The Girl Who Rode the Wind
The Girl Who Rode the Wind
First published in Great Britain by HarperCollins Children’s Books 2015
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Text copyright © Stacy Gregg, 2015
Covert art © Shutterstock
Stacy Gregg asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
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Source ISBN: 9780008124304
Ebook Edition © ISBN: 9780008124328
For Hilda, the budding equestrienne.May your future be full of excitement,adventure and wonderful horses …
It was almost midnight when I turned down the steep cobbled streets into the Via di Vallerozzi. I walked alone except for my shadow, a black companion in the lamplight.
At the entrance to the Contrada of the Wolf I raised my eyes to the bell tower and felt the knot in my belly tighten. I stepped up to the door and knocked, rapping four times then four again. Then I waited, counting my heartbeats. I was about to try once more when I heard footsteps and then the creak of ancient hinges as the heavy oak door opened.
The guardsman, thin and sallow-skinned, shoulders hunched with age, poked his head out. He looked at me warily.
“Hello, signor …” My accent gave me away straight off. I didn’t have the chance to say anything more.
“No tourists, Americano!” the guardsman grunted dismissively. “Not on the night before the Palio.”
He began to close the door and I had to thrust my arm out to stop it shutting in my face.
“I’m not a tourist!” I insisted. “I’m Lola. Lola Campione.”
I had expected my name to mean something to him, but there was no flicker of recognition on his stony face.
“Go find the Capitano. Tell him I’m here.”
The guardsman didn’t move. “The Capitano is in a meeting. Very important. He cannot be disturbed.” He pushed the door and I felt it closing against me.
“No! Please don’t –”
From behind the guardsman a voice rang through the dark corridor.
“Come now, Drago,” the voice said. “Do you not recognise this girl? This is the fantino herself. Let her in.”
The guardsman hesitated, the look on his face made it plain that he was unimpressed. You’re kidding me, right? This twelve-year-old kid’s the fantino? Then, grudgingly, he did as he was told, releasing his grip on the door so that I could push it wide enough to move past him and come inside.
The hallway was lit by oil lamps that illuminated the dusty paintings on the wood-panelled walls. In this gloomy half-light a man with thick black hair, a sculpted beard and dark eyes stood in the centre of the room, dressed in floor-length black and white robes trimmed with brilliant orange.
“Hello, Capitano,” I said.
“Good evening, Lola,” he replied. “We were not expecting you tonight. Is something wrong?”
“I couldn’t sleep,” I said. “I was worried about Nico.”
“I am touched by your concern,” the Capitano said, not sounding touched at all. “I can assure you he is quite safe and well.”
“I need to see him,” I said. “I won’t leave until I know he’s OK.”
“It is not possible, Lola,” the Capitano replied. “No one can see him tonight, not even you.”
He grasped my arm and began to escort me back towards the front door. “You should go home. Get some sleep …”
I resisted, jerking my elbow away and pulling free of him. Standing at his post by the door the guardsman saw me do this and reached for his sword. The Capitano had to raise his hand to quell him.
“Lola, I have no time for this.” The Capitano glanced anxiously over his shoulder into the darkness of the hallway. From a room at the far end, I could hear the muffled voices of men arguing in rapid-fire Italian.
“The rival contradas are here,” he said. “We are discussing arrangements for the race tomorrow. I must ask you to leave.”
The Capitano resumed his attempts to usher me to the door. I could see he was losing his patience, but I stood my ground.
“Let me see Nico. Please, Capitano? I’ve come all this way …”
When I said this, I only meant that it was a long distance to walk here, all the way from the villa, but the Capitano seemed to think my words had a deeper meaning.
“Yes, of course. It is a miracle, this journey you have made, Lola.” He waved his hands dramatically. “From New York to Italy, you have come home to us, your people. And tomorrow you will ride in the greatest race in the world, the Palio, for the glory of the Lupa, the Contrada of the Wolf. Everything depends on you, Lola.”
The conversation in the room beyond had become a shouting match. The Capitano was flustered, anxious to get back to his meeting.
“Very well, Lola,” he said abruptly. “I will allow it. But it is against all the rules of the Contrada so you must tell no one. Are we agreed?”
“Then quickly, come with me.”
I followed the Capitano down the hallway, through one of the many doorways that led off the main corridor.
The room we entered had a high vaulted ceiling and walls lined with antique glass cabinets. Behind the glass, headless mannequins were dressed in Romeo and Juliet costumes with swords and flags, and suits of armour propped up behind them. It looked like a museum exhibition – except tomorrow all these glass cases would be opened up and the museum would come to life.
“Quickly, Lola!” The Capitano kept me moving past the display.
We continued through a labyrinth of secret rooms and passages that would have been impossible to navigate on my own. I stuck close as the Capitano took one turn after another, until we reached a narrow corridor that led to an iron door. On the door was the head of a wolf, cast in black iron, life-sized with two crossed swords behind it and eyes made from grey stone. Those eyes! They seemed to glare at me, challenging me. The wolf looked so lifelike, its muzzle jutting out, jaws open and teeth bared. If it had sprung from the door snarling and snapping I wouldn’t have been at all surprised.
Beside me, the Capitano began muttering away, strange words that I didn’t recognise, an incantation in Italian that seemed to be some kind of ancient ritual. As he spoke he raised his hands up, palms spread out in front of the wolf’s head, then he placed both hands upon the hilts of the swords and pulled down hard. The swords acted as levers, splitting the wolf’s face in two and opening the doors to reveal what lay on the other side, a spiral of stone stairs descending into darkness.
I waited, expecting the Capitano to go on ahead, but he stepped back away from the edge of the stairwell to make room for me to pass him.
“You must go alone from here. I need to return to my meeting.”
And with that he turned and left me at the top of the stairs.
I peered down into the pitch-black, my heart hammering. I had to do this. Nico was down there and I hated to think of him alone and terrified in this strange place. I put out my hands, my fingertips brushing the cold stone wall to find my bearings, then I took my first step and began my descent into the darkness.
Feeling my way, shuffling along, I went down step by step until I reached the base of the stairwell. Here, I groped blindly until I clasped the cool iron of a door handle. Gripping it, I pushed as hard as I could and the door groaned open to reveal a narrow stone corridor lit by torches. I was underneath the rooms of the contrada. Ahead of me, I could see a door with a tiny window of heavy iron bars, like a prison cell.
“Hello?” My voice echoed down the corridor and I heard a snort in reply – the restless stamping of hooves on soft straw.
It was him! He called back to me. Not his usual cheerful nicker, but a vigorous and frantic high-pitched whinny.
“Nico! It’s OK!” I ran to the door and began to work the bolt. “I’m here … Uugghhh!”
The bolt was stuck. I strained at the rusted metal, trying to force it open but it wouldn’t move. I could see Nico on the other side of the bars, fretting and pacing, back and forth, flicking his head anxiously. “I’m coming, Nico. It’s OK.”
With a rush, the bolt finally came loose and I had the door open and was running to his side, flinging my arms around his golden neck, burying my face deep in the coarse strands of his flaxen mane.
“Of course I came,” I whispered. “You didn’t think I would leave you here alone, did you? I’ll always come for you, Nico, no matter what.”
It broke my heart the way he leant in to me, nuzzling in with his muzzle pressed against me, snorting and blowing, making these strange snuffly noises I had never heard before, like he was talking to me, saying, “You took so long! I was so lonely!”
“I’m sorry, I came as soon as I knew,” I murmured. “It’s going to be OK, I’m here now, I’m with you.”
I knew that being trapped in this basement stall would terrify him. Nico had never been left alone like this before. He’d grown up in the fields at Signor Fratelli’s farm with the other horses by his side. Even at night when he was brought in to his loose box in the stables, he’d had their whinnies and nickers right next door for company To be brought here and kept in solitary confinement in this tiny, cramped stone cell must have felt like cruel punishment, when in fact it was supposed to be a sacred honour; the final stage before his ascent to glory.
