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Journey Towards Christmas

Chapter 21 — The Maiale's Casa

page 378

Chapter 21
The Maiale's Casa

IT was raining heavily, so the Maiale's Casa (which, if it means anything in English, means the Pork's House) was as good a place as another in which to hold an indignation meeting. And No. 1 Platoon's drivers were highly indignant. They were almost, but not quite, speechless with indignation, for the unbelievable had happened. They and not the drivers of No. 4 Platoon were to be sold down the river. Indignation is thirsty work and the elders of the platoon were assembled in council round a huge flagon of vino bianco, for which had been exchanged (it was no time for niceties of conduct) an equivalent quantity of engine oil.

The Maiale—the rightful tenant of the building, which she shared with an old cart, an Ariel motor-cycle, and the platoon's petrol dump—lay on her immense side and snored, presenting a soiled and impassive ham to her unwelcome guests and allowing the damp weather to draw out and accentuate her naturally powerful effluvia. Her days were numbered also. She, too, was powerless to avert fate.

Indignation or no indignation, the following morning saw the platoon's drivers preparing to evacuate their vehicles. As shopkeepers display their wares they laid out on extended tailboards any small trifles that might be expected to interest the simple villagers: German boots, biscuits, marmalade, old socks. By evening everything had been disposed of, and the next day the vehicles—the new Dodges they had worked so hard to make comfortable and keep efficient—were handed over to No. 4 Platoon. No. 3 Platoon was issued with second-hand 3-ton Dodges and No. 2 Platoon with almost new 4½-ton four-wheel-drive Dodges.

These periodic reshuffles, though we resented them on principle, were good in one way: they enabled drivers who were weary of one another to separate without fuss. If David had shared a 3-ton lorry with Jonathan, seen him morning and night, used the same soap and often the same towel, the lovely lament might have been for Saul only.

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The new hands had been dealt and No. 1 Platoon was no longer in the game. Luckily there was nothing sulky or grudge-bearing in the platoon's nature. Motions of censure had been proposed and carried (as the Maiale could witness) and now, free from all cares and disembarrassed of their vehicles, the drivers could concentrate on making their last days with the unit as pleasant as possible. Some of them commandeered the local police station and the upper story of an old warehouse; others found private rooms.

By now 80 per cent. of our drivers were comfortably housed. Over a hundred members of Headquarters, Workshops, and the Ammunition Platoon—were settled in the only large house in the neighbourhood, the residence of a Marchese. He was the padrone of the village. We saw him sometimes—a worried little man of no great presence—when he drove up in his baby Fiat to find out if the lavatories were blocked, if his potted palms in the conservatory were being respected, and how the drive was getting on.

The villa had pink walls and green shutters and was square, pretentious, and depressing. The Marchese's quarterings, surrounded by love-knots and bosomy ladies (lamentably unaphrodisiac), were painted all over the ceilings, but the general effect remained dreary. Perhaps it was because of the stone floors, the gaunt stone staircase, the chilly corridors, and the absence of all furniture except gloomy memories, sad and withering impressions, and the ghosts of a dead grandeur. There was no room in the house of which you could say with certainty: ‘That was the children's room’.

Not that we criticised it as a billet. It was dry and there was glass in the windows. As for the atmosphere of the place—well, we brought our own atmosphere with us along with our blankets and ‘Benghazis’. The ballroom on the first floor—few of us were affected unpleasantly by the writhing pattern of its gold and purple wallpaper—was just what the padre needed for his recreation centre.

To foregather in this room for a farewell party our former No. 1 Platoon drivers, on a showery evening, made their way towards the villa. They came up the drive between dripping laurels or let themselves in through the side door in the high garden wall. Representatives from Headquarters, Workshops, and No. 3 Platoon had been invited; No. 4 Platoon—no, we must get used to calling it No. 1 Platoon—was away from home. (Between 29 October and page 380 7 November it was employed by the Eighth Army, its chief task being to stock a Polish field maintenance centre near Florence from depots in the Arezzo area. We were now, by the way, sixteen miles south-west of Iesi.)

