© Manuela Davidovic
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Giulia sued her former employer for sexual harassment and lost the case. Feeling miserable and badly in need of a change, she travels from Italy to her father's birthplace – a Vlah village in Eastern Serbia - to spend some time with her sister, Ester, who has been in the village for several months, after she left Milan, following a decision to divorce her husband, Ronny.
PLOT: the transition from an English course to a live performance, and what happens in the process, beginning with Jane's (Ronny's sister's) arrival to the village in the 8th chapter, and her taking over as teacher
I get out of the bed and wander over to the window.
Dad had chosen an ideal location to build our house. Set on the higher end of a sloping field, our home overlooks the area outside the village that is covered with orchards and vineyards, beyond which a green swathe of woodland sprawls at the foothills.
I stretch myself contentedly. I feel good, and all I want is to enjoy my stay here, doing nothing too demanding. I’ll shower, dress, have breakfast and go out for a walk, I decide.
In the fridge in the kitchen downstairs, I find a platter with remnants of Rambo's and Ester's supper. I taste a rasher of bacon, a lump of seasoned white cheese, a chunk of corn bread, a pickled hot pepper...
Ester comes in, interrupting my degustation. She is clad in a slouchy sweater and tracksuit bottoms, and her hair is tousled as if blown by the squalliest of košavas.
“I missed you so much,” I say, embracing her.
“I missed you, too. Welcome home, baby,” says Ester, patting me on the shoulder.
Almost slipping out of my arms, she sits down heavily into the chair nearest to her.
“Coffee...?” I offer, as she lifts her drowsy head to me.
Ester pushes a couple of unruly wisps off her face and puts on a guilty expression.
“I’d rather have a burek, cheese filling or minced meat. What do you think?”
“We’ll have both. I’ll go out and get them!”
I need a breath of fresh air, and the air here is delicious, overflowing with scents of nature.
Ester shuffles after me to the front door.
“From Riki’s bakery. But first, go and get some Ratluk and some ground coffee for Great-aunts Fema and Drina. Call on them on your way back.”
Now it’s my turn to sigh.
The obligatory visits can’t be postponed. Elderly people over here are prone to feel discarded, if neglected by their nearest and dearest.
As I step out, the old chatterbox, Minka, from the house opposite drops her watering hose and rushes to the gate. As a rule, she accompanies me for a stretch, trotting by my side and informing me about the goings-on in Heaven, where she ascends every night in her dreams.
We speak in Vlah, our native tongue, which we use for everyday communication.
“Last night, up there, your grandmother, Kadifka, and your grandfather invited my husband and my sister to their place for lunch. I couldn’t see what they were eating, but it smelled like chicken stew. After the meal, they read the obituaries and the weather forecast in the newspapers.”
Further down, I halt to greet two elderly relatives – Ranka and Danka. Seated on a bench, huddled close to each other like cats on a chilly winter day, they are watching vigilantly for a victim. They make place for Minka to sit down and complete the enquiry panel.
No, I haven’t got married, I don’t know when I will. Ranka reminds me that her grandson, Riki, is still a bachelor, that his parents will leave him all the money they have been earning in Austria, that they have opened him a new bakery in town, and that I will live 'as snug as a bug in a rug' in their house. No, thank you, I cringe inwardly, but smile to oblige her. I’m so pretty, I look very much like Ester. Yes, thank you, I say.
In order to escape similar conversations, I keep crossing from one side of the street to the other. It’s Saturday, market and shopping day, and there are people all over the place, strolling around, having drinks at the cafés, or just sitting at tables in their patios, enjoying a chat with friends.
I stop short of a lamp-post, my attention drawn by a poster with a slogan ‘Vote for your future’ and the image of Surgeon Bane, smiling self-assuredly at the passers-by. Bane is the Vlah political party candidate for a mayor in a nearby town.
I step back a few paces to have a better look at the photo-shopped picture, in which my fifty-year-old cousin appears with more hair and less bulk than I remember.
A loud honk makes me skip back onto the pavement. A black Nissan Altima whizzes past, but I manage to make out the Italian number plate. I’m not surprised.
In summer, our village awakes from its hibernation and comes alive with people and vehicles. The majority of the residents are over-60s, whose children and grandchildren emigrated abroad, or fled to towns. Once, the population used to be entirely Vlah ethnic minority, but many younger descendants, who were born and brought up in foreign countries, have married foreigners.
