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Authors: John Harris

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Swordpoint (2011) (7 page)

BOOK: Swordpoint (2011)
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The found themselves hammering out duets – Chopin and Schumann – collapsing in a gale of merriment when Warley’s fingers, clumsy through lack of practice, played wrong notes which he promptly changed into one of the jingling army tunes she’d heard the soldiers whistling as they passed through the town in their lorries. Lieutenant Taylor’s request that they try ‘Roll Out The Barrel’ and ‘Lili Marlene’ was tacitly ignored, and in the end he and Deacon gave up in disgust and went off to the officers’ mess. It was an indication of Warley’s interest in her and hers in him that they never noticed them leave.

‘Do you know many soldiers?’ Warley asked.

‘What do you mean by that?’ she asked, on the defensive at once.

‘Nothing. But there are a lot of soldiers here. And a lot of girls like soldiers.’

‘That is fortunate for the soldiers,’ she said coolly. ‘Because they behave badly sometimes. Sometimes many policemans have to come.’

‘It’s a long time since they spoke to girls,’ Warley explained. ‘They’ve missed them.’

‘Yet you sneer at the Italian girls who go with them. You destroy our cities and lay waste our fields, but you consider that a hungry girl who goes to bed with one of your men is someone who disgraces herself.’

There was a lot of truth in what she said and it was Warley who was thrown on the defensive this time.

‘I respect Italian girls,’ he said.

‘Si,’
she smiled. ‘Like all soldiers.
Nella camera da letto.’

‘What’s that?’

‘In the bedroom.’

Warley pulled a face, then he grinned an impulsive boyish grin. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘it’s as good a place to respect them as any, isn’t it?’

His grin touched her heart and his comment made her laugh. She tried to explain how the Italians felt.

‘We don’t live as we would like to,’ she said, ‘but as we must. Italian men no longer have any money, and their backbones have gone because they’ve suffered one defeat after another. They complain about the girls going with the English and the Americans, but it is often the girls who bring them the money they use for cigarettes and the wine they drink.’

Warley studied her. ‘Do
you
go with soldiers?’ he asked.

‘No.’

‘Why not?’

‘I’m too busy here.’

‘Nobody’s
that
busy,’ Warley said.

She didn’t say that the real reason was because she felt it was safer; sometimes strange things happened to girls who went with soldiers. She passed to the attack. ‘Do
you
go with girls?’ she asked.

‘I have done,’ Warley admitted.

‘In Naples?’

‘Yes.’

‘And doubtless in Caserta too?’

Warley didn’t argue. He felt too happy to argue. For once the army had done him an enormous kindness. It had granted him a clean billet and a room where he could be alone. And there was nothing to describe the joy he felt that it had also given him a pretty, intelligent and friendly girl to talk to. It was a tremendous gift and it filled him with such a quality of thankfulness that he went to bed in a blank-eyed wonder of delight, and for the first time in months fell asleep looking forward to the next morning.

Six

For a few days it was like being in Heaven, a heaven that was disturbed only once by any interference from the enemy. For a brief hour or two on the second morning the sky cleared and the sun came out and almost at once two German fighters flew over the town. They were very high, like small silver minnows moving across the heavens in an indecisive sort of way. Anti-aircraft fire pursued them and eventually they dropped half a dozen small-calibre bombs.

They barely disturbed the routine and the sun seemed much more important, but the Italians ran for the shelters, clutching holy pictures and shrieking that they were about to be killed. There seemed little danger but Warley found himself with Graziella Vanvitelli in the deep cool cellars of the house where he was billeted.

It was strange to be alone, and to both of them faintly disturbing. They had known each other only for a little over twenty-four hours but already they were aware that the brittle shell of their chatter covered unexpected emotional currents.

Warley was still faintly dazed by his good luck and was inclined simply to enjoy it; Graziella, less inclined to take things for granted, wished to know more about him.

‘Where do you come from?’ she asked.

‘Yorkshire.’

