Robertino awoke as his mother was making lunch, and, noting she was not within touching distance, began to make his displeasure known through a mixture of griping and straining efforts to escape from the trap of his baby bouncer.
His mother seemed to be more stressed than usual by his antics, and sensing this, the child raised the stakes, adding cries to his grunting efforts to break free.
‘Please, not now. Ruggiero!’ she called. ‘Come in here! Pick up your brother. Keep him quiet for ten minutes, would you?’
Despite arching his back and going red from the strain of trying to break out of his bouncer, it turned out the last thing in the world Robertino wanted was to be removed from it, at least not by his brother. Griping became screaming.
‘Shut that child up!’ shouted his mother. ‘Get him out of here.’
‘But he’s hungry,’ protested Ruggiero.
‘What the hell do you think I am doing, standing at this stove for the fun of it?’
Ruggiero eventually found a game that Robertino liked, which consisted of singing pee-poh-pah-dah on a sliding scale and touching him on the forehead, nose, chin and tummy, over and over and over again. By the time lunch was ready, the infant had dissolved into peals of laughter, which quickly became infectious and lifted the mood.
As she finished spoon-feeding Robertino a pap made out of meat stock and semolina, his mother said, ‘Your father will be here in a few days. He can’t say when. He’ll sort things out, if anything needs sorting out, of course.’
‘Because something is going on. Yesterday Zia Rosa was in a panic about Enrico not coming home. I tried not to let her infect me with her fear, but I was worried, too.’
When Ruggiero had arrived home the evening before, this mother had been studiously casual about his temporary disappearance. He had been at once hurt by her indifference and proud of her strength.
‘It was bad for Enrico. Not me.’
‘Was it?’ His mother was fond enough of Enrico, though she tended to use him as a yardstick with which to measure the superiority of her own son.
‘Who else was there?’ asked his mother.
‘Pepe, Luca, Giovanni and Rocco.’
‘What did they tell you?’
‘Nothing, Mamma. It was all about football.’
‘You say they treated you well and Enrico poorly? Who is “they”?’
‘The others. My friends,’ said Ruggiero.
‘Friends,’ she said contemptuously. ‘The only friend you should trust is an ex-enemy, because then you have the measure of him. What was said?’
‘Nothing was said.’
‘Did you feel isolated?’
‘A little. But that’s just part of being a Curmaci, isn’t it?’
His mother spooned up semolina from Robertino’s chin and deftly dropped it into his mouth. Robertino made slow fish-like movements with his mouth, still tasting the semolina broth, interested in, but wary of, the flavour. ‘One day, you’re at the market buying some fresh spinach, and you see someone you sort of know, and you suddenly realize he is standing on his own in the middle of the crowd. The flow of people past him divides too early to avoid him, as if he were a large obstacle rather than a single person.’
‘Who are we talking about, Mamma?’
‘Someone you never knew. But it could be anyone. Then as you watch him, you realize no one has mentioned his name in weeks. Then, one day he’s gone, and you are not surprised. Either his body is found in Filadelfia with no face left on it after a shotgun blast, or he disappears from the face of the earth. You wonder why he didn’t see it coming, but the answer is that he did. But he could not think what to do, and could not imagine leaving.’
‘Papa is not like that.’
‘Of course not. He’s far stronger.’
‘I don’t think I’d be like that either,’ said Ruggiero. ‘I’d fight rather than wait like a lamb for the slaughter.’
‘If you couldn’t fight, what then?’
‘Would I run?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘My last phone call with your father was… strange.’
Ruggiero shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He wanted to hear, but she was drawing him into the intimate sphere of husband and wife, a place he had not been before. It sounded like she was looking for advice, and he was not sure he could give it.
‘We have a sort of code…’ She took his arm and stroked it. With a smile to lessen the significance of his action, he drew his arm away.
‘Sorry. You’re getting too old for my caresses,’ she said.
‘It’s just that… Tell me about your code.’
‘There isn’t much to it. Papa said all we needed were a few key words and a tone. The words themselves don’t matter. For instance, if he mentioned the toy box in Robertino’s room, it indicated urgency.’
The box had used to be his, and before that his father’s. It was bright red with sharp edges, and it snapped shut like a shark over bait whenever you leaned into it to pull out a toy.
‘Did he mention the box?’
‘Yes. And he warned me both about the authorities and about our neighbours. But then he reminded me he was on his way down in a few days. He said that plainly. Then we spoke of meals in a way that made it sound like code, but it wasn’t. In the end the messages were so mixed I couldn’t understand what he was telling me.’
‘Anyone listening in will have picked up that he was coding messages, even if they didn’t understand the meaning,’ said Ruggiero.
‘Listen to you, the expert,’ said his mother with affection, instinctively reaching out to caress his arm again, then stopping herself. ‘He often has fun like that, teasing any judicial police that might be listening in, but in this case he wanted anyone, not just the police, to be suspicious and confused.’
‘So his message was that he can’t pass on messages.’
‘Which means he’s worried about more than just the police, and he wants us to be, too. And then yesterday, you…’
‘That was nothing, Mamma. But he’ll be here soon. All we have to do is wait.’
Ruggiero trusted his father, and believed in his strength, but sometimes had to concentrate a little before he could call up a clear picture of his face. When his father did come home from Germany, he was always an unhealthy white colour. His clothes smelled foreign, and he sometimes seemed to have a slight difficulty with speaking Italian, exaggerating the dialect when talking to Ruggiero, but soon running out of things to say. Then he would start talking about the funny things the Germans said and believed, and he would praise their cars and roads. His father and mother would retire into their bedroom, speak in private tones, then the volume would drop still further, and yet he could still hear them hushing each other and stifling sounds that were already muted.
He knew now what they were up to. Luca once claimed to have watched his parents through the keyhole, but then altered his story when Pepe accused him of perversion.
Even without Luca’s graphic eyewitness accounts, by now they all knew what their returning fathers did with their mothers — hence the arrival of Roberto, or Robertino as he immediately became known and would probably remain for the rest of his life. All the kids had a father who worked abroad, except Pepe whose father ran the garage. Enrico, of course, lived with his aunt and uncle. His mother had died from breast cancer several years after Enrico was born, and his father showed no interest in finding a replacement either in Germany or Calabria. Enrico claimed he remembered his mother’s face, but she was dead before he was four, which made his claim as unreliable as most of what he said.
The one thing Ruggiero knew for certain was that no matter what happened, his father would do the right thing, and that anything his father told him to do he would do. The Curmacis might not be the most loved family, but Basile, too, was unloved, had few surviving blood relatives, yet his writ extended as far as Filadelfia. People might whisper about the Curmacis, but no one would ever dare say out loud that Agazio Curmaci was an infame, which made the atmosphere of intimidation in the bar yesterday hard to accept.
He went up to his bedroom. His father would soon return to the village and on September 2nd they would attend the procession of the Madonna di Polsi and enjoy a fine picnic afterwards, where he would be encouraged by his father to drink wine and warned by his mother not to. Together he and his father would display quiet confidence.
Downstairs, his mother was moving back and forth as if cleaning the house. Ruggiero lay on his bed, closed his eyes and inhaled its familiar smell, the smell that had accompanied him through his childhood. He wished his father were here already, guarding the doors, fighting for his family.