But glory is for gods, not for horses. Nico didn’t know that he was part of an ancient ritual or that the hopes and dreams of an entire contrada were riding on him tomorrow. As far as he was concerned, the only thing on his back when he stepped out onto that racetrack would be me. It was for me alone that he would gallop until his legs buckled and his heart burst. He had the heart of a champion, my horse, I had known it from the very first moment I saw him. I took one look into those deep brown liquid eyes of his and I knew that he was special, that he was the one.
“A horse that’s going to win has a light in their eyes,” my Nonna Loretta always says. “You look hard enough, Piccolina, and you’ll see it. The good ones burn inside with the desire to prove themselves.”
My nonna can look at a horse and tell you straight off before it sets foot on the track whether or not it’s gonna win. When I was little, she’d take me to the Aqueduct on race days and we’d spend hours at the birdcage, me perched on her hip, choosing winners as the horses paraded by.
“Can you see which one it will be, Piccolina?” she would ask. That’s her nickname for me, Piccolina, it means little one.
I always chose the hot ones, of course. Won over by their flashy looks, I’d single out the horses that fretted and danced like prizefighters. They looked like they wanted to go fast.
“No, no, Piccolina!” Nonna would shake her head in disapproval. “You must look beyond the shiny coat and the pretty face. You need to look deeper, look at the heart.”
“That’s silly! I can’t see their hearts, Nonna!” I would giggle.
“Try again,” Nonna would say. And then she would give me a hint. “Look at that one over there. You see the way his ears pricked at the roar of the crowd in the grandstand? The flick of his tail when the jockey mounted? He has heart, Piccolina. I think he is the one.”
“Should we bet on him then, Nonna?” I would ask.
“Oh no!” Nonna would say. “Racing is the sport of kings, but gambling is for fools and scoundrels. A Campione never bets.”
That’s our name, Campione. It means Champion in Italian. Our stables are called Champion Racing. Not that the horses we train are champions. Often, by the time they come to us they are ten-time losers, and it’s our job to turn them around because no one else will take them.
My dad, Ray Campione, was a pretty famous jockey back in the day, but he was always falling off and breaking bones, and after my mom died Nonna said it was too dangerous. She said if he fell again then us four kids could wind up being orphans, so Dad gave up riding and started training. He’s supposed to be the head trainer, but everyone knows it’s really Nonna who calls the shots, deciding the feed and workout regimes, which jockey will get the ride and when the horse is ready to run.
Nonna used to ride track, but she’s too old for it now. “Eighty-five, Lola! How did that happen? I still feel sixteen.” That’s how old she was when she came to New York on her own, all the way from Italy. It was 1945. The war had just ended and she arrived on a boat at Ellis Island “with nothing except the clothes on my back and my jodhpurs and riding boots in a duffel bag”.
Nonna never liked to talk about “the old country”. I would try and ask her about what life was like back in Italy, but she never did say much. The only thing she would ever talk about was the horses. “They were Anglo-Arabs,” she told me. “Very intelligent, beautiful creatures, quite different from these hot-heads we have to train!”
I didn’t realise what she meant until I met Nico. He isn’t like any horse I ever met in New York, or even any of the other horses he shares a stable with at the Castle of the Four Towers in Siena. He’s enormous for a start, and he’s showy with his rich honey-chestnut coat, white blaze and thick flaxen mane. He could almost be too pretty, except he’s burly too; real powerful with these strong shoulders and haunches. If he wanted to, he could lash out with a hoof and kill you with a single blow, but he would never do that. He’s sweet-natured and gentle as a faun. When I’m in the loose box with him I never even need to use a halter to restrain him. I can leave the doors wide open and he’ll just stay in the stall with me like he wants to be here, shoving his muzzle up against me as I pet him, just like he’s doing right now.
“Tomorrow,” I tell him, “we’re going to go out there and win this crazy bareback race in front of all of Italy, and when we cross the finish line we will be heroes and the contrada will remember us for ever.”
The Palio is the world’s most dangerous race. The horses are ridden by hard-bitten jockeys – men who won’t think twice about using whatever means necessary to beat us if we get in their way.
“There are no saddles,” I remind Nico. “And no rules either. The other horses will crash into you and their jockeys will whip and push me if they can get close enough.”
Nico shakes his mane anxiously.
“Hey, hey, no …” I reassure him. “Don’t worry, Nico. Those guys, they think they’re tough, right? But they never met a girl from Ozone Park before.”
It’s not like I’m lying to him. Nico is my best friend and I would never do that. But he needs his jockey to be strong right now. If he realised the fantino was nothing more than a scared twelve-year-old girl then we’d both be in real trouble.
Lucky for me, if there’s one thing I’m good at it is acting tough when I am actually terrified. I guess I have Jake Mayo to thank for that.
It’s funny to think that you owe a debt to the boy who made your life at middle school into a living hell, but in a weird way I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Jake. Growing up in Ozone Park, I was already pretty battle-hardened before he started his own personal war against me. But after our fight, something changed deep inside of me. So if you want to know how I got here, then I’ll tell you. It all started the day that I broke Jake Mayo’s nose.
The linoleum in the hallway was pale blue with dark swirls. I stared down and imagined it was the sea, about to swell up beneath me and swallow me. As if I was that lucky.
“Miss Campione?” The door beside me opened and a bony finger curled out to beckon me in. I stood up and walked over the ocean and into Mr Azzaretti’s office.
“I don’t usually see you in here, Miss Campione.” Mr Azzaretti moved around to his side of the desk and motioned for me to sit.
“Do you want to tell me what happened?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “He was asking for it.”
“Is that all you have to say?” Mr Azzaretti looked serious. “Because I’ve got a boy in sick bay right now with a broken nose and he’s saying you did it.”
A broken nose. I felt the blood rush to my cheeks. I broke Jake Mayo’s nose?
Serves him right. I thought, but I didn’t say it. I knitted my fingers together to stop my hands shaking. I was still charged full of adrenaline and my throat hurt from where Jake had held me. He was much stronger than me, a real all-American quarterback in the making. I’d only managed to throw that one punch before he’d lunged at me, locked his arm around my neck and dragged me to the ground. That was how the teachers had found us, squirming around on the asphalt, red-faced and sweaty with a circle of kids all around us chanting “Fight! Fight! Fight!”
Mr Azzaretti waited for me to say something while I looked down at my hands. There was a long silence between us and then he gave a sigh and pushed his chair away and stood up. He came right around and perched on the edge of the desk beside me. He was a tall, angular man. He always wore a shirt and tie, but he kept his sleeves rolled up as if he had proper manual work to do, like a groom at the stables instead of a middle-school principal.
“Lola.” He said my name, and my heart sank. It was the softness of the word, the kindness in his voice, that made me realise I was in real trouble. “Do you know how much it concerns me to see the smartest kid in this school, a student I consider to be scholarship material, being called in because of this sort of behaviour?”
I could feel my eyes getting teary. “I’m sorry, Mr Azzaretti.” I wiped them with my sleeve, noticing the bloodstain as I did so. That blood wasn’t mine.
“You know I’m going to have to call this boy’s parents?” Mr Azzaretti said. “And your dad too, obviously?”
I felt a flush of pleasure at the idea of Jake Mayo having to explain to his dad that a girl had broken his nose. It almost made it all worth it.
“My dad’s asleep. He turns his phone off in the afternoons.”
“All right,” Mr Azzaretti said. “Then you’ll give him this as soon as you get home and ask him to call me, OK?” He handed me an envelope. “Tell him you’ve been suspended from school until further notice.”
It was fourth period and everyone else was in math. I cut around the back of the science block and across the playground at the back of the school. I squeezed through the gap in the mesh fence and out onto Sutter Avenue. Usually I turned left here, towards Rockaway, but I could feel the weight of that note from Mr Azzaretti in my backpack. So I headed right instead, following the green mesh fence line behind the houses, making my way towards the Aqueduct grandstands.