‘I do not know of Yorkshire?’ She pronounced ‘Yorkshire’ as if it were spelt ‘Giorccia’. ‘What like is Yorkshire?’

‘It’s in the north,’ Warley said. ‘It has a lot of high ground.’

‘Like Italy?’

‘Yes. But it’s different.’

‘I think I would be cold in Yorkshire.’

Warley looked at her happily. ‘No,’ he said. ‘You’d be warm anywhere.’

She was suspicious of his meaning, and he tried to explain. ‘I meant that you make me feel warm. There’s something about you that makes me feel warm.’

She blushed with pleasure. She was silent for a long time and they could hear quite clearly the sound of aeroplane engines and the cries of people in the town.

‘What are you thinking about?’ Warley asked.

She was thinking that there was something about Warley that appealed enormously to her, but since she could hardly say so, she fenced a little.

‘What
does
an Italian think about?’ she asked. ‘I know what you British think we think about: pasta and opera. Spaghetti and
La Sonnambula.
Lasagna and
Lucia di Lammermoor
.’

Her beauty troubled Warley and he went on quickly. ‘We used to have a neighbour who thought all the time about opera,’ he said. ‘She was very fat, so she probably thought a lot about spaghetti too.’ He smiled in a way that pleased her because it was a warm, intimate, sharing sort of smile. ‘Whenever my mother and father gave a party, she liked to sit at the piano and sing. But she forgot her voice had been trained to reach the back row of the gallery, and it used to shake the windows. The dog crawled under a chair and the cat bolted upstairs at the first shout. It wasn’t just the neighbours who complained. They used to complain from the other side of the town.’

She laughed, as much at his expression as at the story. Then she saw him studying her and her face became grave again.

‘Do
you think of pasta and opera?’ he asked.

‘No. We think of many subjects.’

‘What?’

She refused to tell him, because she was thinking now of all sorts of unexpected things. What was he like, for instance, when he was away from the army? Whether he was really as kind as he seemed? And unexpectedly, what life was like in Yorkshire? Instead she asked him what
he
thought about.

He found it hard to tell her, because most of the time he’d thought only about whether he was cold or hungry or whether his men were cold or hungry and what a rotten war it was. Sometimes he’d thought of the girls he’d known in England, and – only very occasionally these days, however – of a girl in Manchester he’d become engaged to. He knew, and he knew that the girl in Manchester knew, that nothing would ever come of it. Sometimes he wondered what had happened to all the other girls he’d once known, and where they were now. Once he’d enjoyed their youth and the way their dresses caught the breeze and the way their hair moved as they turned their heads. That seemed to have gone now, and often – though not at this moment – he thought instead how nice it would be to be in bed with one of them. It sprang less from sexual desire than the need for security. He decided he was growing old.

‘What do we think of in England?’ he said. ‘Roast beef, beer and Shakespeare. That’s what Englishmen are supposed to think of.’

‘I think perhaps that you don’t think always of that.’

‘No,’ he admitted. ‘Not all the time.’

‘Sometimes, I think, you think of your men.’

‘Yes.’ He looked at her in surprise. ‘I do, often, because they’re good men on the whole. How did you know?’

‘Because I have watched you with them. You are that sort of man.’

‘I try to look after them. As I’m looking after you now, with the German planes overhead.’

She smiled. ‘The Church protects
us,’
she said. ‘We have to be grateful to it for something.’

‘That’s cynical.’

‘What is cynical?’

He explained what he meant, and she shrugged again. ‘Sometimes I think the Church is like Il Duce. Neither has much improved the lot of the Italian people.’

He was staring at her, entranced, indifferent to what she said. ‘I think you’re beautiful, Graziella,’ he said.

She stared back at him. Warley wasn’t handsome in the sense that his features were perfect, but they were strong and there was a transparent honesty about him.

‘You are also beautiful,’ she said.

‘You should see me with my hair combed.’

‘Please?’

He smiled at her puzzlement.

