“Those are the Dolomites down there,” Gianni murmured to Angela, leaning across her to scan the snow-capped peaks below. As they slid over them they could see the flanks of this crackling meringue toasted by the late afternoon sun. “The most beautiful mountains in the world.”
Gianni instinctively went for superlatives when his gut told him he was right. He had no time for weavers and waverers, bureaucrats and politicians, scared to trust their own judgement. In the business world, his world, you backed yourself black and white, no shades of grey. Visibility was perfect today and those would be the Dolomites since he and Angela had come in a straight line from Frankfurt and the aircraft had already begun to tilt down towards Venice. In any case he was safe, as long as the pilot didn’t go and name for the passengers another mountain range they should currently be admiring.
He had uttered a few dogmatic superlatives in Frankfurt that morning, also for Angela’s benefit. She was sipping orange juice as he drank lager watching the crowd seethe in the street beyond their sheets of windowpane. She had said something about Brisbane, the only city she knew for comparison, and had found Frankfurt “like, stronger.” He could guess what she meant – Brisbane with its elegant glass-sided skyscrapers that reflected colossal Moreton Bay fig trees in a semi-tropical laidback nonsensical way. No nonsense about Frankfurt, and no humour either. In this central business district you would not see shirtsleeves. He told her these people were the most ruthlessly efficient of any on earth, and it was that trait that made them responsible for the two bloodiest wars in history. They might be good at business and they might not weave or waver much but nevertheless Gianni did not like Germans.
She had said nothing and he had given up trying to explain. He wasn’t even sure how to. He couldn’t properly explain to himself how that original loss of everything – of his parents, his homeland and his identity – had become now an ulcerous pressure inside him. It was an ancient and organic hurt that might yet transform his brief business-cum-holiday trip into some sort of pilgrimage, with the great granddaughter of a partisan martyr.
It was the first of September as they touched down at Marco Polo airport and to Gianni’s relief everything now began to go right. It was both simple and stunning to hop into a water taxi and cross the lagoon to their hotel. Angela was wonderstruck to see the far waterline dotted with churches and palaces like little orangey-pink ornaments. She was also exhausted from the journey and so they put off any touring until the following day. As soon as they checked in she went to her room and must have fallen heavily asleep since she did not respond to Gianni’s tentative tap on the door an hour or so later.
By nine the next morning, refreshed by sleep and coffee and pastries, they emerged into the warm-already sunlight and strolled down to the Grand Canal. They took a vaporetto to the island of San Giorgio and climbed the tower. Back across to St. Mark’s cathedral, the Doge’s Palace and the Bridge of Sighs then along the canal to the Rialto bridge and the Ca’ D’Oro. After lunch they went by ferry to Murano and watched the glass blowers. With a final aimless meander through paved alleyways and over humped bridges they called it a day. It was now Gianni’s turn to declare himself exhausted but Angela’s eyes were shining as she said goodnight.
Naturally when it came to it he could not get to sleep. His mind coursed with apprehensions about Luciana, eddying around the conversation they had had last week. It was scarcely surprising that after forty years without contact it had taken him more than four days to track her down, scouring the internet and making repeated telephone calls to Bassano del Grappa. First the trail did not exist and then a breakthrough was made, it got hot, only to cool again inexplicably. He spoke with the telephone directory enquiries and then with a variety of local authorities. Promises were made to him that he would be called back and he wasn’t, wrong leads were given, people who should have known didn’t. The person was known but the number could not be provided. He should write a letter explaining all the circumstances. He should come and in person make an application that would be considered eventually. At long last, when he least expected it, he found himself talking to her.
“Signora Castelli, Signora Luciana Castelli?”
“Yes. Who is it?”
“Gianni, Gianni Casson. I met you forty years ago. Our mothers were close friends.”
“You! Gianni! Why are you calling? Why now? Where are you?
Luciana’s voice he recognised at once but it was so flat, it resonated like a spade on cement and it rasped with what could have been physical pain. He had hoped to surprise her pleasantly, to hear warmth and welcome, a delighted astonishment. Instead Luciana sounded resentful.
“I’m in Australia, Luciana, but I’m planning a visit. With my granddaughter Angela. She’s thirteen. We’ll be in Bassano. We’d like to see you. Is that possible?”
There was a pause, so long that Gianni had to interrupt it with a “Hello, Luciana?” Then she came back to him, distant and detached, as though giving information to the police.
“I live not far from Bassano, with my husband. The only convenient day is a Friday. Nothing can be decided until you give us more details.”
The sole consolation was that she didn’t address him by the formal polite ‘lei’ – perhaps she would have done had she not automatically said “Tu!” at the outset, resurrecting an intimacy no matter how far in the past nor how distasteful it might be in the present. He hurried to capitalise, as friendly and familiar as he dared be at this juncture.
“Luciana, I apologise for coming out of the blue at you like this. The trip was a last-minute decision. Angela was quizzing me about Italy, about the north, about Bassano. She’s curious about it all, not like her father. I thought: that is such a beautiful place, she must see it. And I thought instinctively of you and so I had to talk to you. It would be fantastic if I could see you again.”
Another pause followed. He wished the technology were available to view her on screen, to get some way to observe her body language – to see her at all. Was she still beautiful? Was she remembering what to him were some of the most delicious and glorious moments of his life?
“You have come out of the blue, as you describe it Gianni, like a phantasm. Like someone long dead to me. I don’t know if it would be good to see you again.”
“Luciana,” he said, hoping to get somehow on her wavelength, “I’m nearly sixty but I’m wiser and wealthier and much more presentable than when I last saw you. Angela has never been to Italy, the land of her ancestors, she could meet people who know something about her grandmother…. Luciana, is your mother still alive?”
“She is in America. She came here last year.”
“Oh. I’m glad of that.” Gianni was not going to give up, this was a door still a bit open. He went on in a measured reasonable, persuasive tone, “Luciana, we’ll be in Venice anyway, in the first days of September. I’m hiring a car and we’ll go to Milan. We’ll visit Verona. In any case we’ll come to Bassano, even if all we do is pass through. We have two weeks in Italy altogether. Could we call in on you?”
This time the pause was quite short. “Give me your number and I will ring you back. I will let you know. Ettore, my husband, is not well. I will consider his position first.”
Gianni gave her two numbers she could call, and repeated that he sincerely hoped it would be possible to see her on this trip.
Luciana. Her lovely name and her husky voice triggered something in him. Not so much actual memories because try as he might he could hardly recall her face at all or any of the things they had done together. He knew that she had been amazingly beautiful and they had made love once, in a wood, or it might have been twice. It was the briefest of interludes but it had been magnificent. She had been the best thing that happened to him on that first trip. So one thing now triggered was a sense of Luciana as opportunity. He felt the familiar animal stirrings of what might be.
The following night he was woken at an ungodly hour. It was Luciana telling him she would meet them, in Bassano on the third of September. The three of them could have lunch together. She gave him the name and address of the restaurant where they should meet. She added, ironically, and this was the only element to recall their shared past, “You will at least recognise the red hair.” In the morning he could barely decipher the scrawl he had made on the pad.
They went back to the airport to hire a car, crossing the lagoon in a pale indigo mist that wreathed all the islands in secrecy. Their vehicle turned out to be a zesty red Alfa Romeo. Angela was becoming skilled at finding her way anywhere with maps and once they had got going it was she who took charge of the navigation and suggested the route to take. Gianni was happy to follow orders. For a while he drove concentrating on the traffic but out on the open road he was able to turn his head smiling her way. She said, “What?” but he could tell she was in a good mood.
“Nothing. Just checking you’re up to navigating us like homing pigeons to Bassano. I know you’ll love it. We’ll see those things we talked about. And we’ll be seeing someone I met there a long time ago.”
Gianni grinned but kept his eyes on the road ahead. “Clever you, you’ve got a good memory. Yes, Luciana. I spoke with her on the telephone from Australia. We’re going to see her at lunch time today.”
“Was she your girlfriend in those days, Nonno?
“No, of course she wasn’t,” Gianni said, knowing that being forthright and confident was the key to credibility. “She had someone else. An older guy. The thing is, her mother and mine were best friends. The last time I came here I met both of them, mother and daughter. It’ll be a bit weird, seeing each other again after all this time.”
Angela gave no clue as to how weird she thought it might be. Her attention seemed focused on the level farmlands to left and right and on the hazy mountains beginning to take shape ahead of them – all this would be peculiar enough for her. Gianni needed to collect his own thoughts and ease an odd pumping in his heart, he who had jousted with and tossed off untold numbers of women in the years since he had so briefly encountered Luciana. Why should he be reacting this way all of a sudden? He had never been motivated to contact her, not once, although the idea of her had flashed into his consciousness a dozen times unbidden. It must be related, he decided, to the family history, to the recent digging up and tangling with the live wire of his Italianness, and that ran all the way back to the visit so many years ago.
It was late morning when they arrived in Bassano. They found the hotel and parked and checked in. Angela was all for walking around town before lunch but Gianni instead gave her the task of finding precisely where the restaurant was and asking at the front desk how to get there. She could practise her limited Italian. He wanted to use the intervening time to ensure he looked his best, and prepare a few things to say. A top priority had to be to interest Luciana enough so she would welcome their staying on longer, to meet more than once. It would be ludicrous if the great reunion were just a single meal in a public place.
Gianni vaguely remembered the historical centre of town as they strolled with time on their hands. It was all neat and affluent now with boutiques and automatic teller machines and gelati shops. The restaurant when they came to it was an unpretentious trattoria although it was filling up as they arrived. He looked around but could see no one resembling Luciana. He decided not to give Angela any sort of description, other than Luciana’s own reference to her red hair, in case it turned out to be off the mark, or betrayed to his savvy granddaughter any of his hopes or fears. His eye was suddenly drawn to a young woman coming in, slim blonde in a yellow shift, followed perhaps by her mother in a foulard. Luciana! The pair moved purposefully in their direction as though they knew already exactly where to find them.
“Hello Gianni, hello Angela,” Luciana said, as casually as if it were yesterday that they last met. “This is Lia, my daughter.”
Lia, sparkling dark eyes, glanced quickly at Gianni who was already on his feet and then smiled at Angela. In almost unaccented English she greeted them, “Welcome to Bassano. I hope you are enjoying your trip.”
This last was directed towards Angela who replied, “Yes, thank you,” and was palpably relieved not to be thrown into the linguistic deep end.
“Lia spent a year in England,” Luciana said in the vernacular, by way of explanation. “For me it is a very difficult language. They didn’t teach it when I was at school.”
“You’re looking superb, Luciana,” Gianni said, and meant it. In as low-key and natural a way as possible he kissed her on both cheeks. Like her daughter she was dressed to kill, poised, immaculate. Time had been very kind to her, lustrous red hair now freed from the scarf, skin smooth. Gianni, having assessed earlier in his mirror that he was really quite smart, all of a sudden felt at a disadvantage. Too much time on the beach, the heavy drinking, overwork – a rush of age smote him as he contemplated two generations of glorious Italian femininity. He would make up for it, easy, turn on the charm for the three beauties in his circle and drive the conversation forward with bursts of wit and high-gear anecdotes. All this while managing the menu and seeing to the drinks. It was what he did well, he knew it. He could tell from their faces he was purring nicely along.
“You haven’t lost your touch, Gianni, I see,” Luciana said as he turned back to them from the wine waiter. Angela smiled a private smile and Lia looked interested.
“You always brought out the best in me, Luciana,” he replied. She exhaled a puff of contempt.
“Your grandfather was like a brave cowboy in the 1960s,” she said to Angela, each word well spaced. “He rode into our town to save it from boredom. And the next day he galloped away.”
“I stayed here a week!” protested Gianni.
“That was two thousand weeks ago.” There was no humour in Luciana’s quickfire reply. Her comment curled away into a silence with the thin blue smoke from her cigarette. All Gianni could do was excuse himself wordlessly with his palms up and a funny face. Lia asked Angela what she had seen so far of Italy and got a synopsis of the sites they had visited the day before in Venice. Then she asked what she hoped to see in Bassano.
“I don’t know,” Angela answered. “Anything, whatever there is. I want to go to the place where the partisans were hanged.”
“Ah!” Luciana said, as if a suspicion had been confirmed. She turned to Gianni: “So you have an agenda here. War history.”
“No, no – just family history,” Gianni said. “Angela and I talked about those days, didn’t we darling? That was one reason why she wanted to come here.”
“What did he tell you about that, my treasure?” Luciana asked her, as sweetly and diabolically as an interrogator.
Angela looked a little uncomfortable. “Nonno said his father was hanged here. And there are trees with photographs and other ones with ‘unknown’ on them.”
“We will go and look at them after this, if you want,” Luciana declared.
“You could come back to my place for coffee afterwards,” Lia added. “I live quite near by.”
Luciana appeared to be smiling to herself as she leaned towards the bread that the waiter had placed on the table. Something about the situation amused her, Gianni decided. He had been trying to pick up clues as to what impression he might be making on her but she had so far given little away. She chose not to hold his eyes for more than a half-second at a time. As in their telephone conversation some acidity attached to her words but it might only be the abruptness of his resurfacing in this way, intruding on her quiet life. Since arriving she had seemed perfectly poised and now had shown this enigmatic glimpse of humour. He was intrigued and all the more determined to make sure there was a follow-up to the meal today.
After coffee they walked up an arcaded street that seemed vaguely familiar to Gianni and debouched at the avenue that he instantly recognised. Before crossing the road they paused to inspect the line of trunks topped with their curiously rounded canopies arcing gently away from them, the parapet beyond and the vista across green spaces to the near mountains. Angela said, “Wow,” and then pointing added, “are those the trees?”
Luciana nodded. Angela wanted to know what sort they were but Luciana said she had no idea of their name in any language.
“Lecci, in Italian,” Lia said. “Ilexes, I think in English.”
“They look very strange.”
“Yes,” Lia agreed. “Like army helmets. They are evergreen and ornamental. Each year they have to be cut with clippers to keep the shape. A truck goes from tree to tree. The man stands in a box at the end of a metal arm.”
They walked the length of the street to the stone memorial at the end, stopping frequently at individual trees while Angela read the inscription under those with photographs, black and white in little frames. Luciana stayed with her, chatting in a mixture of Italian and English. Those two appeared to be getting on well with each other.
“ ‘Ignoto,’ that’s ‘unknown’, isn’t it? Have you any idea which one would be Nonno’s father?”
Luciana brushed Angela’s hair lightly with her hand. “It could be any one of them, cara. So much was ‘ignoto’ in those days. Who knew what was right and what was wrong, who was on this side and who on that side? Today some people, the communisti for example, say they do know all the facts. But the past in many ways is much harder to know than the future.”
Angela thought about that for a moment, then she walked over to the parapet with its ornate little columns and asked, “Is one of those mountains the one Nonno told me about?”
Luciana pointed to Monte Grappa. “Yes, that one, the near one.”
Angela squinted at the massif. “I can’t remember exactly what he said about it. There was fighting there, I think.”
“Well,” Luciana said, “there was a lot of fighting on that mountain, but it was mainly in the first World War. There is a big monument on the top for that.”
“So, still nothing for the partisans up there?” Gianni asked, movong up beside them.
“On the contrary,” Luciana replied. “Since you, since we visited the mountain top all those years ago, some fine memorials have been erected for the Italian resistance. History has now been fashioned in granite. This makes it certain that the partisans were the heroes who rescued Italy.”
“Well, they were heroes, weren’t they?” Angela said, picking up the irony in Luciana’s tone.
Luciana might have been about to debate this but then seemed to change her mind, emphatically. “Of course they were, cara. They were only a thousand of them. They were surrounded by ten times that number and very many of them died in the fighting on the mountain. One of them was your great-grandfather. Yes, they deserve their memorial. You should go and see it.”
Angela was frowning. “If they died up there, what happened down here? Nonno, didn’t you say there was a raid…. a….reprisal?”
Gianni looked at Luciana who shrugged. She said, “Many died, many were taken prisoner. There are things we can never know for sure, as I was telling you. Anyway, Lia darling, didn’t you promise us some coffee?”
Lia had been fiddling with her mobile telephone. Now she waved her hand past the cenotaph. “Of course. I live just over there, we can walk there in five minutes.”
Her place was outside the old part of town, beyond the walls. She had a flat on the first floor of a five-storey square building fronting on the street. Inside it was small but exquisite as though ready to be captured in photographs for a design magazine. Lia seemed happy to let her new visitors take it all in, unbidden and unaided.
“These are nice,” Gianni commented casually as he circled the room and paused in front of two unframed and vibrant oil abstracts side by side.
“Yes, my sister did those,” Lia called out from the little kitchen area where she had now gone to prepare the coffee. She came to the doorway and examined the pictures from a distance. “She was a painter. But she died, five years ago.”
“I’m truly sorry,” Gianni said, taken aback. He turned to face Luciana who lit a cigarette with due deliberation and inspected the ceiling. Then she lowered her gaze to somewhere near Gianni’s shoulder and exhaled smoke in that direction.
“It was a car accident. One of those things that happen. She was very talented.”
An embarrassed silence followed. Luciana didn’t want to say anything more and was watching something going on outside the window. Gianni hoped Lia would make some comment but she had gone back to assembling cups and sugar and things out of sight beyond a hatchway. Angela had been moving around the edge of the room admiring the furnishings and a flower arrangement. She paused next to a side table with figurines and some pieces of crystal. She picked up an ashtray and studied it.
“I didn’t know the Italians used ‘XMAS’ for Christmas. I thought only we did,” she murmured as though not expecting anybody else to pick up her comment. Gianni made an “Mmm?” noise but Lia laughed. Luciana asked her daughter what was the matter and Lia replied quickly, in words that Gianni did not understand at all.
“You are holding something very historical, cara,” Luciana said gently to Angela. “It is nothing to do with Christmas.”
“I didn’t really think so,” Angela told her. “I saw the X and the MAS. What is it? Apart from an ashtray I mean.”
“Next to the X is a little ‘a’,” Luciana said. “That is ‘Decima’, it means ‘tenth’. MAS was…. Lia, what is ‘flottiglia’?”
“ ‘Fleet’ ” replied Lia.
“It was from the marines, no, I mean the navy. There is a long story to this.”
“It was my father’s,” Lia explained to Angela.
“You should meet him perhaps,” Luciana said. “That is, if you are interested in what happened even before I was born. So long ago! If you are interested, then he would be the one to tell you that story.”
Luciana seemed impatient to leave as soon as she had finished her coffee. She asked which hotel they were staying at and how long they intended to spend in Bassano. Gianni, who had felt something jump inside him at Luciana’s signal they would be welcome to stick around and listen to stories, said neutrally it might be nice to stay a few more days. Luciana stared at him while she gave this remark of his some consideration.
“Not tomorrow but the next day. Maybe you would be free to come to lunch? We live not far away, outside Marostica. Where they have the chess.”
Angela raised her eyebrows. “What chess?” she wanted to know.
“Living chess,” Luciana said. “Near where my house is, they sometimes play with real people, and horses, in the main square. Do you play chess, cara? Yes? Anyway, I will tell you all about that, when you come.”
Angela opened her mouth to ask her more but Luciana, smiling at her conspiratorially, put her finger to her lips. “Lunch, after tomorrow.”
Shortly after Luciana had gone Gianni and Angela also left and found their way back to the hotel. They stayed in that evening, discussing the two women over dinner. Angela liked them both and thought Lia was “cool” and Luciana was, well…. “Hot?” suggested Gianni, chuckling. Angela took a breath and looked away with an exasperated expression. Then she saw the funny side and burst out laughing. She regarded him with wry affection, giving the slightest shake of the head. It was the closest the two of them had come since they left Australia.
“I was going to say ‘nice’ but that’s not enough. She’s smart, and she looks fantastic for someone her age.”
Gianni wondered what her husband would be like – it sounded as if he was older than her, since he knew so much about the war. It would, he thought, be interesting anyway to see their house. They talked about the things they might do next day, a trip to the top of Monte Grappa, or a drive down to Verona or Vicenza.
Looking for his toiletries in his suitcase later Gianni found two furniture catalogues for his appointments in Milan. One was of classical Italian furniture, exquisite in its carpentry, using some of the finest walnut and inlays; these would last forever and grace any space. The other was of the most modern and exciting designs, voluptuous in their simple and perfect lines. It struck him then that one line of furniture could be called Luciana and the other Lia. He opened the pages with beds on them and laid them side by side. He could sink into either with the greatest of ease.
How had it gone with them today, he wondered. With Luciana, that is. She had been so diffident, so buttoned up. Was this something sexual, did it reflect her enduring devotion to a brilliant and possibly jealous husband? But neither of them had mentioned what’s-his-name, Ettore, even once. He sensed that Luciana was miffed about something, about how he had shot through Bassano last time. That might be a good sign, assuming she could get over it. And then there were her allusions to the war and the communists. Some discordant note was being sounded there, as if she regretted the way events back then had turned out. Maybe he was imagining things, she could hardly have wanted the Germans to have triumphed.