Some fifty years ago, this part of the country was a thriving agricultural district. Legend has it that the first settlers arrived here from Wallachia in the fifth century. Ever since, generations of hard-working people had laboured in the fields along the Danube and in other parts of Eastern Serbia, exploiting the fertile soil to grow wheat and corn and plant vines and fruit trees. In the 70s, both male and female members of the Vlah communities started leaving their villages to seek more remunerative jobs in the Western European countries. Long-term expatriates basically come to the village on holiday and some, like Cousin Rambo and Cousin Steva, return to start their own businesses.
I pause to admire the resplendent garden encircling Cousin Steva’s mansion. It resembles a genuine mini park with its amazing mix of flowers and ornamental plants and trees. On my way down to the shops, I pass by other similar three- and four-storey houses with showy façades, enclosed by fences with intricate ornamentation, showing off the authentic hallmark of the Vlah mentality, which simply translates as: the kitschier the nicer.
I stop by at the closest general store. The owner's wife is sitting in her armchair, close to the television set on display in the shop window. She's watching an Indian soap and knitting a woollen shawl.
“Good morning, Ester!” she greets me, speaking over her shoulder.
I don't bother telling her that I'm Giulia and as a result have her following me around the shop, interrogating me why I haven’t got married, reminding me that all women, even the emancipated ones like me, have a sell-by date.
I take a few packages of Ratluk and as many of ground Turkish coffee, mint candies and plain biscuits. I help myself to the shopping bags and leave the money on the counter.
“I don't need a receipt!” I call to the grocer's wife.
“Say 'hello' to Ronny and Giulia!” she shouts back, her eyes on the television screen.
I promise I will.
As I step out, a car screeches to a halt ahead of me and Rambo pokes his head through the window.
“Want a lift?”
“No, thanks. Got to go to your grandma’s, Ester thought...”
I renounce further explanation. Rambo has turned his head away from me, distracted by Leila's hourglass figure in a zebra print dress. Coming out of Riki's bakery with a loaf of bread and Riki in her wake, she pauses on the pavement to look searchingly up and down the street.
“See you later,” mutters Rambo, swinging the car onto the other side of the road.
As Leila quickly climbs into the front passenger seat of Rambo's car, Riki turns round and spots me. Pretending not to have seen him, I veer into the first side street. Instead of two, I employ twenty minutes by taking a detour to Fema’s house. I ring the bell, but don’t wait for Fema to answer the door. I meander through rooms and corridors, all crammed with antique and brand-new furniture and numerous unpacked boxes with electrical gadgets.
“Your grandmother has become a ghost!” Fema informs me, as I enter a large, overheated kitchen.
We hug each other, whereupon I go to sit in the armchair by the window, and Fema returns her attention to the television.
“Don’t deceive yourself!” she shakes her wooden spoon at the woman on the screen “There are no cures for womanisers.”
Holding the utensil high, Fema peers at me through the steam, rising from a set of pots on the range.
“That Ronny is no good either, should be ashamed of himself and keep quiet instead of calling Ester every day. Why did she have to pick a ‘glishman with all the unmarried lads we had here? His sister, Jane, is very nice though, but she must have had some ancestor from our parts.”
I don't comment. I don’t feel like discussing Ronny’s alleged infidelity, but Fema insists on telling me about how Ester had caught Ronny 'in the act' with his secretary, while she, Ester was buying Ronny new shirts. That was what Ronny thought - that Ester had gone shopping - but she had, in fact, come to Ronny's firm to bring him two pieces of Vlah apple pie. Ester felt so humiliated, because there were people around, watching through the glass door of Rony's office Ronny and that woman 'doing that', and some even laughed.
Biting my lower lip to prevent myself from laughing, I half-listen to Fema and watch out of the window, intrigued by the sign surmounting the establishment in the distance. It reads: Italian leather footwear and accessories. I can't imagine who could have opened it. Maybe the driver of the black Nissan...
The entrance door slams shut, interfering with my musing, and after a few minutes Riki steps inside, carrying a crate with cans of soft drinks.
I return the greeting by making a face.
Fema tells Riki to put the crate in the dining room, then she turns towards me and explains that she had been to Deni, the card-reader, and he had talked to her sister and my grandmother, Kadifka, who had said that for her death anniversary, apart from the usual stuff, we are to prepare roast pork, doughnuts and lemonade.
“They must be going hungry up there,” says Fema “Kadifka has started stealing sausages from my pantry.”
