Read Sandlands Online

Authors: Rosy Thornton

Sandlands (10 page)

Nightingale Farm the place was called, and his father said they were really there, back in those days, the birds that gave the place its name. Flavio remembered hearing nightingales at his grandparents' house at San Cesario in the countryside of Emilia-Romagna – hearing them but never seeing one. They were anonymous little brown birds according to Papi, plain as Franciscan fustian, with a drabness quite at odds with the extravagance of their song, and they kept to the densest thickets, nesting deep in the heart of gorse or underscrub. There was, besides, some quality about their song which made its source and direction impossible to gauge. ‘That's because it comes directly from the throats of angels,' his
nonna
told him, ‘and not from the larynx of a bird.' Flavio himself had no religion, though he would soon be reaching a stage of life when he might start to wish for its solace. But it was true that the small bird's music expanded and swelled until it filled the air on every side, so that it seemed to rise with the dew at daybreak and descend from the stars at night.

Nightingale Farm. He'd written ahead of time to inquire about a visit. The name of the people was the same as when his father was sent there: Beck, one of those solid Anglo-Saxon names. He had no other address apart from the name of the farm and village but it had been enough for his letter to find its destination. Perhaps in England, too, they had no street addresses in these country places, and the postman knew the house and family just as everybody did, the same way it had been in San Cesario. It was a woman who wrote back to him, and he wondered what relation she would be. The couple his father spoke of back then had been the age of his own parents, Flavio's grandparents, so that might make his correspondent now a granddaughter, or a great-granddaughter? He'd arranged to call tomorrow afternoon – had received a gracious invitation to tea and no doubt some English cake – and was putting up tonight and for the few days following at the village inn. He would ask for directions from there. The Ship, it was called, which was also the same inn his father had mentioned – the ‘pub' was the word that Salvatore used – where he'd drunk beer at sundown alongside the other village farmhands and learned to join in the choruses of their songs. Flavio recalled it for the curiosity of its name, which Salvatore said made no sense at all when the village was fully ten kilometres from the sea. It was probably some English joke that neither of them understood.

It was a beautiful evening for a walk; he could have no complaints on that score, at least. He'd packed his case with a thought to rain, which was what he was told you could expect in England in any month of the year, including high summer. The lush vegetation of the verges bore some testament to the truth of it as they were certainly far greener than you would see in Italy in June. But beneath them, tramlining the lane, lay a powder of fine, pale sand, and the air was warm and moved by a breeze as crisply dry as a glass of good
verdicchio
. His back seemed to loosen a little as he walked but his left knee joint kept locking unaccountably. The knees of an office clerk, he thought, of a
funzionario
. Once, he knew, he had enjoyed his job in the local business services department, had taken a quiet satisfaction in his own efficiency, but he knew it in a distant, abstract way. It was too long ago now to remember what the enjoyment felt like. He had never married. There had been girls when he was younger, and several of them would have made agreeable companions to warm his bed and share his table, but when it came to husbands they seemed to prefer men who were better dancers or had faster cars and livelier conversation. Girls, back then, and women, too, more recently – though none, admittedly, for quite some time. But as they all grew older, marriage (to him, or their own to other people) no longer seemed to suggest itself as a consideration. You could scarcely blame the women; he was no kind of catch.

Then Maria had died – his sister, Maria Chiara, aged only fifty-two, who'd had a lump in her breast for more than a year. They weren't the kind of family where such a thing was talked of between sister and brother, so he'd known she was sick but thought it some stubborn infection she would shake off when the spring weather came. Instead, the returning sunshine brought only jonquils and mimosa for her coffin. After that it fell to Flavio to move back in with Salvatore and their mother, Giuseppa, both of them now ailing and housebound. He'd pulled in his horns then, like the snails he used to hunt for in the damp orchard grass at Nonna and Papi's in San Cesario as a youngster, whose glistening antlers swayed in a slow dance like something under water but retracted with surprising speed the moment they were touched. Like them he had retreated into the calcified prison he had built for himself. But it was four years now since Giuseppa had died, and Salvatore had been gone a year, the house cleared out and painted and the top floor rented out so that he could afford at last to take his modest municipal pension and live quite comfortably according to his measured habits. Now it was time to crawl out from his shell and reconnect, to see a little of humanity and the world before he was old and bedridden as his parents had been in those last narrow months and years.