My problems with Jake Mayo had started at the beginning of the term. Before then, I don’t think he even knew my name. He hung out with the populars – Tori and Jessa and Ty and Leona - and I hung out with no one. Weird Lola Campione, the brainiac girl always with her nose in a book. Because if you have no one to hang out with in middle school then you need a book to read, because it stops you looking so lonely. I sound like I feel sorry for myself, but I don’t really. I don’t know why but I don’t make friends easy. I’m shy, I guess, and I never know what to talk about with other kids because my life is all about horses.
Our family, we’re “Backstretchers”. That’s what they call us on account of the fact that we spend our whole lives at the racetrack in the backstretch, the underground neighbourhood behind the grandstands at Aqueduct.
There are some backstretchers who actually live right there at the track twenty-four seven. They sleep in hammocks slung up in the loose boxes and eat all their meals in the bodega.
We don’t live far from the track, just on the other side of Rockaway Boulevard in Ozone Park. Our house has four bedrooms, one each for Dad and Nonna and another for my two brothers, Johnny and Vincent. I share the downstairs bedroom with my big sister, Donna. She’s nineteen and a total pain in the neck. She’s got Dad wrapped around her little finger, so he treats her like a princess even though she is the only one who does nothing to help out with the family business. Johnny and Vincent both dropped out of school the day they turned sixteen to ride trackwork. So I only have four years to go. Except Dad won’t let me quit school.
“Sweetheart,” he says. “A clever girl like you, you could be a doctor or a lawyer or anything you want. You’re going to stay in school and get a scholarship and go to college, Lola. There ain’t no way you’re gonna wind up like me.”
Except I wasn’t going to get a scholarship now, was I? Even Donna, who was always in trouble, had never actually been suspended. I didn’t know how I was going to explain this to my dad. He was gonna hit the roof.
That morning I’d gone to Aqueduct as usual. I earn pocket money cleaning out the stalls. I stayed longer than I should have done because Fernando was settling in a new horse so I had to do his mucking out too. I was going to go home and get dressed for school, but I had no time, so I just changed my T-shirt, which was sweaty, and kept the same jeans and boots. I figured that was OK. The boots were my riding boots, scuffed brown leather, which I wore every day at the track. I gave them a wipe on the straw before I left the loose box to clean them off a bit and then ran the whole way to school.
By the time I got to the gates I was sweaty again and the bell had already rung. I like to arrive at class early because I have this favourite desk in the front row, but on this day all the desks up front were filled and the only spare seat left was near the back next to Jake Mayo.
I would have done anything to find another seat. Jake was in all my classes, but we’d never spoken, not once. Due to my terminal uncoolness I guess.
I excused my lateness to Miss Gilmore, flung myself down into my seat and opened my textbook as she began writing up stuff on the white board.
Jake was looking at me funny.
“Hey!” he hissed.
I ignored him.
I looked up. “Yeah?”
“Where’s your horse?”
There was laughter from Tori and Jessa who sat in the row behind us.
“Hey, Campione!” Jake leaned over towards me. “You know you smell of manure, right?”
I looked down at my boots. They were dirty from the stables I guess, but I hadn’t really noticed. I would have changed them if I had time. Anyway, there was nothing I could do about it now. I pretended I hadn’t heard him and began furiously copying down the lesson from the board.
Then suddenly, in front of everyone, Jake flung himself across his desk and began convulsing, coughing and spluttering like he was going to die or something. The whole class was watching him and Miss Gilmore stopped writing on the board.
“Are you all right, Jake?” she asked, looking concerned.
Jake stopped performing and sat up.
“Sorry, miss,” he smirked. “It’s like I can hardly breathe in here because of Campione! She stinks of horse poo!”
The whole class fell apart laughing at this and Jake gave me a look of satisfaction. His humiliation of me was complete.
I thought it would end there, but it didn’t. At lunch he gave a whinny as he walked by me in the cafeteria and made a big deal of holding his nose. I could see him at his table with the other populars, all of them looking over and laughing about it.
I walked home that day and for the first time ever I couldn’t wait to get out of my riding boots.
I didn’t want to talk about it, but Nonna has a way of winkling things out of you. She could tell something was wrong and that night after dinner she sat down on my bed and we had a big talk.
“He’ll have forgotten you by tomorrow, you’ll see,” my nonna said. “With a bully, you have to ignore them, like you don’t care. Then this boy will give up and start on someone else.”
“I am!” I insisted.
I kept on ignoring him, just like Nonna told me. But it didn’t stop. The next day Jake managed to get the seat next to me again and spent the whole class whinnying at me, doing it under his breath, just quiet enough so the teacher couldn’t catch him. He did the same thing in the playground every time he walked past me, and by the end of the week all the other kids were doing it too.
“Do you want me to talk to one of your teachers about it?” Nonna offered.
“No!” I was horrified. “No, honest, I’m fine. Just forget about it …”
I stopped talking about Jake at home. I was worried that Nonna would tell Dad and then the next thing I knew he’d be marching into school to “sort him out”. I was desperate to avoid this happening – almost as desperate as I was for Jake to stop picking on me.
Dad worried about me in a way he’d never done with Johnny and Vincent, or even Donna. She had been a popular when she was at school. Now she was studying to be a beauty therapist, which accounted for the fact that she spent all her time at home practising her make-up in the mirror and painting her nails. We shared a closet – half each. Her half was overflowing. My half was all T-shirts and jeans.
“Can I try on one of your skirts?” I asked Donna.
“Why?” she looked suspicious.
“As long as you don’t ruin it.”
I pulled out her blue skirt with the black spots.
“Can I wear this to school?” I asked.
“Since when do you wear skirts?” Donna arched her over-pencilled brow at me.
“Please, Donna?” I went red in the face.
“OK,” she sighed. “I don’t like that one anyway – you can have it.”
I tried it on.
“It feels strange to have bare legs,” I said.
“You have lovely legs,” Nonna said.
“She has legs like hairy toothpicks!” Donna shot back.
“Donna, be nice to your sister!” Nonna Loretta warned.
“You need some shoes to wear with it,” Donna pointed out.
I looked at myself in the mirror.
“All the populars wear white trainers,” I said.
“Trainers?” Nonna asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Like white sports shoes.”
I looked at the shoes in my half of the closet.
“I can wear these I suppose.” I fished out my usual shoes – a pair of battered old red Converse and put them beside the skirt in my half of the closet.
The next morning, when I got home from helping Dad at the track, Nonna Loretta was waiting for me. She’d made me lunch and there was a box beside it on the kitchen table.
“What’s in the box?” I asked.
“Take a look,” she said.
They were white tennis shoes.
“I got them in a sports store on special,” Nonna told me. “That’s what they wear at school, yes?”
“They’re not the same,” I said. “These are tennis shoes.”
Nonna didn’t see the difference. “Try them on.”
They fitted me.
“There! They look very nice,” Nonna said.
On Monday I wore my new outfit to school. The skirt was a bit big so I put a belt on it. The shoes were so white they positively glared in the sunlight. I had English first period. I made sure I was early and got my usual seat at the front, but on the way out of class Jake caught up with me.
“Hey, Lola. Cool shoes.”
I felt sick. He was being totally sarcastic.
How could I have been so dumb? The shoes were totally wrong! I wished I could have just taken them off and walked around in bare feet, but that wasn’t allowed at school.
At lunchtime, I decided the best thing to do was go to the library so that no one would see my dumb white shoes. I was on my way across the playground when Jake spotted me. He was with Ty and Tori and Jessa. They began to walk towards me. There should have been a teacher on duty, but I couldn’t see one.
“Hey, Campione!” Jake cocked his head so that his hair flopped to one side then he pushed it back coolly with his right hand. It was his trademark gesture, like he thought he was in a boy band. He was so vain about that hair; you could tell he spent hours on it each morning before school. It was shaved short up the back and the fringe was long so that it grazed perfectly against his tanned cheekbones.
“Where’d you get your shoes?”
I kept my eyes down. I tried to keep walking past him, but he stepped in front of me and blocked my way.
I stepped to the left and Jake did too. Then to the right, and he matched me, like we were dancing. I could feel my face burning with embarrassment.
