This is an extract from the stand alone novel. My Italian Bulldozer.
Scotland fell away beneath him, a stretch of green pasture, of hills, of swirling mist. Suddenly they were bathed in sunlight; fields of cloud, topped with crenellations of white, now lay beneath them as their plane pointed south. In his window seat he closed his eyes against the glare, imagining for a few moments their destination, as much an idea, a feeling, as a place. He saw a small tower that he had never seen before, a tower of warm red brick with a pattern of holes for doves.
Down below, a man was pulling at a bell rope; as the bell rang the doves launched themselves from their holes in the brick and fluttered skywards.
He opened his eyes, and noticed that the passenger in the seat beside him, a man in perhaps his early fifties, dressed in a lightweight linen suit, was looking at him. The man smiled at him, and he returned the smile.
“What takes you to Pisa?” the man asked. His accent revealed him as Italian.
Paul hesitated, unsure as to whether he wanted to strike up a conversation that went beyond the niceties. He had brought with him a book that was just beginning to engage him and he was looking forward to getting back to it. But the man smiled at him again, and his natural politeness decided the matter.
“So parlare Italiano,” he began. “Sono …”
The man did not allow him to finish. “Ah!” he said, and then, continuing in Italian. “What a pleasure it is for us Italians to discover somebody who speaks our language.”
“I’m sure there are many. Such a beautiful language …”
“Yes, but what use is a beautiful language spoken just by oneself ? It’s all very well for the Spaniards, because there are so many Spanish speakers – all over the world. Even Portuguese has Brazil, but we have just us—just Italy—and after a while,we get fed up with speaking only to ourselves. We have heard everything there is to say in Italian.”
“Surely not …”
“I am not entirely serious. A bit serious, perhaps, but not entirely.” Turning in his seat, he extended a hand towards Paul.
“But I must introduce myself. I am Rossi – Silvio Rossi.”
“I’m Paul Stuart.”
Silvio loosened his tie. “Stuart is the name of Scottish kings, is it not? Mary Stuart …” He made a chopping gesture across his throat. “She was most unfortunate. Queens cannot choose their neighbours, and if they find they have one who has an axe, then it is most regrettable.” He sighed, as if the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots had been a recent outrage.
“It was a long time ago,” Paul said.
Silvio raised an eyebrow. “But I am an historian,” he said. “What happened in the past remains rather vivid for me and …” He paused, and now removed the tie altogether. “That’s better. Yes I find that the past has a much bigger shadow than people believe. It’s still with us in so many ways. At our side all the time, whispering into our ear.”
“Warning us not to repeat our mistakes?”
Silvio smiled. “We repeat some. Others we’re sensible enough to avoid making more than once. But that’s not what I was thinking about. What I was thinking about was the way in which the past determines our character, not just as individuals, but as nations. A child who is treated badly grows up damaged. A people who are subjected to bad treatment will bear resentments, will be suspicious. They will be bad allies.”
Paul, who had been holding his book, slipped it into the seat pocket in front of him. He had endured worse conversations on flights, including an attempt at religious conversion, a confession of adultery, and detailed advice on the attractions of Panama as a tax shelter. “You’re thinking of ?”
Silvio waved a hand airily. “Oh, there are many examples. Russia, for one. Russia is a peasant country. It has a past of serfdom that ended only in the nineteenth century. That made for a vast, stubborn, ignorant population—one that was also very resentful. And they are resentful today—particularly of the West.”
“They view the West in the same light as they viewed their feudal masters. Authority.” He paused. “So western politicians who lecture Russians about human rights or their tendency to invade their neighbours will never change them. Not one bit. You’re dealing with a particular sort of bear, you see. One with a history. An abused bear with a short temper.”
Paul savoured the metaphor. He was right. “And Italy?”
“Well, that’s an interesting case. With us, the important thing to remember is that we are very young. We have lots of history, of course, but Italy itself is a teenager. The Risorgimento was really just yesterday, you’ll know. It ended in 1871. That’s yesterday. And that means that, as a state, we are still very far from maturity. That’s why half the population doesn’t really believe that the Italian state exists—or, if it does, they feel that they owe it nothing. We’re very disloyal to Rome, you know. We look after ourselves—our family, our city—and we don’t like paying taxes to Rome.”
