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struggling mortician in working-class Rome, Freda only married her repulsive ventriloquist husband, Alberto, because it was prophesied that she'd do so. Now that he's vanished mysteriously along with his equally abhorrent dummy (who Freda suspects is actually a midget), she'd like them both to stay missing — though she's devastated by the simultaneous disappearance of her soul mate, Pierino, her beloved talking parrot. While the police investigate this series of possible crimes, Freda will continue embalming by ...
struggling mortician in working-class Rome, Freda only married her repulsive ventriloquist husband, Alberto, because it was prophesied that she'd do so. Now that he's vanished mysteriously along with his equally abhorrent dummy (who Freda suspects is actually a midget), she'd like them both to stay missing — though she's devastated by the simultaneous disappearance of her soul mate, Pierino, her beloved talking parrot. While the police investigate this series of possible crimes, Freda will continue embalming by day, unleashing her caged passions at night in a seedy cabaret (until a tragic fire leaves the proprietor with a tuba stuck on his head), trying to make do with a talking hamster in lieu of dear Pierino . . . and recalling the vagaries of life that led her to this unfortunate juncture.
I struggled up the stone steps clutching a plucked chicken to my chest. Squashed under my arm was the carton containing the new wig and the squeakers; my basket was laden with raspberries, red peppers, pancetta, and broad beans; and as I fumbled for my key in the string bag containing the library books, it came to my attention that my front door was cordoned off by tape. What could be going on? Was there wet paint? Nobody told me there was to be maintenance. I hesitated, and a tall man appeared in my doorway.
"Please come inside, and try to remain calm."
He pushed the tape aside to allow me in. There was scarcely room for us both in the narrow passage. I could smell the garlic and the anchovies from his lunch on his breath. Tiny globules of sweat clung to his upper lip. In the dim light he was inhaling me, and his eyes were glued to my chicken. They were a little bloodshot, and filled with hunger. His suit was rumpled. It was clear he was a detective.
"What is it?" I asked faintly. "Is it Fiamma?" My sister was scornful of the dangers she faced, but I had long lived in dread of a moment like this one.
"It's your husband, signora," he breathed, allowing my heart to start beating again. Fiamma was safe.
"He has been taken," the Detective continued, "and your apartment has been ransacked."
"Taken?" I repeated, not understanding him.
"He has been seized. Disappeared. You know the way things are, signora; it is unlikely you will ever see him again."
Alberto seized! It hardly seemed likely. I had heard about such disappearances, of course, but why would anybody want Alberto? It had to be a mistake. If he had been taken, they would soon realize their error and release him. I had no doubt he would be back in time for his supper, and this being Saturday, he would be expecting chicken with scorched pepper sauce. As my brain raced ahead to tonight's dinner, the Detective seemed to expand and fill the passage completely. I became aware, as we faced each other, that his body was now touching mine and his breathing was slow and heavy. The appearance of a second man emerging from the parlor filled the corridor beyond capacity. I was struck by the way the second man's earlobes had continued growing down the sides of his neck until they reached almost to his shoulders.
"I've finished, sir," he said, and pointed with his head to the clear plastic bag he was carrying. "Just some items we're taking away as evidence, signora." I couldn't be sure, but I thought I could detect some items of my underwear in the bag. What could they want with those?
The man in charge grappled for some time with his hand in his pocket. It felt as though he was examining my thighs, but it was only because we were all pressed so closely together. His subordinate was in fear for his wallet, I could tell. After a delay, during which time seemed to warp and stretch, he finally fished out a card and handed it to me. Like his suit, it was crumpled and slightly damp. Although the writing was smudged, I could make out the words, "Paolo Balbini, Polizia Municipale, Roma 17," and a number at headquarters.
"It is unlikely they will try to contact you, signora," he said, "but if they do, or even if they do not, you have my number."
Finally they squeezed out past me onto the more spacious landing. The backward glances Signor Balbini threw me showed how much it hurt him to leave. I said nothing, but shut the door behind them.
My brain, and my mouth, seemed both to have dried up. It felt like a dream. Just a few minutes ago everything had been normal. It was Saturday. I had gone into work for a couple of hours--there had been a number of murders during the night, and Signora Dorotea needed my assistance in masking some bullet holes and reconstructing a nose that had been blown off in an explosion. Then I met Fiamma for coffee at Bobrini's. She had just returned from a fact-finding mission to Bolivia, and was covered in ulcers from poisoned fish served at the official banquet. She couldn't face any food, so I ate all the pasticcini myself and I have to say they were delicious. Then she was driven away by her chauffeur, Pesco, to an emergency summit at the Ministry, and I ran my errands. I returned my library books, and picked out three new ones, collected Alberto's order from the theatrical trickster's in the Corso, took my funeral suit into the dry cleaner's, and then did my shopping at the market stalls in the Campo dei Fiori.
Every Saturday was the same. Now this.
I walked through the rooms with the feeling I was acting a part in a film. Everything was in such a mess. It was as though a huge and hideous monster had swallowed my contents and regurgitated them, partially digested. It was awful, but worse was to come: when I stumbled into the parlor, I found Pierino's cage overturned and empty. Frantically I searched the ruins, but he was gone. I ran to the windows, squinting into the sunlight, to try and spot him, but there was no sign of him. Opposite, slouching in the doorway of the Belbo Forno, I identified the form of Detective Balbini. He was looking up at me, and hurriedly I slammed the shutters.
Excerpted from Cabaret by Lily Prior Copyright © 2005 by Lily Prior.
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Freda Lippi comes home one day to find her front door cordoned off by tape and her apartment full of police. A detective informs her that her husband, Alberto, has been "taken," and that her apartment has been ransacked. This news confuses Freda, but what really frightens her is that her beloved parrot, Pierino, has escaped. She seems strangely detached from the mess in her home and the disappearance of her husband, but runs through the streets frantically calling for Pierino. What has happened to Freda's husband? Why is the parrot more important to her? And who left a red rose on the pillow of her bed? With these questions, Lily Prior begins to weave the hypnotic riddle that runs through Cabaret like an enticing melody.
"I walked through the rooms with the feeling I was acting a part in a film," [Page 6] Freda tells us, and as she narrates the story of her life we learn that Freda never feels quite connected to her own life. She has married a man she despises, and in order to explain this she must reconstruct the story of her eccentric family and the shocking accident that changed her life. On Freda's sixteenth birthday her mother, a Cabaret singer, was killed in a freak car accident as her sister drove the family to spend a day at the beach. Before her mother dies in the hospital she makes a prediction for Freda, saying that she sees a ventriloquist in her future. Freda takes this to mean that she must find a ventriloquist to marry, and sets out on a quest to accomplish this. From a horrifically funny cruise to see the Pyramids of Egypt, to a sexual obsession with a detective who seems to be everywhere at once, and finally to a job as a Cabaret singer, Freda tries to solve the riddle of her own life.
With her characteristic humor and sensual prose, Lily Prior gives us a world where the boundary between dreams and reality is constantly shifting. And in this lush novel, she has created a heroine whose tragicomic quest is not only human but particularly female. Freda is driven by desires and curiosities with which any reader can identify -- she wants to be happy, she wants to have a great sex life, and she wants to express herself freely. Are her desires satisfied? Does the story have a happy ending? Is the riddle solved? Prior knows that life is ambiguous, and the end of this novel will leave readers both wondering and entertained.
Questions for Discussion
About the Author
Lily Prior is the author of La Cucina, Nectar, and Ardor. With her husband, Chris, and pug, Norman, she divides her time between London and Italy, where she finds inspiration for her novels.