Riki comes back, this time bringing in a tray with a slaughtered suckling pig. He is going to roast it at his bakery, he tells me. He's got the latest model oven, which Rambo imported for him from Germany. I comment on that with another grimace.
Fema offers to make him coffee and Riki accepts. As Fema turns away, Riki places the tray on the table, pulls a chair to sit opposite me and commences the attack by talking banteringly about how he loved watching me skip the rope when I was a little girl.
“Yes,” Fema chimes in “Giulia was such a lively and sweet child.”
While Riki scans the parts of my body of absorbing meaning to him, I take him in from foot to head: white cotton socks, black synthetic sandals, hirsute shins, flowery Bermuda trousers, a red T-shirt with the printed gold lettering ‘I love burek’, thick gold chain around a thin neck, gelled up hair, a toothpick hanging from the corner of his mouth, jug ears, stupid grin, a face that inspires a very strong desire to slap it dozens of times. Altogether a textbook example of what a perfect Vlah country bumpkin looks like.
As my look dwells on his face, Riki gives me a strange little smile and starts to fidget on his seat, as if trying to make himself sit more comfortably. I don't know why, but I have an impression that this shifting of the lower part of his body will evolve in a sudden lewd movement, if not blocked there and then. Making an utmost effort to keep automatic knee-jerk reaction in check, I tell him to go and make a burek for Ester.
“Don't make me wait too long,” he chirps, giving me a knowing wink.
“I’ll be along in five minutes,” I say, waving him away.
Tray under arm, Riki hurries out, whistling to himself.
Fema comes back in with a plate of biscuits. She doesn’t ask where Riki is. She probably doesn’t even remember that he’s been here. She covers the pots and moves to the table with two large saucepans - one with sour cabbage leaves and the other one with fried minced meat.
“I should get back home,” I say, rising “Ester is waiting for her breakfast.”
Fema reaches for a plastic container and passes it to me.
“Baklavas. Ester’s favourite.”
“Do you know if Drina is in?” I ask.
“She is, but before you go over, dial her number for me, will you?”
I compose the number and pass the receiver to Fema.
“Hello...? Drina, it’s me, Fema. Come quickly to the window, want to tell you something.”
Drina’s house is right across from Fema’s. I bump into Jennifer in the doorway. Born and raised in Germany, she rarely came to the village since she began her studies, reading Business Administration at the university in Berlin. I haven't seen her for a few years now, and I am surprised to notice how she has changed from a chubby teenager with short, spiky hair into a slender and a very attractive young woman. With that long, curly, auburn hair and brown eyes, she takes very much after her mother, Aunt Zina, as I remember the Aunt from the photos when she was Jennifer's age.
Jennifer tells me that she is going to revise English with a friend.
“Don't tell Mom and Dad,” she says.
“I won't,” I say, confused.
Jeninfer gives me a peck on the cheek and dashes off. The black Nissan pulls up at the gate, the car door opens and Jennifer gets in before Drina reaches the front door.
Short and round-faced, wearing a flower-patterned scarf and a black apron over a brown house dress, Drina looks very much like her elder sister Fema.
She clasps me to her chest and holds me tight. I wait for her to release me, then we go inside, where I give her a carrier bag with her share of treats, whereupon we climb the staircase leading to the attic. Great-aunt Drina is as deaf as Great-aunt Fema is forgetful. To avoid growing hoarse from shouting, I nod and smile as she tells me that her son, Mita, her daughter-in-law, Zina, and her granddaughter, Jennifer, will be staying with her the whole summer. Drina pulls out a handkerchief from her apron pocket and wipes her eyes.
“I’m so happy that we’re all here. Pity that your parents and Rambo’s, and my sister Kadifka are not with us, but Ester says that they see us from there,” Drina points her finger at the sky “Can they really see us, Giulia? From so far away?”
I feel my throat tighten as Drina's eyes search my face, eager for more reassuring words, but I only manage to repeat that they can see us.
Placing my hands on Drina's shoulders, I turn her gently towards the window. Fema has reached her post and is waving to us from the attic window of her house.
Drina hastens over to the window and leans her elbows on the ledge. Fema does likewise and they begin their morning chat.
“Vir did it again last night,” says Fema accusingly.
“He didn't!” exclaims Drina.
“Yes, he did! So, Rambo’s going to install a larming to catch him.”
“What’s that larming?”
'Who’s Vir?' I wonder. Sounds like an Indian name.
