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' ... here is this beautiful country suffering the worst horrors of war ... with a hideous prospect of the red-hot rake of the battle-line being drawn from sea to sea right up the whole length of the peninsula ...'

                Winston Churchill, speech, House of Commons, 24 May 1944.

                                     Prologue



The three avocado trees were at the back of the big block. Gianni planted them at the very start, before the house was trucked in. He’d heard avocado came from the Aztec word for testicle and the fruit enhanced sexual prowess. Well, he’d never needed them for that and didn’t much like the taste. The top branches he kept trimming and all the low ones he’d lopped, probably overdoing it. Now they made him think of lollipops. He frowned and moved on. The trees were a memorial, that’s all.


His white painted queenslander with its red tin roof stood out amid the green of ferns and palms, philodendrons, monstera and frangipanis. It was an unintended tricolour statement, linked maybe to the schizophrenia of immigration. When he was rich enough to move from the inner suburb he took the house with him. Anna scoffed at his obsession and refused to shift even though it was closer to the hospital where she worked. This was when they already had separate bedrooms. He strolled below the veranda past the nymph-with-amphora fountain. Notions of Anna and their son and grandchildren wafted like blossom, like the butcher bird’s gurgled arpeggio.


Anna wasn’t coming to Gianni’s birthday party as she had a workshop on in Sydney. He could hear the others arriving as Ric’s big machine crackled up the gravel. Ric who preferred Richard and insisted on it with his colleagues at the university. He was Riccardo to Gianni even after he left home at eighteen, even after Anna said their only child didn’t deserve that constant provocation. She had switched from Ricky ages ago. It was Jill – glimpsed emerging from the car – who from day one had opted for Ric. Gianni compromised then but with his own variant, a double final consonanted Ricc’. Jill was anglo with no hang-ups about things like that. It was she who chose Angela’s name and then Matthew’s. She got on well with Gianni, and benefited from his largesse. He had set her up in her own call centre business, and that, too, had vexed Ric. Jill sought to soothe the father-son frictions, although nothing could be done about Ric’s eternally resented second-generation conformities that had begun with cricket and beer.


Gianni now fifty-nine felt fitter than ever. He bustled around the car like a still-trim retired boxer, ducking and weaving to look in and greet. He kissed Jill, opened both rear doors, hugged his absolute favourite Angela and shook young Matthew’s hand. He did all the talking. That was his style and today even Ric, bowing his head in his ironic manner, seemed ready to indulge him. Gianni blinked teasingly at Angela as she explained how a complicated present for him in the back meant he had to go away.


She took her Nonno’s hand and led him up the steps to the veranda that wrapped itself around the house. Her hair gleamed, it was the same wheaty colour as his; the others were dark but Ric’s hair was thinning. They turned the corner to their unfinished chess game, on a marble-top table among ferns. Its big bronze renaissance pieces waited where they were left a fortnight ago, the queens finely costumed and the rooks tubby turrets with battlements. Half a dozen taken pieces stood on the sidelines like spectators but otherwise the board was still cluttered.


Gianni sensed that like him Angela saw life as a zero sum, any gains would be at someone’s expense. The space she shared with her parents was finite and these days they fought over it constantly. Though he didn’t take sides all knew he was always on Angela’s. They had their own mini-contests. His role was the good listener and occasional story-teller and he never passed on to Ric or Jill anything he was not meant to. He gave only a tad more advice than was welcome and let her shut him up if he ever got carried away. She made him earn her trust, he had to be ruthlessly honest. It was like a dire challenge to a prince, a test to win the fair damzel’s hand. Take this chess. Once upon a time he was able to cleverly lose to her. But now, and he admitted this reluctantly because he never bowed to anyone, she was cleverer than him. He still usually won but suspected she might be letting him. Chess for her was mainly the chance for a chat.


Last time she showed interest in family history and he had told her about Attilio and Maria, the uncle and aunt who had brought him up. How Attilio cut sugar cane in the north, in the1930s. He had never heard of cane before, in Italy they got sugar from beet. Attilio discovered on arrival that Italians were considered suited for what was pretty much slave labour. They cut cane by hand twelve hours a day, heaved it onto wagons, got covered in gashes and blisters and boils. They lived in tin sheds, like ovens, no electricity, the rain poured in. Trucks bogged in the mud. The place seethed with poisonous snakes. There were rats and Weil’s disease which causes haemorrhaging of the kidneys and bowels. Burning the undergrowth would lower the danger but it risked spoiling the cane. That lowered the price and was opposed by the growers and it meant lower wages and so the union fought the idea. The unions disliked the dagoes who worked too hard and kept to themselves. Some of the dagoes had agitated, overturning cane trucks on their way to the mills. In the end things did improve.


Today Angela wanted to take up that conversation, too, where they left off. As they sat down she said, “Nonno, Mum said your uncle didn’t always cut cane, she met him down here once. When did he stop?”


“Hah!” Gianni snorted. He could feel the words welling in him like stormwater in a drain. “It’s unbelievable how that happened. Because Italy was in the war, fighting on the other side, the government rounded up Italians and locked them away. All over Australia but especially in North Queensland. Even many who were born here! They were ‘interned’, that was the word, in camps. Prison camps is what they were. Attilio was ‘interned’ for three years. And when they at last let him out it was under all sorts of conditions, like reporting each week to the police station and not being allowed to go back home, to the north. In case he made a nuisance of himself up there, he was told. But he’d done nothing before, he’d never caused trouble.”


Angela was quiet. Gianni saw he might have gushed a little, over-filled his answer quota already. So he just beamed at her then and said, “But every cloud has a silver lining. Attilio couldn’t go back to Ingham so he found something else to do, in Brisbane. He brought Maria down and they set up their furniture business. It prospered, I inherited it, and now we’re all living happily.” He made a large gesture that took in his affluence, even the invisible Ferrari under the house.


Ric and Matthew were still busy with the gift, a sound system that needed to be set up. Jill was overseeing the caterer in the kitchen. Angela had nodded and seemed satisfied. She was looking down at the board again where her bishop was menaced by a pawn. The big chess pieces beheld each other in anticipation. The two players hovered, fingertip to chin. She saved the bishop and threatened a knight. There was an exchange. A couple of neutral moves. An imminence of bloodletting. An avenue suddenly opened up across the board and Angela triumphantly trundled her queen down it to the end, protected by the bishop, bang next to his king and said, “Check!” It was bold and dangerous, for both of them. She pursed her lips as though trying not to smile.


The new scene was like tarot cards, Gianni felt like a fortune-teller. A pattern of the past with threads of future fuzzed at him. He peered down and then slowly up at her and she slipped out of focus. He muttered, “Ahi, Luciana.”


“Luciana?” Angela pounced on the name. “Who’s she?”


“Oh.” Snapping out of his reverie Gianni sat up straight. He took a puff of the cigarette he had been gently waving and then squished the butt out in a stone ashtray. He cleared his throat unnecessarily. “She was someone I knew once. Years and years ago, in Italy. She played chess like you’re doing, full of dash and valour.”


“Before you met Anna?”


“Oh yes. Of course. Anyway, the game is not just about dash and valour, watch this…”


It was over in three moves. He had felt it was all right to beat her today but not brutally like this. She was crestfallen. He didn’t want to catch her eye, but did find himself bizarrely noting that his forearm was as thick as his granddaughter’s thigh. Beauty and the beast, no, Zeus and some nymph! He remembered how much she always liked the fountain fronded by elkhorns and maidenfern and wanting to make amends suggested they tour the yard. She shrugged her agreement.


A squawk of Matthew-music came from nearby so they headed the other way, towards the back. Angela didn’t usually go to this end of the veranda. Thin winter sun winked through palm fronds and picked out the river in the distance. From the rear steps the three trees were in full view.


“Nonno, those are avocados aren’t they?” she asked. “They look so weird.”


“Sure. I made them that shape on purpose.”


“What for?”


“Oh, it’s another story. You don’t want to hear it. Another war story.”


“You can tell me if you like.”


“If I make it short?”


“Yeah.”


“Okay. They’re like the trees where my dad died, in the war.”


“Was he a soldier?”


“Sort of. He fought in the resistance, in Italy. But the Germans caught him, and some others. They hanged them. From trees like that. That shape, more or less.”


She said, “Oh my God!” and glared at them for a few seconds. Then she asked him what was the resistance? Why they were fighting? He said well, it was one of those earthquake moments in history when countries actually collapse and everything changes, for ever.


“And?”


“Well, the whole world was at war, just about. Germany and Italy were partners in the beginning, against England and America, mainly, and Australia and others. The English and Americans got the upper hand after a few years. They bombed Italy flat and invaded it and the Italians surrendered. Actually they never liked the Germans much and were glad it was over. Only it wasn’t over – it went on for a couple of years more.”


“And your dad….?”


“He was in the hills where those who wanted to fight the Germans went. The Germans were furious. For each soldier of theirs who got killed, ten Italians had to die, whoever they could lay hands on, ordinary citizens sometimes. One day my dad came into town to see my mother, and got scooped up in a raid. They executed him and thirty others, in one of the main streets.”


“Did your uncle tell you about this, about the trees?”


“No, he hardly knew anything about it. I went there myself. It’s a really pretty town. Bassano. Those same trees are still there, you know. I’ve seen them.”


“That would have been amazing. I’m going to go there one day.” She touched his arm. “Nonno, what was your dad’s name?”


Gianni stared at her, they were almost the same height, and shrugged helplessly. He had no idea. All he knew about his father were rare remarks, often disparaging, made by Attilio and Maria, plus the little he had picked up on that visit to Bassano, forty years ago. He knew his father had been a hero in the resistance. One of the good who died young. But he didn’t know his name, or had somehow forgotten it.


This was the first time any member of his family had ever expressed any interest in Italy. Anna had been to Turin for a conference once and didn’t want to go back. The significance of it hit him like a vision. He would take Angela there, on his next trip! He was going again soon, to buy furniture. It would mean wrangling with her parents, of course. Ric was bound to rubbish the idea. He’d once said something typically caustic about World War II and the land of his ancestors. But Gianni could be persuasive, and generous. He wouldn’t lose this argument.


After lunch, after the explanations and testing of the new music system, he had some earnest words with Ric and persuaded him. It would be a short trip, full of benefit for Angela’s education. Gianni would speak to her teacher, propose that she write a report. With the holidays coming up she would miss less than a week of school. He could show her Venice as well.


He took his coffee out onto the veranda and saw Jill inside nodding hard at Ric. All manner of thoughts came to him. He rembered getting back from Italy that first time and almost at once meeting Anna, and her saying, “You’ve got a one-track mind, Gianni!” He’d replied, “At a time!” and she’d laughed and evidently accepted the implication. But in Bassano his mind had been entirely on Luciana and he lost track there of his dad and the things Angela wanted to know about. Those people in the resistance, the partisans, what had they all been up to exactly? It was blurry even then, only twenty years after the war. It would be a lot blurrier now, this promised trip could be a flop. For a nanosecond Luciana lit his thinking as Ric emerged smiling severely.


Gianni was allowed to break the news to Angela. This was the best present Nonno had ever given her, and on his own birthday! He told her of the lush Po Valley that runs up against the Dolomites, with Bassano at the foothills, and its old wooden bridge over the River Brenta, the bridge with a roof and open sides, a bit like this veranda. Stacked above it is the town with churches and red-tiled stone-built houses going up to a street running round the top, like a balcony. The balcony-street is now called the Avenue of the Martyrs and looks out to higher hills. Along the avenue are these lovely trees each one of which was once a gallows. Each has a photograph stuck on the trunk, a small black and white one, of the person who was hanged from it.


“And your father’s tree, Nonno. Would we see that?”


Of course, he told her. They would go together and see it. They would honour his dad. They would find out his name.




                                  Armistice



With his truck parked on a grass verge and pointing northeast Tommaso woke as soon as the sun rose above the hedge-row. Because of the dazzle he didn’t open his eyes as he came to and so clunked his head as he lifted it against the steering wheel. A dull bruising in his knee hard against the gear stick and a sharp crick in his neck made him twist and lever himself into an upright position. He might be short and he had had the cabin of the truck to himself but even so he felt someone had trussed and stuffed him like a cock in a sack. He put both hands behind his head, lifting his elbows, yawning and creaking, and looked out of the side window away from the sun.


Across the road the lumpy Euganean Hills were already aglow in early light, the first yellowing suggestion of autumn dusting the foliage. After sunset yesterday their outline had seemed to him like farm animals settled for the night in the fields and pastures of the flatness all around them. He contemplated their bulk as he worked out where he was and why he was there and what he had to do. His uniform was prickly and untidy and he had got grease on it in several places. He would have some explaining to do about his non-arrival last night when he returned to the barracks. Whenever that might be. He might not make it back at all, in this crate. He put off trying to start the engine and got out and stretched and then pissed against the hedge. The road, a grey swathe in both directions, was deserted. The day promised to be quite warm. He had no clue in the tranquillity here that almost all other parts of the nation were suddenly reeling with downfall and humiliation.


Yesterday afternoon Tommaso had driven alone the short distance down to Rovigo. He was on his own as no one else was available and anyway one person was enough for such a simple task. It had been a good trip and for most of the way he had hummed and drummed bars from the Aida triumphal march without knowing or caring where they were from, until he got sick of them. He made his delivery of ammunition to an outpost of his unit, the 5th Anti-Aircraft Regiment, and collected some bandages and blankets from the military hospital in town. On the way back the engine began to play up.


An older soldier or a more patient one would have turned round and driven back to Rovigo for help, or else gone there on foot. Tommaso was an eighteen-year-old contadino who had only been in the army since June, and moreover he was innocent in mechanics. When they joined, some of the recruits had special skills and others were put on stores or kitchen duty. The sergeant needed an extra driver for the trucks and Tommaso had volunteered perkily, claiming some knowledge. The only motor vehicle he had ever been in, besides the local bus, was something resembling a truck in the village of Schievenin where he was born, on the slopes of Monte Grappa. It had once been a van but a friend of his father’s, the most prosperous farmer in the village, had modified it to his own design and every so often let Tommaso come with him in it on trips down to Alano.


From Signor Trevisan he gained faith in the internal combustion engine. Signor Trevisan was more preacher than teacher and spoke elusively of transport and motion. Fanbelts and tappets to Signor Trevisan were as secondary as pews and censers to a padre. He dwelt rather on the sicknesses of carburetting and the dolours of ignition implying the cures were mysteries in the hands of a privileged few. Once Tommaso asked how some miracle had happened but Signor Trevisan smiled and brought down the big curving tin lid. It had taken place at his brother’s place in Feltre where Tommaso never went. Nevertheless he gripped the rudiments of the gearbox and what some buttons and dials on the dashboard were for. It was all so much better than the drudgery of farming. Unlike his older brother Vittorio he felt no obligation to commit to a lifetime of labour on the family smallholding. Especially as he was constantly at loggerheads with his father.


Tommaso’s father had fought in World War I, in fact on those very slopes. He was proud of it, and would remind everyone that the great German General Rommel as a young officer fought there, too, although in that conflict Germany was an enemy. Rommel had been presented with a medal in Schievenin itself. It was true that last year he had been beaten in Africa but he was a military genius who could turn setbacks into victory. Now he had the job of defending Italy against the Anglo-Americans. Tommaso’s father, despairing at his son’s torpor and fecklessness, had told him he ought to join the army and learn about life. After much squabbling over every little thing Tommaso thought: Why not? His own world was confined, the wider one beckoned and here was a chance to get out and see some of it.


Signor Trevisan’s nephew Sandro used to come up from Feltre to visit him and the three of them would share a ride in the cramped cabin of the truck. The boys were the same restless age and size. Sandro was all triangles and pyramids, hair jutting forward, sharp nose and chin, deft, determined. Tommaso was squares and cubes, short hair and broad shoulders, impatient, undisciplined. Sandro told Tommaso he was a communist. Tommaso had no idea what that meant and when he asked him he wished he hadn’t. Sandro’s long explanation made communism equal paradise. But it didn’t sound right, the hard travelling to get there being more important than brilliant objective. This was politics, Sandro said. That meant persuading or forcing people to think differently. Tommaso knew all about bickering within his own family and feuds between families in his village. He hated to think how it might be on any larger scale.


As soon as the idea came up Sandro and Tommaso agreed they should join the army together. Although both wanted to escape from their environment their motives for doing so were as different as could be.


“The whole system’s rotten,” Sandro declared one day when they had climbed to a point high above Tommaso’s house looking towards the surging cliffs and parapets of the nearby Dolomites, “and it’s got to go. We communists want to destroy it. The army is really good at destroying things.”


Sandro’s horizon went way beyond those ridges and Tommaso could not follow his reasoning. It reminded him of Signor Trevisan’s creed about burning petrol to make wheels turn and he thought that flights of fancy must be a family trait. Tommaso said like a catechist that he wanted to fight for Italy and the king. At that Sandro spat fat and wet at his feet. They were on their way home by then, on a steep grassy pasture. Tommaso charged him and the two of them rolled on the tussocks and were saved from doing any damage to each other by contact with fresh cow shit. They blasphemed and hooted and were smellily bonded.


Now in the green space between the hills and his truck Tommaso could see cattle grazing. He turned to the task in hand, recalling the queer knocking sound that had got louder and more persistent in the engine over the few kilometres from when he first heard it until he decided to stop. The noise had alarmed him but then the temperature gauge began to rise. At a canal he had stopped and checked the radiator that was gushing steam. He had fetched water in his bottle and in four trips had filled the radiator. This brought the temperature down but the mechanical thumping soon started again. He stopped twice more to switch off the engine and let it cool and at another canal was able to refill the radiator. The knocking became more insistent. On the other side of Monselice, with evening approaching, he decided not to risk further progress, and to rest the engine overnight. He hoped that was what Signor Trevisan would have done. Perhaps in the morning his truck would behave well enough to get him the ten kilometres or so back to Padova.


The engine started at once and Tommaso slid cautiously off the grass verge and onto the road. It was already after seven o’clock and it was imperative he get back to barracks. It had been Lieutenant Rossi’s idea that he make haste to fetch the supplies from the military hospital and the captain, a man of erratic temper, was likely to accept no excuses for the delay. That was Tommaso’s sole concern. The war itself did not cross his mind. War had been a vague reality for the first weeks of his service, punctuated now and then by vaguer mention of events far away. The alarm at reports of Sicily being invaded was overtaken by confusion at news of the Duce’s arrest. The general reflex was jubilation, marred only by the thought at the back of everyone’s mind that this could never last. Tommaso and the rest of his barracks were called on to keep public order but in the streets of Padova people just sauntered and fraternised and fancied the war would end soon. Girls called out to soldiers and police were strangely absent. Suddenly absent, too, was all the paraphernalia of fascism.


Tommaso had not even got the truck into top gear and was chugging slowly along when the irritating knocking returned like a guilty conscience. He changed down and gritted his teeth and ignored the noise for another two or three interminable ox-paced kilometres. That was when he saw ahead of him an odd sight, in the gap between buildings of what looked like a small farm. An old man in a dirty white nightgown and cap had skipped from one side to the other reappearing then arm in arm with a little old lady. The two of them were doing a jig in the courtyard as Tommaso’s truck, tapping its applause, lumbered to a halt. He looked down at them, waiting for them to finish so that he could refill his water bottle.


“We’ve lost the war, haven’t we!” the old man shouted up at him, his face shining. “Come, boy, here! Come and dance!”


“What for? What do you mean?” Tommaso demanded, tugging to straighten his collar. He caught a glimpse of his unshaven jaw in the rear view mirror and then of his hair spiking out madly on one side. He would have liked to cut a better figure as a soldier with these ancient lunatics but he felt he should get some explanation from them. Each took one of his hands. To humour them Tommaso took part in a courtyard gyration.


“Armistice! Armistice! Haven’t you heard the news? Our boys can come home!” the old man said as they went round. His wife added, rosy-cheeked and grinning as crazily as her husband, “Now you can go home, too, young man!”


Tommaso didn’t like the sound of this, not that it made any sense. The word itself didn’t. More than ever he had to get back to Padova, whose towers lilted and peeped at him across the flat land. He stopped, shaking his head at the peasant couple, and asked them about water. They took him, still prattling, over to a well where he fetched enough to fill the radiator. That done, and with unease running through him like the first signs of flu, he thanked them, climbed back up and clattered off along the highway.


As he approached the city one surprise after another signalled that something was amiss. A horse harnessed to a cart with neatly stacked milk churns stood unattended and took a couple of paces forward as Tommaso’s truck clanked alongside. An official car shot in front of him across an intersection at dangerous speed. Three pedestrians scuttled around a corner and into a doorway. A church bell pealed impetuously for several seconds.


Tommaso’s puzzlement grew with each new singularity and on the spur of the moment he decided to make a short detour through the town. But entering the great space of Prato della Valle the noise in his engine developed a crescendo that could presage explosion. It was too much to risk and in any case it was imperative to find out what was going on. He turned into a side street, switched the engine off and got out. He would make his way on foot to the barracks and get help. The medical supplies could be retrieved later. They weren’t secure in the back of the truck but the very abnormality in the air suggested that today thieves, too, had other things on their mind.


Although it was still early people hurried past him or bumped into him. The excitement around was a soundless frenzy, like an ants’ nest stirred up. Near the university three helmeted German soldiers with their backs to him were vigorously summoning a knot of students to come and answer questions. Under a volley of guttural consonants the students ran off in the other direction. A woman with an empty basket standing watching was about to follow them when Tommaso touched her on the arm.


“Signora, wait,” he said, as she stepped aside nervously. “Please tell me what’s happened. I was out of town. I just got back.”


“Armistice,” she replied, as though that was all the explanation needed. But she said it as if it was a foreign phrase. “It’s armistice.”


“But what is that?” Tommaso asked, feeling very foolish. Even farmers and housewives knew the word and what it meant, yet he in his ignorance was a soldier of the king.


“We’ve agreed with the Anglo-Americans. Not to fight them any more. It was on the radio.”


“The war is over then?” Tommaso asked.


The woman looked at him pityingly. She said “Mah!” with a shrug and began to move off. She nodded her head towards the Germans who now ringed an older man and were berating him. “They might tell you.”


Instinctively Tommaso felt that that was the last thing he should do, indeed that it would be better if those men did not see him at all. German troops were a rare sight when he joined the army but in recent weeks more and more of them had begun appearing in the town and on the roads outside. He hurried trying not to be conspicuous into the market square and then cut through narrow back streets. Ten minutes later he reached the barracks in Via Chiesanuova.


Here the disorder and confusion was even greater. Numbers of soldiers with anguished expressions jostled in and out of the main door of the barracks, calling out at each other, while little groups dithered about in the passages. An adjutant stood inside the door with a board and what looked like a list of names but he seemed to be close to tears and made no attempt to keep any sort of tally. In the main courtyard what Tommaso took at first to be garbage turned out to be a pile of weapons, mess kits and bits of clothing which those passing by occasionally added to. Four men wearing army pants and civilian sweaters with a fifth in athletics gear ran out together into the street. The crash of breaking timber, perhaps furniture, came from somewhere upstairs.


When he got to the sleeping quarters he found the room in a shambles, as never before. Blankets were ripped from the iron beds and cupboard doors were wide open. Several of his roommates were in a frenzy of packing or unpacking, rummaging in lockers and shouting head down or over their shoulders. He was relieved to see Sandro at the end of his bed, stuffing something into a full kitbag. It looked like a large book.


“Sandro! What’s everybody doing?” Tommaso demanded. “Do we have to go somewhere?”


“Hey, Tommaso, you came back!” Sandro said, evidently glad to see him. “I thought you might decide not to, when you heard the news of the armistice.”


Tommaso told him how he had only found out an hour ago, and described what had happened to the truck. He asked why there was pandemonium.


“Because nobody knows anything, that’s why. And they’re afraid, with good reason. That the Germans will take revenge. We’ve got to get away now.”


“What’s Rossi saying? What do they want us to do?”


Sandro stopped his packing and, breathing in a lungful through his nose, contemplated his friend. He told him to sit down. Tommaso dropped onto the bed opposite and looked at him expectantly. Sandro always knew more than he did about whatever was going on. He had the better ideas even if it was Tommaso who usually jumped into action first. They were compaesani, they spoke the same dialect, they looked out for each other.


“There are no orders,” Sandro said. “None. Some of the officers have gone already. No one is telling us anything. We have to decide for ourselves.”


“But we can’t desert! They’ll arrest us! We’ll be shot!”


“It’s all changed, Tommaso.” Sandro was clearly trying to be patient but he kept glancing towards the door. “The Germans …. You’ve seen how many have come since the Duce was arrested, haven’t you? Well, they’ll send a whole army against us now, and we’ll have to fight them. Not down here, though, they’ll be too strong for us. We must hide in the mountains and attack them from there.”


“But why should we? It doesn’t make sense. The Germans are our allies…”


“Not any longer. Look, the Anglo-Americans have landed in the south. They’ll come sweeping up this way. The Russians will get Germany from their side. The war could be all over in six months. Just think – what happens then? Who’ll run this place? We should! We’ve got to get ready. There won’t be any fascists, there won’t be any king. That coward has fled, you know.”


“So….”


“So we haven’t got much time, Tommaso! Get your things together, quick. I’ll help you.”


But Tommaso was not convinced at all. He was unnerved to see grown men flapping like hens when a hawk’s shadow passes overhead. He had not been in the army long but he had learned you don’t panic, you stand firm. It was what you do if the barracks were under attack or on fire. But it was more than that. His father’s stories about the army did mean something to him. He couldn’t simply go home. The Germans were reasonable. The others were crazy, Sandro was in one of his political dreams. The barracks were real, army discipline was real.


“I’m going to stay here,” Tommaso said. “Somebody, one of the officers, must know what’s going on. I’ll wait, I’ll find out. I’m not going to…. well, run away.”


Sandro tried one more time. He stood up and told Tommaso to his face he risked everything by staying. Then he asked if Tommaso had thought at about Loredana.


“Loredana? This has got nothing to do with her.” Tommaso frowned at him, baffled. “She’s where she is, I’m here. That’s the whole story.”


“Please yourself,” Sandro said, throttling the top of his kitbag and swinging it over his shoulder. “But take my advice, my friend, don’t stay in the barracks. Hide somewhere for a bit, anyway. Because the Germans will come here straight away and they won’t ask questions. As soon as you see how grim everything is, follow me. I’ll be in the hills, my uncle will know roughly where I’ll be. Join me there.”


And with that Sandro was off. The three other soldiers in the room when Tommaso arrived had already hurried away. Left to himself Tommaso showered and shaved and changed his uniform. It was quieter everywhere now, and somehow sinister. He moved carefully, on tiptoe, as he crossed to the next dormitory and stuck his head in. At the far end he could see a few men looking out of the window and between them and him three men were playing cards on the floor, one of them Lieutenant Rossi who appeared dazed. The other two were sergeants, neither of whom he liked at all. Nobody in this strange scene was speaking. He felt no temptation to step in and join them. Instead it seemed wiser, for tonight anyway, to take Sandro’s advice and absent himself from the barracks.


As he passed the armoury he saw the door had been broken down. Extraordinarily no one was on duty, there was no guard of any kind. He went to the main gate and peered out. A German staff car was now parked a few metres down the street with a stony-faced driver at the wheel. Standing beside the car was a wireless operator with a backpack and an officer speaking animatedly into a field telephone. It was unheard of that no one from the unit was there to welcome or assist the visitors. There was no Italian military presence anywhere in sight. Tommaso dodged back inside.


Remembering an alternative way out of the barracks, one that it was not normally permitted to use, Tommaso headed for the kitchens. To the rear of them a short flight of steps led down to the yard. At the bottom he caught sight of a pistol, lost or discarded. He picked it up without a further thought, checked the safety catch and stuffed it inside his jacket. If any officer challenged him he would immediately offer it up, telling the truth that he had found it on the ground. Beyond the block where supplies were delivered was a gate, chained shut. To Tommaso’s relief the small door adjacent was unbolted and was easy for him to open and pass through. Like this rear part of the barracks the whole neighbourhood beyond appeared abandoned. Next to a balcony opposite and above him a pair of wooden shutters creaked slowly shut.


*


He walked along one back street and down another, at first without particular purpose and then with an objective beginning to take shape in his mind. If he was not to stay in the barracks he had few options as he knew nobody who lived in Padova. Nobody, that is, except a whore called Lilly whom he and Sandro had visited two or three times. On one occasion they had been drunk and had fallen asleep, waking some hours later to find they had been hauled along and left in a box room at the end of a corridor. He would ask for overnight shelter there now. Lilly’s place of work was near the railway station.


As soon as he was back inside the old city walls Tommaso saw a German army truck rounding the corner towards him, perhaps en route to his barracks. He had just passed the doorway to a bar and was able to retreat into it without drawing attention to himself. Inside it was completely silent and his appearance seemed to add to tension already in the air. Two men standing stiffly at the counter with coffee cups in their hands looked at him and turned towards each other in low conversation. The barman was washing cups in the sink, his widened eyes staring down as if at something repulsive. Tommaso asked for soda water and the barman regarded him for several seconds and then served him without a word. He moved to the side of the room, well away from the window onto the street.


Loredana. Now the image of her came back to him, prompted by Sandro words. It was the first chance he had had to stop and think about the situation. Sandro had said reports of the armistice had begun spreading around the barracks last evening. He and the others would have had all night to think and talk about it, and about whether it was better to leave or to stay. Sandro used to rave on about how his communists loved chaos and revolution the way pigs loved shit. The last war had been a perfect midden for the Russians to have their revolution. Sandro dreamed of being in turmoil like that, he predicted it was coming and it seemed now he’d been granted his wish. There he was an hour ago foreseeing the future – German revenge and Russian armies and whole new governments. The future for Tommaso was like those banks of fog billowing down the valley towards you. He wasn’t afraid of them or of the future and in fact sometimes was happy to head for what was inevitable. Things just happened, decisions got taken. Like joining the army, like not going with Sandro and the others. What if he was wrong? What if Sandro was right, about his own safety, or his family’s, or Loredana’s?


