Having turned into one of the village ladies, padding around the freezing house in apron and slippers and gazing out into the mist every time a car comes up the mountain, I am excited when the steaming Cinquecento in question parks right outside my gate. Cars come up here about three times a day except in hunting season when heavily armed thugs come thundering in from Milan wearing brand new camouflage gear and neat goaties. Lost dogs howl in the night after they’ve left and heaps of boar lie bleeding at the side of the road to be collected later.
Anyway, today it turns out to be a man from the water board. Valeria across the way leans out of the door to see what’s up.
‘Water board,’ I say.
Valeria stays on the step to hear what his news is. It is this: the bill has not been paid for thirty-four years. The people who owned the house before us stopped coming up here around then, although the kind of villagers who still remember when the Germans came over the track from Boveglio say that some of the cousins came and camped in it once in the 1990s.
The man hands me the bill slightly sheepishly. It is addressed to Germano Piselli (the surname means peas and everyone still calls our house ‘the Piselli house’, laughing to themselves as they must have been doing since Napoleone built it in a grandiose frenzy a hundred and fifty years ago). Total about three Euros a year until we arrive in 2003. Then it leaps astronomically to an annual 300 Euros. Then, last year, an apocalyptic 1500.
‘That’s insane,’ I say.
‘It is high,’ he nods, leaning right into the doorway sympathetically, making sure it really does say that. Satisfied, he gets back into his car and disappears down into the mist.
‘I don’t remember Germano,’ Valeria says, picking up a couple of logs from her pile and shuffling off inside.
Ilario runs the good restaurant in Bagni di Lucca (Ristorante del Sonno). His pizzas are the best in the world (I have anchovy, onion and rocket, double anchovy) and his advice second to none. He speaks all known languages and always has fresh trout from Enio the trout man up in the slightly desolate main road village of F.
‘Nobody could use that much water in one year,’ he declared, appalled by my news (some of the most exciting heard in B since Mario’s cheese shop shut down). ‘Our bill for the restaurant is half that. You must have a leak.’
‘They’re coming to check. But I don’t think so,’ I say, beaming obsequiously at the local chief of police and his wife, the fruit lady, over at the next table. They always pay with luncheon vouchers.
Ilario is indignant. ‘What are you doing? Bathing elephants?’
People talk about elephants a lot round here. Hannibal corralled his next to the paper stand where they stock Woman magazine.
‘It’s always the foreigners with the leaks,’ the Leak Checker from the water board mumbles, fiddling around with a guage in my plum orchard (okay, the dog’s toilet where the gas bombola is buried and a couple of plum trees grow near the water meter). He says this as though we are an irresponsible bunch, leaving taps running willy nilly, skewering our pipes for entertainment. However, foreign I may be, a leak there is not.
‘Someone’s stealing it,’ he says, shaking his head in apology for the crimes of his people.
‘What are you on about?’ I ask. ‘Nobody steals water!’
The plumber, who happens to be here at the time, pulls at his beard, slightly embarrassed.
‘That’s it,’ he admits.
The fact that anyone could possibly have the need to steal water here seems beyond mad. It has rained for three weeks solid, the skies churning bruised black and blue, the road a cascading river, the walls damp to the touch even inside.
‘Just like England!’ everyone jokes.
‘Yup!’ I laugh. It never, ever rains like this in England. It drizzles. The sun comes out. It drizzles again. This is a monsoon season.
However, I do notice that around our garden tap there are often plastic espresso cups, fag packets, crisp bags, stuff I assume has been tossed over by lonely mushroom pickers, disappointed with their spoils, or, you know having al fresco sex (otherwise known as dogging, apparently). But no, this rubbish has been left by Satanic water thieves.
‘If it was a leak you wouldn’t have to pay, but as it is…I’m sorry. I really am,’ the Leak Checker says.
Suddenly I have a plan. I have lived in Soviet Russia, after all.
‘What if…’ I say coyly, twisting my slippered foot. ‘What if…I did find a leak?’
Leak Checker, plumber and I all look at each other silently for a while.
‘Well,’ Leak Checker explains. ‘If a plumber were to find a leak and photograph it…..then….’
I look at the plumber who shrugs with a sly smile.
Leaving the plumber to find the phantom leak I go back indoors and I wonder if perhaps the elephants do need a wash today after all.