Many of us, daughters and sons of ex-pats in foreign countries, are ‘fifty-fifty’, as Dad used to joke. I try to recall: Vlah-German, Vlah-Swedish, Vlah-Austrian, Vlah-Danish, Vlah-French, Vlah-Italian, Vlah- Spanish, Vlah-Portuguese, Vlah-Swiss, Vlah-English, Vlah-American, and over the past decade Vlah-Russian, even Vlah-Chinese. Never heard of a Vlah-Indian mixed marriage though. On the other hand, nothing is impossible in this Vlah village.
košava: a blustery south-eastern wind, occurring in Serbia in autumn and winter
burek: filo pastry stuffed with ground beef or cheese
Ratluk: Turkish Delight
larming: burglar alarm
Riki is standing in the doorway of his bakery, sizing me up with a complacent smile, as I bear down on him. Unfazed by my continual rejections, ever since we were teenagers, Riki has persisted in renewing his offer of sexual services and gold to me.
“I give a ducat for that.”
“Only one?” I had once teased him.
“One each time.”
Rambo and Ester keep telling me that Riki is harmless and that I shouldn't get upset at his rambling, and I usually don't, but again that unequivocal little twist of his hips is not to be underestimated. Propelled by flashbacks of Riki sneaking up on me to drool over my breasts, I march up to him.
“I must have a word with you!” I say sharply.
Riki rubs his hands and, as if on cue, the area around his groin starts to vibrate. Despite myself, I stare unbelievingly at his trousers. Without taking his eyes off me, Riki dips his hand in his pocket and extracts a flashy mobile phone.
“Speaking! Nataša...? Yes, of course I remember. We had such a cosy chat last night, didn't we?”
Riki turns to face me, looking agog to talk dirty on the phone in my presence.
“The burek!” I demand.
“Hold on a sec, Nati, will you?” he speaks into the phone, then pressing it against his chest, grins to me “There’s one for you, too.”
I snatch up the paper bags from his hand and walk off.
“See you, bambina!” he calls, as I go out.
I made as if to say 'f..k off', then change my mind. It’s high time I passed to more eloquent responses than the usual ‘blockhead’, ‘idiot’ and ‘nuisance’. I'll tell him that I'll phone his parents and report about his indecencies.
I halt at the exit and turn round. Riki has leaned on the counter and is swaying his rear from one side to the other.
I consider his posture for an instant; perfect for a neat kick. The temptation is overwhelming, but also dangerous, because putting it into practice would involve lifting my leg and giving Riki an eyeful of my underwear in the wall mirror, should he look up.
I lower my foot and stick out my tongue at him. Unexpectedly, Riki twists round, and remains to stare at me open-mouthed. Then it hits me. The sight of a woman’s tongue hanging out can only turn Riki on. I glance around to make sure that no one is watching, then I raise my hand and give him the finger. Ignoring my furious gesture, Riki’s lips curl in a smile, as if awaiting more, but my mind has gone blank. It looks like I'll have to ask Ester to deal with this stressor on my behalf.
I turn my back on Riki and sprint forward.
At home, instead of Ester gorging on leftovers, I find Uncle Mita and Aunt Zina, gliding between the kitchen and the pantry like billiard balls. They tell me that Ester is in her room, talking to Ronny over Skype, so they thought they could tidy up a bit, but they’ve finished and Aunt Zina will make us coffee.
Uncle Mita pulls a chair and sits down, letting out a long breath.
“Polite, educated, eats plenty of vegetables, wears preppy trousers, black rollnecks, polished shoes, never swears, not a hint of flesh. No way that he can ever fit in our family. Fair-haired at that!”
I hope it’s not Ronny Uncle Mita is talking about with that expression of great disappointment.
“Who?” I ask almost fearfully.
“That German coxcomb. Hans!”
Uncle Mita shakes his head, as if in great pain.
His Jenny, his only daughter, the apple of his ‘both eyes’, will marry the 'Schwaba dandy' out of spite. To spite him, the only father she has. Uncle Mita appears visibly distressed as he beats his chest, but I can’t think of appropriate words of comfort, except telling him that the young man Jennifer is dating is dark-haired and seems to be Italian.
Aunt Zina pours us coffee and urges us to drink it.
“Excellent!” comments Uncle Mita, draining his cup, then staring at the floor, he resumes his monologue.