“Nobody likes taxes.”
“Some like them less than others. Take the Greeks. They have a particular aversion to taxes, and this is because they haven’t forgotten that they were once part of the Ottoman Empire and they saw no reason to pay taxes to the Ottomans.”
“So you’re saying that people don’t change?”
Silvio sighed. “They don’t. Or if they do, it takes a long time. A very long time.”
The plane gave a slight jolt as it encountered a pocket of turbulent air. Paul glanced out of the window, and then returned to the conversation.
“May I ask you something?” he aid. “Is this what you actually do?”
Silvio shook his head. “I’m an economic historian,” he replied. “That’s something quite different, but it doesn’t stop me having views on these more general matters.”
“Economic history,” muttered Paul.
“A sobering science. That’s why I’ve been in Scotland. I’ve been at a conference.” He paused. “You didn’t tell me why you’re going to Pisa.”
“To taste food and wine,” said Paul.
Silvio looked surprised. “So that’s what you do?”
“Yes. I write about it.”
“There is a great deal to be said about Italian food.”
“Yes, I’m discovering that.”
Paul reached for his book.
“I mustn’t keep you from your reading.”
Paul had not intended to be rude. “Forgive me. I was enjoying our conversation.”
“But you must read your book, and I have some papers to attend to.” Silvio reached into his pocket. “Let me give you my card. I’m at the University of Pisa. It has all the details there. If you need help while you’re in Italy, please get in touch with me. My door is always open.”
Paul thanked him and took the card. Professor Silvio Rossi, it appeared, was not only Professor of Economic History at the University of Pisa, but a member of the Italian Academy of Economic Science and a cavaliere of the Republic. He slipped the card into the pocket of his jacket and opened his book.
They arrived in Pisa shortly before eleven in the morning. Paul said goodbye to Silvio in the plane, and once again as they were waiting for their luggage at the baggage carousel.
“Don’t forget,” said Silvio. “You have my card. I am at your disposal while you’re in my country.”
Paul thanked him. The first of his two suitcases had now been disgorged and he struggled to retrieve it. A few minutes later the second case appeared, and in that mood of relief and gratitude that always follows a safe reunion with luggage, he began to make his way to the office of the car hire firm with which Gloria had made the reservation of a small saloon car.
And that was the point at which the journey, so smooth until then, began to go badly wrong.
“Your name?” said the reservation clerk. Paul handed him the booking confirmation Gloria had printed out for him. “It’s all there,” he said.
The clerk took the piece of paper. There was an air of suspicion in the way in which he held it – as if this might be a forgery of some sort. He looked down at his computer and typed in a few digits. Then he scrutinised the form again, glanced at Paul, and then looked back at his screen.
“I am afraid there is no such reservation,” he said.
Paul leant forward, trying to get a glimpse of the computer screen. The clerk shifted it slightly, to ensure that it was even less visible.
“I’m sorry, dottore, but there is nothing. This reservation has been made by one of our overseas offices, and they have not confirmed it with us. This has happened before. It is not our fault.”
Paul felt the back of his neck becoming warm. “But it says very clearly …”
The clerk cut him short. “There is nothing here on my screen.”
He gave Paul a look of reproach. “Nothing. There is no car.”
“But that print-out …” Paul pointed at his piece of paper, now seemingly so much more valuable than before. ‘That piece of paper has the name of your firm at the top and below that it has the words Reservation confirmed. Look. Right here. Reservation confirmed.”
The clerk shook his head. “That document is no longer valid.”
“What do you mean by that?” challenged Paul. He was being polite, but was unable to prevent a testy note from creeping into his voice.
“I mean that if a document of that type is not confirmed by an entry in the main computer, then it ceases to have any validity. That is the way these things are.” It was the voice of the patient bureaucrat, explaining how, by immutable custom, the working world ordered its affairs. But even the strictest system has room for humanity. “However, we have a spare car. It is our very last car in hand; it is a very busy time of year, you’ll understand. We can allocate that to you instead of this non-existent car you have been promised.”