They spent the next day inVerona, once Angela had discovered it was the city of Romeo and Juliet. She didn’t mind that Juliet had not been a real person. They had lunch near the river and walked along afterwards to the old castle and ended up at the Roman amphitheatre. When they returned to the hotel there was a message from Luciana, hand-delivered. Her note said she looked forward to seeing them at two o’clock and attached a map of how to get there. It was a late hour for lunch and gave them the problem of what to do with themselves during the morning. Gianni proposed they see the old wooden bridge and Angela agreed as long as they could make another visit to the Avenue of Martyrs, which, she noted as she consulted her plan of the city, was on the way.
Gianni took longer this time to study the impressive memorial to the victims of the massacre of 26 September 1944 at the top of the avenue. Alongside each name on the engraved list was the word ‘hanged’ or ‘shot.’ According to the memorial, over the period of the rastrellamento the total partisan casualties were 171 hanged, 603 shot, 804 deported of whom 600 died in concentration camps and 285 houses were burned. He jotted the figures down and turned to draw this to Angela’s attention but she had moved away and was with a group of young people near the first tree in the avenue. She seemed to be in animated conversation. He wasn’t going to interrupt this scene, which to him was delightful. He instead on the parapet wall and took it all in, his lovely granddaughter, the now gracious avenue where his father had died, the glorious stage set with Monte Grappa in the middleground and the Dolomites as backdrop.
For a while he was content just to sit there. Eventually he became curious as to who these people were that Angela was caught up with, boys and girls a little older than her. Tourists, definitely – they were distinctly un-Italian in their dress, too outdoorsy, not at all modish. He thought they might be English since that was the only language Angela was fluent in. Then he caught the name “Gunther!” shouted at one of them who was wandering off, and knew they were German. He began to feel indignant and wandered along the path to where Angela could perhaps see him, as she did. It seemed in any case the party was breaking up, with most of them following Gunther past the memorial and out of this area altogether and others proceeding on down the avenue. Some waved at Angela with “See you later!” in that accent Gianni didn’t care for at all.
“Germans?” Gianni, trying to sound indifferent, asked Angela when she came up to him, looking very happy.
“Austrians mainly,” she replied. “Two of them were from Germany, from the south. They’re trekking in the Alps here.”
“What did they think of the Avenue of Martyrs? In memory of people executed perhaps by their fathers. I don’t suppose they felt comfortable about it.”
Angela was dismissive. “We didn’t talk about it, not really. I think to them it was, like, unreal. It is for me. I mean, Nonno, it’s ancient history. Like Captain Cook and Ned Kelly.”
Gianni decided not to argue. Instead he wanted to know if ‘see you later’ meant that Angela would, in fact, see that group again.
“It’s possible. A couple of them are coming back to Bassano the day after tomorrow. We could still be here then, Nonno, couldn’t we?”
They certainly could, Gianni thought. It depended on how things turned out today. He didn’t have to be in Milan until the thirteenth. They could please themselves in the meantime. He reflected privately that it might not be such a bad thing for Angela to have the company of people in her own age group. Gianni tried not to get ahead of himself but he had a gleam of intuition about wanting to spend time with one or both of the lovely women they had met the day before.
While Gianni was forewarned by the stylish way she dressed that Luciana’s residence might be also of a certain high standard Angela had no idea what to expect. She had rested Luciana’s sketched route on the book of road maps on her knee and gave Gianni instructions on which road to take. She gasped when they arrived eventually at an impressive gateway set between hedges with a gravel drive wending up a slope through trees to a fine villa. Standing outside its front door to greet them was a middle-aged woman who was presumably part of the household staff. She opened Gianni’s door for him.
“Benvenuto, Signor Casson,” she said to Gianni and then, smiling at Angela and giving her a small nod of her head,
She took from Angela the large bouquet of flowers Gianni had bought on the way and led the way up the steps to a broad patio with flagstones and a number of shoulder-high stone urns at intervals. She continued through a lofty doorway. Once inside they had to stop, to glance up at the vault of the ceiling, and to survey the wide, white entrance hall with staircases coming down left and right. Their guide laid the flowers down on an ornate table and motioned them to follow her through into a side room.
This, too, was classical in design but not as vast as the entrance. Luciana was standing next to an armchair as though she were at the beck and call of the person slumped in it. This might have been her father, a man with craggy features and wispy white hair, who tapped a hand repeatedly on one of the armrests and glowered at them as they were brought in. Gianni wished he didn’t feel disconcerted by this performance – he himself was a person of substance and neither feared anyone nor owed anyone anything. But he was not used to this sort of old-style decadence, this understated but nevertheless declamatory cultural tradition with its elaborate and rugless inlaid-wood floor, tapestries of untold antiquity on two walls, heavy silver things among huge bunches of flowers.
“Ettore, this is Mr. Gianni Casson, and his granddaughter Angela,” Luciana said, addressing the old man in the chair but moving around him gracefully to greet their guests. Ettore was obviously her husband. It was equally obvious he was not going to stir from the position he was in.
Gianni shook his hand. The grip was of iron and for a moment Gianni, about whose own handshake people routinely complained, thought this was some sort of competition of masculinity. Ettore released him with a grunt of acknowledgement and gave all his attention to Angela.
“Is it your first visit to Italy, young lady?” he asked, in polite, correct but accented English.
“Yes, it is,” Angela replied. “You have a very beautiful house. It is the most beautiful house I have ever been in.”
The old man relaxed his stern features and chuckled. “It was my father’s,” he said, “I have lived in this house all my life. I shall die in it.”
A different member of the domestic staff, a young man, was standing in the doorway to take orders for drinks. The other woman had made a discreet departure. Luciana pointed to places where Gianni and Angela might sit. She positioned herself on an upright wooden chair, a metre or so from her husband. He pulled out a pipe from his pocket and began preparing it for smoking, giving this act all his attention.
Luciana asked Angela what they had done since she last saw them and was told they had been to Verona. She wondered if they had seen Juliet’s house and Angela smiled gratefully at her and said yes they had. She told Luciana how much she had liked the house and the whole town, really – the river, the old streets, the market square.
Ettore moved restlessly in his chair. “Verona is a miracle. It was bombed, devastated, by the Anglo-Americans. The Arena was bombed, Castelvecchio…”
“Verona was bombed?” Angela asked incredulously. “Whatever for?”
“It was the headquarters of the German Army,” Ettore replied. “That is unforgivable.”
It wasn’t clear whether Ettore meant the Germans should not have chosen Verona as their main base, or the Allies should not have bombed it under any circumstances. Gianni was not going to seek clarification. He was unsettled by the stiff formality of the house and its owner, the proximity of Luciana with whom he had a history that yet fizzed and bubbled inside him. Not for her – that past spurred her rather to make sharp remarks at his expense. She had seemed to be deliberately off-hand, distant, even cutting towards him. And yet she had warmed to Angela, and surely there was some sort of message in that also for him. The very barrier she had erected could signal some need for it, some weakness. On the other hand the invitation to come to this house could have simply been an opportunity for her to make him squirm. But it had had a spontaneity about it, as though she wanted to reveal in images what her life had become. He couldn’t yet draw any definite conclusion but he did get the sense that here were things she was proud of as well as things that caged her in.
The silence lasted longer than was comfortable. Angela was gazing distractedly, almost apathetically, around the room. Luciana must have detected the unease. She spoke in a low tone to Ettore who turned with curiosity to Angela.
“Luciana tells me you are interested to know something about the Decima.”
“Pardon?” Angela asked, her face a picture of innocent bewilderment.
“I think he means that ashtray thing you picked up at Lia’s,” Gianni whispered to her. “With the XMAS on it.”
Angela smiled nervously and nodded at the old man who was waiting for her signal. Then everyone waited for him as he lit his pipe and drew on it, filling the space around him with a bluish, perfumed fug. He took his time.
“Some things are hard to comprehend, “ he began at last. “Like the bombing of Verona – and the bombing of so many other beautiful Italian cities. For example, who can comprehend why someone should want to defend his country, and be ready to die for that? But people used to do that all the time, in this country and in many others. Those people were more than ready to sacrifice themselves, only for an idea.”
They waited for him to go on. Ettore looked at Luciana as though for encouragement and then at the other two to see if they were attentive. His eyes were deep-set under craggy white eyebrows but they were bright and intelligent.
“When you betray your wife,” Ettore said abruptly, looking at Gianni, “or you strike a weaker person or do a clever business deal at someone else’s expense – I don’t mean you, sir, I am talking generally – you are actually at a crossroads. You look each way. You tell yourself that you did what you did because of chance, because of needs, because of opportunity. You feel bad, but you quickly get over it, you follow the road that pleases you, aware the consequence may be enormous. You may find yourself divorced, or prosecuted, or pleasantly wealthy. These things happen to people. Sometimes they happen to countries. Italy was at a crossroads like that in September 1943. Because it was a country, it could do different things at the same time. It could betray its ally, it could side with its torturers and it could do a deal that in the end brought it the prosperity you see all around today. But a small part of Italy, sensing shame, felt a great pride in constancy. That part included the Decima.”
Gianni took some seconds to recover from Ettore’s first words. He had felt the shock of someone opening a blackmail note. As his host had sallied on Gianni wondered if he were mad or just dangerous. In any case Ettore had now stopped staring at him and had half-turned to address Angela.
“The Decima was one unit of the navy,” he told her. “Its commander was Prince Junio Valerio Borghese. He, like many members of the armed forces was astonished when he heard that Italy intended to change sides in the war. Incredible! Unacceptable! What of the country’s reputation, its threatened borders, its resources which might be destroyed or stolen by the victors, whoever these would be? His own troops agreed with him. No orders came from above. Hundreds of thousands of Italian soldiers were abandoned to their fate. The German command could not let them just walk off and join the enemy, with their training and their guns, to fight against them.”
Ettore paused and was now considering the chandelier in the centre of the ceiling. It might have been a story he had told often before. On the other hand he kept stopping between bursts and occasionally knitted his substantial brow as if affected by a physical spasm or anguished memory. He took a deep breath before continuing.
“Borghese made an offer to the Germans. His sailors would fight, on the side of Germany as before, but independently, under his command, under the Italian flag. His unit would become a land-based military formation. The Germans were very surprised with what they heard but they accepted his proposal and after that they always honoured it. Borghese went around the country and thousands of young Italians, patriotic and idealistic, volunteered to join him. I was one of those.”
A respectful pause followed. His pipe seemed to have gone out so Ettore put it to one side. He took a drink of the glass of water beside him, and glanced again at Luciana.
“For nearly the next two years we defended the interests of Italy. We fought the Anglo-Americans when they invaded our beaches at Anzio. We fought the Yugoslav partisans when at the end of the war they invaded from the east to seize large parts, whole cities, in the north of our country. We refused to hand over our prisoners to the Germans. At the end the Germans faced defeat. In desperation they moved to destroy our ports and factories and whatever was not already wrecked by the bombings, to deny these things to their enemies. But we in the Decima prevented them.”
A clock chimed somewhere in the recesses of the house. Ettore had looked at each of his listeners in turn as if one of them might wish to make some comment. Gianni was about to say something, he hadn’t even thought what it would be when he opened his mouth to speak, but Ettore pre-empted him.
“Romantics, idealists and patriots filled the ranks of the Decima MAS. We dreamed the crazy dream of saving Italy. We fought like condottieri, the gallant adventurers of our military past. And of course we suffered terrible casualties. Not just in battle, but more so in executions by our own countrymen in the hellish lust that comes with victory.”
Silence fell in the room again and Ettore’s termination seemed to echo and hang ponderously with the traces of pipe-smoke. It was a relief to Gianni that the woman who had met them at the front door then stepped forward and whispered something to Luciana. She stood up and helped Ettore to his feet. He moved with great difficulty, shuffling and aided by a stick, but was dignified, straight-backed. They went through into the next room, a wood-panelled dining room with a frescoed ceiling and a mahogany table that could easily have seated a dozen. It was set for four, two on either side of the centre, with between them a low arrangement of roses that might have come from the flowerbeds at the front of the house.
The meal was light – pasta, veal, fruit and cheese – as was the conversation. Gianni complimented Ettore on the wine. Ettore hardly spoke, concentrating on the plate in front of him, although he did say tersely to Gianni that he understood Australia produced tolerable wines. His comment might or might not have invited a rejoinder.
Luciana saw Gianni’s indecision and asked him to tell them something about Australia. Ettore, who grimaced possibly in pain, was evidently not following this exchange. Gianni nevertheless addressed both his hosts, as entertainingly as possible, describing the Italian community in Brisbane and the improvements in the community’s status since the waves of poor migrants from village backgrounds arrived after the second World War and were discriminated against in various ways. However, he declared, many former immigrants were now wealthy while some had high social status.
Coffee was served on the terrace, overlooking the formal garden and the driveway with its trees. The house was on a slope that rose more steeply at the rear and quickly became a hill with a mountain close behind. Over to their left as they faced the garden, in the direction of Bassano but to its north, the mountains continued in an unbroken chain.
Ettore, settled in a large cane chair, appeared more at ease than he had been at table. He looked at his guests as though they might have something to say to him. Gianni took up the challenge.
“Can I return to what you were saying before lunch, signore?” Gianni asked deferentially. It struck him as both correct and peculiar that he should use the polite grammatical form to Ettore yet speak with familiarity to his wife. During the meal he had been mulling over how or even whether to tackle Ettore on the logical flaw in his claim to patriotism. Gianni’s father had had a diametrically different and much better claim to patriotism as he fought to rid Italy of terror and oppression and had ended up being hanged for it. Ettore nodded so Gianni, as evenly as possible, put his question.
“Italians were fighting against other Italians. How did the Decima MAS deal with that?”
Ettore shut his eyes. Then he said, “The war was between foreigners. The new friends of Italy, the English and Americans, had no respect for the country. The old friends, the Germans, always mistrusted us. Both were contemptuous when we changed sides. That act was shameful for the abandoned and bewildered victims, the Italian people. In the confusion some made wrong choices and some behaved badly. We in the Decima had no hope of ultimate victory in that war. Our only hope was to redeem the shame.”
In the pause that followed Luciana suggested to Angela that they make a tour of the house. Angela escaped with palpable relief. Ettore had appeared melancholy for a while but then he levered himself up, leaning forward for a final defiant comment.
“The war against the partisans was waged by the national guard, the GNR, and the blackshirts, the Brigate Nere. In the Decima we were soldiers trained for national defence, and we kept our original uniform. Commander Borghese said none of us as individuals need feel compelled to fight the partisans. Anyone could choose not to do so, if they liked. Nevertheless we were caught up in the fight against them, they brought the fight to us, and in the end we did fight them. But wherever we were locked in combat we always sought to negotiate a non-belligerence agreement, with local partisan commanders. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.”
He fell back and closed his eyes again. The conversation was over. Gianni wondered how much Luciana accepted of this version of the war. She had never seen a German soldier, her life had been lived in the affluence that came from the Allied victory in Italy. Perhaps she would have a different perspective. He got up and walked along the terrace, considering the pleasing arrangement of the giant urns with green fronds and the pathways of river pebbles opening now and then into circles. He might replicate some of this at home.
Luciana came out on her own and as she approached him said, “We have two puppies at the back. Angela is playing with them, Donatella is with her.”
“Why did you marry him?” Gianni asked her without warning. He had his back to the old man who was clearly asleep. He felt an urge for honesty. This could be the way to break through Luciana’s formality, almost her hostility.
“I have met many men,” she replied. “Many like you, Gianni. None like him.”
“Like me…. What am I like?” he asked with an ironic little laugh.
“You are self-centred, opinionated and violent,” Luciana said.
“How can you say that!” Gianni was indignant. He tried not to raise his voice.
“I say that because I saw you forty years ago, you took pleasure in hitting weaker men, you departed without saying goodbye, you’ve stormed back here and I see now how little you’ve changed.” Gianni was about to protest when Luciana continued, “I don’t think you have changed. I can see by how you deal with your granddaughter.”
“What!” Gianni exclaimed wildly. “I do everything for her, she is everything to me!”
“Do you know that for her Venice was the best thing, she would like to return there, her mother and grandmother are trying to keep her calm, she has a boyfriend here?”
Gianni knew none of this and was for a moment stopped in his tracks. “Boyfriend…?” he muttered, uselessly. Then he had a sudden idea. “Luciana, you get on really well with her. Can you help me with her? Maybe I shouldn’t have brought her after all. We can’t go back to Venice, I’ve got to be in Milan on Monday.”
“I am in no position, Gianni, to do that. But Lia probably might be. For a day or two.”
They walked around to find Angela. Gianni’s mind was in disarray. His instinct was to fight back, bluster if need be. But he wasn’t on his home turf and this was no ordinary woman with her lustrous red hair and magnificent cheekbones and something else about her that threw him off balance all the time. She said he was tough with weaklings? He had defended her against that Arab, he remembered now. And against some larrikins who were bothering her on Monte Grappa. That should not be a black mark against him, quite the opposite. Her first accusation against him had been about his dashing off and leaving her – that, too, in a way, was a sort of a plus, she had missed him. He had come back. What she said about Angela’s boyfriend was a worry, but Angela would have been exaggerating, she couldn’t have got far. He would certainly deliver her home safely. Still, he should not have mentioned Luciana’s marriage, and he apologised for doing so. She looked away and said nothing.
Angela was ready to leave when they found her with two Siberian huskie pups frolicking around her. She was more relaxed than Gianni had seen her all day. With Luciana they retraced their steps to the terrace. Ettore was now lying with his eyes open. He farewelled them with a wordless regal gesture.
“I will call Lia,” Luciana said. “I need to come into town myself tomorrow morning anyway. We could all have coffee together.”
Angela talked most of the way back to Bassano, about Luciana and Donatella, the house and the dogs and wondered if they could go back to Marostica before they left. Gianni decided against checking with her on the things Luciana had alluded to, like the boyfriend. Luciana may have got the wrong end of the stick. He just said they could sound her out in the morning, and take up her reference to chess.
Lia arrived first and found Angela waiting for her in the foyer. Gianni was at the front desk enquiring whether they could keep their rooms for a few days longer if need be. As he turned to them he caught sight of Luciana, passing by the window, waving to them. Angela announced excitedly that Lia had just said she would take her up the mountain. Gianni was at first disappointed as he had intended that just the two of them do that together and check out the memorial to the partisans that Luciana had talked about. But maybe she and he, the old couple, could meet them up there, re-live some old memories. He put the broad idea to Lia as Luciana came into the foyer.
Lia nodded and explained briefly to her mother, adding, “Why don’t you two come and collect us, in the afternoon? We’re going to walk up, but a lift back would be good.”
“I’ll be free by two o’clock,” Luciana said. “Gianni, I could pick you up here and we could drive to the top. I’ll show you the new monument, if you like. We could all meet at the Rifugio Alpino.”
Lia and Angela set off, stopping at Lia’s to get drinks to take with them and to put on proper shoes – they were apparently more or less the same size. Clearly Angela was in good hands. Gianni thought he was, too. Luciana had none of the prickliness of the day before and the two of them talked easily. She asked him about his apparent interest in history, in the war – was that something new? He said yes, only since Angela more or less brought it up, a few weeks before, asking him about his father. A thought suddenly occurred to him. “Luciana, I don’t even know his name!”
“Tommaso,” she answered at once. “And your mother of course was Loredana.”
“Yes,” Gianni said uncomfortably. “Her brother Attilio, who brought me up, with his wife Maria, once in a while talked about her, but never him.”
“They never knew him.”
“But they might have known something about his being a partisan, about the heroism of those final days.”
“Ah, yes, the heroism,” Luciana said in a dangerously flat voice. Gianni was put out that again she seemed to be impugning the valour of the resistance but before he could react in any way she went on, “It must have been a trial for you, Gianni, in a foreign land on the other side of the world with no mother and father. I can see how important it would be to have a hero for a father.”
There were traps here for him and pits he could fall into. It was a game he did not wish to play: Luciana knew the history and he didn’t. She knew where he stood and he could only guess at her position. Most likely the heroism she saw in that war was the same as Ettore’s whose unit had bravely stood beside the German allies and battled the wretched partisans. His best hope was not to take Luciana head-on, not in a squabble. Better to admite to being ignorant of the details that surrounded the last year or even months of his parents’ lives. He wondered if she could tell him about that period.
“I could tell you what people have told me, that’s all. Ettore knew your mother’s family. In a way that’s how we met, because my mother knew them, too.”
“I don’t know if he would want to talk about them, about that bit of the war,” Gianni said. “I wouldn’t want to cause him any awkwardness.”