“Grain and maize. He calls them cereals and cornflakes, he eats that stuff every morning. He’s not a chicken, for God’s sake! What kind of a man is he, Giulia?”
Uncle Mita selects a slice of smoked meat from the platter in front of him and thrusts it under my nose.
“How can one not like this? I made it with my own hands. Try it, and tell me what you think.”
“Very tasty,” I say, taking also a ring of sausage Aunt Zina is holding ready for me.
“Isn't it?” smiles Uncle Mita, passing me a big chunk of cheese.
I eat it with relish, while he tells me about Schwaba's family.
“His parents are posh, wealthy, have a house in town, a cottage in the countryside, a seafront house, cars, ugly bulldogs and hairy cats. Once they invited us to dinner. Zina made a Vlah cheese pie and a walnut cake, to show them what specialities we have. And you can't even imagine what they served us. You want to know?”
Uncle Mita pauses, waiting for my reply.
To please him, I nod.
“Just some thin onion soup which tasted like antibacterial mouth rinse, then for each of us a half of a chicken breast fillet, without the skin, and some boiled white sticks that make you urinate for two days.”
“You forgot the banana before the soup,” Aunt Zina throws in.
“Ah, yes! That part was the most confusing of all: a banana enveloped in Speck. We thought that was all we were getting - a tiny sample of a starter and a dessert - so we ate the Speck first, with the bread roll, and then the banana. The only good thing was the cheese that we had at the end of the meal. I wished I had kept the bacon to eat with it, and the banana to eat with the grapes,” Uncle Mita passes his hand across his face and looks at me with sad eyes “Jennifer said that she would marry only Hans and no other man, despite our warnings that she would be starving in that house. You can't even imagine what we've gone through because of Jennifer's stubbornness, until Ester found a way to divert Jennifer's thoughts from Hans.”
Uncle Mita and Aunt Zina agree that I should know how Ester has resolved the issue with the 'German dandy'.
After all, there are no secrets among us, we’re a family. Uncle Mita is Great-aunt Drina’s son – her only son - and Drina is my and Ester’s Great-aunt, and my Grandmother Kadifka’s sister, they remind me. And Fema is another sister of Grandmother’s and her grandson, Rambo, is my, Ester’s and Jennifer’s cousin, he is like a son to Uncle Mita and Aunt Zina; the three sisters had each a son, but Uncle Mita and my Dad had daughters, that is to say, Uncle Mita and Aunt Zina have Jennifer, and Dad and Mom had Ester and me, and my father was my Grandmother’s only son, pity he died young, still miss him so much, and they also miss Ester’s and my mother, Ilaria, who was so good and so beautiful.
“The most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in my life,” sighs Uncle Mita, his eyes welling up with tears.
Aunt Zina pulls out a handkerchief from her sleeve and wipes her eyes, then she passes the handkerchief to Uncle Mita. I steer the conversation back to Jennifer, before they start to weep. Aunt Zina and Uncle Mita cheer up.
Well, since the enforced curfew didn’t work with Jennifer, Ester had a great idea to enrol Jenny in the English course she’s organized, free of charge, for her cousins and some nice foreigners. So, Jennifer will be staying this summer in the village, studying for her exams. She has realized how important knowledge of the English language is and who could teach her better that Ester, our Ester, who has always been so clever and so level-headed. At first, they had to pay Jennifer weekly wages to come to the course, but now she seems to really like it. So let’s keep our fingers crossed.
We cross our fingers, then we knock on wood, have another coffee, this time spiked with a few drops of brandy, whereupon we unpack the boxes, which Uncle Mita and Aunt Zina have brought to provide us with some fine things from their supermarket. There are biscuits, chocolate bars, candies, packets of crisps, breadsticks, and coffee.
Now they should be going, but will pop round later to bring some cheese-and-yoghurt pie for supper because, in her condition, Ester needs lots of calcium.
I see Uncle and Aunt out and return to the kitchen.
The burek has gone stiff like wood. I pick it up and fling it towards the bin in the corner. It lands right inside, scattering scraps of papers in its trajectory. A bizarre thought strikes me; Riki stuffed my burek with amulets and drizzled it with a love potion concocted by the village card-reader.
I gather the greasy bits from the floor.
“You have the lighter, I have a grenade bursting with explosive ...detonate my ticking bomb...squeeze me like a lemon...”
