The Bobici House

Manuscript Type
Logline or Premise
World War 2 is over. Yugoslav Communists march into Nazi-occupied Italy to wreak their revenge. In a peasant village, a woman has disappeared. Is she in hiding? Is she on the run? Or has she been flung down a sinkhole to die in the belly of the earth as a traitor? Only one man knows the truth.
First 10 Pages



Torente, Istria, 1919

Caterina is pretty sure she can outrun the Fioretti boys, but she isn’t sure if she can outrun their father. She pushes onto tiptoes and peers over the stone wall into their orchard again. All she can make out is three silhouettes, father and two sons, a short hoop roll away, over by the storehouse. It isn’t yet dawn, and the neat rows of fruit trees are still tucked up in the indigo mist of the night before. The Bora wind is up, though, shaking the orchard awake by the leaves and leaning its icy weight against Caterina’s hemp shirt and trousers, the June morning suddenly January. She pulls her flat cap down over her ears, but it bobs straight back up, the brown curls stuffed underneath having ideas of their own.

She studies the figs, drooping low off the branches, and smiles. It was worth walking all the way out here. The Fiorettis’ orchard is on the edge of the village, past the butcher’s field and a fair puff up the lane that leads towards the farming land. Whilst the ground in the centre of Torente is all rocks — inhospitable, sandy — out here the soil is red and fertile, and these figs are the proof: as big as Caterina’s fist.

It is too shadowy to see, but she can picture their purple skins starting to tear, the sweet syrup readying to ooze through the cracks; she can taste it on her tongue, sense the gritty crunch of seeds between her teeth. Her mother says that if you imagine things hard enough, they become as real as the real things. Caterina’s empty stomach rumbles in disagreement.

The only thing standing in her way is the Fiorettis. Caterina is twelve now — well into double figures — and she’s nippy and she knows it; especially dressed in her brother’s old clothes, with no petticoats to get in her way. But the Fioretti boys look tall. Dark tendrils of hair hang from their heads like dirty mops, as they bend over the wheel of their cart, trying to fix something, it seems. What are the chances of finding them up this early?

As a rule, everyone in Torente wakes with the cockerel. Except for Caterina, that is, who uses her father’s old pocket watch with its tinny alarm to get ahead; that way, she can forage for food before anyone else is awake. Only three mouths in her family left to feed now: her mama, her sister and her.

She usually avoids the orchard. Since the war, the other village children have started calling Papa Fioretti ‘La Bestia, The Beast’. They say he lost his mind on the Isonzo Front; that if he catches you stealing, he’ll yank off his boots and beat you with the hobnails until the flesh falls off your backside and all you have left to sit on is bone — it happened, it happened to someone’s brother’s friend, it really did.

The sons are maniacs, too, apparently. There is some story about the shop cat being found yowling on the church steps, stabbed all over like a pin cushion, blood gushing from the wounds in its white belly-fur; and the Fioretti boys were to blame.

They sound like tall tales to Caterina, as so many village rumours do. But ‘every tall tale has a pinch of truth,’ as her mother used to say with a twinkle in her eye, back when her mother’s eyes used to twinkle.

She wonders what the gossiping voices say about Mama.

Oh, Mama.

Caterina will take two figs: one for her mama as well.

And the first?

Well, the first fig is for Mora, of course.

Maria ‘Mora’ Mitton is Caterina’s best friend in the whole wide world. They met in the war camp and became best friends and nothing could ever tear them apart. They’ve taken an oath and spat on their hands before shaking and everything. But then yesterday evening, Mora’s mother said…

Caterina takes a sudden deep breath and tilts her head towards the sky. The darkness is as thick as ox dung, not a single star able to reach through.

It is all right.

She will get the figs and everything will be all right.

There is a smudge of movement in the orchard; Caterina drops her heels and dips behind the wall, then peers back over. The Fioretti boys are standing up straight now. They are even taller than she expected. Similar heights. One perhaps fourteen, the other fifteen? And Papa Fioretti looks as big as everyone says: wide as a shed door with huge hands for a hiding.