Loredana with her hair like harvest corn and her round brown laughing eyes. He had almost forgotten what an impression she had made on him, and on Sandro, too. She wasn’t really his girlfriend, although he later pretended to Sandro that she was. The three of them had met in the spring, the day that Tommaso and Sandro had gone along to enlist. Enrico was with them on the bus home from Bassano to Pederobba and had walked back with them as far as his house on the edge of the village. They were going to continue up the mountain on foot, and Enrico had suggested they come in and meet any members of his family who were in.


They had not stayed long because it was obvious this was a fascist dwelling, with a portrait of the Duce in the front hall. The head of the household was a functionary in the office of the podestà, responsible for women’s affairs in this district. Of the two senior sons – Enrico was the youngest in the family – one, Giancarlo, was in the blackshirt militia. The other was older and had emigrated to America or somewhere ten years ago.


Between Giancarlo and Enrico were two sisters, the younger one being Loredana. She seemed to like Tommaso at once, asking him where he was from and why he wanted to join the army, and he was smitten by her. She was the loveliest person he had ever seen. Sandro, handsome in a foxy sort of way, was also taken by her and flirted a little. But he was ill at ease in this house and soon dragged Tommaso away. From then on he was always teasing Tommaso about Loredana and asking how the two of them were getting on.


Over the weeks, while waiting for the call-up, Tommaso saw Loredana three times, after leaping and bounding down the paths from Schievenin. The uphill return had been a floating weighted only by the thought of the coming separation. Loredana had done nothing to commit herself to him or to make him believe that he had special claim on her affections but it was enough that she was so lovely and did not discourage him. He wrote a few lines once to her from Padova. Any sort of writing was a torment and he could never find words to say what he really felt. He had no reply.


The street outside the bar was deserted. Perhaps the world was at lunch. He slipped out and walked with new resolve towards the station, alert both for any sign of danger and for places into which he might duck out of sight should he need to. Minutes later he arrived at the square grey frontage of the bordello. The door was shut but he knew a way in at the back.


He took the next street and turned at the next narrow alley. A wall rising to head height suggested gardens on the other side and was punctuated by anonymous wooden doors. Tommaso opened one of these, as he had once before with Sandro, and stepped into a small courtyard. All it contained was a table and a stone bench. Sitting on the bench with his boots on the table was an officer, a portly major with thinning hair and bad teeth, in the uniform of the Alpini. He seemed unsurprised to see Tommaso hesitating at the doorway and waved him over with one hand while drawing on a cigarette with the other. As if at a beauty parade he watched Tommaso’s progress critically, keeping his feet on the table. Tommaso saluted and halted, not quite at attention and definitely not at ease. He might be in trouble. Should he produce the pistol? Not now. The major seemed perfectly calm, showing neither hostility nor formality. He carried on smoking. He asked Tommaso his name and regiment then looked up at the roofline, sucking his bad teeth with a slight hissing intake.


Tommaso waited there as nonchalantly as possible in the circumstances. His own teeth were perfect: Lilly had complimented him on them, saying his smile was one of the best things about him. He resisted the temptation to put his hands in his pockets. He felt he needed the major’s permission before he could move, for example to continue on his way in through the double door that stood wide open, beckoning. The major seemed to have come to a conclusion and offered Tommaso a cigarette that he accepted gratefully. The ice was broken. As much as anything this confirmed how far this day had bumped the earth off its normal orbit. Tommaso had the notion that he and the major were a poor and a rich man forced to share a journey, or a dream.


With a couple more questions the major established that Tommaso was not a deserter but, like himself, was waiting for the crisis to pass before returning to duty. He seemed satisfied and then, getting to his feet, began an oration. Tommaso, smoking attentively, marvelled at the poise and fluency of his interlocutor, who did not volunteer his own name. Instead he set about giving Tommaso his opinion on how the war would go now it had come to Italy. The armistice idea would take hold of the opposing armies who would stand off, he said, with Rome and Florence between them as hostages, in military stalemate. No commander on either side would wish to fight in the Alps. German forces would undertake a peaceful retreat to Austria. This would allow the Anglo-Americans to move through to France and the Germans to deal with the communists on their eastern front. Italy with its monarchy and honour restored would emerge as one of the winners of the war. The major painted this bright and logical picture. The images tilted first this way then that in Tommaso’s mind like propaganda or advertising posters. They wouldn’t hold steady as other pictures were doing, like the tableau when he peered into the barrackroom or the portrait of the traumatised barman just now. Often he had accepted an innocent landscape, a line of trees for example, only to find menace in its depths the longer he looked. He had no idea what the major’s fancies or the barman’s face signified, but felt if he could scrutinise them he might find something to alarm and alert him.


The major, now silent, studied his select audience to see what effect his words had had. Tommaso felt a sense of loss and uncertainty. Of dangerous speed. He was not going to, no one was going to again enjoy the slow waking and reflecting that he had that morning. All the storm warning these past weeks had been ignored, plummeting temperatures and flickered lightning in the high clouds, and now things had closed explosively in. He felt a great gloom. In contrast the major was almost merry as he waited for agreement and praise. He had pinkish cheeks and a potbelly that was enhanced as he straightened his back and squared his shoulders.


Tommaso said nothing. It was unthinkable to contradict a major. He could not praise him without a reason, and he had none. All he had were nameless anxieties that were beginning to give him a headache. He wished he could escape, or at least sit down.


“I blame Badoglio for the mess we’re in,” the major said, referring to the Prime Minister who had escaped from Rome with the king. His tone was a little sharper and he may have taken Tommaso’s silence for disapproval. “Badoglio’s victories in Ethiopia must have gone to his head. Strategy he might understand, but not tactics. For example this truce negotiated with the Anglo-Americans. What orders has he given to our troops? He says “They shall react to attacks from any quarter.” What attacks? What quarter? How do we react? Does he mention Germany or German forces? No he doesn’t! He’s given us a riddle to solve. And it’s a very difficult one. There’s no answer, is there?”


The major's rhetorical conclusion permitted Tommaso to stay dumb a little longer but he had to respond in some fashion. He opened his palms very slightly to signal the complexity of the matter, the acuteness of the dilemma, the uselessness of the leadership being offered. This fired up the major some more.


“You’re right! Badoglio has gone. It’s up to us. We can’t change sides, soldier. It’s not done. And it would be extremely brutta figura – we would be ridiculed. No, we must re-group. New leaders must step forward to resume control. I will make contact with the different barracks in the city. You can be my assistant and messenger. We shall begin first thing in the morning. Meanwhile….”


He looked in the direction of the double doors and asked Tommaso if he had come to see Renata. Before he could reply the major remarked, “She’s not here, you know. But she should be back soon.”


“No, sir. I was hoping to see Lilly. Ask if I could stay tonight.”


The major laughed as though it was the best joke and said this was certainly the right place to look for a bed. All Tommaso needed was money. He added after a pause that Tommaso’s was not such a bad idea, in the circumstances, even though the only one at home was the demented janitor who seemed to think business would resume as normal that evening. As he spoke the handle squeaked in the courtyard door and an imposing woman in her mid-thirties appeared. Her hair was red and abundant and her lips were full and smiled to reveal a radiant set of teeth. It was Renata, he had met her on one previous occasion. She immediately greeted the major like an old friend.


“I know you, don’t I?” Renata demanded looking over the major’s curved shoulder at Tommaso. “Are you one of Lilly’s?” The major answered for him.


Renata led the way inside, her swaying buttocks diminishing them like chicks behind a hen. The janitor got in her way with messages for her but had the wit to gauge her momentum and flatten himself against the rose-coloured wall. In the waiting room inside the front door Renata gestured towards the two plush sofas and said she would go and organise something for them to eat. They sat opposite each other more awkward now than before and neither spoke. There was no sign of any other clients. The major closed his eyes feigning sleep. After a while Renata came in to check on them on and left a bottle of wine and two glasses.


The afternoon sun slicing through the window above the front door threw a lozenge of orange light onto the major’s face, causing him to squirm upright and open his eyes. He poured himself a glass of wine and then, after sampling it, offered to do the same for Tommaso. Renata came back followed by the janitor carrying plates of pasta. Sitting beside the major Renata told him she had heard of fighting in Piazza delle Poste in Verona that morning between Italian and German units. He murmured as though that was just what he would have expected and wondered if she had any other details. She shook her head and asked what plans her two guests had. When the major told her she said they could stay one night – “who knows what tomorrow will mean for any of us?”

Anticipating that things for now would be bad for business Renata had given her three girls the day off. Lilly had gone to see her mother in a nearby village but would return in the morning. Tommaso was told he could sleep in her empty bed, and wait for her if he liked. The major, before being taken away by Renata, informed Tommaso that it was now his plan to reconnoitre the town on his own when he got up. He would send for Tommaso as soon as he had worked out what had to be done. He reminded Tommaso where the Alpini barracks were. Tommaso stood up and saluted. 


                                          *


Next morning he woke to the sound of heavy armour rumbling below. From his second floor window he could see a column of German tanks, advancing from the north, passing the railway station a hundred metres away, their guns ominously levelled with the street. A man with white hair wisping under a beret did not see them as he pedalled out from a side road and slewed round at the last moment, falling on his elbow. His bicycle slid away onto the road and was crunched under the tread of the first tank.


Tommaso lay low all morning, catching echoes of new abnormalities and alien presence, grinding gears and shouted commands, harsh accents, metal-heeled boots. Without quite knowing why he was glad the bordello, because its trade depended on word of mouth, had an anonymous facade. There was no sign of Lilly, although one girl did look in and nervously introduced herself as Silvia. He went down with her to the kitchen and found crusts of bread and some milk. Renata was not there but the janitor, his eyes unfocused and his thin hair uncombed, came in and went out again without a word.


From his vantage point in Lilly’s room Tommaso was able to see what was going on in the piazza, at the main intersection and over at the railway station. It was a bit like the angry grey sea, the only time he had ever seen it when he went with Signor Trevisan to Chioggia on a day of high wind. Invisible forces whipped and swept the waterfront in unpredictable squalls and lulls before the next great buffeting. He watched a melee of bicycles charging across the open space, bumping into each other with yells and the occasional spill. Army trucks came lumbering up one of the main streets as though on the way to battle. As though a plug was pulled the piazza emptied and then hurrying people emerged carrying precious possessions or urgent consignments. He recognised the distinctive features of fear. In some it was frozen like a mask, the glassy fear of a rabbit he had seen face a snarling-dog death. Others were all nervous action, eyes, hands and lips twitching as they scampered in groups across the square or kept their heads down and hugged the walls. Two moving especially fast and furtively wore uniforms Tommaso had never seen before.


The major stayed away and sent no word. Time ticked by slowly. In the afternoon four German military vehicles drew up at the railway station and a platoon of soldiers mounted guard. A train pulled in and for quite some time medium-sized guns and other weapons were unloaded from one end. Into the other went various merchandise and what looked like antique furniture. Strange hour to be moving house. Strange disorderly manner that looked more to Tommaso like burglary. Except that men in uniform were engaged in it. Half a dozen automobiles were driven up and loaded onto the train which then promptly departed. Another train pulled in. For two hours Tommaso watched as workmen with welding equipment affixed what appeared to be grilles over the windows of the carriages. Signs were going up in the piazza, the nearest one in the gothic script of the occupiers, black bayonets against a white background.


At dusk a worried Renata knocked on his door. Coming back from her sister’s house she had seen Italian soldiers being arrested. They were being sent to Germany to be re-trained and formed into new units, someone said. To Renata it looked much more like a full-scale and hostile occupation. Tommaso would have to leave, but not yet and certainly not wearing uniform. She would find him something in the cupboard where all sorts of things had been left behind. She would let him know when it was safe to go and meanwhile would get him something to eat.


His mind raced. Go? Where? Why? He couldn’t take Renata’s account, accompanied by extravagant gestures and ‘Mamma mia!’ utterances, altogether seriously. Anyway he couldn’t let the major down, he would have to wait for word from him. He had very little money. He should pay Renata something. Then he had a brilliant idea. When she came back he told her of the truck he had abandoned with its medical supplies and blankets, sure to be looted eventually. She smiled and said she would send the janitor’s son to it at once.


With doors downstairs slamming and Renata’s occasional irruptions into the room Tommaso half-expected to get the signal to move that evening. When she brought him coffee, however, she said he should wait until morning as German troops were everywhere. He was about to go to bed when there was a tap on the door. It was Iolanda, one of the other girls that Tommaso had noticed there before, sent by Renata to keep him company. She giggled to see him in his army-issue underpants and socks and he pulled her roughly in. He made love to her unthinking like a dog on a bitch, and was ashamed of himself when she immediately escaped. He slept badly after that, hoping not to be told to leave at once, hearing sounds suggesting danger was all around outside.


The first thing he saw when he looked out of the window was a long and ragged column of Italian soldiers under heavy escort marching disconsolately towards the station. In the front rank was the Alpini major, who glanced quickly up in Tommaso’s direction once although he didn’t see him before casting his eyes down again. Tommaso caught one last sight of the major’s teeth in that rapid upward straining. Further back in the column he recognised several of the soldiers who had opted to stay back at the barracks and also a couple he was sure had fled as he was arriving that first morning.


The column was halted in the forecourt of the railway station and harangued by a German officer. Another gave a translation that Tommaso could not hear. The soldiers waited for an hour at attention, some showing signs of discomfort and receiving orders that made them straighten up. This was not the way allies dealt with each other nor was it how the Italian military had been treated to date by its powerful friend. Then the command was given to march through the gate in single file and on to the train with grilles on the windows.


As the process began a crowd watching from across the square moved towards the station, as though wanting to board the train as well. They were held back by guards thrusting their rifles sideways against chests and faces. Most of the people in the crowd were women and several of them began yelling. Then Tommaso saw four other women who had found another way into the station from the far side running across the tracks towards the platform.


A cheer went up from inside the train and hands appeared through the grilles. The spiky outward thrusting transformed the train into a strange beast, a fat brown caterpillar. From inside it first one and then many little pieces of white paper began to flutter out. They were blew lightly in the breeze, perhaps they were shreds of toilet paper. Two of the running women stopped to grasp at the paper fragments and read them if they could. The others had loaves of bread which they held out in front of them like lances as guards from the platform came round to intercept them. More women appeared from the side. Shots rang out and they stopped, terrified. Some turned and ran. One of the original four women who had reached the first carriage was knocked down by a helmeted soldier. The others were seized and hauled away out of sight. With a great jerk, a shuddered halt and then another jerk forward the train began to move with a final flurry of scraps of paper skittering down on either side and then up and away into the air.


Soldiers forced the crowd back and it broke up like a slow-motion movie in reverse of a throng forming. Soon no civilians remained and an eery silence descended on the station square, broken by the occasional bootfall of the three men on guard.


Tommaso was left undisturbed in the room. Another train arrived with soldiers already aboard behind the barred windows. Six men were offloaded from a truck at the station entrance and hustled on to the train. All the entrance points to the square were blocked until the train had departed.


Late in the day Renata came in panting from the stairs and looking mildly embarrassed.


“Signor Tommaso, you are going to have to go. I’m sorry. You know, it might also be better for you, in the dark.”


“Sure, Renata,” he replied, glad not to have to decide for himself when to make the inevitable move from his hiding place. “Whenever you tell me to. Is there something the matter?”


It turned out that business was about to resume in the bordello and an important client would be returning.


“He is one of them,” Renata added, and did a fair impersonation of Il Duce, chin stuck forward, shoulders back, frowning fiercely.


Tommaso laughed. From the window over the last two days he had seen more and more people don a black shirt or sweater and put on that swagger and strut. Normality was retruning. Renata was back to work. He had to go. Neither of them mentioned the major.


“Come,” said Renata, “I have those clothes for you. There’s a coat as well. You’ll have to go out by the back door of course.”

*


Ten minutes later Tommaso was out in the street. He was wearing smart black trousers that were too big but held up with a belt, a shirt and pullover and a gentleman’s woollen coat that was old but fitted him well. He kept his army boots as there was no other choice. Renata told him there were no medical supplies left in his truck but the blankets were still there and she was grateful to Tommaso for that. He refused her offer of bread and cheese for the journey but he said he preferred to travel light. He did not mention the pistol retrieved from the barracks, which was the only other thing he would leave with. She kissed him on the lips and let him out the back door.

He moved through the twilight as he had when he first left the barracks, in the manner that all but the powerful did now, with a hurrying head-down no-eye-contact minding-my-own-business form of locomotion. No one wanted to be stopped and asked questions.


Crossing the railway line was the first problem as the bridge near the station would be guarded. He walked along outside the old city walls parallel to the tracks until he found a place where the open space on either side was narrowest and where no significant buildings looked down. He stepped swiftly over the lines to a laneway flanked by factories or warehouses on the other side. Nobody was about in this dingy quarter and it seemed he had not been observed – the shout he was dreading did not come.


At the end of the laneway was a road he recognised, the main one for Bassano. The only sign of life was two cyclists pedalling away from him towards the town centre. He walked the opposite way alert for the possible need to find somewhere to hide and vigilance was rewarded when he heard a heavy vehicle approaching just as he had drawn level with a builder’s yard. He spotted a shed behind a stack of bricks and darting into it tumbled with a clatter over a wooden wheelbarrow. He lay there without moving and resolved to stay in the shed until it was quite dark.


Later out on the main road the air was still and all he could hear was the crunch of his boots in the loose pebbles. In a curious way he felt as if he was on a military exercise, ordered to dress up in funny clothes for some undercover purpose and proceed through the night towards a rendezvous. It was a game to play now, with its own reality and logic, a mask for the madness of these past days. He proceeded robotically, wholly absorbed in the task of avoiding potholes, not veering into the ditch, ready to drop out of sight if triggered by lights or voices. He put off for another day answering his own questions about why he was doing this or where exactly he was going.


Over the next three hours he had walked through as many villages, where the few people whom he noticed and probably the larger number who noticed him let him pass without comment. He may have been helped in this by Renata’s coat, which she said had belonged to an important man. Some of his authority might have permeated through to Tommaso. Around midnight he was beginning to feel footsore and was wondering how much longer he should continue in this fashion when he heard what sounded like animal noises, perhaps cattle, near at hand to his left – a harrumphing and shifting of hooves. It came, he realised, from the dark mass of a cowshed or barn. This might be a place of refuge.

He pushed blindly through scrubby bushes, hands held out in until they met a solid wall. He groped along it and reached a wide opening and then a ladder of sorts that must lead to a loft. He climbed with care in case any rung broke or he missed his footing. At the top was an open area with bare boards and, he found as he crawled forward on all fours, a small amount of hay. He scattered this to make the floor less cold and hard and then enveloped in his coat was soon asleep.


He was woken at daylight by a knocking against his foot. Huge above him was the outline of a human figure and inches from his eyes were long and lethal prongs. He got up on one elbow to see what he was up against: a farmer with a pitchfork.


“Are you a deserter from the army?” demanded the farmer, with a deep asthmatic voice. His tone was one more of curiosity than hostility although the pitchfork was held at an angle that suggested he might skewer Tommaso if he gave an answer he didn’t like.


“No! Well, sort of,” Tommaso replied, sitting up, trying to get light on the person he was talking to. He could see now bushy white hair, a large nose and broad shoulders although the man was no giant after all. And he had an amused expression on his face. He moved back half a pace from Tommaso and leaned on the pitchfork, waiting for a fuller explanation.


Tommaso said, “I am in the army. I want to fight for the country. But I don’t know what’s going on and that’s the truth.”


The farmer gazed at Tommaso as though he was one of his farm animals who might do something interesting or who might not. Then he said, “I don’t know either, young fellow. This is a bad time and every man has to look after himself. You’d better be alert. Some soldiers who run away might be sent to Germany but others might simply be shot. That’s what I heard.”


He took another step back to let Tommaso get to his feet. He helped him up, staring into his face all the while, and when they were standing in front of each other he said, “You made the right choice, figlio mio.”

Tommaso was not aware of having made any choice at all. One thing had simply led to another. It had never been a question of where his loyalties lay. When he was with the major he would have at once joined any new unit formed to continue the war alongside the German allies against the Anglo-American invaders. They had after all been bombing his country for months, before as well as after the arrest of the Duce. Padova had been bombed. The enemy was still the enemy, whatever “armistice” might mean.


He thought of the major, happy and imposing one day and being marched miserably along with other soldiers like a prisoner the next. Like a dramatic change for the worse in the weather and even harder to explain. The Germans were often large and brash but always treated their Italian counterparts as a big brother might. Suddenly they had become bullies. He had a vision of Italians being drilled and marched across parade grounds in Germany, furiously, in the mad hope of making them like the robot men of the Wehrmacht. And then something he remembered: one of those men knocking down the signora with bread as she ran towards the hands at the carriage windows.


“The Germans wouldn’t let anyone give food to the soldiers on the train!” he said with an indignation and a helplessness he had not felt until then. “Or let them give messages to the women at the station!”


“Come,” said the farmer. “You’ll be hungry. My wife will get you something to eat. And I’ll introduce you to somebody. Someone else running away.”


The farm was of medium size. Its courtyard fronting onto the main road was cobbled and was dominated by a huge walnut tree. A ripe smell suggested pigs and indeed Tommaso could hear oinking coming from the far side of the farmhouse. He followed the farmer through the door in the centre of the house and then into a large kitchen.


Seated at the table was a soldier with very short hair. He was a large man older than him and he wore a uniform like the ones Tommaso had seen from the brothel window yesterday. The stranger, with a bowl of milk and bread before him, looked up as the two men came in and made as if to get to his feet, perhaps in alarm. The farmer batted his palm up and down as though patting a dog, to tell the stranger to stay where he was.


“I thought he was a German when he banged on the door last night,” the farmer told Tommaso. “Big and foreign and the way he spoke. I almost shot him, I had my gun in my hand. I was wild at what they did to Filomena yesterday.”


“Your daughter….?” asked Tommaso in consternation.


“No, no. My sow. Their truck swerved and hit her, I swear they did it deliberately. We will have to eat her tonight. They didn’t stop. They’re worse than pigs themselves.”


Tommaso regarded the short-haired stranger who now had a mouthful of bread. He caught Tommaso’s eye and said untidily, “Inglaysay.”


“This is the only word he knows,” the farmer’s wife announced. She stood beside the stranger, an intelligent-looking woman with powerful forearms. “I taught him it.”


“So he’s English?” Tommaso asked her.


“We’ve no idea,” her husband replied. ”He’s certainly not German. He made that very clear. I think he was in prison but with the armistizio he was set free.”


“Suisse,” said the stranger, waving his arm at the far wall.


“He did that before. I think he wants to go to Switzerland,” the farmer’s wife said. “Suisse, ” the stranger repeated, nodding vigorously and making his index and middle fingers do a little scamper across the tabletop.


The farmer asked where Tommaso was headed. “Bassano,” Tommaso replied and then added, “Monte Grappa.”


“I’m going to Carmignano later on,” the farmer said, “it’s not far but it’s on the way. For both of you. And you would be better not to go on the main road. There was a roadblock at Cittadella last night.”


For the rest of the day Tommaso and the supposed Englishman helped the farmer hump hay, turnips and firewood around his property. They kept out of sight of the highway and whenever they heard military vehicles would keep well out of sight. Few words were exchanged. The foreigner seemed content not to try and enlarge his vocabulary. Tommaso felt it best not to tell the farmer more about himself in case he was questioned later about his guests. Instead he said that he, too, was from a contadino family. The farmer seemed surprised until Tommaso showed him his hands.


*


During the afternoon the farmer started up a battered old truck that reminded Tommaso of the army one he had forsaken in Padova. The gears of the farmer’s truck engaged in agonies of metal but at least the engine did not knock. The Englishman was jammed between boxes in the back with a sack over him and had been given gesticulated instructions to jump down and run if the need arose. Tommaso in his smart coat climbed into the cabin but it was agreed he should slouch down and avoid being seen. He was able nevertheless to keep an eye out as they struggled along, first on the main road and then after a few kilometres down safer country roads. They crossed the Brenta and within twenty minutes reached their destination. The farmer dropped them off at the far side of the village where the road split into two broad arms, both totally devoid of traffic.

“Suisse,” said the farmer, pointing down one of them to the right of the sun as it began its long descent to the horizon, and, indicating the other option, “Marostica.”


The Englishman made two attempts at saying “Arrivederci” to the farmer and set off without in the general direction of Switzerland. Tommaso shook the farmer’s hand and thanked him for his kindness. He took the other road.


For about an hour he continued across a flat landscape. The mountains he knew so well rose abruptly ahead of him beneath waddings of pale cloud. Each step seemed to confirm to him, independently, that the farmer was right, the Germans were pigs, he was running away, up into the hills. He was feeling less guilty and more free now, almost cheerful. Then he thought about Sandro and what he might be doing up in those hills and a glumness descended on him.


During his moroseness he rounded a bend and found himself too close to the group of people ahead to do anything other than keep moving at the same pace towards them. Four men of unprepossessing appearance – unshaven, badly dressed and apparently drunk – were gathered around a fifth who was straddling a bicycle. As Tommaso drew nearer he saw that the cyclist was a priest.


“You!” yelled the leader of the group, smaller and balder than the others and waving a hunting rifle jerkily towards him. “Are you armed, do you have any weapon?”


“No,” said Tommaso, raising both hands in the air, just above waist height. He advanced like this, clownishly, for four or five more paces. Like a troubled conscience his pistol was reminding him of its presence against his ribs. He lowered his arms.


“It doesn’t matter,” the bald man said, now jabbing the rifle towards the priest. “You can help us dispose of this traitor. You can dig the grave.”


The priest, trying perhaps not for the first time to dismount from the bicycle and being rudely pushed into his original awkward stance by one of the bald man’s lieutenants, looked pleadingly at Tommaso and mouthed “Help me!”


“What are you up to? Who are you?” Tommaso demanded, unsure if it would be a help or hindrance in this situation to reveal his soldier status. He was after all a member of the disciplined forces, he had done guard duty at the post office after the Duce was arrested. He remembered how good it was to yell at people who did what you said. Being in uniform did the trick. At least now he was wearing a fascistic coat.


“We are rebels!” the bald man declared proudly, describing an arc with his gun perhaps to indicate the territory he controlled and ending up at Tommaso.


“They are not!” the priest said, uttering his first words and before one of the ruffians could cuff him for it added, “They’re common criminals!”


Tommaso did not know exactly what ‘rebels’ might signify. It hardly mattered. They were clearly inclined to carry out some great injustice and he was obliged to prevent that happening.


“You can join us, soldier,” said the bald man, who might be drunk but had nevertheless good powers of observation. “These priests are enemies of the revolution. They are lackeys of fascism. This is one who should be shot. Unless he can buy his life…”


This last comment may or may not have been an afterthought. It made all of the gang jeer, and produced a desperate shaking of the head from the priest.


“Let him go,” Tommaso said with as much authority as he could muster. He was conscious that he was much younger than three of the ruffians – the other was a boy who hung back and looked ready to run away.


“You’re joking!” the bald man sneered, and then exclaimed “Porca Madonna!” as Tommaso produced his pistol and pointed it at him.


“Go! All of you!” Tommaso shouted, moving between the priest and the nearest ruffian and sweeping the gun around all of them.


With surprising docility the four of them moved back into a group. Led by the bald man, who belched, they jostled against each other through a gate into the stubble field across the road.


“Liar!” was the bald man’s only parting remark, scowling at Tommaso over the gate and, with the fingers of one hand in a pistol shape, shooting them at him. “Liar!” two of his followers shouted in agreement, and one of them laughed. Tommaso and the priest watched them go, the latter finally able to dismount properly. He took Tommaso by the shoulder and kissed him on the cheek.


“Bravo!” he said. “It’s possible you saved my life. Those are frightful people.”


“Do you know them?” Tommaso asked.


“I know the boy. One of the others I think is his uncle. They’re all from the next village. Bandits! They were after money. Are you going to Marostica?”


Tommaso said he was and the priest, stating that he was also going there, offered to share his bicycle. Fortunately neither man was particularly large but the clothing both of them wore ensured that it was an ungainly conveyance that began weaving its way slowly down the bumpy road. By common accord and for more dignified progress they dismounted at the outskirts of the villages they came to and then again when they reached Marostica. Tommaso was in no hurry and walking along beside the priest also seemed to him to be good camouflage. His topcoat might even suggest some religious calling.


“You are a soldier, are you?” the priest asked at one point. “Are you escaping to the hills?”


Tommaso explained how nobody was in charge at his barracks and his fellow soldiers had mostly been forced by the Germans onto a train. Until things became clearer he thought he might as well go home. As if he was on leave. He lived on the other side of Bassano, he added, keeping it vague.


“If you don’t turn yourself in they’ll come looking for you,” the priest said. “If they find you they will arrest you. The Germans won’t let anyone in Italy be neutral and they’ll be toughest on army men.”


They walked along in silence for a while and then Tommaso asked the priest what he thought would happen to the men sent to Germany – mightn’t they be trained for new duties and re-equipped? The priest said he doubted it. People were telling him that Italian soldiers would be made to work in factories for the war effort. There weren’t any good alternatives for ex-soldiers – prison, forced labour or they could even be shot as deserters.


It seemed incredible to Tommaso that a whole army could be dealt with in this way, and he said so. The priest replied that the situation was truly extraordinary. He knew that many soldiers like Tommaso had resolved to fight the Germans. He asked whether Tommaso was prepared to join one of the rebel groups, of the real groups of rebels.


“I suppose I could do that,” Tommaso said uncertainly.


He hadn’t wanted to fight when he joined the Italian army and it was to avoid anything resembling combat that he had volunteered for the transport section. His appetite for taking up arms had if anything diminished with his recent pistol-waving against the ruffians a short while ago. He told the priest he knew nothing about rebel groups and wouldn’t know how to approach any of them.


The priest said he need not worry, he knew just the people Tommaso should talk to. Tommaso said nothing but did start to worry. Suddenly the little town of Marostica, which he had never been in before, seemed perilous. They had come to a T-junction on the main road and turned along it through the centre, passing directly in front of a medieval castle. A man in a black jumper called out to the priest who waved back cheerfully. Another man with a barrow overtook them and also greeted the priest. It was a relief to Tommaso when soon afterwards they came to a church. The priest leaned his bicycle up against a wall beside it and linked his arm through Tommaso’s. Together they went along a street leading steeply up a hillside until they reached the last house. This was a squat building standing apart from the others. The priest rapped on the door and it opened immediately.


