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Portholes in Your Coffin

Page 4

In the middle room, no man’s land between the shop and the kitchen, stood an old pianola pushed into a corner by towering soft drink crates, trays of eggs, sacks of sugar, and a large sombre Victorian cupboard left by my grandparents. I pumped at the pedals of the pianola and sang while the magical indentations on the paper rolls scrolled on and the keys went up and down of their own accord. ‘Far away in Arcady, summer never passes’ I warbled. My mother, an able pianist at quiet times in her apron would thump at the keys, her ample arms swinging as she hurled herself into a military tune. When I developed an unlikely yearning for opera at sixteen, I made her play Ave Maria and suchlike lieder among the crates. The bottles rattled in time.

Italians supplicated my mother in halting English. My mother acquired halting Italian as well as cardboard boxes of pasta of varying length, diameter and shape, packets of stinking parmesan and bundles of mozzarella hanging in a row above the phone that was used by the whole street. Mrs Green’s daughter would ring for her and I would run down the street to fetch her. Mr Toscano would ring his cousin and we would eavesdrop. Thus we knew the affairs of the street. Mrs Casamente, Teresa’s mother would lean on the counter and confide. Mrs Willya, Mrs Willya sighing about her good son and her no good son. The pain and joy of the street were distilled to a heady ether that hovered above the enormously expensive refrigerated counter.

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