It was 1982 with the war in the Falklands in full swing when Honeybee sailed into my life. At the time she was showing Argentinian colours but no sooner were her grappling hooks in place than she ran up and broke out the dreaded skull and cross-bones of her native Sicily. Within a short time of being boarded I had agreed to accompany her to the island to meet her parents. I felt uneasy as we set out – I was already married.
Honeybee’s parents, Giovanni and Liliana lived in Adrano, a small town in the Province of Catania supposedly named after the Emperor Hadrian, better known for his brave but useless attempt to keep the Scots and their dreaded bagpipes walled up in their own land. In a repetition of this folly, Hadrian’s mad architects had perched the town dangerously close to the crater of a bubbling volcano. This fact troubled me less than the knowledge that the town also lay within a “Triangolo della morte” so named when the number of mafia assassinations in an area exceeded the total of World War One casualties in the entire Ypres Salient. In winter the family lived in a bleak, tiled, modern apartment with AD 138 plumbing. The summer months they spent at their simple country house in the shadow of Etna and it was there that we stayed the first night.
In the morning I went looking for Honeybee’s father in the garden. As I idled among the olive trees I saw a man, lupara casually slung from his shoulder, approach Giovanni. After five or so minutes of earnest talking the visitor disappeared amongst the trees. Later, wondering whether my future father-in-law was “connected”, I asked him about the visitor. He’s the man from the insurance, said Giovanni, going on to explain that the premium insured his country house against robbery in the winter months when the family lived in town. Keen to demonstrate what a smart Inglese accountant his daughter had found, I pointed out that there wasn’t much to steal so why not cancel the insurance. What could possibly happen if you don’t pay the premium, I asked. He would burn the house down, replied Giovanni, not even bothering to look at me.
Later that day I watched Honeybee and her parents work in the garden, an acre or two of vines, pistacchio and olive trees, tomato plants and herbs. Everything grew well in the rich volcanic soil watered by Giovanni’s elaborate irrigation system, which consisted of a complex network of pipes and cement aqueducts radiating from a huge concrete container. Under Sicilian laws dating back to 10 BC, the water supply was in private hands and Giovanni periodically paid for the tank to be refilled. Contrary to all known laws of sound economics the cost of the supply was based on the amount of time the owner kept his valve open rather than the quantity of water delivered. At those times when drought reduced the flow to a miserable trickle Giovanni was paying at the same rate as for Arabian crude.
It was the time for harvesting Giovanni’s crop of ripe tomatoes and producing the annual stock of passata, a staple of the Southern Italian diet. The whole family helped in this day-long process of pulping and bottling the fruit and boiling the filled bottles in oil drums. As evening approached and the job was complete Giovanni prepared to dispose of the gallons of juice that had been produced from the pulping process. Still eager to impress, I ignored his instructions to dispose of the liquid and set about, straining, bottling and corking the juice. Giovanni and Liliana had already retired when I set out my twenty or so newly corked bottles of tomato juice on the kitchen table.
I was awake early the next morning and looking forward to pouring out a glass of tomato juice for each member of the family to taste with their small cups of bitter coffee when Cristina came into my bedroom. “I think”, she said “that you should stay in bed for a while. There’s been an accident and Mum wants to clear up before you see it”. With no further elaboration, Cristina went off to help. I lay in bed for ten minutes until, overcome with curiosity, I tiptoed down the corridor and peeped into the kitchen. It was a charnel house: Adrano Incarnadine! It was a scene from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The ceiling and walls, the furniture and appliances were covered in a red tide of tomato juice. Still standing on the table were the empty silos of the juice bottles, their fermentation-powered corks and contents fired into the four corners of the kitchen. I crept quietly back to bed.
Sunday morning. Time for the dreaded passeggiata – the weekly ritual stroll through the town after church to collect the cannolis for Sunday lunch, to display a new Borsellino, to exchange gossip and, in our case, for Honeybee’s parents to show off their eldest daughter’s newly acquired fidanzato. The family’s most precious commodity was at stake. I refer of course to their honour not their daughter. The penalty for letting it slip that I was actually already married would be disastrous. I saw my body being spewed in a soup of liquid cement into the foundations of the new football stadium in Catania. I wondered what my mother would make of the mysterious parcel containing a wet mackerel she would find on her doorstep.
Honeybee took her father’s arm and set off across the roasting Piazza. Liliana and I, her hand resting on my arm, followed. Every few minutes we would stop for the family’s friends and relatives to inspect me. Men in oversized caps and polished grey winkle-pickers would size me up. Ladies in black quietly discussed me in Sicilian dialect, glancing at me doubtfully as if seeking confirmation of some outrageous claim my future mother-in-law may have made as to my prospects. As a mature Inglese living on the mainland I was instantly accorded the distinguished title of Dottore. The title of Dottore (or Dottoressa for a lady) is given to anyone in Italy with a university degree. The term can also be used merely out of respect or even as flattery or sarcasm leaving me unsure as to how they were employing the title. “Just call me Doc” I said to one neighbour clutching a parcel of pastries but my attempt at humour was met with stoney-faced incomprehension. Titles being so important in Italy, a person is often addressed solely by the badge of his or her profession. “Buongiorno Ingegnere” – Good morning Engineer, you may hear. The late Gianni Agnelli, President of FIAT and Juventus Football Club, was known simply as “L’Avvocato” – The Lawyer. I savoured the prospects of returning in a few years to be hailed as Commendatore, in Sicily, a title commanding more respect than a Dukedom or a capo di tutti capi.
The next day I was taken to visit Giovanni’s fruit grower friend. In honour of the Dottore Inglese we were ushered into the salon where dust-sheets were whipped off to reveal a hideous suite of gilt and velvet baroque. Perched on the unforgiving horsehair I savoured bitter coffee and the unbearable sweetness of cannoli. I remembered instantly how Eli Wallach had died in The Godfather Part III. Swooning from the onset of diabetes I was introduced to the youngest member of the family. His mother spoke to me in Sicilian dialect. I looked around for translation. “She asks, said Honeybee, if you will consent to be the child’s Godfather”. I nodded gravely and extended my right hand for the boy’s lips. I was a made man.