“Take this one, signorina. He is also a soldier, a good man, he got me out of a tight corner just now.” And with that the priest shook Tommaso’s hand and turned to walk briskly back down the street towards his church.


*


Tommaso was confronted by a girl about his own age, not unattractive, with large hips and breasts. She stared at him sullenly and then seized him by the lapel of the coat and pulled him in.


“Hurry up,” she said, with a note of irritation. “Don’t draw attention to this house. Where have you come from?”


Padova, Tommaso told her, as he lurched forward, bumping against the thick wooden jamb. The girl had stepped well back. Over her shoulder as she turned away she told him that she was Greta, and that he should follow her. She went ahead down a short dark passage and knocking twice in rapid succession opened a door at the end.


“Possible recruit, soldier, from Padova” she said to whomever was inside. “Recommended by Cielo. In fact he brought him.”


She moved aside and Tommaso entered the room, a sort of office, with bare timber floors, a few shelves and a small bookcase. Three men were sitting around a large table covered in documents. The one in the centre was of small build, handsome with perfectly groomed black hair and moustache, and a military bearing. On his left was a fat man who could have been a shopkeeper. On his right was a hunched and shifty figure even younger than Tommaso, who glanced at him with an air of distrust before turning back to riffle papers he had in his hand. Tommaso had the impression he might have been interrupted in reading something out to the others.


Everything was happening too fast. Only a short while before Tommaso had decided to go home to Schievenin and then his mind had been changed for him by the priest. He found himself now in a dangerous place, the headquarters of rebels. He should have handled the conversation with the priest differently. He would get out of this situation as soon as possible.


On the other hand the man sitting in front of him had to be an officer whose orders should be obeyed. Smoothing his moustache he man smiled at Tommaso, perhaps to put him at ease. “You are welcome to join us,” he said. “I assume you want to. I am Gattopardo, commander. On my left is Jacques and this young man is Carlo. Before we start, however, do you have any weapon with you?”


For the second time in not much more than an hour Tommaso was being put on the spot with this question. Now he felt he had no choice but to answer in the affirmative, and with good grace. He was asked to show them the weapon. Reluctantly he produced his pistol. Gattopardo accepted it and passed it to the other two for inspection. It was returned to Gattopardo who put it on the bookcase alongside.


“Any ammunition? No? Never mind. This will be added to our armoury. Now, next point, your name.”


“Tommaso…”


“No. That won’t do at all, I don’t think. That’s you, isn’t it? It has to be something new. What do you suggest we call you?”


Tommaso was unsettled by this peculiar interrogation of Gattopardo’s. Why on earth would he need a different name, unless….. He pictured an angry German asking him who he was and then remembered the curiosity of the farmer and the priest – perhaps after all it could be useful to have more than one name. But what sort? No thought whatever came into in his head. He tried hard to concentrate. Gattopardo… well, being called after a wild animal like that would be quite fine. The fauna that then bounded or loped through his calculations were all unsuitably huge, bigger than leopards. They were followed by some who were laughably small. He must have looked lost because after a minute Gattopardo helped him out kindly.


“Never mind. You are, let me see, you are Quinto. Our fifth member! Would you be happy with that?”


The new name clamped down on his shoulders as though by the hands of a recruiting sergeant. He was in, now. It had occurred without any proper reflection on his part. Chunky thoughts now did form in his mind. This was a shadowy organization and it boasted a membership of just four. It could only have started up in the few days since the armistice. But perhaps he should feel honoured to be one of the original members. And being given a name appealed to one side of him, gang-membership, blood-brotherhood, secret society. On the other hand it must also mean he had crossed some invisible line. As Tommaso he was a soldier ready to resume normal activities but as Quinto he was on the other side and could never go back.


Gattopardo was waiting patiently for a reply to his enquiry that on the face of it was both courteous and reasonable. Tommaso gave up weighing the implications of “Quinto” and looked around at what after all seemed a place of shelter. So he answered, “Yessir, if you like.”


Gattopardo leaned forward to shake his hand as did fat Jacques and shifty Carlo. Tommaso was invited to sit down at the table and was offered a small glass of wine to celebrate his membership of the group. He felt a compelling need to ask for information but only one question formed itself.


“You are …rebels?”


“Yes, of course,” Gattopardo said proudly. “Actually we are ‘partisans.’ That’s the correct term. They have them in France, and the Slavs have them, too. Now we Italians do. But our group is independent. Note that. We are not communists and we are not socialists and we are not catholics. You are from the military but on those matters where do you stand?”


Tommaso had never heard the word ‘partisans.’ He was not sure either about ‘rebels’ – how for example would Gattopardo’s group react if some more senior army officer appeared with an order, or if an order came from the local priest or podestà for that matter. He focused on Gattopardo’s question more narrowly. He told him that he didn’t know about politics. And he added that he didn’t care about religion, either. That seemed to be the right answer because they all smiled and looked relieved.


“Our task,” Gattopardo then went on, “is to help our homeland in the best way possible. That means staying alive to participate in rebuilding it after the defeat of the nazis. It means organising ourselves, arming ourselves, making ourselves ready. The Anglo-Americans will be here before long. We need to be in a position to take over local administration at that point. Do you have any questions?”


Tommaso was about to shake his head when he remembered his conversations with the priest and earlier with Sandro before he left the barracks. Sandro had been quite specific about going into the hills to launch attacks.


“Does this group, do we….fight? Against the Germans?”


“We would be mad to do so,” Gattopardo answered at once. “We are too weak and the nazis are very powerful indeed. If we attack them openly we will be quickly crushed. If we attack them indirectly – for example their communications – they will come looking for us. If they can’t find us they will hurt somebody in revenge, possibly innocent people. They are being forced back and they may well be desperate. They might come after us anyway, and then, naturally, we would fight. So you see we have to be armed, and we have to be prepared.”


“Can I stay here?” Tommaso asked. The others had not considered this and conferred in a quick exchange. Gattopardo then told him that if he didn’t mind some discomfort there was a lean-to at the back that might do. He added that this house was their headquarters and was home to all of them except Jacques. This was another reason why they must not needlessly provoke the beasts prowling all around.


The interview was over and Tommaso was now a fully-fledged member of the rebel group. He was shown the lean-to and with Greta’s help shifted some of the rubbish in it outside to clear a space for a bed. Some old rugs were a basis for it and Greta said she knew where she could find some straw to place underneath. Her attitude towards him had softened and she gave him a quick smile before leaving. He wondered what her relationship was to the others. She was the only woman in the house and was possibly Gattopardo’s mistress. Or Jacques’ – in the passage after the meeting Tommaso had noticed his hand on her bottom.


Greta did share a room with Gattopardo, he learned next day. And that Greta had a range of roles, apart from being a full member of the group. She was responsible for liaison with the village, especially the priest, and was the principal lookout, monitoring comings and goings in the street from the kitchen. Greta moreover did the cooking and that evening prepared a large meal of pasta and cheese that she placed in the middle of the table before sitting down with the others.


For some time before the meal Gattopardo had been in his bedroom where he presumably kept a radio. He came in last in a state of some agitation, declaring, “The Duce has been freed! By the nazis!”


Apparently German commandos had raided the building in the south where Mussolini was imprisoned and managed to get him out of the country. Everyone except Tommaso began to talk at once, with their own version of what it might mean. The consensus was that things would inevitably return to the way it was before, under fascist control.


Next day three more recruits arrived having learned of the existence of Gattopardo’s group. All were more or less of Tommaso’s age and two of them may have been students for although they spoke local dialect they also used long words he didn’t understand. Everyone crowded into the office. The newcomers were checked for weapons and given noms de guerre. Gattopardo then made an announcement. He had a ruler in his hand and held it under his armpit, squared his shoulders and lifted his chin. He told the group that as numbers were now too great to fit into his house and anyway made it too conspicuous the task now was to find alternative accommodation. Jacques and Carlo were to reconnoitre in the high country above the town. All others should stay in the house and assemble for the evening meal.


Tommaso offered to help Greta in the kitchen. Later Carlo came in and dropped a bleeding rabbit on the table. Tommaso asked if he had been the one to trap it but Carlo ignored the question and left without a word. Greta whispered it was better not to ask. He tried during the afternoon to sound her out on Carlo and Jacques at least but found her unwilling to say much about anyone. She did concede that her home town was Parma and that Gattopardo was a friend of her parents. She showed no interest in Tommaso’s past other than how he had come to leave Padova but seemed glad of his company.


It was a full house that evening. Gattopardo and his companions, together with a cantankerous elderly male relative of Carlo’s, arrived after dark. Nine people squeezed around the table and the rabbit, which was anyway a small one, was apportioned sparingly among them along with polenta. Jacques, Carlo and his relative departed as soon as the meal was over. Gattopardo went off to listen to the radio. Greta tidied up and the others were left to consider the sleeping arrangements. That night Tommaso shared his lean-to with one of the recruits, wedged back to back in considerable discomfort. The other two slept on the hard floor of the office.


Next morning they learned that another place had been found. They trudged uphill for more than an hour until they came to a malga, a stretch of mountain pastureland. Here was a tumbledown single-storey stone building with one large room, shelter for a farmer in the summer months. It belonged to Carlo’s grouchy relative who was now too old to raise cattle and had no children. Gattopardo marched around the structure twice and surveyed the terrain above and below it. Then he declared himself satisfied and gave orders to his group on the work he wanted each member to do to turn the shelter into their new headquarters. The priority, after repairs to tiles on the roof, was to partition off a room for the commander and Greta.


Over the next days Tommaso joined in the repair work and the fetching and carrying from the bottom of the hill. He was glad to be back in high country and didn’t mind at all the drudgery but different things made him increasingly ill at ease. First was Greta who seemed to want to turn to her advantage the suspicion shown by Gattopardo since he found Tommaso and her laughing as they chopped up the rabbit side by side in the cramped kitchen. After that if ever the two of them were near each other Gattopardo would always bob up scowling, and Greta would just as inevitably draw closer to Tommaso or perhaps whisper to him. At all other times she kept a perverse distance between them. Relations between the two men inevitably soured.


Tommaso was made more uneasy knowing that activities at the new location were under observation. Sometimes he would catch sight of a man watching from the wood at the edge of the grassland, sixty or seventy paces away. It was never the same person and it was odd that none of the observers ever wandered over to exchange words with those working on the new headquarters. Even odder was when, halfway down the hill, Tommaso saw Carlo talking to someone he was sure had been watching them earlier. He later asked Carlo casually who it was and Carlo denied he had spoken to anybody at all.


His other concerns were on why he was there. He had joined the army and then quit it both on impulse. Crazy decisions, but he had taken them. He had not chosen to be an outlaw. Sooner or later it would land him in trouble. Each day seemed to increase both the unreality and the risk of Gattopardo’s scheme of getting ready for the arrival of enemies-turned-friends. Gattopardo ruled out any attack on new enemies. But these were people who not only humiliated the Italian army but also pushed over old ladies and ran over pigs. Tommaso’s thoughts turned to Sandro who was surely making sorties down the slopes of Monte Grappa against passing German convoys. At the foot of one of the slopes was Pederobba, where Loredana lived. He had no obligations now, except very loosely to Gattopardo – what was stopping him from going and seeing her? Anyway, his family home was close to hers.


Gattopardo was the last to move up the hill, seemingly reluctant to part with his beloved radio which apparently was too risky to have up there. This confirmed to Tommaso anyway how obviously vulnerable and exposed the new place was. Before packing up Gattopardo did manage to find out and pass on the news that although Mussolini was again in charge the nazis were taking all the decisions. The first instructions of the Duce were to cooperate fully with the German allies. It was military occupation. This, Gattopardo concluded, meant for the immediate future they were all in for a tough time. Clearly for now they should keep their heads down.


Gattopardo’s assessment prompted unexpected debate. For the first time his strategy was challenged. The students suggested it was dangerous to do nothing and were supported by a recent arrivals brimming with suppressed violence who kept cracking his knuckles like a pugilist. Greta reported seeing that afternoon two youths and a German soldier going door to door demanding details of any males of military age. The knuckler said he could guess who those two were, and why didn’t he go that night and scare the life out of them? One of the students agreed it was time to go on the offensive. Jacques accused the students of being communists and neither of them denied it. Gattopardo, increasingly vexed stopped the debate there: they only had three guns between them. This proved to be the decisive argument and it was resolved that no hostile acts would be carried out until they found more weapons.


Tommaso had taken no part in the discussion. The only person in the whole group he had any liking or respect for was Greta, and given her relationship with Gattopardo and perhaps with Jacques she was an unreliable element. Gattopardo was not someone Tommaso would want to follow into battle even if he managed to impose his authority on this motley band. When things got tense Gattopardo had an uninspiring way of looking both fierce and helpless at the same time.


Matters came to a head next morning. Greta brushed up against Tommaso as they passed in the doorway. Gattopardo ordered Tommaso to stay clear of her altogether. Tommaso said it was not physically possible. When Gattopardo then questioned his loyalty Tommaso retorted that he should wonder instead about the loyalty of two others much closer to their commander than he was. Gattopardo reeled back as if he had been slapped in the face then demanded Tommaso apologise for trying to sow dissension. Tommaso quit, there and then. For a few moments it was as if someone had ordered them all to adopt a silent pose. On the fringe were the two students who had witnessed the final part of the exchange. Greta with an equivocal smile leaned against the doorpost. Gattopardo was completely deflated. He told Tommaso he was a crucial member of the group, one of the few soldiers, he was needed more than the rest. Tommaso’s mind was made up and he shook his head. Taking his only possession, his coat, from a hook by the door he turned away and began walking. There seemed scant chance of his persuading Gattopardo to let him have his pistol back.


*


Neither in the town nor along the main road did Tommaso see any sign of the activity Greta had described. An ox-cart laden with furniture and personal belongings trundled by in the other direction. Nobody stopped him to ask questions which was just as well as he would not know what to say. It made sense to avoid Bassano and so he circled round it through farmland with the massif of Monte Grappa looming to his left. Making slow progress it took him into the afternoon to reach Pederobba. He rejoined the road a kilometre before the village, apprehensive that someone might recognise him here. Ahead were four men who looked like farm workers, proceeding in the same direction as him and in animated conversation. It occurred to him that he might escape attention if he appeared part of their group so he quickened his pace and fell in behind them, eyes down. In the centre of the village they turned off and he continued on, his confidence growing that he could be in the clear.


Loredana’s house was on the edge of the village. The last houses gave way to trees and he walked as casually as he could in their overhang. Across the road was a high wall enclosing an important property and then a laneway and finally Loredana’s square two-storey building with flaking grey plaster and green shutters fronting directly onto the road. Beyond the house was a small enclosed area behind a low fence with a vegetable garden and washing line and after that was a level open space of baked dirt then a hedge and then some farmland. A door at the side of the house opened onto the kitchen and another next to it was a laundry. Tommaso could hardly go to the kitchen door as he had in the past, he was on the run. He would have to wait to catch Loredana’s attention when she came out into the yard for some domestic purpose, as he felt sure she would.


He crossed the road and followed the hedge as it sloped up until he found a place above the house where he could squeeze through. Here was a vantage point he had used before when unsure of his welcome, with a good view not only of the side of the house but to the road in front of it as well. An old bus, a bicycle and then an official-looking car came by in quick succession and then a stillness and utter silence descended. The house looked as if it had been abandoned and all the shutters on this side were shut tight. The sun was still hot. He felt exhausted now. He settled in the long grass and soon fell asleep.


He woke up feeling cold and put his coat on again. A charcoal-coloured mass of cloud had covered the sun and a breeze was blowing. But something else had disturbed him and he saw as he sat up that Loredana had emerged through the laundry doorway with a mop in her hand. She looked so lovely with her long hair stranding loose from a bun on the top her head and her even oval face pale below. Restraining the urge to call out he stood up and waved energetically. She failed to see him and went back inside.


Moments later a car pulled up at the front and Loredana’s father got out. Tommaso had met him briefly once and had not liked him at all. On that occasion he had been outside with Enrico and Loredana when their father had summoned the two of them peremptorily from one of the ground floor windows. Enrico tried to tell him something about Tommaso but his father had pulled away out of sight. He was a man of medium build with hair cut square in a teutonic style, with no sense of humour whatever. Now he was wearing, from the brief glimpse of him Tommaso had before he disappeared inside, black boots, grey pants and a black sweater. This was not exactly a uniform but it was a clear indication that for him fascism was back and he was working for it.


His patience gave out after another half hour waiting. He moved as unobtrusively as possible down to the kitchen-laundry area. He couldn’t see Loredana but he could hear a voice that sounded like hers. He whispered her name and then when this had no effect he hissed it more loudly. She came to the kitchen door with surprise on her face turning to astonishment and then what seemed to Tommaso pure joy.


“Tommaso! How are you? I’m so happy to see you! I was worried!” She stepped towards him making more noise than he would have liked but he suddenly didn’t care. His concern was whether or not he should kiss her – they never had before but this spontaneity of hers seemed to invite it. She resolved the problem by stopping short and holding out her hand with a saucy smile. He acted the part and taking her fingertips put his lips quickly to them and let her hand drop.


“Tommaso!” she continued before he could say anything. “Isn’t it wonderful that the Duce is back with us?”


“Yes…” he said uncertainly. Then he continued in a rush, “Loredana, how have you been? I thought about you so much when I was in the army.”


“But you are still a soldier,” she replied. “There is a new government now and Papa says there will be a new army. Made up from soldiers from the old army who are still loyal to the nation. You’ll be part of that, won’t you?”


Over to his right was Monte Tomba, the nearest part of the massif. It seemed to be looking down on them. Tommaso needed its inspiration. He knew every outcrop of rock on it, all the trails and watercourses. He knew where things led, how the water ran, how and if it had to dodge rocks and obstacles it still would go inevitably down. All his life the choices he made were like that, he knew the outcome. Even joining the army had been straightforward. Even staying in the barracks and then quitting them, going to Renata’s and then leaving – those decisions had their own strong single logic. But doubts had come with Gattopardo and they had massed up now with Loredana. He felt completely helpless, as if below falling rocks. Moving one way or another or standing still could be fatal.


He could tell Loredana there and then that he was one of her father’s loyalists. She would be delighted and would take Tommaso in to meet him with the good news. With her father’s authority he would guarantee the prodigal Private Casson immunity from any negative reaction to his having left his post. Tommaso would become a member of the family. His future would be assured and wonderful.


That was one clear voice in his head. Against it was a babble of advice and abuse and siren-song, and a prickling behind his forehead and some vague worries that wouldn’t form themselves properly. Flickered images came, of steel-willed Sandro, of the calm and sensible priest who took him to Marostica, of the intriguing and committed Greta and then of silly old Gattopardo. Alongside them but clamouring for attention were recollections of German rudeness in Padova and then there came to him a waft of the new chill all around which he recognised as fear. Fear was to be the normal air that people breathed in Italy now, with the Duce returned and the German army of occupation. He stood like an idiot for several seconds and to his own surprise then heard his own words come out of the storm in his mind like hailstones.


“No, Loredana,” he said, “I’m finished in the army. I’m going home.” It was a relief to have it said, and his mind emptied. He felt almost happy, almost proud of himself.


She, too, was surprised by his words, and by his odd behaviour. And by his odd clothes, for she reached forward to touch his new coat. She seemed to be about to protest, to tell him he had not given the matter enough consideration. To ask him if he had thought of the dreadful consequences. Then the indignant look on her face softened into a curiosity.


“What is it, Tommaso? Are you all right, is something the matter?”


Tommaso smiled at her sadly. She had been his, perhaps, and now she was lost to him. Her father’s boot heels echoed in his head. “I don’t know. I feel all right. It’s just….it’s all changed, nothing is the same any more. Except for you!” he added, and made a gesture in her direction, he wished he were brave enough to reach forward that little bit and hug her.


“And so…” she prompted, straightening her posture. She hadn’t backed away, however.


“I don’t know about the army,” he said. “When I joined, it was all right but now the army’s just disappeared. Soldiers have been put on trains to Germany. I don’t know anything about a new army. Somehow it seems wrong. I can’t do that, I won’t.”


He said the last bit firmly, and again felt the relief of a burden set down. He knew he had never been so definite with her before, he had been tentative, and attentive to her moods and wishes. He had never contradicted her nor stated a strong opinion in her presence. She was watching him closely and her mouth quivered into a little smile as though she had something teasing to say to him. Perhaps about his eccentric dress. He had a sense then that these clothes were not merely gifts from Renata but from the countless thousands who wanted a different future for the country. He was sure what he had done was right. He was going to say something to that effect but then a male voice inside the house called her name and she turned her head nervously in that direction.


“I’d better go,” Tommaso said, anxious not to have to rehearse his poorly formed and troubled thoughts in front of Loredana’s father. He took a pace back. As Loredana called “Coming!” towards the kitchen and glanced back at him Tommaso put his fingers quickly in a kiss to his lips, mouthed “Ciao!” and escaped.


It would be more than an hour around the base of Monte Tomba and up the valley before he got to Schievenin but time flew. He had wings, too. Loredana was so beautiful, she had never shown so much interest, he had never been so daring. On the path lay a birch log, recently chopped. He picked it up. It was as long as his leg and thick as his calf. He bounced it vertically beside him as a companion. He cradled it like a bride at the door, and pirouetted. He was an athlete, he took it by the neck and with a wild circling hurled it out into space and down the slope where it crashed and jumped. He imagined a farmer passing below, startled, fulminating. His rejection of Loredana’s idea that he enrol in the new fascist army came back to him. He thought: she might hate his parting puffed salute. He began to run hard until his confusions were lost in his heaving lungs.


The implications of what he had said about the army blew in his thoughts like the wind in his face – precise only in the direction and the discomfort. He might be considered a deserter and for that he could be shot. The Germans were looking for men to send beyond the Alps, to prison or to work. Some like Sandro had gone to the hills and might fight other Italians. Some like Gattopardo waited feebly for the Anglo-Americans. Tommaso had joined the army with ideals and loyalty and must choose again on the same basis. But how? Staying at home or going to the hills – the options were what the yellow birch leaves ahead of him had, this way and that.


As he approached his home and he heard the tinkling of goats’ bells his spirits began to lift. He had left at the end of the spring and he was coming back in the autumn, his favourite season. The farming work was over and life moved at a quieter pace, preparing for the cold months with a common purpose. His mother would be singing downstairs as she cooked polenta and there would be chestnuts in the loft, and some freshly roasted in the kitchen. He remembered the heady medley of smells in the house, the salami hanging from the beams and the strong salty odour of ripening morlacco cheese. An eagle soared from a jagged rock in front of him and that had to be a good omen.


Through the last trees he caught sight of the weathered roof and wisping smoke. The only change from when he had left seemed to be clutter around the yard and a sense of abandonment. He could hear chickens in the run and voices in the house. He called out when he still had thirty paces to go and shouts of recognition came back to him at once. The door burst open and his younger sisters, Lina and Flora, tumbled out to greet him calling his name over and over and laughing and pushing each other. He knelt down on the grass and hugged them both, looking up at them, asking who was home. Where was Mamma? Gone to look for Papa who was late bringing the cattle down from the malga. She had been sick. There was a new calf. Vittorio had stories of wild strangers. Someone came yesterday with a message for Tommaso. Was he going to stay with them now?


Two hours later with the sun set behind the mountainside above them the whole family was finally together. Tommaso’s father and Vittorio had got the cows safely into their basement shed and their sounds and stench filtered gently up. A chill had come into the air and smoke from the fire drifted around the room and through the half-open window. They ate their meal in silence and it was not until his father had finished that he properly acknowledged Tommaso’s presence, with a “You’re here, then.” His arrival had not been totally unexpected because yesterday’s visitor, who introduced himself as Vipera, had predicted it. It was of course Sandro. Only Tommaso’s mother and sisters had ever met him although all knew of his connection with Signor Trevisan. Vipera’s message was simply “Tell him I’m in the Vette” which Tommaso took to mean he was in the high peaks beyond Feltre, his hometown, rather than here on Monte Grappa. But plenty of others like him were on this very mountain.


“Two men came down last week. And threatened me,” growled Tommaso’s father, whose thick neck and biceps were enough to show he was not the sort of person anyone should threaten. “Dirty communists.”


“What did they say?” asked Tommaso.


“That I should let them have a cow. But not for money. They said they’d pay after the war finishes. They offered me a receipt. I told them what to do with it.”


Tommaso’s mother changed the subject. She wanted the meal to celebrate Tommaso’s return and told him about the summer activities he had missed and news of families in the village. Most had sons away in the army but know idea what had happened to them. She warned that life would be tough for all of them now. The prices of salt and sugar and crockery and clothes were all rising in the valley and you could not get a fair price for cattle or pigs. For the moment they had enough wine, however. Even the girls drank some and the mood became more cheerful. Tommaso was glad to be home.


This feeling lasted just a few days. Everyone worked frenziedly in preparation for the winter, harder than ever before given the uncertainties. Tommaso mainly chopped and stored firewood but there was much else to do, it was non-stop, tougher than the army. It might be an outdoor life but it was more confining than the barracks where the routines ticked over like oiled machinery with drills and exercises, cleaning, sport and always time off to relax. Worse than the barracks were the cramped conditions with their boxed-in shared snores and farts and belches. They were all dangerously packed together and on a short fuse. His mere presence upset household schedules that had worked well during the summer and his outlaw status had an unsettling effect on everyone. They had heard that all soldiers had to report for duty and he was making no effort to do so. His father kept cursing the communists and the others hinted that Tommaso always meant to join Sandro and the rebels. 


He began to think it might not be such a bad idea.

“I could check who’s up on the hill,” he said at the table one evening. “They won’t all be communists. I could probably stop them coming and bothering us.”


“I don’t think so,” muttered his father who had never had a high opinion of Tommaso’s abilities. “The ones I saw were criminals, tougher than you.”


Tommaso mulled over the message from Sandro. Calling himself Vipera meant he had done what he promised and was committed to his private war. The logic of what Tommaso had said to Loredana suggested he, too, should join the fight. Or at least get out of the danger zone. He wondered about the people who had impressed his father with their fierce qualities. They sounded more serious than Gattopardo’s misfits, but there would be others on Monte Grappa. Sandro would be happy to see him but he was on the further range of hills. Why go there when right above him was a natural citadel offering protection against the enemy? Anyway, he was much closer here to Loredana.


As the frustrations mounted at home he knew he must see her again. She would help him decide what had to be done. Making some excuse about his absence he skipped off down the hill and when he got there lurked in the undergrowth near the house hoping to catch sight of her through one of the side windows. He was rewarded when quite soon she appeared at the kitchen door.


He came into the open and across to the gate into the vegetable garden. It was a time when her father and brother would most likely be absent. He felt he could not waste opportunities and in any case being bold and direct meant something now. Being closer to the house also made it less likely other family members twould see them. Loredana had moved towards him smiling but checked when it seemed he was going to make physical contact. Tommaso skidded to a stop on loose pebbles and pretended he had lost his footing. She laughed with him and her face in the full sun shone at him.


He mumbled, “Here I am…” meaninglessly and she helped his loss of words, asking him how things were with his family and what they had all been doing up there. He had hardly mentioned them at all to her before and although she lived at the foot of the mountain she didn’t know it like he did. At their first meeting she said she went to the summit once with her parents years ago but had never been to Schievenin, the only village on the mountain itself.


He told her in a rush about his sisters helping with the cheeses and the herd being brought down from the malga and the wood chopping and other preparations for the coming cold. There was no point trying to cover up or excuse his contadino background. Of course she could have no real idea of what was involved because her first response was to say with a smile that that rustic life sounded like fun.

“No, it’s miserable, Loredana! We’re right above the cows and on top of each other. We get on each other’s nerves. In fact I can’t stand it any more. I’m going…”


She interrupted him, in what he thought at first was still a playful tone. “You get fed up easily, Tommaso….the army, your family…”


He began to say something and coughed instead. His frustration was all part of the same thing but he didn’t know how to say that, or why he was so restless and intolerant. He couldn’t explain to himself why he wanted to get away. Not so that he might fight, far from it, he hated the idea and especially the idea of dying. Nor was he being drawn like Sandro towards a loftier goal.


“I didn’t quit the army, Loredana,” he burst out. “It was destroyed, blown away as if it was bombed. I don’t want to be sent to Germany. I won’t let them catch me, I’m going….”


He couldn’t say where but she should know he would not be far away. She saw his quick glance at the steepness above them and was horrified.


“You are going to join the bandits!”


“No! I don’t know. I don’t want to join anyone, not to fight. I want to get out of the way for a while. This war may be over before long anyway.”


She looked at him sternly. “It won’t end until we chase out the Anglo-American invaders and meanwhile our army has to be strengthened. What you are doing is not helping Italy at all.”


He had misjudged her at their last meeting, thinking she secretly was glad he was taking a stand against the regime. She must find her father a pain in the neck, as he did his own. But perhaps then she was just glad he was out of the old, useless army. A wave of indecision swept through him, threatening to take with it his newfound resolve. It was followed by a wave of temptation to agree with her, to sign up with whatever the Duce was planning. Then he thought: she had liked his decisiveness last time. He would lose everything, including her, if he turned to jelly now. He had to stick to his plan.


He said, getting the words out quickly and feeling he was sinking into mud the further he went, “I think you’re wonderful, Loredana, and you’re always so good. But other things aren’t good. Things are changing. I can’t stay here. And I can’t not see you again.”


She gave a little shrug and might have been about to respond but then Enrico came to the kitchen door and greeted him like an old friend. He had been too young to be accepted for the army when he and Tommaso and Sandro had gone to join up a few months ago. He was taller than either of those two and in the months since they had last seen each other had become more solid, more handsome, more confident. Tommaso felt a sense of inadequacy and a need to justify himself, but he could only stammer that his army career was over, ex-soldiers were in an awful situation and he was going to hide until things calmed down.


“Up there?” Enrico said, coming down to stand next to his sister. They had the same wheaten hair but she didn’t even come up to his shoulder. Tommaso nodded. Enrico said in that case he might come looking for him one day, to say hello. Tommaso had no idea how realistic or how dangerous that would be for either of them but he jumped at the possibility of retaining some link with Loredana.