Pausing for a moment to straighten his spine and let his eye absorb the vista of well-tended fields and tidy hedges, it came to Flavio how little, at heart, this country was different from his own. Idly, he brushed one hand through the feathered tops of oat grass and meadow foxtail at the laneside, releasing a mist of weightless seed and lacing the air with honey. Then he slipped open the top two buttons of his shirt and, shaking free his locked knee, moved off again towards the village.

 

* * *

 

Planting potatoes was back-breaking work under any skies. All day long Salvatore had bent to his task, lifting from their pallets the chitted tubers, flaccid-skinned and small as a bantam egg, and burying them a hand's width deep in the raised seams of earth, with their sprouting eyes towards the warmth. Now, as the low grey cloud, which had drooped overhead since morning, finally banked up and away to the east to let in slanting from the west the golden evening sunlight, he stacked up the empty pallets, straightened the kink from his lower spine and set off up the lane for Nightingale Farm.

Would they be singing tonight, the nightingales? It was almost the end of April and they had been back for a week or more: two cock birds, one who had staked his claim to a tangle of hawthorn and thick brambles between the lane and the corrugated pigsties, and one in the gorse bushes on the piece of sloping scrubland behind the farmhouse which led down to Stone Common. They sang in the morning when he set off for the fields and again at his return, and on into the dusk after supper, and if he stirred in his bed at night, the sound of their voices still drifted in beneath the open sash. You'd think they never stopped, but if these English birds were like the ones at home in San Cesario then they took a siesta in the heat of the noonday like good Italians. Could a nightingale have a nationality, though, the way a man had – be he soldier, sailor or farmer – when they split their lives between two countries, spending summer and winter three thousand kilometres apart? They arrived, and sang for six or eight short weeks, and found a mate and raised their young, and then they would be off again, to follow their ancestral airborne tracks to warmer climes. Perhaps these Blaxhall birds, though English born, had also the scarlet blood of Africa running hot in their veins. And who could say that they had not flown through Emilia-Romagna on their journey here, stopping off to rest their wings in the woods at San Cesario?

A life split between two countries. Was not Salvatore himself now nationless, a migrant like the birds? His brief days as a combatant had begun and ended in 1942. On his eighteenth birthday, which fell in February on the feast of Saint Valentine, he'd signed up with the Regia Marina; after receiving his uniform and ten weeks' basic training at a naval base in Sicily, he boarded the destroyer
Espero,
a battle-scarred veteran of the first war, and was torpedoed off the Maltese coast on his very first voyage, bound for North Africa with a troopship convoy. For seventy minutes Salvatore fought his war in the churning, ink-black water, not for politics or the mother country but simply for his life. He and his fellow survivors were plucked from the foaming, oil-slicked flotsam by the British vessel which had sent them down, were issued with different, dry uniforms and escorted under guard to Gibraltar, and thence through Spain and France on a troop train with other prisoners of war to an internship camp in Portsmouth. By midsummer, just four short months after his enlistment, he found himself back out in the sunlight, riding cross-legged on the back of a carrier's cart towards the Suffolk farm where he was to be put to work.

From drilling in Emilia-Romagna in February he was haymaking in Suffolk in June. From seed time to harvest and with no blow struck in anger in between, his experience of the war seemed curiously like a dream, or something that had happened to another man entirely. This was his real life, this continuity of rising and washing, of working and sweating and tilling the soil, and laughing and talking and eating and drinking, and his face cool on the rough cotton bolster at the end of the day. The language was strange, and rose and fell in ways which jarred upon his ear at first, but he soon learned to follow and fit his tongue to its daily patterns. The soil was finer and sandier than back in San Cesario; the beer was russet brown with a thin, yeasty taste and there were potatoes every day and rarely macaroni; the soups and stews were under-seasoned but hearty, and Harry Beck was a hard worker and a temperate taskmaster. The rhythm of the farming day, the farming year, was much as it had been in Italy, his pleasure the same in simple tasks carefully accomplished. He would soon have been here one whole year round: when he arrived at midsummer the nightingales were still singing and now in April they sang again.

