Four Hundred and Forty Steps to the Sea

Four Hundred and Forty Steps to the Sea

by Sara Alexander


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In a richly romantic novel set in stunning Positano, Italy, Sara Alexander weaves a story of love, family loyalty, and sacrifice spanning five decades . . .
Nestled into the cliffs in southern Italy’s Amalfi coast, Positano is an artist’s vision, with rows of brightly hued houses perched above the sea and picturesque staircases meandering up and down the hillside. Santina, still a striking woman despite old age and the illness that saps her last strength, is spending her final days at her home, Villa San Vito. The magnificent eighteenth-century palazzo is very different from the tiny house in which she grew up. And as she decides its fate, she must confront the choices that led her here so long ago . . .
In 1949, Positano is as yet undiscovered by tourists, a beautiful, secluded village shaking off the dust of war. Hoping to escape poverty, young Santina takes domestic work in London, ultimately becoming a housekeeper to a distinguished British major and his creative, impulsive wife, Adeline. When they move to Positano, Santina returns with them, raising their daughter as Adeline’s mental health declines. With each passing year, Santina becomes more deeply enmeshed within the family, trying to navigate her complicated feelings for a man who is much more than an employer—while hiding secrets that could shatter the only home she knows . . .
Praise for Sara Alexander’s Under a Sardinian Sky
“Alexander paints a loving and breathtaking picture of the Mediterranean island, especially glorious descriptions of food. For readers who enjoy women’s fiction set against a background of momentous events and clashing cultures.” —Library Journal
“Will leave readers riveted until the explosive conclusion.”
—Publishers Weekly

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496715487
Publisher: Kensington
Publication date: 08/28/2018
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 362,472
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Sara Alexander graduated from Hampstead School, London, UK and went on to attend the University of Bristol, UK, graduating with a BA hons. in Theatre, Film & TV. She followed on to complete her postgraduate diploma in acting from Drama Studio London. She has worked extensively in the theatre, film and television industries, including roles in much loved productions such as Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, Doctor Who and Franco Zeffirelli’s Sparrow.

Read an Excerpt


Some days etch your soul. They leave scrawled scars of marrow-altering memory. Those days where you are tossed like a babe at sea, sensing the power and pull of that daunting watery mass threatening to obliterate. And despite the danger and the choking terror, you manage to wrench yourself toward the troubled sky and steal what little air you need to survive. Tuesday, November 15, of 1949 was to be a good day. Winter had been kind to us so far. The snows hadn't left us marooned. We had weathered the Germans and the Allies. We'd felt hunger and skimmed squalor by the meager amount my mother, brother, and I could gain from our truffle hunting up here in the damp crevices of the Amalfi coast's mountains.

Those mountain forests were my home. My mother was a goat; she leaped from stone to stone, fearless, focused, and precise. I never once saw her slip, neither lose balance nor plant any seed of fear into my brother nor I. We followed her lead, limber and lithe, racing against one another to see who might discover the most. My brother and I were cradled by the scent of damp moss since I can remember. That deep green underfoot carpeted our adventures. We took the view of our dramatic coastline for granted. From up here on our hills, we could see the lower mountains sharpen up and out of the cove of Positano with its viridian water. The tiny Sirenuse islands floated just beyond, haunted by those heartless sirens luring ancient Greek adventurers to their watery deaths. Farther in the distance lay Capri, a tiny mound rising up from the water, like the scale of an underwater dragon.

Sometimes we would pass an intrepid party of travelers walking our narrow Path of the Gods, stopping to admire the view as the mountain range snaked into the hazy distance toward the Bay of Naples. Sometimes we might come across them sat upon the occasional grass clearing, a light picnic laid before them. The salty smell of prosciutto and fresh bread made our mouths water. Mother would mutter through gritted teeth to not stare like stray dogs.