No, I haven't met a bigger and a more persistent fool in my life. I drop Riki’s messages in the garbage bin and wash my hands at the kitchen sink, thinking of what to do next: cook supper or unpack. First, I'll go and see what Ester is doing. She will have finished talking to Ronny.
I find Ester arguing with Ronny.
“Don’t you dare mention that again!”
“But we had such fun last time,” says Ronny, his voice soft and cajoling.
“I said: no,” says Ester, but her 'no' doesn't sound very convincing.
I give a little cough. Ester turns round, her expression slightly embarrassed. Gesturing towards Ronny, she speaks to me, shouting the 'no' in my face.
“NO! He definitely has no imagination. He did it with his secretary! In broad daylight in his office.”
I am intrigued. Ronny has two secretaries.
“Which secretary?” I ask mechanically.
“Giovanna!” replies Ester instead of Ronny.
Now, I’d have a question for Ester. Does she really think that Ronny could cheat on her with that tubby, middle-aged virago? An extremely efficient assistant though.
Ester swivels round in her chair to face Ronny.
“Why not the other secretary? Why not Carolina?”
I sit down on the edge of Ester’s bed. Yes, why not the Sicilian brunette who looks like Miss Universe?
“Well...she...I...,” stammers Ronny.
Ester pulls a face at him.
“You see!” she exclaims triumphantly, turning to me again “He has no answer.”
“I have it!” counters Ronny “Because I love only you.”
Ester rolls her eyes, as if greatly bored.
“Don’t give me that threadbare excuse, please! Better explain how Giovanna ended up clinging to you.”
“I told you, she skidded somehow, lost her balance, took a tumble, and fell over me.”
“Why didn’t you push her away? Why didn't you kick her away, slapped her face?”
“I couldn’t do that!”
Ronny gestures wordlessly with his hands, as if trying to conjure an answer out of thin air.
“Well?” demands Ester.
Looking defeated, Ronny lets his hands fall and says simply:
“Because I'm a gentleman.”
I want to confirm that, but Ester leaps up from her chair and points an accusing finger at Ronny.
“You are a liar! And your lies really make me so sick that I’m going to throw up.”
'No doubt, she's been eating too much,' I think, as Ester rushes to the bathroom, her hand clapped over her mouth.
I stand up from the bed and go to peer at the screen.
Ronny sits back in his chair and lets out a sigh. I must notice that at fifty-three, Ronny is a very good-looking man, with those broad shoulders and those steel blue eyes, enhanced by grizzled hair. Why would Ester want to divorce such a fine man, owner of a successful interior design firm, so outgoing, honest, well-liked, well-mannered, and a real gentleman indeed?
I smile encouragingly.
“Just one of those days,” I say.
“I know,” he says.
“Don’t talk to her!” barks Ester, coming in.
“Ester, just hear me out...” pleads Ronny, before Ester swings the screen round, but doesn't switch off the laptop.
“I love you!” Ronny cries to the wall.
Ester goes around her writing desk to talk to Ronny from the other side.
“Why did you cheat on me then?”
Here we go again!
I head out of Ester’s room and close the door. I don’t want to be forced to take sides, or be tempted to eavesdrop.
I want to have a look around and see the ultimate result of the completed renovations.
Grandmother’s house is a solid two-storey structure, with wood and pastel colours and hues dominating throughout the house. Apart from the unused spare room, which is empty, except for a step-ladder and a box with painting rollers and brushes, the four bedrooms have been updated with new fabrics, carpets and chandeliers, but Ester has kept most of Grandmother’s antique furniture pieces to perfectly preserve the rustic touches. She has also changed the tiles in the two bathrooms and the rails on the balconies.
I continue down the spiral staircase and, passing through the lounge, go to the extension attached to the house.
The dark and dusty annex which once served as a store room for wine barrels, various implements and wood logs has been converted into an extra open-concept living room, with hardwood floors and floor-to-ceiling sliding windows that look onto the garden, the furnishings comprising a couch, a couple of armchairs, folding wood chairs, a table in the centre of the room and...three TV sets?
I pick up a folder from one of the end tables and leaf through the sheaf of papers that it contains: samples of commercial letters in English, lists of technical terms, grammar exercises, multiple choice tests.
Bored, I put the file away and lie down on the couch to watch the setting sun in the distance, while enjoying the peaceful atmosphere and the view of the beautiful twilight outside.
As I am about to doze off, the front doorbell rends the silence and the next moment the entry hall starts filling with voices and laughter.
