Night life on the mountain

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There was a short item in Monday's local newspaper here in the Apennines about a car crash which badly injured una ballerina. Luz Stella Sanchez, 35, from Colombia, had crashed her Volkswagon Jetta into a tree at 5.35am last Sunday in a town called Meldola. I know Luz Stella. But I know her as Terry. She is not una ballerina. She is una spogliarellista, a stripper, at un night, a hostess club, in Meldola - a 15-minute drive from the redoubt where I am writing a biography of the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

The house I inhabit is perched on the side of a mountain 14 hairpin bends above a little town, Predappio, where Mussolini was born and is buried. My situation is very isolated. Often at night I hear strange snufflings at my door. There are porcupines here which are bigger than you think, plus the odd wolf. Sometimes I pluck up courage and open the door. But I see nothing.

Writing this book is a lonely business. So much of my time is spent seeking out people to speak to - especially women. This is why I know Terry. Terry is very small and very charming and I was sorry to hear that she had been injured. So I mentioned her crash to everyone in my local.

Genziano was sitting next to me. He, too, knows Terry - rather better than me. He is 44 and good-looking. But he has Parkinson's disease so he writhes and twitches uncontrollably, except when he takes pills which make him dreamy. He has been abandoned by his wife, Bruna, who has a small witch-on-a-broomstick tattoo on her left breast. I know because she showed me. Genziano is a car fanatic and was a mechanic before his illness struck. He still has cars which he soups up endlessly in a little garage below the flat where he now lives with his mother. Cars are the love of his life - cars and Terry. Genziano is a regular in the club where she works. He always asks for Terry.

Despite his illness Genziano is somehow still able to drive his favourite car, a tiny but extremely powerful bright-yellow Fiat Cinquecento. This little brute makes a fearful sound as, with him writhing and wrestling at the wheel, it bombs up the 18 hairpin bends from Predappio in the valley below, past my house, to our local next to the derelict castle above. I can hear him coming a mile off. He has no driving licence any more, let alone insurance. But the local carabinieri turn a blind eye. There is, after all, something heroic about him making it up the mountain by car. Having bombed up to the castle bar, where he eats ice-cream and drinks water, he then bombs off to the night in Meldola to see Terry. Before he sets out, Marina, the landlady of the bar, counts his money to see if he has enough to go the distance with Terry.

Sadly, this has all changed. It is not just that Terry is injured. A few weeks ago Genziano made the mistake of driving to the nearest city, Forli, 10 miles away. There, the carabinieri, who do not know him, stopped him, seized the car and fined him 2,000,000 lire (pounds 700). For a few days he used his reserve Cinquecento. But that is in his mother's name and she put her foot down. Now he cycles to the foot of the mountain, leaves his bicycle on the bridge over the river, and waits for people on their way up the mountain to give him a lift.

"I'm sure it was Terry in the crash," I said to everyone in the bar. Terry is the only Colombian in the night and the night is the only night in Meldola. "What kind of car did they say she had?" asked Genziano twitching and writhing. "A Volkswagon Jetta," I replied. "It's her. It's definitely her," he said, "lets go to see her, Nicola, in the hospital." But Marina, the landlady, soon put a stop to the idea. "No. No. The hospital will not let you two in, especially not you, Nicola!" she said. She was referring, I think, to my black hat. "Well, let's go to the night, then, Nicola. Come on," said Genziano. So off we went in my car after Marina, as usual, had counted Genziano's money.

It is strange to find such a place as this night in the middle of nowhere. It is even stranger to discover what creatures lurk within its small, dimly-lit spaces and alcoves. One regular is a chain-smoking doctor. The barman, Fabio, is about 30, bald, fat, short and a fascist. The barmaid, Marina, also about 30, is Russian and has a mean face and cropped blond hair. Early on in the Nato bombing of Serbia, she insisted I drink a B- 52 - a vile brown cocktail which is set fire to. You drink it via a straw through the flames. I nearly went up in flames. I am sure that is what she wanted to happen to the English warmonger in her midst.

With the war on, it is safer to order drinks from Fabio. He knows I am writing about his beloved Duce. He went through his usual ritual: Roman salute, click of the heels and misquote of Mussolini: "Better to live one day as a lion than one hundred as a sheep." I used to correct him: "One hundred years as a sheep." But I have given up. Then he prepared me the usual very strong Vodka Russian - 10,000 lire (pounds 3.50) which always has me thinking not bad by English standards.

Genziano disappeared to an even more dimly-lit bit of the night with one of the hostesses - not Terry. As I had feared, there was no sign of her. Vodka in hand, I studied the scene around me - the hostesses. Nearly all come from former Eastern bloc countries. Most are in their 20s. Like the grey squirrel, the Eastern European girls have forced out the Italian girls - the native red - even in remotest Meldola. Each girl is paid 150,000 lire (pounds 50) a night by the management - more if, like Terry, they strip as well. "For these girls that is a fortune, not us," Simona, one of the few native reds left, tells me. Simona is from Como, in the far north. "What do you tell your parents you do?" I asked her once. "That I'm a nurse," she said. We both laughed. For it is true.

Somewhere in the dimness I could hear Genziano writhing and wrestling about with his night nurse. Near me I could see Daisy the Bulgarian, Veronica the Czech and my favourite, Sharon the Croat - over six feet tall with blond hair down to her waist, a real warrior. I decided to talk to her. Talk, however, costs money - 30,000 lire (pounds 10) for a hostess's drink every 20 minutes. As usual, Sharon the Croat ordered a Messicano - a glass of water with a cherry in it. Many men see red when forced to fork out pounds 10 for a shot of water. The Messicano causes many rows in the Meldola night.

Sharon's real name is Jasna. She is a 30-year-old farmer's daughter and she knows the Serbs better than most. "Bad people. Very bad," she said. "What's going to happen in the war?" I asked. "Either it finishes soon or it is World War Three," she replied. "But the Russians have no money," I said. Sharon the Croat said nothing. But she had a big frown on her fine forehead. Eventually, Genziano came back - looking dishevelled. Somehow all his money had found its way from his wallet into one of his shoes, which was now in Giorgio the boss's hand. Giorgio put the shoe on the bar and extracted what Genziano owed. It was time to go. So off we went writhing and wrestling into the night. Nobody had mentioned Terry. I hope she is back soon. Genziano will be, I am sure. "I'm building a third Cinquecento," he told me on the way home. "This one's in my name."