When I was eight or nine I recall sitting around my ‘Uncle’s’ conservatory in his three-quarters of a million-pound house out in the sticks of Leicestershire. It was oak-floored and the extension particularly was painted a paleish grey, which was neatly juxtaposed to their ginormous tea-green garden. Work had just been completed a week prior to the fast-approaching new year (which was when I noticed it). The others were in the kitchen serving up a buffet lunch and I was probably flicking through an Anthony Horowitz book in an armchair. I was struggling to concentrate on the words in front of me and went to, sneakily, turn The Stones down on the stereo and there it was – next to it – an intricate model of the tunnel sequence from The Italian Job. Then ‘Auntie’ Liz came in to fetch me and that was that.
Later that afternoon I asked Jon what the heavy ornament was, he explained and stuck on the 1969 classic (when his daughters had tired of Wii Sports). I loved it and in the stimulating Alpine opening sequence, I was introduced to the Italian Mafia. On the snow peppered mountaintops, clutching rifles with their faces concealed by sunglasses and fedoras.
Six years later when I arrived in Palermo it looked like an angry city on the brink of losing its temper. Eighty percent of her businesses still paid its dues to the Mafia and eighty per cent of her was clearly sick of their shit. When I stepped down from the shuttle bus en-route to the arrivals lounge it was hot and stormy. Stormy, like the mood that lurked up and about in the mountains. For that morning, a chieftain of the ‘Ndrangheta Mafia had been arrested and Italy herself was standing on ceremony as if waiting for a funeral (or twenty) to come. And in those mountains, as if God himself looked on us with a watchful, distasteful gaze through two window panes, was a long storage unit. It sat on the precipice of the faceless mountains. In ten feet blood-red lettering spelt the words NO MAFIA – and they served as his teeth. My father and I looked at each other with a bemused expression and wondered as to whether we'd picked the right spot for a long weekend. We went on to the bus stop nevertheless. You see there was a reason why my stepmother hadn’t come in the first place, and in that moment, I understood entirely.
The guy who drove the coach was bored: bored of life, bored of his cigarette and bored shitless of idioti tourists such as ourselves asking if he went to our hotel despite the placard clearly displayed in his windscreen reading that he did so, but we asked him anyway. The coach itself had no air-conditioning which didn’t bother us really, it, and the lack of vehicular suspension, just rocked my Dad into another sleep. The lack of nicotine had put him in a delightful mood on our delayed three-hour flight from Stansted and so I was left to conjure the histories of Sicily up in my own head.
Had Salvatore Giuliano hid in these very mountaintops from the corrupt Carabinieri? Had the acid baths (which had scared the living daylights out of me the night before on some godawful documentary on Bravo) been concealed in the creeping caves and crevices that lured from the vast country estates and vineyards? And for that matter, what was the story with the storage unit?
But I was a wannabe adventurous sixteen-year-old and nothing of any interest had really happened in those mountains, perhaps an olive oil farm that exported to our local Tesco, but that was all really. It was only a few days later, when we ventured up into the orange of Corleone, and looked back on Palermo below in scrutiny that we read between the lines. Thinking back on it, perhaps it would have been a better idea to pick up an entirely different book altogether.
He drew up just ahead of the garage. Switched the engine off and bundled out of his Citroen DS onto the cracked pavement. It was the afternoon and the time to make his instructed phone call. Not twenty feet behind him in another vehicle were two men who intended to stop him from doing just that.
The man was fast approaching a midlife crisis: his receding hairline, pinstriped blazer and cream slacks, his nice car and new apartment nearer to the Porto di Palermo just reinforced the sentiment. The flat rested in the heart of Palermo, which rested in the bottom of a bowl created by an extinct volcano, which in itself is surrounded by mountains and in itself is only free to the oily sheen of the turquoise Mediterranean Sea. For hundreds of years the Arabs and Greeks had crossed this way and for the last few hours this man had considered doing the same thing, but in the opposite direction.
The evening before he had overheard something he shouldn’t have and now they were after him. He and his wife planned to skip town. It was either that of confer with the authorities in return for protection. He had no intention of committing such blasphemy and reflected on this as he passed the long downward stretch of an alleyway and lit a cigarette. He heard footfalls behind him and then nothing.
Dad and I stepped back from the glass photo cabinet. I paused to admire the dark, long and elegant tour guide before us. It was just her, us and a couple of obese, sandal-wearing Yanks clutching Japanese cameras. She was one of the most naturally beautiful women I had ever laid eyes on. She had a tough glint to her big round eyes that complemented the tanned olive skin.
‘This is a picture taken by the Carabinieri soon after the shooting of ******* ******** in downtown Palermo. He was shot in the head and dragged down this alley-way. They laid him face down…’ she held her hands up and turned her head in the style of an 1880 silhouette photograph, ‘… put his hands in his pockets, with his ear to the ground.’ She paused over the thought for a moment. ‘It’s a Sicilian message for a simple and just man who heard something he shouldn’t have.’
