The strange thing was that inside that concealed hollow some trees had grown. Sheltered from the wind and sun there was a little oak wood. And an abandoned house, with a ramshackle roof, brown tiles and dark beams, stood out among the green foliage.
We went down the path and entered the valley.
It was the last thing I would have expected. Trees. Shade. Cool.
You couldn't hear the crickets any more, only the twittering of birds. There were purple cyclamen. And carpets of green ivy. And a pleasant smell. It made you feel like finding yourself a cosy little spot by a tree trunk and having a nap.
Salvatore appeared suddenly, like a ghost. 'What do you think of this place then? Isn't it great?'
'Fantastic!' I replied, looking around. Maybe there was a stream to drink from.
'What took you so long? I thought you'd gone back down.'
'No, my sister's foot was hurting, so . . . I'm thirsty, I need a drink.'
Salvatore took a bottle out of his rucksack. 'There's not much left.'
Maria and I went halves. It was barely enough to wet our lips.
'Who won the race?' I was worried about the forfeit. I was worn out. I hoped Skull, for once, might let me off or postpone it to another day.
'Where did you come?'
'Second. Remo was third.'
'What about Barbara?'
'Who's got to do the forfeit?'
'Skull says Barbara's got to do it. But Barbara says you've got to do it because you came last.'
'I don't know, I went off for a walk. I'm fed up with all these forfeits.'
We started walking towards the farmhouse.
It was a really tumbledown place. It stood in the middle of a clearing covered by the branches of the oaks. Deep cracks ran up from the foundations to the roof. All that was left of the window-panes was a few shards. A fig tree, all tangled, had overgrown the stairway that led up to the balcony. The roots had dismantled the stone steps and brought down the parapet. At the top there was still an old light-blue door, rotten to the core and peeled by the sun. In the middle of the building a big arch opened on to a room with a vaulted ceiling. A cowshed. Rusty props and wooden poles supported the upper floor, which in many places had fallen through. The ground was littered with dried-up dung, ash, and heaps of broken tiles and brick. The walls had lost most of their plaster and showed the dry stonework behind.
Skull was sitting on a water tank. He was throwing stones at a rusty drum and watching us. 'You made it.' And he added pointedly: 'This place is mine.'
'What do you mean it's yours?'
'I saw it first. Finders keepers.'
I was pushed forward and nearly fell flat on my face. I turned round.
Barbara, with red face, dirty T-shirt and ruffled hair, came at me, spoiling for a punch-up. 'You've got to do it. You came last. You lost!'
I put up my fists. 'I went back. Otherwise I'd have been third. You know that.'
'So what? You lost!'
'Who's got to do the forfeit?' I asked Skull. 'Me or her?'
He took his time before answering, then pointed at Barbara.
'See? See?' I loved Skull.
Barbara started kicking at the dust. 'It's not fair! It's not fair! Always me! Why's it always me?'
I didn't know why. But even then I knew that someone always gets all the bad luck. During those days it was Barbara Mura, the fat girl, she was the lamb that took away the sins.
I was sorry, but I was glad I wasn't in her shoes.
Barbara stomped round among us like a rhinoceros.
Excerpted from I'm Not Scared by Niccolò Ammaniti. Copyright Niccolò Ammaniti 2002 all rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Canongate Publishing. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the publisher.
Translated from the Italian by Jonathan Hunt.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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