Luciana’s short laugh was mocking. “Not him! Even if he is very sick in body, his mind is fine. Any awkwardness would be yours, I assure you. Ettore has no difficulty with his own past, none whatsoever. You know that your mother’s was a fascist family, as was Ettore’s and mine. Your father was on the other side.”
“Okay, fair enough,” Gianni said. “But don’t forget, I’m pretty thick-skinned, too.”
Luciana laughed again, a wonderful laugh. Any other woman Gianni would not have hesitated to his arms. She was looking at him with her laughing eyes, almost daring him to do something like that. He had no idea how she might react. He was on the point of finding out when she lent forward, kissed him on the forehead and stood up, all in one quick upward swoop of her elegant, so elegant body. He had had to rock back and she was above him. She reached down, took his hand and helped him to his feet.
“Come on, Gianni. I want to walk with you in the fresh air, I want a gelato like we had forty years ago, do you remember? And then I want to get my hair done.”
Gianni said of course he remembered, how could he forget anything to do with that first passion of theirs? In the darkness of his untruth a sharp ray broke through – he remembered then that they had had ice cream on the wooden bridge. He told her this important fact, adding lamely that he had however forgotten how to get there.
“You have forgotten how you left me, Gianni, also,” Luciana said severely. “Or at any rate you choose not to recall it.”
Gianni tried an apology but, in the way that he was now becoming accustomed to, she waved it away. She let him open the door for her and, once outside, found the weather a good subject to talk about. It was still hot, summer was lingering, and she wondered how Lia and Angela were doing as they struggled up the slopes of Monte Grappa.
They reached the Ponte Vecchio much too quickly and the gelato they had was gone in no time at all. Gianni was like a bloodhound on the scent of any spoor that might lead him back to the earlier magic, even the tiny exhilarations with Luciana laughing at the hotel, teasing him, perhaps egging him on. But at every tiny opportunity she would be a microsecond ahead of him, gazing somewhere else as though at an urgency or an importance, interrupting him with a different point or looking at her watch. Time raced, and then she was pecking his cheek and backing away. But she did remind him that at two o’clock, in a little over three hours, she would come and collect him.
He was back at the hotel well ahead of time and waited there until half past two before he spotted Luciana’s car. He was walking up and down outside when she arrived and he got quickly in. He wanted to chide her for being late but she began at once telling him something about the chess at Marostica the following weekend – would he and Angela like to stay on for that? She explained that it would be on on the evenings of the Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Although it would be booked out already she knew the right people and could get the tickets for whichever evening suited them.
“What is it, exactly?” Gianni asked.
“I told you, I told Angela, I thought you were listening. Chess in mediaeval costume, with real horses for knights, in the main piazza at Marostica. It’s world famous, you should see it if you can.”
“Okay, sure, Luciana,” Gianni said, happy to have an excuse to stay on. “I don’t have to be in Milan until Monday. Any of those days would do, you choose one.”
They twisted their way up the mountain above Bassano lurching round a series of hairpin bends with the vast Po Valley spreading ever further below and behind them. Luciana seemed to enjoy Gianni’s discomfort, frequently taking her eye off the road to check how he was doing which made him more nervous. He was glad when after half an hour ruing he had no control of the car they pulled up, somewhere near the summit. This, Luciana told him, was the Monumento al Partigiano. It had to be quite separate from the one they visited last time as that was a fascist celebration of the events of World War One.
It was an odd memorial, consisting of a knoll with two small circular piazzas on either side and joined by a narrow cutting twice the height of a man. On the farther piazza was an anguished idealised headless figure in bronze with arms raised. From both circular spaces he had a vista of precipitous terrain where only lunatics would choose to fight. It was a fleeting visit and neither of them said anything during it, nor during the final stretch towards the summit. There Luciana turned off into a large parking area behind a three-storey blockhouse and drew up alongside Lia, Angela a handsome blonde boy a little older than her. He was introduced to them as Hans. Gianni was irritated to hear that Hans had been with them all the way up from Bassano.
“You met Hans, sort of, Nonno, the other day,” Angela told him. “On Martyrs’Avenue.”
“You’re one of the German trekkers, then,” Gianni said.
“Sorry, I don’t remember you.”
“I remember you, Mr Casson,” Hans said, in impeccable English. “I am from Ulm, in South Germany, but most of our group are Austrians.”
“I’m glad Hans was with us,” Lia told them, “because the path we took had steep places and some loose stones. We kept slipping.”
Luciana seemed relaxed about all of this. She asked if Hans wanted a lift down the mountain, too, and he said he certainly did. The three climbers sat in the back, Angela in the middle. They chattered for most of the way down the mountain, recalling funny incidents of the climb.
“We stopped just now at the monument to the resistance,” Gianni volunteered during a lull in the conversation behind him. “What do you think about the Italian resistance, Hans?”
Hans seemed to welcome this curly question and laughed good-naturedly.
“Those Italians who chose to oppose the German army, Mr Casson, had every right to do so, and they were brave. The Germans were tough towards them. But they had little choice.”
“Yes. The Russians were closing in on Germany from the east. The Americans and British were doing the same from the south. The partisans were giving information to the Allies who in return parachuted to them supplies and even advisers. In the summer of 1944 the partisans killed 5,000 German soldiers.”
“You will admit, though, the Germans used brutal, very brutal measures to crush the resistance?”
“You mean the idea of taking ten partisan lives for every German one? Yes, that is brutal. Unfortunately, it is the brutality that is normal in that situation. The American commander in Italy, Mark Clark, more than once spoke of the need to use exactly that proportion, if Allied soldiers were killed by civilians. Actually the Allies greatly admired Field Marshal Kesselring, the German commander in Italy – the way he managed the retreat, which is always the hardest military action of all. He was imprisoned after the war for a few short years.”
Hans was infuriating, he knew his stuff. Anything Gianni might say would be cleverly rebutted. He suspected that all the others, including Angela, sympathised with Hans’s angle. He grunted his disagreement but then the German boy had the last word.
“Of course, all along very many Italians worked with Germany to quell the resistance.”
Gianni was in a bad mood back at the hotel. Luciana had driven off with Lia and Hans with only the most cursory goodbye and no mention of a second visit to her home or the chess event. All of them in the car in the final stages, with the possible exception of Hans, had seemed down.
“You should have asked me about that German boy,” Gianni said to Angela, not wanting to sound peevish but knowing that was how it came out. “If he was always going to be part of your mountain expedition.”
“You wouldn’t have said yes, though,” Angela retorted, looking at him defiantly.
“I see. So knowing what my view would be you went ahead and did the opposite. It’s not good enough, Angela. I’m responsible for you, for God’s sake.”
She didn’t seem at all concerned and replied, “It’s no big deal and anyway he’s going back to Germany tomorrow.”
It was the first real disagreement they had had since leaving Australia and Gianni regretted it. As they turned the keys to the doors of their rooms he said in a tone that was meant to be conciliatory, “Dinner, later on, downstairs?”
“I don’t actually feel like eating,” Angela said. She gave him a quick smile. “I’m more tired than anything, Nonno, I think I’ll just go to bed.”
The following morning Gianni tapped on her door as usual before breakfast but got no answer. She wasn’t in the foyer or the dining room. He went outside, thinking she might have wanted some fresh air although that would have been a first. The only people about were two young tourists who could have been part of Hans’s group. He thought of saying something to them but a gentle panic gripped him and he hurried back inside and over to the front desk.
“Did you see my granddaughter this morning?” he asked the young man there. “You know, Angela, 13, blonde….”
“Of course, Mr Casson. She went out twenty minutes ago.”
“Went out? By herself?”
“Yes, sir,” the young man said calmly. “She said ‘Buon giorno,’ and went outside. She went that way.”
He had pointed in a direction that made Gianni immediately think of Lia. She must have gone to her place. It was not far, perhaps it didn’t seem such a bold undertaking to Angela as it did to Gianni. Maybe after yesterday she felt she had to make another demonstration of independence, pushing the envelope a bit further. He told the young man that if she came back he should just tell her that he had ‘gone to Lia’s.’
When he got there he hurried up to Lia’s flat and rang the bell. He listened for sounds, words exchanged or activity from inside or any other noise at all but the silence was total. He was about to ring again when the door opened. Lia stood there in silk pyjamas, honey-coloured hair around her shoulders, no make-up, wonderful dark eyes now regarding him with surprise, and perhaps a touch of amusement.
“Hello,” she said.
“Angela… I’m looking for her.”
“She’s not here.” Lia’s tone had something in it, something to hide. Automatically Gianni thought she was lying, that Angela was there, and he made as though to go in and see for himself.
Lia had not moved a muscle so that the half step that Gianni had taken brought them close together. Gianni, focusing on her face, caught his toe on the mat, became the slightest bit off balance and to steady himself put one hand on her waist. The material scoffed at the firm flesh, his fingers tingled. For a split second two sets of eyes locked – time enough to trigger other responses, even a quickening in the loins. But the action it triggered in Lia was a stepping back, a gripping of the side of the door with her hand, a beginning of closure.
“Sorry!” Gianni said. Sorry for what? He didn’t know what he meant – the stumble, the contact or maybe the vanishing opportunity. He didn’t care, he had to move fast, get back in charge again. His head was up, he was in full control, a suggestion of a smile. “Lia! I need to find Angela! She left the hotel on her own, I thought she was with you.”
Lia was well back, hand on the door which she could probably slam in Gianni’s face if need be. She contemplated him in silence. She looked gorgeous and vulnerable. He opened his mouth to say something, or to kiss her, electrical charges were criss-crossing between them and the least signal would lock them magnetically together.
“She has gone to farewell Hans, his bus goes at 9.30,” Lia then said, breaking the tension, separating further from him but breathing a little faster than before. “She’ll be all right, really. She won’t do anything stupid.”
“I’m not sure about that,” Gianni said. He was losing the moment. Now he had to protect himself. The best defence was indignation, and he felt it welling up in him now. Go on the offensive. A conspiracy. He said, “It was stupid what she did yesterday. I am her guardian, her parents would never forgive me if something happened to her. They didn’t want her to come on this trip.”
“If you like,” Lia said measuredly, “I could go and get her.
Make sure she gets back safely to the hotel.”
“I should go,” Gianni declared. “Where does the bus depart from?”
“Gianni.” Lia was being soothing, she knew how to soothe him, she was clever as well as beautiful. “That would be a mistake, you turning up ill-humoured among all those young people. You would embarrass her, she might resent that a lot. Look, leave it to me. But I’ll need to get dressed, there’s still plenty of time. Okay?”
He thought for a mad instant she would let him wait in her apartment and he nodded like a nincompoop. But she said with a smile, as she closed the door gently on him, “I’ll have her back at the hotel by ten.”
Gianni went back out into the street with his head spinning. Pictures of Lia and Luciana, now smiling and now stern, juxtaposed themselves in his mind. Surely the impression he had made on the younger one had been positive. The single mistake he had made had been his tripping forward. He had been right to think Angela was there, and as her guardian to put her safety as his top priority. He had been right, in a sense, to appreciate the beauty of Lia, she could not resent and might even have welcomed the touch that was of course accidental. But nothing could ever come of it, Luciana was the one, he needed to get that straight.
And he needed to wrap up this difficulty with Angela as soon as possible. Her phone – but he didn’t have her number, it was back at the hotel. She always had it with her, to stay in touch with her mother. He wondered what she had told Jill about Hans – probably little or nothing. He needed to make sure she was all right.
He decided to wait a while. Lia was right, it would have been undignified to gatecrash the farewell with the boyfriend. It would be the same if he called her now, they wojust stay angry with each other. He strolled down to the town, thinking he would leave it for an hour, and have coffee. He should get old Ettore a gift for having had them to lunch, wine for example. The barman told him of a quality wine shop down a street on the other side of the main square and there he found a small selection of Australian wine and arranged for a dozen bottles to be delivered to Marostica.
Gianni retraced his steps to the main piazza as it had felt vaguely familiar. Directly in front of him was the museum, and in a whoosh his senses hurtled back forty years. The archway, the stones, the smell, the feel – he used to come here to see Luciana, both of them on fire then. Cautiously he entered the cloisters and followed the sides around to the museum entrance. It had changed inside, brighter, cleaner and somehow smaller now. The mustiness had been siphoned out and was replaced with plexiglass and signage.
A young woman behind the counter, pen in hand, glanced up at him like a schoolmistress as though waiting for him to answer her question. She was looking over the shoulder of some students who were filling in forms. The only other person in the room was a dapper individual seated on one of two chairs on either side of a small table. He took no notice of Gianni and concentrated on a pamphlet he held high in one hand while an unlit cigarette twiddled between the fingers of the other. Gianni wondered what reason he could give for being there besides a tourist’s curiosity and when his turn came he asked, the idea coming to him all of a sudden, if they had anything there on the rastrellamento.
The receptionist told him go to the public library, further along the passageway.
“The rastrellamento?” As Gianni turned from the counter he was face to face with the man with the pamphlet who had risen from his seat and come forward. He was ten years or so younger than Gianni, with a pleasant face, modishly unshaven, under short and greying hair. Gianni quite liked the spontaneous way Italians stepped into your space. The man asked, “Are you looking for books or something else?”
“Nothing in particular,” Gianni replied. “Information on what happened. General history. Is that your field, sir?”
The man said yes, he was a historian. Not only that, but his father had been in the resistance, a garibaldino. Gianni had no idea what that meant. He told the man he was here on a short visit, from Australia, and hoped to find out something about his own father who had been killed in the rastrellamento. But he had yet to locate his name on any plaque.
“It is not surprising,” the man said. “Many of the victims were strangers in the area and many were buried in mass graves.” He introduced himself, transferring the still unlit cigarette to his left hand and holding out the other. “My name is Vladimiro. Mine was a very communist family, of course. Communism actually is my specialisation. The twentieth century, and world wars.”
When Gianni had given his name Vladimiro motioned towards the two empty seats. They could be in for a long chat. Gianni told him he couldn’t stay long: this man might be a huge bore and anyway Angela would have said goodbye to her German chum by now. Thinking of her made him remember Hans and his irritation welled up again. He commented to Vladimiro that the Germans had a lot to answer for.
“Not as much as you think. The nazis don’t deserve all the blame, the fascists were the real villains. The blackshirts, the GNR, some lackey units of the army. They were the ones who scoured the slopes of Monte Grappa with special enthusiasm, merrily shooting any fellow countrymen they came across. That’s why you could never call this a civil war. Not as in Spain, or America – there was no equivalence, at any level. Instead, this was a war to liberate Italy from the scourge of fascism.”
Gianni looked sceptical. It didn’t ring true, the idea of Italians taking pleasure in murdering other Italians. Not from what Ettore had said. He told Vladimiro he thought the Italians never liked the Germans. And didn’t largely save Italian Jews from the concentration camps?
“You’re missing the main point,” Vladimiro replied, waving the cigarette towards the back of the room. “It’s to do with the evil that lies in the human soul. The fascists tapped into that, brilliantly. That’s how they got into office in the first place and that’s how they managed to stay there. Their skill was in the squadristi who used to beat opponents up and kill them in the streets. What a model for Hitler that was! In the end, at the time of the rastrellamento, Jews were being rounded up. At that time the fascists had no trouble recruiting men to act out the darkness in their hearts.”
Gianni did not reply and after a short pause Vladimiro said, “Australia, eh?” He asked if Australia had troops in Italy on the Anglo-American side and Gianni said he thought no, by 1944 they were home fighting the Japanese.
Vladimiro replied that that was very wise of them.
“Why?” Gianni wanted to know.
“Because the Anglo-Americans made a complete mess of their campaign here, one mistake after another. This little bit of land – it took them nearly two years to get from the bottom to the top.”
“What sort of mistakes did they make?” Gianni asked, intrigued.
“I’ll give you three examples. One, in 1943 they insisted on unconditional surrender by Italy. A hundred per cent humiliating, no room for negotiation. That made it certain Germany would invade, it made it certain the Italian army would be rounded up and sent to Germany. Two, as Rome fell and next day Normandy was invaded they diverted substantial forces from Italy to France. The nazis realised they were now strong enough to hold out here. Three, after the rastrellamento Lord Alexander, the British chief, ordered the resistance to shut down for the winter. Lunacy! The partisans had totally committed themselves to the fight. They couldn’t just cease what they were doing even if they weren’t going to get any more help. The nazis and fascists had the green light to destroy them with impunity.”
“I suppose the Allies had their own good reasons for all of that,” Gianni replied.
“Of course they had!” Vladimiro said, becoming quite emphatic. “They were taking their time, their minds were on the future. They didn’t trust the Italians! They didn’t want a liberated, renewed Italy!”
He began to cough and Gianni waited for him to stop. He couldn’t see what Vladimiro was driving at and told him so. Vladimiro cleared his throat. He put a hand on Gianni’s shoulder, leaning on it for support, and his eyes were now wide.
“The English and the Americans wanted the king back after the war,” he whispered. “They were terrified of the communists! They parachuted aid to the resistance, but none of it ever came to the reds – it always went to the others, the monarchists, the old soldiers, the catholics, even the socialists….” He began coughing again, and got to his feet groggily.
“Professore! Be careful!” cried the receptionist, hurrying around the counter towards him. She said to Gianni. “He’s been sick, you mustn’t let him get worked up, sir.”
Gianni nodded and looked at his demented new friend who had stopped coughing and was making an effort to recover his breath. He smiled at Gianni and assured the young woman he would be all right in a minute. He began to walk around the room.
It was definitely time to go. When Vladimiro completed his orbit Gianni shook his hand, thanked him for his information and opinions, and headed for the door. Mellow bells sounded, striking ten o’clock. He walked briskly back to the hotel. Angela was sitting in the foyer on her own. She looked as if she had been crying.
“Are you all right, darling?” Gianni asked her. “Did Lia come back with you?”
“Yes,” Angela answered, “I’m fine.”
“I was really worried about you. You mustn’t disappear like that. I have to know where you are all the time. It’s the agreement I have with your mum.”
Angela looked in no mood to yield anything to him on this and said, “It was something I had to do. It was early and I didn’t want to bother you.” She waved a piece of paper at him: it was the message given to her by the front desk. “I don’t know why you went to Lia’s.”
Of course she knew, it was because he was worried about her, he had to find out where she was. He didn’t like her tone and was about to tell her so when she prevented him. “Mum knows all about Hans, I called her half an hour ago. While I was waiting for you to get back. Anyway, I’m going to my room. I’m going to write my diary.”
Luciana called him to invite the two of them to Marostica next day. Apparently the idea appealed to Ettore and in any case Luciana thought it would be good for both of them to get out of the hotel. She wanted to talk to them again about the chess project. As though it was an unimportant afterthought she said, “Lia told me you dropped in on her.”
Gianni was beginning to feel that the women around him were ganging up on him and he replied indignantly, “I was looking for Angela. Did you know she left the hotel without telling me, to see that German boy?”
“Yes, I heard. She knows her way around by now. She’s more mature than you think, Gianni, she can look after herself. She has a right to meet people her own age. And this is a safe town. Anyway, what have you been up to?”
It would be better to talk about Angela tomorrow, face to face. With a bit of luck Luciana could be an ally. He certainly didn’t want to alienate her, on this or anything else. Her small talk now was really a peace offering, he decided. He told her about his conversation at the museum. She reacted more sharply than he had expected, and asked whom it was he had been speaking to.
“Some Professor,” Gianni said, “Vladimiro someone or other.”
“Him!” exclaimed Luciana contemptuously. She seemed no longer to want to chat and ended the conversation there and then repeating the invitation for the next day, same time as before.
Lia was the first person they saw when they arrived at Luciana’s house. Ettore had been in bed all morning but was wheeled in by the attentive Donatella. At lunch Angela did most of the talking. Gianni was studiously correct towards Lia and directed his comments in equal measure to Ettore and Luciana. She had thanked him for the wine and was almost warm towards him. You never knew where you stood, with any of them.
On the terrace after lunch Ettore livened up. It was as
though he had been looking forward to this exchange for he began by telling Gianni in forthright terms that he had made an error yesterday at the museum, listening to the rantings of a communist. Gianni, surprised that he even knew about it, asked why.
“They re-write history, that’s why,” Ettore cried, drumming the palm of his hand on the arm of his wheelchair. “They say they won! That they were brave heroes! That it was liberation! All that is nonsense. Unfortunately the Left has had vast influence in Italy since those days. Much more so than in England or Germany, or even France.”
“It wasn’t liberation?” Gianni asked doubtfully.
“No!” Ettore exclaimed, banging his hand down this time.
“The German army retreated under the weight of overwhelming military power. The military tide had turned. One set of alliances strengthened while the other weakened. Germany’s ally was Italy and it had been defeated. Remember that most Italians freely chose to support the Duce, and in doing so chose to give up some of their liberty. That happens normally in extraordinary times, times of national growth and times of conflict.”
