I attended a vehicular funeral last week.
My friend Totò, a bright-eyed and sprightly septuagenarian, had a maroon Alfa Romeo which was, basically, made of sticky tape. I don’t mean trashy thin stuff, I mean the top quality wide, brown parcel kind.
By the time I had seen his car enter the final, declining years of its life, that brown parcel tape was holding the doors on, it was fixing the windscreen in (which was made of transparent polythene), it was wound all round the middle of the car going over the roof and under the undercarriage, it was holding the rear bumper on (at one side, anyway) and it was even securing the hubcaps.
Once the car became afflicted with ‘failure to thrive’, the driver’s seat was upholstered in a solid sheet of sticky tape strips, patchwork style, with no trace of the original leather to be seen. The vehicle had no number plates near the tragic end, I think because Totò must have run out of tape before he got to them.
I am running ahead of myself, though. I must introduce our friend, Signor Totò.
Signor Totò works at the village’s small Town Hall. The town hall in the village is so small that Signor Totò is the only person who works there. I am deliberately excluding the fat lady at the entrance who swats flies away and asks you your name, then sits there not telling Totò, and just waves you through to his office. She is there, yes, but you could not say that she works.
Totò was the first friend I made in Sicily, independently of my husband. He is one of the few men in the village who is not a fisherman. He is related to every other person in the village and they tease him about his famous namesake, for Signor Totò has the same name and surname as a recent President of Sicily, who governed the island for two years while on trial for being in the Mafia. He was sentenced to five years in prison but decided not to stand down as president immediately, instead declaring he would continue his full term of government and go to jail afterwards.
Whilst it is impossible for anyone outside Sicily to imagine how this could possibly be possible, here it merely provokes a day of grumbling and some groans of irritation, like the “Here we go again” groans of weary irritation on the London Underground when commuters are told their train has been taken out of service because there is a terrorist bomb on it.
Whilst our Town Hall is small, it resides in part of a sprawling, late seventeenth century villa. The only structurally sound part, in fact.
The facade boasts twin marble staircases which curve outwards and upwards in grandiose, once-magnificent semicircles and unite at the main entrance on the first floor. This is the classic design of the Sicilian baroque villa and it is always a terrible dilemma choosing which staircase to walk up, because they are both so badly cracked and crumbling that either one of them could suddenly give way beneath you and leave you with a sprained ankle and a broken nose.
“What if I go up this one and break some bones, when I could have used that one and been safe one more time?” one ponders anxiously at the foot of the staircases.
All the other offices in the building are so badly flooded, when it rains, that it is like a monsoon indoors, Totò told me. That is why his office is the only room in the building that is used any more.
“Why don’t they restore it?” I asked. “This building could be stunning if they fixed the corners back on.”
“They’ll wait until a piece falls on someone and they get sued, then they’ll do something. Until then, they won’t spend a Euro on it,” he told me.
I like to walk whenever the weather is decent, so I am often to be seen pottering about the vilage. Totò is most gentlemanly and always offers me a lift if he passes me on foot. He drives very slowly and safely.
Last week, I was caught out in an unexpected shower of light rain. My hero Signor Totò came to the rescue.
“Would you mid draping the seat belt across your body?” he asked as I settled into the passenger seat. “I know there’s nothing for it to click into, but at least it looks OK if the vigili urbani (traffic police) are checking. I’ve been bossing them around a bit too much lately, so they’re looking to get their own back. There are a couple who are not nephews of mine, so I can’t really keep them under control. They all know this car last passed its MOT nine years ago.”
We exchanged the usual pleasantries, then Totò suddenly said,
“I must apologise for going so slowly. My wife thinks I’m a cowardly driver, but I can’t risk getting up too much vibration. It heats up the bodywork and melts the glue, so the tape unravels.”
While we rolled along, chillaxing at 12 miles per hour, a car approached which was rather like a go-kart, in that it had no bodywork other than the absolute essentials. I think it was composed of pieces from at least five different types of Fiat, judging by the range of colours and the fact that the parts did not fit together particularly well. It was at least 80% rust.
“Cor, look at that heap of junk!” laughed Signor Totò, stepping on the accelerator and shooting up to almost 20 mph in a sudden surge of confidence. “How embarrassing to be seen in such an old banger!”
As we passed the x-ray go-kart, we realised its exhaust pipe was scraping along the road releasing sparks like a firework. It made a tinny noise, as if the driver and passenger were newlyweds and the scrap metal they were towing behind them had been tied on by their scallywag friends.
And that, my friends, was the fateful moment.
There was a dire ‘clonk’ noise from somewhere down below us, and Signor Totò and I exchanged glances. We both knew something terrible had happened to his vintage Alfa Romeo. Totò pulled over and we jumped out: His exhaust pipe was lying in the road, several metres behind us, trailing probably not less than 20 miles of tangled, sticky brown tape in its wake. Smoke was billowing out from under the bonnet. Finally, there was a decisive ‘Poff’ noise, and the engine cut out.
That was when we both knew: the end had come.
“My dear old Alfa Romeo,” said Totò, like a priest delivering the last rites, “you have served me well these past twenty-three years, but henceforth I will save a fortune in sticky tape. We must now part company for ever. Che liberazione! Good riddance!”