Authors: John Harris
‘Hey! You there!’
Wymark stopped. He was forty-five if he was a day, built like a dray-horse and quiffed in the manner of the other war, and he had long since forgotten more about the army than it was most people’s privilege ever to learn. He was quite undismayed by the officer’s pink-faced rage because he knew that if a report landed on Warley’s desk, all he’d do would be sigh and toss it into the cardboard carton he used for waste paper. He’d seen him do it before.
‘What’s your unit?’ the officer was demanding.
‘Yuell’s Yorkshires, sir. A Company, sir.’ Wymark was full of exaggerated respect for rank. ‘What’s yours, sir? Mersey Docks and Harbour Board? That’s a nice outfit, sir. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d better be off, sir. I’ve just left the war for a day or two to get me breath back and I’m due to return before long. It’s been lovely seeing you, sir.’
The Via Garibaldi was packed with people, all jostling each other off the pavement, and there were two restaurants filled chiefly with officers. There was a false gaiety about the place that came from the rapid turnover of money. But it was an atmosphere of well-being, too, that was a change from the starkness of their lives up near Cassino. Though the prices were astronomical, they were largely the fault of the soldiers who were determined to buy something – even if it were only rubbish – and the black market was flourishing.
CSM Farnsworth found himself in the Bar Roma, being accosted by a smooth-looking individual in a clean shirt and suit. The Italian was very different from the rest of the town. Most of the Italian males seemed to have been killed or taken prisoner in the desert; this man was the sort that always came out of the woodwork; and he claimed to be anti-Fascist, pro-British and a personal friend of King George.
‘You will perhaps take a glass of vino with me,’ he suggested to Farnsworth.
Since the local wine – what Fletcher-Smith called ‘Proprio brutto vino’, proper rotten wine – left you with a feeling that someone had worked over your mouth with a rasp, Farnsworth wasn’t very impressed with the offer. ‘No, thanks, mate,’ he said.
‘I am a businessman,’ the Italian persisted. ‘I belong to the
mondo degli affari.
You would like silk stockings, perhaps? A girl?’
Farnsworth looked round. There were a lot of men in the bar and the noise was like the Charge of the Light Brigade.
‘You speak good English,’ he observed.
The smooth-looking man smiled and spread his hands.
I have learned. In the course of business.’
‘Then–’ Farnsworth’s face was expressionless ‘–you’ll know what I mean when I say, “Bugger off before I clock you one”, won’t you?’
A few of them found girls, some even ended up in bed with them. A few got drunk, some so drunk they couldn’t walk. But it was freedom after being in prison. Christmas wasn’t too long past and for most of them the festive season had been as wet and miserable as every other period, with nothing but a bottle of beer, a toffee and an egg to mark the occasion.
Inevitably, Henry White was seen sitting in a bar with a line of beer bottles in front of him and a ‘party’ alongside, pasta-plump, sallow-skinned and dark-eyed.
‘Why don’t you pick ’em younger, ’Enry?’ Rich asked.
‘Because I’m a bloody old man, that’s why!’ Henry snorted. ‘I used to ’ave ’em young when I was your age.’ He produced a photograph and showed it round. ‘That was the bint I ’ad in India.’
‘Who’s that ’andsome young feller standing beside her?’ Parkin asked innocently.
‘It’s never!’ Parkin gasped, elaborately disbelieving. ‘What’s that thing you’ve got on your ’ead then?’
‘It’s a topee.’
‘I thought that’s what Red Indians lived in.’
Quite by accident, Fletcher-Smith met a girl who turned out to be a librarian. He crashed into her as she came out of a shop and sent her parcels flying. Like him she wore glasses, of which one lens had been cracked in an air raid and never replaced. Fletcher-Smith bent down to help retrieve her purchases and, feeling somehow that because they both wore glasses they must have something in common, insisted on helping her carry them home.
When he learned that she worked with books, he tried in his halting Italian to discuss literature. But despite his erudition, he knew very little about the Renaissance and nothing at all about Dante or D’Annunzio, while the girl was totally unaware of Rupert Brooke, Housman, Eliot or the other poets Fletcher-Smith considered essential to an ordered life. In the end, as it grew dark, they decided to forego literature and simply clutched each other in dark corners. She was plump and soft and smelled clean, and it was a long time since Private Fletcher-Smith had clutched a girl. Because Fletcher-Smith was inclined to be romantic and the girl was an ardent Catholic, it led to nothing more than a visit to Mass and sighs and groans and the swearing of an eternal oath by Fletcher-Smith to return for her after the war.
‘Get invited ’ome then?’ Parkin asked when he returned to his billet.
‘Nothing like getting invited ’ome,’ Parkin agreed. ‘Sooner or later the old folk go to bed and there you are on the settee and ’er afraid of kicking up a fuss when you start stripping ’er in’ibitions down to ’er ankles, in case they wake up.’
To someone of Fletcher-Smith’s temperament it was an insult, and he gave Parkin a hot, indignant stare. Parkin, happily, was fireproof.
Captain Jago, who looked like a dissolute Ney, found himself a buxom, black-haired piece almost as tall as he was – which was tall for an Italian and went in for a much more earthy companionship. He didn’t have to try hard. As he’d once said himself, he wasn’t really a ladies’ man; the crumpet just rushed at him.
Private Hunters wore himself to a frazzle trying to prove himself, but the Italian woman he picked up was giving nothing away without a good evening out first. When he finally got back to her flat his brains were slopping about as if they were liquid, and as he sat on the bed to untie his bootlaces the room spun round and he fell forward on to his head. She had to call his friends to carry him away.
The most dramatic success of all was that of Private Syzling. The only real asset Syzling possessed was a gift for getting on with people whose language he couldn’t speak. Since he could barely speak his own and was so scruffy he couldn’t get on even with his comrades, this was remarkable.