Huge feet too, no doubt. Huge boots. To tear your bottom to the bone.

But Caterina needs those figs.

Pah! The Fiorettis probably made up those stories themselves — that’s what she would do, if she were them: spread some fear through the village to stop hungry children like her stripping the orchard bare.

Or hungry adults.

Because almost everyone in Torente is hungrier than they’d like to be. When the Great War struck, the whole community was carted off: the men to the battlefields, the women and children to the internment camps. And when they arrived back last year (those of them who were left) the Spanish flu followed them home; most families are only just beginning to get their overgrown fields back in shape.

But the Fiorettis have been lucky with their orchard. Caterina has heard the pointed voices in the queue for the water pit: ‘Trees look after themselves’. People say it about her best friend Mora’s family too, with their olive groves. And it is true, just look at these fig trees: leafy and proud, bearing fruit as if the war had never happened.

Why should the Fiorettis have all this when she has nothing? Caterina shouldn’t just take a couple of figs, she should pluck up a whole sapling. She can see a few: shy little shoots with two or three leaves, nestling between the tall trunks. They make her think of her little brother, Pipo, hiding under her big brother Giulio’s legs, his blonde hair fierce against Giulio’s black trousers; the same trousers Caterina is wearing at this very moment. She reaches down and runs a hand across her thigh.

If Giulio could see her now! ‘Mia sorellina è casinista come noi maschietti!’ he had once said to his friends. ‘My little sister is a troublemaker like us boys!’

Caterina expects a picture of Giulio’s face to present itself in her mind, but all that comes is the memory of his voice, freshly deepened with age as it was just before the war. But his face? She begins to scrabble around inside her head, suddenly unsure if it was even Giulio who had said that. ‘A troublemaker like us boys.’ Had it been her biggest brother, Arduino?

Or Frane, maybe?

Or Michele. Or Giovanni or Sandro or Cìo or Pipo or…

Well, no, not Tomaso; not the baby.

One by one, Caterina reaches for her dead brothers’ faces but they rise like smoke, mingling to form one big cloud, floating higher and higher. She is jumping for them, but even if she could fling herself as high as the sky, there’d be nothing solid to grasp hold of.

Tomaso; baby Tomaso is the only one who is distinct. And yet he is the only one Caterina wants to forget. She wants to send him up too: up, up to the sky — the sticky cheeks and the silky feet and the plump, pulpy weight of him — to get it gone, get it off, get it —

Caterina slams her hand against her chest to shock the thoughts away. This isn’t the moment; she needs to focus. It is after four and the dawn light will start creeping up on her soon: if she wants any hope of taking her figs without the Fiorettis seeing, she needs to act now.

She slams her hand again. Come on, Caterina, steady your breath.

As she hooks her fingers on the top of the wall, rough to the touch, a chill shudders up her spine. But Caterina isn’t scared of the Fiorettis. She isn’t scared of anything. And even if she was — which she isn’t — but even if she was, she enjoys being afraid, it makes her heart beat loud in her ears, she can hear it right now, it makes her feel alive. She may have lost every one of her nine brothers to the war, but she is still here. For the moment, at least.

As fast as a dance, she hoists her leg and wedges a grimy toe into a crevice between the stones. Then, one, two, three, she presses herself up, resting her belly on the top of the wall and reaching two confident hands towards the closest tree. One fig, two figs. They slip from the branch easily, a sure sign they are as soft as she hoped — but, wait, a little too easily. Her arms shoot downwards, pivoting her headfirst into the orchard. Caterina strikes a forearm against the inner side of the wall to save herself, biting down on a yelp of pain and dropping one of the figs, as she propels herself back up and over into the lane.

With a dusty thump, Caterina lands back where she began. She freezes in place, scouring the darkness for sounds of the Fiorettis, fear pulsing in her veins.



