When Ann Hathaway, a striking 23-year-old blonde from Middleton, Rochdale, went on holiday to Rome with a few friends, she joked about meeting a handsome rich Italian.
She did meet a Sicilian, Antonio Rinzivillo, every bit the Latin stereotype in sharp suits with slicked-back hair. A few months later, in May 1987, she married him in Rochdale register office. If she didn't know then, she would shortly learn that he was one of several sons of a powerful Mafia family who were heavily involved in the international drug trade.
Weddings are usually lavish occasions for men of honour, occasions for their friends to show respect and for them to display their wealth and success. But Rinzivillo couldn't manage a big wedding at that point. He was already wanted by the Italian police for attempted murder.
She moved with him to his home town, the charmless industrial city of Gela on the south coast of Sicily, where she learnt to speak in the local dialect, but never lost her strong Lancashire accent.
A few years after they settled down, he was arrested, and she began a life measured around the drudgery of prison visits. She experienced the hard reality of life as a Mafia wife; the loneliness and continual stress of a world ruled by violence.
Then, in January, she was arrested by officers from Scotland Yard's extradition unit. According to Italian prosecutors, over two decades Hathaway had been transformed from an ordinary working-class woman from Middleton into a Sicilian Mafia godmother.
Hathaway was accused of running her husband's Mob empire while he served 30 years for murder and drug-trafficking. The British housewife was held in isolation at Agrigento in Sicily - a region famed for its Mafia domination. She was watched 24 hours a day by an armed guard because of fears that gangsters would try to silence her.
The Mafia code of honour dictates that anyone who betrays the organisation must die, and no one is exempt, including wives and children, so the state provides round-the-clock protection for anyone who has decided to spill the beans.
Then, as suddenly as she was arrested, Hathaway was last week released after striking a plea bargain in which she admitted Mafia associations. She was given a two-year suspended jail sentence with a five-year probation. Her remarkable story provides a rare glimpse into a dangerous world that most of us only ever see in films or on television.
'This experience has destroyed me,' Hathaway said at a press conference. But it had not shaken her staunch loyalty.
Asked whether she would marry Rinzivillo again if she had the chance, she said: 'Of course I would. I love him. He is the father of my two children.' About the four months spent in a Sicilian jail, the 44-year-old added: 'I was kept in isolation and had a shower only three times a week. In England, prison was completely different. It was like being in a hotel. We had a pool, I was able to use the phone and my children visited me. Now I just want to get back to my children. I won't have to work, as the state will look after us and pay for us until my daughter is 16 years old.'
On Sunday night Hathaway flew back to Manchester airport to be greeted by dozens of cheering friends and family. At her home on Green Street, shiny 'welcome home' banners were slung over the windows and the cards were just visible through the slats of the blinds.
Her sister-in-law, Tammy Hathaway, said she was overjoyed to be back but added: 'She's a bit quiet at the moment. She's been through a lot.' Otherwise, it was as if neighbours and family had taken a vow of silence. One man turned his back and muttered that he was frightened of the consequences if he talked.
Few wanted their names to be associated with Hathaway's astonishing story. The Rinzivillo family that Hathaway married into, who controlled the town of Gela, are said to be worth at least £42 million, from trafficking in everything from meat to guns, and laundering drug money through businesses owned by front men. The family gained a powerful position in the organisation through its strong links to Piddu Madonia, godfather of Caltanissetta and second-in-command to the boss of bosses, Bernardo Provenzano.
The Rinzivillos were engaged in a long and bloody feud for control of Gela in which 180 people were killed in less than five years, including two of Antonio's brothers. Another man was murdered in classic Cosa Nostra style, like the New York Mob boss Albert Anastasia, in the barber's chair.
In 2002 Rinzivillo was arrested in Milan, along with 31 members of his Mafia clan, including his younger twin brothers, Crocefisso ('Crucifix') and Salvatore. He was sentenced to 30 years for the murder of a Milan lawyer, Antonio Mirabile, and held under the maximum-security arrangements for mafiosi. Hathaway was allowed to visit twice a month - the only living soul, apart from his lawyer, he was permitted to see - and they talked on phones through a plexiglass screen. She never missed a visit. Every conversation in the prison visiting room was recorded, and every phone call monitored; the police became convinced she was working for him.
It emerged that her husband relied on her to take messages out to his captains, and keep him informed about what was happening on the outside. She travelled between Milan and Gela, making sure businesses kept up their payments. 'Her husband had no way of contacting the outside world other than though his wife,' said Caltanissetta prosecutor Nicolo Martino. 'She is his go-between, she has the authority to represent him, and claim payments in his name. She was treated with the respect and deference his name commanded.
'From the conversations we heard, she was clearly accustomed to managing his business affairs and collecting payments. She even represented the family at an important Mafia wedding.'
In November last year Hathaway moved back to England. She and her daughters moved into a small rented house in Middleton, outside Manchester, near her parents, John and Norma. The pokey suburban terrace with leaded windows was a major comedown after the lifestyle she was used to, but she put a brave face on it, and posted a cheery message on Friends Reunited, saying, 'Decided to give old England a go!'
There was a time when women were considered too subservient to take any active part in their husbands' business; one judge ruled in 1983 that women were too stupid to understand the 'difficult world of business'. But after the authorities cracked down on the Mafia, and introduced maximum-security conditions for convicted mafiosi, women became essential in the day-to-day running of the organisation. They had no previous convictions and, most important, they had access to prisoners.
New anti-Mafia laws had made it possible for the authorities to seize assets from suspected mafiosi, so it became increasingly important for a boss to have someone above suspicion on the outside (ideally his wife, mother or girlfriend) who could launder money through business investments or property.
When Rinzivillo's godfather, Piddu Madonia, was arrested in 1994, his wife, Giovanna Santoro, called a meeting of top-level capis, and made it clear that she would be taking over. She and Madonia's sister directed operations, their power increased by the fact that no one could get to the godfather except through them. A collaborator described how the boss's sister, Maria Stella, drove miles across the island to deliver messages, and once demanded a sit-down with the boss of bosses to prevent the escalation of a potentially violent feud. Both women were arrested in 1998.
'These women are operating on a different scale from La Hathaway,' says Judge Marino, 'they were running the organisation. But there is no question that any wives at this level, including Hathaway, would ever collaborate. They are completely absorbed into the culture and mentality of Cosa Nostra.'
The prosecution played Hathaway tapes of her telling businessmen and mafiosi what Antonio wanted, and how much money they owed. Her voice bore all the authority of someone who knows they have might on their side. 'She had acquired his mannerisms,' says Judge Marino. 'She was his spokesman. In court, she tried saying that she'd been asking her husband's friends for help because she couldn't meet the mortgage payments, but from what we knew about his lavish lifestyle, this was completely incredible.'
Hathaway might find life in Middleton a little dull after 20 years as a Mafia boss's wife. Investigators don't believe Rinzivillo has any assets in this country, and she may find people don't respond to orders in quite the same way as they used to. But having held her own in a powerful organisation, the former dancer may have ambitions for something more interesting than a life on the dole.
· No Questions Asked: the Secret Life of Women in the Mob by Clare Longrigg is published by Miramax