Elaine Lennon – Sardines

Elaine Lennon is a film historian. She is the author of ChinaTowne: The Screenplays of Robert Towne and is widely published in international film journals.

She has a background in television production and film financing and was a lecturer for a decade in film studies and screenwriting at the School of Media, Dublin Institute of Technology.


Sardines

By Elaine Lennon

 “I’m starving,” she said. Her rumbling stomach couldn’t be heard over the thrum of the ferry as it loped and lurched and dipped and dove through the rolling wine-dark sea on the thirteen-hour trip from the mainland to Cagliari.

 “We’re now in the Straits of Bonifacio,” he said. “Where giants rained huge boulders down on Odysseus and his crew.”

“You give good quote,” she teased.

“Pope Boniface the Eighth named King James the second of Aragon as King of Corsica and Sardinia.”

“Papal bull.”

“Precisely.”

“The quid pro quo?”

“Sicily.”

“A fair exchange is no robbery.”

She relished his height and his lantern jaw and his strong forehead and how his curling blond hair was clipped back from his prematurely greying temples and the quizzical expression simultaneously curious and amused.

“Look!” she squealed, pointing at the faraway sight of a small whale flumping about in turquoise waters.

Sardinia rose faintly ahead, shapeshifting and floating transparently over a hollow bay.

                At the port’s car rental office they were directed outside.

            He laughed at the vintage yellow Fiat cinquecento parked by the pavement.

“Clown car.”

The glum moustachioed manager handed him the key.

“For this?” he asked. “You’ve got to be joking!”

The manager gestured and returned to the building.

“Think you’ll fit your trotters into that?” she asked.

He squeezed his six-foot two frame inside by pushing the driver’s seat back almost into the rear engine.

She patted his arm as he put the key in the ignition, hunched over the wheel, face to face with the windscreen. Lemon curd on wheels, she thought.

            Tourists you are not in Italy.

The graffito greeting them in the tunnel filled her with dread as the auto buzzed like a bee in a tube.

            “We’re just another generation of invader,” he said.

            They emerged blinking into a steep treeless city.

                The hotel was plain, small and hostile, positioned close to the historic quarter, all faded stone and winding streets.

            They cleaned up and performed their touristic duties. They walked to the mediaeval cathedral of Santa Maria and up and down the walled Castello complex, admiring the palazzo and the museum.

            “I’m exhausted,” she said.

            They had their first gourmand experience in the city’s oldest restaurant which had opened in nineteen-twenty-one and specialised in fish dishes.

            She ate shrimp and fried zucchini. He had the lobster. They drank carafes of Cannonau, the sweet local wine. They stumbled drunkenly home.        

            The following day after a lengthy outing to the ruins at Su Nuraxi they took a nap before dinner.

She stepped out of the shower and wrapped a thin white towel around her shapely frame. She palmed a reflective circle in the steamed-up bathroom mirror. The planes of her face contradicted each other but contrived to arresting and angular effect with those bee-stung lips and limpid blue eyes. She scraped back her long wet hair with a comb. The soles of her feet left fading impressions on the tiled floor.

In their bedroom he unfurled the fabric from beneath her shoulders and eased her nakedness down in front of him.

“Just the way you like it,” he murmured approvingly.

The Via Sardegna brought them to the Lillicu restaurant. It bustled with chatter and laughter and life. Tables outside were packed with families and couples paired off into well-heeled older men and their rounded wives. Spotlights shimmered on the water.

A musclebound waiter produced menus and a wine list like a magic trick.

“Roasted suckling pig? It’s the island speciality,” he said.

“Not tonight, Josephine,” she said.

They were presented with breadsticks and jugs of water and gorged on antipasti of stuffed artichokes, bottarga roe, scallop carpaccio with flatbread, courgette fritters with pecorino, clam soup.

“This makes up for doing Italy on the cheap,” she said with a barely-concealed burp.

“Don’t harp on,” he said. “Aren’t you happy?”

She stared at him. “A gourmet tour of Sardinia? Instead of Venice? And by ferry?”

“It’s too hot for Venice,” he countered. “And you maxed out your credit cards.”

“Fuhgeddaboutit,” she drawled Mafioso-style.

The entrées arrived.

Spaghettini with mussels, tomatoes and white wine for him. Plump succulent sardines in punchy tomato sauce with garlic and onion for her.

“I am in heaven,” she bragged.

The meal went through him like grease through a goose.

“Oh God,” he groaned and ran to a Roman drain on the street corner.

“Oh, no,” she said to herself and turned away as he evacuated his bowels. We’re in public. 

Everybody invaded Sardinia. Carthaginians. Greeks. Romans. Phoenicians. Pisans. Genoese. Vandals. Arabs. Spanish. Austria. France. They were all at it. 

Ricky Martin was Livin’ La Vida Loca on the radio.

It was a wide open tarmacadamed road to the eagle’s nest of Orgòsolo in the centre of the island.