Jake stepped in real close to me and then he gave an exaggerated sniff, wrinkling up his nose.
“You might want to change those shoes again, Campione.” He grinned. “Because you still stink of horse poo!”
I heard the laughter buzzing in my ears and saw the smug look on Jake’s face. And that was when I threw the punch that broke his stupid nose.
Dad broke eleven bones in his racing career. You could see how his collarbone stuck out funny from the time when a horse went up on its hind legs in the starting gate and crushed him against the barrier. Another time he spent a week in intensive care after a three-year-old he was breezing spooked at a car horn. Dad fell and another horse running behind him struck him with a hoof on the head, shattering his helmet into pieces and knocking him out cold.
He fit right in with the other jockeys in the bodega, sitting around shirtless, comparing battle scars as they drank endless cups of black coffee. Most of them were on crazy diets to keep thin enough to make racing weight. Dad liked to “mess with their heads” by sitting right beside them at the communal dining table and ordering a big breakfast from Sherry who ran the kitchen – sausages, beans, eggs and fried bread. You should have seen the half-starved look on the jockeys’ faces as Dad sat there and ate his way through it all, groaning with pleasure and savouring every bite. He thought it was hilarious.
“I punished my body harder than any of them back in the day,” Dad would say. “Taking saunas for hours before a race to sweat out the water weight and drinking those disgusting diet shakes.” He would shake his head in disbelief. “Sometimes when I sat on a horse I was so weak from hunger I couldn’t even hold him back. No wonder I fell so many times.”
When I was little, instead of bedtime stories, I would get Dad to recount the tales behind all of his broken bones. He made a real drama out of it, acting out the whole race for me. He could recall every name of every single horse and its jockey, all the details of how he rode the race and where he was in the field at the moment he fell.
The best story by far was the one about the missing fourth finger on his left hand.
“The horse was called Forget-me-not,” Dad would begin. “And when I got given the ride on him, Lola, I was punching the air with the thrill of it! He was this big, black stallion, pure muscle and power, and he was the flat-out favourite in the Belmont Stakes. My cut of the purse would come to enough money to buy my own stables.”
He would be telling me this as he sat on the side of my bed and I would be propped up on my pillows beside him in my pyjamas, wide-eyed, waiting for the rest of it as if I had never heard it before, even though I’d been told the story a thousand times.
“Anyway,” Dad would continue, “the week before the race I’m breezing Forget-me-not, working him alongside a couple of other horses to get his blood up, when he gets crowded on the rail and panics, and I don’t know what gets into his head, but all of a sudden he tries to jump the barrier! He breaks the whole railing and I must have been knocked out cold, because the next thing I know they’re wheeling me into the hospital and I can feel this real sharp pain in my left hand. So they take me straight up to x-ray and the doctors take a look and it turns out my finger is broken in three places. Must have hit the rail as I went down.”
I look at the missing place where Dad’s finger used to be.
“So they cut it off?”
Dad shakes his head. “Not straight away. They tried strapping it up with tape, and said it just needed time to heal. But I had the Belmont the next week and that tape was no good. Even with a glove over the top I couldn’t close the finger and grip the reins without screaming in pain. So I went back, told the doctors I needed painkillers, but the drugs they gave me, all they did was make me woozy. So I went back to them again, and do you know what I said?”
I did know, because I had heard this story before. And not just from Dad. I’d heard it from the other jockeys in the bodega. In the version my dad told me, he walked into hospital and insisted they remove his finger so he could ride.
But the way the other jockeys told it was even more gruesome. They said the surgeons refused to amputate and so my dad went back to the stables and got a wood block and a splitter axe and cut the finger off himself. Then, with his hand wrapped in a gamgee horse bandage, he caught a cab back to Jamaica Hills, showed the doctors the bloodied stump and told them to go ahead and stitch it up.
Dad rode in the Belmont Stakes that weekend minus his finger. Forget-me-not came in dead last.
I’m telling you this because you need to know the sort of man my dad is. So now you’ll understand why I couldn’t bring myself to go home and admit to him I’d been suspended from school.
Fernando was sweeping out the aisle between the loose boxes when I reached the stables.
“Lola!” he gave me a friendly wave. “You lookin’ for Ray? He’s long gone.”
Dad finished working the last of the horses by midday. He’d have been up since four a.m. and he’d be home having his afternoon nap by now, just like I’d told Mr Azzaretti.
“I came to see the horses,” I said.
Fernando looked at his watch. “No school today?”
“I finished early.” This wasn’t exactly a lie. “Can I help muck out the stalls?”
Fernando leant against his broom. “Maybe you can take out Ginger? I was gonna put him in the walker. You can do it while I finish up here?”
“Sure,” I said.
In the tack room I threw down my backpack on a chair and gave it a sideways glance, thinking about that note, shoved down deep against my textbooks. Then I went over to the wall where all the halters were lined up and grabbed one.
Ginger had his head out over the door of the stall, waiting for me.
“Hey, Ginge.” I gave him an affectionate scratch on his muzzle, but he flinched away from me. He wasn’t very friendly. Most of the horses in Dad’s stables were grumpy, to tell the truth. Ginge was the worst of them all – he was a biter. Last week he had bitten Tony the groom’s finger when he went to slip on his halter, pretty much taking the skin clean off with his teeth. Dad said Tony had screamed like a girl – which I found insulting because I don’t scream.
Anyway, Tony should have known better because everyone knew you had to watch Ginge like a hawk when you were tacking him up. All I needed to do today to put him on the walker was put his halter on and lead him across the yard. The walker was this big circular machine – the horses went inside the cage and you turned the engine on and the walker kind of scooched them along from behind, so they had to keep going in circles, a bit like a playground roundabout, turning them round and round. It gave them exercise on days when there was no jockey to ride them.
I was about to slip the halter on when I had a much better idea.
I stuck my head around the corner of the loose box. “I’m gonna jog Ginge, OK?”
Fernando stopped digging at the straw. “You what? Since when are you riding track, Lola?”
“It’s OK,” I told him. “Dad said I could do workouts – not on Sonic and Snickers, but just with the horses that aren’t the big shots, like Ginge and Cally.”
I liked this lie. It sounded believable that Dad would let me ride the horses that were pretty much already failing as three-year-olds. The other day I’d heard him say that Tiger, our moggie cat, had more chance of winning the Preakness than Ginger did.
Fernando shrugged. “Easier to put him in the walker, but if you want to ride, kid, and your dad’s OK with it, you go right ahead.”
Ginge had his ears back the whole time as I tacked him up, looking real moody about it, as if he’d been having a nice quiet time before I interrupted his day. But once we were actually out from the stalls and on the track, he obviously felt differently. His ears pricked forward and with each stride he gave a quick, enthusiastic snort like he was humming a tune to himself.
I made him walk at first, until he got used to the sights and sounds. There was a ride-on mower trimming the infield, and he spooked a little as it went past so I had to reassure him. Ginge usually raced in blinkers because he was prone to spooking and being distracted. I let him have a good hard look at that ride-on and then I clucked him up to a trot.
Racehorses are like athletes. They have a workout programme devised just for them. One day they’ll be jogging, just trotting along to loosen up their muscles. The next day they’ll be breezing – going almost flat out at a gallop, but still not quite at racing speed. I’d told Fernando I was gonna jog, but by the time I reached the back straight, I decided it wouldn’t do any harm to try Ginge at a gallop.
I rocked up high in the saddle and put my legs on, asking him to go faster, and the trot became a canter. Ginge was snorting and huffing beneath me, and when I urged him on some more he reluctantly picked up the pace into a slow, loping gallop. That was Ginge all right. He’d never won a race and it drove Dad mad because he knew Ginge had speed in him. He was just stubborn about showing it.
“Come on, Ginge,” I coaxed him. “Let me see what you’ve got.”
Nothing. I was hustling him along, kicking and pumping my arms, but Ginge refused to go any faster.
