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Under the Waves

Chapter Text

The farmhand was cycling up the slope with his game bag dangling from a strap on his shoulder. The fields were of a vivid green under the overcast sky that shut in the clammy summer heat.

‘Four and twenty virgins came down from Inverness,’ he sang as he paddled on. ‘And when the ball was over, there were four and twenty less…Father Patrick, he was there and in a corner sat, amusing himself by abusing himself and catching it in his hat…The village postman, he was there, the poor man had the pox, he couldn’t shag the women so he used the letterbox…Singing ‘Balls to your partner, arse against the wall, if you never get fucked on Saturday night, you never get fucked at all.’’

The song was endless and more verses were added to it every year. He sang any line he could remember until he turned into a side track and slowed down, dodging potholes and puddles, until his cottage came into sight. It was a two-room house with peeling plaster, probably built in the late eighteenth century and too remote to be connected to the power grid or the sewage system. The garden had a vegetable patch and rose bushes. The chickens clucked when they heard him open the gate and wheel his bicycle to the little shed behind the house. He whistled and the cock crowed back. Then he stepped into the kitchen, filled a dented kettle from a large tin jug and put it on a little oil stove.

While the water was heating, he cleared the remains of his breakfast from the table, got out a mug and a sugar pot and a pitcher of milk and turned on the wireless that was fed by a car battery. A BBC Home Service news reporter said Sudetenland. He tuned into another station. American songs.

When the tea was ready, he poured himself a large mug, shoveled spoonfuls of sugar into it, stirred and took the mail he had picked up at the post office from his bag.

There was a letter from his sister in Watford and one from the village minister inviting him again to attend a service at the Presbyterian church, and a brightly coloured post card. It was a collage of pictures, of a busy boulevard with palm trees, a crowded beach, fishing boats and a rocks with a cliff reaching into the azure sea. This image was marked with a fountain pen.  Not the same spot, I presume, but very similar and just as romantic  the sender had written on the back.

The farmhand looked at the French stamp. The card had traveled for ten days.

He now remembered a sweet old tale about a young trench soldier from Dorset who had roamed the Mediterranean coast in 1919, with no news from his lover whose regiment had been deployed to Turkey. Just when he had been about to dive into the sea from a cliff, naked like many locals did, he had seen an man walk up the ridge, older, a survivor of Gallipoli, but very alive and young with unbroken love, and so they had reunited blissfully.

The farmhand smiled, sipped his tea, blushed, fished a pack of Gold Flakes from his pocket and lit up a cigarette. He smoked, drank and mused until it was time to milk McNulty’s cows. He got up, put the post card on the mantelpiece and left the cottage.

***

No meals were served at the boarding house in Imperia. Josie fed Boris in the courtyard, cleaned his bowls under a tap and then they walked uphill, away from the boulevard with its cafés and French-looking bistros. She found a taverna bustling with Italian families. There was laughing, shouting and tinkling in a haze of cigarette smoke, coffee, roast meat and garlic.

She sat down at the only vacant table in the middle of the terrace and ordered red wine and sparkling water. ‘Menu?’ she asked the waiter. There was no written one, so he smilingly mentioned all the dishes that were available, as if he were singing. She did not understand all, but eventually chose spaghetti and tomato sauce and a green salad.

The wine was served in a large glass pitcher. She poured, sniffed and drank. It tasted horrid. Darkness crept slowly into the alley. Electric lights flashed on and off.

The noise was deafening. The children, dressed in their finery, ran around, played tag and feasted on ice- cream and quarreled, unburdened by British bedtimes or strictness from parents and nannies who would not abide any sound louder than whispered talking.

She decided to drink the wine because she would have to pay for it anyway, lit a cigarette and leaned back. Five or six young men, probably college students, were seated at the table closest to the pavement. They sang a song a cappella which must be the modern (and probably unsuitable) equivalent of Gaudeamus Igitur, their warm voices floating through the spicy air.

It was so dark now that only the faces and hands of a group of men walking by could be seen, for they were dressed in black and wore caps. They stopped and addressed the lads. She heard words, probably meaning ‘labourers’, ‘new order’ and in any case ‘Italy’.

The students beckoned a waiter, paid and left in silence. The other customers were having their dinner, undisturbed, laughing and chortling in between bites, soaking up sauce with hunks of bread, not wiping their lips before they drank their wine. An old lady in black, surely a widow, beckoned a little girl, who presently ran into her arms and was greeted with a shower of kisses and cooing sounds. At the next table, a young woman gingerly lifted a crying baby from a pram, rearranged a cotton scarf around her shoulders and almost unnoticeably unbuttoned the front of her dress. Soon the infant was at ease, nursing at its mother’s breast, with a father or an uncle next to it, watching it with adoring eyes.

Josie was afloat now, cursing because the delicious wine had run out and letting her eyes wander over the alley, unable to move because Boris had fallen asleep on her feet under the table, weighing a ton and snoring occasionally.

In the wall of the opposite house, a statue stood in a niche, decorated with daisies and some candles that had been lit by passing people. Our Lady, holding her Son, not like a saint but rather like a proud mother enjoying the endeared looks that strangers gave him.

This was Italy, now under the rule of a ridiculous man who was best friends with a misfit Austrian painter who wanted to expand his nation. But here, ancient laws prevailed, for this was Italy, ablaze with flowers and young families praising the little Saviour to a Virgin born, not because he would be king, but because he was a Child, the most precious species in this country where fecundity and food and openly displayed feelings of love stood against Middle-European coldness.

The northern countries would soon hail glorious death in the battle against the so-called lower people. On her way over, she had seen many churchyards in bloom where the departed rested unforgotten, remembered with joy by means of floral gifts in all colours. Here, birth and death were one, united with life between these two stages, lived to the fullest and devoid of the stern decency that reigned beyond the Alps.

By the time her meal was served, she was already halfway down her second pitcher of wine. The waiter was young. He remained standing next to her and filled her tumbler as she unfolded her napkin.

She heard words, spoken in a smoky voice, ‘Buona sera’ and then something that probably meant: ‘What’s your name?’ The audacity, she thought.

Then she looked up, into a pair of warm, dark-brown eyes under long, black lashes, and at a smile showing perfect pearl-white teeth.

Sono Dottore Durham,’ she burbled. He laughed as if he sensed that she was not allowed to bear that title yet. ‘Inghilterra?’ he then asked. She nodded and said: ‘Londra.’

He laughed again, tilting his head a little, and sang in broken English: ‘Ennajoy ya meal, Miss.’

Her peals of mirth rang across the terrace. No one gave her looks.

I say, I’m stinking drunk, she mumbled to herself when the man walked away.