The sun beat down as she swigged from her water bottle.

“Did you know that the average person spends six months of their life waiting for a red light to turn green?”

He ignored her.

“A sphincter says what?” she goaded him.

“We need fuel,” he said.

At an isolated hillside shop they bought the only refreshments available, piccolo bottles of Cola and a couple of Mars Bars.

“How did we get here?” she mused. Her fingers bathed in heat as she tapped the air through the open passenger window.

                In Orgòsolo they trudged up and down cobbled streets in stifling humidity.

            “My legs are killing me,” he said.

            Se possiamo fermare l’esercito possiamo fermare te, read one mural.  If we can stop the army we can stop you!

                “What is it with the graffiti around here?” she puzzled.

            “We are in the Land of the Barbarians, apparently,” he said, leafing through the guide book. “They’ve been writing anti-authoritarian murals since nineteen sixty-nine. These shepherds are tough mothers.”

            “Why would you use that expression?” she asked.

            “It doesn’t mean anything.”

            “As if.”

They went to the cinema in a building with flaking paint and a neon sign that flickered unconvincingly. Inside, a red velvet curtain revealed a plush movie palace with a ceiling of painted constellations. They were ushered to sumptuous seating and stretched out for the first time in days.

            The Thomas Crown Affair remake was better dubbed in Italian, she said. “You pay more attention to the costume and colour coding.”

            They took an anti-clockwise route around the mountainous region on higgledy-piggledy dusty roads peppered with fragrant pines. Every village was shut. They slept in the car.

            They were down to their last bottle of water, a half-sized Coca Cola and a single Mars Bar when they happened upon a lone garage.  The tank was running on empty.

            He unscrewed himself from the driver’s seat.

She ran up to the shuttered window. A sign hung on the door.  Chiuso.

“No way! Not possible!” She peered at a newspaper pasted up with a photograph of John F. Kennedy Junior and his wife. Presumibilmente morto a seguito di un incidente aereo in mare.

“This was all wrong,” she said.

“Don’t you think I know that?”

“You were too tight to spring for a proper holiday.”

“So now it’s my fault they have closed days in this godforsaken mediaeval nightmare.”

“You should have checked.”

“Maybe if I didn’t have to pay your debts.”

“We’re starving.”

“Don’t exaggerate.”

“If you bought real apples instead of an iMac,” she said.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said.

“How long do you think we’ll last on a piccolo Cola and half a Mars Bar?” she snarled.

He held up his Nokia.  There was no signal.

The sky’s lavender lid erupted with a sudden relentless downpour of rain falling in darts.

He got drenched standing with an empty bottle trying to catch drinking water.

The radio dial flickered with crossed wires and crackling interference in a brief burst of static, then cut out.

Lightning flashed.

They spooned uncomfortably.

Night turned to day.

The car coughed when he tried the starter.

The Sardinian boar lives in various parts of the island.  They are smaller and stouter than species on the Italian mainland.

                They beetled through the shade of a forest and skidded down a hairpin bend straight into an animal. The Fiat juddered to a halt as the creature crashed onto the bonnet, smashing the windscreen into smithereens then falling sluggishly onto a wooded track with a thud.

            They pushed open the doors and escaped the upturned vehicle into shrubby macchia.

            “What have you done?” she screamed.

            “It’s a pig,” he said. “It must have escaped from somewhere.”

            “Which means it belongs to someone.”

            A trim middle-aged man in Armani and a hunting jacket appeared from nowhere and stood over the boar. He fell to his knees and wept.

            “Maronn’!” he roared.

He cradled the boar’s head as the wounded soul took its final breath.

The air detonated with the man’s grief.

“No appo cumpresu nutta!” he screeched. “Hai ucciso il più grande tartufaio della storia della Barbagia!

“What is he saying?”

“I think we killed the best truffle hunter in the region,” she whispered.

“Su hovercraft est penu de ambidas,” he said to the man.

“What did you say?” she hissed.

“My hovercraft is full of eels.”

On the first day of captivity they struggled against their shackles. A second man left them a bowl of water. They lapped at it like greedy kittens.

On the second day of captivity she hallucinated and saw him morph into breaded veal cutlets. She snapped out of it when he intoned, “Pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon?”

“Frying tonight?” she giggled.

People came and went outside.

They gave up shouting for help.

Secondo brought them a bucket of acorns.

“They’re fattening us up for dinner,” he said grimly.

“Who will save our bacon?” she wondered.

On the third day of captivity she dreamed of food. Gruel. A Royale with cheese. Leopold Bloom and his inner organs of beasts and fowls. Giblet soup and nutty gizzards. Stuffed roast heart.  She could taste the fried liver. A gorgonzola sandwich. My kingdom for a horse. Baked beans on buttery toast.

On the fourth day Primo and Secondo stood at the barn door.

Secondo leafed through their passports. He nudged Primo and pointed to the name on hers: Eleanor Hunt.