We rode almost three furlongs like that and then, as we swept around the far side of the track, I heard this almighty crack. The ride-on mower had backfired. It sounded just like a gunshot and it put a shock through Ginge like a lightning bolt. He spooked violently and I felt him suddenly skitter out sideways from underneath me. For a sickening moment I thought I was gonna fall, but somehow I managed to stay with him and get my balance back. He was so strong against my hands, stretching out flat at a gallop. I don’t know what made me do it, but instead of trying to pull him back, I let him run. “Go on, then! Go!”
Ginge’s hooves pounded out like thunder against the soft loam, as I perched up there on his back, urging him to go faster and then a little more again until we were flying.
The wind was so strong in my face it stung my eyes. I had tears streaming down my cheeks, and even though they weren’t real ones, it felt so good to cry. I was racing the wind and everything that had happened that day got left behind in my wake and I was myself again and I was free.
Back around by the exit to the stables I pulled Ginge up at last and brought him back to a jog. He was blowing so hard that I had to do another whole lap of the track at a walk to cool him down, and then I leapt down and led him back to the stables.
“That didn’t look like no jog to me.” Fernando glared at me as I brought Ginge through to his stall. “This horse has to race on the weekend, you better not be messing with his training.”
I shook my head. “Sorry, Fernando, I tried to pull him up, but he took off on me and I couldn’t hold him.”
Fernando looked at me with an air of resignation. “You think I’m a fool, Lola? I know what you were doin’ out there.”
He took Ginger’s reins and I thought he was in a bad mood with me until he cast a look back over his shoulder and smiled. “You ride track real good. You look just like Ray out there.”
Just like my dad.
That was all I ever wanted to be.
My brother Johnny glared at the spaghetti on his plate. “C’mon. Are you kidding me?”
“What’s your problem now?” Dad asked.
Johnny poked at it with his fork. “Is that all I get? Where’s the rest of it?”
“It’s enough.” My dad ignored his complaint and carried on dishing up meatballs to the rest of us. “You know the deal. You want to ride track, you gotta watch your diet.”
“I do!” Johnny insisted.
“Sure,” my dad grunted. “So that must be why I saw you at Dunkin’ Donuts on the way home after workouts this morning.”
Vincent gave a hoot of delight. “Busted!”
“Yeah, laugh it up, brother!” Johnny jabbed his fork at him.
I kept cutting into my meatball.
“You’re very quiet this evening, Lola,” Dad said.
“I’m hungry, that’s all,” I said.
I was hoping he wouldn’t ask me about school because if he asked me straight up then I would have to confess that I had been suspended. That note from Mr Azzaretti was still there, glowing out at me like neon from my school bag in the corner of the room.
My dad cast a glance at Nonna, as if she might have an insight as to why I was so silent, but she gave a shrug as if to say she had no idea and so Dad let it drop.
“Loretta.” He cleared his throat. “You remember that Ace of Diamonds filly that Frankie was training last season?”
Nonna nodded. “You mean the bay with the white socks on the hind legs?”
“That’s her,” my dad said. “Well, you always said you thought she had star quality. Frankie thought so too. He sent her off to Lance Barton’s stables in Kentucky and the word is she’s been breaking three-year-old records on the training track there in every single workout.”
“Is she ready to race?” Nonna asked.
My dad nodded. “This Thursday at Churchill Downs is her maiden. Frankie’s told me on the down-low that she’s a sure bet to win it. And the odds, Loretta.” My dad’s voice dropped to a low whisper. “She’s paying out at seventy-three to one.”
Nonna Loretta’s face fell.
“Absolutely not, Raymond!”
“Listen –” my dad began, but he was cut dead by Nonna.
“No, Ray, you listen to me! How many rules do we have in this family?”
There was silence around the table. None of us dared to speak when Nonna was in full flight like this.
“Two rules, Ray!” Nonna sure had a powerful voice for a little old lady. “Two rules that the Campiones live by. We don’t bet on horses and we don’t tell lies.”
I felt myself curl up a little, trying to make myself smaller as she said this.
“But, Loretta!” My dad bounced back. “This horse, she’s a machine. She’s gonna win by ten lengths and nobody will ever see it coming! And seventy-three to one! Maybe even more. The bookies will –”
“The bookies will take your money because that’s what bookies do,” Nonna Loretta said stonily.
My dad took a deep breath. “I’m telling you …”
“No, Ray,” Nonna said. “I’m telling you. The racing business is how we make our money, but betting on races is different. That’s a sure-fire way of losing the lot. We’ve made it this far without betting on horses, haven’t we?”
My dad sighed. “All right, all right. I thought, just this once …”
Nonna’s scowl deepened.
“OK,” Dad said. “I get it. No betting, period. OK?”
“Aww, c’mon,” Donna groaned. “Can’t he place just a little bet, Nonna? There are these new high heels that are on sale right now at Macy’s that I would love …”
Donna saw the look on Nonna Loretta’s face and shut her mouth real quick.
I didn’t say a word. I was just glad that the whole argument had taken the attention away from me and while they’d all been talking, I’d been busy cleaning my plate.
“May I be excused, please?” I asked.
“You’ve finished already?” Nonna raised an eyebrow.
“Sure, Lola,” Dad said. “Have you got homework tonight?”
“No,” I said truthfully. “No, I don’t.”
As I left the table I heard Nonna Loretta ask my dad, “So that filly Frankie tipped you off on. What’s her racing name?”
“Aces High,” my dad replied.
It was a good name, I thought. I don’t know much about playing poker but I’m pretty sure that aces high usually wins.
The next morning I said goodbye to Nonna and started walking to school. I took the usual cut-through at Sutter Street, clambering through the fence into the park. And that was where I stopped. I sat there on the swing set, rocking back and forth and thinking about what to do.
I had never told a lie like this before. The problem was, I had left it too long now to come clean and had made it worse. I got down off the swings and sat inside the playground’s plastic crawly tunnel for a bit, worried that I would get seen by someone if I stayed out in the open for too long. Then I realised I was acting ridiculous. I couldn’t turn up here every day and hide in a plastic tube. I had to tell the truth. I had to go and talk to Dad.
It was almost ten o’clock by the time I reached the track. Dad would have finished working the last of the horses by now. He would be back in his office doing the paperwork.
Dad called it an office, but really it was just a loose box like the ones the horses used, except with a desk and a filing cabinet in it, instead of straw on the floor.
I was walking past the stalls when I heard the sound of hoof beats behind me.
It was Johnny and Vincent. They had just finished a workout; both their horses were sweating and blowing.
“I’ve got to see Dad,” I said, ignoring them and walking towards the office.
“I wouldn’t go in if I were you,” Vincent said.
I kept walking.
“Mr Azzaretti is in there.”
I turned around. “Are you serious?”
“What’s going on, Lola?” Johnny asked. “It must be pretty bad if old man Azzaretti is making house calls.”
Johnny and Vincent were always in trouble at school, but never once had they been in enough trouble for Mr Azzaretti to turn up at our place. That achievement was mine alone.
“Maybe you should go home, Lola?” Johnny looked worried. “We’ll tell Dad you were —”
As he said this, the door to the office opened and Dad walked out, with Mr Azzaretti beside him.
Mr Azzaretti looked relieved to see me. “Well, at least we don’t have to file a missing persons report,” he said.
Dad, on the other hand, looked furious. “Do you know the trouble you’ve put Mr Azzaretti to? He came all this way down to see me, taking time out of his day because he wanted to know how you were doing and why I hadn’t contacted the school about your suspension. So I say ‘What suspension? My Lola’s at school right now’ –”
“Dad,” I broke in. “I’m sorry. I know I should have said something sooner, but I was coming to tell you now.”
“Anyway,” Mr Azzaretti said. “I don’t see any reason to involve the school further now that you’ve turned up. It’s family business as far as I’m concerned.” He turned to my dad. “I’ll leave this with you, Ray.”
My dad shook his hand. “Thanks, Arlo, you know how much I appreciate you coming by.”
“She’s a good kid, Ray,” Mr Azzaretti said, as if I wasn’t standing right there. “The brightest in her year. I hate to see her mess it up, that’s all.”