Dad and I were interested, but more so on her perfectly-formed arse, I was sixteen for goodness sake with nothing much more on my mind other than Sicilian goddesses like her and the local desert of Cannoli. I listened, but I didn’t hear. The lady was a member of the Anti-Mafia Movement based in Corleone (the birthplace of the Sicilian Mafia and Vito Corleone of the Godfather trilogy) and warned us that every gangster in the country knew where the Headquarters were. They had the biggest archive of Mob related instances in the world and the Italian government often visited when in need of supporting evidence. She joked how they could fire a rocket launcher right through the front door at us and we wouldn't know we were dead. Luckily, they had only sent death threats. And that was our cue to depart and head back down to Palermo.
We bundled onto the bus after an eerie conversation with a Wiseguy, passing a Nun smoking a cigar with a greater air of intimidation than Scarface but not as much as Don Corleone, and went on to admire the savage raw beauty that was the Sicilian countryside, through the safety of the bus window.
Corleone from afar is a beautiful sight: up close and personal, not so much. With its winding alleyways, cocky street kids, two museums, a Godfather café and a single rundown hotel – it didn’t make much camera fodder for fellow sightseers. It did however, up on the mountain range, far from the piazza where most of the said attractions resided, was a concrete cross with the figure of Jesus hanging from it. At a distance, as the bus tiptoed down the dusty dirt road, almost skating on the bends, did I notice that his head was bowed, almost bowed in disappointment at the corrupt ancient town at his feet. As we descended further and further down the mountain roads we passed numerous other towns – all twin sisters and bastard brothers that looked and felt like Corleone did. One was even on a documentary I saw about the cocaine industry, but nevertheless, they all maintained set features: sharp rocks, fruity tree branches that were unusually rich in colour with fern green bulrushes at their stumps. All of this was basked beneath a warm, orange, afternoon sky.
Dad said I could have a few beers with him that night and I was more than eager to neck Peroni, snack on arancini and admire classy Sicilian girls. From friends of my own, I often found Italians to be a sexualised bunch, but not the Sicilians. In the pre-war days, the dreaded Lupara was used to take that steamy look out of a man’s eye; or the top of his head, should it land on his daughter and the country was once ruined by blood family feuds before Mussolini made things worse.
The next day I sat on the hotel balcony and admired the back street below in between page turns. I flicked through a copy of Mario Puzo’s The Sicilian and wished we had gone to see the spot of Salvatore Giuliano’s death in Castelvetrano. We’d had enough of the Sicilian Mafia by this point. They controlled, polluted everything and governed the country. We could visit, but it was on their terms and conditions. Even the Via Butera, the road on which we stayed was corrupt. How can a road be corrupt? You might ask. It was spotless that’s why. The road in front however, the Foro Italico Umberto I to Porta Felice, was covered in litter. Bins overflowing, restaurants dumping mounds of waste onto the sidewalk because a payoff hadn’t been made for garbage collection. Look at it as their equivalent to London’s Piccadilly Circus for instance, it was that popular and always crammed with traffic. But by this point, we were thankful to be taking that road back to the airport and back to good old Blighty.
When I was around seventeen I recall sitting in Jon and Liz’s conservatory in their three-quarter of a million-pound house out in the sticks of Leicestershire. It was New Years’ Eve again. The mood was dull, my parents were pissed (and unbeknownst to them, so was I) and my sort-of Aunt, Uncle and ‘cousins’ were sprawled out on the sofas after yet another laborious session on Wii sports. Jon came over, smelling of Doom Bar and lost dreams of a happy 2014 (that came with his redundancy package). I hadn’t seen them in a couple of years and we got chatting about my upcoming trip to New York with the Sixth Form. But I could tell that my Mum’s mention of my trip to Sicily was what really intrigued him.
‘How was it?’ he asked.
I thought back over my long-weekend (spanning four days) and recalled what we had gotten up to: the catacombs, the preserved corpse I nicknamed "Dead Dave", the graveyard, eating gelato by the port, scrambled egg and salsicc for breakfast every morning on the veranda, the Mafia’s dealings with our own hotel, Corleone, sanitation, an attempted mugging, our visit to the Anti-Mafia movement’s headquarters, the Cuban smoking Nun, our friendly waiter Roberto, observing a Sicilian wedding during a heatwave and a seven-year-old boy trying to steal my Dad’s Marlboro lights outside an ice cream parlour.
‘Weird,’ was all that I could be bothered to say, and that ended the interesting conversation that could have happened, but didn’t.
 Chieftain – a powerful member of the Mafia.
 Roberto Pannuzi – one of the top cocaine brokers for the Sicilian Mafia, “the Pablo Escobar of Italy” who was in partnership with the Columbian drug cartels.
 Salvatore Giuliano – a Sicilian bandit in the late 1940s, who became the modern Robin Hood of the oppressed Sicilians under the fascist government of Mussolini.
 Carabinieri – The national gendarmerie of Italy. It assisted in the suppression of Italians and Sicilians alike during the rule of Benito Mussolini.
 Cannoli – a Sicilian pastry adopted from the Greek Kanna.
 Lupara – a sawn-off shot gun.
 Salsicc – sausage.