The party, though tinged with sadness, was an unqualified success. When did No. 1 Platoon hold a party that was not? True, the corpulent cherubs on the ceiling had looked down on rarer wines —though the vermouth was not bad and Jock's whisky was excellent—and possibly on choicer viands—though our Field Bakery friends had done even better than usual. Perhaps they had heard wittier and wiser speeches—though none more sincere than the tribute to Sergeant Jock Letham—and perhaps lovelier singing—though members of the Salome Gang were present. What we shall not concede is the possibility of their ever hearing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ sung with truer sentiment. Some of us, for the shadow of a moment (but perhaps it was Jock's whisky), caught glimpses of Captain Moon and Major Gibson with glasses—not empty.

The party came to its official end and was rushed with what was left of the refreshments to the police station, where it was revived with stimulants. It died horribly in the dog-watch.

Five days later, on the first Sunday of November, while our village street was still smoking with mist after a frosty night, we said goodbye to ‘Grumpy’, ‘Snow’, ‘Poodle’, and George (the last of Captain Moon's chickens), to Captain Thodey and Lieutenant Langley, and to sixty-five others. Some we should see next in New Zealand. Others, and the sooner the better, would rejoin us as reinforcements.

They were driven away in the backs of the strange lorries through the mist and the sunshine and it was the end of a chapter. The lorries went bumping and lurching down the narrow, knobbly street as long, long ago other lorries—smart Bedfords fresh from Base—had bumped over the bare hills at Ikingi and down towards the salt flats. ‘Righti-o, you jokers! You can spread out that a-ways. Get weavin‘….’

The Maiale came out of her casa to see what the fuss was about. She blinked in the spreading sunlight and was shooed home.

The mist vanished and it was a lovely day, and so was the next page 381 and the next. Each morning our windows were blind with frost and we breakfasted in mist, stamping on the iron ground to keep warm. Then came the autumn sunshine, soft and golden like melted honey. Old women sat on stone seats in the open with their knitting and mending and girls took baskets of dirty clothes to the communal wash-place, where the water poured white and icy into an immense trough. They bared their plump brown arms, kilted their skirts, and rubbed and scrubbed in the bright sunshine, chattering like magpies. Golden leaves drifted down from the mountain and the air was sweet with wood smoke and the smell of bonfires and frosty haystacks.

We had decided we were going to like Albacina.

It was small and humble now, but many years ago, so the story went (though how much was history and how much legend we could never discover), streets and splendid buildings had stretched through the whole valley—a great and prosperous city. Then flood or pestilence or some other act of God had swept all away, leaving only a few houses on a hillside. Every old village whose origins are drowned in antiquity has a right to identify itself with lost Atlantis (‘I only am escaped alone to tell thee’), but the story of Albacina was probably untrue. Not that it was contradicted by appearances. That look, common to so many Apennine villages, of having rushed into the hills to escape something dreadful was exaggerated here. A few lean and stringy houses had struggled far up the mountain, and others, less athletic, had sought safety in numbers and were huddled together like sheep on the lower slopes. Those of a full habit, such as the police station, which was prevented by its bulk either from climbing or from huddling, were left miserably at the bottom.

In this part of the village you could walk without bending forward, and it was here, in the neighbourhood of the barbieria, the Maiale's casa, and the largest of Albacina's four wineshops, that No. 2 Platoon was living. Workshops, by squeezing up a narrow and almost perpendicular lane (Via San Venanzio, if you please), had penetrated to the village square, much to the delight of the children, who, until the novelty wore off, were fascinated by everything our drivers did, whether it was cleaning their teeth, dismantling a gearbox, or making a cup of tea. Only Nos. 1 and 3 Platoons were left out in the cold. There was no room for them page 382 in the village and they had to content themselves with some soggy meadows between the villa and Route 76, but they joined us in the evenings.

The people of Albacina, tucked away in the Apennines, had seen no fighting. Soldiers therefore were less ugly in their eyes than they would have been if houses had been bombed and shelled, food and bed-clothes stolen, and gardens ground into mud. At first they were shy and cautious but after we had been in the village for a few days they began to warm to us. Perhaps it was because we were polite to the old ladies and gave all our sweets to the children and some crumbs of tobacco to the old gentlemen. Or did they believe we were poor people like themselves who would be with them not only against Nazis and Fascists but also against the larger enemies: exclusion, privilege, and bad faith?