A video camera strapped to his shoulder, Rambo is circling around Leila while she struts seductively along the hall.
She blows him a kiss, and twirls round to give me a hug. She has brought a soft cheese spread with roast peppers to go with Florina’s bread rolls, she says. Lifting the bawl level with her shoulder, she glides off in the direction of the annex, with Rambo following in her steps, holding his camera aimed at Leila's backside.
The next in line is quite a different female. I can’t decide whether she looks more like Smurfette – in those low-heeled white pumps and with that blonde, wig-like hair and long lashes - or like a sunflower - clad in that high-waisted green skirt and a yellow blouse with shiny black buttons.
She gives me a bashful smile and introduces herself as Florina, Mr. Steva's new secretary, thirty-two years old, Rumanian, single. Excusing herself for not being able to shake hands with me and promising that she will tell me more about herself later, Florina hurries off, hugging her bowls with buns.
Cousin Steva gets in with a dark-haired man, who stands aside to let Steva and me exchange greetings. Steva tells me that he has brought some fruit for Ester because, in her condition, Ester needs lots of vitamins. As for me, I need company, so he would like me to meet a friend of his, we can have a chat, and Steva will take the wine to the 'classroom'. Steva's friend passes two bottles to Steva, and proffers me his hand.
“Giulia!” I say, refraining from asking if he is the owner of the black Nissan.
As if reading my thoughts, he gestures towards the man in his late twenties, leading Jennifer by the hand into the garden.
“That's my brother, Alberto.”
Riki glides into the hall, balancing a tray with freshly-baked burek.
“I'd better get out of the way,” remarks Alessandro.
“Yes,” I say mechanically, glaring at Riki, who has placed himself between Alessandro and me and is watching us with a goofy grin.
“See you later,” says Alessandro, walking off, with Riki following after him.
Give him a boot or trip him up, I debate, hurrying to catch up Riki, but Fema and Drina, who have been bustling about in the corridor, pushing and dragging baskets, call to me to return and hold the door for them, while they move the pears and the grapes outside on the veranda.
Striding up the garden path, holding up his hand to stop us from progressing further, Sumo, the policeman, reaches us and lifts the baskets onto the veranda table.
“It's more hygienic here,” he explains.
When we get back into the house, Fema and Drina linger to tell me that they come to the English course to watch television, but in fact, they are keeping an eye on Jennifer, who might use this opportunity to elope with Hans and disgrace the names of all of us.
I follow them through the hall to the annex, which I realize is actually a ‘classroom’.
Sumo sidles past and pads towards the couch. Fema and Drina head to install themselves on the same couch, on either side of Sumo, who surreptitiously raises his hand and beckons me to go over.
“You know that I trust you,” he whispers in a confidential tone of voice.
I nod. Sumo nods back.
“And you know why.”
Sumo quickly places a finger before his pursed lips.
“Don’t say it! We both know why, don’t we?”
“Yes, we do.”
I don’t know, though, if we think about the same thing. Once, when Sumo got tipsy, I saw him standing behind a tree with his leg raised and yelping like a puppy.
“I haven’t told anyone,” I reassure him “And I haven't watched.”
“I know. That’s why I’m more than certain that you can keep a secret.”
Barely moving his lips, his eyes scanning the area, Sumo informs me about the reason of his presence at these gatherings. He’s not attending the course, everyone knows that he passed his English exam at the Police Academy. He’s here in the quality of an undercover agent but, in order to avoid arousing suspicions, Bane enrolled him in this course which, by the way, is free of charge. Now, we may be wondering what he is investigating? Well, yes, if he wants to tell us. Yes, he wants to because he trusts us.
“A very serious matter,” he reveals.
Namely, Bane received an anonymous call, a muffled voice saying that Leila was being unfaithful to him.
Fema and Drina gape at Sumo in astonishment.
“Unfortunately,” nods Sumo with a grave expression, pointing out that if Leila’s alleged affair comes to light, Bane's political enemies may use this scandal to besmirch Bane's reputation.
Sumo explains to us that his secret assignment requests that he stay close to Fema and Drina, so they will be always sitting on this couch. He will be pretending to take down notes of what's happening in the soap operas but, in reality, he’ll be writing down Fema’s, Drina’s and his own observations of what is going on in the class. Now, Fema and Drina must tell him if they are willing to engage in this 'highly-classified mission'. They are, naturally! They want to save this long-standing relationship, prevent a split-up between the best surgeon and the best nurse in the area. What are they supposed to do?