A dip in the wind. Stillness.

They haven’t noticed her. She is safe.

Caterina lets out the breath she didn’t realise she’d been holding and eases herself to her feet, resting her weight on one ankle and then the other: no damage done. Her forearm is hurting though and she sucks at the graze as she creeps away up the lane, making it sting with an acuteness that is almost exquisite.

In her left hand, she cradles the fig, tenderly, as if it were a newborn chick. It fills her whole palm! She bobs it up and down, admiring its weight. Such a shame that she only managed to take one.

Caterina can picture Mora’s face when she sees it: her best friend will smile that big smile that makes her eyes pinch together until they almost vanish. And Mora’s mother, Teresa, will say, ‘Caterina, you can come inside the Bobici House whenever you wish, if you bring such gifts as this.’

Thoughts of Caterina’s own mama puncture the reverie: the skin on her face, soggy and grey, everything sunken. What about the fig for Mama? Would it — could it — be enough to tempt her back towards her old self, even for the briefest of moments?

Caterina’s feet stop moving.


She’ll reach back over and snatch another fig.

In one swift move, she runs back towards the orchard and hoists herself up onto the wall. The Fiorettis are unpacking empty crates from the cart; they have no idea that she is there, let alone that she’s already stolen from them. Her chest swells with satisfaction. Perhaps she will come back every morning, if it is this easy.

It is when she is mid-stretch towards the nearest tree that the boys turn their heads — who knows what makes them do it. As sure as a punch in the stomach, Caterina knows that they’ve seen her.

She abandons the second fig and lets herself drop, leaden, back into the lane. Her heart drumming, her hands tingling, she presses her body against the wall, willing herself to disappear into it. A surge of wind screams between the gaps in the stones.

Li’, nel sentiero! There, in the lane!’

‘Don’t worry, Papa, we’ll catch this dirty thief for you.’

‘Yeah, we’ll make him suffer.’

Caterina flops forwards. She lets out an audible giggle. What a joke! The Fioretti boys are so much younger than she thought — one ten, the other maybe even nine? — their voices are still high.

‘Leave it, boys,’ the father booms, ‘I need your help here.’

‘But we can’t let him get away with it or everyone’ll be round.’

Caterina grins, if only they knew she was a girl. She turns to waggle the fig above the wall for the little boys to see.

‘I said leave it!’ comes the father’s voice, louder now.

Caterina is pretending her fig has legs, making it ‘walk’ along the wall. The boys must have seen, as she can hear them getting closer, feet scuffing on dry grass. She readies herself to start running: she doesn’t want to set off too soon, it would be unfair to give herself too much of a head start.

‘It won’t take long, Papa. Antonio’s got his bow!’

His bow? His bow? What, a pretty pink one to pin back his lovely, floppy hair? Caterina is laughing to herself again when something blurs through the shadows beside her head and lands with a neat thud in the lane. She snatches it up. It is a branch, whittled straight. At one end, beaten in the wrong way round, so the sharp point is sticking out, there is a metal nail as long as her finger.

Her breath quickens. She thinks of the shop cat.

Another arrow thuds down in the dust. Two murky figures are pulling themselves up onto the wall, the whites of their eyes blazing through the darkness. Her fig in her hand, her heart in her ears, Caterina starts to run, run, run, the loose rocks on the dirt lane nipping at her bare feet as she goes.

The path is straight as a church aisle with gaping fields on either side and there is nowhere to hide. Caterina darts left and right as she runs: she has played catapults enough to know what a difference a moving target can make. With her brothers she’d shoot bottle caps, though, or sometimes scrunched up paper bags; the Fioretti boys are actually trying to wound her. But they are such terrible shots it’s hardly worth worrying. An arrow hits the ground ahead of her; another skids into the dust way over to her left. Caterina wants to turn back and stick her tongue out at them, but they probably wouldn’t notice, they are so busy bickering:

‘Give me the bow, it’s my turn.’