“And the resistance was not heroic?”
“There were some grotesque acts of defiance, that’s all,” Ettore said.
Angela had made herself scarce and was off with Lia and the dogs again. Luciana had been overseeing things in the kitchen and came to join them at this point. She heard what Ettore said and murmured to him. She gave him some pills and he downed them with swigs from the glass that she held out to him. Gianni, his mind still fresh with Vladimiro’s splenetic assertions that morning, decided to pick up the gauntlet. He told Ettore it seemed to him that Italy was more than a battleground for outsiders. Within Italy there was a struggle for the soul of the country. A soul, Gianni added, that had been in a sense hijacked by Mussolini.
Ettore snorted. “You’ve paid too much attention to that stupid Stalinist academic! He would have you believe that it was a war between good and evil, and of course that all the good was on his side and the evil was with fascism.”
“Well?” asked Gianni. “Didn’t the fascist forces crush the resistance, with the most extreme methods?”
Luciana whispered something else but Ettore brushed her intervention aside. “They had to. Look, as for that so-called resistance, are you aware of the atrocities they committed?” he asked. “Because if not, you should be.”
Gianni said nothing so Ettore went on, “I could tell you some stories. About my own unit. We were based in Valdobbiadene in 1944 before we were moved to the far northeast. They tried to put us on anti-partisan duty and we mutinied. Some of us were transferred to the Bologna front, to fight the Anglo-Americans. Those who stayed behind in Valdobbiadene were the old and the unfit. At the end of the war they surrendered to the local communist brigade who divided them into three groups. One group was made to march into a tunnel before their captors opened up with machine guns and hand grenades. Then the tunnel was dynamited. The other two groups were executed, hands tied behind their backs, and their bodies burned. I’m talking about regular soldiers, who fought for their country.
“Have you heard of the foibe?” Ettore then asked Gianni, who shook his head. “Well, ask some of your friends about them. They were like caves, deep slits and pits in the rocks. The partisans, especially the Slavs, loved throwing their enemies into the foibe, often tied up, sometimes in twos, often living. Especially at the end of the war they eliminated anyone they didn’t like in that way, thousands of them. And ask those friends about Schio, it’s just along the road there, twenty kilomters or so. About what happened there two months after the war. The partisans took more than fifty people from the prisons, many who had nothing to do with fascism, and murdered them.
“I could give you so many examples. Of things that happened during the war. At Perarolo, before the rastrellamento here, the partisans raided a barracks and kidnapped nearly forty people. Many were ordinary people who worked for the Todt labour gangs, they weren’t party members or even uniformed personnel. They were taken into the mountains and got rid of.”
Gianni was out of his depth in all this detail. Naturally there were two sides to any story. But he had no doubt that the other side, his father’s side, was the one in the right. In any objective assessment it would weigh much more heavily in the balance. For the umpteenth time he felt unprepared for a debate of this type.
“Let’s leave it to the historians,” he suggested, trying to get on to safer ground and hoping to mollify Ettore who began showing some of the fervour that had smitten Vladimiro earlier. “I can’t argue with you, I don’t know all the facts. My interest is really only personal, in what my father….”
“Your father was up to his neck in it,” Ettore declared, emphatically but with the words well spaced out. As both Gianni and Luciana began to speak he sailed on, “He deserted from the army – as thousands of others did – but he joined one of the murderous gangs on Monte Grappa. And when the heat was on he quit them as well. He came down to Pederobba, and assaulted Loredana. She was the victim in all of this. You should be asking about her, not about Tommaso. He was no good.”
Gianni would normally have struck any man, even an old one, who came out with statements half as offensive as that, and he did get to his feet. But Luciana, her locks flaming in the afternoon sun, was a warrior queen between them. Even in his rage Gianni could see that a physical response would only underline his vulnerability – his ignorance of all that surrounded his father and his mother. He needed to know that, and only his tormentor could provide it. His frustration must have been all too apparent. Luciana came over and soothingly, firmly guided him back down into his chair.
Ettore was well aware of the effect he had created and was not in the least apologetic. He was like an old guard dog, keen to assail the intruders, lumbering forward. He leaned over in his chair, speaking more slowly and with more determination than ever. His brows were bunched tight and a strand of his white hair slipped across them.
“Tommaso was arrested quickly after the attack, and executed, shot. But Loredana was to face a personal calvary. She had been raped but her family still blamed her for in some way giving that man encouragement. And they could not forgive her once she became pregnant. She had no choice but to leave home. The family was very harsh in its attitude, but those times were unimaginably harsh as well.”
Gianni took a deep breath and looked down the length of the garden, over the gardens and past the trees to the lump of Monte Grappa in the middle distance. He wanted to scream the rage he felt, in foul language, take it out on someone. Ettore had said enough, more than enough, and had shrunk back into his cushions, old and pathetic. He closed his eyes and was evidently not going to volunteer anything else. Gianni had a hundred questions but he couldn’t voice them, not without being so rude as to lose Luciana for ever, nor without seeming to accept what he had been told. His position was intolerably weak. He stood up.
Luciana, quickly next to him, took him by the elbow and led him a few paces along the patio. She said, “You want to know what happened next, with your mother?” Gianni, face stony and jaws clenched, raised his eyebrows minutely in acknowledgement.
“I gather she went to Trieste. The English, the Americans, all the others were trying to get there and have it for themselves. There was a standoff with Tito’s people who claimed it as a trophy of victory. They argued about the status of the city for years. It was terrible there for your mother and she got sick and died not long after you were born. The family did not find out about her situation until it was too late.”
Ettore had begun to snore. Gianni jerked his head towards the old man and asked, “Did he tell you this?”
“No, I heard it from Enrico. The youngest member of the family. He’s your uncle.”
“Where is he now? Is he still alive?”
Luciana said, “Very much so, he lives on Lake Como. I saw him there last year. He never comes to Bassano, though, he hasn’t for twenty or thirty years.”
Gianni suddenly wanted to speak to this other person, who might be in possession of some of the missing pieces of the jigsaw. Ettore’s account, warped and probably faulty, nevertheless showed how much there was yet to learn about the period at the beginning of his life. It was really why he had come here, with Angela. He could not quit now, not with this note of Ettore’s ringing in his ear. He asked Luciana if there was any way he could speak with Enrico.
“I don’t know if that would be a good idea, Gianni,” she said. “In his own way Enrico is more difficult to deal with than my husband. But leave it with me. I’ll phone him. Something may be possible.”
He must have looked completely deflated at this point because Luciana then kissed him lightly on the cheek and said, “Poor you.” Then she noticed Angela and Lia coming towards them and she took his arm and turned to face them, smiling as though everything had been just fine in their absence. Ettore was completely out of it by this time and Gianni was glad that they could make their departure without having to be diplomatic with the old man. He hugged Luciana and said he agreed with her proposal. He felt safe enough now to be able to kiss Lia on both cheeks in the normal way for a farewell. He and Angela were soon driving down and away towards Bassano.
For a while he was morose, mulling over Ettore’s revelations. If revelations was what they were. They might as well be the ravings of an old man, the distortions of a mind fading as fast as his body. Naturally Ettore would want to put the partisans in the worst possible light. Maybe there had been excesses, maybe it wouldn’t be hard to find examples, when a war was on. And if that was what Ettore felt he had to do – driven by the need to contradict Vladimiro whose version could be much closer to the truth – then of course he would say Tommaso was on the wrong side, the bad side. But Ettore went way too far, in making out that Tommaso himself was bad. He was probably little more than a boy at the time but Ettore had turned him into a monster. A rapist… Gianni dismissed that as totally absurd.
He remembered then Ettore’s assertion that Gianni’s father had been shot rather than hanged. That couldn’t be right. He couldn’t accept that. What inglorious sort of martyrdom was that? It was not what he had told Angela. She had been turning her head every now and then, monitoring his bad mood, and after a while she asked what was the matter.
“Nothing really, darling, just things Ettore was saying about the war.”
“That was so long ago, Nonno. There’s no need to get upset. About the past.”
Gianni breathed a heavy sigh, scowling at the road ahead. “The past….” he said. “If only it knew its place, stayed where it was, and didn’t foist itself on us.”
“Did Ettore….did he know your father?”
“No. He’s just an old fascist with an axe to grind.”
“What’s a fascist?”
“The people under Mussolini who took Italy to war on Germany’s side. Thugs, mostly. Ettore was an ordinary soldier, as he told us last time. But he agreed with Mussolini and with the idea of being allies with the Germans.”
Angela said “Oh” and went back to studying the world outside. Gianni mulled over what Ettore had been saying. He couldn’t have made all that up. Luciana had indicated Ettore was really sick, and that might mean these were the words of a dying man. It might mean Tommaso was a serial deserter – from the army, from the partisans and then from Loredana. And far from being a hero, to be immortalised in the Avenue of Martyrs, he was shot like a dog and buried in a mass grave.
It was raining heavily when Enrico came into the camp, on the arm of a sentry. The partisan was wearing a felt hat, a much misshapen trophy from his alpine regiment, pulled down over his ears and eyes and funnelling water onto his shoulders. Enrico, taller and younger, was even wetter. It had rained uninterruptedly for two days, and looked asif it would go on doing so. Autumn in 1944 came early, the trees already washed with yellow and temperatures dropping fast. Before the onset of the wet weather morning mists had already begun rolling across the deserted meadows in the high country. Herds there now risked offering themselves as provender to the hundreds of young men of military age who had come up to escape arrest, deportation or death.
Smoke from the cooking of flour-and-water pancakes had driven Tommaso to the mouth of his cave and it was from here that he saw Loredana’s brother laughing with the sentry as though they were old comrades. This was one more unreality layered upon so many others. Three women had separately arrived in the camp yesterday, for example, bearing messages for Gabriele, ones that contradicted each other. While waiting for his reply the women had overnighted and were now under a rough canopy on the other side of the camp singing with four or five partisans. Behind him gibberish and laughter from around the fire indicated some sort of linguistic competition among newcomers with incomprehensible dialects. Standing in the rain and utterly drenched through was Cesare, the largest member, scowling moodily at Enrico. Cesare had been unaccountably depressed for more than a week and had not responded to efforts by Tommaso to cheer him up or to orders from Gabriele. It had been decided to leave him alone even if this meant watching him shuffle about in conditions that might lay him low with a fever.
Tommaso had found his own mood swinging between extremes. Every time he thought about Loredana his heart swooped like a startled pigeon, up in hope before the inevitable crack of gunfire bringing it down. The image of her elided with the faces of her father blustering at him at Quero and of her mother taut with suppressed fear and disgust at Pederobba. As the activities of Gabriele’s group swept him along he often lost hold of the outlines of her face, the very memory of her. These were days of general satisfaction for the achievements of the summer and apprehension now summer was done. Change was in the air and no one could tell if it would bring salvation or damnation. The Anglo-American armies were tantalisingly close but had reportedly stalled against strong defences in the Apennines between Florence and Bologna. Their bombers droned overhead in increasing numbers and the airdrops of food and weapons had lifted the spirits of the resistance. The news from down below, however, was grimmer than ever and all too often some new sighting of smoke from a burning farm indicated the vengefulness and proximity of the enemy.
Reports were brought by new recruits who kept arriving, taking overall numbers past ninety. Many had neither the inclination not the aptitude for fighting but they had to be absorbed somehow. Several had been sent further up the mountain to the Matteotti brigade headquarters. Extra accommodation had had to found in rough shelters of brushwood now bowed and sodden in the downpour. Gabriele’s task was to form and train a battalion with the ragbag mix of personnel under his command, ranging from veterans of the winter and experts in sabotage to boys practically of school age.
The emerging battalion had spontaneously divided itself into three. The first group consisted of the tough fighters, including some who had recently arrived. The second were those who had fled from military call-up and who had no fighting instinct at all. The rest were an intermediate group generally willing to take part in raids, as an adventure that fate had marked out for them. Management of the force was accordingly awkward and discipline haphazard, and at times seemed beyond the capabilities of Gabriele. He relied more and more on the tough group, supplemented by the adventurers, and left the others out of it wherever possible, and that suited them. No one else except Tommaso was fully accepted by all three factions, for this was what they had become, and was respected by them for his encyclopaedic knowledge of the massif and for his participation in some of the better-known raids. As someone who had eliminated a senior fascist official, during the raid on Quero, he had special status. That made him feel good. He knew he shouldn’t, but a couple of times since then he had carried that gun about with him, well out of sight.
“Quinto!” came the shout from the sentry who had spotted Tommaso in the cave mouth and who began leading Enrico over in his direction. Tommaso looked up, aware matters could come up in a conversation with Enrico that he would not want to share with anyone else. The two greeted each other with a quick hug and slapping of the upper arm. Tommaso glowered at the sentry who took the hint and left them.
“Do you know that man?” he asked Enrico.
“I do now,” Enrico replied, grinning broadly. “He’s Erik. From Bolzano. Very friendly. Can we get out of this rain?”
Tommaso led him over to one of the makeshift shelters currently empty as its occupants had been squabbling and had been sent by Elio to follow one of the staffette back up to another Matteotti battalion and take some boxes of ammunition with them. He sat on one of two rickety stools and motioned to Enrico to take the other. He asked him why he had come.
“Well, to see you of course, Quinto.” Enrico’s eyes were bright with irony and the wet blonde hair hanging in strands around his face made him look more impish than usual. “I came to give you some reports on what’s going on down below. I don’t know if you’ve been in Schievenin lately, but they’re having a rough time. I thought you might like to hear about my own family, too.”
Tommaso grunted. He doubted if Gabriele would be happy that another civilian had felt free to wander into the camp – he had complained about this at the last full meeting of his inner group – but he was temporarily absent and Tommaso did need to find out all he could from this precious source. He said, “Go on, then.”
Enrico began with a perhaps deliberately tedious account of the food shortages and the bombings and the heightened military activity. He was watching Tommaso, registering his impatience with what seemed to be suppressed excitement. After a minute or two Tommaso waved his narration away wearily and said, “And Loredana?”
“Oh, she’s fine. She doesn’t know I’m here. But she has mentioned you a couple of times, I think she’s really quite set on you. She hasn’t got anybody else. Papa has mentioned you, too. He wants you hanged. He knows you’re armed and dangerous.”
“Do you know I saved his life?” Tommaso said in a whisper as two partisans walked past. “My boss told me to shoot him. I only pretended to. It’s the only time I’ve ever used a gun.”
“Sure,” Enrico said, keeping his own voice down. “But no one is going to let you get away with it. They’ll come after you. It’s one of the things I’ve come to warn you about. There’s still time. I mean, I’m not suggesting you should report to any authority – just leave, go somewhere, anywhere but here.”
It was an impossibility. There was no way he could walk out on Gabriele and the others now, not after all they had been through together. Not after the deaths of Pasquale and Ladro and others after them. In any case there was nowhere he could go, unless it was into the Vette, with Sandro. But almost as if he had read his mind Enrico said, “Sandro’s on Monte Grappa, had you heard?”
This was complete news to Tommaso. It seemed highly unlikely. Sandro had given Tommaso no clue that he planned to come over to Monte Grappa when the two met in the Vette a few weeks ago. Enrico noted his perplexity and went on cheerfully, “It’s true. Franco told me. As I said, I was in Schievenin, and I went by Signora Trevisan’s place. Sandro has been to his aunt’s. His battle-name is ‘Vipera’, right?”
A shift of wind brought rain in onto them and Tommaso and Enrico got up from the stools to move further back into the shelter. Two others joined them bringing with them a dank and shivering Cesare. Tommaso was glad of this interruption which meant he did not have to answer immediately. He handed a blanket across to the others and it was wrapped around the uncomplaining Cesare. He was put out not just by Enrico’s question but by his whole tone. It was as though Enrico had discovered a role for himself as a purveyor of information, collecting it here and there, swapping it, passing it on. He had no authority for it and it could not be tolerated. He could easily be passing on news from Monte Grappa to people down below. Franco, whom Enrico had mentioned, was another irregular informant and Tommaso was beginning to have doubts about both of them. He ought to bring all this to Gabriele’s attention. But not while Enrico was still here. Enrico, he realised, had a certain hold over him since he was practically the only one to know that Tommaso had not obeyed the order to kill Loredana’s father.
“You only ever met Sandro once, when we went to enlist, didn’t you?” Tommaso asked. He was taking care not to confirm Vipera’s identity but on the other hand he was curious to hear what Enrico might say. His intelligence was good. Cesare and his two friends were sitting down now, smoking, probably unable to hear what they were saying.
“With Loredana, yes. That was the only time we talked,” Enrico said. “But I think I’ve met him, or seen him anyway, on other occasions. He’s a quite a personality now, it seems, in the Vette Feltrine. They tell me he’s been a real headache for the government and the German forces. Or he used to be, because he’s over here, now.”
“That’s what you came here to tell me?”
“No, more than that,” Enrico replied. For some reason he raised his voice now to a normal level. “I came here to tell you that you are going to find things are a lot tougher all round. That South African who was with you has been executed, for example.”
This was bad news indeed, and it was picked up at once by the others in the shelter. Even Cesare joined in the chorus of shouts of “What?” and “Hank? Do you mean Hank?”
Enrico turned in their direction. “Hank, yes, that was his name. He was one of three hostages they had at Valdobbiadene. They were executed in reprisals for an attack on the barracks there. A soldier was killed in that attack.”
“That wasn’t us!” one of the men said, and Tommaso agreed.
“That hardly matters any more,” Enrico answered. “It’s all-out war now. Anyone in the firing line is going to get himself killed, no questions asked. It’s happening everywhere.”
The rain was easing. Tommaso had heard all he wanted to from Enrico who seemed to enjoy too much the shocks he was able to deliver. He also had an uncanny knack of winning over the friendship of members of Gabriele’s group. Tommaso, however, needed Enrico for one more thing. He led him by the elbow out of the shelter, explaining to the others that his friend had to leave. Enrico looked as if he would have happily stayed longer. Tommaso told him his boss had ordered that no more civilians be allowed into the camp, and he was due back any moment. He asked Enrico to take a message to Loredana – this was that he thought about her every day, and wished the war were over so that he could come down and see her. Enrico gave him one of his beatific smiles and departed.
“Who was that?” asked Yves, one of the two who had been helping Cesare. He came out of the shelter beside Tommaso and watched Enrico skip off down the path. Tommaso told him it was someone he had met a year ago, when he went to join the army. He added that his friend worked in a garage in Pederobba and came up now and then with information for them. Like the dismal news that Hank had been executed.
Yves swore and called out to his companion, Didi, who had also come out and had gone around the side a few metres away to urinate. Although neither of them had been with the battalion long they were among its most effective members. They were former parachutists and Gabriele relied heavily on their advice and logistic skills.
The rain stopped for a short while and Tommaso took the chance to get out of the camp, for some exercise and to gather his wits. Gabriele was still not back. He ought to tell Elio where he was going but somehow it didn’t seem to matter any more. Enrico’s visit had disturbed him in more ways than one. He had a sense of things starting to come apart, or go really bad. The war would come to them in a serious way. As if to emphasise the point a flight of American bombers passed overhead and to the east he could hear the dull crepitation of anti-aircraft guns.
He walked briskly up the path, greeting the higher sentry and telling him how long he would be. The path meandered through high rock buttresses on either side and then levelled out along a broad saddle. Tommaso’s target was a pillar-like rock formation that he thought he could reach and return from before the next heavy rain. He made good progress and was out of breath when he got to the pillar.
The thought came to him: find Sandro. He must be with the garibaldini. Sandro knew what was going on. It was a gift he had, being able to visualise tomorrow, the day after, a year ahead as though they were connected like these ranges with their peaks jutting through the clouds here and there across the valley, while for Tommaso the future was rather the grey wet blur that had blanketed them these past days, with visibility limited to what was close by. Sandro could perhaps reassure him on the state of affairs on the different sides of the massif and say how it would all work out. Even if he were guessing it would still be a comfort to the myopic and groping Tommaso. Sandro of course might try to persuade him to join his unit, surely better organised and more focused than his own. He might succeed.
On his way down Tommaso recalled the two Englishmen who had joined the battalion the previous month. They were like twins although one was dark and jowelly and the other had a pointy face and sandy hair that he must have cut himself for it stuck out in all directions. They were the same height and build, and said they came from London. Although they were as unlearned and unsophisticated as he was they knew a great deal about military lore. They had been captured in Sicily a year ago and since they were freed with the Armistice had been on the run in the mountains near Bologna. By now they had a fair command of the language, and were uninhibited critics of the whole of Gabriele’s operation. Tommaso didn’t like them but he realised now that their criticism was not unfair, in fact it was too close to the mark. Their main accusation was that the resistance was full of crazy amateurs who played games, dangerous games, and achieved very little.