This was the first time we had lived cheek by jowl with Italian villagers and we were able to confirm our suspicions that not all of them were dirty, cunning, and sycophantic. They treated us as guests, and as guests, for the most part, we behaved. The children called us by our first names, and their parents shared their fires with us and their macaroni and pasta asciutta. After that it was difficult for the young gentleman who had appropriated a sack of winter potatoes to continue to regard his act as one of pleasant daring and soldierly independence. Chickens and ducks, it was agreed tacitly, were protected birds in Albacina, and pigs were protected animals.

Was it a beautiful village? Well, it was all higgledy-piggledy, with slatternly rooftops, like the bonnets of old crones, leaning across narrow passages, and houses treading on other houses, and every single thing either back to back, face to face, or edge to edge. The church, like a patient schoolmaster surrounded by bothersome pupils, stood in the middle of all this, square and homely. Not so the Marchese's villa. Sulking and exhaling damp odours, it presented the village with a gloomy pink back. In some ways it was like the Maiale.

And yet it was beautiful—no form but all the colour in the world and all the charm. It was warm, friendly, happy, and full of children. And more children were coming all the time.

Our duties were light while we were at Albacina. Parades occupied part of the morning and picket duties came round about page 383 once a week. The rest of the time was our own. Like most other units we were in the grip of the football fever and one of our earliest cares had been to clear a field. Inter-group matches were in full swing and so was the Freyberg Cup competition. In the latter we got through the first game successfully, beating the 1st Petrol Company 15-6, but two days later we were beaten 6-nil by the 2nd Ammunition Company. There was no disgrace in this, for our conquerors went on to reach the final round, which they lost to the 22nd Battalion after a hard game.

Golden, autumn days! The sun, shock-headed like a dandelion, drops gently towards the crossbar. The backs come down the field for the last time and just for a second, as the crowd gathers its breath, you can hear the slap of leather. Knock on! and the whistle squeaks, then shrills out loud and long: time! Laughing and shoving, the crowd moves over to the transport and the tailboards rattle down.

The autumn twilight goes swiftly and it's dark almost before tea is over. The polished stars come out one by one and lorries leave for Fabriano, the nearest large town, where there's certain to be an ENSA1 show or a picture. The card-players wander up to the Marchese's ballroom for ‘500’, and the stay-at-homes (old George for one) climb into bed with their pipes and their Auckland Weeklies. But most of us go visiting. Hardly a soul but has a home to go to—a fire, fed sparingly with brushwood by old Momma, to sit by.

Cattivo,’ says Poppa, apologising for the sour red wine.

E buono, Poppa! E buono!

But Poppa knows better. To express its wretchedness he places stiffened fingers beneath his chin-stubble and mournfully wags his old head. If it had been good he would have grinned broadly, tilted his chin, narrowed his eyes into an expression of cunning, and screwed a stubby finger into his cheek: ‘Buono! Buono!

Few of us have ‘Sandy’ McKay's mastery of the Italian language and once we have commented on the depravity of Hitler and Mussolini, the beauty of the surrounding country (‘Bella, Poppa, molto bella!’) and the fact that New Zealanders at home drink little wine but great quantities of beer, the topics still at our disposal are not many. This is when the children come to our page 384 rescue. For an hour past they have been fidgetting with the desire to show off and now they burst into song. They sing charmingly: ‘Op! Op! Trotta Cavallino’—eyes bright, small feet tapping—‘Tournerai’, ‘Nel Strada del Bosco’, and our international friend the Woodpecker. Presently they push back the heavy table and start dancing—to the apparecchio radio if there is one—otherwise to their own music or to tunes audible only to excited children. Big sister dances with little sister. Clumsy boots shuffle on the stone floor, and shadows, black and monstrous, slip over the white washed walls, orange now in the soft, smoky lamplight. Roasting chestnuts crack and leap on the hearth-stone and Poppa plunges a gnarled hand into the ashes to choose a big one for each guest. ‘Op! Op! Trotta Cavallino….’ The room becomes stifling, faces shine with heat, and black shadows bend over walls and ceiling and brush across the sweet childlike face of the Virgin Mary; and the tiny lamp burning beneath her image glows brighter.

Around our village, like great gentle animals, lay the mountains. The big fellow who slept beside the River Esino, his flank forming one wall of the Fabriano Gorge, was Mount Pietroso. Then came Mount Cimara (that was the one, wasn't it, with the old monastery?), Mount Sella Sporta, and Mount Maliempo.