We dodged the sharp crags that jutted through the living forest floor, competing to see who could be the fastest. Mother would let us stop and drink the icy mountain water as it cascaded down toward the coast. While we knelt, numbing our hands and washing our faces, she taught us which mushrooms would kill us — I can't shake the feeling that it was her peculiar way of imparting self-defense. Perhaps one day a venomous fungus would save me from a predator after all? Up in the Amalfi mountains, the danger lurking in the dark was tangible to us hill folk. Its name was Hunger.

My father drank most of what we earned. I helped Ma with her laundry runs, watching her knuckles callus against the stone washer troughs in town. After the washing was done and delivered, we would climb over a thousand steps back up from the fishing town of Positano to Nocelle, weaving our cobbled journey through Amalfitani woods toward the small fraction nestled in the hilly periphery, and from there begin our scramble to our tiny house. Arriving home we'd either find my brother huddled in a corner by a dying fire with my father nowhere to be seen, or the latter tight with drink. I knew I would be damned for thinking it, but I hated that man. I hated the scars he left my mother with. The heavy hand my brother and I were dealt for the smallest trifle, but most of all the way my courageous mother, who spoke her mind to all the gossips by the well, who was first to put any man in his place who so much as dared look at her, was reduced to a quiver when my father was in one of his thunders. I ought to have brewed a fatal fungo broth for him and be done with it. Too late now.

That Tuesday — Martedi — the sky was full of rancor, like the planet Mars it's named after. The wind whipped from the sea and blew in a thick fog. Within minutes my mother was a gray silhouette. She slowed her pace a little, ahead of me. My shoes scuffed the damp boulders, dew seeping in through the tiny holes on the worn sole. Several times I lost my footing. Mother called back to us, "Santina! Marco! Stay where you are! It's not safe today — we'll turn back." We stopped, my little brother, Marco, a few paces behind me. I heard her footsteps approach, tip-tapping with familiar confidence. Then there was a ricochet of small rocks. A cry. Marco and I froze to the sound of more rocks tumbling just beyond where I could see. We called out. I heard my mother call back to us.

The silence that followed drained the blood from my face. My heart pounded. I called again. Marco started to cry. I couldn't hear my mother answer beyond his wails. I screamed at him to stop, but it just made him worse. I had little strength to stifle my panic. My brother took a step toward me. He slipped and fell, hitting his elbow hard on the sharp edge of a rock. His blood oozed crimson onto the moss. I yanked him up and wrapped my headscarf around his elbow. "We'll go home now," I began, trying to swallow my hot tears of terror. "I'll come back for Mamma when the sun is out, sì?" He nodded back at me, both of us choosing to believe my promise, fat tears rolling down his little cheeks.

We never saw our mother again.

Father's mourning consisted more of fretting about what to do with the incumbent children he had to feed than grieving the loss of the fine woman who had fallen to her death. One day he declared that I was to go and live down by the shore in Positano with Signora Cavaldi, the widow now running her late husband's produce store. In return for lodging and food, I was to assist her. I felt torn; delirious with the prospect of escape from the misery of life on the mountainside with this man for a father, and terror at what life would now entail for Marco. The next day, an uncle from Nocelle climbed up to speak with my father. Marco would be needed to tend to his farm. The deal was sealed. We were dispatched to new parents. I try to forget the expression on Marco's face as he was led away from me. He walked downhill, his reluctant hand in my uncle's, ripping a piece out of me with each step. I patched over the gaping hole and the fresh wound of my mother's death, with brittle bravado. My father would not see me cry. I wished that would have been the last time I ever saw him too.

* * *

Signora Cavaldi's shop was a cavern carved into the stubborn rock that enveloped the cove of Positano. She held a prime position between the mill and the laundry, minimizing competition. I now wonder whether that had more to do with her careful management of the town's politics and politicians or her not so secret connection with the men who protected the trade and tradesmen. I wouldn't like to guess whom she paid nor how much, or indeed how much others paid her, but my instinct tells me her tentacles stretched far and wide. I arrived wearing the only dress I owned, a smock of doleful gray, which matched my mood. She gave me the once-over and pieced together an opinion as deft as she would calculate someone's shopping bill. The woman was a wizard with numbers, that took me no time to figure out, but she loathed children.

