The Lost Years



The powerful, silver-grey stretch limo, familiar in itself however unusual - but less than unique - on an island of ancient Fiats and sputtering Lambrettas, bumped carefully over shifting cobbles under a baroque stone archway into the courtyard of Julio's Cafe and Restaurant in the eastern quarter of Palermo. The lone survivor of a World War II bombing raid, the walled enclosure was once the smallest of four gardens containing a middling villa. The other three gardens were rubble-strewn craters; only their outer walls had been repaired, to create something of an acceptable fagade in the district of the Via Delia Magione.

The courtyard was set out like a fan-shaped checker-board: square tables decked with white covers, standing on black flags of volcanic stone; the whole split down the middle by a 'hinge' of vehicles parked herringbone-fashion on what was once a broad carriageway. A palm-fringed gap in the wall at the point of the quadrant marked the vehicular exit into the dusky evening.

Some three dozen patrons sat eating, drinking, chattering, though not too energetically; a pair of sweating, white-aproned waiters ran to and fro between the tables, the bar and kitchens, each serving his own triangle of customers. Even for the third week in May the weather was unseasonably warm; at eight-thirty in the evening the temperature was up in the high seventies.

The east-facing wall of the courtyard contained what was left of the old villa: a two-storeyed wing three rooms wide and three deep, with a balcony supported by Doric columns that more than hinted of better times. The central, ground-floor room was fronted by a marble bar which spanned the gap between the pillars; kitchens to the left of the bar stood open to the inspection of patrons. Amazingly, in this bombed-out relic of a place, wide arches in the wall to the right displayed the sweep of the original grand marble staircase winding to the upper rooms and balcony. Better times indeed!

On the balcony - whose tables were reserved for 'persons of quality' - Julio Sclafani himself leaned out as far as his belly would allow to observe the arrival of these latest, most elevated of all his customers: Anthony and Francesco Francezci, come down from the high Madonie especially to eat at Julio's.

It was wonderful that they came here, these men of power, ignoring the so-called 'class' restaurants to dine on Julio's simple but worthy fare. And they'd been doing it for six weeks now, ever since the first signs of improvement in the weather. Or ... perhaps it was that one of them, or even both of them, had noticed Julio's Julietta? For Sclafani's youngest, still unmarried daughter was a stunner after all. And the Brothers Francezci were eminently eligible men ...

But what a shame that she wasn't at her best! It must be the pollution of Palermo's air. The fumes of all the cars and mopeds, the stagnation of all the derelict places, the breathing of dead air and the winter damp that came drifting in off the Tyrrhenian Sea. But spring was here and summer on its way; Julietta would bloom again, just as the island was blooming.

Except... it was worrying, the way she'd come down with - well, with whatever it was - just four or five weeks ago; since when all of the colour had seemed to go out of her, all the joy and vitality, everything that had made her the light of Julio's life. To be back there on her couch, all exhausted, with an old biddy of a sick-nurse sitting beside her - 'in attendance,' as it were - as at someone's deathbed! What, Julietta? Perish the thought! As fof the old crow: Julio supposed he should consider himself lucky to have obtained her services so reasonably. All thanks to the Francezcis, for she was one of theirs.

But here they came even now, smiling up at him - at him! - as they mounted the marble staircase. Such elegant ... such eligible men! Julio hastened to greet them at the head of the stairs, and usher them to their table on the balcony .. .

Almost exactly one hour earlier, Tony and Francesco Francezci had departed Le Manse Madonie in the mountain heights over Cefalu en-route for Julio's and the supposed gourmet pleasures of the cafe's 'cuisine.' The quality of Julio Sclafani's food was, ostensibly, the sole reason for the Francezcis' weekly visit to the crumbling, by no means decadent but decidedly decayed city. Ostensibly, yes.

But in fact the