Naturally we went mountain climbing. It was climbing weather. In a jeep or on a motor-cycle you could get to the top of the big fellow in less than twenty minutes by a rough, winding track that looked like a fire-escape and consisted of corkscrew bends. On foot it was a different matter and you needed the whole afternoon. Fields and orchards struggled with you some of the way, then left you with the underbrush and the golden bushes, where the charcoal-burner, with his little cart and old, snorting donkey, worked from daylight until dark. Higher you went, with the gorge, all splashed with sunlight and great purple shadows, yawning on your left, and Albacina below you like a child's toy (a musical box, say), its bells, far off and flat and chirrupy, mixing in the frosty silence with a sound like blowflies on a sunny window, a faint buzzing sound: lorries going up the gorge. Higher and higher you went with your ears hurting from the cold and your breath coming in steaming puffs as from a kettle. Dabs of vivid pasture (slopping page 385 in places through the stone walls that tried to grapple them to the mountain) supported an odd sheep or goat, but these became fewer as you went on, and soon you were among the clouds and the boulders with the mist damp on your face.

Then, when you reached the top, the miracle happened. It was like stepping from the magic beanstalk. The track, instead of looping itself twice round a misty crag and plunging towards sea level, straightened out and led you past fields greener than life and a choppy duckpond rough as a miniature Atlantic to the enchanted village of Poggio San Romualdo, which clung, literally tooth and nail, to its emerald plateau, while the windy sunshine, blast on blast, broke over it like spray. Nothing banged or rattled in Romualdo (for everything not snugged down as on shipboard had carried away long ago) and there was little for the wind to play with except poultry feathers. Of these an unlimited quantity was provided by harassed ducks and chickens (perhaps it was their moulting season) and by fierce roosters whose chrysanthemum-like ruffs were giving them the same kind of trouble that old gentlemen have with umbrellas.

This mixture of wind and sunshine was headier than strong drink and it was a marvel that none of our drivers, tearing home to tea down the fire-escape in a borrowed jeep or on the motor-cycle from the Maiale's Casa, broke his neck.

Golden, autumn days…. A number of us had leave to Florence at this time, but later, when everything starts slipping into the mist, which shall we think of first when we smell wood-smoke, feel windy sunshine, hear bells: the Boboli gardens or a small Apennine village? Bells—what a place it was for them. On feast days and fast days our village was clangorous from dawn till dusk and on ordinary days, of which there were not many, the Angelus had to be dealt with at morning, noon, and sunset, and even the hours had to be rung in, with a few extra strokes for good measure. It was pleasant enough on a gentle autumn evening: it could be maddening at 3 a.m.

Bells in the mist muffled as from drowned ships … flying bell-notes going down the wind with the last leaves … bells merry on Sunday morning … bells jubilant over a white village. Yes, it snowed while we were at Albacina. We woke one day—it was Friday, 10 November—to find everything white. The funny round page 386 haystacks, each with a stout pole through its middle, looked like iced cakes; shovelfuls of snow, with soft, fat sighs, were slipping from steep rooftops; children were snowballing in the main street. Joyfully the bells clamoured.

Bells had heralded our coming and bells tolled solemnly on the morning we went away. The village came into the street to see us off. Toni the policeman was there, wearing his shabby grey uniform, his beretta, his two-day beard. Assunta was there—Assunta of the dark eyes and the modest bearing whom the ‘Young Doctor’ had courted so assiduously, visiting her house each evening on the pretext of teaching her English. The Monk was there, the pale young novice who had constituted himself Assunta's spiritual father and so infuriated the ‘Young Doctor’ by refusing him a clear field—a course of conduct that resulted in tremendous trials of patience and in late hours for all three of them. Riccardo of the baggy plus fours, the smart boy, the wide-awake boy, the boy who knew his Naples and had been around a bit and could put you in touch with the black market—he was there. And so was Vittoria, Albacina's plump beauty, who was never seen in public bare-headed. Her heavy black hair, which the partisans had cut off to punish her for loving a young Fascist, had been one of the glories of the village in the old days. The little barbiere was there and the old fat priest—kind, stubbly, rather dirty—and Maria and young Carlo and all the children. In fact everyone was there.

Only the Maiale and the Marchese were missing, but that was understandable.

1 Entertainment National Services Association.