they ran like water up the walls. Sitting outside old Rizzu’s bar, he made a map of the island on a scrap of blotting paper, the old man nodding approvingly, pointing out flaws.
At the beginning of the spring, he sent a letter to his foster father with an invitation to drink limoncello with him at the House at the Edge of Night – for there really was a terrace with bougainvillea, he wrote eagerly, exactly as the elderly doctor had foretold.
But when summer came again, he did not sit with his foster father under the cool vines. Instead, a telegram ordered him away to the north.