Authors: Andrea Molesini
Friday 9 November 1917
He loomed up out of the night. And for an instant there was nothing to distinguish him from it. Then a glint, a reflection from the lantern the woman was holding up close to the horse’s nose, attested to a monocle. The man addressed the woman in impeccable Italian, flawed only by certain gutturals that revealed his German mother tongue. There was something fierce and splendid in that face bathed in the swaying lamplight, as if the stars and the dust were met together there.
‘I’ll call the mistress,’ said Teresa, concealing the fear she habitually felt at the doings of the gentry. She lowered the lantern, and darkness once more swallowed up the captain and his horse.
A torch, then a second and a third, cast shadows beneath the vaults of the portico. Teresa hugged her shawl to her breast to repress a shudder. In the road outside the gate came other torches, the squeaking of cartwheels, soldiers’ voices, the headlights of a lorry, the heavy silence of mules in the icy drizzle. As she closed the oaken shutters behind her Teresa noticed I was watching her, crouched beside the window in the hall. She put a finger to her lips and grunted her annoyance in my face.
Aunt Maria was still up, in a black dress, the collar fastened with an ivory pin. She was at the window watching the army as it filled the piazza, where the light of fires now outshone that of the headlights. As we came in she turned towards the door.
‘Madam, madam, ma—’
‘Don’t panic, Teresa, leave it to me. Go and tell the horseman that I’ll be down in a moment.’
The cook left the room with lowered eyes, dragging her feet, the lantern dangling beside her knees. With a slight movement of her eyes my aunt told me to go out with her. Stock still in the saddle, the captain watched the coming and going of the troops without so much as the flicker of an eyelid, attentive only on keeping his horse under the stone arches of the portico. His distant immobility issued orders that everyone – officers, men and mules – seemed to grasp without hesitation.
‘The mistress…’ Teresa gave a cough. ‘The mistress says she’s coming.’
She took a step backwards to distance the smell of horse. The men were unloading the mules and machine guns under the shelter of the arcade, kicking aside the rakes and shovels leant against the wall. The cook gave a groan that expressed all the scorn she felt: those tools were humble and dear to her, faithful dogs driven away by wolves. Their army-issue spades broke down one door after another and in the soldiers went with their heavy packs, emptying cupboards and smashing things; and their voices were an uncouth hubbub of harsh syllables. One of them, his helmet covered with sopping wet leaves, drove his chugging motorbike right into the dining room and pulled up a metre from the oak table.
Aunt Maria went outside.
The captain gave a soldierly salute, without a smile.
‘Captain Korpium,’ he said. ‘There are eighteen of us, counting officers and batmen. We shall be lodging here.’ He took his monocle from his pocket. ‘If you think you are unable to
fit us in,’ he added, inserting the lens between eyebrow and cheekbone, ‘you will be obliged to leave the house.’ His voice was calm and cold. Each syllable sounded detached from all the others, as if his thought required all those tiny pauses to get itself organized.
Half a dozen motorcycles roared in through the gate. The captain’s horse shook its head.
‘You may be a great warrior,’ said my aunt, ‘but you are certainly no gentleman.’
‘My non-commissioned officers will sleep at the inn in the piazza, the officers in the Villa, and the men in the nearby houses. We will erect tents in your grounds, as well as a camp kitchen.’ He readjusted his monocle between eyebrow and reddened cheekbone. ‘Maybe tomorrow we shall cross the Piave and nothing here will be as it was before.’
‘Maybe,’ said my aunt, adding to herself under her breath, ‘Or perhaps the war will have the flesh off your bones.’
The captain dug in his spurs and turned towards the mules still streaming in and the soldiers lit by the lanterns of the non-commissioned officers yelling out orders.
I heard the distant barking of a dog. Then another, with a cavernous voice. Then came a rifle shot, then a second, and far away a third. The stench of the mules had crept into the dining room. The soldiers were smashing up tables and chairs to light the fires with. They made way, however, for the two women who walked bolt upright in front of me; and one of the men, flaxen-haired, his eyes bulging like a toad’s, actually stood to attention.
‘In the midst of this tragedy’, murmured my aunt, ‘there is a touch of the ridiculous.’
‘A mouse’s bum is better mannered than them,’ said Teresa. ‘These boys didn’t even have mothers.’
‘The war will see them off tomorrow. Tell Renato to keep his eyes peeled. You and Loretta will sleep upstairs with me. Put two palliasses on the floor: we’ll barricade ourselves in my bedroom. Paolo, you will sleep with your grandfather.’ She turned to give Teresa a straight look. ‘Have you hidden the copper?’
‘Just as you ordered, madam.’
‘Very good.’ There was no trace of emotion in my aunt’s voice. Her nerves were steady, her mind cool: the cook had to understand who to take orders from. ‘Guns are mere trifles, but this rabble doesn’t know it.’ She paused for a moment to give Teresa time to work that out and get the message. ‘We’ll get the better of them.’
