Palermo Story: A Novel

Palermo Story: A Novel

by Gabrielle Marks

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Set in the beautiful and deadly Sicilian town of Palermo, Gabrielle Marks' debut novel tells the story of staid Englishman Nick and his outspoken Sicilian wife, Paola. When Paola's wallet is snatched on a crowded Palermo bus, later turning up at the house of a beautiful young artist named Dante, it sets off a chain of events that will turn Paola's marriage on end and forever change Dante's sense of his adopted city.

With a fresh outlook on an exotic society and land, Palermo Story draws an intriguing and enjoyable portrait of life in Palermo, Italy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466869776
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 04/29/2014
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
File size: 278 KB

About the Author

Gabrielle Marks, author of Palermo Story, was born and raised in London. She studied for the stage at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and moved to Italy in 1964 to teach English at the Berlitz School of Languages in Palermo. She has been a freelance journalist for a number of Italian newspapers and journals, and is currently a teacher and translator. She has two grown children and lives in Palermo with her husband, a Sicilian.

Gabrielle Marks, author of Palermo Story, was born and raised in London. She studied for the stage at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and moved to Italy in 1964 to teach English at the Berlitz School of Languages in Palermo. She has been a freelance journalist for a number of Italian newspapers and journals, and is currently a teacher and translator. She has two grown children and lives in Palermo with her husband, a Sicilian.

Read an Excerpt

Palermo Story

By Gabrielle Marks

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2002 Gabrielle Marks
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-6977-6


The number 101 glided smoothly along the boulevard, the pleated rubber join between its two coaches shivering gently. Inside, the the newly designed ergonomic seats of smooth gray metal were inlaid with sky-blue fabric, and the still unscuffed leather thongs hanging from the overhead bars ensured that passengers would not be hurled forward should a car suddenly shoot obliquely across the bus lane. Instead of the tinny bell of the old vehicles, bright yellow buttons produced a decorous muted ping and an illuminated sign informing travelers that their request had been noted and processed. From up front the driver was able to activate the four sets of remotely controlled doors with the help of small screens set into the dashboard, and relatively few incidents of people being trapped in their rubber-lipped jaws had so far been recorded.

In spite of these improvements, a foreigner riding the new buses would still have felt they had been designed for the Latin way of life (which, according to Mayor Orlando, should now with no further prevarication whatsoever be brought into line with no-nonsense European standards). To start with, there were fewer seats than there was standing room, indicating a belief that Palermo's citizens had no objection to being on their feet for the entire journey. This wasn't true, of course, but then no Sicilian ever expected his personal comfort to be a concern of the powers that be. It had been quite a shock, for instance, to passengers on the AMAT bus company's new Belgian-designed fleet of vehicles to be confronted for the very first time with efficient suspension and soft upholstery. Used to being jolted about on bare metal, they now sat uneasily on the padded blue seats, eyeing the gently sighing automatic doors with suspicion, as though such luxury would soon be taken away from them.

No designer, however — Belgian or otherwise — had been able to reduce the risk of pickpockets on inner city buses. Thieves were notoriously successful on the number 101, especially in the busy central area lying between the old Via Roma and the graciously laid out Via Libertà. They preferred working these crammed north-going lunchtime buses because they contained a good sprinkling of the city's more well-to-do citizens. Women were the easiest prey, laden with plastic carrier bags or briefcases and tense with worry about children to be picked up from school. Their concern made them less vigilant, and thieves never ceased to be amazed at how easy it was to relieve them of cash.

The metropolitan police knew what went on and had statistics showing how many passengers were robbed on average per bus per day. Both they and the carabinieri noted fluctuations in victims' reports and the various factors that determined them. A decrease in activity might follow a crackdown on petty crime, for instance, and more robberies took place in autumn and winter — especially round about Christmas. Everybody, though, from the Questore or the Maresciallo dei carabinieri down to the hysterical housewife traveling on the number 101 bus knew that no attempt would ever be made to catch the thief, and consequently, no money would be recovered.

Of the two buses making their way along the plane tree–lined Via Libertà that November lunchtime, only the first was full to the bursting point. The second, having taken the overflow, had several empty seats, which meant that passengers were able to sit comfortably, gazing out of the windows or glancing briefly at one another in mild curiosity before returning to their thoughts.

From his seat halfway down the second bus Nick shifted the briefcase between his ankles and watched the circular platform between the two coaches swing slowly back in an anticlockwise direction as they came onto the straight. It reminded him of the shifting piece of floor between the old English railway carriages, which he used to cross with such delicious fear as a small boy. It would clank and shake, and you could see the rails rushing along through the gaps underneath. He had always enjoyed traveling — by car, ship, plane, and especially by train. That's why he liked these long articulated buses where, if you were lucky enough to get a window seat, you could sit and dream.