"You're twelve now, Santina, sì?"

"Sì, Signora," I answered, trying to stop my left leg from shaking. It was an embarrassing habit since I had succumbed to polio as a younger child, and my withered calf always revealed too much about what I was feeling at any given time.

"You're here to work, yes? I'll give you two days to learn what we do, and I expect to never repeat myself, capisci?"

"Sì, I understand, Signora."

She set me to work immediately, sorting the produce, laying out chestnuts in baskets, polishing the scales that grew dirty again with the weighing of earth-dusted mushrooms. I cleaned the vats of oil, swept and scrubbed the floor. As the sun dipped, she called out for me to light the stove in the kitchen of the apartment upstairs and brew a broth for dinner. At first it struck me as a little out of my remit — I had been told that I would be served food in return for working, and I will admit the idea of having regular meals was exhilarating. However, my own cooking skills were not well honed — Mother and I permitted ourselves a full meal maybe once a week, and meat was scarce. I stood, hesitant, before the stove, in a strange kitchen not knowing where anything might be kept. I was loath to search amongst her things. I went downstairs. She scolded me for lacking initiative: "Look around you, mountain girl! We have a shop, the best grocers in the town. I have a clean kitchen, which you will keep pristine, and I want, thanks be to God, for very little. Don't let me see you down here until dinner is served." And with that she turned back toward the broccoli rabe, placing them in neat lines inside wooden crates ready for the following day.

I fought with several pans, finely chopped as many of the vegetables I could find that would not be good for selling the following day, dropped in a fist of barley, lentils, and parsley, and, eventually, there was a broth that would fill our stomachs. A little thin perhaps, and lacking in salt, as Signora Cavaldi was so quick to point out, but it was hot and reminded me that I was not on the mountains any longer.

I slept in a thin cot placed in the short hallway between Signora's room and her son, Paolino's, room. It was drafty but nothing like the limp damp of our stone mountain hut. I didn't hear my father's drunken snores — that was a degree toward comfort. Nor could I hear the soft breath of my mother, or feel Marco's fidgety feet scrambling against mine through his dreams. Silent tears trickled down my face. I felt the droplets inside my ears. I let the wetness dry there, hoping my prayers and love would reach Marco up in Nocelle, a thin line of golden thread. After a time I must have given in to sleep because the next thing I remember is Cavaldi blowing down her nose at me with strips of sun fighting into the hallway from her room.

The days merged into one, each as laborious as the one before. I was sent on deliveries, some as heavy as would warrant a porter and his donkey, but Cavaldi would not hear of it; if I had been sent down for her to look after, then it was my duty to earn my keep. I built quite a reputation amongst the porters in town, who ferried supplies up and down the steep alleys around the village. They called me Kid, alluding to my climbing skills as well as my age. It made me think of my mother. I was growing, at long last, and I noticed my muscles becoming more defined and strong. Sometimes the young boys would laugh at me for doing men's jobs. The local women were not so kind. The Positanese knew mountain people when they saw them. We had the outside about us, the air of the wild, a fearlessness which I'm sure was disconcerting. We lived closer to death than they.

When I turned sixteen, Paolino, who till then had paid me as much attention and courtesy as one might their own shadow, began speaking to me. It started in the spring, as we placed the first harvest of citrus in the crates. I liked to arrange them in an attractive pile, but Cavaldi always admonished me for trying to make art not money. I had a large cedro in each hand, what Americans always mistook for grapefruit. He called out to me, "Watch how you hold those fruits, eh, Santina? You make a boy have bad thoughts!" I looked at him, appalled, more for the fact that he had spoken directly to me than the inappropriate remark. I couldn't find an answer. I longed for my mother right then, to whisper a fiery return, but none came. I was mute. I had been silenced for the past four years. The sudden realization stung. I considered lobbing the fruits at him but channeled a pretense of calm. My cheeks reddened, which I know he mistook for paltry modesty, or worse, encouragement, then I fled back into the shop.