He gave me a very stern look as he said this, and then he turned and walked away. No one said anything and the only sound was Mr Azzaretti’s shoes in the corridor until he was gone.
“Get in the car, Lola,” my dad said. “We’re going home.”
I was prepared for Dad to tear strips off me. What I wasn’t able to handle was the silent treatment. All the way home he said nothing. It wasn’t until we were getting out of the car that he spoke to me.
“Why did you do it, Lola?”
“Because he was bullying me,” I said, tears welling up in my eyes. I hated crying. I never cried. “He was teasing me and he wouldn’t stop, no matter what, and then he started going on about my shoes and they were the ones that Nonna bought me and I just couldn’t stand it any more and I hit him.”
“You should have told me about it,” my dad said. “You know how lucky we are that his parents aren’t pressing charges?”
“I’m sorry.” I was sobbing now. I thought he was gonna be furious, but he just put his arm around me and gave me a hug.
“My girl can throw some punch, huh?” He ruffled my hair. “That Mayo kid won’t mess with you again, I bet.”
When Johnny and Vincent found out, they both thought it was hilarious. At dinner, they started calling me “slugger”. Like “Hey, slugger, can you pass the salt?” “Hey, slugger, want some mashed potato?”
“Enough! This is not a laughing matter,” Dad warned them.
“Why aren’t you punishing her?” Donna said, glaring at me. “She’s always getting away with stuff.”
“I got suspended!” I shot back at her.
Nonna gave me a pat on the hand. “Lola was only defending herself,” she said. “You take on a Campione and that’s what you get. That boy is lucky I don’t go around to his house and break his nose for him again!”
I was suspended for the rest of term, which was another three weeks and then it was Summer Vacation – almost three months without school! Dad had tried to talk Mr Azzaretti into letting me back sooner, and he would have allowed it, but he said the school board made the rules and there was no way around it. I would have to stay home and be sent homework assignments and class work so that I didn’t slip behind.
“If I do my school work in the afternoons can I come to the track with you in the mornings?” I asked Dad. “I can help Fernando and I could even work some of the horses.”
Dad shook his head. “You’re not riding track, Lola, that’s final.”
I was going to tell him that I’d breezed Ginger the other day, but I wasn’t sure whether this would convince him to let me ride, or get me into more trouble. As it turned out, I didn’t need to argue because Nonna stepped up to take my side.
“You should let her ride, Ray,” she said gently. “Lola is a good rider, she’s ready for it. Besides, what else is she going to do? Sit around the house all day?”
“She can stay home and hit the books, that’s what she can do,” my dad replied. “You don’t become a doctor by racing horses around a track.”
“I don’t want to be a doctor,” I mumbled.
My dad looked hard at me. “Lola, you know what Mr Azzaretti told me? He said you’re the brightest kid in his whole school and if you maintain your grade point average like it is now, you would have the choice of any college you want. You could be a doctor or a lawyer or an astronaut, or the President of the United States, but the one thing you’re not going to be is a jockey. Do you understand me?”
“I didn’t realise being bright would get me punishment,” I said.
“That’s a lot of backchat for a girl who just got suspended,” my dad replied. And I knew I had pushed him too far.
There was no point in getting up early the next day, but I was out of bed by six anyway, and I had all my study done by midday. There was nothing else to do except watch TV. Our TV room had a big overstuffed sofa and I was curled up on it watching a reality show on repeat when Nonna came in.
“Where’s the remote?” She began hunting under the magazines on the coffee table. She looked anxious, which was unlike her.
“Here, Nonna.” I had it under my cushion.
She took it from me and switched the TV to the racing channel.
“Race six at Churchill Downs,” the commentator was saying. “The three-year-old maiden stakes. And the horses are heading into the start gates now …”
“There she is.” Nonna nodded at the screen. “Number four in the yellow and green silks. What do you think, Lola?”
I looked at the horse with the number four on her saddle blanket. She was a big bay with two white hind socks.
“That’s Aces High?” I asked. “The horse that you wouldn’t let Dad bet on?”
“That’s her,” Nonna confirmed.
I looked hard at the TV screen.
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s hard to tell without seeing her in real life.”
“That’s right,” Nonna said. “You’ve got to be able to look them in the eye, Loretta.”
She had called me by my full name – Loretta – which she never usually did. I had been named after her, but most of the time everyone in the house called me Lola to avoid confusion. I figured it was because Nonna was so busy focusing on the horses, she wasn’t thinking straight.
“I’ve seen this filly up close when she was stabled here at Aqueduct and she is very special,” Nonna told me, staring at the TV. “When she steps out onto the track you cannot take your eyes off her. She’s got perfect conformation. The best I’ve ever seen. And powerful too for such a young horse …”
The commentator had been reeling off facts and figures about the horses in the field and now I heard him say the filly’s name. “Aces High is going into the start gates now. She’s a well-bred filly who got started at Frankie Di Marco’s stables in Ozone Park, New York before she was brought here to Kentucky …”
“Look at the muscle!” Nonna Loretta said. “Lance must have been doing hillwork to build up her hindquarters. She’s even better than I remember her.”
I wondered why Nonna Loretta cared so much. After all, she’d told Dad point-blank that he couldn’t bet on the filly.
“They’re off!” The commentator’s voice barked out from the TV as the barriers opened. Suddenly I felt sick with nerves, although I didn’t quite know why.
“Andare! Aces High!” Nonna shouted. “Andare! Andare!”
She was still yelling at the TV in Italian as the horses swept around the first furlong marker. I could see Aces High halfway up in the pack, pinned in by the railings.
“She needs to get out wide so she can make a move,” I said.
Nonna shook her head. “She’s sitting just fine where she is for now. That filly is a stayer. She has a strong finish in her.”
The fourth furlong marker was the halfway point in the race and by then the horses that had taken the early lead were flagging a little, but Aces High looked like she was cruising along. She was still boxed in by the railing though, and now Nonna looked worried.
“What is that ragazzo on her back doing?” Nonna was clasping her hands together anxiously. “He needs to move now! Andare!”
And then it happened. It was as if the jockey had heard my nonna’s instructions through the television because suddenly he made his move. Not to the outside as I expected, but closer to the rail. A gap opened up there and he saw it and took his chance. With a quick wave of his whip near the filly’s face just to show her it was time to go, he asked her to step up the pace and she responded instantly, surging forward. She was so quick to accelerate that if you didn’t have your eyes on her you would have missed the moment. I saw the flash of brilliance as she lengthened out and began to move and with three quick strides she had slipped through the hole and was powering ahead of the two horses who’d had her boxed-in just moments before. Then she had overtaken them both and was in the clear. There were only three horses in front of her now and three furlongs to go.
“Go, Aces High!” I was screaming at the TV. “Go!”
It was like those other horses were standing still, the way her strides ate up the ground between them, closing the gap, passing the horse in front of her and then the next one until there was just one horse ahead of her coming into the home straight.
“You can do it!” My nonna had her hands clasped together as if she was praying. I was jumping up and down like crazy. “Go! Go! Go!”
“Look at this filly coming up the inside!” the commentator was shouting. “She’s taking it all the way home! Aces High has taken the lead and at the finish post it is Aces High by a full length! Aces High wins the Maiden!”
Nonna Loretta fell strangely silent. She was still staring at the screen.
I heard the front door slam. And then Dad entered the room. His face was flushed with anger. He saw the TV screen.
“You were watching that?” he asked Nonna. He looked like he was going to burst a vein in his forehead. “I heard the whole thing on the car radio. I told you, Loretta! I told you! She won the race just like I said she would! If it weren’t for you …”
“If it wasn’t for me,” Nonna finished his sentence for him, “then we wouldn’t have just won seventy-three thousand dollars.”
Dad was stunned. “What are you talking about?”
On the TV screen Aces High was being led into the winner’s enclosure and a wreath of roses was being draped around her neck. Nonna couldn’t take her eyes off her. “I bet on the horse,” she said. “One thousand dollars at seventy-three to one.”