Since Hank’s capture, one of these Englishmen, Jerry, was the main radio link with the Allies and several times a week was able to communicate with the Eighth Army in Brindisi. He had reported to Gabriele’s inner group that they could expect some ‘advisors’ who would parachute in over the next few days although they might go to another brigade first. Not the communists of course. These advisors would apparently get the Italians into shape and by setting up a joint command for the patchwork of groups on Monte Grappa. Too much politicking up here, Jerry declared, it was a circus, no wonder things went wrong. Tommaso had to agree. People would come up on sunny days as though to picnic, spies perhaps who could easily see the deployments and the lines of supply. And all the groups with their funny politics distrusted each other or their leaders did, anyway.
When he got back he found Gabriele back in the main cave, hurriedly stowing a bottle away in a box. He readily agreed to Tommaso’s tracking down Vipera now that he was on the mountain. Gabriele told him things were looking up because in a couple of days the English team would be arriving. This would certainly mean more weapons and ammunition, which were not enough for the battalion’s increased size. Their arrival probably also meant the final phase of the war was at hand. It could be all over before winter set in. The communist perspective on this would be worth having, but Gabriele told Tommaso not to mention to them the arrival of the advisors. The English would have no dealings with the garibaldini.
Gabriele had agreed to send Zanna over to Fionda’s group with a message and she returned at the end of the day. She reported meeting Vipera who had been given command of a battalion and one that by chance was relatively close to them. Tommaso was to meet Vipera at a farmhouse in Val Granda at eleven in the morning.
He went by himself as it would be quicker but really because he wanted to talk to Sandro on his own. It was no surprise that Sandro had with him another person but this turned out to be a guide who doubled up as sentry, stopping Tommaso well short of the farmhouse. Having brought the two together he went back to keeping watch. They embraced and stood back to check if the weeks since they had last seen each other had changed either of them at all. Sandro looked slightly more harassed, Tommaso thought. He asked what had happened to bring him up here, away from the hills he knew so well.
“You found out I was here, didn’t you, Quinto?” Sandro said. “So you know nothing is secret any more. That’s how it was over there. We did everything to prevent it, but spies kept coming. In a way you can’t blame them. These are people who have been told by the fascists that if they don’t provide information at the least they will be sent to Germany. For some it’s worse and they have been shot on the spot for refusing to cooperate in that way. I know of so many cases.”
They were in a room with a wooden table and two plain chairs. Tommaso asked how hot it had got for Sandro’s team over there. Sandro stood up and walked to the window with views to the north, towards the Vette. In between, deep out of sight, was the highway that Tommaso, Urogallo and Zia had crossed when they went to see him, the highway that led to the Valsugana. That was Sandro’s area of recent operations. He told Tommaso that the situation there had become precarious. For a while they had had a string of successes, attacking convoys and doing damage every other day, pinning down top-class German forces who were needed elsewhere.
“But eventually they got to know where we were, they found our caches of ammunition and weapons, they laid boobytraps on the paths we used and we lost men, some of our best, in ambushes. It was not just spies, you know, but traitors who helped them do this.”
“And you came here because it’s a safer place to operate from?”
“No, it’s not safer. Quite the contrary. If we had wanted safety all we had to do was retreat higher. After a time our pursuers would have had to give up. We could have returned to attack later, and continue being a nuisance.”
Sandro paused before going on. “We have really got up their noses, you know, Quinto. They will come for us here
and we shall have to fight for our lives. You might think this is a hard place for them to take. It’s not, if they decide to. There are good roads all the way around the mountain base. Maybe it has a hundred kilometre perimeter, but if they want to they can seal us off here and then come for us. We have to be prepared for that. We’ll be on our own, and the risk is that we will be overwhelmed. Because so many of us are here we have to make a stand. That’s why my men and I have come.”
Tommaso did not like the sound of this at all. The picture was too bleak, too pessimistic, uncharacteristic of Sandro. And it was probably wrong. Despite Gabriele’s injunction he told Sandro about the imminent arrival of the English team, which was bound to make a difference. More supplies could come. The groups could band together. An assault by nazi and fascist forces would probably fail because the English would see to that – they could bring in their bombers and they could perhaps get information on targets from those on the ground. So the news wasn’t all bad.
“We can’t rely on them,” Sandro said. “I don’t just mean us Reds. The Anglo-Americans are fighting their big war and in it we’re insignificant. They’re thinking how to break through into Germany. An Italian hilltop here or there, one defended by people they don’t trust, is of no consequence to them. We are expendable, it’s as simple as that.”
Tommaso had no answer to Sandro but he was unconvinced and must have looked it. Sandro reminded him of what he had told him a few weeks ago in the Vette, about the Anglo-American plans. They would help Italy to get rid of the Germans and then they would dominate it and dictate to it as the fascists had done but in their own manner. The communists were the only ones standing in the way of that, after the German defeat. Their movement was getting stronger every day, especially in the cities and it, too, could withstand local setbacks. But the communists were determined to make sure Italy was truly liberated by this war. When the Anglo-American forces arrived in the cities, with the nazis on the run, they would find the Reds in them already. Italians would liberate the cities. That was why Sandro had come to Monte Grappa.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Tommaso said. “I mean, for you. To come up here if you think we are likely to be overrun.”
“This may just be an inconvenient hilltop for the Anglo-Americans, as it certainly is for the nazis,” Sandro said, “but for Italy it is a mighty symbol. Death or glory up here, that’s our destiny, for those of us who choose to stand and fight. Maybe death, maybe not, although the odds favour it. But glory on Monte Grappa is guaranteed. Our brigade will see to that. Will you come and join us?”
Tommaso had never thought about glory let alone death before, not as something likely to happen to him in a foreseeable future, and he was not ready to start thinking about it now. Sandro was crazy. He didn’t look it, admittedly, since he had been speaking in a calm and almost resigned way. He waited calmly for Tommaso’s reply to his invitation. But Tommaso’s mind was made up. He would take his chances with Gabriele. With a thank you and an apology he told Sandro that.
Sandro said his brigade bore no ill will to the Matteotti and indeed he hoped they would fight heroically and effectively in the battles ahead. He did not begrudge them the help they would get from the English. But he warned Tommaso to look out because the garibaldini were going fully onto the offensive now, down in the valleys, and that would of course bring reprisals. To places like Schievenin and Pederobba, he said, and added, “How is Loredana? Have you seen her?”
Tommaso said he had, very briefly. He mentioned Enrico’s visit and his own invitation to Tommaso to run for his life. He had no intention of accepting that one, either. He decided not to tell Sandro about the attack on Quero, and sparing the life of Loredana’s father. The sentry was back again, lolling against the doorway. It was time for Sandro to go and the two embraced again.
“At times like this I it would be nice to believe in an afterlife,” Sandro said, “then I could pretend we might see each other again somewhere. But this is probably it.”
He gave a parting wave and then with his companion moved off behind a wall that followed the contour of the hill. They were soon out of sight and Tommaso took his own path home. Everything he had heard caused him concern. Even the reference to Loredana had been unhelpful, as though Sandro was needling him. She was on Sandro’s mind whenever the two of them met, maybe more often than that. Tommaso pushed that thought away. Sandro, usually cynical and selfish, had blithely and disconcertingly talked of death. Had he had some sort of religious or communistic vision that demanded self-sacrifice? Or was he getting gloomier reports about what the enemy was up to than whatever was getting to Gabriele? Tommaso didn’t want to dwell on that but he didn’t want to die, either. For the first time in his life he felt a wave of real fear.
It began drizzling again and a wet breeze enveloped him as he rounded the mountainside. When he reached the camp Urogallo told him that the English team had apparently already arrived but were meeting leaders of the different brigades up at the mountaintop. Gabriele, who had a bit of the language, had gone with the two English soldiers, plus Elio, Bacco and Yves although these three would have trouble understanding what was being said. Tommaso didn’t care. For the last part of his journey back from the meeting with Sandro futility had seeped with the dankness into his marrow and the parachuting in of a handful of foreign experts was unlikely to make any real difference.
Gabriele and his men arrived back at the end of the day. The battalion crowded around the clearing in front of the caves to hear his account, with some members on rocks and others in trees for what was the biggest meeting they had ever had. It was an optimistic report, surprisingly so, and even Tommaso’s spirits lifted a little. All but the commander of the English team, who needed to go on to the Belluno district to carry his message to the resistance there, would stay on Monte Grappa. The partisans here could expect an abundant supply of weapons and when they got them they should go onto the offensive. The time was ripe for a major push, to coincide with the one being made by the Allied armies against the so-called Gothic Line that stretched across the Italian peninsula following the natural defences of the Apennine chain. A single command, unifying all the main brigades had been established and this would enormously improve their effectiveness. Gabriele proposed a heightened level of defence preparedness as well as a number of sorties, both as information-gathering and also to keep the opposition on its toes. Two raids would take place over the following days with the aim of seizing some known spies from villages at the foot of the massif. Communications with the English, using all the intelligence gathered, would be greatly stepped up.
It was really strange, Tommaso thought, as he listened to Gabriele talking about mighty events near at hand and sucking them in. These ordinary people. He looked around. Elio, with his scraggly black beard, had until last year been a butcher. Bacco, staring at his leader as though his life depended on it, had been an idler in Seren even if he was someone people did look up to. A few months ago Bianco was a carabiniere while Didi and Yves were private soldiers. Zia, a former railway linesman, never said anything about his past. Pablo was completely unremarkable – if you didn’t see him for a week you would forget what he looked like. Even Urogallo, almost as tall as Cesare standing next to him, was one of those run-of-the-mill students who used to make a hubbub in groups in Padova. Cesare was a farmer’s son, as he himself was, and Erik a janitor in an apartment building. If they were a little bit younger Vera and her friend whose name he could not remember could be mistaken for his own sisters. And yet these people were supposed to be able to work with the English and, God forbid, take on the German army. It must all be a dream.
Later Gabriele half-listened to Tommaso’s account of his meeting with Vipera. It was of passing interest to him to hear, once again, that the Reds were off on their own wild ventures. Tommaso was inclined to agree with him when he learned that the garibaldini had not wanted to wait for the English or the new combined command but had instead attacked a garrison at the foot of the mountain, resulting in the deaths of three of the defenders. Reprisals had begun at once, with houses and haystacks burned in several villages on either side of where the garrison was attacked. One of the staffette reported that the attack had in fact been led by Vipera and that his presence on the mountain was being widely talked about, and would have come to the attention of the nazi-fascist forces.
Two days later Tommaso and Bacco went on a patrol to see what they could find out from the lower slopes to the east. Already at Schievenin the news was bad. Tommaso’s brother Vittorio had been taken away to work in the Todt Organisation and there had been no further word of him. All but two of the cows had been confiscated. Because some people in the village had been targeted more than others it was certain that among them there were spies and informers, or those who felt they had to secure their own position by pointing the finger at others. At least no lives had been lost in Schievenin. At one isolated farmhouse further down they were told of the summary execution of young men, not partisans at all, who had been unable to account for why they had not reported for the draft. Another farmer had had his barn set on fire because he had not handed over the due amount of the harvest. Far more so than on their last patrol a couple of weeks before, Tommaso and Bacco now everywhere saw scared faces and heard nervous voices.
Sensing danger and suspicion everywhere they had taken a full day to get down to the lowest slopes and back and were constantly diving for cover. They saw no uniforms but on three or four occasions the individuals they did see crossing fields or slipping through the trees were not partisans or farmers and more probably were in the service of the enemy. During one of the stops on the way back Bacco had something on his mind.
“The English weren’t quite as hopeful as Gabriele made out when he reported to you all the other day,” he said. As
Tommaso raised his eyebrows Bacco went on, “They think the area is difficult to defend. They said the trees are too small and thinly spread out to be good camouflage.”
Tommaso considered the matter. “Some places are easy to defend. Where the only way up is through the rocks.”
“Maybe,” Bacco said, dolefully. “But they reckoned there are so many paths it would make it easier for the attackers, if they came in large numbers. And they criticised our ‘fighting spirit.’ They didn’t seem to realise we’re not trained, most of us, not soldiers like them. And they were amazed to hear how low our ammunition supplies were. They had better do something about that, and soon.”
Back at the camp for the next few days, and coinciding with some good weather at last, the heightened activity ordered by Gabriele produced a new buzz of enthusiasm. Two sabotage raids successfully disrupted telephone communications in several places along the base of the massif and blew up a piece of the railway track. More members of the battalion than ever before had gone out on patrols and become familiar with the terrain and confident it could be defended. Gabriele’s reference in his report to the battalion of the heroism on these very slopes in the previous world war, unintentionally echoing the point made to Tommaso by Sandro, contributed to the feeling that all of them were engaged in something worthwhile. Most importantly, perhaps, was the absence of any direct threat. The skies were clear of everything except the occasional cloud and some high-flying bird. No warlike sounds disturbed the peace. No enemy troop movements were discernible.
It might have been because it was the end of summer or perhaps because one year had passed since the Armistizio which had catapulted Tommaso from comfort and predictability into restlessness, uncertainty and unwanted lawlessness. But he regretted nothing. If anything he felt thankful for the force of events that had driven him closer to Loredana, even if the narrow ravine separating them was impossibly deep. He sat on a ledge above the camp, suffused with youth and hope, transition and love and transcendence. This mood when he breathed in widened his chest and his chances and if he held his breath for a minute or more his mind lightened and spread beyond its bounds. The last warmth and the first cool heralding of autumn rolled his childhood together and blew it softly away. He had seen death close enough to touch, he had embraced and kissed Loredana, he was amidst thrilling dangers. He made the mood last and last.
Then the situation changed. On the 18th of September a report came in from Zanna in Seren of sweeping operations coming closer to the massif. These operations had been stepped up over the past two weeks in fighting across the Piave River to the east where two communist brigades had been effectively put out of action. Accompanying the sweeps were interrogations of farmers, intimidations and the destruction of crops and property. More serious were indications of major troop movements. These involved
German alpine regiments assisted by fascist Black Brigades and Russian volunteers, aimed at closing off the access roads, notably the main Valsugana artery and roads leading to Feltre. Machine gun emplacements were reportedly being set up at 100-metre intervals.
Gabriele called his council to consider their options. He was flustered at first, ruddy-faced and speaking more rapidly than usual, but as things progressed he seemed to derive some macabre pleasure from outlining their predicament. He began by summarising what he had heard about enemy preparations for what looked like being a major assault on the massif and cited the clear evidence of the deployments on all the perimeter roads. Deployments in an unbroken series, he emphasised. Tommaso, who rarely offered any comment on planning or tactics, wondered if the battalion really only had one choice and that was to confront the enemy. Gabriele looked angry. He replied curtly that if they were going to be attacked of course they would defend themselves.
Tommaso felt he should say something extra. The point he had wanted to make was that a trap was being set and maybe it wasn’t yet too late to escape. Simultaneously with his asking his question it occurred to him it was exactly that, a trap. That was what Sandro had meant. But Sandro, he remembered, had understood the situation even before it had reached the present definitive stage and he had still come up onto the mountain. Perhaps Gabriele didn’t comprehend how boxed-in they were. But his mind was made up and he would not be budged. It was anyway too late for Tommaso to say anything else: Gabriele was now asking Elio what the complement of the battalion was.
“We’re ninety-four although five members are either too sick or too injured to fight,” Elio replied. He added that they might lose some more men if word got out about the enemy deployments. Gabriele said it would be interesting to find out where the weak points might be in the perimeter. For sallies or supplies, or escape. He proposed sending out some scouts to monitor the deployments and identify any paths down to those points. Quinto, he noted, could coordinate that action. Meanwhile he asked Elio to list their arms and ammunition holdings.
“We’ve got sixty rifles, give or take a couple. Ammunition has been ample for raids, but it wouldn’t be much good for sustained defence. I doubt it would do for much longer than one day. The English promised us some additional stuff but it hasn’t come yet. We have a full box of grenades and two mortars, one not working properly, with a small number of rounds. And there are three sub machineguns.”
“Right,” said Gabriele, to whom none of this was news. “I’m going over after this to talk with the fraternal battalions and work out who does what. I’ll tell them that we should look after the Schievenin valley and all its access points. Meanwhile you, Elio, think about who should have the rifles and who should stand ready to step in should there be any casualties.”
When he returned later in the day he was quite cheerful. Apparently all units of the Matteotti Brigade were not only sanguine about the coming action but in a way were looking forward to it. Decisions had been taken on which battalions were responsible for which sectors. He divided his men into three groups, led by Bacco, Yves and Didi. Elio and Tommaso were to be with him at the command centre, and Tommaso would be the main runner between the three groups. Sentries and lookouts were posted at six points down towards Schievenin and a forward post of eight men with one mortar and a sub machinegun, led by Pablo, would take up positions halfway to Quero, on the banks of the Tegorzo, with a staffetta to report back at the first sign of any action. Any decision on reinforcements would be promptly taken.
For a while the camp was the scene of people running in all directions, shouting to each other about bits of equipment that someone had taken or seeking confirmation of the tasks they had been given. Members of the central command, the staffette, the sick and a good number of those who were not at all looking forward to the battles ahead formed a large group to one side, witnesses to a confusion that gradually resolved itself. Tommaso found four of the youngest would-be non-combatants and ordered them to go in twos as far down as they could on either side of Monte Tomatico, note the best routes and report back by nightfall on anything they might observe below of the enemy approach. They needed no encouraging to avoid being seen or getting into any sort of skirmish.
For a while he walked around in the afternoon sunlight waiting further orders from Gabriele and trying to keep his mind as blank as possible. It was not easy. It wasn’t so much Sandro’s predictions seemingly coming close to the mark as the more intangible signs, the electricity in the air, the menacing distant mechanical rumblings that fuelled his fear. As a boy he had dreaded the blackness of the forests and had had nightmares of sliding over precipices. He had once got lost in the snow. After one midsummer exercise in the army he had had a near-seizure, a breathlessness, that had truly alarmed him. And he had felt an inexplicable cold chill when he saw the German forces first filling the streets of Padova. Elements of all of these were coalescing in him now, in what he guessed must be panic. To counter it he tried to zero in on the assignment Gabriele had given him, and how he could even be useful moving between the groups by giving them some encouragement, as one of the senior members of the battalion.
Inevitably the brilliant and larger-than-life image of Loredana came to him and with it the imperative that he had to get down to her. Standing in the way were thousands upon thousands of fascists and nazis filling the valleys who if they caught him would kill him and he would never see her again. The defenders’ chances were utterly hopeless – except for someone with precise knowledge of the landscape. Like an eagle flying over the massif Tommaso had in his mind’s eye a movie of gullies and steep wooded slopes and unmarked tracks across dangerous rock faces. Even if the worst came to the worst he and a few others would be able to find a way through the attackers’ lines down to safety below. To Pederobba. He felt the panic ease.
A staffetta appeared as light was failing to bring Gabriele orders from the new Unified Command, set up by the English last week. These orders, Gabriele told his council, were to hold ground wherever possible and make the enemy pay dearly. In the event of overwhelming pressure the various brigades should pull back to higher ground and even in the last resort to the summit of Monte Grappa. This would facilitate resupply, the implication being that the English or Americans would come to their rescue. There was still no word on resupply in the meantime, despite the obvious urgent need for it.
The main units of the Matteotti Brigade, with the headquarters containing Gabriele’s superiors, were currently on the upmost slopes as well as those that led down to Schievenin and Seren. This was the biggest brigade, with nearly five hundred men. The garibaldini of between two and three hundred were on the west side of the massif beyond Monte Pertica. About the same size was Italia Libera, an apolitical gallimaufry that included monarchists and catholics with some three hundred members, and their area of control was to the south, overlooking the plains. The Matteotti provided the overall commander of forces on the massif and Gabriele told his men this augured well for its successful defence.
“Do you know who the nazi-fascists have got down there against us, and in what strength?” Elio asked him. “Did the Unified Command tell you?”
“No,” Gabriele replied. “Apart from the nazis there’s a fascist army unit, probably the Tagliamento Legion, plus Black Brigades and the National Republican Guard. They’ll have more than us of course, but three to one superiority is what you need for an attack, especially up a hill. The odds are in our favour. Don’t worry. We’ll show them.”
The opportunity to do so came all too quickly. Tommaso, and probably every other member of the battalion, hoped the initial moves would be made in one of the other areas of the lengthy perimeter. But at first light on the 19th, when only the sentry on duty was awake, heavy artillery began to open up on this eastern side of theirs. The thud of mortars alternating with explosions of heavy guns came up from the valley with the wind.
Trepidation then gripped the whole camp and some of the brush shelters, weakened by the recent rains, toppled as the sleepers underneath leaped up and tangled with each other in their haste to get going. Two or three near-naked men charged out of the caves to see what was going on. Gabriele yelled for order. A rifle went off somewhere, dropped in haste. Shouts came from all directions, the loudest from Yves and Didi. Someone kept callling for Bacco who was unaccountably absent.
