The human condition: Suddenly one summer

The rape of her mother is a hazy memory for Tiffany Murray. But the events of that blazing night become more disturbing with the passing years
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Indy Lifestyle Online
IT WAS only recently my mother told me the full story. This wasn't due to trauma or denial. She just didn't think it important. "Anyway," she explained, "it happens to loads of women and far worse. So what? It was the Seventies!" I imagine "it" happening to me. I cannot see myself surviving as my own mother has.

My own childhood memory is beautifully selective. It hasn't filed the exact events of that summer night of 1974. That's the joy of being a kid; you ignore what the mind can't process.

It was a blazing August, our third month on the island. For some reason Mum had dreams of Sardinia, so we came; to widows in black, cold churches, candles and heat. We had escaped an England of husbands, fathers, almost- fathers and an upper-middle-class regime of cosmetic alcoholism. I was happy here because once again I slept in my mother's bed, hot against her sunburnt body.

We were in Bosa, surrounded by hills yet right on the sea. The sun-scorched fires and Carnevales in those mountains gave the air a taste of burnt nougat. I was six and sat alone on the beach, staring up at that threat of distant smoke. As the sun peeled my small shoulders red, Mum drank Campari at the local bar.

We had run out of money; we were privileged, but penniless. At sundown Mum would pick me up from the beach and we wandered past brimming restaurants, only to go home and slurp brodo (broth) in our single-room apartment that looked out on to a concrete wall.

That particular August evening, walking through the city's narrow streets, Mum and I met two mountain men, Banditos. I thought the dark-haired one looked down at me and said, "We will take you to the circus on the fire- mountain." It was probably more like, "Get lost, Bambina, we want to be with your mama!" Mum would never forfeit me for great Italian sex, so she grabbed my hand and firmly stated, "Figlia!" We were a team.

The men took us to dinner at a friendly place, steaming dishes filled the table. I stuffed velvet-lipped mussels deep into my throat; creamy gnocchi stained my dress; but I was defeated by the spaghetti bolognese. Too full, I fell asleep right in the bowl, my face buried in meat sauce. The next thing I remember was Italian women screaming "poverina!" and mum shouting "oufa!", her specially made-up Italian word.

We walked to their car. After my pleading, the men had promised to take us to the Carnevale in the mountains. I was thrilled. The long drive up was edged with soot, the grass verges cinder stubble. Sitting in the back seat with Mum, I wound down the window to inhale as the derelict Fiat 500 coughed up the hill. Then I heard it, the fairground noise; Carnevale. It was a big ice-cream van getting closer.

The men stopped the car. Mum nudged me to unlock and get out, she looked uneasy. Outside I peered through the darkness to locate the source of my favourite sounds. I looked up to the dark-haired guy and asked: "Are we going to go to the fair?" He just shrugged and threw his cigarette butt onto the already smouldering land. I tried to get Mum's attention but she was pinned against the dwarf car, already in a heated broken English- broken Italian argument with the other blonde man.

I walked over the grass verge to the very edge of the mountain. There were no barriers at the side of this road, unlike England. Looking up, I saw fairground lights, I could smell roasting meat, candy floss, toffee apples and nougat. There was distant laughter. On higher ground the hilltop fires were still burning.

The shouts of my mother and the blonde man were becoming frantic, mum began to scream. I looked away and stared down into the valley. It was wonderful. I saw the lights of the town where we lived. I tried to find our apartment and the beach. I remember thinking I could fly, lifting my arms into the wind and letting the breeze grip me under my armpits. Then there was nothing, just Mum's voice saying, "it's okay, Tiff, we're going down now."

Opening my eyes, I found myself wrapped around her body in the back of the smelly car. From my position I stared out of the rear window, saw height diminish and my Carnevale fade; my stomach sank. Turning in my mother's lap I found her hand easily.

But Mum tells the story differently. We were kidnapped. We stopped the car because she had insisted on going back. As the dark man took me to the mountain edge to show me the fair, the blonde guy put a gun to my mother's breast. "It was rather frightening," she said. "Still, I was bloody stupid to go up there with them. Especially alone with you. Two beautiful blondes in bandit country!"

The men made us get back in the car and drove for about three hours. They took us to their mother's house. When the old woman saw us she yelled at her sons. This had obviously happened before. She gave us food, but we didn't eat. Then the blonde one took me away and my mother began to scream again. He put me in one room of an outhouse and Mum in the other, always sure to show her his gun.

She told me, "they were all shouting at each other and you were hysterical," adding, "all I cared about was calming you down, so I talked to you through the wall. You know, things like, 'shall we go to the beach tomorrow, Tiff'. Finally you were quiet. You must have gone to sleep, so I waited."

It was then the blonde one went crazy. He came outside and started shooting at us. Mum said she yelled "Get down, get down!" to me. Glass from the windows flew everywhere. At last there was silence. Then she told me, "Well, I was just interested in your safety, so I gave him what he wanted. It was rather pathetic really."

She was raped at gunpoint. Later, it seemed, the other dark man felt either guilty or jealous, because after his brother had left my mother, he came into the room to calm her down. She said, "I worked on him, darling, if you know what I mean. I knew if I could get round him we'd have a chance." So, the darker brother took pity and in the middle of the night, bundled us off in the car and down the mountain. During the journey, sitting in the passenger seat, Mum had to "perform" for him, while I, always inquisitive, kept asking, "What are you doing, Mummy?"

"God, you were a bore!" she told me, laughing. I imagined myself, sat in the back of that old Fiat, innocent and finally calm, and I laughed too.

"When I got back to the town," said Mum, "I slapped that arsehole round the face. Yes, he'd driven us down, but I just wanted to hit the living daylights out of one of those bastards." She then got out of the car, grabbed me from the back, and that day wired for money from my grandparents and we flew home. I could still feel sand in my shoes when we walked into our house, the very same evening. Mum said she never bothered reporting it. "Please! A single, blonde foreigner and her daughter, willingly getting into their car. Are you mad?"

Mum has told me this story twice now, only because I've questioned her. She is neither broken nor hardened by the experience. She admits it was "horrible", saying, "I put it down to one of those things where I think, 'Gosh, I'll never do that again!'" She laughs when recounting her "stupidity", adding, "well, it was only a few years later they were kidnapping Italian rich kids for months on end. Luckily, we weren't rich enough." She says that by getting in the car she was "courting disaster" but stresses, "I'd be a lot more worried if it happened to me today. But then? As long as you are okay, that's all that matters."

My mother fears for me now, living in New York, alone in this foreign city of guns and crime statistics. But, unlike herself at 30, I am not naive, yet I'd love to be. I would never go off with strange men into equally strange mountains, but I'd still be tempted.

Yet for all my "awareness", all the street-smart Manhattan living I've done, I know I could never survive my mother's ordeal with such dignity and laughter. I can only hope I'll never have to.