“You did what?” My dad was confused. “Where did you get a thousand dollars?”
“I pawned the jewellery,” Nonna said, still staring at the TV. “My rings …”
My dad looked at her in total disbelief. “You told me that I couldn’t bet. You said it was the rules …”
“Oh, Raymond,” Nonna said calmly. “Those rules are for you – not for me!”
She ignored his speechless wonder and turned to me.
“Lola,” she said. “I was wondering … since you have no school right now, how would you like to take a trip with me next week?”
“A trip, Nonna?” I said. “Where are we going?”
“We’re going home,” she said.
“Yes.” She had a look in her eye like a kid gets at Christmas time.
“Home to Italy.”
Our house in Ozone Park was so close to JFK airport that I could look out of my bedroom window at night and see the plane lights above me in the sky.
Now I was one of those lights, shining in the inky darkness above the city.
“Lola.” Nonna clasped my hand as she peered out from the window seat. “Look how big it is. It goes on for ever!”
Nonna had never seen New York from above before.
“When I arrived from Italy, I came by boat,” she told me. “I remember I had just enough money to buy a third class berth. The meals were free, thank goodness, because I didn’t have any money left for food.
“When I got off the boat at Ellis Island they asked me all these questions and I was so scared they would put me on the boat straight back to Italy again, but I was strong and healthy and I could speak a little English, so even though I didn’t have a cent to take care of myself they let me through.”
“Were you all alone?” I asked. I knew the answer to this question before I even asked it. Nonna had told me the tale of how she arrived in New York many times. But I loved the story and I made her tell it again and again, always prompting her in the right places.
“I didn’t know a soul,” Nonna confirmed. “And I had no idea where to go. New York was a very big city, even back then. I asked the man at the immigration counter where I could find horses. Well, he said I should go to Aqueduct because it was the finest racetrack on the East Coast and right here in this very city!
“You wouldn’t have recognised it, Lola. Aqueduct was a beautiful place back in those days, so elegant! All the stables were brand new and on race days everyone in the grandstand was dressed in their best clothes like ladies and gentlemen.
“I went down to the stables and I asked around for horses to ride, but they were shocked that a sixteen-year-old girl wanted to be a jockey. None of the trainers would employ me. So I took the only job I could get, at the clubhouse as a waitress. On my first day, in front of everyone, I dropped a whole tray and all the cutlery and the coffee cups went flying and this nice young man bent down and helped me pick it all up. He introduced himself as Alberto and that was how I met your grandfather.”
“Was he working there too?” I asked.
“No,” Nonna said. “He was an apprentice jockey. We got to talking and he told me they needed someone to ride trackwork at his yard. He took me to the stables and gave me some silks to wear. We tucked my hair out of the way so that no one knew I was a girl and I mounted up on this big bay Thoroughbred and rode out on the track like I’d been doing it all my life. The head trainer saw me ride and it didn’t matter that I was a girl any more, he gave me the job …”
“Ma’am?” It was the flight attendant. “Would you like a cup of tea or coffee?”
Nonna looked up at her. “Young lady,” she said. “How long is this flight going to take?”
“New York to Rome is eight hours exactly, ma’am,” the young woman said.
My nonna looked amazed. “It took thirteen days last time!”
“When was that, ma’am?”
“1945,” Nonna replied. “I haven’t been home since.”
The attendant smiled at me. “And is this your granddaughter, ma’am?”
“Yes,” Nonna replied. “Do you know she’s never been to Italy before?”
“I’ve never been anywhere before, Nonna,” I pointed out.
“Are you staying in Rome?”
“Oh no!” Nonna said. “Rome is too busy – a crazy place. We’re going to my town, to Siena. Have you been there?”
“No,” the attendant replied. “But I hear it’s very beautiful.”
“It is. The most beautiful place in the world,” Nonna said softly, and I felt her grip tighten, like a child who suddenly panics and strengthens their hold on their mom’s hand at the edge of a busy intersection.
“It has been a very long time since I went home, Lola,” she murmured.
The attendant brought me an orange juice and a little bag with two tiny sweet biscuits as well. I wanted to eat them, but I decided to put them in my bag to take home. I had kept my boarding pass too. I was gathering souvenirs. I couldn’t believe that I was actually going to Italy. Mostly I couldn’t believe that Dad had agreed to let me go.
Dad is overprotective of me. Nonna says it’s understandable because I was only four when Mom died. But I’ve always had Nonna to look after me.
Dad refused at first, but Nonna wore him down. “Why not?” Nonna said. “Lola’s got no school. What else is she doing for the next month, Ray?”
“That’s not the point,” my dad said.
“Why can’t Nonna take me too?” Donna whined.
“Don’t you get involved!” my dad snapped. “Anyway, you’ve got beauty school exams.”
Donna glared at me. “I don’t see why Lola gets to go. She gets suspended from school – and her punishment is a trip to Italy?”
“Lola is coming to help take care of me,” Nonna said. “I need a companion.”
“Loretta.” My dad rolled his eyes. “You don’t need anyone to take care of you!”
“I’m an 85-year-old woman,” Nonna shot back. “And you want to send me off halfway across the world on my own?”
“Mom,” said my dad, sighing. “What’s the hurry all of a sudden? Why don’t you wait? We can all go together. It’ll be a family holiday, maybe at Christmas …”
“Christmas is too far away when you are my age, Raymond,” Nonna said. “Besides, we can’t all go at once. You know someone has to stay with the horses.”
Dad began to grumble, but Nonna was stubborn, there was no way she was changing her mind. “All I want is this one last journey home,” she told him. “And I want my Piccolina to come with me.”
I am a New York kid, so all the people and traffic didn’t make much of an impression on me. Rome was just another busy city like back home. What knocked me out though was how pretty it all was, all the monuments and statues. Everywhere you looked there were sculptures of naked gods and chariots and horses, some as big as buildings, made out of smooth grey stone.
I stared out the window at the gods as we drove to the railway station. Nonna was rattling off instructions to the cab driver, her hands waving wildly. I can speak a little Italian, but Nonna talked so fast I couldn’t make out a word. At the station she hustled us through the crowd, bought our tickets and guided us through the terminal and onto the right train. That first train took us through the dingy suburban outskirts of the city and then we were clear of the buildings and in the countryside. Two hours later we changed to a different train and soon the view became nothing but rows of grape vines and hillsides of olive trees zipping by.
By now we had been travelling for almost a whole day and I had barely slept so I was exhausted. The jetlag made me feel weird, too, like there was an ocean tide inside me, ebbing back and forth, making me almost seasick. By the time we got off the train at Siena and into a taxi I could barely keep my eyes open.
“Are you sleepy, Piccolina?” Nonna gave me a cuddle. “Don’t worry, we are almost there …”
I must have fallen asleep in the taxi because the next thing I knew, Nonna was shaking me softly by the shoulder.
“Piccolina, wake up … We’re here.”
I opened my eyes. We were in the middle of an olive grove, bumping along a narrow gravel driveway. Ahead of us, I could see a row of tall conifers forming a sentry, and as we drove past them our destination came into view.
It was an old stone villa, two storeys high, with shutters on the windows and overgrown yellow roses smothering the arch of the front doorway.
“Is this a hotel?” I asked.
“No, Lola.” Nonna Loretta’s voice was quiet. “This is my home. My family have owned this land for centuries.”
“You used to live here?” I peered out the taxi window at the villa. It looked kind of rundown. “Who lives here now?”
“Nobody,” Nonna said. “It’s been empty a long time.”
Nonna got me to lift our suitcases from the trunk while she counted out money for the cab driver. They were speaking Italian and I think they must have argued about the tip because he barely waited for me to get the last bag out before driving away, dust flying up from his tyres.
“Look underneath the geranium, Lola,” Nonna instructed, pointing to the bright red flower in the terracotta pot on the doorstep. “The key should be there.”
I tilted the pot. There was the key, just like Nonna said: black iron, covered in dirt.
I held it out to her, but Nonna shook her head, almost like she was reluctant to touch it. “You do it, Piccolina.”