I don't know whether it was my nightly prayers, the incessant daydreams of life elsewhere, the relentless beckoning of my sea and its daily promise of potential escape, or the simple hand of fate, but three years later, on the afternoon of Friday, May 25th — venerdi, named after Venus, harbinger of love and tranquillity — two gentlemen entered my life and altered its course.

Mr. Benn and Mr. George were art dealers from London. They wore linen shirts in pastel shades, hid their eyes behind sunglasses, and spoke without moving their mouths very much. Mr. Benn was the smaller of the two and always held his head at a marginal incline as if he were trying to hear a song passing on the breeze or decipher messages from the shape-shifting clouds above. Mr. George was very tall and looked like he would do well to eat more pasta. His movements were slow and deliberate; his voice full of air. They admired the dancing shimmer of our emerald sea, the yellow of the mimosa tree outside Cavaldi's store, and knew that cedro fruits were for making exquisite mostarda, a thick jelly sliced thin to accompany cheese. I was easily impressed in those days.

During their stay in Positano, they made daily trips to the store, and I was happy to serve them because they always stopped to stitch together a frayed conversation in their limited Italian. They tried to tell me a little about life in London, while touching every cherry before judging which ought to be included in their half-kilo's worth. Their words spun another world before me, crisp, colorful pictures of a life I craved. I listened as Mr. Benn offered a steady commentary on what Mr. George was well advised to buy. It was a wondrous thing for me to witness lives that could afford a month's stay in a tiny Italian town. All sorts of fantasies seared my overused imagination when I served them, underscored with a restlessness that pounded louder for each day I remained within Cavaldi's prison-like walls.

Every morning, they would stop by and ask what they ought to cook with the fresh zucchini, whether the flowers were better in risotto or fried? How long I'd char an eggplant for and which olive oil would be best for sofritto — finely cut celery, onion, and carrot — and which would be best for drizzling over finely chopped radicchio? I began to look forward to their visits, a beacon of beauty amidst the relentless purgatory of life with Cavaldi. The obvious pleasure they took in enjoying our food made me feel proud. Their enthusiasm about our tomatoes made me wonder whether us locals appreciated the miracle of our bounty, as well as what on earth London art dealers must eat throughout the year to make our simple groceries so compelling?

As we approached the end of June, I had shared most of the recipes I knew, and sometimes, part for folly, part for necessity — as my repertoire was running thin — I'd invent ideas on the spot, improvising appropriate vegetable pairings, hoping they might work in real life too. I remember them arriving at the store, and I prepared myself for a tour of the day's deliveries. I'd been hatching a few ideas for light summery lunches that I had an inkling they'd enjoy when they asked me something unrelated to anything we'd spoken about before: Would I consider working for them in London in return for papers to America?

I will never forget that day. The way the sun bleached their white faces and lit up their pale yellow collars — they often wore the same shade. Their smiling faces are etched in my mind. Behind them, the ever increasing surge of tourism strolled past the shop. I remember watching the crowd smudge into a sun-kissed blur, the feel of the cold dark shop behind me, and that compelling stone path out of this town, away from this miserable life and the battleaxe for whom I would never be any more than a mountain-girl lackey. They must have known I would have said yes before they'd even finished the invitation. Perhaps I ought to have asked more questions, known what would have been truly expected of me, but the craving for freedom, for air, was too powerful. I think if I'd been even bolder I might have thrown off my apron there and then and walked with them straight onto their ship from the Bay of Naples with nothing but my smock. As it turned out, that was not so far from the truth. On July 1, 1956, I became part of the Neapolitan throng shuffling along the streets of London, in search of gold.


Excerpted from "Four Hundred and Forty Steps to the Sea"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Sara Alexander.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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