“I might be anywhere, Enrico. You could waste a lot of time trying to find me. Unless…. Do you know the chapel, above Schievenin, at the beginning of the Val dell’Inferno?”


“No,” Enrico said, “but I could find it. Somebody up there would tell me where it was.”


“That’s terrible,” Loredana said. She seemed interested in Enrico’s proposition but shuddered at the name, “the ‘Valley of Hell!’”


Tommaso smiled weakly and went on, “I’ll leave a message there, Enrico. Maybe in a week’s time or a bit longer. To give you an idea where on the mountain I might be.”


And with that he shook Enrico’s hand and farewelled Loredana hoping his wretched speech and his expression might tell her how much he wanted to see her again. She glanced enigmatically at him and went up through the door and out of sight.


As he hurried away the sun went behind a cloud and immediately a chill wind cut into him. He wondered why things happened like that, why a full moon rises on the eastern horizon as the sun sets in the west. There would be some explanation. But not of why Loredana should befuddle him so much, why he felt so strong and weak at the same time with her, or why he knew exactly how she felt and then he knew nothing. He thought of her face in the sunlight and held it there in front of him like a beacon all the way home.


*


Next morning Tommaso said goodbye to his family. His father, up an hour before him and outside with Vittorio, was in his usual dour mood. He rolled his eyes when Tommaso told him where he was going and turning away uttered what was either an oath or the one word “communists!” Vittorio, who almost never spoke, said “Good luck!” with a trace of irony. He promised his mother and his sisters he would come and see them if he could.


As he walked along the valley floor, holding one small sack with a blanket, a few items of clothing and food for a couple of days, he felt freer and happier than he had for a long time. He ascended a muletrack meandering upwards while thick white and grey clouds shoved each other about making him think of the chaos that had shunted him out of his comfortable army life in Padova. He found himself looking at the landscape he knew so well with new eyes, the eyes of someone come from the town. The slopes on either side of him now barer and starker rose like the walls of high buildings, rock faces shelved up into towers and buttresses. The ripples in the parapets and overhangs ahead of him, caught in a sudden blitz of sunshine, reminded him of the basilica of Sant’Antonio. Away from it the land plunged down among beech and elder turning to gold while across valleys that could not be seen yet more ranges lumped up like the skylines of strange cities.


An hour later where the narrowing valley hemmed him in he made his way slow as a pilgrim up a funnel of steps hacked roughly in the rock. When he reached the saddle he paused to draw breath and survey infinity yawning before him, down across green pastureland and through thick woods that stopped short at the edge of a precipice. The plateau rolled and sank and rose again. A suggestion of misty plains disappeared far away to the south. Due north the Dolomites jabbed into gunmetal banks of cumulus.


He continued downhill and then across flat land until the ground began to slope up again steeply. Glancing ahead he caught sight of figures moving along a ridge, perhaps half a kilometre in a straight line. Five or possibly six of them and sure to be outlaws. No one else would be together in such numbers up here at this time. He monitored their progress as he went forward in more or less the same direction and worked out where they might be headed. From the next high point he saw smoke arising from a hillside over to his left. He cut across some open territory and then through a stand of pines.


Twenty minutes later he reached their camp. It consisted of two whitewashed storage buildings side by side, square houses with high tiled roofs like an inverted vee, each with a single front door in the centre and no windows. Behind them meadows slanted and then tipped over an edge. No sentries were posted and he was able to walk to the space in front of the buildings encircled by low bushes and a few rocks without being challenged. A dozen men were sitting around, smoking, conversing, sleeping or attending to the fire. He studied them for any sign of red, a flag or a scarf or other clothing, and not seeing any concluded they were not communists. He stood there until one of them noticed him and shouted. Soon he was surrounded.


“Who are you? Are you alone?” demanded the person who must be their leader. He had a round, unshaven face and twinkling piggy eyes but he stood stiff-backed and wore an army sweater over a white shirt. He was five or so years older than Tommaso, and though wider in girth was his size and build. He had a nervous rapidity about everything he did and this enhanced his aura of authority. In contrast his men looked like Vittorio just down with the cows from the malga, tired, sluggish and untidy. Their pale complexions, however, suggested most if not all were townspeople.


“I am Quinto, from Marostica.” Tommaso had repeated this formula several times to himself since deciding to confront this group. “I am alone. I have no weapons.”


With his last remark he may have anticipated the inevitable question because the leader seemed to change his mind before speaking. “How did you find us?” he asked.


“I watched your patrol come along the ridge this way and I followed it. Then I saw the smoke from your fire. It was easy.”


“Were you in the army?” the man asked and Tommaso nodded. The man went on, “Me too. Lieutenant in the infantry. In supplies, actually. Look, don’t jump to conclusions, thinking we are amateurs. We’ve only been together a short time and most of the men have not had our training.”


Tommaso was flattered, but he knew his own limitations. His rank was humble and he had no stomach for actual combat. He told the lieutenant that he was an ordinary soldier and had been in the army since May. The lieutenant seemed pleased that Tommaso was not the challenge he had at first taken him to be. His attitude became more commanding and his questions more direct.


“I am Zolfo,” he declared. “We are a complement of fourteen but our numbers are growing all the time. With you, fifteen. Each of us has his special aptitudes and his duties. What do you bring to us that would be useful, Quinto? You say you have no weapon and that is a pity as we don’t have enough for us all as it is.”


Tommaso doubted that knowing how to drive a truck would be much of a recommendation up here. Then he had a brainwave.


“I know all about this mountain,” he said. “I could be your guide. I could show you all the paths up and the ways down.”


This didn’t impress Zolfo as much as Tommaso had hoped. “I thought you said you were from Marostica,” he remarked dryly. Then he added, “We are pretty good, you know, at finding our way about.”


“I grew up on the mountain. The group I was with before was at Marostica.” Zolfo didn’t say anything so he went on, “They were sitting about waiting for the war to end. But where are the Anglo-Americans? The Germans are still here, aren’t they? Anyway, where do you get your water from?”


Zolfo frowned. “It’s a problem. From a stream, over that way.” And he pointed back along the path that all of them, including Tommaso, had used to reach the campsite.


“Well, that’s thirty minutes at least each way,” Tommaso said. “But ten minutes that way is a spring.”


“Show me,” commanded Zolfo, with doubt, surprise and possibly some hope registering in his curt tone.


Ten minutes later Tommaso had evidently guaranteed his future role within the group. Several of the men began quizzing him about the massif on aspects that must have been troubling them. One wondered if there were cliffs the unwary could come upon too late to save themselves. Tommaso’s knowledge, Zolfo assured his men, could come in very handy. He noted there were other groups up on the mountain, rival ones, who would be disadvantaged not to have this level of expertise.


It began to rain and soon developed into the heaviest downpour since Tommaso had left the barracks, almost a month ago. It went on all night and for most of the following day. Zolfo derived a peculiar satisfaction from this definitive onset of autumn and stood at the doorway watching the weather as though reviewing a parade. The thunder and flashes of lightning might have underlined the seriousness of their purpose and the importance of his role. From what Tommaso could gather life had been quite comfortable in the week the group had been up here, discipline was a fuzzy concept and war seemed far away.


In the morning Zolfo stationed the first sentry and took his men on patrol. Nobody questioned his authority and it may have helped that Tommaso lent his support. On the way back from a loop around the nearest peak Zolfo told him he was thinking of making him his deputy and was surprised to learn Tommaso had no interest in that whatever. He only wanted to be a guide, he told Zolfo, and didn’t want to carry arms either.


The wet weather fugged up the accommodation with the odour of sweaty bodies, damp wool and tobacco. The open door was poor ventilation. Everyone sat around idly as time ticked by. Tommaso volunteered almost nothing about himself but his companions seemed keen to reveal their own backgrounds. When one commented that this group was socialist Tommaso, in alarm, asked him what that meant. Only Zolfo, it transpired, had any interest in politics. Most of the men were from the plains below but there was also a handful of Sicilians from one regiment. Two were cooks, which augured well.


Over the next days a routine developed of keeping watch, going on reconnaissance and provisioning. Food was not in short supply as one of the group had contacts in a village close to Bassano and it was his task to make a trip there every other day. Two days later, however, he reported he could not do it again: his uncle had had a threatening visit to his store from blackshirts and now would be under close watch.


That evening Zolfo informed the group it needed weapons, food and money and so a raid was necessary. He invited suggestions and everyone began talking. Someone proposed they break into a shop in one of the villages on this side of the mountain. Someone else mentioned the railway and a third said they should go for a German convoy. Zolfo brought his audience to order like a schoolteacher and asked them what was the optimum target for weapons. After a silence he provided the answer himself: a barracks or a police station. But, he went on, the group needed to train for that. Starting with a practice run, a small project like the house of a fascist functionary where they could well find one or two guns and maybe some valuables.


“Quinto, what do you think? Does anywhere come to mind?”


Loredana’s house came automatically to mind and Tommaso drove the notion away. He had no wish to be singled out publicly and already some of the original members resented the way Zolfo favoured him. He muttered that it seemed a good plan but he could not think of anywhere suitable. But later when he went out to inhale the clean moist air, with the rain easing, he remembered a cockroach down in Alano who might fit the bill. He was a local fascist party member who went about making sure that taxes were paid. He had bustled around Schievenin in the spring with a pistol in his holster, hammering on doors and abusing people in a high-pitched voice. He would surely have come out of the woodwork straight after the armistice, probably even before the Duce had reappeared.


As soon as he heard this idea Zolfo said “I knew it!” without indicating whether this confirmed his strategy, or his correct assessment on the usefulness of Tommaso. Tommaso repeated he didn’t want to be part of the actual attack but he could point out the right house. Zolfo agreed but Tommaso would have to help with the training and motivation of the attack team. They were sitting on adjacent rocks outside the houses as a weak glimmer of sunshine broke through the leaden clouds. Tommaso drew a diagram of Alano with a stick in the muddy soil.


*


The raid took place two days later. Zolfo’s idea was that they arrive after dusk and catch the official with his boots off, settling down to the evening meal. They would simply rap on the door and demand entry, grab what they needed and be out and away. They would need three for the assault on the house and two on guard outside, plus Tommaso.


It did not go according to plan, despite the careful thought and preparations. They had practised creeping up on the other dormitory, bursting in on the occupants and making a quick getaway, and memorised Tommaso’s description of the house in Alano and his stick-map of the streets. They set out in the dark and at once one of the men slipped and dislocated his shoulder, uttering a yell that unnerved the whole team. Zolfo jerked the man’s arm to apparently good effect and sent him moaning dolefully back to the camp.


Tommaso had assumed Alano would be dead as a cemetery after eight o’clock. Instead a local festival was in progress as they approached and the streets were full of people. The five men hid at the edge of the little township until the procession had gone down the main street to the church. They waited as impatience gripped all of them including Zolfo but when after a while the wafts of noise abated he gave the order to go. The functionary wasn’t at home and his wife answered the door. She screamed and had to be hurriedly bundled inside. Neighbours’ windows opened to see what was going on but by then it was as if nothing had happened. Tommaso and the other lookout could hear no sounds coming from the invaded house. Ten agonising minutes passed before the assailants emerged, tiptoeing, from the back part of the house.


They had just rounded the corner of the street when the screaming started again, this time in earnest. The men scampered up the way they had come, panting heavily as the slope took its toll. They paused at last for breath. If any pursuit had been launched it had not been directed their way. Zolfo gave the other two the gist of what happened.


“We told the old lady we were communists, from the other side, across the river,” he panted. “Our guns stopped her from screaming but she was a real gasbag – she kept asking us things and wouldn’t shut up. In the end, when we got what we wanted, we tied and gagged her. But not tightly enough, I think.”


“What about her husband – and other members of the family?” Tommaso wanted to know.


“They were all at the festival. Anyway, we got those.” Zolfo pointed to the hunting rifle, a serviceable pistol and another collector’s item from a previous century carried by one of the men. He held up a small wad of banknotes. But, he added glumly in answer to tommaso’s question, no ammunition.


For the next week Zolfo was in a state of nervous energy, at first delighted that the raid had gone as well as it had and then depressed that it had not gone better. If they had chosen any other evening they would have got the official himself. They could have held him for ransom, and would have come away with a more substantial haul. The amount of money seized would not keep fifteen men more than a couple of extra days. Another raid had to be organised.


The weapons holding of the group was totted up. They had one old machinegun, a rifle and six pistols, with assorted ammunition all brought by Zolfo from his barracks in Bassano. In addition they had two hand grenades and the Alano collection. It might do for a demonstration effect in another sortie like last night’s but for little else. This conundrum consumed Zolfo’s waking hours and the following evening he shared his thoughts with Tommaso.


“We need to capture a truck,” he told him. “One supplying a fascist stronghold. For that we need intelligence. I’m going to get the men to watch the roads.”


Tommaso could guess which roads should be watched. It promised to be a time-consuming hit-and-miss affair but he could not fault Zolfo’s logic. He offered to take part in the reconnoitring. It took two weeks to get a result but, with various hindrances, it was the one Zolfo wanted. At Tommaso’s suggestion they focused on the road along the river below Alano that linked Feltre and Valdobbiadene. Both probably had barracks. As the latter was smaller and more southerly it was likely supplies would come from the north.


Two squads of four travelled down during the night and at dawn joined up near the bridge over the Piave. From bushes on the upper side of the road they monitored traffic along it hour after hour. No military vehicle of any kind came along. Mosquitoes were a constant nuisance. The exercise was repeated fruitlessly for two more days. Tommaso took advantage of one of the trips down the mountain to leave a message for Enrico at the church in the Val dell’Inferno, simply saying he was to the northeast and asking after Loredana. On the fourth day, by which time Zolfo had halved the number of men for the exercise, a small convoy of military trucks went by and much later returned. On the sixth day a single truck made the journey. The following week a truck came along the road every second day during the afternoon although the time varied considerably. Lmost always there was only one person in the driver’s cabin. With the exception of the first convoy all the trucks had been Italian army vehicles manned by Italian soldiers.


On the eighth day no truck came and on the tenth day two trucks came in convoy. Zolfo’s plan was to have the lookout, from a tree near with a good view to the north, give the signal that one truck was coming. Two of the gang would then fake an incident in the middle of the road, one of them seeming hurt and the other flagging down the truck for help. A third would be ready to jump at the driver and put a gun to his head while the fourth stayed on watch.


Zolfo was absent with a heavy cold when they struck lucky. Tommaso, on lookout, called down “single truck!” and the incident team did their bit of theatre. The truck, with two soldiers in the driver’s cabin, trundled past without stopping. Elio stood in the road and yelled after them. A minute later the truck reappeared from the other direction and pulled up. Pablo, the gunman, fired a shot that ricocheted off the mudguard. The second soldier in the driver’s cabin opened his door and jumped out. Pablo ran forward and aimed at the driver who put both hands in the air. The two actors in the road brandished their weapons. The unseen soldier shouted from the far side of the truck that he was armed and would shoot. Pablo fired in the air and ordered the driver to get down beside him. The unseen soldier was persuaded to come out. He was unarmed.


In the back of the truck were food supplies, far more than the four of them could possibly carry up the mountain. Tommaso climbed down from his tree and helped select things to take. To the joy of Elio, who was in charge of the operation, they found in the truck two mortars and a box of grenades. Elio told their captives they could go free but would have to wait until the team was out of sight before they continued their journey. He shook their hands and left Pablo on guard, to catch them up later.


They made a full report to a fretful Zolfo – none of the truck-raiding sorties had been this late getting back. His spirits improved when he saw what they had brought back. He said it was a pity the team was not bigger, they could have brought back more.


Although it wasn’t quite what he intended Zolfo’s wish for extra people was granted next day when five men turned up at the camp led by a boy of about twelve. Before establishing who these potential recruits were Zolfo quizzed them about their guide.


“We found him in Seren,” said the largest of the five, a bearded man who stood out not only because of his size but also his direct and authoritative manner. “Or rather he found us. He’s been damned useful, getting us here.”


“How did you know where to find us?” Zolfo demanded of the boy.


“It’s no secret,” he answered. “Anyway, these houses belong to my dad.”


The bearded man gave the boy some money and reminded him of their agreement that he not tell anybody about them, or where they were. The boy nodded and trotted off down the slope. The bearded man said he had been a sergeant and a wireless operator in the army and had moreover brought his radio with him. Zolfo, uncharacteristically moved, kissed the sergeant on both cheeks.


“Do you have a name already, I mean a nom de guerre? No? Then you are Gabriele, holy messenger, patron saint of telegraph workers. You are very, very welcome here, Gabriele.”


Gabriele took this with aplomb and put the kitbag he was carrying in front of Zolfo, gesturing to him to open it. Everybody gathered around and there followed much favourable murmuring at the sight of the army-issue radio that was revealed. Gabriele introduced his companions who were from his former unit. Zolfo asked them to think up names for themselves and tell him later.


There was no room at the houses for the new arrivals and in any case the fact that their location was known suggested they quit them as soon as possible. Tommaso told Zolfo of caves not far away that were better concealed and could easily contain this many people. The entire group spent the rest of the day checking the new site and lugging their gear to it. One cave was broad but not especially deep, another was a slanting crevice that went some way back and opened out into a cavern large enough to sleep ten men, and two others were not much more than horizontal slits in the rock at ground level each with room for three or four in a coffin-shaped recess. All faced onto a sheltered space with rock walls rising on three sides. The outer side was dense with undergrowth before the hillside dropped sharply away. A track led up and down from each end of the open area. Zolfo acknowledged the need for a permanent posting of sentries since it would be even easier than at the houses to come upon them there without being spotted.


Morale lifted over the next days, due to Elio’s moderately successful raid and the arrival of recruits who knew what they were doing. Gabriele’s men looked up to him in every way and he ensured they cooperate fully with the existing members of the group. The newcomers were all from the Vicenza area and spoke or understood the dialect of everyone except the Sicilians.


Gabriele’s know-how and equipment had an immediate benefit in that he was able to make squawking contact with an American army radio operator in the south. Over the next several days an airdrop was discussed – the location, the timing and what was needed. Gabriele asked for weapons but no promises were made. His interlocutors agreed on a trial run. Zolfo deployed his men in the drop zone, a meadow halfway between the two houses and the new caves. Around the appointed time on the first moonless night a single aircraft burbled overhead. Signals were made by torchlight and eventually a parachute drifted down. The consignment consisted of two dozen uniforms.


Food was now the absolute priority. Zolfo and Gabriele, who had automatically become his deputy, resolved to approach local farmers and they asked Tommaso what he thought about the idea. He told them that if they handled this badly it could stir up local resentment and he related his father’s story. He asked them to steer well clear of Schievenin.


“We’re at war, you know,” Zolfo said huffily. “We’re the ones making sacrifices for our country. Everyone has to. The farmers will have to make sacrifices, too, whether they like it or not. The nazis and the fascists will see to that. But you tell us which farmers to say all this to, Quinto, and we’ll see how we go.”


The food-requisitioning party left in the morning. Tommaso had a farm in mind towards Feltre that belonged to a man who had once cheated Signor Trevisan. He accompanied the six-man party to the ridge above the farm and waited there until they returned. He couldn’t overhear the negotiations but these did not last long. Some shouting carried up to him on the ridge. When the party reached him they were had a cantankerous sheep at the end of a thin rope. One of the men broke into a rude song about a sheep. Tommaso could tell the beast was in poor health but he said nothing. Zolfo would know what to do. That farmer might well be in for another visit.


*


For a while everything went deceptively well in the sunny and mild late autumn weather. Patrols ranged over the slopes and valleys of this corner of the massif, occasionally encountering a farmer or some civilian – never any soldiers – who had wandered up from below. Zolfo and Gabriele ruminated over future plans, all limited by the few weapons the group possessed. Apart from food raids the only other option was sabotage.


At the end of October the wind got up and it rained for days. Morale dipped as life in the caves became less easy. The first sabotage raid was done more for distraction than anything. One drizzling night with Tommaso as guide Zolfo took a team down to the outskirts of Feltre to cut telephone lines. It went well. Nobody saw them. They attacked the lines at two separate points, a good distance apart. The one misadventure was the discovery on return that they were one man short. He turned up next morning having become separated from the others and then completely lost. A friendly local had found him asleep beside a path at first light and had pointed him in the right direction.


The outcome of the second sortie remained unknown but involved the laying of nails and a variety of sharp objects once again on the Feltre-Valdobbiadene road where the truck had been stopped. Tommaso had not been needed on that occasion.


The third in the series was a disaster. Zolfo suspected that the few explosives they possessed would suffer in the wet conditions and so should be used promptly. Pasquale, one of the Sicilians, had some relevant experience and claimed the fuses he had brought were superb. Tommaso was fascinated by Pasquale, a dark compact figure who was always smiling. He wondered if this was a deformity but in every other way Pasquale though short was perfectly proportioned. He moved with grace, even on the rare occasions when he moved at speed. He could catch a fly with one hand, like that, whipping his fist through the air. He kept a knife in his sock and once whispered to Tommaso to stand still. Tommaso did and the knife zipped past him and transfixed a green lizard near his boots.


“It wasn’t dangerous, it couldn’t hurt you!”


“You never know, about danger,” Pasquale said, smiling amiably.


The plan was to blow up a section of railway track near Carpen. Tommaso and two others had reconnoitred for the ideal spot, one where explosives could be laid with least risk and where observation before, during and afterwards was optimal. Misty rain on the night of the assault gave good cover for the team on the way down but made the descent with the equipment treacherous. Near the bottom Pasquale, holding one end of the ammunition box, skidded and pulled a muscle in his leg although he was able to hobble along after a short hold-up. The slow going also cut the time available to lay the explosives before the next train from Feltre, and if they missed that one then any inspection of the line in daylight would give the game away. They picked up speed along the final more level terrain. At the allocated spot Pasquale and an assistant placed the explosives as planned, set the fuses and retired to where the others were hiding. The train did not come. Two wet hours went slowly by. It must have passed earlier than usual that night. They got up and were crossing the track for the return trip when they heard the train rounding the nearby curve. In the mad scramble up the bank Pasquale fell again, aggravating his injury and risked being blown up in the inevitable explosion. He rolled to one side appealing loudly to the blessed virgin.


The train was upon them and roared by. Nothing else happened. Zolfo had a hunch that the driver of the train had noticed something unusual. This meant that not only had the explosives failed but also that a search party might be sent along the line next morning. There was nothing for it however but to collect the wounded man and haul him back up the hill. The explosives were judged too risky to move and were left on the line. A faint hope remained that they would not be found and might work with the next passage of a train. Pasquale, in some pain, was now holding them all up and insisted the others go on without him.


Three hours later he was still not back and the other Sicilians went down in the pitch black to look for him. They came back in some distress after dawn to say they could find no trace of him. Mid-morning a search party was formed of Tommaso, Pablo and one other but despite combing a large area they too had no success. Pasquale’s continuing absence cast a gloom over the whole group.


That afternoon two new members, brothers, arrived at the caves. They had been with the communists and although they had fallen out with that group and quit because they didn’t share their political views they were nevertheless known from then on as the red brothers. Zolfo had once bumped into a communist patrol and knew they were prickly people who wanted no contact with his group at all. The red brothers confirmed his view that despite their political failings the communists were well focused and organised. This was in contrast to two other formations they knew about on the mountain and what they said about them reminded Tommaso of Gattopardo’s innocent and pavid gang. He and Zolfo and Gabriele compared notes. Tommaso said it would soon get very cold. Gabriele said the war was not going to end soon, the Anglo-Americans were bogged down near Naples. Zolfo said the nazi-fascists were flexing their muscles up here in the north. Things were going to be tough for a while.


Evidence of the muscle-flexing came with the reappearance of the boy from Seren who turned up one day and was brought to Zolfo by the sentry.


“Good you moved out of my dad’s storehouses,” the boy said, not at all intimidated by the partisans ranged around, now more imposing in their uniforms.

“Good, is it?” said Zolfo sourly. “Tell your dad we’re grateful he let us use them.”


“I can’t,” the boy retorted. “They’ve taken him away.”


“Who have?” Zolfo demanded.


Apparently a search had been conducted in his village by blackshirts, with German soldiers standing back watching them. They went from house to house, barging in, interrogating all present and smashing whatever they had a mind to. Anything at all suspicious provoked them to violence even against old people. They demanded documents and checked names against lists, looking for any former soldiers who might be in hiding. A notice had been stuck up in the village saying that men between 17 and 35 were to enrol for military duty and those who sought to evade it would be considered deserters, and would be shot. A number of able-bodied men, including the boy’s father, had been thrust into a truck and not seen again.


“Did the fascists say what would happen to those people?” Gabriele asked the boy.


“They said they were needed for work, here in Italy,” he replied. “That was three days ago, and we haven’t heard anything else about where he is.”


Zolfo asked if there had been any mention of the resistance movement when the nazis and fascists came to the village. The boy replied with a strange defiance. “They cursed you all. They called you bandits. They said you were traitors. They wanted to know all about you.”


“What did people tell them?” asked Zolfo in alarm.


“Nothing! Nobody said anything! But don’t you come and take our farm animals. Like the other lot did.” And with that the boy, having delivered his message, tried to run off but was collared by the sentry. Zolfo said to let him go. They had learned enough.


On the day of the first snow flurries Tommaso went down looking for any sign of the missing member of the group. This time he went right to the perimeter of Carpen. He could see the corpse hanging from a tree while he was still a long way off and it had to be Pasquale’s or that of a large child. He could not risk crossing open ground, and it was all too likely that somebody was on watch for Pasquale’s friends. From a hedge thirty paces away he could see without any doubt who it was. Pasquale was still smiling, his head tilted to one side and looking in his direction with what seemed to be amusement. It must have happened that same morning as unlike the leafless tree he was hanging from he had no snow upon him. Tommaso vomited and crawled away. He ran most of the way back up the mountain, and was sick a second time when he was near the caves.


As November progressed it got steadily colder. Four members of the group, including the red brothers, declared that they were going to go down the mountain for good. Zolfo persuaded them to stay an extra day so that Gabriele could report a full complement for the next airdrop, for which weapons were promised. Zolfo also hoped that when the consignment arrived, which it duly did, the four would change their minds now they could be issued with something as solid and meaningful as a rifle. They stayed one additional day but the temperature plunged further. Fires had to be kept burning in the caves constantly and the swirling smoke added to the discomfort. Boredom was partly relieved by chopping and hauling wood and patrols on a rotating basis.


Zolfo called a halt to the sabotage missions after another effort at cutting telephone lines. While it had been easy to do it was obvious that repair was not problematic either, and so the raids had little more than nuisance value. Most missions seemed to lead to injuries of one sort or another and medical treatment in the mountains was absolutely rudimentary.


Tommaso was one of several who contracted influenza, as the first proper snow began to fall. He was excused sentry duty, a task that at first had been pleasant enough in the white silence. Zolfo decided to abandon it when one man coming off duty returned to the cave rigid with cold. His frozen trouser legs knocked loudly against each other as he walked.


On the day before Christmas Tommaso gave up. The group’s numbers were down to eight by now and it was just as well since it was increasingly hard to provide food for all. Zolfo knew roughly where he lived and the two of them agreed to stay in touch – Tommaso said he was available if needed.


As he approached his home in Schievenin he saw a figure outside for a moment before disappearing back into the kitchen. In the snow near the door he saw a red gob of blood going pink at the edges. When he entered the house the family greeted him with qualified joy. His mother was sick, and was not going to survive the winter.



                              Bassano 1964



“Twenty years since it last erupted,” one of the crew told Gianni as they stood at the rail with Vesuvius looming over to their right. Most of the passengers were aft and agog as Capri drifted in a haze behind them. A few were up with Gianni focusing instead on imminent landfall in Italy, on the shimmering blue bay that funnelled into a film set. Parallel with them, low hills speckled with fruit-coloured villas, walls, wires, poles and rails. Ahead, the creams and greys of a city cascading from its ridges into its port. To the west, a slender embracing arm whose muscles and bones were Mergellina, Marechiaro, Pozzuoli, Procida and the fist of Ischia.


Gianni’s sweep of the horizon had stalled at US warships at anchor, a herd of angular metal elephants of different sizes partly submerged. He jerked his head round to acknowledge what the Scots sailor was telling him, making heavy weather of his trills and glottal stops.


“Right,” he said when he had worked it out. “She went up then, did she? You sure?”


“God’s truth. Me dad was here when it happened, with the British army, after Salerno. Told me the whole sky was red for weeks and weeks.”


It had been Attilio’s initiative rather than Gianni’s to make this trip. Attilio employed him in his furniture business, paying him erratically but providing board and lodging as he had for most of Gianni’s life. Then one day, when the police had been around again saying someone resembling Gianni had been seen leaving a fight that had produced several badly-hurt college boys, Attilio had had a bright idea.


“You go overseas, Gianni,” he told him. “Stay away for a month or two. Go to Italy, I’ll pay.”


It was an offer Gianni could not refuse and the more he thought about it the better he liked it. He had been getting on his foster parents’ nerves and feelings on that score were mutual. He would make a round trip – Italy first then Germany, France, maybe the UK before heading back the way he had come.


The boat had been a liberation. Aboard he felt released from a trap within a trap, being a no-hoper with no money in a small town and the prospects poor for staying out of gaol let alone of making his fortune. Now everything seemed possible. Early on two boys had made the mistake of sneering at him as a Wop and he had decked them. That had been in full view of some girls they were all competing for and Gianni had delivered a straight left and a right hook that he had worked on at the gym. Things went even better after that. He teamed up with Roberta that evening.


The other liberating idea was that a missing piece in his personal jigsaw was about to be located and fitted in. Just before he left Attilio had referred to his parents. He and Maria rarely ever mentioned them, especially his father who killed at the end of the war. His mother who had been sick died then, too. With Italy now in view he thought maybe he could find out something about them here. Identity – that was what Gianni felt he was missing a bit of. He began to get positive feelings about this landmass over to his right.


“It last erupted in 1944,” he told Roberta who had just come up. The volcano looked as placid as anything, maybe it was now extinct. A lovely breast, against pretty pale blue.