“For the same rate?” asked Paul.
The clerk looked at him lugubriously, as if disappointed that Paul could even suspect that they would consider a higher rate.
“At exactly the same rate,” he confirmed. “It is much bigger than the car you claim to have booked …”
“That I did book,” corrected Paul.
“It is bigger than that car,” repeated the clerk. “It is a Mercedes-Benz. I can prepare the documents for you.”
Paul relaxed. He was not yet in Montalcino, but the prospect of arriving there before dinner was beginning to seem more real.
“You’re very kind,” he said to the clerk.
The clerk bowed his head. Tapping out details on his keyboard, he printed two sheets of paper for Paul to sign before reaching for a set of keys.
“You’ll find the car outside,” he said, and told him the row in the car park where it would be parked. “Show your copy to the woman at the barrier, and she will let you through.”
It was now midday, and the sun was at its zenith. When he left the cool of the car rental office, with its sharp, air-conditioned air, Paul felt it press down on him like a warm hand; it was humid, and his shirt clung to him uncomfortably, the damp patches showing dark through the fabric. He wiped his brow. It would be cooler in Montalcino, several hundred feet higher than Pisa.
He looked about him. The form gave the colour of the car and the registration number, and he started to make his way slowly along the lines of vehicles in the relevant row. By the time he reached the end, he had failed to find it. He looked along the line of vehicles in the neighbouring row; perhaps they had made a mistake and parked it in the wrong place.
Slowly he worked his way along that row too, checking the number of each Mercedes-Benz. It was not there – nor was it in the row beyond that. That left only one possible line of cars, and he now checked this carefully, with the same result.
He felt hot and frustrated. He had heard that car hire in Italy could be an arcane, rather trying process, but he had hoped that Gloria’s arrangements would somehow avoid any difficulties. Obviously not, he said to himself.
The relatively short time he had spent in the sun was enough to make him thirsty. Looking around, he saw on the far side of the car park, separated from it by only a modest fence, a small café. He would find himself something to drink there—something cool and refreshing—before going back to the car rental office. There must be other car parks, he decided; perhaps an employee had put it in the wrong car park altogether; airports were complicated places, with all their roads and buildings, and that sort of mistake could be made only too easily.
He sat in the café for fifteen minutes or so, enjoying the air conditioning and the bottle of chilled mineral water he had ordered. Then he returned to the terminal building, where the office of Personal-Drive Italia was located. The clerk for some reason pretended not to recognise him, and solemnly noted down his details afresh.
“So you say the car isn’t there,” he said once Paul had finished with his story.
“That’s so,” said Paul. “I have looked very carefully and it isn’t there.”
The clerk stared at him. “Yet you signed for it.”
Paul frowned. “I signed the rental agreement.”
The clerk shook his head. “No, you signed for the car itself. Look …” He took the form from Paul. “Here – you see – here and here. That says, I have received the above-mentioned car in good condition. That is your signature, I take it.”
“Of course it is. You were here when I signed it. You gave it to me. You.”
The clerk looked away. “Under this agreement,” he intoned, “you are liable for the car once it comes into your possession.”
“But it never did!” exploded Paul. “I never found the car. I’ve just tried to tell you that.”
“That is not what the document says,” retorted the clerk.
For a few moments Paul was speechless. Then he spoke coldly and decisively. “I must speak to the manager,” he said.
“Please call him.”
The clerk’s eyes narrowed. “The manager is away.”
“He is at the funeral of his mother. In Ravenna.”
Paul tried to decide whether this was a lie. It was difficult to tell.
“In that case I want to see the assistant manager,” he said.
The clerk replied quickly. “I am the assistant manager.”
Paul looked up at the ceiling. “I suggest we forget the whole business, then.”
The clerk shrugged. “When are you going to bring the car back? I can’t cancel the contract until the car has been returned.”
Paul gasped. “I have never seen this car,” he said, chiseling out each word for emphasis. “How can I return something I’ve never had?”
“Then you will be liable for the whole cost of the car.”