In the first days when, separated from his compatriots at the camp and unable to connect with his watchful hosts in anything but shrugs and smiling bafflement, he found himself missing home all at once with an intensity that was like a mallet blow beneath the ribs, it was to the stables that he had fled for consolation and companionship. The two farm horses accepted with patient equanimity his overtures of friendship, and with whiskery, velvet-muzzled pleasure the titbits of apple core or bread crust that he saved for them. These Suffolk punches had the same sweet-sour breath, the same stoutly muscled quarters and warm, dust-scented flanks as the working horses of Ferrara stock on the farm at home, though their coats were a ruddier chestnut and they were clean-heeled, not feathered at the fetlock like Perla and Pietro. Jack was the younger and taller, while the stockier of the pair was his mother, Jewel. A fanciful name, by English standards – though there were plenty of farmers round San Cesario who called their horses Pulcinella or Imperatore or even Greta Garbo. But the dogs at Nightingale Farm were Meg, Bess and Mick, and Jewel was Harry's one flight of sentiment. ‘My precious ruby', he called her, in tones he rarely used with his wife or daughter, and ‘my diamond girl'. One evening when Salvatore had been at the farm for less than a month, the two men coincided at Jewel's stall. ‘Just checking on the mare' was what Harry said, but his hand held fat sweet carrots, sliced with his pocket knife. He told the story of the night when Jack was foaled, presenting with feet forward and the cord around his neck, and how poor Jewel had sweated and strained for hours to no avail. ‘I thought I'd lost her,' he said; and though Salvatore grasped no more of the story than one word in four, the sense of it was clear. We have our own jewel at home, our Perla, he wanted to say, but lacked the means. It didn't seem to matter – they understood each other just the same.

In the big brick barn beneath a tarpaulin stood a beautiful blue Standard Fordson tractor, relegated to a place beside the binder and the old steam thresher. Under its wraps, Salvatore could see that its paintwork had been kept polished to a shine that would have passed muster aboard the
Espero
. Once, before the war, it must have been the pride of the farm. But you couldn't get the diesel these days, so it was Jewel and Jack who were back in everyday service – and Harry, he guessed, none the sorrier for that. Salvatore had always had a knack with horses. They seemed to trust the unhurried sureness with which he adjusted straps and fastened girths; even these foreign animals pricked up their ears to his chirrup, or fell calm at his murmured Italian endearments. Right from a boy he'd had an eye for a straight furrow, as soon as he had strength to handle the plough. Slowly, through the damp misty months of the English autumn and winter, he had won the respect of the man who was his employer, host and gaoler, and with it that of the land workers round about – unexpressed, perhaps, but equally ungrudged. With so many of the young men gone, the burden of farm work had fallen on older shoulders or to women, and schoolchildren kept home from lessons to pick fruit or help bring home the hay. The war was just the war to these unexcitable country people, and once wariness subsided, Salvatore's broad back and deft hands counted for more with them than his southern skin and alien, black crow's-wing hair, for more than birth or military allegiance. Nations might rise and fall and treaties be forged or broken, but there still remained the soil to be tilled, the stock to be fed and the crops to be fetched in.

He was at the final corner now, at the top of the rise and within a pebble's throw of the pigsties and the bramble patch; there at the turn of the lane he stopped to rest his aching back and listen for a while. And there it was – starting with a characteristic low whistle and a series of repeated fluting peeps, it began its gentle woodwind warm-up, before the sudden, heart-stopping rush and rise as it launched its evening aria.
L'usignolo
; voice of heaven, angel bird. The nightingale.

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