“What do you know?” Roberta was more interested in the city bobbing towards them down its central horseshoe of hills.


“That was the year my father died,” Gianni added.


“Uh-huh.” Then she knitted her eyebrows and said, “ Hey, how old were you then?”


“I wasn’t even born. We never saw each other. He was killed in the Dolomites.”


“Oh, my God, that’s awful.” After a pause she asked, with what seemed genuine curiosity, “The Dolomites…. are you going up there?”


“Mmm. Sure. I’ll definitely go there. Venice. Dolomites.”


He surprised even himself. He had no plan at all, except to go to Venice and then Vienna or Munich. North. He’d forgotten the name of the town where Attilio said one or other of his parents had died.


After Naples they took the train together to Florence and he left her milling on the platform with a mob of relatives. He meant to say they could get together again later in the trip but went off that idea at the sight of her grandparents smiling bright-eyed at him.

He liked Venice less than he thought he would. Very humid. Prices too high. He wandered the alleyways and stirred up the pigeons in St. Mark’s Square. After one long evening with no company but plenty of mosquitoes he decided to look for the place where his mythical father had perished. He bought a map of the region and stared at it until eventually the name jumped out at him. Bassano. Fifty kilometres northwest. It took him ages to find the right bus and even longer waiting for it before it arrived.


*


Gianni realised as his bus bumped along rural roads he had practically nothing to go on for this assignment. He tried to recall what he knew about his destination but he kept being distracted by repeated stops in the flat landscape where ancients and peasants and fat mammas got on and off. Moreover his attention was lured to the mountains that started as a misty backdrop but were now bulking nearer more layered and intriguing.


He tried to recall what Attilio had said, just before he left. Out on the veranda of the old house near the river at New Farm in the early evening watching the fruit bats swoop like boomerangs and drinking some rough red wine made by a friend of his uncle’s. Attilio had suggested he go to Trieste, if he was going to Venice. What’s there to see, Gianni had asked. Nothing. It was just where his little sister, Gianni’s mother, had died in hospital. No tombstone, no record. Gianni said, “Go on,” so Attilio did.


After the war, after Maria had come down from the north to join him in Brisbane, Attilio got a letter from a woman called Agnese Marchetti. She said she was his sister’s best friend and told him of her death in Trieste and how she was survived by a baby boy who now had no one to care for him. For the moment some monks, the Capuchins, were dealing with it. Attilio got in touch with Capuchins in Australia and after a lot of rigmarole got permission to bring back baby Gianni to Australia. He and Maria had made the journey.


“Could you afford it?” Gianni asked. Attilio said nothing and Maria got up. The conversation was over.


Gianni couldn’t remember anything else. Just his mother’s name, Loredana, the friend Agnese Marchetti, the place Bassano. That was where he got off the bus. By the city wall. He would ask someone about ‘cappuccini’ – but wouldn’t they direct him to a coffee bar? Surprisingly the first person he addressed, a man in a smart suit waiting to cross the road, at once responded “il Convento?” When Gianni nodded he gave him some gabbled directions, pointing down the slope.


The word ‘foothills’ struck him. Bassano was like the foot of a statue standing on a flat base. The bus had taken him from the flat up a little hill and now he was walking down some steep toes back to the flat. The road sank quickly below the walled town with its towers and fortifications into parkland in a leafy suburb. A few hundred metres ahead was a sizeable river, the Brenta according to the map he had studied again on the bus. He took a wrong turn, retraced his steps and then found himself outside the Convento dei Cappuccini, an attractive agglomeration of solid old tiled buildings. The tops of cypresses suggested a courtyard within.


He rang the bell and the door opened almost before he had released his finger making him think some choleric monk had been watching and waiting for him. A young friar in a chocolate-coloured robe emerged wheeling a bicycle. He greeted Gianni perfunctorily and would have carried on had he not been challenged. Gianni said he needed to talk to someone about the war.


“The war?” asked the friar, with an amused expression. “Have you come to the right place?”


“I think so,” Gianni said. “Your lot arranged for me to be taken to Australia when I was a baby.”


The friar thought for a moment and, leaving his bicycle by the portal, led the way to nearby offices. He opened a door and said something to the person inside. There was a murmured response. Gianni was ushered in and the door closed behind him. The room was poorly lit and perfectly still. Facing him across a desk was a much older friar who introduced himself as Father Giulio and asked him to sit. The friar’s face was that of a marble bust – broad, smooth, unmoving, apart from sombre eyes that seemed to seize his own and merge with them.


Father Giulio waited. Gianni giddily disengaged his gaze and then, swallowing, set about explaining why he was there. In the solemnity of this room, with such an imposing figure opposite him, it would have been good to measure out his narrative. Instead he was rushing it and his own ears told him how foolish his words were, splattering like headlines without explanation. He didn’t have the details to pad out the story.


“And from us,” Father Giulio enquired gently when Gianni came to a halt, “you are seeking confirmation about what we might have done for you…. in Trieste?”


“Well, no, not really. I know already about that, a bit, my foster father told me. What I don’t know is what happened before, in the war, in Bassano. My father died here.”


Father Giulio sighed. “The war left many wounds,” he said, “and many of them are not fully healed. You mentioned a…. Signora Marchetti. Is it really she that you need to find, is that your objective?”


“I suppose it is,” Gianni said. “Agnese Marchetti.” Father Giulio nodded, and got up. He was a bigger man than Gianni at first thought but he had some disability, perhaps sciatica. With a slow and deliberate gait he left the room. Gianni could hear his deep voice talking to someone not far away, repeating the name and prompting him in whatever enquiry he was pursuing. Then he came back, with a piece of paper in his hand. He gave it to Gianni.


“It seems she lives in Pederobba,” the old man said. “Actually she is in the telephone directory. I’m sorry it took so long. Would you like to try the number?”


Gianni contemplated the telephone in front of him on the desk, but declined. He felt uncomfortable for having disturbed them at the monastery over something he might have found out at the town Post Office. It didn’t seem a good idea to ring up his mother’s friend just like that. And he would need to think what he would say to her. He looked at the piece of paper. There was the name and the address as well as the telephone number. He asked if Pederobba was far, and if it was a large place.


“No,” said Father Giulio, “You can get the bus easily. It’s a small village.”


Gianni got up and the old man walked with him to the main door. “We suffered in both wars, here in Bassano,” he said. “More in the second one. It was a civil war, with brother against brother. Throughout it the Anglo-Americans bombed us without mercy.”


Gianni, already thinking about what he needed to do next, didn’t properly register Father Giulio’s comment. He paused to respond, to thank and farewell him, and said the first thing that came into his head.


“But we got on the same side, that should have helped ….”


Father Giulio smiled at him, with an almost imperceptible shake of his head. “The bombing was not really heavy until we changed sides in 1943. The German Army did not want to leave Italy. When it finally surrendered in 1945 only two weeks of war remained. Between the two dates all the beautiful cities of Italy with exception of Florence and Venice were pulverised. I was in Verona then.”


He pointed Gianni back the way he had come. They shook hands. It was wonderfully peaceful here, with the sound of birds twittering and the gurgle of the nearby river. Further down the street a man held open the door of a large red car and an elegantly dressed woman climbed into it. The war seemed more than a lifetime away.


The visit to Pederobba was a waste of time. The bus crawled along. When he arrived he was directed to the police station and made to wait while an argument between the duty officer and a local citizen went on and on. The officer was on the defensive for most of it and took some abuse with a patience Gianni doubted would ever be found in Australia.


“She is not here any more,” the officer told him when Gianni showed him his piece of paper. “She moved back to Bassano in the spring. With her daughter.”


“Right,” Gianni said, his disappointment blatant. “With her daughter, eh? Husband?”


“He died. In a car accident, in Germany. Many years ago.”


“Do you have their address in Bassano?” Gianni asked. The policeman snorted air through his nose and picked up the telephone. A minute later Gianni was the possessor of another piece of paper and on his way back to a bus stop. He had over an hour to wait. It was late afternoon before he was back in Bassano.


On the bus he had time to reflect. Didn’t reflect much, usually, and never about the past. Each day was good enough, and he could cope with any surprises. But now he had embarked on this quest he was entering not just new territory but another sort of reality. He wasn’t a mere tourist as he had been in Venice. He was talking to priests and policemen, and that was rare, too. He felt unsettled in a way wholly new to him. Out of the window he could see workmen by a hole in the ground with hats on their heads like paper boats, and nuns in animated conversation side by side on bicycles, and then three male models younger than him in suede jackets getting out of a glorious sports car. Australia seemed further than the other side of the world away. He was about to call on someone who knew his dead mother. If she existed, if she was not something out of his imagination, if she was home – what sort of reaction could he expect from her? His untrained, unfit mind balked at that one. The bus pulled up. He sat on a stone bollard by the side of the road and smoked two cigarettes in quick succession, trying not to concentrate on anything in particular. A motor scooter passed dangerously close to him and he got to his feet. He was in charge of his own destiny. He would make something happen now. That resolve made him feel better.


It didn’t take him long to find the address on his new bit of paper, with the help of two passers-by. He entered the old part of town where grey buildings rose two and three storeys on either side of narrow streets which in turn led down to a piazza. He reached the right street and then the right number. It was a shop, a dressmaker’s. The clothes modelled on mannequins in the window looked fashionable, and were expensive. The shop was shut. He took a step up onto a tiny porch with two doors. A button above the name ‘Marchetti’ was placed between the two doors and so he pressed it.


At once a metallic voice near his heart made him jump. It was female and peremptory, and demanded “Who is it?” Gianni gave his name and said he needed to speak with Signora Agnese Marchetti. “Wait,” the voice commanded.


With rapid clicks the door was unlocked and he found himself face to face with the most beautiful girl on the planet. She had long and lustrous chestnut-coloured hair, high cheekbones, brown eyes and wonderful lips. She looked at him as if in two minds whether or not she should call the police. He felt as if God had whispered to him, “Take her, she’s yours.” He guessed they were about the same age and he trusted he was up to it. But she was going to have the first word, when she had finished evaluating him.

“My mother is sleeping,” she said, dismissively. “Come back later, in an hour. No, two.”


Gianni was not going to argue – he felt everything about him had been momentarily paralysed, especially his tongue. His feet seemed to have anchored themselves to the pavement, insisting he dither on the off chance she might change her mind, or smile. Eventually he said, “Okay,” and made to leave. But he stopped when he heard a voice inside the house call out loudly, “Who is it, Luciana?”


“Nobody, Mamma,” she replied. “Just a boy. I told him to come back at seven.”


Gianni wasn’t going to take this, not now another human being had entered the equation and restored the world to rights. That was presumably Agnese, the person he had come to see. He had a valid reason for being there. He knew what to do. He faced Luciana and held her gaze. He said, “It would be better if I could talk to your mother now.”


“Where are you from – Argentina?” she demanded snootily, two steps above him. Gianni thought how good she would look in uniform.


“Australia,” he replied. “I’ve come a very long way to see her.”


Luciana ignored him and turned to watch the progress of her mother coming down the passage, her hand giving a tug at the collar of a silk robe. The two of them stood side by side, filling the doorway, splendid women. Agnese might have woken up shortly before and she wore no make-up. She was a maturer version of her daughter, although without the petulance. Luciana said to her, by way of introduction and with ill-concealed contempt, “He’s from Australia.”


Gianni went to the point. He focused wholly on the mother and said, “Signora, I’m Loredana’s son, Gianni.” Agnese looked very startled, eyes widening, and then she burst into tears.


Luciana glanced at Gianni as though he had perpetrated some tasteless practical joke then she reached quickly for Agnese, perhaps thinking her mother might be fainting down towards their visitor. But Agnese had stepped forward deliberately, seizing Gianni by his upper arms, steadying herself while she looked at him more closely. Then she embraced him tightly and sobbed for several seconds, her shoulders heaving. Gianni, awkwardly pinned, stared directly at Luciana. Confusion had softened her features wonderfully, although she might be in no hurry to forgive him for what he had just done. Waiting for calm to be restored, Gianni tried meanwhile to mimic Father Giulio, wise and compassionate, familiar with suffering on a grand scale.


“He has her eyes, absolutely!” Agnese said to Luciana, having released Gianni and now turning from one to the other. “He is blonde, too! Look at him, Luciana! I’ve told you about my dearest friend, haven’t I? About her baby, how her brother in Australia came for him when she died.”


“Yes, Mamma,” Luciana said, her attentiveness to some passers-by a clue that maybe she had been told about it more than once.


“He didn’t come to see me,” Agnese told Gianni, accusingly. She had hold of him again, a hand on a sleeve, and she stood very straight and dignified. “Attilio. I was the one who let him know. He never made any approach, that time or later.”


Gianni was is no position to defend his uncle so he shook his head and made a helpless gesture. “I’m sorry,” he said, “maybe it wasn’t possible, in Trieste…”


“That’s the past! Those are things we don’t need to talk about. There are other things.” Agnese was now fully recovered. She went back up the steps, turned admired him. “Gianni! What a beautiful boy! Come! Come inside. I want to hear everything.”


Gianni followed the two women along the passage and up some stairs at the end. The rooms were stylishly decorated and furnished. He made a comment to that effect but Agnese brushed it away. “We’re not finished, nowhere near. We have only been here two months. How did you find us?”


While he answered he watched Luciana go into the kitchen. She carried her beauty with her like inner light and the kitchen seemed to shine. Agnese poured him a drink and he sipped it as he gave her his story, interrupted by numerous questions. Luciana stayed out of sight but, Gianni bet, would not be missing a word. He told Agnese how he had been brought up by his uncle and aunt – good people who had done well after a difficult start in Australia. Agnese said she had never set eyes on Attilio. She had understood from Loredana that although he had broken with the family he had been fond of his baby sister. It had taken Agnese ages to track Attilio down after the war but she had managed it through the Capuchins. Gianni told her of his visit to the Convento.


“You will stay for dinner with us?” Agnese asked. “Luciana is making something, cutlets I think. There’s enough, darling, isn’t there.”


Luciana muttered Yes from the other room and Gianni accepted the invitation with alacrity. Then he said, “Tell me something about my mother. What was she like?”


Agnese went misty again and then began to speak in earnest. “She was very beautiful, golden hair, your colour. Small, too – I mean, excuse me, you are very strong. She was always laughing, she had a way with her eyes, which are the same as yours, Gianni, of teasing you. You wanted to say something angry back but you couldn’t because already she was laughing and you were, too. She was always playing jokes, we…. I’m sorry, one time we played a joke on her father. He was a very important official. Loredana called for a car to come for him, he wasn’t expecting it but he went out all the same to talk to the driver. He found the car full of flowers, it was their wedding anniversary and he had forgotten but Loredana hadn’t. He should have been cross that she had done all this through his office but how could he, she and I were watching from a window and she was laughing so prettily. He shook his fist at her and then laughed out loud. It was the only time I ever saw him laugh.”


“Were other brothers and sisters … between Attilio and her? ” Gianni wondered why he had never talked to Attilio about any of this.


“There were three more brothers and a sister,” Agnese replied. “Luca and Teresa were born during the first war. In the last war Luca was a soldier, a prisoner of the English in Africa. But he got sick and died. Teresa is married, she’s in Hamburg, I haven’t seen her for many years.”


Gianni said he had heard of the loss of her own husband, in Germany, and said he was very sorry. Agnese waved it away. “It was quite a while ago. The other brothers were Giancarlo, a little older than Loredana, and Enrico, a little younger. The youngest.”


“Are they here?” Gianni asked.


“No. Giancarlo was a blackshirt, a soldier of the Republic. He was killed in the war, I mean when it finished. Enrico is fine, he’s an architect but he’s in Milan. He’s always travelling. He is the most like Loredana.”


Gianni frowned. He wondered why so much trouble had been gone to get him out to Australia when there were other family members near at hand. He asked Agnese whether any of them, Enrico for example, had been asked to care for him when his mother was sick, or after she had died. Agnese said Enrico was too young. She had been about to add something but changed her mind.


“The family was destroyed by the war, like so many families,” she said then. “Ours survived, for a while anyway.”


Gianni asked her what she could tell him about his father. Agnese looked hard at him and then turned to stare out of the window. She seemed to be biting her bottom lip and took a long time before replying. And it was an inadequate reply.


“I never saw him. I didn’t know him. Enrico did. But he loved your mother, I’m sure of that.”


Gianni had never been much good at school. He had never asked the teachers anything and he never felt any curiosity to know more than they were going to tell him anyway. But he felt a stirring of curiosity now, partly because he sensed things were being withheld. Attilio had held things back, and now Agnese. He wondered if it was an Italian thing: too much history, take care where you dig. His mother must have told her best friend something about the new man in her life. Surely he could ask her that, he had a right to know. But Gianni had never been very tactful, either, and this situation cried out for tact. Agnese was an emotional woman. And Father Giulio had told him just now that the wounds of the war had not yet healed.


Agnese changed the subject and asked about his journey so far and his next movements. He gave her the rough outline and she laughed incredulous: no bookings, no itinerary, not even anything arranged for tomorrow. Where he was staying? He said he didn’t know yet, some small hotel, and wondered if she could recommend one.


“You can stay here. You must. You could stay a night, two even.”


Luciana came into the room and said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea, Mamma.”


“Nonsense. Claudio won’t mind. Claudio needn’t know. Claudio is the boyfriend,” Agnese explained to Gianni. “Anyway, Gianni is family, almost. I want to talk to him about so many things.”


*


Gianni supposed his welcome represented some sort of tribute Agnese wanted to pay to that vanished friendship, some sort of closure. The two of them discovered they had fashion and design interests in common. She showed him around proudly her shop and seemed to appreciate his careful praise. They talked about furniture and she had some useful contacts for him in Milan. Since he had no program he was in no hurry to go: why should he when beautiful women were happy that he stay? He couldn’t tell what Luciana thought about him – her signals ranged from the occasional quick warm smile to cool and studied indifference – but he did know that she was having a powerful effect on him. From that very first moment.


Luciana was a receptionist in the local museum, a job that Claudio had found for her. It was still the summer holiday period and next day was a Saturday. She would not be working although Agnese had to. She suggested Luciana show Gianni some local sights, for example she could take him to the summit of Monte Grappa.


“All right,” Luciana replied nonchalantly, amazingly. “Since Claudio has his cousin staying. I can’t stand her.”


For the rest of the evening Gianni put on a performance. They asked him about fabulously remote Australia. He could tell they didn’t want to hear about city life, the Italian community, things like that, but how the waters teemed with sharks and the deserts with kangaroos. He had been up and down the Queensland coast with Attilio and knew how to enhance these images. With yarns of how he’d coped with his car breaking down miles from anywhere, encounters with aboriginals in the bush, poisonous snakes and crocodiles and the flying doctor service. Fair enough that he should be the central player in the dramas. It all went down well.


He breakfasted with Agnese as Luciana was a late riser. She was seventeen, Agnese told Gianni to his astonishment. She had been a great support to her in the five years since there had just been the two of them. Gianni asked Agnese if she had thought of remarrying. She considered him as she rose to get more coffee, patted him on the cheek and told him the problem was not an absence of interest among her male acquaintances.


My husband was an exceptional man,” she said, “and my standards are very high.”


On a table below the window was a photo of Agnese and Luciana in ski gear at some resort. Next to it was a recent studio portrait of Luciana that he thought could be sent off with an application to a fashion model agency. A small bird outside seemed to be losing its battle to fly into the wind. Not a good day for going up the mountain, Agnese remarked. She went to tell her daughter that, and to hurry her up.


When Luciana entered the room Gianni watched her magnificent legs. She had her eyes on his when he lifted his gaze, and didn’t seem to mind. She said she would show him the town and was he ready? He saw then he was hopelessly underdressed: already in Naples scruffy tourists like him were as conspicuous as clowns or firemen would be. If he was to walk with this stunner in future he should get something smarter to wear. It seemed to amuse her. Perhaps she saw him as a quaint adornment, Kangaroo Man.


They went downhill into the town centre on pavements sometimes too narrow to be side by side and traversed one broad square and entered another. Luciana pointed to her place of work, the museum that looked more like part of a church. They took a cobbled street uphill again under colonnades to a bar at the top where the barman, the cashier and both of the patrons knew her well. She introduced Gianni as her cousin from Australia, and ordered coffee and pastry for both, paying before he could. She led the way to seats outside, lit a cigarette and offered one to Gianni.


Across the small piazza they were in was a quiet tree-lined road and beyond that were the mountains, fuzzily blue-green in the morning haze.


“You know Monte Grappa?” Luciana asked. Gianni shook his head and contemplated the spread of Alps. He wondered if she was referring to one of the peaks.

“That one, closest to us,” she said, indicating the chunky range across the valley. “It is very famous. In the first world war it was where the Italian Army defeated the Austrians. If they had failed, the enemy would have been able to capture the whole Po Valley.”


Gianni got up to get a better view. Luciana came with him and said that the mountain was not part of the Dolomites, they lay behind it. It stood by itself, nearly 2000 metres high. They leaned on a parapet wall below which, Gianni saw, ran the road down to the Capuchin convent. Luciana told him the mountain had been a hiding place for partisans in the second world war. Partisans? He wondered where he had heard the word before.


“The Resistance. Rebels. Against the Germans. It was hard to catch them up on the mountain at first. In the end many were caught, and some were hanged – on these trees.”


She turned and pointed to the line of trees flanking one side of the avenue they were in. Gianni remembered now. Attilio, somewhat contemptuously, had said his dad was a partisan. Gianni let it go – it was probably like a candlestick-maker or a wheelwright, some line of work you didn’t find nowadays.


Luciana said, “Come and see,” and stepped away from the parapet towards the nearest tree. She moved to the far side of the trunk and turned so that Monte Grappa was now again facing her. Gianni came and stood next to her. On the tree trunk was a small plaque. It had an oval black and white photograph of a young man. It said that he was an army lieutenant and that he had died on 26 September 1944. He had been hanged.


“Every tree is like this,” Luciana said. “There are thirty one.”


“This guy, he was a … partisan?”


“Of course.”


With his heart beginning to thump Gianni went to the next tree and then the next. The date was the same, the picture different. His father had died in Bassano, it would have been then, he could have been hanged. That was ignominious and horrible, that might have been why Attilio and Agnese had been so buttoned-up with him. He checked more trees. None of the surnames was his. The fourth tree had no photograph. The plaque simply said ‘Ignoto’ and the date. Several of the trees had this indication that the hanged man was someone unknown.


“What happened here?” Gianni asked. They had reached one end and turned to walk back the way they had come. “How come people without names got themselves hanged?”


“Well, I wasn’t even born then,” Luciana said. “But I know there were reprisals, ten had to die for every German soldier killed. That was official policy, there were notices up warning people about it.”


Gianni was numbed. Ten for one: how did they find them? Who were, these ten? Luciana said she wasn’t sure. She knew the Germans arrested people they suspected of being partisans, people for example caught with weapons because that wasn’t allowed.


“And my father,” Gianni said, “he was a partisan, too?’


Luciana shrugged. “It seems so. I think he was killed in the rastrellamento. Mamma never talks about him, though.”


“Rastrellamento – what’s that?”


“A sweep, a round-up. You know rastrello, it’s a garden rake. That September they rounded up many people, all the partisans on Monte Grappa. There was a lot of fighting up there. Prisoners were brought down here and hanged.”


A motor scooter gargled past them, the only sound in the stillness. Gianni couldn’t think of anything to say. They reached the first tree in the avenue and continued on, into a quiet part of the old town. They passed some old houses and then began descending steep steps to the river. At the bottom they came to a bridge made entirely of wood but roofed over with the same mellow orange tiles of the buildings above. It was for pedestrians only. They crossed, bought fruit-flavoured ice creams at a gelateria and returned to the middle of the bridge. The Brenta thrashed and lunged by underneath. Luciana said the bridge had been destroyed many times and always rebuilt, sometimes after floods but usually because of wars. The last time had been when the partisans blew it up. She showed him a plaque commemorating the event.

She left him there saying she had some things to do and people to see that afternoon. Gianni wandered about until he found a bar where he could sit outside, have a beer, read the paper, watch people go by. Most of the time he thought about Luciana.


He bought flowers for Agnese and found her in the shop, closing up for the day. She greeted him cheerfully and wanted to know what he and Luciana had been up to, how he had spent his time. He told her they had been to the avenue where the trees had been gallows. He said it was hard, for him anyway, to conceive of those times. War had been just a nasty blank for him, a fat photo album of boring pages of fuzzy shots of rubble. And now suddenly all these portraits of dead boys, hanging from the trees. How did that happen, what was it about, how were they caught?


“We have a little time before Luciana comes back,” Agnese said then. “Why don’t we sit down and have a glass of Campari. I could tell you something of what it was like here then, if you wish.”


She went into the kitchen and came back with glasses and ice and lemon. After they had toasted each other Agnese said she wasn’t sure where to start, she would do a sort of a newsreel for him, the pictures she remembered. She told him how the girls at her school had loved their uniforms and the little routines and disciplines, hearing their teachers recite for them the glorious national achievements, dressing up for parades; and how once she had got a glimpse of the Duce, when her mother lifted her up in the crowd. Then like a lovely autumn sliding to winter the exhilarations of those days changed and lost their leaves and grew cooler and finally cold. The victories turned slowly into defeats. The sweet times slowly soured and the edges got harder and the belt gradually tightened. Things that used to be available could no longer be bought and a time of actual hunger came when there was nothing to eat.


She said you got to hear droning overhead and terrific explosions, houses you walked past yesterday were smoking ruins and you saw broken-doll figures put in the back of a truck. Every night there was a curfew but it could come at any time, to catch renegades and outlaws of every kind who were harming the war effort. There were whispers of assassinations and the blowing up of convoys that led to the desperate shortages and the black market. Women would bring home by train food strapped to their belly, pretending to be pregnant and a dropped a bottle of oil could cost someone their life. People cheated and betrayed each other to survive. Life, if nothing else, was cheap.


Agnese told Gianni that fascism was different after Mussolini had been imprisoned by the king and then liberated in a raid by German commandos. Everyone became paranoid about security especially with the new units like the blackshirts and the SS. The Germans, she said, were then completely in charge, that was a big difference. They were not all bad, there were lots of kind ones billeted in families in their area and people accepted them like you accept the police, so you could sleep safely. But you could never forget the jackboots on the pavements nor the roadblocks and the terror of being questioned. You knew there were some who had no explanation for why they were out and about or else who panicked and who were shot on the spot.


Agnese’s parents had no quarrel with the government and for them life was tolerable until the Germans surrendered. Then came frightful days of chaos. The Veneto region was the funnel between Germany and Italy, where most was at stake and where passions were highest. Communists and former fascists, Slav partisans and army deserters, German soldiers in hiding and criminals and those seeking personal revenge – every man you saw coming towards you could be armed, unpredictable and lethally dangerous. It was one reason why she lost touch with his mother who had gone to Trieste before the war ended. Agnese had her own baby then and Trieste was an inaccessible island in an ocean of anarchy.


Gianni had been sitting on the edge of the armchair during the telling. Every now and then he had grunted or frowned or shown some small shock, all totally inadequate. Agnese had come to a halt and there was no appropriate summary he could make, no suitable question he could put. He seized on one of the last things she had said.


“Your baby… that wouldn’t have been Luciana?”


“No,” Agnese said, lighting a cigarette and looking remarkably composed, as she had been throughout her account. “That was Luciana’s older brother. He lives in Nuremberg. I had another baby boy, but he died.”


Before Gianni could say how sorry he was Agnese went quickly on. After the unimaginable war and destruction came the unimaginable cleaning up. The frantic rebuilding, the efforts to generate money in a world of poverty. Everyone worked like crazy. Some did go crazy. Others went away. Whole families, half a village at a time emigrated, to America, Brazil, Australia. Eventually they didn’t have to. It was like the aftermath of a devastating flood. Although much had been washed away it was possible to breathe again, for things to grow again.


“We have a new life,” Agnese said, as they both heard the sound of the front door unlocking. Luciana came in and spirits at once lifted.


*


The next day was Sunday and the subject of Monte Grappa came up again at breakfast. Agnese was going to Mass but she could take the two of them to the summit first and leave them there to find their own way down. It was agreed. They could be back in time for lunch. It was a warm end-of-summer day as they got into Agnese’s Fiat 850, Gianni in the back. From somewhere on the periphery of Bassano they began spiralling up the mountain that dominated the town. Each vertiginous hairpin bend seemed to Gianni like a mechanical arm pressing the plain further and further below.


At the top was a sprawl of monuments and memorials. After Agnese dropped off Luciana took Gianni on a tour and told him what she recalled from school. About a terrible defeat in 1917 whereupon the armies of Austria and Hungary poured through the Alpine valleys towards the flat land beyond, being checked only at this last stronghold. Fighting had gone on for a year in trenches with hand to hand combat and gas. Over twenty thousand had died in these mountains, more than half of them Italians.


She left Gianni to look at some of the things on his own. He let his mind wander vaguely on the idea of war in these mountaintops, the gunfire and the shouts. What he was actually hearing were boys calling out. In the direction he had seen Luciana go. He took a dozen paces and saw her on a level below by a large stone tablet. Three teenagers, one of them in a Juventus football jumper, on a low wall to one side were making what sounded like rude remarks to her in dialect.


“Leave her alone!” Gianni ordered, hurrying down towards them.


They all stood up and were taller than him. They seemed rather pleased he had made an appearance. Juventus, handsome and athletic, crossed his arms and leered at him truculently. He said, “Is there something you want?”


“She’s with me. Bugger off before you get hurt.”


Juventus found this funny and turned to pull a face at his companions, making the mistake of bending marginally closer to Gianni as he did so. Gianni felled him with the back of his fist to the side of his head, a sweeping movement like clearing a mantelpiece in a rage, with a force that sent his adversary spinning before he hit the ground. Nobody else moved. The prone youth moaned and put one hand to his face.


Gianni’s fist hummed pleasantly, ready for more. He shouldn’t overdo it. He said, “Let’s go,” and taking Luciana by the elbow began walking unhurriedly away. From the corner of his eye he watched the two other boys helping their comrade to his feet. When they were out of sight Luciana stopped and looked at him. Gorgeous eyes judging him.


