“They’re totally synchronised; look!” comes a laughing stage-whisper from behind us. I turn my head and poke my tongue out at Donato and Roberta, who are trying to distract us as we power-walk down the mountain. Davide grins but keeps his eyes fixed straight ahead, concentrating on his end goal: lunch. Never go in against a hungry Sicilian when food is on the line.
A few minutes later Donato tries another tack. “Are you tired yet, Kate?” I glance back at him and wink. “Nope. Not at all.” I miss what he says next, but Davide laughs, then translates for me when he realises that I haven’t heard. “He says that’s a shame – you were their only hope.” I look at Davide with a grin and we up our pace. I can hear conversation and laughter behind us, but don’t take much notice until Davide starts chuckling. I look sideways, knitting my eyebrows in a mute question, and he translates once more. “Donato says that they’ve discovered something new about you – that you’re a marathon athlete.” I look back over my shoulder – “Only when I’m walking; running’s a lost cause!”
There’s another shout from behind us. “Ragazzi! Stop a moment, will you?” We assume it’s another distraction technique and don’t break stride, but Donato calls again: “No, seriously: there’s something I want to show you.” He sounds serious this time, so we come to a halt. Donato points upwards into the tree next to us. “Look. Mistletoe. But how does it grow? It doesn’t have any roots.” I have a vague memory of the explanation for this – boiling down to the fact that mistletoe is a parasite and lives off its host – but no idea of how to say this in Italian. As I’m gathering my thoughts, however, Donato and Roberta look at each other with a wicked glint in their eyes. “Are you tired yet, Kate?” asks Donato in an innocent tone. I laugh and deny it, but it wasn’t so much a question as a diversionary tactic.
It turns out that while they were distracting Davide and me with talk of mistletoe, Donato and Roberta have worked their way down the path in front of us, and they now barrel off at a run. Their rucksacks bounce with wild abandon on their backs and Roberta’s hoody, which she’s been wearing wrapped around her neck as a scarf, flaps around her shoulders as they charge down the path. Their voices float back to us, punctuated with breathless giggles: “See you later, ragazzi!”
Davide and I head off at a fast clip in pursuit. I assume that, having got their head start, Donato and Roberta will slow down and we’ll catch them up, but we don’t seem to be gaining ground at all. Then I see them rounding a corner 200m ahead of us – at a jog. They’re determined to get to the restaurant first, and I’m happy to let them do so. Davide’s competitive streak isn’t so convinced, but his gentlemanliness wins out and he stays with me, albeit lengthening his stride and walking even faster than before. We cover a distance that would usually take 20 minutes in half that time, arriving at the restaurant to find that Roberta and Donato – who I spotted running through the door a bare minute before we did – have bagsied a table and are feigning nonchalance. “What took you so long?”
Lunch is mixed antipasti, two types of pasta and large plates of grilled meat, with side orders of local red wine and pumping Kate for background information on her life. There’s nearly an international incident over coffee. “You don’t know how your parents met?!” Three pairs of eyes stare at me, round with humorous incredulity, mirrored by the three mouths below them. I shrug, embarrassed by the attention, and give a mollifying story, in halting Italian, of how my parents went to a party thrown by a childhood friend of my dad’s – only to find out that the childhood friend’s new girlfriend was a friend of my mum’s. This appeases them momentarily, but when I later reveal that my dad was born in Malacca – but that I have not the faintest idea of why my grandparents were living there – the three Sicilians around me throw their hands to the heavens. “You need to phone your mother as soon as you get home and get some answers!” says Donato. He’s only half-joking.
Lunch finished, it’s time to put Project Hitchhike into action. The plan was outlined to me earlier as we trekked over deserted swathes of black volcanic rock. “So the car’s parked ten minutes’ drive up the mountain from the restaurant where we’re planning to stop for lunch, okay?” I nod to show that I’m following and Donato continues. “So we’ll have lunch, then you and Roberta will stay there and have aperitivi” – Roberta grins and winks at me – “while Davide flashes some leg and gets us a lift back up the hill. Sound like a good idea?” I nod in approval, ignoring the mildly disturbing sight of my boyfriend hitching up his trouser leg and twirling his ankle at me. “Yep. Sounds like a great idea!”
In the event, Project Hitchhike is almost scuppered by all four of us standing at the side of the road. Half the cars coming up the hill, therefore, don’t stop; the ones that do are already full of people. A late afternoon chill sets in as the warm glow of exercise and good food begins to wear off. If Project Hitchhike is to succeed, we’re going to need to change tactics, so Roberta and I peel off to be inconspicuous on a bench outside the restaurant while Donato and Davide head off separately to try their luck asking around the various car drivers in the parking area.
Seated on the bench, Roberta goes a bit pink and starts to giggle. “You know earlier, when we ran off?” I laugh. “Yes.” She carries on. “Well, it was kind of a matter of honour. Davide always teases us about being old and slow, so we wanted to beat him just for once. You don’t mind, do you?” I grin at her. “No, not in the least.” She smiles, relieved, and looks up the hill to where Donato is returning from his recce mission. Roberta signals to him, spreading her hands and shrugging a question, but he shakes his head: no luck. Just at that moment, however, there’s a shout from below us – it seems that Davide has been more successful. He waves at us and points at a man who’s heading towards a large, blue estate car. Davide may not have won the race to the restaurant, but his leg-flashing technique is clearly the superior one. He climbs into the car and the driver accelerates up the hill, tooting the horn and waving at us as he passes.
Half an hour later Davide’s back, looking a little wild-eyed. “I felt so sorry for the poor guy!” It turns out that the man was part of a big group from Enna, in the centre of Sicily. Roberta interjects – “Agira, actually. I heard the accent.” She’d noticed them as we waited outside the restaurant. They were gathered in a twittering crowd at the side of the road, gesticulating and winding each other up into a frenzy. I didn’t understand why at the time, but Davide’s story unravels my confusion. “Ragazzi, his wife was *crazy*!”
It took about a minute for the first phone call to arrive to the man’s mobile. “I can’t believe you’ve just left us at the side of the road! Where are you? How long are you going to be?!” After the third or fourth call – which the man meekly answered every single time (“Yes, Anna-Maria. No, Anna-Maria. Three bags full, Anna-Maria.”) – he turned to Davide with a hunted prey expression in his eyes. “Don’t *ever* get married, son. Just – don’t, okay?”
As the laughter subsides we fall into comfortable silence. It’s broken by Donato in the back seat. “So, Kate – are you tired yet …?”