He watched the old villas and pastel-colored apartment blocks disappearing and reappearing between the tree trunks and thought how spacious and pleasing they were. A scattering of curled, brown-edged leaves blew over the broad pavements, one of the few signs that the year was coming to an end. Autumn was underplayed in the Mediterranean, a slow cooling down and sliding into winter rather than a season in itself, with none of the flamboyance of northern colors. And, like the bowing out of summer, the transformation of Via Libertà from exclusively upper-middle-class boulevard to thoroughfare-for-all had been both gradual and inevitable. Nick always thought the surviving villas had a vaguely stoical air about them, as if appearances were to be kept up at all costs despite such regrettable changes. It was here during the belle époque that the slavishly fashionable lapped the excruciatingly bored in their respective landaus before a gawping proletariat. He had seen photographs of them as they clattered back and forth from the Piazza Castelnuovo to the Giardino Inglese, and while the residents would probably have had no objection to being admired, he felt they would have regretted the coming of the nouveau riche as neighbors. But it was not until the mid-nineteen-fifties that the monied merchants moved into Via Libertà in a big way, and anyway, by then, Palermo's days as the salon of Europe were well and truly over.

Nick watched a young girl muffled up in wine-red scarf, dark jacket, and narrow black trousers hurrying along the pavement. How old would she be, nineteen or twenty perhaps? She reminded him of Giulia — the independent thrust of the chin, the way she looked straight ahead of her and kept the books she was carrying close to her body. The last time his daughter had come home she'd been wearing the same kind of scarf as that — a sort of cluster of chenillelike lambs' tails. It suited her.

Nick missed her — far more than he thought he would. She had left for Bologna right after school, as though she couldn't wait to get away. That had hurt him a bit. He wondered what had determined her decision: Palermo, the South in general, or the family. When he had asked her, she said she didn't really know, and did it matter? Didn't he want her to be independent? the English always wanted their children to be independent. She'd been accepted by an excellent university and thought it would please her parents. Well, they were pleased — especially Paola, and yet it had been a wrench seeing her off at the airport. He thought of her a lot, wondering what she was doing and who she was with, and was sometimes frightened by thoughts of what might happen to her and how he was powerless to intervene.

"I can't think why you're so upset about it," Paola said at the time. "You should be proud of your daughter. Instead of wasting time here, she's got herself a place at the most prestigious university in Italy. She knows exactly what she wants."

Nick wasn't at all sure about this and even less so about Paola's suggestion that the two of them should go up and visit their daughter this year at Easter. In fact, he thought it a very bad idea indeed.

* * *

From where he was sitting Nick wasn't able to see the crowded bus in front as, dark with swaying bodies, it made its way up the reserved lane some fifty yards ahead. He was still watching the girl in the wine-red scarf, who had now reached the curb. After a moment's hesitation she stepped into the road and disappeared from view. The driver of the first bus braked violently and swore with tight lips as she shot across his path.

"Cazzo di Giuda, maledetto."

Just behind his seat, Paola clutched instinctively at the overhead thongs as she was thrown forward with the rest of the passengers. In the cry of protest and alarm and the crackling tail end of the driver's oath, she checked that the carrier bag of shopping was still at her feet. She had been worrying about the meeting with her boss that afternoon, and now, on top of that, her tooth had started aching again. As if that weren't enough, a male body was pressing into her from behind, and she closed her eyes and gave an irritable sigh. At her age she didn't expect to be groped anymore on public transport, but she disliked coming into contact with unknown flesh, feeling it an almost unbearable invasion of her privacy. She tried to shift nearer the window, putting a few inches between herself and the unseen body, and to her relief, as the bus slowed down and came to a halt, she was aware that the hot presence had gone.

The man behind her, whose name was Vito and who had no intention or need of getting his thrills from pressing up against female buttocks, had in fact moved down the bus. He was twenty-eight years old, unemployed, and a highly skillful pickpocket. With Paola's wallet concealed in the folded jacket over his arm, he alighted with three other passengers and made off rapidly toward the port. The doors whooshed behind him, and with a clear path ahead of it the bus picked up speed and passed through the lights an instant before they changed to red.

Paola was wondering whether Nick would already be home and what time it would be best to phone Giulia. Round about seven probably, before her daughter went out for the evening. There was a sickening smell in the bus, ripe cheese or something. Nick said it was madness to take the car into town these days, but it just wasn't civilized traveling like this. She grimaced as her tooth gave another stab of pain.

The pastel-colored facades of Via Libertà fell away as the bus entered the translucent green grotto of the Giardino Inglese. Twenty-seven thousand species of trees and shrubs had once graced these public gardens, some (like Palermo's newest buses) being imported from Belgium. But a century and a half later only a few of the original plants survived, among them three tall palms, a cluster of umbrella pines, and a giant ficus tree whose junglelike aerial roots hung to within inches of the well-kept paths. The artificial hillocks and gazebos intended to imitate English landscape gardening had long since gone, but the twelve-foot-high jets of water in the circular fountain still rose and fell with the change in pressure as they did every lunchtime.