“I think you fight a lot,” she said. Her tone was one of disapproval but Gianni suspected, hoped for an underlying admiration.


“When I have to,” he granted. “People shouldn’t get away with that sort of behaviour. Towards a woman.”


“I can deal with boys like that without any help,” Luciana retorted, this time with no ambiguity. “And you didn’t have to hit him.”


He didn’t want to argue. They began their descent down a series of grassy swathes and steepnesses. The world tilted down, empty, they were wholly on their own. They followed a gravel creek bed and then a rough path between rocks to a level platform where they caught their breath and took in the view. Through the haze the flat farmland seemed strangely far and giddily near. Ten minutes later, in a little valley cupped between dense stands of trees, some wet leaves slipped under Gianni’s foot and he fell heavily, wrenching his ankle. The pain was excruciating but he managed not to cry out. He did, however, whimper.


Luciana was as adept at first aid as she was at climbing. She removed the scarf she was wearing, despite Gianni’s protesting it was far too chic, and tied it tightly around his ankle. Then while he was drawing a deep breath wondering if it would hurt to stand on the ankle and whether he might have to admit defeat she put a palm on each of his shoulders and kissed him full on the mouth. He fell back on the grass bank more out of surprise than anything, although it did seem a good way to go. She landed on top of him.


Gianni had not had the experience before of the girl making the first move on the first date. His initial thought was fatuous: that he was being taken advantage of. He almost laughed at the notion until Luciana’s hand dived inside his pants and seized him. His breath was cut for an instant but he was quickly breathing again and his hands were on her breasts and buttons were yielding. He wanted to get on top but she wouldn’t let him. He was wedged in folds of hillside with his head pointing down and sharp bits to left and right prevented him from pivoting. Luciana was pumping away at him and after a useless contortion he gave up, taking comfort in her lickable grabbable softnesses until he jacked and jerked and lay panting exhausted.


After the shortest of pauses she got off him. He levered himself into a position where he looked less helpless, less like the bloke in the Juventus jumper when they had left him. His effort to right himself caused him to jar his ankle and cry out. He was sticky and sorry for himself. Luciana, standing over him, looked pleased.


“Enough now. We had better get you back home.”


With slithering and hopping and hugged support from Luciana the descent was not as awful as Gianni had feared. At the bottom he found he could hobble along reasonably well. They arrived at the shop without misadventure and he was able to put his leg up on a cushion. His ankle began to swell. Luciana got iceblocks and a proper bandage and organised his foot. He stroked her thigh when she stood up but she moved out of range.


Several times during the afternoon, determined not to lose the momentum, he tried to get Luciana on her own. She smiled and humoured him, brushing against him, but he was like a tethered bulldog. The one time he made an effort to lunge he was checked by a stab of agony and she warned him to take care or he would be out of action for ages. That evening as he was making his way to bed along the narrow passageway she gave him a deep tongued kiss. This was maddening as just then Agnese was opening the bathroom door. They had to move quickly apart with all three of them self-consciously wishing each other good night.


On the Monday morning the swelling in his ankle had gone down and he was able to walk with a mild limp. Luciana did his bandage again, this time binding him up clinically and quickly and her mind seem to be elsewhere. When he caught her wrist she broke free flicking it against his thumb like a professional wrestler.


“You’ll come by the museum later?” she asked him, as though nothing had happened. “If you come about ten we could have coffee together.” And with that she picked up her bag and left, without breakfast and without a farewell. He walked into the kitchen testing his foot and concluding that while he could move well on level ground he should avoid stairs and mountains for a while.


When it was time to go into town he moved gingerly down the street until he reached the main square. He was early but he could wait. The entrance to the museum led to cloisters, a quadrangle of arches opening onto bright green lawn. On the farther side he came to a reception area. Luciana was there talking to a swarthy good-looking young man who beamed at her as if everything she said was amusing. She made a gesture of recognition at Gianni and pointed towards a bench where he could wait. He sat there with ill grace. Still deep in converation Luciana and the young man went off to another room. Eventually she came out on her own.


“Hello,” Gianni said, with a caustic edge to his voice, “Is that the boyfriend?”


“That is Mustafa,” she said, as though to a child. “He is a research student. This is the main library as well as the museum. We can have coffe, but I need to tell them first.” She did not come back until exactly ten o’clock. With no comment on the delay she led him to a bar nearby. The coffee break was brief and Luciana insisted on standing at the counter where she could chat with the barman.


In the afternoon they took a bus along the Brenta valley, getting off in a village Luciana had evidently visited before. They walked along the one street flanked by grey cottages, grains of sand below the huge boulder of Monte Grappa stacked above them. Still hobbling Gianni took Luciana’s arm and allowed her to help him up a slope on the side of the mountain and onto a track that jinked back on itself and climbed steadily. He paused every so often to rest his ankle, assuring her he was all right. They left all signs of habitation behind and below them and entered a forested valley with the sun shining down on one side.


Gianni was about to say it made no sense to go higher when he saw what she was up to. It gave him only a small qualm to realise how well she knew the suitability of this place. He followed her up a track to a slightly higher level where there was a secluded glade. She sat down on the bed of needles, testing it for softness and to see that it was dry, and patted the space alongside for him to occupy. He lowered himself approvingly. His hopes rose.


This, Gianni thought next, is what is meant by heaven on earth. Luciana lay below him and her chestnut hair streamed on either side of her beautiful face. The oval of it passed from shade to sunlight with each forward movement of his, propped straight-armed as he was and gazing down. Her eyes had been closed but they opened suddenly to laugh into his for a while before closing, while her fingernails closed in on his waist and cut into his skin to accelerate him. His ankle pain competed with his skin pain momentarily and then it was a different sort of race and Gianni and Luciana burst over the line together, puffing and panting and lying eventually still.


They smoked cigarettes afterwards and Gianni congratulated her, as innocently as he could, on discovering the pine needle bed that day.


“I came here with my dad once,” she said. “We picnicked here and then went up that path all the way to the top. The sun shone through the trees, then, like it’s doing now and I always remembered it as somewhere special. But until this morning I just thought it would be good to come back to for picnics.”


He said, “Right!” mockingly, mimicking her, not caring if it was the truth. She had said, “Right!” in that same ironic way when they first landed on the pine needles and he had produced a condom after some fumbling in his hip pocket. They were like each other, using each other, hooked for the moment into each other.


That evening Agnese may well have suspected something from the way both of them failed to muffle their high spirits. She told Luciana while she was giggling at a weak witticism of Gianni’s that Claudio had called. Luciana frowned and got up to make the call from the hallway, shutting the door behind her. Gianni could hear the murmuring of a long conversation. When she came back she told them both she was going to have an early night.


In the morning Gianni repeated his routine of the previous day, arriving at the museum not long before ten. Mustafa, still looking inanely pleased with himself, was again talking to Luciana, although this time across the counter. He followed Luciana’s gaze towards the advancing Gianni and seemed to decide it was time to make himself scarce. He scooped up some papers they might have been discussing and stuffed them into his briefcase. Perhaps Luciana had forewarned him. He brushed past Gianni as he left.


The door linking the foyer to the inner offices opened and a dapper little man of about forty came out. He was evidently in a hurry. Luciana said “Claudio…” to him but he just had time to nod at her before also exiting. Gianni could have whooped with glee. Claudio might have been a good match for Agnese herself, elegant to his bootheels. Self-important, slighter and no taller than Gianni, he was thinning fast on top. If he wanted to Gianni could lift him up by his collar for inspection. But he was probably Luciana’s boss.


Over coffee he asked Luciana about Claudio. Was he her mother’s idea of the ideal boyfriend? No, Claudio had been her own choice. He was fun, reliable, he had the clearest ideas, he was certainly going places. Not too old, though, Gianni wondered aloud. She didn’t deign to offer a comment or turn her head away as she exhaled. He glared at her through the smoke. She said she had to get back and hastened to the museum ahead of him as though she had had enough of him for the time being.


She was still in a sour mood when she returned home from work in the afternoon but in some way that Gianni couldn’t fathom this worked in his favour. Although Agnese was practically within earshot, and perhaps because of that, Luciana initiated some intense sex, performed wordlessly and almost without breathing. At least the bed didn’t creak and the floors of these old buildings were solid respecters of privacy.


Afterwards they went for another walk that took them down the avenue of martyrs with its yearning panorama of the mountains and its macabre round-topped trees. Halfway along they paused to sit on the parapet. With a kink of his head in the direction of the trees Gianni asked her what her own father had done during the war. Had he been a soldier?


“No,” she replied, “he was always asthmatic and failed the medical. He was too young for the army until near the end of the war. He got some job then with the government, I think. But I never heard him talk about it.”


“Which government?”


“The Italian government of course. The Duce’s government. Our family were good fascists. Like your mother’s family.”


Gianni hadn’t realised this and looked at Monte Grappa while he digested this information. Of course Attilio had been locked up during the war, as a supporter of Mussolini. Or so the Australian authorities maintained, anyway. He told Luciana that and she burst out laughing. She said it was precisely because Attilio couldn’t stand fascism that he had run away to Australia. After the Duce came to power. Attilio’s family never forgave him for that and cursed him when they could.


“Wow,” Gianni said, with a sudden thought how it must have been for his parents, “I don’t suppose Loredana’s family were happy she was going out with a partisan.”


“It was like Romeo and Juliet!” Luciana declared. He thought she was teasing him but then it was her turn to look into the unfocused distance. She went on, “Mamma told me once it was romantic, in one sense. Impossible love. But, she said, your father was a bandit and she still blames him for what happened to your mother. After he was executed her family didn’t want her in the house so she had to leave. It was a tragedy.”


*


As Gianni arrived at the museum next morning he could hear voices raised, three of them. An argument was in progress involving the gorgeous Luciana, the lunatic Arab and a man he had not seen before who was evidently in charge of something important. Gianni kept back, just inside the entrance to the reception area.


It seemed a book was missing and that it was the fault either of Luciana or Mustafa, who was smirking as usual but mirthlessly. The authority-figure, a tall man with steel-rimmed glasses and bushy eyebrows that seemed stitched together in fury, was leaning over the others telling them the book was vitally needed elsewhere and he wanted a prompt explanation. Mustafa claimed he had borrowed it and brought it back, leaving it in the usual place on the counter. Luciana recalled his borrowing it but said she hadn’t found it on the counter nor of course put it back where it should normally be, and added that Mustafa was a good and reliable user of the library facilities.


The man in glasses seemed to have decided that it was Luciana’s fault. She turned asked Mustafa it were possible he still had it at home, could he look? He shook his head muttering something. He was facing Gianni who detected equivocation. The argument ended with the man in glasses shepherding Luciana inside for either a thorough search of the premises or a good dressing-down or both. Mustafa left the museum. Gianni, seeing that coffee was not on for the present, followed him.


At first he had no particular purpose in mind. Mustafa, twenty paces ahead of him, was a man on a mission. Was it to go home and look for the book? Gianni doubted it: Mustafa had glanced at his watch and then when one of the town clocks began chiming the hour speeded up his pace as though he was late for something. Gianni resolved to have the issue out with him before Luciana got into more hot water. He broke into a jog and caught up with Mustafa in a narrow side street, calling his name. Mustafa stopped in surprise.


“That argument at the museum,” Gianni said, with no attempt at being polite, “have you got the book? Are you going to see if you do have it?”


Mustafa, well dressed, educated, smart in every way, smiled like an academic. His Italian was better than Gianni’s. “My friend, this is not your business. But the answer to your two questions is no.”


Mustafa turned away but Gianni stepped in front of him and said, “Do you mean you’re not going to double-check, straight away, while Luciana’s in trouble back there?”


“I have a doctor’s appointment,” Mustafa said. Gianni by now had real doubts on the veracity and credibility of this bloke. “Excuse me.”


“No you don’t,” Gianni said. “Back to your place. This is important.”


Mustafa pushed him aside and Gianni hit him in the stomach. It was not a hard blow but it doubled Mustafa up, first banging him sideways against the wall and next bouncing him off a step that led to a large doorway. His head may have struck the wall or the step because when he came to rest at the foot of the step he didn’t immediately move. Coming down the street were two men in pale suits who may or not have seen what had happened and seemed to have quickened their pace. Gianni on reflex stepped back the other way, around the corner and out of sight. He must make himself scarce. If Mustafa needed any attention he was probably getting it at this moment.


Rather than go back to the museum he went along one of the streets towards the river. This was not the first time he had found himself in a situation like this, far from it. But he was in a foreign country now and unsure how people might respond to something as insignificant as had just happened. Mustafa had pushed him, he had pushed Mustafa and the weak bugger had folded. But he had mentioned a doctor’s appointment. There could be a problem there.


He decided to go back to the museum and tell Luciana everything, get her on side. Outside the museum, however, he saw a policeman with possibly one of the men who had been coming along when he and Mustafa had their argument. A man in a fawn-coloured suit, who went into the museum with the policeman. If they knew about the museum, Gianni thought, they would have heard about it from Mustafa who may not have been hurt at all. On the other hand Mustafa had recognised him from the museum. Gianni accordingly was likely to be asked to help the police with their enquiries, especially if Mustafa laid charges. This would be grossly unfair if the little bastard still had Luciana’s book and intended leaving her in the mess she was in.


The best person to advise him was Agnese. He could see through the shop window that she had a customer with her. Between them was a bust on a wooden pedestal with something draped on it. The customer was presumably having a dress made for her and this could take some time. He couldn’t hover about in full view outside in the street so roamed around the neighbourhood, checking back every so often, until eventually he found Agnese was alone in there. She saw him and beckoned to him.


She lit a cigarette and watched him impassively as he told her the story of Mustafa. He stressed to her, with emphatic gestures, that in every aspect of this saga he, Gianni, was looking out for Luciana, protecting her interests, whereas Mustafa, quite clearly, was a slippery worm. Agnese said she had met Mustafa and he had struck her as a nice well-behaved and trustworthy boy. Gianni said he had not been nice to Luciana that morning, letting her take the rap when he could at least have gone home to look for the book. Agnese replied that she understood Mustafa didn’t even live in Bassano. Luciana had told her he was staying with other Egyptians in a village some distance away.


This was of limited interest to Gianni now. What he needed to know, he told Agnese, was what she thought about his situation. Were the police going to make things difficult for him? What was the best course of action?


“They’ll carry out an investigation if a complaint has been made,” Agnese said. “And you might have to go before a magistrate.”


Gianni didn’t like the sound of that. Dealing with the police was straightforward, he had had enough practice. Even in this country he was confident of putting forward a version of events that would be hard to prove or disprove and would lead to his being completely exonerated. Especially if the book turned up at the Egyptian’s place. But how long might it all take, he asked Agnese, since he couldn’t stay here for ever. He had to get back home sooner or later.


She looked at him with less friendliness than at any time since he had arrived. “How serious are you about Luciana?” she demanded, quite rudely, he thought.


“I like her a lot,” he answered honestly. “She’s a lovely girl, beautiful. I’ve become, well, very fond of her.”


“She has taken to you, you know,” Agnese said. “She is more serious about you than she has been before with someone of her age. Claudio…. Well that’s a serious business, too. But it’s in a different category. You could say, in a way, that you come first.”


Gianni thought he knew where this was leading, and was more alarmed than he had been about the prospect of an interview with a magistrate. While he was thinking up a suitable reply Agnese pre-empted him.


“Could you imagine living here, in Italy, Gianni?” He shook his head. He hadn’t given it any consideration whatsoever until she had put the question to him. A wave of homesickness for Brisbane swept over him.


“Because,” Agnese continued, “I can’t imagine Luciana living in Australia. I can’t do without her, not like that.”


“What should I do then?” Gianni said. He wasn’t used to being so helpless. He had put on helpless acts before with women and it usually produced good results. This wasn’t an act, and it wasn’t going down at all well with Agnese.


“I think you should go, Gianni,” she said. “Now. Because the police and then the magistrate will want you to stay in Bassano. You might be here some time. And if you’re not serious about Luciana, and I can see you’re not, not the way we understand that here, then the longer you stay the more you will hurt her.”


He frowned at the injustice of this but that only seemed to egg her on. She said, “You have many faults, Gianni, such as conceit and bullying, that go with your many gifts. You are positive and sure of yourself. You will not be hurt at all by your fling with Luciana.”


“Can I say goodbye to her?” Gianni didn’t know what to make of Agnese’s insults delivered so placidly. He couldn’t help agreeing with her recommendation that he make himself scarce, now. But to go just like that…. This was something else he didn’t normally do. He began to feel that Bassano was to blame, the whole country was. He ought to get out of it as soon he could.

Agnese shook her head and said she would make his farewells to Luciana. She would do it in a way that distressed her the least. Gianni could guess that this meant painting such a picture of him that Luciana would conclude she was well rid of him. He asked if he could leave a message. Agnese gave him a pen and a piece of paper, but as nothing he tried to commit to it sounded any good he abandoned the exercise. He would call her, he told Agnese, when he got the chance.

As he packed his few things she asked him where he was going to go next. Milan, he told her, deciding there and then to salvage something from the Italy trip, by visiting a furniture factory or two. It could be something to assuage any rancour Attilio might have, if word got back to him about the fracas in Bassano.

“You’d best go by train,” Agnese told him. “I’ll run you down to Vicenza, the connection is better there.”

Gianni could see she didn’t want him in town. Moreover the Bassano railway station might be a bad place to hang out at right now. They drove in a strained silence.

“Tell Luciana I’ll really miss her,” Gianni said as he got out of the Fiat, again lamenting the adequacy of his words. He was almost ready to tell Agnese he had changed his mind – he was serious about Luciana, in the local way. She said, “I’ll tell her,” and pulled the passenger door shut. He watched her drive off.

He was glad to get on the train, he felt free again. Bassano had threatened to box him in, with the police looking for him, Agnese wanting to tie him down with Luciana and the past wanting to suck him in. It was good to race along the Lombardy plain. But the two girls sitting opposite, pretty as they were, could not stand comparison with Luciana. His mind wandered. Every now and then the sight of a farmhouse all on its own or a stand of trees dinned identity into his head, and family family family.


                                 


                                 Resistance



Tommaso knew his mother had died when he woke to a low mooing groan of his father in the double bed on the other side of the room. His own slow surfacing through layers of consciousness was ripped forward by shrieks from the girls and a crashing and cursing from Vittorio who could not get away quickly enough and out into the sleet. Her death caused anguish but not surprise. It brought to an end the torment she had suffered through the winter without complaint although Tommaso had often noticed her haggard with the effort of keeping her pain to herself. Hers was a trivial local disaster, one extra boulder from the heights alongside the deaths the week before of Signor Trevisan’s brother hit by a German truck, of two sons of a neighbour lost separately in Russia and Greece and of a farming couple in the valley murdered by criminals or partisans.


For the final weeks all in the house had hemmed in their emotions. They had done their midwinter tasks in silence, practically holding their breaths. The only sounds were the animals below shuffling and snorting plus the whispers, pot-clattering and whimpers of a family failing to come to terms with the wrenching away of its unifying member. For a day or so after his mother’s death Tommaso took charge of her burial and the consolation and guiding of his two younger sisters. He ignored his father who mostly sat stock still on a hardbacked chair staring in front of him, and Vittorio who kept well away hauling absurd amounts of wood or closeted below with the livestock. It was abundantly clear to Tommaso – a renegade and a danger, a non-contributor, an extra mouth to feed and a short-tempered source of tension for all of them – that he had no future at home and should leave as soon as the weather permitted it.


It had been a mild winter, here in the crook of the mountain sheltering Schievenin. He stayed outside much of the time, helping Vittorio with the milking or Lina with her efforts at bird-catching. She had fashioned a net of strings and shreds of material, draped around a frame of sticks. The rock wall behind their house was a good place to ambush the sparrows, quails, a blackbird once, that might end up in the pot to vary their diet. Lina was spent hours hidden near the scattered breadcrumbs with a hand ready on a string to trigger the contrivance down on the prey. Tommaso had to finish them off by wringing their necks. More and more he thought how like theirs was his own situation, just as trapped. He was sick of polenta and cheese. They had run out of chestnuts weeks ago, and salami and salt and sugar. Their one feast of a sick goat was a distant memory.


Two weeks after the catastrophe Tommaso got his first news that year of anything in the outside world. It was brought by Sandro tapping on the door early one morning when only Vittorio was up. A dandruff of frost speckled the landscape and a chill wind blew in hard behind Sandro who was anyway impatient to get inside. He had heard from his uncle about Tommaso’s mother and murmured his condolences. The two had not seen each other since Padova and much had changed since September. Sandro was no longer the round-shouldered and furtive fellow-recruit clever at keeping out of trouble and heavy duties in the barracks. He was Vipera, battle-scarred leader of men in the high mountains, hardened by a full winter’s exposure to the elements and to gunshot.


Lina, Flora and even Tommaso’s father were grateful for the distraction of Sandro’s arrival. They listened attentively to his personal edge-of-death stories which he made sound as normal as pneumonia or landslides. He was also able to tell them about the military call-up of young men in November and the fate of those thousands of volunteers – not nearly as many as expected, however – who had been sent to Germany. And he had word of strikes taking place that very week in the main cities of the north, brought on by famished workers railing against conditions generally and against the occupation in particular. Sandro spattered his account with invective against the nazis and fascists, and Tommaso was surprised to see his father occasionally nod.


An hour later the wind had dropped and a weak sun was slanting through clouds to the valley. Tommaso walked with Sandro part of the way along the path up the mountain. Their shared history was a bond that kept them to some extent on an equal footing but Tommaso was conscious of a new arrogance in his friend’s manner especially when he referred to his multiple adversaries. These were not only the nazi and fascist oppressors but also their own fellow-countrymen with different ideals and programs, the catholics, the monarchists and the regular army. Not concealing how mundane and eventless his own experience had mostly been Tommaso told Sandro about his time up the massif with Zolfo and his group whom he understood to be socialists.


“You don’t actually know?” Sandro asked, finding this hard to believe.


“I couldn’t have cared less,” Tommaso replied. “It wasn’t important to any of us, except Zolfo and Gabriele. “Someone said we were socialists because we had the socialist corner of the Grappa to look after. We didn’t talk politics.”


Politics, Sandro told him patiently, was everything. It was the utterly necessary business of thinking about and planning for the end of the war. The critical task, after the inevitable nazi-fascist defeat, was to make sure the spoils went neither to the Anglo-Americans nor to their Italian lackeys. At least Tommaso had not signed up with the catholics. He asked which groups were represented on the mountain and in what strength but Tommaso had no idea.


“No matter,” Sandro said. “I’m going up there to find out. And to meet my comrades with the Garibaldi Brigade. You could come with me if you like and join them. Or else come back with me to the Vette. It would be worth it either way, you know. Doing what’s right. No point hanging about here until they arrest you.”


They proceeded in silence while Tommaso considered these proposals. He thought of Zolfo’s raggle-taggle soldiery and the weapons that floated down from the night sky and Pasquale grinning in death. He thought of Loredana tempting him like Satan to come in and see her father and sign up for the new republican forces. He thought of the stifling conditions at home and the lowering presences of his father and Vittorio. He yearned for a middle way between all the hard choices, some valley or malga between the sheer cliffs, and he knew he would say no to Sandro as he had to Loredana.


“I’m going back to join Zolfo,” he told Sandro who heard it from his lips almost before the notion had taken proper form in Tommaso’s own mind. Now that it had been spoken out loud it became true. They had stopped and it was time to turn back. Having made his declaration Tommaso spat into the bushes to confirm it. He wondered then if the spittle would freeze but it hung wetly. His resolve, however, was hard and fast.


Sandro seemed neither shocked nor disappointed by his decision. He might have been reading his mind because he asked then whether Tommaso had seen anything of Loredana. Tommaso looked at him sharply. Yes he had, just the other day, thanks to his uncle. How had it gone? Not very well.


Tommaso had got a lift down to Pederobba with Signor Trevisan. He had not told him why he wanted to go down the mountain nor checked whether he could get a lift back. He had simply said at the bottom he would find his own way home. He had no plan, it was a spur of the moment thing. On the way down he convinced himself that whatever happened that morning was at least something positive. That was what he told Sandro. He didn’t add that the nearer he got to where Loredana lived.the more different terrors seized him.


It would be risky for an army deserter to loiter in public and suicide to hang around outside the house of a fascist official. He walked past it, glancing quickly at the windows, continuing as far as the general store where people were queuing to buy rice. He was about to turn and go back when he spotted Enrico ahead, coming his way. He went towards him as though that had been his intention all along. Enrico greeted him in nervous sotto voce, asking what he was doing there. Had he decided at last to turn himself in? They walked back past the store, Enrico on his way home. Tommaso told him nothing had changed, he had just come to see Loredana if it were possible and he hoped Enrico might help him. Enrico said he very much doubted it.


Tommaso was banished to the far side of the waste ground next to the house, where an old car had been abandoned. He was told to keep out of sight behind it and Enrico would see if Loredana could at least come to the window. His father would probably be at home. Maybe she could escape for a minute or two. But at any rate Enrico would be able to tell her Tommaso had come, that was surely better than nothing.


It was immensely frustrating. Tommaso waited in his hiding place chilled to the bone, rewarded immediately by the sight of Loredana at the upstairs window. She stopped long enough to face his way but she might not even have seen him for she turned aside at once and vanished. Then more than an hour went by with no movement whatever except for the arrival at the front door of people who went into the house. Eventually Loredana reappeared, beckoning him towards her. He hurried forward but when he was halfway across she put up her hand, looked to her left and gave a hopeless shrug of both shoulders. While he was still thinking of calling her name she had gone. He retreated behind the car but it was becoming too cold to stay any longer. He gave up, came home and had felt miserable ever since.


“You have to make another effort,” Sandro said. “See her again, but out of the house. Get Enrico to arrange it.” He added, “You owe it to her. You’ve got to tell her where she stands.”


“She knows I’m mad about her,” Tommaso retorted indignantly.


“No, that’s not what I meant,” Sandro said. “You have to tell her you’re going with the partisans and you’re doing it for her. Because she should make no mistake, her family is doomed. When the war ends, the fascists….” And here Sandro drew his finger slicing across his throat. Then he went on, “You’re her best chance, maybe her only chance. Of course when it comes to the crunch to save her you would have to move very smartly.”


Tommaso stood there speechless. Sandro slapped him on the shoulder and said he had to go. The two of them hugged perfunctorily and each promised to make an effort to catch up in the months ahead. Then Sandro was off, trotting up the mule-track, pausing before it twisted out of sight behind rocks to give Tommaso a final wave.


He had no way of evaluating Sandro’s prophecies and brooded over them for several days. Sandro had talked of doing what was right, as if he knew what that was. Tommaso certainly didn’t. Once, not that long ago, he thought he knew what was good and loyal and required by duty but the upheavals these past months had been worse than the Cansiglio earthquake. All certainties, truth and fact, were destroyed in this war. Sandro told his family the Russians were winning everywhere while the Anglo-American armies were stuck in the mud in the south. Perhaps his information came from Signor Trevisan who had told Tommaso in the truck the other day he knew what was really going on, then put his finger on his lips. It was a confidence between them.


The following day Tommaso went down to see him, in drenching rain. He found Signor Trevisan unloading boxes from the truck and glad of the offer of help. When they had finished Signor Trevisan wondered if Tommaso would like a cup of milk. He asked if he had seen Sandro the day before. Tommaso nodded, and added that Sandro seemed positive the Germans were losing the war. Was it true?


“Come with me,” Signor Trevisan said. He took him into his house, larger and neater than Tommaso’s and less cramped. He and his wife shared it with only two daughters. He led the way to the loft, a store room with a book case at the far end. He removed some books from one shelf and behind it was a radio.

“Bo-bo-bo-bom!” said Signor Trevisan, and smiled at Tommaso’s mystification. “That’s how Radio London begins its broadcasts. They tell us everything. The battles, the defeats, even their own setbacks. Sometimes they give the names of pilots who might be prisoners here. Do you know what they reported yesterday?”


Tommaso shook his head. Signor Trevisan went on, “They said the nazis had massacred more than three hundred people in Rome. They did that as a reprisal, because a bomb went off, a partisan bomb, and thirty nazi police were killed.”


“Do they think the nazis will lose the war?” Tommaso asked.


“Of course they do! The Anglo-Americans and the Russians are advancing. It’s just a matter of time.” Signor Trevisan inclined his head towards the window. The hillside below them glistened and undulated in grey and green with rivulets cascading down either side of the track against a distant backdrop of cloud-shrouded hills. “Unfortunately the nazis will fight every inch of the way back to Germany. In our very own alleys.”


“Sandro says we must attack them in the rear,” Tommaso said. “I was with people at Marostica for a while who said that would only mean bloody reprisals. Like the ones on Radio London.”


Signor Trevisan said each person in this war had to make up his own mind, some lying low and some joining one side or the other. Tommaso’s enlisting in the army at the outset had been correct and his joining the rebels later had also been appropriate. He was sure that what Tommaso decided on next would also be the right course.


Tommaso agreed. He said he was going to go up the mountain again. But he needed to do something first. Could Signor Trevisan take him down to Pederobba one more time, so he could say goodbye to his girlfriend? Signor Trevisan laughed boisterously and said of course he would. He sobered up at once, however, when he heard that the girl in question belonged to a fascist household. The two of them would have to meet somewhere else. Tommaso told him about Enrico who worked in a mechanical repair shop in the village. Signor Trevisan knew the place. He would use the excuse that his old truck needed some parts and that way get a message to Enrico.


A few days later, something had been arranged and Signor Trevisan took Tommaso to the far side of Pederobba before turning up the rough lane to the garage. The other two men who normally worked there were making a delivery in Bassano and would be away for more than an hour. Enrico was able to get away home to whisper to Loredana that her presence at the garage was needed.


Tommaso sat alone in the front seat waiting for her, trying to stay calm. He could manage it if he filled his lungs with air and pretended that was all that there was in his head. But when he breathed out through his mouth somehow thoughts streamed in behind and rioted between his ears. All the foolishness of fighting on the mountaintop with Zolfo and risking dangling in the valley like Pasquale became one ferocious hand-to-hand campaign with heroism and hate and love and loyalty in black shirts and helmets with tricolour pennants and platoons of enemy soldiers all looking like Loredana racing to embrace him. He began sweating, berating himself – or was it out loud? – ‘Pull yourself together! Pull yourself together!’ He almost shrieked when the passenger door opened suddenly and she was there, scrambling in. Enrico and Signor Trevisan had retreated outside to smoke.