The door was arched, made of solid wood with these big wrought iron hinges, like an old-fashioned gaol. I put the key in and tried to turn it.
“It doesn’t fit,” I said. I felt like we were breaking into someone’s house. But if it wasn’t her house then how did Nonna know where the key would be?
“You have to jiggle it in the lock to make it work sometimes,” Nonna said.
“It must have been locked up for a long time,” I said.
“It has,” Nonna agreed. “No one has lived here since my mama died.”
I had just about given up on making the key work when something in the lock clicked, the key turned at last and the door swung open.
You know how a jewel box will look quite plain on the outside and then you open it up and there is a shock of pink silk? The villa was like that. All grey stone outside, but when I opened that door the sunlight flooded in on an entranceway full of colour. The floors were patterned in the most brilliant blue and turquoise Moroccan tiles and to the left the tiles continued up the staircase where the wall had been painted emerald green with a mural of a giant tree, tangles of black branches covered in pink roses spreading out in every direction all the way to the landing. The other walls downstairs were painted in a mind-bending harlequin pattern of brilliant orange, black and white diamonds, although the pattern was barely visible because of all the oil paintings hung on top. There were loads of them – all different sizes, some in gilt frames and others in plain wood. They were daubed in thick, richly coloured oil paint and nearly all of them were of horses. In between the paintings there were framed black and white photographs, also of horses. A massive glass trophy case filled up most of the back wall, its shelves crammed with even more photographs, rosettes and tarnished silver cups and trophies and medals.
There were swords crossed on the wall beside it, real ones, and at the foot of the stairs a suit of armour stood sentry draped in an orange, black and white flag.
“Nonna! Are you serious? Look at this place! Is this really your home?”
Nonna didn’t reply. I looked for her and realised she hadn’t entered the house. She was still standing on the doorstep, as if some invisible force held her back.
“Nonna?” I walked towards her and took her hand. She squeezed her fingers tight around mine and then she took a deep breath and stepped across the threshold.
“I haven’t stood in this room for almost seventy years,” she said looking around in amazement, “and yet it is all the same, just as I remember. A little smaller maybe …”
She let go of my hand and walked straight up to the suit of armour so that she was standing face to face with it, raised her tiny fist, knocked on the helmet then prised the visor open. “Good day, Donatello, I am home!” she said.
She turned to me with a smile. “My brother tried to climb inside him once when we were very little and got his head stuck. We had to use olive oil on Donatello to get him out. Mama was furious!”
“Donatello was your brother?” I asked.
Nonna Loretta laughed. “Donatello is the armour! My brother’s name was Carlo.”
I knew Nonna had a brother, but she had never said his name before. She hardly ever said anything about her family. She loved to tell stories, my nonna, but they always began from the day she arrived in New York with her duffel bag at Ellis Island. Whenever I asked her about her old life in Italy she had always claimed that she was too young to remember any of it.
“It is lost in the mists,” she would say dismissively if I pestered her. “Who can remember what happened so many years ago? And what does it matter anyway?”
The one thing I knew for sure about Nonna’s brother was that he had died in the war. My dad told me once that Nonna was very sad about her brother’s death and that was the real reason why she never liked to talk about Italy.
Nonna creaked the visor shut on Donatello and rearranged the flag that was draped over his shoulder. Then she turned to me. “Fetch the suitcases would you, Piccolina?” she said.
I struggled up the stairs with our luggage, stopping on the landing to drop the bags and rest. Up close, the painted tree was slightly terrifying, the way the tangle of black branches seemed to reach out of the wall to grab at you.
“Was this picture on the wall when you lived here?” I asked.
“The tree?” Nonna said. “Yes, my mama painted it. It is strange, when I look at it I can feel her presence so strong, even though she is gone.”
“What was she like?” I asked.
“Oh, you know, she was my mama,” Nonna said, as if that explained everything.
“Was she an artist?”
“She was good with her hands, painting and cooking and sewing. She cared very much for Carlo and me, but she was a very opinionated woman and obstinate too …” Nonna gave a chuckle. “I could be speaking of myself, couldn’t I? Perhaps that is where I get it from!”
Upstairs the paint along the hallway had begun to flake off and the plaster beneath it was crumbling. A thick layer of dust covered everything. We would have to get the place cleaned up, but at least it was liveable. Nonna opened the linen cupboard and began to pull out pillows and duvets from under a dust sheet, while I washed in the bathroom and discovered that the taps only ran cold and not hot water because there was no electricity.
“You will have my old bedroom,” Nonna told me. It was the first one at the top of the landing, with walls painted in dusky pink with crimson stripes. The budding bough of a tree bloomed out of one corner of the room and a white peacock perched on the bough with its tail spread out beneath it.
“Mama painted it pink with stripes and then I asked her to add the tree and the peacock,” Nonna said. “She never got the peacock quite right. You see how his head is too big?”
“It’s amazing,” I said. “It must have been the most incredible house to grow up in.”
“It was,” Nonna said. “I was very happy here.” But her eyes didn’t look happy at all. They were shining with tears.
“I’ll fetch you another blanket. You must be tired, Piccolina,” she murmured. “We’ll make the bed up and you can get some sleep.”
The jetlag that had begun to set in at the train station was like nothing I had ever felt before and despite the fact that it was still light outside I was suddenly too exhausted to stay awake any longer.
I must have fallen asleep thinking about that mural above the stairs, because in my dreams I was walking through a forest, only the trees weren’t real, they were painted ones, and when their black branches touched my skin they clung to me like seaweed. I was trying to navigate my way through when I realised that I wasn’t alone. There was something in the woods, stalking me. I began pushing my way through the trees, my heart pounding, and the creature sensed my fear and gave chase. I could hear it crashing through the undergrowth right behind me and I was running, but it was like my legs were stuck in treacle, a low animal growl growing louder, gaining with every stride.
I looked back over my shoulder, hoping that I would see nothing, but the creature was right there, monstrous and bristling, cold grey eyes fixed on me.
It was a wolf. A female with two little cubs at her feet. They followed her obediently, although she ignored them because her focus was completely on me.
I ran harder, my breath coming in frantic gasps. The grey wolf was gaining, I could hear her closing in, smell the hot animal stench of her.
Suddenly, in the middle of the forest, a stone building rose up right in front of me and I had to turn so fast to stop from running into it that I fell. I dropped to my knees on the ground which I realised was not a forest floor at all but hard, cold tiles, the same as the turquoise and blue ones downstairs. I was trying to get up again when the wolf leapt on top of me. She knocked me flat to the floor, sprawling me out on my back, her paws on my chest pinning me down and her great, grey menacing head hanging over my face so that I could see the saliva dripping from her teeth.
And then she spoke.
“Loyal are the people of the Wolf. Bravest of all the seventeen,” she growled. She came closer so that I could smell her fetid breath on my face. “You will need to run faster than this to win little one. You must prove yourself worthy to bring home the banner.”
She was crushing me. I could feel this enormous weight on my chest and I struggled with all my might to get her off me. I was shouting and screaming and the branches were alive and tangling around me. Then I realised they were not branches at all but bedsheets and I opened my eyes. The wolf was gone and I was wide-awake and starving.
I looked in all the cupboards downstairs but of course there was no food in the house.
“You’ll have to go into town, Lola,” Nonna said. “It’s not far from here – about twenty minutes’ walk.”
She took out a pen and a piece of paper from her handbag. “Here is the road.” Nonna drew me a map. “You go along until you see a small stream with a narrow bridge over it, and then you turn the corner and go over another bridge and you reach an avenue of tall trees … they take you to an arched gateway called Porta Ovile.”
She sketched the city walls around the archway with crenellations on top of it like a castle. “Behind the high walls follow your nose through the streets and you’ll reach the piazza. There’s a marketplace with stalls selling fruit and bread and cheese. You can buy us food there.”
“Nonna,” I said. “You haven’t lived here for seventy years. I don’t think there’s still going to be a market stall in the same place there was when you were a girl.”
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