In the summer of 1988 we drove our clapped-out red Fiat cabrio through northern Greece and the southern reaches of Bulgaria and Yugoslavia: ancient Macedonia, in fact. In some God-forsaken Bulgarian town, L joined a queue shuffling towards a hut where bread was being sold. He shuffled for half an hour or so until the shutters slammed down, then came away breadless. For us – unlike L’s many hungry fellow-queuers – there was immense gratification in the disappointment: we had first-hand experience of a Soviet-era bread queue.
Wednesday morning of this week found me in a long, narrow, fourth-floor corridor where the justice of the peace presides in Perugia. The doors – all but one of them closed – were a gorgeous shade of bright moss green. The corridor was packed, mostly with officious-looking young women and bumbling old men: the former recently graduated, I’d say, and desperately trying to self-importance themselves out of unpaid labour in exploitative local law offices; the latter the kind of jaded pain in the you-know-what who refuses to retire and leave younger legal eagles to get on with their job. The justice of the peace court, I surmised, is where law careers take off and crash land.
But perhaps I should backtrack. In July 2012, I was doing a long leisurely overtake on a dead straight stretch of road when the only car for miles around turned sharp left as I pulled past, and straight into me. When we’d dusted ourselves off, the elderly driver and I agreed to share the responsibility so as not to involve police and insurers’ lawyers. I paid a huge amount towards having the car patched up, and I forgot about it. Then just before Christmas 2016 I received a letter calling me as a witness in a case that the old man had brought against his insurance company.
So it was that I found myself in the other category in that Perugia corridor: the utterly bemused. In the one open room was a large old polished wooden table with dog-eared pink files piled high, and an odd assortment of chairs. The young women were urgently leafing through the files: was this their first brush with information about the cases they were here to deal with?
Beside the very end door was a list of cases to be heard: seven scheduled for 9.30, two (including mine) at 9.45. It looked like a tall order.
At 9.35, a 40-something woman bustles up the corridor, smiling and ignoring all the pressing questions hurled at her. She’s the judge. There’s a general move forwards, towards her room. I veer off into the room with the files, locate one that seems to refer to my case, and wait until someone picks it up. A man does. He’s nothing to do with it: just curious. Seconds later, at the very moment when he’s pointing out a frizzy-haired, bottle-blond girl wearing a cream hat with two huge jiggling pompoms as someone from the right law office, the palazzo sways. It’s faint, but there’s no mistaking it. Silence descends on the room for a split second. Quake.
“What do we do?” a woman asks long after the trembling has stopped. “Get under the table?” All eyes turn to the table. Large as it is, it wouldn’t save many. Uncomfortable titters.
Then the business of the day resumes, a strange series of surges – into the judge’s office, up to the other end of the corridor, back into the file room where I’ve now nabbed one of the two big office chairs, with no plans to move from it until I need to. I find the ebb and flow of humanity, with no seeming cause, quite mesmerising. I’m thinking Jarndyce & Jarndyce, or maybe those fantastic court scenes in the superb A Separation.
The palazzo sways, harder this time. I’m checking for information on my phone when it occurs to me: everyone’s on their phone, constantly, but I haven’t heard a single ring. How civilised. Is it an unwritten rule here that ringtones must be set to silent? As the only person in the room with the nonce to check geological institute stats, I become the purveyor of updates to all. Briefly. Then the inexplicable ebb and flow resumes.
Standing beside me is one of the elderly lawyers, who begins inveighing against immigrants to the man beside him.
“You know that the state is obliged to pay for the upkeep of their children until the age of 18?” This is simply untrue. But it’s nothing to the convoluted rubbish that follows.
“A friend of mine,” he says, “went to the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. There wasn’t a single other Italian there.” To me this seems pretty normal, but for this man ‘foreigner’ ineluctably meant ‘immigrant’ rather than ‘tourist’. “You know why? It’s the mayor. He sends them there, so they vote for him.”
This takes a while to process. Why would being sent to see some Giotto frescos make an immigrant more likely to vote for anyone than, say, being given a job and somewhere to live? And anyway, immigrants don’t vote.
I’m rapt in speculation about his client’s chances of getting any kind of logical defence when another lawyer-bloke reaches over to me and asks “how do you manage to maintain this Olympian calm in the midst of such bedlam?” I rather like being compared to a god on Mt Olympus.
“Why?” I ask him. “Should I be getting agitated? Has anyone ever achieved anything here by getting agitated?” He laughs and gives a “too true” shrug.
Ms Pompom has disappeared completely as the third quake hits. There’s discussion all around me of our chances of survival in this jerry-restored municipal building if a really Big One comes along. I’m thinking of the poor people up in the mountains near the epicentre, already severely shaken and with record snowfalls. (The news of the avalanche-buried hotel will arrive hours later.)
Ms Pompom materialises from nowhere to announce “we’re next,” with something approaching animation – not a thing she has shown before. I try to get some information out of her.
“So he’s trying to get money out of his insurance company?”
“Yes,” then she looks embarrassed. “I’m not meant to talk to you.”
Great. “So you’ll call me when it’s us?”
She joins another office surge, and is gone. It’s starting to thin out here, though I can’t see anyone looking relieved, satisfied or even as if anything has been resolved. How can anything have been dealt with in that crowded cell?
Minutes later, Ms Pompom returns. “Postponed,” she says, and turns to go.
“What?” I call after her retreating pompoms.
“The doctor has made off with the file.”
“What doctor?” She gives me a withering look. I’m clearly not expected to ask questions.
I’m wondering if every single case has ended like this: it would certainly explain the lack of satisfied customers. Very Bleak House.
“Well I’ll be out of the country on Feb 22.” I’ve decided then and there not to be available.
“You’ll have to notify us in a fax.”
A fax. That figures. Does anyone still use faxes? I’m tempted to ask when the statute of limitations kicks in, but it’s midday and I’m hungry and I can’t find the energy.
It’s freezing when I emerge. While I’ve been inside, the long escalators from Perugia city centre to the carparks lower down the hill have been barricaded off, for maintenance. It seems somehow fitting. The long cold walk gives me time to muse on what I’ve now entitled my Bulgarian Bread Queue Moment.
The lashings of snow that we were promised materialised up in the earthquake zone where it was least wanted but not over here, where – apart from a few bobbing flakes – we have merely been buffetted by Arctic blasts. Deep freeze conditions will do our bug population the world of good – or bad, if you happen to be an olive-gnawing insect. But the sun has often shone out of a blue blue sky, which makes everything bearable.
I’ve been trawling shops for furniture and white goods for my project in town. I thought it would be a good idea to take advantage of the sales, but I was more or less alone in this: the shops are eerily quiet.
I am hopeless at shopping, which I hate – though I am more likely to suffer extreme retail panic buying clothes than fridges. Still, I’ve spent much time in a somnambulistic daze, mesmerised and repulsed by so much dreadful Stuff. Do people buy that? Why?