Yet in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Sicily, despite standing orders to the contrary – which he never read anyway – he somehow managed to communicate with the locals, to buy beer from them when no one else could find any, and to dig from them the name of a willing woman while everybody else was still sniffing warily round the bars. There had been one in Ismailia, one in Benghazi, one in Sousse, one in Syracuse and more all the way up Italy. Now, in Trepiazze, within a day, he had found an Italian widow – thick-legged, with hips like two house-bricks and smelling strongly of garlic – who had lost her husband in the desert. She possessed a name he couldn’t pronounce but she could cook like a dream, was eager for a man, and was quite indifferent to the whispers of her neighbours. Warm and comfortable in her bed, Private Syzling considered himself blessed among men.
With everybody sorted out within an inch of their lives, it was only right that their company commander, who had ordained most of their comfort, should also have a degree of contentment himself and, happily enough, that was how it worked out.
Major Warley, who could never have been called a ladies’ man, found himself billeted with Captain Jago, Lieutenant Deacon who was twenty, and Second-Lieutenant Taylor who was nineteen, some distance from the rest of the battalion with a family called Vanvitelli on the edge of the town. Vanvitelli was a prosperous lawyer with an office in Naples. As one of the few wealthy men in the area who hadn’t made his fortune from Fascism he had been swept up by Allied Military Government, Occupied Territory, to assist them, and was never home for long.
Vanvitelli’s house was backed up by fields, allotments and smallholdings so that there was no lack of food. A widower, he had two daughters, one fifteen years old called Francesca and one roughly Warley’s age called Graziella. Somewhere in between there was a son but no one knew where he was. He’d gone as a soldier to North Africa and had simply disappeared: it was not known whether he was dead, a prisoner of war, or back in Italy and hiding in the hills to avoid being forced to fight for the Germans.
There was an orchard of fig and peach trees, a grapevine over the door, a small vegetable garden, and a big kitchen where the company runners could wait and the duty sergeant could sip a glass of wine. Warley had a bed in a room with white walls, faded green curtains, a carpet, a large walnut writing table he used for company business, a silver candelabra for when the electricity went off, as it often did, and a painting of the martyrdom of St Sebastian which he’d seen ad nauseam all over Southern Italy.
He was lucky in his billeting companions. Captain Jago was always able to look after himself and was already, as they said in Yorkshire, ‘set up’, while Deacon and Taylor clearly considered Graziella Vanvitelli far too old for them and spent all their time chasing her younger sister. By the second day Warley had become aware of the glances he kept receiving. Again and again he saw the older sister’s eyes flicker away from him as he looked at her, and he knew she was watching him. For a long time they didn’t speak to each other, and then she shyly offered him a glass of wine which he accepted just as shyly. After that they managed to conduct a conversation in Italian mixed up with a precise sort of English, which she’d taught in Naples before her mother had died and she’d returned to help run the family home, and sometimes with German. It seemed odd that they had to keep falling back on the language of their mutual enemy but, whenever they couldn’t make themselves understood, they slipped easily into it because Warley had learned it at school and Graziella Vanvitelli had had Germans in the town for nearly two years.
‘What is your name?’ she asked him timidly.
‘Warley,’ he said. ‘Mark Warley.’
‘Marco Uoli.’ She made it sound like the plural of an Italian noun. ‘That is a nice name. I think you do not look so much tired now.’
‘No,’ Warley agreed. ‘Much better.’
‘It is good to feel not so much tired.’
‘Yes.’ When his ability to recover ran out, Warley thought, he was finished as a soldier. ‘What’s
‘I am Graziella.’
‘That’s a nice name too.’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘No, of course not. It’s pretty. Like you.’
Her eyes lit up mischievously. ‘I am growing too old to be pretty. My face cracks all over these days – like an old vase.’
‘Rubbish. How old are you?’
‘Twenty-three. That is old for an Italian girl. How old are you, Uoli?’
Unlike her father or her sister, she was blonde and blue-eyed, and had a type of face he’d seen a dozen times in medieval paintings.
‘My mother came from Florence,’ she explained. ‘Many northern Italians are fair. I have my mother’s looks.’
‘You’re very unusual,’ Warley said. ‘Blonde and pretty.’
‘What should I be?’ she asked. ‘Dark, squint-eyed and long-nosed?’
Like everybody else, like Deacon and Taylor, Warley had taken army rations – chocolate, tea and tinned meat – back to his billet to help out. She was grateful but wary, too, because soldiers liked to use army rations to bargain hungry Italian girls into bed. But Warley made no attempt to suggest anything of the sort; and the first evening, he remained distant but obviously delighted with the house, his room and, as she very quickly suspected, with her.
Intrigued, she wondered what sort of man he was and began to probe gently, starting, so to speak, on the outer perimeter of his character.
‘What do you do when you are not a soldier?’ she asked.
‘I’m a journalist,’ Warley said.
But after the war I’m going to be a lawyer, like your father.’
She clapped her hands delightedly, then looked at him gravely. ‘You will be a good
I think,’ she said. ‘And what do you think of Fascism?’
‘Not much,’ Warley said bluntly.
She shrugged. ‘Because the war will end eventually and everybody must believe in something.’
‘I believe in staying alive,’ Warley said simply. ‘As for politics, well, I suppose I’m a sort of liberal. What about you?’
She shrugged. ‘I am a sort of a liberal too. But not a real one because in Italy we are never really anything, always just
something. Perhaps we haven’t the courage to be anything proper. We weren’t even really very good Fascists, because we haven’t the ruthlessness, and Mussolini, for all his bombast, could never make us behave like them.’
Because she enjoyed music and Warley had once been keen on it himself, they began to talk about it, and in the end she opened the piano and pulled up two stools.