‘I’d like to kiss you, Graziella,’ he said. It came out unexpectedly and certainly without forethought. In a wonder of shy excitement, he spoke tenderly and quickly.

She looked at him calmly. Her large clear eyes carried no secrets and no dishonesties.

‘Do you try to woo me?’ she asked.

He was tickled by the phrase and he raised a hand to touch the soft fair hair falling against her cheek. ‘No,’ he said.

‘But you are not in love with me?’

‘No.’ Though I’m already well on the way, he admitted to himself. ‘But just being here, being allowed to talk to you, to look at you – it means a lot when all you’ve looked at for a long time is men and ugliness.’

She frowned, a little worried because things seemed to be getting beyond her control. ‘Do not be cross with me,’ she said quietly. ‘I try to understand. But Italian girls are different from other girls.’

‘I’ve noticed that.’

‘You must be careful with Italian girls. Nevertheless–’ she smiled ‘–I think you had better kiss me and get it over, because the all clear is sounding and soon the others will return.’

The few days in Trepiazze were like no other days they’d spent for months. They all knew that before long they’d be back chasing the Tedeschi and that it would be cold again and uncomfortable and bloody dangerous, because the Teds knew their stuff too well. But for the time being they made the most of what they had.

They drank sweet vermouth and pale beer like soapy water, and fought off the old men who begged for cigarettes –
‘Sigaretta, Signor Soldato. Ancora una sigaretta!’

They thought blissfully about home and beer and football, and discussed their minor triumphs.

‘This officer,’ Parkin was saying. ‘’E ’ad a face like a dog’s be’ind, and ’e was always complaining about the food. So the cook-corporal got this goat shit, see, mixed it with mashed potatoes and a bit of bully beef stew and served it to ’im as rissoles. ’E asked for more.’

‘Remember that time at El Adem?’ Duff said. ‘When Puddephatt chased them Arab women and nearly got shot.’

‘And when Rommel started us on the Gazala Gallop,’ Martindale grinned. ‘We was swimming in Benghazi when the panic started. Next day we were up to the neck in desert, running like hell for Cairo.’

One of the men who had not joined the battalion until Sicily, started to sing ‘Sand In My Shoes’. It stopped the reminiscences dead.

In the opposite corner of the bar an argument was going on about girls.

‘She will,’ Hunters insisted.

‘She wouldn’t for me,’ Evans the Bomb said.

‘You don’t know the rules, man.’

‘They don’t make rules for love.’

‘What do you lot know about love?’ Fletcher-Smith was armoured by memories of the previous evening with his Italian girl, which had taken the form of an adult discussion on literature interspersed with clumsy embraces. ‘To you lot it’s just an itch in a ditch.’

‘Don’t worry, kid,’ Hunters said cheerfully. ‘She’s got it where it counts – under the left bloody Bristol.’

Rich pulled a face. ‘Tha wants to stop swearing,’ he said sternly. ‘The Archbishop of Canterbury says it’s because we swear so fuckin’ much that we’re losin’ t’ war an’ worryin’ our families.’

‘What ’appened to
your
family, ’Enry?’ Evans the Bomb asked White.

‘’E didn’t ’ave a family,’ Parkin said. ‘’E came in a box of soldiers.’

A few of them remained totally indifferent to the town. McWatters, in his soured, surly way, disliked Italians. In fact, he disliked everybody except Glaswegians – and he didn’t like them very much – and remained most of the time in his billet; like Corporal Gask who spent all his spare time with a frown of concentration on his blank youthful face, cleaning his kit, writing home to his widowed mother and trying to think like the sergeant he intended to become.

Two men who beat up a military policeman and started a fight in a bar were brought up before Warley. Another man got knocked down by a lorry when he was drunk and both his legs were broken. To Warley, it seemed God ought to leave infantrymen alone when they came out of the line. The most vulnerable of mortals in wartime, they were surely entitled to a bit of safety when they weren’t being shot at.

BOOK: Swordpoint (2011)
8.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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