After a quarter of an hour a semblance of discipline was imposed although most were only half dressed, tugging on jumpers and trailing their rifles in the dirt. They congregated in three main clusters around the unit commanders who carried out headcounts that needed to be done again as men straggled up late or realised they were in the wrong group. Gabriele waited for a message from below but as none came he sent off a runner to find out what he could.
Yves and Didi were ordered to take their men down towards where the gunfire was coming from. Didi’s unit should position itself somewhere well able to defend the upward route and Yves should wait there but be ready at Gabriele’s instruction to move even further down. Some twenty minutes after they had left a panting runner staggered up with news that the first assault down at the Tegorzo river had been in massive numbers. It was unlikely Pablo’s men could have held out long. They may have had to fall back already, Gabriele reckoned, and sent Bacco and his men down to reinforce him.
The next hours passed agonisingly slowly, with no word from below. Without it Gabriele could not risk sending more men down there, nor could he move his headquarters to somewhere with a better view since attacks might come from another direction. That seemed improbable given the steepness of the terrain. He decided to leave Elio in sole charge and take Tommaso with him in the direction of Schievenin. They were still well short of there when the last runner he had despatched came struggling towards him with word that Bacco had failed to link up with the defenders at the bottom who had almost certainly been overwhelmed.
Gabriele sent Tommaso to find where Yves and Didi had positioned their men while he and the runner went further down the hill. His aim was to set up new headquarters above Schievenin at a rocky outcrop that Tommaso had recommended as having the best view of the lower slopes.
Didi had located his men close to the main path with a good field of fire covering all accesses up it. Tommaso passed on his news and found Yves’s unit at a point around the slope with a view of the open space by the river way below.
“We could see everything from here,” Yves told him. “Look. There’s Bacco.”
Bacco’s group were retreating at full speed uphill towards them. As they rounded a promontory of rock Tommaso calculated they would arrive at Gabriele’s chosen site for his new headquarters in less than five minutes.
“They weren’t able to fight,” Yves said. “It was incredible. They had good positions, good cover – where those trees are, by the river. The enemy came up slowly from below, all spread out. But the very first people Bacco would have faced, coming around the rocks there, see, were civilians! Women and children! The nazis had a group of them lead the way. They fired a couple of shots to the side but it would have been madness to stay and fight there. They had no choice but to pull back.”
“And the nazis?” Tommaso asked. “I can’t see them anywhere.”
“You can if you look carefully,” Yves said, pointing. “Dotted about. There! And over there! I’ve seen blackshirts. Plus some of our regulars. They’re being methodical. Looking behind every bush.”
They gazed at the landscape dizzily below them, beautiful in the early autumn sunlight. But it was a marred, unreal beauty like a young, pockmarked face suddenly turned their way. The tranquillity was even then being speckled with war as at one point and then another a soldier would burst across a path or two or three single shots would ring out from a green-yellow canopy of birches. Tommaso noticed smoke rising at scattered points in the distant valley, from some act of military violence at one of the outlying farms, and then a spotter plane arced lazily among the low white clouds. Yves, anticipating him, said he saw no use in staying where they were any longer. He would leave one observer here since it was a good place to view what was going on but the main action was going to be down behind that promontory.
Leaving Didi they moved down and found Gabriele and Bacco preparing a defensive position where the path had narrowed considerably. Gabriele said the nazi-fascists would hardly herd civilians up this steeper funnel as they risked losing control of the action. It might even be possible to free the hostages in those circumstances. While they were waiting a staffetta appeared with the news that the enemy had now also attacked the mountain from the south, above Possagno and Cavaso. So far the other sides of the massif were quiet and the Unified Command was convinced that the main attack would not come that day.
Another hour of unreality went by, an hour of silence and birdsong. Everything was still, more so than on any previous day of the year when there would always be some movement along the main paths. Then they heard a whistle and almost at once a mortar exploded, by the outermost deployment of Bacco’s troops.
“They must have someone up here spying on us,” Bacco whispered. “They couldn’t have got so close to our exact position otherwise.”
Heavy fire broke out from two directions and bullets began zinging off the rocks above their heads. Tommaso was with Gabriele behind a buttress with a good line of sight down the path. He could see some of Bacco’s men also safely hunkered down behind rocks while the rest were further around the promontory. A single German soldier stepped into view directly below them. Shots from two directions rang out and the soldier fell and didn’t move. This was followed by another whistle, some shouting and then several soldiers charged across the open space. Two dropped in the hail of welcoming rifle fire and the others managed to find cover. The area below filled with smoke and when it cleared all the casualties had gone.
It was hard to know what to make of the different sounds coming their way – commands, clunking of heavy objects, scuffling in bushes and once in a while a chatter from a light machine gun. Perhaps a more determined attack was being prepared. Gabriele told Tommaso the nazis were trying to gauge the strength of the forces above them and sent him to instruct Bacco to hold fire wherever possible.
Tommaso had just got to Bacco when the next assault came, in greater numbers than before. But the defiles were narrow and again the attackers took casualties. Someone yelled in pain a dozen paces to Tommaso’s left and one of Bacco’s men staggered out with a wound to his shoulder. The action was all over in five minutes. The smoke thickened as another grenade was fired but the sounds that came through it were muffled voices and the movement of feet. The clearing smoke revealed that a second orderly withdrawal had been accomplished.
There was no more action. The enemy had evidently pulled back. Tommaso, sent back up to where Didi was monitoring developments, learned that the attackers had retreated and regrouped in the valley below. Gabriele declared himself pleased with what they had achieved, namely the complete frustration of a frontal attack with probably four or five nazi deaths to their credit and only a single shoulder wound, which was not a grave one, among the defenders.
“Don’t forget Pablo’s men,” murmured Yves.
“I wasn’t!” Gabriele said sharply. “It’s terrible, they had no chance. They’ll have been taken prisoner. But we learned something today: we can do it if we position ourselves properly.”
He was sure nothing more would happen that day even though long hours of daylight remained. He also thought they should move higher, to close ranks with the other brigades and stop the enemy getting to them. They were exposed down here, and spread too thin. Yves agreed, especially if Pablo and his men were indeed captured and being interrogated. Gabriele hoped if that were the case they would say no more to their interrogators than what they already knew. Because that would be quickly out of date.
Tommaso had sent his four young scouts back on the same mission as the day before. They had seen little on the first occasion, with one group getting lost and having to turn back to meet their sundown deadline while the other had ventured out in the open and been fired upon by an enemy scout coming in the opposite direction. But Tommaso believed the experience would have been good training, and they were not needed anywhere else. Both groups had achieved what they were tasked to do, namely check on the offensive preparations to the west and south of Feltre. They reported back with the same story: all along the road at the bottom the Republican Guard and other Italian forces were entrenched in double ranks. Their mission, it seemed, was not to take part in any assault but to close off completely the prospect of any of the defenders making a successful break down to the valley.
The mood was sober in the camp that evening. The loss of nearly a tenth of the complement, before any real action had commenced, was enough of a dampener. It was all too clear the nazi-fascists had the numbers, the firepower and the intent for a fullscale attack in the next day or two. It was just as clear there was no way out of the encirclement. The options were to fight or surrender. But nobody mentioned the latter option.
“It could turn out to be big mistake, our staying up here,” Tommaso overheard Yves saying to Gabriele. “The motto for guerrillas is sparare e sparire, shoot and disappear. Too late to disappear now. We’re sitting ducks.”
“The higher up we go the better it will be for us,” Gabriele declared. “There are all sorts of tracks and ways up and down, aren’t there, Quinto?” When Tommaso nodded Gabriele said the three of them should sit down and discuss plans for tomorrow based on the geography. After seeing to his wounded colleague Bacco joined the group and urged them to find a place to defend as impregnable as the promontory that afternoon, one with good lines of communication and escape.
None of them could get to sleep. Tommaso’s cold fear came back as nausea, gripping his guts and making him sweat. Maybe he was ill. His mind churned. He drifted in and out of sleep thinking ‘pain’and ‘death’, thoughts that meant nothing and everything at the same time. Memories in a blur zoomed and dissolved, the face on the German soldier as he stopped his particular bullet, the terror in the runner telling them that Pablo had been lost, the blobs of smoke and echoes of gunshot. He was staring down suicide cliffs, he was falling down to a far fast-coming doom, he was onto the rocks below in a repeated hammering succession of deaths. He kept shuddering awake, grasping for solace at the vanishing image of Loredana, her teasing smile, her lightest kiss.
The sun was above the mountain rim on the morning of the 20th when Tommaso woke. It was not the slanting light but the harsh call of a crow that had cut through his fitful sleep. There were other noises now, including the drone of an aeroplane. He was the last one left in the cave and he could hear outside the murmur of voices and the sliding of steel bolts as men checked their weapons. Even now he could sense the tension in the air and it was plain on Gabriele’s face when he stepped out into the open. Gabriele called him over.
“I don’t believe anything is happening in the valley, it seems totally quiet. I sent Bianco down an hour ago, and if he’s not back in ten minutes you had better check.”
Just then came the sound of a huge though distant explosion. The men milling in the camp area stopped still as though on command. Their initial apprehension eased as they realised the blast had not been in their sector. The droning of a few moments ago now became much louder. An aeroplane popped up between the trees directly above them but at a good height, circled and went back the way it had come.
“They’re attacking the western side,” Gabriele said. “That was a bomber. What they did here yesterday may have been a feint.”
Shortly afterwards Bianco arrived, his pale face flushed from having run much of the way. Keeping on the upside of the Tegorzo he had made slow progress as far as he could following the torrent, past the place where Pablo and his men had met their fate. Not much beyond that he had observed a unit of nazi-fascists who had dug in and were acting as though nothing much was likely to happen in that area. Gabriele instructed Tommaso to reconnoitre the western side discreetly and be back no later than midday.
He took no weapon, just a scarf as protection from the wind and to darken his face. He moved quickly and easily towards the summit. The now constant hammering of bombs and heavy gunfire ahead suggested that the main action was in that general direction. Near the top he was bailed up by a sentry from one of the other Matteotti battalions. They established each other’s identity and Tommaso told him what his task was. He asked the sentry if he knew what was going on.
“The attack began at nine, from the Bassano side,” he replied. “On the roads up from Romano and Borso. The mist was thick then. Whenever their trucks got to a barrier they stopped and poured soldiers out, all guns blazing.”
Tommaso skirted the base of the summit with the sounds of battle getting louder although still some way off. He was catching his breath in the lee of a boulder when he spotted a figure running across the malga more or less towards the summit. The figure appeared to be unarmed so he decided to intercept it and began loping diagonally through knee high grass down the long slope. As the two converged he could see it was a woman, presumably a staffetta. She paused as he hailed her, and said who he was.
“I’ve got to report to the Command,” she said, panting heavily. “Italia Libera are on the run. They’ve pulled back to Monte Oro and Cornosega.”
“What’s it like down there?” Tommaso asked. “We were attacked near Schievenin yesterday but there’s been nothing today.”
“It’s really bad,” the staffetta said, already moving past him. “There were women and children being pushed in front up the mule-tracks, and they were calling out ‘Don’t shoot!’ Italia Libera have lost a lot of people.”
She was off and out of sight around a knoll. Tommaso felt he had enough of the picture on this side and should check how the garibaldini were doing to the west. He clambered up a steep path onto the ridge of Monte Asolone, flat grassland with slopes thickly covered with beeches falling away on either side. He made rapid progress along and down the ridge in the general direction of Cismon, aware this was territory supposedly in the control of the Reds. The sound of steady gunfire was loud now and directly ahead. A wooded valley shelved below him and the safest course looked to be down and across it.
All of a sudden he was in the middle of the action. A crackle of gunfire above him came from four or five partisans close together at the base of a small cliff and aimed at movement in the trees less than a hundred metres to his left. He dropped and slithered back under cover hoping he had not been seen. With intense machine gun fire covering them a platoon of German soldiers, as professional as any Tommaso had seen anywhere, raced forward from the wood, firing and falling and crawling and scrambling to their feet again. They dashed across the open space in front of him towards the cliff. The shooting from up there had stopped and Tommaso could see that they had been in a cave with one access path, leading up from his side.
Maintaining their fire the Germans advanced up the path. They stopped when they reached the cave mouth and for a few seconds there was an eerie silence. Then one of them took a pace forward and ahead of him erupted a great whoosh of flame, directed into the cave mouth. Screams came from inside and two figures, themselves aflame, crashed out into the open. One of the Germans standing by the entrance gave the first figure a shove and he rolled over the embankment and bounced and fell fifteen metres, still burning but no longer screaming. The other dropped where he was, writhing to try and extinguish his flames. Another soldier fired point blank into his body which juddered and lay still.
After another silent hiatus with no movement anywhere, two more figures stepped warily out of the cave with their hands in the air. They were marched down the slope, made to stand against a boulder at the base, and were then shot with a burst from a submachine gun. Those who had been giving covering fire emerged from the beeches and crossed the valley and then the German platoon moved away from Tommaso around the hillside and disappeared. The whole event had lasted only three or four minutes.
Tommaso knelt paralysed where he was until all noise around him ceased. He wanted to be sick but managed only a dry retching as he had had nothing to eat that day. He slumped down against a tree and closed his eyes. The unreality of what he had just witnessed clicked into blackness. A piercing drone filled his ears. He slowed his breathing, keeping his eyes tight shut and beheld the image of the camp he had left that morning, although at a happier time. Elio and two others, all gifted singers, were giving a rendition of ‘O Sole Mio’ at a sunrise in the early summer. Gabriele! He had to get back. He opened his eyes and all was quiet and peaceful as though there had never been war. But then a dull rat-a-tatting commenced, the sound of machine gun fire in the distance.
The safest route would be via Monte Pertica, in the direction of the summit. It was nearly eleven o’clock and Tommaso had a good way to go. He headed north, climbing constantly, keeping wherever he could under trees or close to bushes but often needing to cross open ground. At no point did he see any human activity and so he reasoned that even if someone below spotted him they would not chase one man fleeing up such steep terrain.
After a while he reached a bowl between two ridges where partisans were sheltering among a circle of rocks. He called out as he drew near and came upon some tattered and bleeding garibaldini, seeking respite after another savage experience. They had a German prisoner, sitting with his back against a rock in his socks and staring straight in front of him. Like almost all the others he had a cigarette in his hand.
One of the garibaldini in a rush told Tommaso how they had been dug in at a place with good observation and plenty of protection. Then they had come under accurate mortar fire and before they knew it they were being attacked from two angles. They had sent a scout who was caught within sight of them as he raced back and they had had to watch him bludgeoned violently with a rifle butt. Subsequently they had come under such sustained fire that most of them had wounds from flying shards of rock. Luckily they had had an escape route and of the ten of them only their leader had not made it. He was crippled in the leg and volunteered to stay and hold off the attackers for as long as possible.
Tommaso motioned to the prisoner. The partisan said he had been at this place when they arrived, as some sort of lookout or spy. He wasn’t carrying a weapon and seemed quite disoriented, and half-deaf. They had smashed his radio, taken his binoculars and now relieved him of his boots. Half the men wanted to execute him. He had asked them what earthly use that would be and all they could say was that it would make them feel better. The partisan went over to the German and made him stand up. He led him to the southern side of the shelter of rocks and pointed down the hill. He gave the man a gentle push. The German wandered off gingerly along the stony path without complaint or any sense of urgency, each foot lifted high.
Noticing there were only five of them Tommaso asked where the others were. “We split up when we left the last place,” he was told. “We’d be mad to try and hold defensive positions now. We’ll fight in small groups. It’s what we should have done from the outset.”
The garibaldini began moving north, down a treeless and grassy ridge towards Monte Fontanasecca. Tommaso followed them a short way, acutely aware they could be seen from miles away, before turning sharply down the slope. He reached his camp not much later than planned. The only people there were Urogallo and two others, preparing to abandon the position for good. A new headquarters had been selected, and indeed Tommaso had probably passed close to it not long before. Gabriele was checking on Didi, whose unit overlooked a rocky bottleneck with orders to stay as long as possible so preventing the enemy from reaching terrain more suited for attack in numbers. Bacco and Yves were on ground higher up and able to provide Didi with covering fire.
As things were quiet for now Tommaso scavenged among the supplies being transferred to the new location for something to eat. Then all hell broke loose. Two mortar rounds landed fifty metres either side of the camp in rapid succession and heavy gunfire echoed not far below it. Firing erupted from where Bacco and Yves were, in a series of intense bursts. Then members of Didi’s force came running up the path followed by Didi and two aides, encumbered by equipment and yelling incomprehensibly. Gabriele brought up the rear, trying in vain to make himself heard with new orders. The risk was of a pell-mell rush for safety up the hill. Didi stood blocking the path leading away from the campsite and shouted “Silence!” in a huge voice and this brought a hush.
“We’re moving higher up!” Gabriele shouted when he drew level with Didi. “Above the tree-line. Didi, stay back here with your men! Urogallo, you know where the other two units are, send someone to get Bacco’s lot to the new headquarters! Quick everybody! Quinto, come with me.”
As they hurried back up towards Monte Fontanasecca Tommaso told Gabriele in a few short sentences what the situation was like on the other side of the summit. Gabriele grunted. “It’s just as bad here. We’re completely outgunned. Elio’s gone.”
He overtook the half dozen men plodding up the path laden with cooking things and blankets and was soon behind another group carrying weapons and ammunition. Total supplies, it was apparent to every member of the battalion, were not going to last long.
Gunfire from below indicated that Didi’s men were under attack. It continued until Gabriele’s party had crested one ridge and were well down the other side. The new headquarters were behind rocks on the farther slope of a shallow valley. They commanded good views across that valley and down the northeast ridge. A fold in the hillside below the ridge would provide shelter for members of the battalion, including Bacco’s unit now coming up to join them. The fold, Gabriele exclaimed, was a trench-line from the previous war. For some reason he took that to be a good omen. The new headquarters also had the advantage of ready access to the summit, and to the Unified Command. Tommaso was ordered up there and to report back as soon as humanly possible. However, before he had got a third of the way a staffetta came hurrying down towards him.
“It’s everyone for themselves!” she shouted at him. It was the same girl he had seen a few hours before, on her way to the top with news of the setbacks being suffered by the Italia Libera brigade.
“Do we stand and defend?” Tommaso asked, stunned. “Or... or run away if we can?”
“It’s up to each commander,” she said, breathlessly. “Is the Buozzi battalion still over there?”
Tommaso hadn’t the faintest idea and told her so. He asked if she knew anything about the garibaldini.
“They’ve been overrun, everywhere. I heard some of them did themselves in rather than be captured. Vipera has taken a small band somewhere, to Monte Cismon I think.”
With that she was off down the barren ridge in the direction of Monte Tomatico, the main peak to the northeast which loomed over Feltre and on whose lower slopes was Schievenin. Tommaso turned around and rejoined Gabriele and Bacco at the new headquarters. Four other men were with them, including Cesare and Zia who had been with the food and blanket carriers and who were ordered to stay there for the time being. Tommaso told his commander what he had heard from the staffetta.
“We’ll do what we have to,” Gabriele said, his voice forced and hoarse, in an attempt to sound positive. “Come on. We’ll stay here and defend this place. There isn’t any other choice, anyway. Just about all our ammunition is here.” Bacco agreed with him. He added that his unit was in fair shape in terms of ammunition and had lost no men, none wounded even. He, too, felt this was as good a spot as any, given its natural advantages. Gabriele asked the others if any of them could hazard a guess about the capabilities of the attackers but there was a general shaking of heads. Bacco said simply, “There are lots more of them than there are of us, all over the place, and they’ve got more firepower.”
Gabriele grunted but took comfort from the fact that their defences had held wherever they were not exposed, for example where Yves and Didi were now. One of the blanket-carriers volunteered to go down to make sure and came back with word that Yves and Didi had not only prevented any movement through the rocks above the old camp but had also frustrated an attempt to encircle them and had inflicted heavy casualties. They had lost four men killed, including Bianco and Yuri, and six were wounded although none seriously.
As evening fell quiet returned to the massif. Gabriele ordered all units to conserve their ammunition. Stocks of food and water were now precarious and bandages and medicine were also in short supply. Zia whispered to Tommaso that the enemy could conserve their own ammunition: here, tomorrow, they would run out of everything. That was the longest sequence of words Tommaso had ever heard Zia put together.
The enemy would do nothing more today. Partisan defences had been hammered in all sectors. Vera, Gabriele’s remaining staffetta, had got up to the summit and back to find that the Unified Command continued to exist, but in name only. To the south all positions held by Italia Libera, except those at Campo Croce, were lost. To the west the garibaldini had been defeated wherever they had set up a fixed defence, often with one hundred per cent casualties. The remainder of their forces had scattered mainly to the north in small bands. It was no longer possible to consider that effective resistance remained, unless the remnants of the Matteotti Brigade could assemble something.
