Friday Night Book Club: A country torn apart by war. Two siblings divided by fate. Read an excerpt from Pippo and Clara by Diana Rosie
More about the book!
The Friday Night Book Club: Exclusive excerpts from Pan Macmillan every weekend.
Treat yourself to a glass of wine this evening with this excerpt from Diana Rosie’s Pippo and Clara – the story of a family and a country divided.
About the book
‘A powerful story, sweetly told.’ – Antonio Iturbe, author of The Librarian of Auschwitz
A country torn apart by war. Two siblings divided by fate.
Italy, 1938. Mussolini is in power and war is not far away …
Clara and Pippo are just children: quiet, thoughtful Clara is the older sister; Pippo, the younger brother, is forever chatting. The family has only recently arrived in the city carrying their few possessions.
When Mamma goes missing early one morning, both Clara and Pippo go in search of her. Clara turns right; Pippo left.
As a result of the choices they make that morning, their lives will be changed forever.
But will Clara and Pippo – and their mother – find each other again?
Read the excerpt:
Clara Turns Right
‘But I don’t like it here, Mamma.’
We both look around the bare room. My brother lies sleeping on a dirty mattress, while my mother and I sit on top of a blanket heaped on bare floorboards. A tattered cloth hangs over the only window’s cracked panes, and in the corner of the empty room is a filthy sink that a tap drips into. Our small pile of possessions, all we have in the world, has been carefully placed by the wall. Despite it being late in the night, the street outside is noisy.
I feel Mamma take a deep breath.
‘Tomorrow we will begin to make this a home. Our castle.’ She pulls me into a hug.
‘With a proper bed?’ I ask.
‘With sheets of silk,’ she nods.
‘And a kitchen?’
‘We’ll have our own chef. He’ll cook us all of our favourite meals.’
‘Pasta al horno!’ I whisper loudly.
‘Mountains of it!’ says Mamma.
‘And pizza for Pippo?’
‘Hundreds of them!’ laughs Mamma, her golden eyes shining. ‘And he’ll want a different topping on every one.’
‘And he’ll tell everyone what he’s eating and why he likes it,’ I add.
‘Of course. Our chatty bird.’
We both look at the little boy, quiet in sleep. Mamma says he was born chattering like a tiny sparrow with lots to say. I don’t recall him being born, just over seven years ago now, but I know that for as long as I can remember, my brother has talked and talked and talked. He constantly tells us what he is doing and why he is doing it, and when he draws breath, his hands continue the conversation for him.
People have tried to hush him, scolding him to stop the endless babbling, but Mamma tells him to talk if he wishes. All those thoughts and words need to come out, she says. And I find I can listen when I want, but at other times, I let his voice breeze over me, like a small bird swooping around my head, the air from his wings occasionally wafting against my face. I find it comforting, a constant background noise to my day.
I curl into the blanket as my mother strokes my hair. Then she seems to notice the red band tied around my right wrist. Taking it in her fingers, she turns it round and round, in the same way that Pippo plays with his.
‘Never forget that these bracelets connect us,’ she whispers. ‘You and Pippo and me and Papa.’
‘I won’t, Mamma.’
She shifts her body, moving to get up.
‘Where are you going?’
Mamma is already pulling her black scarf over her hair and tying it at the nape of her neck.
‘I’m going to meet someone. The landlord has told me about a lady who may have some sewing work.’
‘Can’t you go in the morning?’ I ask, hearing the whine in my voice.
‘She’s going on a trip tomorrow. She wants someone to do some alternations while she’s away. Now,’ she leans towards me and strokes my hair, ‘go to sleep. I’ll be back before you know I’m gone.’
Snuggling down, I feel sleep drifting near me like gently lapping waves.
‘Sweet dreams, Clara,’ she whispers, giving the top of my head a kiss. ‘Sweet dreams.’
I let my eyes shut and hear a door quietly close.
When I wake, stiff and aching, I do what I always do and gently rub the bracelet on my wrist between my thumb and forefinger. It’s my way of starting the day with Mamma and Papa. Opening my eyes a little, I stretch and peer around the room.