“Eleonora!” smiled Primo. He removed a medallion from under his silk shirt and held up the graven image of a woman’s profile and the words Eleonora d’Arborea.

The serendipity of the situation was almost funny. Her life lay in her name, a propitious choice because it resembled that of Sardinia’s independent heroine.

Simon’s passport was a travel document that retained its worth in his absence. Compounded by the fatal injury inadvertently inflicted upon the love of Primo’s life, his fate was sealed.

Primo unlocked Eleanor from her prison and helped her to stand upright.

He sniffed her neck.

“Miele.” Honey.

“Vaniglia.” Vanilla.

Something confused him.

“Cioccolato?” he queried.

“Si,” she whispered. “And pralines.”

He nodded. “Praline.”

He nuzzled her ear lobes. “Caramel?”

She agreed. His nostrils flared.

“Un accenno di … patchouli! Ce l’ho! È il profumo di Thierry Mugler! Profumo Angel!”

She smiled. “Thierry Mugler’s Angel. Si!”

Primo licked Eleanor’s face with a long dry feline tongue. She inhaled sharply and detected olive oil, musk and notes of parmigiana. And Acqua di Parma cologne.

Their eyes met. Hers were enlivened and inquisitive, his were darting and feral.

Food had clouded her judgment. Days of hunger had given her the gift of clarity.

She needed something to eat. Protein. She rubbed her tummy.

“Ad domum,” he said.

Simon grunted in the corner.

Primo lit an MS and put it in Simon‘s mouth. Simon’s dry lips pursed.

“I don’t smoke,” he gasped.

Eleanor rolled her eyes.

Primo shrugged and took a drag himself.

They left Simon trussed up in butcher’s twine.

“Prosciutto sugli occhi,” observed Primo. He’s wearing rose-tinted glasses.

Eleanor padded after Primo through the pretty rustic yard hemmed in by oaks and wisteria-clad walls. Hills rolled away in every direction.

The house was large and cavernous and comfortable.

Everybody’s Free blared tinnily from an ancient radio.

            “Questo è il tuo destino! Il tuo futuro è nell’agriturismo!” proclaimed Primo over a snack of salami and Cinzano. This is your destiny! Your future lies in agritourism!

            Secondo dug a fire pit near the line of trees.

            Simon was dragged to the courtyard.

The machete landed cleanly into his neck and raised a perfect crimson arc of spurting blood spray, a fizzing geyser, a sputtering fountain, a splashy waterfall.

Eleanor looked at his stupid slack jaw and the big blocky forehead where she had often imagined a single thought crashing hopelessly around on a face as blank as a Matisse cut-out. He looked confused.

How bizarre, she thought.

Primo handed Simon’s passport to Secondo who brought it into the house. He stashed it in the overflowing drawer where they kept all the dead tourists’ passports.

Simon’s body was carried to the fire pit. He was covered in myrtle leaves and baked for a day and a night.                                                            

The fire was spent.

Simon was disinterred.

A man in overalls tamped down the charred surface with a broom.

Visitors arrived.

Everyone sat outdoors beneath fairy lights at two trestle tables pushed together and laid with white linen and silverware.

The aroma of sweet crisped meat suffused Eleanor’s senses.

Primo presented her with a large platter of Simon’s crown jewels, still somewhat pink and dressed with the flavoursome foliage that had cooked him whole.

                His face gleamed with rheum and rosacea. “Putare ei tributum tuum. Sicut sacra Communio. id est, nonne tu scis?” Think of it as your tribute to him. Like Holy Communion. You know what that is, don’t you?

She licked her lips in anticipation as she cut into the quivering flesh. She sliced it and dabbed it in olive oil from a side dish. It had a piquant porcine bouquet.

Primo raised his eyebrows.

A shudder ran through her as something extraordinary happened. Recollection. Thoughts of silver fish lying side by side on a bed of tomato sauce. The simple delight of canned sardines.

She forked a translucent portion onto her tongue. It tingled the buds on her palate. She moved it around and sucked it and flicked bits over her teeth through lightly parted lips. She savoured the faint tang of urine. She allowed herself to be pleasured. She swallowed.

            She tucked in, washing down her husband’s endowment with fine wine.

“Delicious!”

Primo nodded approvingly and served her gnocchetti sardi al dente, earthy nutmeggy truffles and ricotta with runny honey.

She was full. She looked up at the stars and pondered the Andromeda galaxy travelling at four hundred thousand kilometres an hour on a collision course with the Milky Way.

Nothing matters. Nothing matters at all.

It was another season and burnished leaves crunched underfoot.

Fredo the young foraging pig snuffled in the vegetation for treasure.

Primo wiped a large truffle with a polka dot kerchief and broke off a piece for Eleanor. She inhaled.

“Nos sumus coyotes!” he grinned. We are the coyotes.

They threw back their heads and screamed.


© Elaine Lennon


 INCLUDED TO  – The Galway Review 10- PRINTED EDITION –  April 2022
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