Sleep should have been impossible given the hopelessness of their situation and the dilemas facing them in the morning. But all members of the battalion were exhausted and since the weather was at least dry and mild most got some rest on the rocky soil with its thin covering of grass.
Tommaso’s back was wedged against Cesare’s and that helped him doze fitfully, with fragmented dreams. Just before he woke definitively he pictured an army of devil-like black blobs which he knew to be bad thoughts about deserting, swarming up to overwhelm a handful of white good-thought blobs who were defending a hilltop. The first thing that came into his head when he opened his eyes was, “I must run away!”
Others around him were also stirring. The sun was making the snowy peaks of the Dolomites sparkle. Gabriele stood on the edge of the historic trench and tried to galvanise the men into action: they to expect to be attacked sooner rather than later. There was some sluggish stirring like eels in a pot but nobody really seemed to care much. Cold, lack of sleep and hunger had brought a torpor not dispelled even by the intuition many might have had or tried to suppress that this could be the last day of their lives. A wave of fatalism had washed over the battalion. One of Bacco’s men, still flat on his back, could be heard saying it would take a while for anybody to reach them.
Tommaso, still troubled by the words of the devil in his head on waking, said he ought to go and see what was happening at the old camp. Gabriele agreed and so he headed down, surprised to hear laughter through the bushes as he drew near. The mood among the men with Yves and Didi was weirdly cheerful. Tommaso respected these two and resolved to remain there as long as possible. For nearly three hours nothing happened and then a whistling sound followed by an explosion in the area of the old camp announced that action was definitely under way. Mortar fire cascaded in the camp and then began landing ominously nearer to them. For the most part the partisans here were protected by boulders and fissures in the rocks but several of them had had to be deployed along the mountainside above them and it was here that the first casualties were taken, the most grave of them being Urogallo. He was dragged along to the main path bleeding freely from a gash in his leg. Tommaso, the only person there with no weapon or defensive role, bandaged the wound with the shredded sleeves of his own jacket. Urogallo moaned and appeared to lose consciousness.
“Stay there, my friend,” he said, realising what a worthless comment that was. He propped him up as best he could. “I’ll get proper bandages from the camp, I’ll be back in no time.”
He dashed up the path to the spur looking across the narrow valley to Gabriele’s headquarters. It was a dismal sight. Thirty or more German troops had practically reached it, coming along the floor of the valley and making their way up the slope under cover of light machine gun fire. Tommaso could make out three or four of his colleagues taking pot shots with their rifles from their fortified positions in the old trench-lines but he could also see others running away down the ridge. They seemed to be doing this in some sort of formation, with Bacco in the lead.
A group of republican soldiers now materialised on the far ridge above the defenders, probably out of their sight. This group disappeared in among the rocks as the first Germans made their frontal attack. Short volleys of fire followed and then there was silence. He could see some of the Italians and Germans conferring while other figures searched the area. Then in two units they departed, now at an unhurried pace, down in the direction that the fleeing partisans had taken.
Tommaso waited five or six minutes and then crossed the shallow valley to the camp, as had the German attackers. He found four bodies, all riddled with bullets at close range – Gabriele, Cesare, Zia and one of the recruits who had been with them a couple of weeks. Down in the trench he could see another body.
His mind was empty as though the gusty wind that had been blowing in his face on the way up here had carried all ideas and feelings away with it. The men on the ground among the rocks were dummies, the sort that dangled from ropes at the barracks and were used for bayonet practice. They had never been humans. The only human thing about them was their names. Without knowing why he was doing it or what he hoped to achieve he pulled each one clear of the rocks that had once protected them. It took much effort, as Cesare was unbelievably heavy and two of the others somehow had their boots wedged among the rocks after they had slewed in falling. Eventually he managed to have all four of them lying side by side on their backs.
In a crevice between two boulders chosen yesterday as store for food and supplies he found bandages he could take back to Urogallo. He stuffed as many as he could inside his pockets and was about to go when the notion of the names owned by these four figures roared back inside his head. The names! He would need paper, something to write with. Gabriele’s jacket had a bulge in its top pocket and in it Tommaso found a small notebook and pencil. He wrote ‘Gabriele’, ‘Cesare’, ‘Zia’ and ‘unknown partisan’ on separate pieces of paper torn from the notebook and placed them on the chest of each of the corpses, with a small stone to weigh it down. He wouldn’t have time for the fifth body, down in the trench. He looked at the names, and at the faces beyond them. All had their eyes open, their fixed expressions seeming to register not horror but fascination in their moment of demise. He stood at attention at their feet, crossed himself and said a prayer, the first that he had attempted in many years.
Three blackbirds performed a roll in formation in the ashy sky above him before peeling rapidly off to the south. He had their view of himself: a small dark-haired figure in a torn makeshift uniform, shivering, marked to die like the four comrades prone before him. He was not ready to die, not willing to. He moved his right hand up and slapped his face with it. Wake up! He was not going to die! He didn’t have to! He knew how to save himself!
He had the idea then that there was plenty of time. Nothing untoward was happening. He walked down the slope, across the valley and then up the other side. He had no weapons to defend himself, no desire for any military action and no military purpose now that his commander was dead. A distant crackle could have been anything but it was followed by a whump and a bang, still distant but louder. These sounds quickly transformed themselves into unmistakable messages of war and they were coming from the old battalion camp. He remembered Urogallo and his wound that needed urgent attention and he began to run down the narrow path. A group of partisans scrabbled up the hill towards him. He waited until they got near and saw that Yves was in the front.
“Gabriele, is he up there?” panted Yves, whose men were behind him, some straggling along with difficulty. Tommaso hardly recognised any of them.
“He’s dead,” Tommaso said. “And Cesare and Zia are, too.”
“All of them?” asked Yves angrily. “Bacco and the others?”
“No, they got away before the attack,” Tommaso said. “They went towards Monte Tomatico.”
“Is it possible to get over there?”
“Possible, yes. But I don’t think you can now. The nazis were chasing them. They’ve taken the summit. They’ll be everywhere.”
Yves swore and appeared to be thinking hard. More than twenty partisans had caught up and were standing in a tight group around him, waiting orders. Most were from another Matteotti battalion that had somehow merged with their own. He asked Yves what had happened to Urogallo – he had some bandages for him, all that was left apart from a little food. Yves said they had left Urogallo where he was, not looking too good. He added, as the sound of renewed firing came, that Didi was still there well dug in with more than half his men.
“We’ll go back down,” Yves decided. “We’ll make a stand with Didi. There are a couple of access paths we ought to secure for him. Give us the bandages, Quinto. And go and bring us what food you can from up top. Is that the way to Monte Tomatico, if we can manage it, round there?”
Tommaso followed his extended arm and nodded. Yves then motioned to his men to go back the way they had come. This they did with little enthusiasm and much foul language. But Yves was a leader who had earned their complete trust and a couple of them even patted his shoulder as they passed him.
“We could all be heroes,” he said to Tommaso before turning down after them. “Think of that. And don’t be long.”
Tommaso watched until the men had all gone out of sight. He began to make his way back up the hill. Each pace he took smacked its desperation into him. His mind was clear but that didn’t help at all. It was as if he had entered a room crowded with people including friends who were flailing at each other with knives and bottles – he was a bystander amidst this lunacy, he was certainly not going to be a participant. What was the point of any of this? Of fighting for this mountain as though it was the family home? Monte Grappa would survive all the stupidity that was going on now. It would survive the war, Italy would survive the war, but the good men up here, Yves and Didi and Bacco and Sandro, too, would probably not. The Anglo-Americans were not going to come to their rescue, not up here where all resistance was being crushed like worms under army boots. And anyway, nothing ever turned out as you thought it would. The future that Sandro could see in his dreams would never be like that, even if he did escape death this day.
When he got to the fold overlooking the shallow valley Tommaso could see a whiff of smoke coming from the former camp that he had recently quit. He shifted along to his right to get a wider angle and saw figures moving away down the ridge. When it seemed safe to do so he darted forward in a series of short sprints from one rock or bump in the terrain to another until he reached the camp. It had been visited again. The four bodies were still there but they had been disturbed and searched and the pieces of paper he had put on them had been taken or blown away. A grenade had been tossed into the space where the food and the few other supplies once were and everything there was ruined.
He had nothing to bring back to Yves. Nothing to contribute. Except his life. A deepening gloom gnawed at him like a pestilence. He would go back, it was expected. Although he had no weapon as men fell one would become available. Urogallo for example had been in no fit state to fire his when Tommaso had last seen him, but he had been clinging onto it as if for comfort. You shouldn’t take a weapon from a dead or dying man, to join others also condemned to die. His feet made the decision for him. He had stopped reasoning and instead went where they took him, around the outcrop and down the slope away from Yves and Urogallo and the others.
He knew the massif, he could find his way anywhere on it even in a thick mist. He didn’t have to think which way to go, since the east was what he had behind him, the north was where the nazis had gone in pursuit of Bacco and the south had been confirmed as falling into enemy hands yesterday. West was where the garibaldini had suffered their defeats, but the northwest was the most rugged and the least likely to have been used as a way up by the attackers.
He dived zigzagging down the bevelled and treeless slope like a madman, leaping over its tufts of grass and football-sized rocks, aiming for the protection of a vast beech wood. The sun now bathed all this part of the mountain. As he reached the first trees a crow cried overhead and then he was into thick shade and perfect silence. Shin-deep fallen leaves and undergrowth made the going here troublesome, with the pyramid hillside slanting away. He slid from trunk to trunk, often falling but quickly stopped by what he banged into or could get hold of. He felt no real danger, nothing comparable to the terror of the enemy scouring the mountain like big cats on the loose from a zoo. A thumping blow to one knee caused him to shout and to pause for a few seconds of agony but did not otherwise interrupt his plunging descent.
For a while he was disoriented and had to proceed by guesswork, wanting not to get too far down and anxious, too, at the risk of tripping somewhere close to the lip of a cliff. At last, climbing back higher and rounding an overhang, he caught sight some way ahead of what he was looking for – the Busa della Neve valley. Here were gorges cut by the snows and meltings, by avalanches and waterfalls, a series of gullets and funnels hemmed in between the cliffs. No commander in his right mind would ask soldiers carrying equipment to attempt the climb up here. Any sensible person contemplating the descent would be at least armed with a pickaxe. Tommaso was on a steep scree between precipices, grappling onto whatever bushes and projections might stem his downward chute, slithering now on his side and now on his rear, heels dug in. Near the bottom where the sunlight never reached he came to a giant slide of ice left over from the snows of half a year before. Despite every effort he lost his grip and balance completely and skidded down twenty-five metres on his stomach, before levelling out into a painful and bruising series of bumps over ice-covered rocks and logs. He lay partially stunned without moving, breathing in sobs, until he felt brave enough to stretch out an arm and with much effort prop himself up. Apart from bleeding at the elbows and a throbbing around his cheek and temple, he was not hurt. He stood up, slipped and immediately fell down, wrenching his shoulder.
He crawled on all fours towards the sunlight at the mouth of the narrow valley, a task that took all his strength. Here it was flat and dry with a small bush that he bent flat and managed to sit on. He put his back to the rock wall and with the sun full on his face shut his eyes and thought of nothing but the soft golden blur on the inside of his eyelids. After a while he fell asleep. He awoke with the sun now down behind the trees, probably not more than half an hour later. His head felt as if it had been pummelled by a heavyweight boxer. The rest of his body was aching all over but nothing was broken and the blood on his elbows seemed to have dried so his wounds were only superficial. This time he got to his feet without incident.
He knew he needed now to swing around the base of Monte Tomatico, well to the south of Seren and Feltre which would certainly be dangerous places and originating points for some of the enemy assault on the partisans. The ground before him made for much easier progress. From a small knoll he could see the two or three dwellings that made up the settlement of Misola and over to the left the road down to Seren. He scrutinised it closely and saw two army trucks snaking their way in his general direction. And then out of the corner of his eye he discerned a single figure making a dash between bushes before jinking out of sight. This had to be somebody on the run. In due course the trucks rumbled past well away from him and after that the figure, stooping low, scurried across the road.
At the foot of the knoll was a spruce with a broad trunk. It would be an ideal place to intercept whomever was making a beeline across his horizon from west to east. Tommaso reached it quickly and saw it was a woman now coming straight for him. He knew her – it was the staffetta from the garibaldini who months ago had set up the meeting with the commander of the Reds, Fionda. He stepped out into the open when she was twenty paces away, so as not to startle her. And, he realised as he did this, she might be both armed and nervous.
“Milly!” he called out as she focused on him, wide-eyed.
“Quinto?” she said, uncertainly. “Where are your people?”
“Dead. Scattered. Some are up there still fighting.” Tommaso was embarrassed. This was the first time he had had to evaluate what he had done. He had abandoned his friends. On the mountain he had been in a daze, he had acted on reflex, he had deliberately not admitted even to himself that he was running away. He was instead avoiding suicide, being sensible, possibly saving himself for battle in another and better location. Milly looked doubtful but her first task was to explain what she was doing, for she also seemed to be in full flight.
“I’m heading for Monte Tomatico,” she said. “That’s it up there, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Are the garibaldini up there? I didn’t know that. Some of the Matteotti certainly are.”
“No they’re not, not yet. I’ll let anyone up there know that Vipera is coming.”
“Vipera?” asked Tommaso, wondering why he would be coming round this way. The mad thought struck him that it was because Loredana was more or less on this side of the mountain.
“Yes,” Milly said. “He and about twenty others are fighting back there, against a company of nazis. They’re the last. They have to retreat, east is the only way. He knows about the Matteotti.”
Tommaso was almost tempted to go with her and then the image of Loredana came back powerfully. She was the reason he had relinquished the battle! She was the reason why he refused to bear arms. She was the one element that had any meaning in this whole nightmare. He had to see her. He told Milly two ways to get up to Monte Tomatico, the hard way he had just come and an easier way, which the nazi-fascists might possibly use.
“Which is quicker?”
“The easier one.”
Tommaso began to say something vague about his plan in coming this way but Milly cut him short with “Arrivederci, Quinto.” Then she was off up the cart track that would take her past Misola.
From this point he proceeded with great care. These slopes were the closest to the towns on the road along the northern perimeter of the massif. The Matteotti on the mountain above him were an added reason to expect an enemy presence. He kept to wooded ground, wherever necessary climbing higher up angled hillsides that demanded almost gymnastic skill to move from tree to tree. These were puny things for the most part and liable to break or uproot but Tommaso was light and wiry like a mountain goat. It was not the first time he had chanced down the lethal flanks of the massif and he and his friends had often had to flee there from farmers wild at something they had done.
It was early evening when he reached the eastern side of Monte Tomatico. Directly below him through the foliage he could see the road from Feltre to Pederobba, one they had often crossed, attacked and sabotaged during the summer. Although he would be practically invisible to anyone down below he moved stealthily through the trees. He spotted two of the machine gun posts that Gabriele’s scouts reported were there precisely to stop people like him from getting down off the mountain to safety. A number of national guardsmen slouched about the way soldiers do in periods of great tedium. This was a fair indication they would not be on the lookout for a single stealthy individual moving under cover, particularly when the light was poor.
He climbed down the hillside into a stand of thick bushes, in a hiding place close to the roadway from where he could monitor what was going on. The grass here was thick and high and he was able to make himself almost comfortable. His legs ached and the bruises from the battering slide down the ice dully throbbed. He tried not to think about what might happen to Milly if she managed to reach the others at the top of the mountain, or even what she might say to Bacco about him. He had one objective now, to reach Loredana. But he would have to be alert, and lucky, to avoid the absolute irony of failing and falling a few kilometres short.
He slept for several hours. It must have been well after midnight when he woke, startled by the voices and boots of two or three men passing close by. It was cloudy but there was some moonlight and a few stars to help him make his way, as quietly as he could, along a path he had used before on a raid down to the railway line. He kept going in this manner until he came to buildings which had to be part of the village of Quero. He moved with maximum care, as close to the road and as far from houses as possible, afraid some dog would bark and give the game away.
An hour later he knew he was at Fener when he came to the high wall of a house that used to belong to the uncle of a friend of his. Once the two of them had hidden in a storage room on the other side of that wall. This might again be a place of refuge, if things had not changed, if there were no animals to disturb and if he could remember exactly where to go. He moved along the wall in complete blackness until he was at a tree which reminded him of what he and Enzo used to do. The wall was partly broken at this point and it was easier now than then to squeeze between the trunk and the wall and lever up among the broken bricks. Hearing nothing he rolled over and dropped down on the other side.
The storage room was close by. Its door was broken and yielded easily when he pushed against it, lurching on its single hinge. He immediately banged into a series of objects and decided he would make no further exploration until he was able to see things. His foot kicked against something soft, a sack of some sort. He lowered himself and leaned his weight against it. The floor was cold and hard and he had a long wait ahead of him until it grew light. But at least he felt, curiously, quite safe.
He had no idea how long he had slept, probably not long at all. Through the broken door he could see the greyness of pre-dawn. He got creakingly to his feet and at first from back in the darkness and then tentatively forward he peered out. Everything about the yard outside and the silhouette of the nearby house was out of place and obscure. Then he realised the cause of it – it had been consumed by fire. Implements that would once have had wooden handles were thin metal things, a tree had lost most of its leaves, the wooden shutters were burned away. He could hear no sound at all in this scene of desolation. It was still too early to see any details but the more he stared the more Tommaso was convinced that the house had been torched by the nazis, probably several days ago. Now that he was sure he smelled it, too, the sourness of burnt paint and vegetation. In front of him was the circular wall of a well. He crept over to it and found a wooden bucket with a rope attached to it. He lowered it down slowly to avoid making any sound and was able to draw up enough to quench his thirst.
He tiptoed back to the store room and waited there until it was light enough to see properly. The house was truly deserted. The windows were broken and the back door itself was ajar. No other buildings overlooked this back yard so Tommaso felt it safe to edge out from his hiding place. He mounted the two stones steps and pulled at the charred door that swung easily out. He stepped inside. What few furnishings remained – a large table in the kitchen, some cupboards, three chairs – were in a lamentable state. Pitchers and kitchen utensils were the only other identifiable items among a detritus of objects that might have been anything. Tommaso recalled the German soldier with the flame-thrower outside the cave with the garibaldini. Judging by the blackened walls something similar must have happened in here to set the whole interior ablaze.
He tiptoed across the room to the far side where the shutters were not as damaged as the others at the rear. Through them he could see an intersection with a road running down the hill towards him. Several people were already about, including a farmer on a cart coming down the hill and someone in uniform, probably a guardsman, moving out of sight some distance away to his left. It would be too dangerous, he decided, to leave the house even by the way he had come. He would stay here until dark. Nobody was likely to visit this scorched shell.
At various times during the day he thought his assumption might be proven horribly wrong as voices outside roused him from a fitful dozing. He was acutely hungry now but fear was a more powerful force. He had thought he might find potatoes in the back yard or even that something edible might remain in the store room where he had spent the night but each time he contemplated sneaking out the back some sound would remind him that he was in a village, and vulnerable.
It was in the middle of the afternoon that matters were resolved for him. It was quite warm and sunny and for some time it had been completely quiet outside. Tommaso was standing by the window, as he had for long periods throughout the day, gazing through a broken slat in the shutters. Coming into view towards him was someone he knew at once to be Enrico. He was going to pass right in front of the house. At first Tommaso thought it would be madness to draw attention to himself, even in the case of someone who might help him, with food or in some other way. But Loredana – whatever the circumstances, Enrico would be a conduit to her. Even if it were Tommaso’s last throw of the dice Enrico would be able to get a message to her.
Enrico drew level and Tommaso whistled sharply. Enrico stopped at this unusual occurrence but had no idea where the noise had come from.
“Enrico!” hissed Tommaso, opening the shutter a couple of centimetres. Enrico regarded him in amazement and opened his mouth to say something but then closed it. Instead he stepped quickly back and wrenched at the door. A moment later he was inside and the two of them were face to face. Tommaso would have liked to embrace him but the expression on Enrico’s face, as though he and Tommaso were not such friends after all, prevented him. Then Enrico smiled, and held out his hand. Tommaso shook it.
“What a survivor you are, Tommaso!” Enrico said, making a joke of it. “This is a miracle. How did you do it, how did you get here?”
“This is my mountain, Enrico. I know all the ways up and down.”
Enrico, tall, calm and handsome as ever, looked around him, and then back at Tommaso. “I knew this man, who lived here. They’ve sent him to Germany, and they’ve destroyed his house. These are dangerous times and this is a dangerous place. They shot two Englishmen yesterday, not far from here. I think they were up there with you. You can’t stay here.”
“I know that,” Tommaso said. “I’ll leave as soon as I can. But I must see Loredana.”