My mother is not here. The sun is trying to force its way through the dirt on the window and the rag that hangs over it. My brother sleeps on, curled in a ball, his thumb tucked into his mouth.
Yawning, I turn and look at the closed door. Perhaps Mamma has gone to the toilet.
I wait for her, listening to the sounds of a city awakening; horses clip-clopping over cobbles, while men and women shout their wares. ‘Milk! Fresh milk!’ ‘Cornetto!’
I have only had cornetto a few times, but the thought of the buttery, flaky pastry melting in my mouth makes my stomach gurgle and groan. After travelling all day, we arrived in the city exhausted. Pippo and I sat with our bags in the street while Mamma found somewhere to stay, then she brought us here to this room. There was no supper.
Perhaps she has gone out to get us some breakfast.
I realize that I need to go to the toilet at the bottom of the stairs, so, trying not to wake my brother, I climb out of the blanket and pull on my shoes. As I turn the handle on the door, it creaks and Pippo stirs a little, but he doesn’t wake and I slip through the doorway, quietly pulling it shut behind me.
The stairwell smells unpleasant and I trot down the steps quickly. The bathroom is shared with other occupants in this building so I am as fast as I can be.
When I come out, drying my hands on my skirt, I turn to the main entrance. A tall, wooden door stands between me and an unknown city, but I want to look for Mamma, so I walk over and heave it open.
Sunshine hits my face and warms me instantly. I hadn’t realized I was chilled. The entrance to our new home is down a long street. Drying sheets hang between buildings on both sides, and sounds of cooking, nattering women and crying babies waterfall out of the open windows. People bustle past, going to work, or carrying bread and pastries back to their homes for breakfast.
I look to the left. People are working all along the pavement. A line of men and boys are cutting cardboard to the shape of soles, and hammering them onto shoes.
I turn my head to the right. Nearby, a woman sits beside two huge baskets filled with flowers: bunches of giant daisies, roses and lavender. Scent rises from her buds and mingles with the street’s smell of food and rubbish.
I glance left again, trying to decide which way my mother would have turned. The street bends, tall buildings blocking the sunlight and casting dark shadows over the thinning path. Looking to the right, I decide the flowers would have persuaded my mother, as they do me, to walk past their bright colours and delicious perfumes.
I step down onto the pavement and turn right, towards the small woman who sits wrapping twine around a thick bunch of lavender stalks. I won’t go far, just a little way up the road, and if Mamma’s not there, I’ll go back to Pippo and wait for her return.
A sound up ahead grabs my attention and I see a woman throw a bucket of water over the cobblestones outside her door. Bright light reflects and glistens, transforming the water into a rainbow for a moment. Then, I see her.
Blinking, I squint at her dark shape. It disappears behind a horse that is slowly pulling a heavy cart filled with fruit. I stand on my tiptoes, peering past the produce and watching for her tall, familiar outline to reappear. When she does, I’m sure it is Mamma. She wears black from head to toe, unlike the other women who wear blue, or brown, or green. The way
she pulls her black shawl tighter over her hair, the way she walks – purposefully, her head held high – it is my mamma.
I call to her, but she is too far away to hear me so I break into a run, spurring my still sleepy legs into a run and congratulating myself on deciding to turn right. As I reach the junction with the main road, though, Mamma has disappeared into the crowds. For a moment, I let myself be distracted by the noise and energy. Horses pulling small carriages trot past briskly. Cars navigate around them and the carts loaded with food that are parked on the edge of the road. Then I notice two boys, not much older than me, standing at the corner, smoking. I feel their eyes on me, and a thin shiver runs down my spine.
I turn my head to search for Mamma again, trying to peer over the swarm of people, looking for her slender silhouette. There are shops and cafes on both sides of the road, and I spot one with a sign that says simply: Pane.
Just as a plump woman bustles past me, knocking me sideways, I see the top of a black headscarf that I know is my mamma’s disappear into the doorway of the bread shop. I dash across the road, running around the cars that have drawn to a stop, horns blaring at a cart that has spilled its load of wicker baskets.