“Tommaso! Are you all right?” Loredana looked scared. She had not yet shut the door and seemed as if she might yet slide back away from him. He had turned towards her but had not properly focused. In the mirror he saw the tufts of hair above his forehead where he had wiped the sweat away now sticking madly up. He felt his eyes would be disturbingly wide so he screwed them shut before opening them abruptly, with a broad and he hoped reassuring smile directly at her. She was frozen as though in a photograph, one hand on the top of the van door and the other just in front of her knee, near him.


He had been running through his mind for days what he would say to her. He had expected to see her coming towards him, to be able to encourage her as the distance narrowed so that her shyness would give way to the warmth she must feel for him and which he believed he had seen in her window last week. He would greet her with a blend of casualness and consideration, and they would talk about his sensible and temporary absenting of himself from harm’s way. But nothing had prepared him for his own lunacy which besides making him appear frightful had now also paralysed his power of speech. He noticed and followed as though to underline his mental and physical disorder how a single blonde strand of her hair had broken free, perhaps from the too hasty tying of it tightly behind her head in the moments after Enrico had come to alert her.


So he did not respond immediately. Instead he took in another great draught of air, and held it for three seconds, letting his features ease and neaten, thinking of nothing. Then, despite the clarity advocated by Sandro and rehearsed only a few minutes before, he breathed out and said at the end, “Oh Loredana – you’re so beautiful! And I love you!”

She might, once she knew of the planning for this meeting, have guessed Tommaso would say something to her about his feelings but she could not have expected this outburst, devoid of preamble. His imbecility was complete. He watched her face registering in rapid succession bewilderment, pleasure and finally a sort of nun-like serenity. She leaned across to him and kissed his forehead.


“Tommaso, you are a sweet, and silly, boy,” she said, “I worry about you. Especially when you say silly things.”


He recovered his composure a little. Her reply was hardly satisfying. He repeated it to himself, word by wondering word. Was she teasing or praising or belittling or laughing with him? Her own eyes, dark and angelic, seemed to be searching his now with their own doubts, doubts which grew as the silence between them grew. He must respond. He must find out what she really thought about him. Otherwise he was wasting his time, and hazardously, too. He needed to tell her his situation precisely. He needed to lay the basis for the separation that was coming so, he desperately hoped, they might resume the courtship when normality returned.


System and order, desperately required, were nowhere at hand. All he had was earnestness and emphasis. So he said, opening and closing his fists, “I mean it, Loredana. What I think about you. I’m crazy about you. That’s the whole story. But you….?”

She smiled at him as he scanned her face for clues. She said, “The really crazy thing, Tommaso, is to think you and I can even see each other when you are behaving like a bandit, while this war is on.”


“Loredana, I’m not a bandit! I’m loyal to the king!” he insisted. She looked at him enigmatically, perhaps seeing through this statement that was hardly true at all. He charged on, “And I know you have to be loyal to your family. That’s best and safest for you, for now. But it won’t always be safe. In the end the nazis will be defeated and who knows what will happen then to those who supported them?”


She said he was talking nonsense but it was not surprising since he had been up in the hills cut off from everything. She told him what her father had reported many times to her family, and he by contrast was in an excellent position to know. The Anglo-American invasion had stalled completely in the south and the enemy would pay a heavy price for their adventurousness. Meanwhile, as the Duce had said, Germany was working on secret weapons. Germany would win this war.


She spoke with such confidence that Tommaso was ready to believe her. He told her that she might be right, but it didn’t change things: he only wanted the best for her, he wanted to be with her, but that was not possible now. Instead he was going to have to go away. He would come back to her as soon as he could, when things changed. He earnestly hoped she should take care of herself. She was very precious to him.


“All right,” she said when he had finished his speech. “I agree. Go. Stay away. Stay out of trouble. Don’t get yourself killed. We’ll wait and see what happens after that.”


He was watching every flicker of her eyes with the depths behind them like water below the surface or sky behind the clouds. He wished he could melt through beyond and into her thoughts. He wished he could see the future that the two of them might have but felt himself drawing back in fear that there might be none. She broke the silence to ask him about his family and the farm and the end of the winter. He was happy to leave aside the differences between them. He told her in a few short sentences, holding up his palm to still her small cry, about his mother and how the others had taken her passing. He made light of the tensions at home, choosing to describe instead the squeaking of the mice in the loft and Lina’s skill at catching birds. She told him her own mother was doing work with sick people and she mentioned inconsequentially the fat priest who had skidded over in their kitchen and her sister whose bicycle was stolen when she went out to buy rice.


It seemed only minutes had passed before Enrico tapped on the window and told her it was time to go. The two mechanics were due back from Bassano about now. This time they kissed, for the first time, stopping and starting awkwardly. Tommaso’s lips skewed off her cheekbone and he had to grab the steering wheel as he began to topple. She put one hand on his shoulder and kissed him on the mouth, as quick as a popping bubble, and twisted away through the door Enrico had opened. They exchanged one more glance and then she was gone.

Signor Trevisan was also anxious to get away. Tommaso didn’t want to talk on the way back but instead repeated over and over in his mind all the phrases that he could recall Loredana having said to him. He couldn’t believe it had gone so magnificently. He couldn’t believe his luck. When they reached Schievenin he told Signor Trevisan that seeing Loredana had been Sandro’s recommendation and he was in his debt to him for it, for giving him the courage. And his thankfulness extended also to Sandro’s uncle, of course, for making it possible.


“You’ll leave tomorrow?”


“In the morning, as early as I can.”


“Good luck, Tommaso. Knock a few off for me!”


Tommaso didn’t want to knock off any nazis and certainly not any fascists. He had promised Loredana when he first went up to join the partisans that he wouldn’t fight and he had managed after that not to take any sort of combat role in the raids. So he just grinned at Signor Trevisan and shook his hand firmly. Back at the house he was vague about where he was going and with what purpose, simply telling the others he hoped to spare them any grief if patrols came by. His father and Vittorio said nothing but their expressions suggested to him they thought what he was doing was right and his sisters cried and told him he must look after himself and come back safely.


*


When his father got up long before it was light, he shook Tommaso awake and told him he had better be off. Tommaso kissed his sisters, and left. He had a rolled-up blanket and a few items of clothing. He wondered what it would be like up there, and whom he would find.


His first bootsteps felt good. The mountain responded. He sensed something solid at last, different from the moist and slithering grass around the house, different from the flat roadway hiking home from Padova. Rising high above him was a reality he had always known, its essence huge and unchanging. Fickle and frail humans might perish in the winds that swept these slopes, be swallowed in clefts or fall down cliffs but the mountain itself was loyal and could be trusted. It had broken the back of enemy armies before and further victories could be won here by those who respected the mountain.


It was drizzling and wind fanned his face as he tackled the first steep track with the crags and sheernesses pointing to a hint of dawn. By the time he had passed the chapel where he had left the message for Enrico in the late autumn he could see the whole route ahead, up through a gully chiselled naturally through the rock. He made good progress, breathing easily, enjoying the rhythm of leaning forward over each knee and thrusting down on the muscles of his leg, his arms slicing. He remembered sitting while the motor ran in one of the newest personnel carriers at the barracks and imagining how smoothly such a vehicle might take the road up to Schievenin. He was a human engine now.


It was light although still overcast when he reached the higher country, approaching the caves where he had last seen Zolfo. Stop! yelled a voice three metre away and a man jumped out from behind a boulder, pointing a rifle at him. It was Elio, thickly bearded and with a woollen hat pulled down to his eyebrows, but still recognisable by his lopsided eyes. Elio was attractively ugly, his blockish facial features more asymmetrical than most people’s. He usually had a wry expression, as though there was something droll that either he might say next or the person he was facing would come up with.


“Quinto!” he cried, manifestly relieved that he was not dealing with some menace. The two of them hugged each other.


From one of the caves a sleepy and bedraggled Gabriele, clutching a pistol, lurched out into the open. He also yelled “Quinto!” and coming forward slapped his arm and bear-like hugged him, too.


“Is Zolfo here?” Tommaso asked, as another man emerged from the cave, someone he had not seen before.


“He’s dead,” Gabriele said, his craggy features darkening. “They shot him, two weeks ago. I’m in charge now.”


“How did it happen?” Tommaso was horrified. Pasquale had been the first casualty of his whole military experience but his death had somehow seemed an accident, like falling off a vehicle during training. But what he had just heard sounded as if a body blow had been struck at this group, his group. His leader was dead!


“He went back to check, after the last raid,” Gabriele said. “I warned him it was dangerous, but he wouldn’t listen. It was our best raid yet. There was this guard post, down past where we tried to blow up the train. Two men there, and they both ran away. We got their guns, some ammunition and a whole stack of food. We had to leave some grenades behind, more than we could carry. Zolfo said he would go and get them, the rest of us were buggered. It was a couple of hours later, but too much time had already passed. They got him.”


Gabriele boiled a pot of hot water and made an odd-tasting sort of coffee while he told Tommaso the rest of the story. Four other men sat in the cave listening, and this was the full complement apart from Elio and Pablo, the other sentry who was posted higher up.


“Hank went with him. This is Hank, he’s from Africa. South Africa.”


Gabriele indicated one of the others, the largest, with close-cropped blonde hair. He bowed slightly towards Tommaso, and then said “Buon giorno,” without smiling.


“He’s been with us most of the winter,” Gabriele explained. “He was a prisoner, in Belluno. Before that he was a pilot. We’ve taught him a few words. He’s very strong. Anyway, as far as we can tell from what he told us, there were five or six fascists already at the guardpost. Zolfo lost his footing and everyone opened fire. A lucky shot hit him in the stomach. They rushed up and found Zolfo coughing blood. One of them finished him off.”


“Poor Zolfo,” Tommaso said, remembering his face which always seemed to be struggling for gravity and importance as though there were things he would rather do than be a commander.


“He was a good man. Too good in a way.” Without elaborating Gabriele went on, “But at least the fascists were stupid and didn’t get him fixed up so they could torture him and find out all about us. I suppose they didn’t think he was the boss.”


Zolfo’s valuable legacy, Tommaso discovered, was his successful negotiation with the villagers in Seren for a regular supply of food. He had given them what money he had and written them a promissory note for recovery of what was owed when the war was over. In addition one of the new recruits, Bacco, was not only from Seren but also the older brother of the boy who had found them in their original lodgings higher up.


“He often came up with good ideas, Zolfo did,” Gabriele said after a while. “One of them I’ve already been working on. One reason why they’re ready to help us in Seren is everyone is fed up with the nazi-fascists because they’re being made to hand over a lot of their own food stocks and even animals. They’ve got no choice. And it’ll get worse with the summer harvest. Is that happening in Schievenin?”


Tommaso said no, but some black shirts had been sniffing around. Gabriele had no doubt it was only a matter of time before inspectors came demanding their toll of farm produce there, too. It was happening everywhere in the farm country around the massif. When Zolfo heard that, Gabriele went on, he thought one way his group could help would be to raid the municipal offices and destroy the documents. It would make it harder to collect the tribute if there were no more record of who lived where and who had donated what.


Gabriele’s plan took shape over the next ten days. They would strike the commune at Seren at night with every member available. Tommaso told Gabriele he could be counted on to participate but he didn’t want to be in the front line in these raids, or even to carry a weapon.


“We’ve barely got enough guns to go round,” Gabriele said, his somewhat blood-shot eyes drilling in to Tommaso’s, “so you can do what you like this time. But having a gun in your hand can frighten people off. It doesn’t have to be loaded and it might save your life.”


It was agreed Tommaso would be one of the two who kept lookout. He had no doubts now about Gabriele’s leadership ability. Even more than Zolfo he seemed to know what had to be done and to give orders that would be accepted without question. Gabriele had either hardened over the past months or was relishing being boss. The men he led were also the most rugged members of the group, the survivors of the winter.


On the very day of the raid three new volunteers appeared from the Schievenin direction. They were fugitives from the military call-up that was taking in all young men who had turned nineteen, twenty and twenty-one. As Sandro had intimated, the government was proclaiming that those who did not show up for the draft faced execution as traitors. The newcomers said they had hidden at home for these past weeks but with the spring they, like Tommaso, found that to be increasingly both difficult and dangerous. They heard it was likely that house-to-house searches would be carried out to track down recalcitrants.


Although none of the new members, who were given the names of birds for some reason that appealed to Gabriele, had any military experience whatever he decided they should come on the raid, too. Tommaso was given the task of making sure they kept well back and learned the disciplines of silence, speed and stillness at the right time. He was happy enough to take it on. A training role now and for the future would suit him.


The raid went like clockwork. Bacco knew the town hall building inside out and another member of the group had been a burglar in his former existence. From where Tommaso was positioned, on a porch at a street corner with views in several directions, he saw the entry being made by Gabriele, Bacco and the burglar and even though he was close by he heard nothing. They were inside for what seemed like an eternity although only a quarter of an hour or so could possibly have elapsed. In due course the three men emerged, much more untidily than before, and then anyone watching could see the smoke.


Gabriele caught up with him and hissed, “Get your lot out of here!” He was followed by his two associates, and behind them were three others all well armed who had been deployed to give warning, create a diversion and block access to the enemy should the need arise. Tommaso motioned to the three new recruits to get behind him as he followed the leading group at a rapid jog back up the mountain.


They had got well clear before any alarm was given. From high up Gabriele called a halt to the party, all panting furiously, and everyone had the chance to recover breath and the luxury of looking back at the damage done. They had found documents galore and although they had no time to read anything they had been able to set a fire among the papers that would take a while to develop and give them a chance to escape. From their vantage point now they could see evidence of the blaze in one corner of the town hall. Little figures could just be made out rushing to and fro in the light of the flames.


In the morning Gabriele was even more pleased than he had been after the raid. He had grabbed a sample of documents they had been piling up for the fire in the comune and stuffed them down his shirt. Two of them were lists of names of young men eligible for call-up and the other was related to farm requisitions. He was confident some of the registers they had tossed on the bonfire were of births, deaths and marriages and any data like that was best destroyed. Last night’s event would have caused confusion and consternation and fouled things up for the podestà and his staff. He took delight in adding the documents to the morning’s fire and celebrated with a swig from a bottle of grappa that he had found in the town hall. He didn’t offer a drink to anyone else.


Planning for the next raid began without delay, involving Gabriele, his deputy Elio and the burglar who had at first assumed the name Pedro but was now admiringly and more accurately called Ladro instead. He assured his colleagues that a lock had not yet been made that he couldn’t pick. The planning team began identifying other municipal premises within range that might be attacked in the same way as last night.


The arrival of four more recruits that week had an impact on these preparations. Gabriele wanted to carry out at least one early act of sabotage as he had some dynamite and some fuses whose longevity were in question. They had lost the expertise of Pasquale but his deputy, Gela, was competent enough. Gabriele would to lead the sabotage expedition, another attempt on the railway line. He directed Elio to set up a second break-in on a comune, assisted by Ladro and with a team they should select. Tommaso was put in charge of a training program for the recruits, accompanying them on the two raids, but at a safe distance.


The success of the Seren raid had given them all a false confidence which they soon had to amend. First a young woman arrived in the camp saying she was a staffetta, a messenger, from the Garibaldi Brigade to the northwest. Her commander, Fionda, would like to talk with his counterpart. He should bring along not more than three of his comrades. Gabriele was curious to know how the other groups were faring and he had not so far visited their camps as Zolfo had occasionally done. He told the staffetta that he would come next day, and asked where their headquarters were. She named an intersection on the far side of Monte Pertica and Tommaso confirmed to Gabriele he knew where that was and how to get there. The meeting was arranged for midday.


The garibaldini, headquartered in a sizeable mountain refuge, were more numerous, better organised and more menacing than Gabriele’s group. Fionda was a former major in the artillery, tall and thin with a fierce expression, made the more so by having a strabismus in one eye. Next to him was a tubby hunched man who reminded Tommaso of the clerk at the call-up office who meticulously checked names against a register. He was introduced as Igor and turned out to have greater weight in the unit than a normal deputy would. Fionda made the initial speech on how many men were under his command and what they did, and gave a brief idea of their operations and tactics. But if he went beyond that, saying anything about what their purpose was, Igor would butt in. It happened three or four times. Tommaso paid little attention at first as it wasn’t his business but after a while he couldn’t help wondering how such a double-headed unit could manage to do anything. He wandered out of the building and smoked a cigarette with Bacco. It seemed to both of them the discussions, which went on for nearly an hour, were not going well for his group. The garibaldini did most of the talking. Tommaso went back inside as things apparently were drawing to a conclusion. There was a general shaking of hands, and some grunted farewells, before the meeting broke up. Then Gabriele led his small party off at a brisk pace.


He didn’t say anything for quite some time and it wasn’t until they had reached the eastern slopes of the massif that he called a halt and gave the others his assessment of the meeting. To murmurs of agreement he said that he had not liked the garibaldini one bit, with their arrogance and the impression they tried to give that they were the ones calling the shots on the massif. He said it was best if his men kept right out of their way or it could lead to friction between the two groups.


Bacco asked what the problem was. Gabriele explained that their recent hosts wanted to know all their plans so they might vet them. They said Gabriele and his men should not waste time attacking comuni but instead go for military barracks and police stations. They offered them a role as junior partners in one or two operations they themselves were planning. Gabriele said he was having none of that – it would mean getting the shit work and probably also being put directly in the line of fire. No, he concluded, they would do it their own way.


Planning for the first of Gabriele’s raids was complicated by rain and human error. The box of dynamite and the separate fuses both were exposed to water when someone moved the tarpaulin off them, one dry day. Gabriele was furious and ready to abort the mission completely. Gela convinced him that the goods were still serviceable. The order of the raids was re-programmed. Despite the injunction from Fionda the attack on the next comune would go ahead. It was down in the valley, so far from the communists’ area of operations that they would probably never even get to hear about it.


Tommaso hoped the competition would not hear about either the sabotage or the comune exercise as both were a complete flop. Elio and Ladro took their team down for their assault on the town hall, having reconnoitred two days before and having on the night arranged sentinels and the form of attack as for the Seren mission. They had hardly made entry through a door at the rear than they were set upon by a large snarling dog. Elio bashed it with the barrel of his rifle which then fired as the safety catch slipped off. The shot missed everyone but the dog was now barking like a tocsin. Shouts erupted from windows all around. The team was lucky not to encounter anyone as it made its escape.


“They’ll probably think it was a normal burglary,” Elio commented. Gabriele doubted it but hoped they had better luck with sabotaging the railway. He was to be disappointed again. After another long wait by the track the explosives still refused to fire. It was little comfort to hear later from a new recruit that a railway worker was badly injured the day after their raid while removing dynamite from the line.


*


New recruits doubled the group’s numbers by the end of May, undeterred by a new decree that young men report by the 25th or else face “inexorable justice.” The penalty was shameful execution by being shot in the back, to be meted out also to whoever joined or aided rebel groups. According to the decree those who turned themselves in would be forgiven, no questions asked. More than half of all those eligible for the draft, however, chose to hide or flee and Monte Grappa, rising from the plain, was a magnet.


Better news was coming from the south. Allied forces had finally broken through above Naples and were set to link up with the beachhead established in January near Rome, at Anzio. Gabriele set up a council of Elio, Bacco, Hank and Quinto and one of the newest recruits, a lanky university student called Urogallo. He told them now was the time for direct attacks, to keep the nazi-fascists off balance. The weather was good and they had the numbers for operations. In fact they had almost too many men. If they weren’t kept busy they would be bored and that posed a risk to them all. Bacco, in charge of logistics, said extra recruits would pose problems for accommodation and food but they also meant better relations with the nearest villages.


The six of them were standing around smoking on a broad ledge with views of the track in both directions and of the caves directly below. Most of their group were playing cards, cooking or otherwise idling about. Sentries were within earshot above and below the caves. It was mid-morning and the sun rose above the parapet to the east. For some minutes they all felt buoyed by the new mood of optimism and reflected in silence on the task ahead of them. Urogallo asked what would happen if there were reprisals, against the people who had been helping them. The nazi-fascists would find them an easy target. Bacco said the same thought had occurred to him.


“None of you are suggesting, are you,” Gabriele asked scornfully, “that we don’t do anything, for fear of reprisals?”


Some muttered a “no” and others shook their heads. An idea floated into Tommaso’s head like a beautiful butterfly, like Lina or Rosa, or probably Loredana. It was that no personal principle or military commitment was higher for him than the preservation of someone you loved. The butterfly about to be crushed by a fascist boot. But he could find no words for the thought and Gabriele anyway had headed back to the camp saying that that was agreed then, they should concentrate on what they had to do. He and Elio assessed their weapons holdings in light of the next operation they should plan for. They had one old Breda light machine gun, a dozen hand grenades and four mortars from the ambushing of the truck en route to Valdobbiadene last autumn. In addition to the ten new and four ancient rifles left over from the winter they had three more from Zolfo’s last raid and a couple of pistols brought by the new recruits. Apart from half a dozen knives the only other thing was the cache of unexploded grenades from World War I they had unearthed the previous week near the summit of Monte Grappa.


What they urgently needed was ammunition. With Hank’s help Gabriele was able to make radio contact with London and put in a detailed request, identifying his group and establishing a time and location for an airdrop. To everyone’s surprise this brought a swift and positive result. The whole group minus two sentries was present at the designated zone when some nights later a parachute landed on target with two boxes of bully beef tins and two boxes of rifle ammunition, more than enough for the coming operation. Also included was a leaflet with suggestions on how the resistance could cause mayhem e.g. by sabotaging enemy vehicles, making petrol bombs, strewing the roads with sharp objects, giving wrong directions and advice. The bully beef had not been asked for and would be stored away to be opened only as a last resort.


The target chosen for the next raid was a construction site of the Todt organization, set up in Germany and elsewhere to mobilise labour for major projects. The one Gabriele had in mind was engaged in roadwork tunnelling in the valley. Reconnoitring revealed that between ten and twenty men were there each day and the place was not heavily guarded. The attack would be at first light, when sentries would probably be tired. In pre-dawn mist Tommaso led a party of eight, including Gabriele, Hank and Ladro and three first-timers, down a precipitous path above Arsie’ on whose outskirts the site lay. All were armed with rifles except Tommaso who reluctantly accepted the pistol Gabriele offered him and Gela with a bag of grenades.


At the outer perimeter they split into two groups, one fanning out around the edge and the other heading for the gate in the wire enclosure that appeared to be secured from the inside with a padlock. Ladro cut the wire and then struggled with the lock itself, which, he later related, was really old and rusty. He had just got it open and admitted Gabriele and two others when a man emerged from the main hut. His shout prompted a recruit, the nearest member of the raiding party to him but on the other side of fence fence, to fire a shot. It missed but caused an immediate burst of activity and confusion. Gabriele and his team rushed forward as two more men appeared. Cursing and bustling sounds came from inside a second hut. Gela threw a smoke grenade between the two converging groups. Gunfire came from a third direction and it was not clear to anybody, attackers or defenders, whether this was from one of theirs. All the defenders out in the open threw themselves face down.


“Surrender or you die!” shouted Gabriele, motioning to two of his men outside to come in and help. The door to a third hut flew open and a man half-dressed in German military uniform tottered out with a submachine gun that seemed to have jammed. Gela, running forward with a grenade in his hand pulled the pin and it exploded as soon as he did so, catapulting him sideways. Gabriele from twenty paces shot the German soldier.


After that a strange stillness came over everything. With nothing further said the three huts were investigated by the attackers while all the defenders lay where they had dropped or fallen. There were fourteen of them, including the dead German. Gela was not dead but was fading fast, with one arm gone and a huge wound down that side that could never be staunched. His mouth was opening and shutting soundlessly. Tommaso, a few metres away, had no desire to go and help. Gela seemed to be focusing on him, beseeching, but then it was as if he could see something else beyond Tommaso who felt guilty but relieved. There was no one behind him.


The attackers had no time to lose. They bundled what arms, ammunition and supplies they could find into some sacks and a couple of wooden boxes with handles while Ladro and two others tied the defenders up with bootlaces and belts. The group had finished what it had come for within ten minutes of the first shot being fired and by this time Gela had expired. They checked he had nothing to identify him bar his plain uniform and carried him into the nearest hut and left him. As a parting foolhardy tribute Ladro opened the locked door to the fourth and smallest hut, ignored up until that moment at the back of the site, and tossed in one of Gela’s grenades. When it exploded a few second later it was with a colossal bang that echoed all around this part of the valley. Ladro, hurled forward as he ran towards the others, was cut and bruised but otherwise unhurt.


“Must have been where they stored their dynamite,” Gabriele said and one of the trussed defenders nearby said it was, almost conversationally. Both made their comments in loud voices and everyone’s ears were ringing. Gabriele ordered his men to get away fast.


The sky was lighter and the mist lifting as they headed back up the hillside. It was arduous work especially for those carrying the boxes and they had to be relieved regularly. Everyone was puffing and sweating as they followed Tommaso steeply upwards. There was no time to pause and certainly none to lament the passing of Gela who had been a popular member of the group, even if he was, with the exception of Hank, the least intelligible. Hank came into his own as the ascent slowed their progress and taking one of the boxes single-handed stepped ahead of Gabriele to be right behind Tommaso. Thus inspired the party got away without hearing any sound of reaction or pursuit from the valley below. The mist thickened and the path levelled and it was possible for them to take the rest of the return journey at a more moderate pace.


Next day the camp was catapulted into action with the arrival of a young woman, marched to the clearing by the sentry who had her gripped by the arm. Wolf whistles from the card players brought Gabriele outside. He looked from the girl to the sentry with his eyebrows raised.


“She asked for Bacco.” The sentry thought this was a huge joke and checked his audience, now closing in on the three central figures, for appreciation. Bacco was the other sentry, further down the slope.


“He’s my brother,” she said nervously. Gabriele gestured at the nearest leering man to go and relieve Bacco. She had seemed confident, almost jaunty, coming down with the sentry but now was intimidated by the crowd of uniformed, unwashed and enthusiastic men.


“Stand back!” commanded Gabriele, sweeping his arm wide. The circle widened in a general shuffling and muttering with all eyes still on the dark-haired girl who, it was now obvious, shared Bacco’s features.


“What’s your name?” Gabriele asked her gently.


“Zanna. I’m here to tell you something. Information you need to know.”


“She wants to join us, with a name like that!” said Elio who had come to stand next to Gabriele and was frankly admiring her. Zanna seemed almost grateful to Elio who was grinning at her, encouraging her to say something cheerful perhaps.


“And this information….?” prompted Gabriele.


“This morning the nazi-fascists came to our village,” Zanna said. “They pulled everybody out of their houses and treated them roughly, even the old people. They went and searched everywhere, and they took two men away. They told us if we helped the partisans they’d burn our houses down.”


“They called us partisans?” Gabriele asked.


“No. Bandits. And communists. What’s more, “ Zanna added, “they did this to all the villages near us and on the Asiago side. Because of something that happened near Arsie’ yesterday, I think.”


She went off with Bacco who had come up. Gabriele, with Elio, Hank and Tommaso watched them go. Gabriele said, “It’s no skin off our noses if the garibaldini get the blame for our Todt raid. It was closer to them than us. But they’ll be wild with us for putting the heat on them.”


“So do we go easy for a bit?” Elio enquired.


“Certainly not,” Gabriele said, “far from it. We shouldn’t miss a beat. Go on as planned. The nazis have pulled out of Rome. We must keep up the momentum.”


New members began arriving in increasing numbers, now almost daily. Zanna several times brought them in ones and twos from Seren. On her second appearance at the camp Elio moved to establish himself as her protector, probably with Bacco’s acquiescence, and made sure she was able to move about and depart without being harassed by anyone. The third time she came Elio took her aside at once. Posting a guard outside the cave he shared with half a dozen others he led her in to show her a few things. From the rock where he was sitting slightly higher up Tommaso had an uninterrupted view after a short while of the shuttle of Elio’s boots under a blanket.


*


One morning Tommaso was summoned by a call of “Quinto!” from the lower sentry who was advancing towards the camp, rifle raised, with three men ahead of him. Two of them were in the uniform of the new national guard, although their tunics were undone and they looked unkempt. The other man was a foreigner, dressed in baggy pants and a jumper too warm for the time of year.


“Franco in Schievenin said we should see you,” the first of the guardsmen told Tommaso. He was small, sharp-featured with black eyes and hair, and clearly the leader. The other was blonde, almost albino. Tommaso knew who Franco was and had seen him the previous week, when their paths crossed halfway between the camp and the village. He told Franco, who was close to military age, he should think about joining them but Franco had said he wanted to keep his options open. No one could do that these days, Tommaso thought later.


Gabriele hurried out, apprehensive at the sight of the men in uniform, and began their interrogation. Tommaso at first thought he was unwell but then realised he had been drinking. Gabriele demanded to know about the foreigner who had been standing to one side and had not uttered a sound.


“He is Russian,” said the darker guardsman, undeterred by the mob gathered around. “Or Ukrainian. We can’t understand him and don’t know where he came from. But he’s armed and wants to join you, too.”


The guardsman made a handgun signal with his fingers at the third man who reached inside his trouser pockets and produced two Beretta pistols. Gabriele asked to see them and after a quick inspection handed them back.


“Russki?” he asked. The man tapped his chest, “Yuri.”


“Yuri, fine,” acknowledged Gabriele. “So, you two, you want to be part of the resistance?” When they assented Gabriele told the smaller one, unless he had a better idea, that his name was Nero while the blonde one should be Bianco. They shrugged their consent. He invited them to tell the group about themselves.


Nero said that both he and Bianco had been carabinieri, in Trento, and had been swamped by events on 8 September when news of the armistice was immediately followed by German soldiers arriving at their barracks. With no other choice they had continued with their duties as normally as possible until November when along with other carabinieri units they were incorporated into the GNR set up by Mussolini, alongside the blackshirts of the fascist militia.