The cook lifted the lantern high above the time-worn steps.
ARAMOUR HAD SUCH BIG FEET THAT
he could not be considered intelligent. He was not altogether stupid, for he knew how to hang about with elegance and steadfastness, but owing to the size of his feet there had not been a great deal of care left over for his head. Grandpa Gugliemo, who boasted a number of mistresses, said that
– he never called his rival by name – only ever opened his mouth to emit hot air: ‘Fools like to parade their folly, and there’s no better medium for it than words.’
Grandpa liked to pigeonhole everything. He used to pigeonhole away while chewing a cigar and wearing the air of a sailor who had sailed the seven seas, though in fact he had an aversion to water, the stuff in the washbasin being no exception. An ironclad liberal, he poked fun at Grandma’s mildly Socialist sympathies: ‘Put three of your lot in a room together and half an hour later you’ll get four different opinions.’ He spent hours each day writing a novel which he never finished, but according to Grandma he hadn’t even written a line of: ‘It’s a sham, to keep away boors and children.’ No one, however, dared set foot in the Thinking Den, the little room where Grandpa spent almost all day, except when it rained; because then he would go out walking alone, without an umbrella, in the felt hat with the tattered brim. He was a Buddhist, though he didn’t know much
about Buddha. But his knew his cards and his history, and used to write letters to the
, which were never published because they were full of abuse about the city councillors of Venice: all ‘stinking sons of brainless priests’, in his opinion.
Grandma, on the contrary, fizzled about everything. If it was a case of spending half a lira she would say ‘Better not’, and that ‘Better not’ came a couple of dozen times a day. Despite her seventy years she held herself erect and tall, she was strong and handsome, a white-haired panther of a woman. Her bathroom was a poem: bedecked with beige, ochre, black and flesh-coloured enema bags. There were two or three of them on every arm of the enamelled clothes hanger, whereas pyjamas and knickers were relegated to a green chest of drawers, on which sat a Murano glass bowl containing a dozen strings of artificial pearls and glass beads. The enema bags, in their days of glory, were as many as sixteen, with their different-sized rubber nozzles for ¼, ½, ¾ and a whole litre. The bags were rounded, pear- or pumpkin- or melon-shaped, and made of oilcloth. Reflected in the white tiles, the opaque rubber tubes looked like the tentacles of sea creatures with hooked beaks.
The three servants – Teresa, her daughter Loretta, and Renato – did the work of six. Loretta, twenty years old, was a buxom lass with cross-eyes which she kept lowered, though when she did turn them on you, you knew they hated you, that they couldn’t do otherwise. Renato had one leg slightly shorter than the other, so he limped. He was my favourite, and knew how to do everything, how to fish in the river with harpoon and knife, and also how to pluck a chicken ready for Teresa’s stewpot. And she herself, Teresa, was a prodigy. Ugly beyond belief, she bore her fifty years well, was as strong as a mule and no less obstinate. On the contrary Aunt Maria – Donna Maria
to outsiders – was fine-looking, the victim of a haughty manner which both fascinated men and kept them at a distance. She was courted with circumspection by even the boldest and most passionate spirits: not a light cross to bear.
And then there was Giulia. Giulia was a lovely, crazy redhead and a mass of freckles. She had fled from Venice on account of a scandal no one dared talk about, but quite a few in town would spit on the ground as she passed, and there was no shortage of bigots who would cross themselves to ward off
. She was six years older than me and when I caught sight of her, even at a distance, I blushed. She wasn’t in a madhouse because she was a Candiani, and gentlefolk – at least in those days – did not end up inside. Indeed they were not even mad: simply eccentric. A gentleman was a kleptomaniac, not a thief, and a lady was a nymphomaniac, never a whore.
That night of November the ninth, when the Germans took over my room, I went to sleep up in the loft, a long room nine metres by five, with four dormer windows and such low larch-wood beams that I had to mind my head. There Grandpa and I shared a palliasse dumped straight on the attic floorboards, splintery as they were, whereas Grandma was allowed to stay in her own bedroom.
The defeat of the Italian army was an ignominy that each and every enemy soldier cast in our teeth. I was then seventeen, going on eighteen, and to see the enemy lording it in my own home was excruciating. Those born in 1899 were already in the trenches, and in a few months’ time it would be my turn.
‘In a little while they’ll be in Rome to free the pope, so they say. Well, there’s honour among thieves, say I.’ Grandpa considered the priests only a step – and a rather small one at that – above tax collectors. ‘Those ugly customers in skirts have as
much imagination as a turkey, but the cunning of a fox and a snake combined. They are the great pestilence of creation, worse than Job’s boils…See here, Buddha doesn’t have priests,’ and he looked me straight in the eye, something he rarely did since I lost my parents. ‘Or if he does they are not Austriophiles.’ He spat into the palm of his hand, which he wiped on his enormous handkerchief.