I notice as I run up the steps that the window is stacked with loaves of all shapes and sizes, as well as boxes of biscuits and cakes. The smell is wonderful, and I skid into the small shop breathing in the warm, yeasty scent.
There are two women waiting to be served and one
of them is Mamma. Except, even as I reach out to touch her arm, I know it is not. The woman’s dress, shoes and scarf are all black like my mother always wears, but now I am close, I realize this woman’s figure is plumper, less elegant. She turns and I see a face that I do not know.
The woman smiles at my confused face and says, ‘Sì, bambina?’
‘I, I …’ I stumble. ‘I thought you were my mother.’
The woman shakes her head, and is about to say something when the girl behind the counter interrupts.
‘What do you want?’ she says rudely to the woman who is not my mother. ‘I hope you have money to pay.’
As the lady in black quietly pulls out a purse from her pocket and orders her bread, I turn to go, embarrassed.
‘Have you lost your mother?’ asks a more friendly voice.
I turn to see the other customer, a woman dressed in a smart green suit, her hair elegantly styled in large chestnut-coloured rolls. As she speaks to me, she tucks two long loaves of bread into her shopping basket, which already holds a selection of fruit.
I nod, but remain silent.
The woman guides me out of the shop, and as we take the steps down to the street, she says, ‘When did you last see her?’
‘Last night, when I went to sleep,’ I reply shyly. ‘When I woke this morning, she was gone.’
‘Does she usually go out and leave you?’
I shake my head. This woman seems both kind and concerned, but experience cautions me against telling anyone too much about my family. My mother’s words, warning Pippo and me to be wary of those who aren’t like us, who don’t understand our ways, echo in my mind.
The woman in black then steps out of the shop, nodding her head to the two of us before carrying on down the street I have just come up, a loaf wrapped in paper under her arm.
‘Your mother was dressed like her?’
I look at the woman’s black shawl covering her head and shoulders, the black skirt that stops just above her ankles, the worn black shoes, and I nod again.
The kind woman’s brow furrows.
‘Perhaps she has gone home,’ she says, ‘and is waiting for you to return.’ Something about the ways she speaks makes me think she does not really believe what she is saying, but I nod.
‘Come,’ she says with a sudden determination. ‘Let me accompany you home. If she is not there, we can look for her together.’
Despite my uneasiness with strangers, I feel a sense of relief as I point down the street, and follow the woman’s confident stride. As we walk, she asks me my name.
‘C-ca-ca …’ I say, suddenly stuttering.
The lady slows and turns to me.
I take a deep breath as my mamma has told me to when I am nervous.
‘Clara,’ I say clearly, looking at the woman’s face with all the courage I can command.
‘And how old are you, Clara?’ she asks.
‘Well, come along Clara who’s ten. Let’s find your mother.’
I guide her down the turning towards our building, noticing this time that the smoking boys’ eyes glance from me to the woman, taking in her smart clothes and sophisticated hair. It is clear they have not seen women like her on this street often.
As we trot briskly on, I spot the flower seller and, gently pulling on the woman’s sleeve, I point to the doorway beside her. Together, we walk into the building’s entrance, where the woman takes a handkerchief from her jacket pocket and holds it to her nose.
I lead her up the stairs, wishing with all my might that when I open the door, we will see Mamma and Pippo playing, the smell of fresh coffee and crispy pastries filling the room. In my mind, my mother looks at me, at first delighted and relieved to see me; then something quizzical crosses her face as she sees the smartly dressed woman behind me. She would, of course, be gracious and ask the lady in for coffee, despite her embarrassment at our surroundings. And as my hand reaches up for the door handle, I briefly wonder if the woman will stay to have breakfast with us.
Pushing the door slowly open, I close my eyes, hoping to smell the coffee first, before I see Mamma. But all I smell is the damp. I open my eyes slowly and look around the dirty room. My mother is not there.
‘Hmmm,’ says the woman standing beside me, as she glances around the room.
I ignore her, unable to take my eyes off the empty
blanket lying on the bare floorboards. My breath catches in my throat in a silent gasp of horror.
I barely notice the woman’s hand rest gently on my right shoulder.
My brother is gone.