Enrico didn’t answer right away. He rubbed his chin and looked around the room as if searching for an idea or the right words. Then he said, “She’s at home now. My father has just taken my mother to hospital – she ate some mushrooms that may have been poisonous. Teresa has gone with them.”
Tommaso went to the window to see if anyone else was about. Enrico watched him and said, “You could go and see her. It’s as safe now as it will ever be. I could walk with you out of town if you like.”
He went to the door and Tommaso followed him, automatically. He felt suddenly spent, as though his battery had gone flat. He had taken more decisions in the past hours than for many months put together, and that in itself had taken its toll. His preference always was for his life to flow like a stream, where it had to go – and that was how he got here, away from Yves and Milly and Vipera. Loredana was his magnet but he still needed to decide which route to take and when to move. Now Enrico was leading him, and he was grateful to him for that.
They left the house side by side and walked not too fast and not too slowly across the intersection. Tommaso, conscious of his cuts and lacerations, had his head well down but did notice a couple of people exit from a laneway and head over to a track up the hill. When they got to the laneway Enrico said he had to go in the other direction. He would leave Tommaso here. With a perfunctory tap on the shoulder he wished him luck and turned quickly away.
Tommaso, head still down and moving at the same steady pace, continued along the road until he came to a break in the bushes familiar to him from passing this way before, not so long ago. He could get to Pederobba in relative safety following a path around a field here and through some woods. Away to the left thick smoke arose from a farm. He came across a track and began to jog along it, gaining in urgency with the sense that his journey was almost over. Ahead of him the slopes of Monte Tomba rose steeply. For the next half hour he struggled around its steep lowest slopes, able to see clearly the road he had bicycled along in August with defending forces now menacingly strung out along it.
Loredana’s house came into view from the last fold in the hillside where in the past he had waited and kept out of sight until it was clear. This time he did not stop although he did slow down as this area could be seen from the village. Luckily there did not seem to be any troops deployed here, or at least none he could see. The grass and weeds were still high and he bent a little as he progressed, ready at any moment to drop out of sight.
The door to the laundry towards the back of the house was open and someone, it had to be Loredana, was in there. Gritting his teeth Tommaso strode across the open space towards the house and unlatched the gate into the low enclosure that surrounded it. The sun shone fully upon him. Loredana heard the sound and came to the door to see who it was.
Tommaso had time later to run through in his mind over and over again every second of the encounter that he and Loredana now had. He had time to replay the words they said, to conjure up things he could have said better, to see things exactly as he saw them and to imagine how they might have seemed to her. She would have seen the man who loved her standing there like a hero, golden in the sunlight, scarred by battle, coming for her. She did not cry out, no matter how astonished she obviously was. Instead she gathered up her skirt and ran the few paces forward to him and threw herself into his arms.
Their embrace was sudden and short-lived for she disengaged, reached up to touch the battered side of his face and then taking his hand drew him into the laundry. Then she shut the door.
“Giancarlo is here!” were her first words, low and urgent. “He’s asleep upstairs. He might wake up at any time.”
Tommaso was smiling at her, he was in a small four-walled heaven, choirs of silence sang hosannas in his head, the most beautiful angel of all was before him staring earnestly into his eyes. His thoughts were only for her, his mind took in her loveliness, her reality, her words. Giancarlo! Like a pistol shot he heard the alarm in that name, the eldest brother, the blackshirt, the epitome of danger. He looked wildly around.
“I just saw Enrico – he didn’t mention Giancarlo was here, he said your parents and Teresa had gone….”
He stopped because Loredana was shaking her head gently and looked about to cry. “Tommaso, I thought you were dead. Enrico told me you would certainly be killed. We have had such arguments in the family.”
“About me? With Enrico?”
“About you, the rastrellamento, everything. They’re beginning to hate me,” Loredana added. “Because I don’t agree with them. They know my feelings for you.”
Tommaso, unaware himself until then of the depth of her feelings for him, took hold of her arms and looked fiercely into her eyes before kissing her full on the mouth. He shut his eyes and felt he was hurtling over a waterfall. Everything inside him surged and tossed, he was tumbling down precipitous slopes again, all the weight of the tensions and terrors of the past few days hurtled with him. He could feel Loredana responding with a madness of her own, clutching him, her tongue deep against his, her hands pulling at his shirt that was already in tatters. She had pulled against his belt and his trousers yielded too readily. It was a race down the mountainside, one he was in danger of losing and he tore at her blouse and lunged forward banging her against the wall.
They made love like the utter beginners they both were, their noses colliding, their hands uncertain of their targets, their desperation obliterating good sense and the need for quiet. They tumbled toward the cement floor, Tommaso with the heaven-sent wisdom and deftness to twist and take the fall, with Loredana dropping on top of him. They writhed and engaged and it was then, for several eternal instants of stillness inside her for the first and only time, that peace caught them, a warm glow of craziness in the eye of the storm before they were heaving together, saying the names incessantly, groping for the faces, praying that this might go on for ever.
But of course it couldn’t. Tommaso came almost immediately and bucked futilely to prolong it, and an inexplicable shame gripped him as it must have done her. She arched away off him then and in sudden fear scambled to her feet. He saw her straining to listen to some sound before turning to him with her beautiful smile now gone.
“I can hear him!” she said desperately, reaching down a hand to help him up. Tommaso could hear nothing but he sensed the panic in her voice and all the dire realities of his plight came hammering back to him, as cold as the stone floor against his bare back. He spun around tucking his shirt in and on one knee wrenched at his trousers and with Loredana standing back to survey him one more time was on his feet and ready for anything. Then she opened the door and fled. Tommaso heard a man’s deep voice calling her.
He stood by the open door for an eternity, out of breath and his heart pounding. At first he heard a couple of muffled sentences in a conversation and then nothing. Suddenly she was back, holding what looked like bread wrapped in brown paper.
“Go! Now!” she said, putting the package in his hand. And then, “I love you!”
He wanted to say so much, and repeating her words would have been an impossibly inadequate echo. All he could say, stupidly, was “I never fired a weapon, only that time with your papa!”
She smiled at him as a mother might at child, and pushed him towards the door. She pressed something small into his hand, kissed him quickly on the lips and said “Go, go!” again. He glanced at her fleetingly and then, with an effort at a military bearing, walked as calmly as he could across to the gate. She was already gone when he turned and so he began to run. At the top of the slope he looked back at the house. Standing in the doorway of the kitchen, facing his way, was the bulky figure of Giancarlo, the jacket to his uniform hanging open. Tommaso quailed at the sight of him and raced away into the wood. As he ran he tried to make out what the small item in his hand could be. It was a cameo, a young woman’s head carved into ivory on a chestnut-coloured background, it was what she had been wearing around her neck.
He kept running for as long as he was able, keeping as high up the slope as possible, with the great bulk of Monte Tomba rising almost toppling forward above him. He would have to get over it somehow, it would be lunacy to chance his arm one more time crossing through the populated areas between here and Schievenin. Even if he reached his home village he could expect no safe haven there, on the contrary. He knew Monte Tomba was flat and treeless at the top and his best hope was to find somewhere halfway up, a cave, somewhere the searchers in the rastrellamento had already visited. He felt sure they would have combed that area in the first days of the sweeping operation.
Several times he stopped when he got to an open space or an intersection of paths. He remembered the bread, and that he had not eaten in twenty-four hours. He wolfed the bread down. Further along he was able to drink from a rivulet in the rocks. He came to a stand of chestnut trees and filled his pockets with their fruit. Then where the hillside folded into a cleft he followed a watercourse to the ridge. Keeping on the shaded side he went up and up finally reaching a malga, with two conical haystacks over to one side. He surveyed the scene for more than an hour. Twice he spotted patrols in the middle distance, evidently part of the systematic searching. Fortunately they were moving ever further away from him.
Directly below him, on the edge of the malga, was the tiled roof of a small structure that could be a farmhouse. He circled around it descending through the trees to get a better view and saw it was abandoned and probably had been for most of the year. The windows were shut tight and the door locked. At the back was a lean-to, protected from both the prevailing wind and the view of anyone crossing the malga. Logs were piled up on one side offering additional protection. Bound with cord under some sailcloth were two bales of hay. It was the end of the day and Tommaso was glad he had found suitable shelter. Tomorrow he would look for food, and a cave.
He woke next morning to the sound of voices. He pivoted onto his knees and peered round the side of the house. Six armed men in the uniform of the Black Brigades were coming towards him across the malga. He sped to the other side of the house to make his getaway and to his consternation saw six more, even closer. He thought they had not seen him but one of them yelled “Stop there!” The only escape was up the mountainside and he would not get far before he was overtaken or shot down. He stepped forward with his hands up.
“Bandit!” shouted the leader of the first patrol, a sergeant, and made to club Tommaso with his rifle. Tommaso stopped the blow with his forearm but cried out in pain and fell sideways to the ground.
“I’m not! I’m not!” he called out as blows rained down on him. The beating stopped.
“Oh no?” said the sergeant sarcastically. “Explain yourself! Why are you here then?”
“I live here, near here,” Tommaso said. “I’m a farmer. I didn’t want to get caught up in the fighting on the mountain.”
“Liar!” said the sergeant, kicking him until he stood up. “Don’t worry. We’ll get the truth out of you, you can count on that. March!”
By this time the other patrol had reached them. Self-congratulatory cheers and jeers were exchanged. Tommaso was encircled like a rabbit by a dozen birds of prey. Several of the soldiers recommended shooting him there and then. The sergeant said he would love to do just that but their orders were to bring in suspicious people.
“Where’s your weapon?” he demanded.
“I don’t own one, even for hunting,” Tommaso said.
“You’re in partisan clothes,” the sergeant said. “Look at you! You’ve been in the wars! Who are you with, Italia Libera?”
Tommaso considered what he was wearing – a pair of brown trousers and a faded and much torn grey-green shirt. Of Gabriele’s unit, he was usually the least presentable and, by choice, the last to don any new clothes that came their way. This was partly because he had lived almost all his life on this mountain, far from fashion, and partly because it was another way to distinguish himself from those too ready to carry arms and take part in raids. His confidence began to pick up slightly.
“I’m a farmer, for God’s sake,” he said. “My home is at Schievenin. I fell down a ravine yesterday evening, I was on my way home.”
“You are a liar and a draft dodger and a traitor,” the sergeant said. “Now get moving.”
Tommaso was driven ahead of the first patrol across the malga with repeated jabs in the small of his back with the sergeant’s rifle barrel. At first he had his hands raised to shoulder level but after stumbling a few times on tussocks while being jolted by the sergeant he lowered his hands to maintain a better balance. The sergeant didn’t mind but nevertheless kept up a stream of abuse directed at the bandits and traitors who had had their fun on the mountain for a few months and were now being hunted down and destroyed. This was Tommaso’s inevitable fate, he assured his prisoner.
They reached a road junction serving as a rallying point for several patrols. Tommaso was shoved over to where three other captured partisans stood, heads down. He didn’t recognise any of them and, being on this side of the massif, assumed they were with Italia Libera. They would have seen him as he was brought in their direction but none dared acknowledge him in any way. All four did their best to look innocent and dignified, not easy as members of the Black Brigades felt compelled, as a way of passing the time, to come up and abuse them or push them about.
Later a truck arrived and they men were ordered aboard. Each had a Brigade member sitting on either side of him. Opposite Tommaso was a man older than himself and much better presented. Tommaso had no doubt he was a former soldier and possibly an officer. His two guards were mean-faced, scruffy and badly shaved, petty criminals in their pre-Brigade existence, Tommaso imagined. One of them caught his eye and kicked him on the shin.
“Face the front, traitor!” he spat at him.
The end of the journey was a barracks in Bassano. The truck pulled into a courtyard and the four prisoners were hauled unceremoniously out. They were then marched along corridors to the back of the building and locked in a room with a stone-flagged floor, a window too high to see out of and a heavy door with a grille. Every so often a guard glared in and ordered them to be silent even though nobody spoke and only one or two moved about. There was no furniture of any kind in the room.
Time went by very slowly. They could hear boots in the passage outside and occasional muffled conversations. After four or five hours some bread and polenta and a little water was brought in to them. During the afternoon an army captain came in, stared at each in turn for a few seconds and then without saying anything turned on his heel and left. The four were taken one by one under guard to a toilet. No light was lit in the cell and it got dark. The prisoners stretched out each in one corner of the room to sleep, still not having exchanged a word.
Tommaso was the first to be interrogated, some time after they had all awoken next morning, before any food had been brought. The door of the cell banged open and two soldiers barged in. They grabbed him roughly by the upper arm and jerked him to his feet, perhaps because he was the nearest to them. They marched him, still held by the arms, a short distance to a room bare of anything except a desk and a chair. The captain who had come into the cell the day before was seated behind the desk. The two soldiers took up positions to Tommaso’s left and right, a pace away.
The captain regarded Tommaso for some time, without saying anything. Tommaso wondered if this was some sort of test and he tried unsuccessfully not to blink. Then the captain gave him a severe little smile and spoke in a reasonable tone.
“What is your name?”
“Where are you from?”
“My home is in Schievenin.”
“Which partisan group were you with?”
“I wasn’t with any.”
The captain nodded at one of the soldiers and instantly a terrific backhanded blow walloped Tommaso behind the ear. The captain continued in the same reasonable voice.
“This interview should be quite short and it doesn’t have to hurt. I need to get a few facts. What you have told me already I will have checked. Then we will talk again. Only if you tell me any lies will you be treated badly. Take him away.”
Tommaso expected to be put back in the original cell but instead he was taken to another, smaller but with a light on and an iron bed with no mattress. He spent the rest of the day lying on the bedsprings wondering what his fate would be and thinking about Loredana. He could hear the sort of sounds he used to hear at the barracks in Padova – marching and revving engines and male voices calling out to each other and distant traffic. In a strange way it was peaceful in here, after the recent frenetic days of battles and fleeing, and the previous weeks and months of activity with Gabriele’s battalion. He had received a few blows since his capture but had otherwise been treated adequately. Now food was again being brought, the best food he had had for some time. He contemplated a hot vegetable broth that had been set down on the floor in front of him.
For hours nothing but Loredana was in his head. Her expression when she first saw him at the gate, so spontaneously welcoming, so admiring, so sweet, so brave because of how much she must have suffered on account of him within that family of fascist officials and military. He remembered all her wonderful words and too many of his own pathetic ones. He recalled their love-making, the curves and softnesses of her body, the triumph over the awkwardness and the coming together. Whatever happened, and Tommaso tried not to let his mind dwell on the tribulations ahead, the love of Loredana would sustain him. Everything, anything would be worth that.
He deliberated what story he should tell at the next interrogation. Whole dialogues of question and answer evolved in his head, with his replies becoming more and more convincing. They had no evidence against him. He was unarmed and harmless, a contadino with a valid reason to be where they found him, keeping his head down because he was scared. The reasonable captain would be persuaded by his pleasant manner and honesty, which others had in the past commented on. He would be set free.
The next interrogation, however, did not take place until two more days had dragged by. Tommaso’s moods seesawed between hope and despair, the latter lasting longer and drawing him deep into melancholy. On the third day he was woken harshly from his reverie. Guards he had not seen before hauled him to his feet and marched him back to the original interrogation room, and the same captain. This time he did not look at all friendly. Tommaso was pushed down into the chair.
“There exists a Tommaso Casson of Schievenin,” the captain said. “We will verify that it is you.”
One of the guards then left the room and returned almost at once. Behind him was a figure whom Tommaso recognised, when he came into the room, as Franco. He did not look at Tommaso until ordered to by the captain, with a curt “Is that him?” Franco made a small sound and was led from the room. The captain scowled at Tommaso.
“Now you will tell me what else we need to know. We already know that you have been a key member of the Matteotti Brigade, operating on Monte Grappa above Schievenin. That village no longer exists. It has been destroyed as a punishment for the crimes committed by its inhabitants. We cannot tolerate treachery.”
Tommaso was shaken by this news, as he had been by the sight of Franco. They were never close friends but Franco had always seemed likeable and even trustworthy. But terrible things were happening, perhaps even to his own family in Schievenin if the captain was to be believed. The captain took his time with the next question. He seemed to be studying Tommaso’s face as though he was about to make an excessively generous offer and was not sure if Tommaso was a worthy recipient.
“Where is Vipera?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Tommaso replied and a second later he was cracked so vigorously across the ear that he fell from the chair. His head felt that it had burst like a pumpkin flung againt a rock. He rolled over onto his knees and put both hands to his ears to test how much of his head was left. He was picked up by the two guards and dumped back on the chair.
The captain was in a bad mood. “‘Vipera’ is the name given to your friend Sandro Peruzzo. You were comrades at Padova. We know all this. And we know that you know where he is. You will now tell us where he is.”
“I really don’t know,” Tommaso said, as earnestly as he could, and flinched in anticipation of another crashing blow to the head. But the captain stood up instead.
“We’ll try another tack.” He went to the door and opened it and shouted something down the passageway. A short while later Tommaso heard the sound of doors opening and feet marching. There was a knock on the door. One of the guardsmen pulled it open. Urogallo came stumbling into the room, held by two men. His leg was heavily bandaged. He was gaunt and his face was badly bruised. He had the hunted look of someone who had not slept or eaten for a long time.
“Now,” said the captain. “Here is one of your colleagues from the Matteotti. You will tell us where Vipera is or else
we will have this man shot.”
Tommaso and Urogallo exchanged a glance, brief because the captain was shouting and one of the guardsmen stepped between them, but also intense and full of significance. In Urogallo’s haunted face Tommaso read a question, and a pardoning. They had not seen each other since Tommaso had left him wounded with Didi’s men and gone to find bandages for him. Urogallo would have expected him to return, Yves would have told him to expect that. But now not only did he give Tommaso an exhausted forgiveness but in that sad smile made as he moved his head with the tiniest sideways shake he also gave him an instruction. Not to tell the captain what he wanted to hear.
Tommaso said as quickly and as convincingly as he could, “Captain, I haven’t seen Vipera in a long time, I have had no news of his whereabouts, I thought he was in the Vette but someone told me he had come to the massif, he could be anywhere, I have no way of knowing.”
“Nice try,” the captain sneered. “Not good enough. Last chance. No? Take him away.”
Urogallo was dragged from the room. Tommaso looked after him in anguish but it was not possible to catch his eye again. He turned to the captain in desperation but the captain put his finger to his own lips. He said nothing more and there was a silence lasting long enough for Tommaso to take in the horror of what was happening. He tried to speak but words wouldn’t come. Then came a gunshot, followed by a second one.
“You will reflect on this,” the captain told him. “I will check on you later today in case you have had some fresh thoughts. Tomorrow is the big one. Then you will most certainly tell me everything, including about the Matteotti Brigade. And you will especially tell me what Mr Peruzzo has been doing since he returned from the Vette to where his old friend Tommaso has been all this time. Oh,” and here the captain had an afterthought, “a friend will be with me tomorrow, he is from Ukraine. My friend has a one hundred per cent record at helping people remember things they thought they had forgotten.”
The interview was over and Tommaso was taken back in a daze to his cell. He lay on the iron bed with the image of Urogallo vivid before him. The tiny movement of Urogallo’s head – was that really to tell him he must say nothing? It could have meant: don’t let them kill me. No, he was sure it was an encouragement to him to be brave, brave like Urogallo. Brave like Yves – he remembered his smiling no-nonsense determination that last time, as he prepared to go back down and fight. Brave like Bacco going to defend Monte Tomatico, where Vipera would be. Brave like Milly and all the others.
For a moment, a very brief moment, his head became light. It was like the launching into sleep when the mind leaves the body behind – sometimes you turn over then and maybe you will lie suspended awake for ages afterwards. In that very brief moment Tommaso had an image of a soldier like Yves or Bacco making the particular movement, perhaps standing up in the face of gunfire, that will surely lead to death. The image Tommaso had was universal, it was the lust for oblivion that every suicide has at that last instant. It was the purest heroism merging with the purest cowardice. It was every single living cell in his body coming to an orgasm of annihilation. It was ecstasy exploding and gone.
He felt desolate. He was not brave. He would not be brave tomorrow. He would bend and buckle like grapes in a hailstorm. Was the least resistance imaginable? When they asked him questions, he madly thought now, he would at first try not to answer: he would instead try and think of Loredana. Her picture came to him, half-turned to look at her mother, that time when he told them he had not shot her father, and then her madonna face turning back to him. Of course. Of course he would want to see Loredana again so much that he would indeed reveal to the captain and his friend from Ukraine everything they could possibly want to know.
Tommaso felt in his pocket for the cameo. To his dismay it was broken in two, from some kick he had received or when he had fallen to the floor. It cut his finger as he pulled it out to inspect it. He looked at the blood, his blood, on the cameo and began to weep.