As I’ve said, I’m a retired family doctor. When I started up, I chose not to buy a ready-made practice and thus to be the stranger in the midst of my own patients (not that I could afford to do so), nor to buy into a partnership, for similar reasons. I squatted. Is that a peculiarly Australian term? In other words, I chose a likely location, fixed up the run-down premises, hung my shingle and sat back to wait for my first patient.
One of the first people through my door was a delightful old Sicilian woman, from the Aeolian Islands, Angelina. Coincidentally, we knew each other. Her late husband had been our greengrocer when I was growing up, and he had gone home to Sicily to bring a young bride back to his new home in Sydney. Angelina spoke broken English, interspersed with unsophisticated Italian, but we managed to have long conversations, both glad, in those early days, just to pass the time. She was deeply religious and used to walk past my surgery every morning in her Sunday best with hat and / or veil on her way to the Catholic church.
Over twenty years later, my wife and I decided to visit Sicily. Angelina was thrilled, and urged me to visit her home island of Salina, to which, in sixty years or more, she had never returned. She regaled me with tales of her youth there, the day-long religious procession to the top of the mountain, (to be closer, she said, to God), leaving before dawn and returning in the darkness, the food, the dancing, the beauty of the place. Finally, just before we were to depart, she begged me to visit her sisters, and to convey a simple message of her love and remembrance. She couldn’t give me a letter, because she could write only her name. How could I refuse?
There’s an extraordinary aside to this story, which I shall try to recount as Angelina told it.
Though Angelina had never been back to Sicily, when she was about 75 years old, her children paid for her to go to Rome, which she had longed to do, principally to visit the church of her name-saint.
“But dottore,” she said, the church was so far from the hotel, and the day was so hot! I had to walk for hours! My clothes were sticking to my body. I thought, non si puo! I cannot do this! But I must!”
“At last”, she continued, “ I came to the street of the church. I turned around the corner, and I burst into tears. There was a such a long stairway up to the church! I sat on the bottom step and I cried and cried. To come across the world, to walk so far! I must go on! I didn’t know if I could walk up the stairs, but I must!”
“It was so hard, dottore. I thought I would die, but finally I came to the top. Then the most terrible thing happened. A strong wind came and blew my hat all the way down to the bottom of the stairs! I cried again, dottore, I couldn’t stop. No way could I go down the stairs and climb back up, but without my hat, I couldn’t go into the church of my name-saint!
“I looked up to heaven, and I prayed to God. Please Father, you know how much I love you. I came all the way from Australia to visit the church of my name-saint, but now a wind has taken my hat and I can’t go in. I beg you, Father, if you love me, you have to give back my hat!”
“Then, believe me or not dottore, there was a miracle! A wind came at the bottom of the stairs. It swirled around and around and it picked up my hat and carried it all the way up the stairs and put it at my feet!”
A few weeks later we caught the ferry from Lipari to Salina. As we approached across the preternaturally calm, sparkling sea, the twin volcanic peaks looming ever larger, I went to stand near the rail. A priest was standing beside me and greeted me. I asked him if he lived on Salina. He used to, he said, but now lived in Messina. He was returning to visit some of his ex-parishioners. I couldn’t refrain from asking if he knew Angelina’s sisters. “Oh yes”, he replied, they lived in the upper village. Then he added, “You know, the upper village is less than a kilometre from the lower village, but there are many people in each who have never visited the other!” I asked for directions to the sisters’ house, and he replied that there were no street names or house numbers, we should just ask anybody, and we would be told where to find it.
This proved to be the case, and half an hour later we found ourselves standing before the imposing entrance of a house which had once obviously been quite grand, but was now in a state of neglect. We knocked and two very ancient ladies came to the door. They spoke only the local dialect, and our Italian was less than perfect, but we managed to introduce ourselves and to convey the message from their sister, Angelina. They were absolutely stupified, and stood before us sobbing, laughing, exclaiming to each other. At last they recalled their manners and invited us in. We were ushered into an interior of decayed splendour and sat at an antique table, much used. Tea was served, I gave them some photographs of Angelina and her family, over which they marvelled and wept, but conversation was very difficult. The sisters remained quite overcome and words mutually failed us. After a little time we thanked them for their hospitality and left, to continue our tour of Salina on the little motor scooter we had rented at the dock.
Salina was not as I’d imagined it from Angelina’s vivid description. She herself would have found it much changed, and certainly, I’m sure, disappointingly so. It was very picturesque, and the landscape striking, though barren and somewhat forbidding. There were few people about,and mostly old. Our presence wasn’t resented but was acknowledged, it seemed, with a certain sadness and sullenness.
We walked down to a pebbly beach on an uninhabited part of the island, and found a group of caves in the cliff face, just above the sand, each closed with a wooden door, as if to seal in a smuggler’s hoard, but probably, I suppose, to contain oars and fishing nets. I took a beautiful photo of a pebble of pumice floating beside a gull’s feather. Another little miracle.