“Just keep your ears open and your eyes peeled,” instructs Sumo. Fema and Drina nod assent.
Sumo whips a writing pad out of his shirt breast pocket and starts fanning himself with it. Now, he will clarify better what exactly we need to find out.
“If this man exists, who he is, if he is Leila’s lover and, if he is, since when. We don’t have much time, so we’d better start right away with the inquiries. Any questions?”
“Why don’t we have time?” enquires Drina.
Batting his eyelids, seemingly thrown by this simple question, Sumo concludes philosophically:
“Because time is money.”
Now he will go over to Rambo and ask him a few questions. What are we going to do?
Fema and Drina are going to sort out some wool yarns for the socks they are knitting as New Year’s presents. Sumo nods his approval.
“I’m going to talk to Ester for a minute,” I say.
“Okay, but remember, not a word about our investigation.”
I promise I won’t forget that.
After a break to take a shower and a snack, Ester has resumed splitting hairs with Ronny. Tucked in under a quilted cover, her head propped with two cushions, Ester is filing her nails. Ronny is drying his hair.
“You claim that you're a gentleman, but permit me, Mr Stingy, to remind you of all those meals that you consumed and for which I paid when we were in England,” Ester gestures at me “Do you remember, Giulia?”
“Yes, I do,” I say quickly, and renounce reminding Ester that she paid for our plane tickets and clothes, as well, but with Ronny's credit cards.
“Hi, Giulia!”calls Ronny cheerily.
“Hi, Ronny. What’s new?”
“I quit smoking.”
“You’re a man of character,” I praise him “How did you manage?”
Ester turns the volume down to mute. Ronny puts the hair dryer away, gesticulates and begins to shake with laughter.
“We have guests,” I say.
“It’s the evening class. Giulia, I can’t. You just take over for tonight. They’ll explain to you. Please, Giulia, I have a situation here with this...man.”
Confronted with the plea in Ester's eyes, I don’t have the heart to say 'no'. Besides, she has put on a sexy white silk pyjamas with lace inserts and has styled her hair.
I sigh, turn round and close the door behind me. Ester can be quite loud when she’s talking to Ronny.
I pause on the landing and lean over the banister to take a peek at the situation in the classroom.
Sumo, Fema and Drina are winding yarns of wool into balls, Steva is staring at the ceiling, nibbling the end of his pen. Riki is cutting burek, Florina serving drinks. His hand on the small of Leila's back, Rambo is assisting Leila at the kitchen range to make coffee. Jennifer and Alberto are in the garden, playing table tennis. Alessandro is helping himself to a glass of wine at the central table.
In the doorway of the classroom, I halt again, panic-stricken. I can't do this. I'll just tell them straight that Ester has cancelled the class, I decide.
Florina comes up to me to bring me a cup of coffee. She loves our village, she says, it’s such a fascinating and picturesque place, and it's quite big, almost like a little town, there are many shops, and some Vlah dishes remind her of some Rumanian dishes, so she doesn't really feel homesick.
She strikes me as a chatty sort, so I let her rattle on about the sales in the nearby town, while I think whether to cancel the class or wait and see what happens next.
Riki rushes over to us with a plate.
The burek is for Florina. He urges her to eat while it’s warm. She would feel more comfortable, if she sat down, he says, and he will sit next to her. Ignoring me completely, Riki continues to talk with Florina. They haven’t met. He is Riki and who is she, what is she doing here? Well, she arrived only a week ago and has been busy at work, settling in the house among other things. She will be working as a secretary for Mr Steva, whose company will be exporting jeans wear to Romania. Well, yes, in fact, she’s aware that we all speak Vlah Rumanian here, but she also speaks English and Spanish, and Mr Steva needs someone to deal with his Latin American clients.
“Our Steva is a very prominent businessman,” remarks Riki “and a very gifted poet. Have you read any of his poems?”
Florina lifts her hand to her ample bosom. Magnificent poetry, Mr. Steva is such a romantic soul.
“So am I,” Riki hastens to say, his look resting on Florina’s hand.
I put my cup away on Florina's empty plate on the end table and lower myself on a chair behind Riki to listen in. Riki is curious to know if Florina is going to stay long in our village. Indefinitely...? Oh, that’s fantastic! Next question! Apart from poetry, what else does she like. Oh, cooking and baking definitely, but she is also a huge fan of chick-lit and soap operas, Turkish in particular.