Continuing the introductions to the residents of Santa Zita, here’s Irena.
Irena is born on 28th October 1922, the same day as Martina, her best friend, and the day of Mussolini’s March on Rome.
The village in which Irena grew up is small but vibrant. There’s always something going on – processions, dances, festivals, a cinema under the stars in the piazza and meals to celebrate the olive, chestnut and grape harvests. On Santa Zita’s day in April the village is full of flowers to commemorate their saint.
(Santa Zita was a servant who stole bread from the kitchen to give the poor. When her Master accosted her and made her show him what she was hiding in her apron the bread turned into flowers.)
At the heart of the village is a restaurant run by two brothers with terrible tempers but whose cooking is sublime and draws people from miles around.
Irena spends her early years playing skipping rope games and hop scotch in the piazza or catching tiny frogs down at the river. One Christmas the Befana Fascista brings her and Martina identical dolls and they played with them for hours, pushing them around the village in their prams.
Her ambition as a child is to be a good wife and mother. As part of Mussolini’s Battle for Births women are encouraged to have at least four children and motherhood is seen as almost saintly.
Irena and Martina often talk lazily about Villa Leonida, the big house at the top of the village, and what it would be like to live there but never seriously imagine that either of them would. At least Irena never does.
But she begins to worry that she might not ever find anyone to marry her. She can’t hope to compete with Martina in terms of beauty, boldness or athleticism so she’d better have something to fall back on. She reads everything she can get her hands on and her friends called her the Encyclopaedia because of all the facts she’s able to come out with. Each book is like being given a key to a different world. If she never moves out of Santa Zita she thinks it wouldn’t matter because in books she’s been everywhere.
But when Martina marries and moves into Villa Leonida Irena feels left as though she’s had a limb amputated. Becoming a teacher gives her a new focus – but she worries about the people Martina’s living with and the way her friend seems to be changing. And then those rumours start about Martina’s husband…
In later years Irena resents her son Carlo digging into the past. Why can’t he leave it where it belongs?