On the opposite side of the road, unnoticed by every passenger except an American tourist, stood an equestrian statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi. The tourist, whose name was Stella, recognized him at once: she thought him an intensely exciting and powerful figure sitting up there above the ornamental flower beds in the parterre — no, more than that, he was sensual as great patriots and statesmen on horseback often are. It was something to do with their commanding presence and height, the way their thighs clamped the animal to them and held it still. With his left hand loosely holding the reins of his steed and his right arm outstretched at shoulder level, Garibaldi gazed proudly out over what would soon be his domain: "Bixio, tomorrow we go to Palermo!"

The gesture reminded her a bit of Charles V, whose statue she had seen that morning in the Piazza Bologni. Only in this case — according to generations of disenchanted citizens — what the Angevin monarch was saying with his outstretched arm and down-turned palm was not "I swear allegiance to the Constitution of the Kingdom of Sicily" but "In Palermo the shit comes up this high." Stella would have laughed heartily at that because her father had been Sicilian and had been disenchanted himself. He wouldn't have emigrated otherwise. And if he hadn't she probably wouldn't be in Palermo now searching for her own identity. She turned away from the window, forgetting instantly about Garibaldi and the king, and gave her attention to Paola, struggling along the aisle toward the exit.

Stella saw that the woman was younger than herself — probably in her late forties — and had a drawn, anxious face and an unhealthy sallow complexion. Tufts of lusterless hair of indefinable color stood up over her head, each parting company with its neighbor to reveal gray roots and a pale scalp underneath. Tinted too often, Stella thought, who was fashionable and cared about her appearance. She took in the unsmart olive green wool jacket and slightly uneven hang of the skirt, the scuffed small-heeled shoes and bulging shoulder bag. It certainly wasn't true then that all Italian women were chic and well-groomed. Yet, in spite of the defeatist slope of the shoulders and neglected appearance, the woman must once have been pretty — and maybe could be again: the small straight nose and large eyes and (Stella moved her head to get a better look) the delicately shaped ankles. A stressed-out teacher, perhaps, taking home her bagful of exercise books to mark. Or maybe a disillusioned civil servant.

As they came up to the large white Banco di Sicilia building on the corner, Paola reached for the yellow bell. Bending down to retrieve her carrier bag, she knocked clumsily against Stella's seated figure. "Mi scusi," she mumbled, half turning round.

The bus came to a stop, folded back its doors like a pair of wings, and let Paola out. For a few seconds Stella watched the worried figure hurrying along the pavement before shifting her gaze to two taxi drivers locked in gesticulating combat on the curbside.

The distance between the two vehicles had widened at the lights, and by the time Nick let himself into the flat Paola had been home a good fifteen minutes. She told him her wallet had been stolen. "Everything's gone: money, driving license, credit cards, bus pass ..."

He asked where she had lost it.

"I didn't lose it, it was stolen, stolen!" she shouted at him. "On the bloody bus. I told you I hate going on them. Now what am I going to do?"

"Calm down, Paola. There's nothing you can do about it now. We'll have to report it to the police."

"But that's not going to bring all my papers and cards back, is it?" Her mouth sagged open and her thin chest heaved. "I know when it happened. When the bus braked suddenly, I felt there was someone behind me, I felt it. That man."

"Do you mind if I come in?" Nick was still on the landing holding his briefcase. He closed the front door behind him with deliberate calm. "How much did you have with you?"

"I don't know, I don't know. About sixty thousand. But it's not that. I don't care about the money, it's all the rest. I've got the meeting at the office this afternoon, the dentist tomorrow, then Christmas is coming ..."

They went to report the theft at the local carabiniere station, and by that time it was too late for lunch. Nick drove his wife to the dentist. She said she was too ill to go to the wretched meeting.

* * *

"Are you sure you're sure?" his father had asked softly when Nick told him he was getting married. Nick wouldn't have taken that from anyone except his father. He nodded. The older man nodded too. "Mmm ... well then." And both of them laughed. That was that out of the way.

"Like it, do you?" he asked his son about Palermo. "Don't know Sicily at all. Mum and I went to the Dolomites years ago, do you remember? But never down south. Fred was there in the war, of course — always said it was the most beautiful place he'd ever seen." His brother's description of snow-capped Mount Etna, the piercing scent of dry soil under pines and incredibly dark blue sea had sounded almost unbearably romantic to him in dreary fifties London. It still did.

Nick missed his father terribly. Looking down at him on his deathbed, he had felt that this was a completely different person from the one he had known in childhood. It was almost impossible to imagine the thin sunken face and crumpled body walking briskly home from work, grabbing hold of his children, squeezing his wife in an embrace. His father had known it too. "This strange, eventful history, eh?" he had said, smiling ruefully one evening as he tried and failed to get out of his armchair. That had been just four months before he died.


Excerpted from Palermo Story by Gabrielle Marks. Copyright © 2002 Gabrielle Marks. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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