‘Let go, testa di cazzo, it’s mine.’

‘I’m a better shot!’

‘Go and pick up the arrows.’

‘We’ve got to keep moving or we’ll lose him.’

Caterina hurtles on. Dark shapes hovering at the side of the lane tell her she has reached the butcher’s field. Two cows reach their heads through the log fence, eager to watch the spectacle. She is struck by their smiling eyes. They have no idea what fate has in store for them when ‘meat day’ arrives. She wonders if it is better to know when your time is going to come or not. Part of her wants to be told upfront how long she has — when, how her own ‘meat day’ will happen. And yet there is a certain sparkle to the mystery. In a backwards way, it is something to live for: waiting to find out your own ending.

In that moment, an arrow soars so close to her head that she hears it gasp in her ear. Or was that her gasping? Either way, the shock sends her reeling and she staggers, dropping down onto all fours.

‘Got him.’

‘No you didn’t, stronzo, he’s running again — quickly, now, take the shot!’

‘Merda! I’m out of arrows.’

‘Let’s catch him then, beat him to a pulp.’

Relief floods through Caterina as she reaches the end of the lane and looks up to see the village of Torente standing proud in the gloom before her. Its slim, grey houses are crowded tight like a carnival throng, straining to see over each other’s shoulders, their red roofs all different heights, with the church and bell tower sitting smugly at the top of the pile. She needs to get up into the centre, where the streets rise in a hopeless tangle: shaking off the boys will be easy up there.

She can hear the Fiorettis’ boots pounding the dust behind her and keeps up pace as she arrives in Piazza la Musa, the only square in the lower part of Torente. As always, when she passes through the village at this eerie, in-between hour — not yet day, no longer night — she is struck by everything that isn’t. There are no grappa-soaked men slurring outside Cancellieri’s bar, no catchy drinking songs to lure their way into her head; there are no women buzzing around the communal oven, no fresh bread to torment her nostrils.

Nothing but emptiness.

Usually that is what she loves most about this time of the morning, but she’s never played chase in these conditions and feels exposed amongst the great crowd of nobody. She cuts across the centre of the piazza, past the statue of some Austro-Hungarian ruler, his bronze boots and plinth splashed with drunken vomit — no glory due to him since war has returned the village to Italian rule.

Ti uccidiamo, stronza! We’re going to kill you, you piece of shit!’

The Fiorettis are close on her tail. But their squeaky voices! They really are pathetic. She considers stopping and giving them the straight-up fight they seem to want. Back in the war camp, Caterina’s brothers, Cìo and Giorgio, would spend whole afternoons training her to fight around the back of the barrack huts, before setting her on their friends. Boys two whole years older were afraid of her. The Fioretti squirts should be quaking in their boots.

But there are two of them, armed with goodness knows what, and if she hurts them, what will people say? There are already enough rumours about her family swirling through the narrow streets of Torente, the last thing she needs is another.


Nikki Vallance Mon, 31/07/2023 - 16:25

Loved the action, the planting of seeds of the story to come, the boldness of Caterina. The description of the figs is juicy and I particularly liked this line. 'She isn’t scared of anything. And even if she was — which she isn’t — but even if she was, she enjoys being afraid' I want to read more!

Tracy Stewart Tue, 08/08/2023 - 18:07

This extract has me wanting to read on. The writing is crisp and clear, I could feel myself in Caterina's shoes reaching for the figs.

I'm intrigued by the premise, it's an interesting angle to take, following events directly after the war, in a small village as opposed to the more obvious and well-explored larger towns and cities.

The characters and locations are well-framed and the pace of storytelling is well-done. Excellent potential here.

Ayesha Farhat Sat, 30/09/2023 - 20:45

Congratulations Hannah on making it to the shortlist! Lovely to see your name here in the shortlistees! We met briefly on Anna Davis' Rewrite Doctor course this summer :)