“The nazis never trust anyone in the guard, though,” Nero said. “It’s just a place they put anybody who hasn’t got a job, army deserters and people who have been with you people. Whenever they feel like it they send you to Germany, for security duty in France or somewhere else miles from the front, or else to work on construction projects.”


“How do you know that?” Gabriele asked.


“Because I know people who’ve been there. A friend of mine jumped from a train and got back. It happens all the time. If they catch someone who ran off they just stick them back in the barracks. With a warning that next time they do it they’ll be shot.”


Nero added that all of this had sapped morale among his colleagues who were also shaken recently by a raid by partisans on their barracks. Apart from the disgrace they had lost cash, weapons and equipment and despite promises none of it had yet been replaced. Three of his friends earmarked for sending to Germany had escaped to mountains to the north. He and Bianco had come this way because the chances seemed better for avoiding pursuit and because he had some knowledge of the area. They had run into Yuri one night on a hillside in the Valsugana and he had tagged along with them. Yuri had shot a rabbit two nights ago and shown he knew how to live off his wits.


Gabriele asked what chances a group like his would have in a direct attack on a GNR barracks. Nero said a well-planned raid could succeed in persuading those inside to lay down their arms and perhaps even to come out on the partisans’ side. But it would have to be done with surprise and with an impressive demonstration of strength or else initial resistance was possible, even likely.


Bacco said he knew a good target, his uncle had mentioned it. However, it was outside their area – between that controlled by the Garibaldi Brigade on the massif and whoever controlled the neighbouring plateau of Sette Comuni. They could get there and back in a half a day. The barracks was a converted school and its defences were not all that good.


Gabriele seized on the idea and set a date two weeks ahead for the attack. He would request special supplies by airdrop. He tasked Elio, Bacco and Nero to work out a plan for an assault by the entire group, now numbering close to fifty, less a handful to stay behind and guard the camp.


Very early on the appointed day four ten-men teams set off within sight of each other. After skirting the summit of Monte Grappa they cut through territory nominally held by Italia Libera, whom Gabriele scorned for doing nothing but wait for the arrival of the Anglo-Americans. He ordered total silence, especially for the final descent to Solagna. Everything went well, the front and rear members of each team now practised in nighttime manoeuvres over difficult terrain.


Visibility was around one hundred metres when they arrived at the GNR barracks. The teams spread out to each of the four sides with Gabriele’s group at the front gate and Elio’s on the more exposed side to the right. The signal for action to start was a hand grenade to be launched onto the roof by Bacco from an elevated position on the left. Nothing happened for five minutes and eventually Gabriele, impatient as the sun’s rays hit the first peaks above them, decided to start anyway. He threw a grenade of his own up on to the roof at the front where it rolled back down, landed between the main door and the gate and exploded, sending a spray of gravel back towards the leading party. A few seconds later Bacco’s grenade landed and detonated on the roof. Shutters flew open at a second-storey window on Tommaso’s and a hail of gunfire spewed in his direction. Ladro, standing a couple of paces behind him, was hit and staggered forward. Tommaso caught him like a dance partner and fell heavily holding him, striking the ground first. Before the impact he could see Ladro’s face laddered in pain. He felt a warm stickiness. Much of Ladro’s neck had been shot off and blood was pumping out. Tommaso crawled away feeling sick.


A blast roared from the window above, from where the firing had come. A grenade must have gone in. Gabriele’s party was now inside the gate which had been blown from its hinges. More firing and explosions came from the other side of the barracks. Gradually moment all noise ceased except for muffled voices coming from inside the main building.

Elio approached and bending over Ladro said to Tommaso, “Dead.” Then he blinked, shook his head and hauled a wobbly Tommaso onto his feet.


“Quinto, guard the gate. Get Ladro’s gun. Shoot anyone coming out who is not one of ours.” Tommaso did as he was told, like a zombie, and stepped across to fetch the rifle. An image of Loredana blazed through his mind as he picked it up and he murmured to himself, for her benefit, “It’ll be all right.”


One of Gabriele’s group, a new recruit called Lev, was already at the gate. He was odd-looking, with a baby face, protruding ears and wire-rimmed spectacles worn askew. He seemed to be holding a gun for the first time in his life, and was waving it in Tommaso’s direction. Tommaso gestured angrily at him to lower it. Just then he heard the noise of a truck. He grabbed the young sentry by the arm and pulled him inside the compound.


It was a German truck with two soldiers in the front. They had come round the bend in the road and had suspected nothing because as they pulled up they were in deep and animated conversation. One opened the door and jumped down as Tommaso stepped forward with his rifle levelled. The other made some jerky movement inside the cabin and before Tommaso could act Lev fired at the window, which shattered. The soldier inside shouted something back at them. He kicked open the door and jumped awkwardly down, with his hands above his head.


The four of them confronted each other in silence, at close range. The Germans seemed to sense the ludicrousness of the situation, and the contrast between their crisp uniforms and military poise and the scruffy amateurs confronting them. The first one out of the truck muttered a phrase to the other that had a ring of derision. It sparked something in Lev who struck the mutterer across the face with the barrel of his rifle and kicked him violently on the shin. As the other soldier jerked back, shocked, Lev shot him in the stomach.


Both soldiers were on the ground. The one who had been kicked had lost his balance and fallen. The other was on his back but maybe not badly wounded as he now screwed himself round to a sitting position, swearing and holding his hand to his side. Tommaso had a moment of insanity. He saw blood on the back of his own hand, Ladro’s, and the enemy responsible lying before him, helpless. Both men had lost their helmets. All that had just happened stormed again inside him and he wanted to drive forward with it, to pump round after round into the squirming figures before him. He wanted to shriek while he did it. As he moved he heard a loud No! from Lev, yelled in his ear, his hand on his arm. They were face to face, staring into the other’s crazed eyes. Then a scrabble near their feet caused them to turn quickly back to the Germans who might have been making some movement to draw a weapon. But they were just harmlessly drawing closer together. Both glared at the wild men standing over them then as one bent their heads to see what damage had been done by Lev’s gunshot.


Tommaso’s enormous relief Hank marched around the corner of the building, with a uniformed officer as his prisoner. He shouted in their language at the two Germans. Lev, surprisingly, added some apparent insults of his own. The wounded soldier, blood seeping between his fingers from what must have been a deep surface wound, was helped to his feet by his companion. The two of them limped over to join the other prisoner.


“What happened ?” Hank asked Tommaso, pointing at his clothes covered with blood. “Yours?”


Tommaso shook his head and said dolefully, “Ladro’s.” He felt awful. Hank motioned to him to look after the prisoners and went inside the building taking Lev with him.


“We have a truck!” Gabriele said in delight when he came out a moment later, and went to check that the keys were still in the ignition. He walked to the rear to see what was inside. “Tables and chairs!” he said in disgust. He noticed Ladro’s blood on Tommaso and observed blandly, “You’re a mess.”


Before long a procession of partisans emerged each carrying a box or an armful of rifles or some odd thing like a typewriter. They began loading up the truck and going back for more. Someone in the back of the truck was hurling out the furniture which thudded or smashed on the roadway. Tommaso caught sight of Bacco and called out to him.


“Ladro’s dead. On that side of the building.”


“I know,” Bacco answered. “So is Bruto. We have three or four wounded inside. Could you get Ladro onto the truck?”


With the help of two others Tommaso carried Ladro’s body round and heaved it up among the assortment of booty from the barracks. He tossed the dead man’s rifle in after him. The booty included some blankets, one of which was used to cover the two corpses since meanwhile Bruto’s had also been brought aboard. The wounded partisans were helped aboard.

Gabriele appeared with a bottle in his hand and gave orders as to who should get on the truck – there was room for ten men. He passed the bottle to Bacco and enquired how far up the mountain could the truck be taken before unloading. He told him to abandon the truck or better still roll it over an edge somewhere as soon as possible.


The attackers quit the barracks but not before Urogallo had scrawled and stuck on the door an invitation to all national guardsmen to desert and join the resistance. He and Elio joined Tommaso at the head of the now swiftly-moving group of partisans. Gabriele had done a final check and was making sure the rearguard kept up the pace.


“What happened in there?” Tommaso asked as they jogged up the first slope, the sun now striking the main road behind them.


“We locked up the officers and the Germans, including the bleeding one,” Elio told him, “but the door of the place wasn’t very strong.”


“Some of the men wanted to come with us,” Urogallo added. “We said maybe later.”


Elio was sure those who had been locked up would be quickly liberated and then a pursuit would begin. Tommaso said he wished them luck, and led the way up through a narrow gully and into what looked like impenetrable briars. It was a steep and laborious climb with gravel slipping under foot and curses coming from further back in the field.


When they arrived at the rendezvous there was no sign of the truck. Urogallo filled Tommaso in on some more of the detail of the events he had witnessed at the barracks. They had cut the telephone lines and smashed all the communication equipment: this should for a while prevent word getting out about the truck, which had had to head towards Feltre with the risk of encountering nazi-fascists forces. They had amassed a good quantity of ammunition, a radio transmitter and some mortar bombs, turned everything upside down, set free a prisoner and locked all the men in any rooms they could find that had keys.


Tommaso was grateful for this information, and for Urogallo’s apparent friendship. The two of them could hardly be more different, in physique or personal history. Urogallo had once mentioned his father who was a doctor in Vicenza where he had lived all his life. As they talked easily about the events at the barracks Tommaso on an impulse blurted out that he had almost gone crazy there, he had almost killed in cold blood the prisoners he was guarding. Urogallo looked at him for a second or two, and sighed.


“I would have, if I was guarding them. Soldiers like that came to our house and beat my father last month. They took him away and we haven’t seen him since.” Urogallo had hid in a cupboard and escaped two days later to Monte Grappa.


Eventually the truck arrived. Bacco said they had stopped first at a church and left the corpses of Ladro and Bruto, with a note with their battle names, the date and the word ‘heroes.’ They had done this as the morale of the wounded men was low and two of them, wedged in against the corpses, had moaned piteously. Further delay came when well ahead Elio had spotted a roadblock at the junction for the road up to the summit, one that he had been warned to look out for. They waited then decided to drive through it. The militia on duty had been caught unawares but had nevertheless shouted at them as they drove by. In Seren they left the two weakest and most miserable of the wounded men, who had been tossed about on the twists and turns and seemed to have lost a lot of blood, outside a shop and made appropriate signals to someone Bacco knew watching them from a window above it.


A human chain unloaded the truck and then Bacco took it down the hill to dump it. The rest picked up what they could and headed along the track around the mountain on the half-hour trek back to the camp.


Two days later a heavily armed unit of ten men wearing red scarves and led by Fionda arrived, pushing the sentry out of the way and demanding to see Gabriele. It was clear the garibaldini were in a mean mood and might even have wanted a fight there and then. There was no sign of the fat and furtive Igor.


“We’re ordering you to keep out of our territory,” Fionda, red in the face perhaps from having hurried so far, yelled as Gabriele emerged from his cave. “You trespassed the other day, and because of that we copped it.”


“What happened?” Gabriele enquired, making an effort to be polite.


“The nazi-fascists attacked us in numbers. We beat them off naturally but they took three of my men prisoners. We found their bodies lower down the mountain. They had been treated very badly indeed.”


“I’m sorry to hear that,” Gabriele said. “We only passed through, it was the shortest way down to the main road.”


“Don’t you go near that road!” Fionda spat at him, his bad eye veering off in that direction while the other bored into Gabriele. “Keep to this side. We’ll leave you alone here, but if we see any of your people in our zone they won’t make it home.”


“Steady now,” Gabriele said. “We’re on the same side, we’re fighting the same enemy. There’s no need to make threats like that.”


Fionda assumed an expression of complete disdain. “For now, yes, the nazi-fascists are the target. We demand an uninterrupted view of that target. I’m telling you again, if you get in between us we’ll blast you away, too. As for the future, we’ll see whether you come over to our side or not.”


With that he stalked off, followed by his scowling men. Later Gabriele addressed his men and said that for the time being nobody was to test the communist resolve and venture that way. Their attitude might change if they had successes of their own such as this group had just enjoyed. He congratulated them and said that more attacks were being planned. On this side of the massif.


*


More and more recruits arrived during July and with the numbers now over eighty the camp had to be split into two. Tommaso helped in the training of the newcomers notably on how to operate in mountainous terrain. While some had army or national guard background and acceped the discipline of partisan life many others had neither the experience nor the inclination to follow instructions. It was left to Elio to look after these, and a few he told to get off the mountain and find some other way to help the resistance.


Sabotage activities continued against the railway line and telephone communications at the foot of the massif. Tommaso avoided taking part in these raids, few of which had any significant outcome. One led to the capture of some of their men, including Nero and Hank who would be badly missed. Another developed into a firefight at a roadblock manned by two German soldiers who were both wounded and Roby, an original member and survivor from the winter, was killed. Urogallo told Tommaso that the two Germans were then shot in the head by one of the partisans who claimed it was the only way for them to get away safely. But no attempt was made to hide the bodies.


Reprisals had already begun and were stepped up after the roadblock incident. Bacco’s house was burned down in Seren and two neighbours were taken away. Bacco had been recognised by one of the men at the GNR barracks and he thought this a likely reason for the crackdown in Seren. Zanna had come to join them permanently and there were now four women at the camp who acted as messengers and informants and were better able than the men to get to the villages and bring back supplies and information. Zanna reported that one of the farmers below them had been surprised by a nazi-fascist patrol while butchering a calf. Since he had refused to provide this service for a previous patrol it was assumed, correctly, that he was doing this for the partisans. He was taken away for further questioning.

Vera, another of the staffette, had more alarming intelligence. She had heard that a court process had been set up in a local town hall. Men rounded up in one of the regular searches had been made to file past a table at which was seated an individual whom Vera thought was a former member of Gabriele’s group. This man either tapped with his fist or with the flat of his hand as each person went by. He had used the flat of his hand on both occasions when the two men wounded during the attack on the GNR barracks had passed before him. They were executed there and then against the side wall of the town hall and their bodies left exposed for the rest of the day.


“Can you describe this man?” Gabriele asked her, icily. Vera did so – he was thin and hunched and had no chin. “Merlo!” shouted Gabriele, Elio and Tommaso together. He had been one of the three recruits in May who had been given bird names. After less than two weeks with the group he had complained of pains in his stomach and insisted on going down to the valley for treatment. He had not returned.


Later Tommaso recalled a conversation he had had with Merlo, a stooped and melancholy boy a year or so younger than him. Merlo had told him he was an only son and had heard after he joined Gabriele’s group how his father had been taken for questioning, leaving his frail mother and younger sister to cope with the farm. It occurred to Tommaso that Merlo would have gone to check on them and may have been captured and in effect blackmailed into working for the fascists. He wondered how proof he himself would be – or indeed any member of this group – against pressure of that sort. He started to say something along these lines to Elio who shook his head.


“Don’t think like that, Quinto. And don’t raise it with Gabriele. He’s pretty touchy these days and you’ll just make him mad. We do what we have to do. Whatever the cost. Death to traitors.”


The pattern of reprisals was spreading and intensifying. The Germans and their fascist partners were under instructions to shoot to kill any fleeing figure. Searches went on round the clock and roadblocks were set up at random times and places. Anyone found carrying weapons risked being summarily executed. The ransacking of houses was common, and even old people were not spared physical assault. It was now standard that where it was suspected a partisan was a family member the home was razed to the ground.


Paradoxically the overall mood in the camp had never been better. Tommaso shared in the euphoria. It was as though they were next to strangers struck by lightning – it didn’t hit them! This group was blessed. The sun shone relentlessly on scores of young people pumped up with life. Food was plentiful due to local farmers who in turn could call on an unexpected new source of manpower for heavy duties. Those who had been in the earlier raids could boast about them while those who had not yet had the opportunity were all the keener to have a role next time. Casualties had been relatively light, although the fate of the prisoners taken was a lingering, largely unspoken concern. And all the while the Anglo-American armies were reportedly making progress north of Rome and were well on their way to Florence.


Good and bad news swung like moods and Tommaso was often uneasy. He did not share, either, the pleasure Gabriele took in devising feats of endurance, some of them dangerous and degrading, to test new recruits. One had immediately quit and gone home. Nor was Gabriele upset by a raid on a farm half-suspected of supporting the fascists in which the farmer had been beaten up and three demijohns of his wine confiscated, even after Bacco later confirmed it was a case of mistaken identity – that farmer had in fact been helpful to the partisans. The wine had been consumed in one wild night of celebration around a bonfire with singing and Gabriele presented as the benevolent commander. Tommaso had himself drunk too much that evening and had joined the cheering for Gabriele. In the aching next day he did wonder if this was how a unit facing severe military tests should behave.


One evening at the end of July when a fierce electrical storm had forced as many of the group as would fit to take shelter in the caves Gabriele held one of his consultations with Elio and the others in his council. That morning, as reported by Zanna, an enemy patrol had come higher than ever before up the massif before turning back.


“Sooner or later they’ll want to come all the way up,” Gabriele now in a most sober mood told the others. “I’d say we’re beginning to really get their goat.”


“We’ll make mincemeat of them if they come up this far,” Elio predicted, looking as ever on the bright side. “These rocks and slopes will expose them and we could jump them from any direction.”


“I don’t think so,” Gabriele retorted. It was rare for him to contradict Elio, and it was usually the commander who put the most positive slant on the situation. “Not if they came in strength. Not if they parachuted above us. Our only hope then would be if the Reds joined with us. We need to get them to agree on a common approach.”


There seemed scant prospect of that but every member offered some suggestion how to handle the scenario Gabriele set out. Strategies of luring and ambush, notions of clever positioning and enfilading, visions of slaughter of the enemy were offered, each more dramatic and heroic than the last. Tommaso was drawn into it, too. Sometimes drifting off to sleep he imagined superman exploits of derailments and of rescuing farmers from execution, of his single-handedly wiping out a nazi patrol with a rolled-down boulder as he had seen Apaches do in a movie in Padova. It was dreamlike, it was nightmarish: like a chill wind bringing a sudden shiver he sensed he was losing a grip also on his principles, of shedding no blood. It was becoming too easy to imagine.


Gabriele wondered what it was like for the resistance in nearby areas. Were those up here on the massif especially vulnerable? What sort of pressure was on the partisan groups fighting on the plateau to the west for example, or in the high peaks to the north? Tommaso at once thought of Sandro. His situation was different, enough for the sort of comparison Gabriele was looking for, and he was not far away. He told Gabriele about his friend Vipera, with the Reds over in the Vette. Gabriele thought they would be part of the Gramsci Brigade, as were Fionda’s. But he might be worth talking to, to find out how they were dealing with threats that they themselves had not had to face just yet. And it could even be a stepping stone to an accord with cockeyed Fionda. And so it was agreed.


*


The following day Tommaso slipped down to Schievenin, to find out how to reach Sandro. Lina, scared out of her wits initially when she saw him at the window, was overjoyed and quickly got him inside and fed him bread and salami and hot milk. Tommaso’s father had taken the herd for safety to a malga in the south of the massif where it was said no partisan group operated. He told Lina he could only stay a few minutes and hurried down to see Signor Trevisan, knocking at the back door.


Signora Trevisan opened it, with wide eyes looking past him at any possible danger. “Tommaso! What are you doing here? Blessed Mary, Antonio is gone, they took him last week. You must go!”


Tommaso said how sorry he was, and he would of course leave directly. But he needed to know where he might ask for Sandro, in the Vette.


“God alone knows,” Signora Trevisan whispered before closing the door on him, “but he lived at Lamon before. Ask at the breadshop there.”


Two mornings later Tommaso left the camp dressed in his contadino clothes. He was accompanied by Urogallo and Zia, one of the latest recruits to whom Gabriele had quirkily given a female name. Zia, a taciturn former railway linesman, had spent the first part of his life in the valleys beyond the Vette and so had some familiarity with the terrain they might cover. They needed to head more or less due north, detouring around Monte Tomatico and taking maximum care in the farmland around Feltre.


The journey took all day. This was hazardous territory, especially in the main valley that ran east to west separating the Grappa massif from the sheer mountains ahead. The road they had to cross was a funnel of communication between the occupation army and its homeland. As though to confirm this while they were still some distance off they could make out vehicles moving more or less constantly in both directions along the valley floor. But periods of busy traffic seemed to be followed by stretches of emptiness.


Where the ground was open the three men moved in sprint-bursts, bent down and pausing often to assess the area ahead. In the farmed areas they ambled deliberately as though with agricultural purpose, trying not to draw attention to themselves. Scrub near the roadway afforded a good lookout and they waited an hour before it was safe to dash to the far side. To avoid the low-lying villages they had to squeeze through brambles, as close to the cliffs as possible. The road to Lamon forked up and off to the right and after that it was not possible to stay hidden. This was the start of the high Passo di Rolle, a probable alternative and perilous supply route for the enemy. The only vehicle to come by carried farm produce and they were not challenged. They made fair progress for the last stretch and arrived in the late afternoon, concealing themselves outside the village until Tommaso found the right moment to go in on his own.


The atmosphere was strange and electric and he was again reminded of a cowboy film. Apart from an old man walking in the same direction as him some distance ahead no one else was about. Tommaso was sure people behind the shutters would be watching him. As far as he could tell there was a single bread shop, half way along the main street. It was shut. He tapped on the door without result and then knocked again more loudly. He heard a sound inside and so knocked one more time. The door was opened an inch. In the poor light all he could see was moustaches then above them two large dark eyes under a woollen hat.


“Yes?” barked a deep voice at him.


“I am a relative of Sandro Peruzzo, from Schievenin,” Tommaso said, lying only a little. “I need to see him urgently.”


“I don’t know anyone of that name,” said Moustaches.


Tommaso took a gamble. “Vipera,” he muttered, and then cleared his throat – it could have been anything that he was saying. But to someone in the know it was like a password. The door opened and a large hand seized him by the collar and drew him roughly inside. No light was turned on and Tommaso had to hope he would not be murdered on the spot.


“Did I hear you right?” came a growl in the darkness.

Tommaso coughed to relieve the throttling, but was more confident now. He replied, “Yes. Vipera’s in these mountains but I don’t know where. I need to see him.”


“Are you alone?”


“No, my friends are waiting for me outside the village. Two of them.”


“Come with me.” A light went on in a passageway at the back and the man standing there, no taller than he was but with a much broader back, beckoned him forward. He led Tommaso through a door at the rear and up some steps. Standing on a wooden box he pointed over a low wall, across a sloping pasture. Tommaso got up awkwardly beside him and followed his indication.


“You need to take the road in that direction, up to San Donato,” Moustaches told him. “It’ll take you a couple of hours. Just this side of it is a house on the right. Tell them what you told me, what you told Pino.”


At the door to the street Tommaso peered both ways but could see no sign of life. He hurried back to Urogallo and Zia, passing on the way the turn-off to San Donato. Soon the three of them were heading up a steep and rough-surfaced country road as evening began closing in on them. It was dark by the time they reached the next settlement, consisting of a handful of dwellings. The first of these was set back from the road and must be the right one. As they walked towards it a black shape bounded barking up to them, its teeth frighteningly visible. A guttural cry stopped it in its tracks although it continued to make ugly noises. Then another shape, this time that of a man with a rifle, emerged round the corner of the farmhouse.


“Pino sent us,” Tommaso called out. “We need your help.”


With the dog snarling and sniffing behind them they advanced towards the man with the gun. He held it at the ready but pointed just to one side. Without more ado Tommaso told him that they needed to see Vipera and understood he was up here somewhere.


“Where are you from?” the man asked suspiciously.


“Monte Grappa,” Tommaso replied. “With the Matteotti Brigade. Vipera knows my family in Schievenin.”


“You can sleep above my cows,” the man said. “Tomorrow, maybe, we’ll see if we can do something for you. You’ll want something to eat.”


They were not invited inside. The man disappeared and returned with a loaf of bread, a hunk of cheese and some cold polenta wrapped in brown paper. With no further word he motioned them to follow him to a stone-walled cowshed that had a loft with just enough room for the three of them. They divided the food and ate it in silence, all exhausted by the journey.


Next morning they were awakened by the farmer who still had his rifle but held it in the crook of his arm as he tapped Tommaso on the boot. At the bottom of the steps was a boy of about eleven staring up at him. The farmer told them to go when they were ready with boy who he said was Guido. He gave them some fruit and bread in a bag.


For the next three hours they struggled to keep up with the boy who trotted along as though it was flat road and not steep and corrugated dirt. Eventually they turned off and followed a narrower and even rockier mule track around the mountainside. When they reached a ridge Guido said his first words. He pointed across a valley, fortunately not too deep or precipitous, to a point roughly level with where they were now.


“See those trees?” He indicated a small wood. “There.” And with that the boy left them, moving at the same rapid pace as before. They waited until he was out of sight, recovering their breath, before going on. The task seemed straightforward but it took them two hours down then up over difficult and at times frightening terrain. At one stage after they had been climbing up through exposed rock requiring the use of both hands as well as attention to loose shards at their feet they rounded a corner against a high wall onto a platform wide enough for the three of them to stand together. Vertiginous panoramas fell away below while ahead was a series of jagged pinnacles struck by the sunlight.


“Jesus!” Zia said, his first word that day.


“Just like the duomo in Milan,” Urogallo said, and the other two who had never been there grunted.


From that point the going became surprisingly easier as a wide strip of level ground lay between one cliff and another. Across a grassy slope they could see the wood that was their objective. As they stepped out into the open they were ordered to halt by a man wearing a tunic and red scarf and holding a submachine gun. He demanded to know who they were.


“Partisans,” Tommaso said, “from Monte Grappa. We have come to see Vipera.”


The man whistled and from behind one of the first trees in the wood another similarly attired and equipped figure emerged.


“Forward!” ordered the sentry, gesturing with the barrel of his gun across the slope but not moving to follow them. They moved with as much dignity and composure as they could muster in their breathlessness towards the wood where the original figure had now been joined by three more. One of these, Tommaso saw as they drew near, was Sandro.


“Vipera!’ he shouted up the slope.


“Quinto!” came the reply.


They sat in a clearing around the remains of a campfire well inside the wood. It was completely sheltered by rocks on one side with a dense stand of trees. On the far side of the clearing where the rock wall angled away Tommaso could discern the opening to a cave. He introduced his travelling companions to Sandro and told him why they had come – to see how other partisan groups were coping as the threat to their own operation appeared to be growing.


“What about the garibaldini on Monte Grappa?” Sandro asked.


Tommaso told him Fionda’s sole interest in Gabriele’s group was that it keep right away from his, or else let itself be absorbed completely. Sandro sighed and said there was nothing either of them could do about that. The garibaldini over there were within their rights. This, he added, this was a war of liberation with very little room for compromise.


“We should all be on the same side then,” Urogallo said. “This shouldn’t be like Spain.”


“You’re right up to a point,” Sandro told him. “You can talk to some of my men about the war in Spain. Our struggle is different – we’re fighting to build a new Italy. You don’t realise how lucky you’ve been so far, up on the Grappa. You’re insulated, you’ve been left alone. If you like tomorrow I’ll show you how it is in the Vette.”


While they ate some meat that Sandro had asked to be brought he told them his group had had good relations with nearby farms and villages but they in turn had been hit hard by the nazi-fascists. Life was gpoing to get a lot tougher for everyone. And it was harder for his group than Tommaso’s as they had nothing parachuted to them. The Anglo-Americans, he said, were petrified the communists would come out of this war on top. “And of course we will.”


They talked about the supply situation on Monte Grappa, and how it got its information, and inevitably Sandro asked Tommaso if he had taken his advice and gone to see Loredana. He left them during the afternoon for a destination that he described generically as ‘up there’, pointing north, and said he would be back in the morning.


They slept in the main cave with a dozen partisans including Sandro’s political adviser. This was Ferro, a man in his thirties with blue eyes, short red hair and a weather-beaten face. He told them as they breakfasted on bread and cheese there were forty men in this unit. It was one of three in the ranges around the highest peak, the Cima d’Asta. Directly to the south, below the cliffs, was the main road along the Valsugana from Padova, Vicenza and Bassano to Trento and then to Austria. The disruption of convoys, rail and power lines along the valley was the principal sphere of activity of the other two units. They themselves were responsible for all this upland area.


Ferro had a peculiar sense of humour, laughing at things that none of his visitors found funny and frowning at any hint of levity on their part. But he was happy to chat and it seemed he might want to recruit them. He told them he had been in the civil war in Spain, as had two other members of the unit. He asked them what they thought the Anglo-Americans had in mind for Italy, when they had beaten the Germans.


“They’ll bring back the king,” suggested Urogallo.


“If we let them,” Ferro said, nodding vigorously. “It would be a tragic error if we did. Then the war would not end with the nazis. And don’t pretend the Anglo-Americans have our interests at heart.”


Tommaso and Urogallo must have looked unconvinced because Ferro then sniggered and told them that these fine allies were bombarding Florence at that minute. Their plan for Italy when it was defeated with Germany was to make both of them do what they were told. It would hard in Germany because the Russians would be there. And it might not be easy here because the Allies disagreed on what was to be done with Italy. They were already arguing about the spoils of war. Urogallo asked him to explain.


“The English,” Ferro said, smiling broadly, “have to prop up their capitalist empire. It can’t last, but meanwhile they want to take our colonies and our navy and ruin our industry. Their vision for us is as a market for their goods, that’s all.”


“And the Americans?” Urogallo demanded.


“Oh, they’re our true friends.” Ferro switched to cold sarcasm. “They don’t want to see the king back. They don’t want to ruin us like the English. In fact they want to see the back of the English, throughout the Mediterranean. They want our industry to survive. They want us to buy their machinery, paying for it with things we can sell. That means throwing their support behind our big industrialists.”


“Is that bad?” Uragallo asked.


“Oh, no,” Ferro insisted sarcastically. “Selling your soul is good. Sacrificing your independence is fine. Losing your identity, your self-respect, your humanitarian principles, your dreams – this is a fair price to pay for a token share in the prosperity they will dangle in front of us. Wouldn’t you say?”


As soon as they were able to Tommaso, Urogallo and Zia excused themselves from Ferro’s disconcerting lectures and went for a wander around the camp. Beyond the wood they came across a second sentry guarding access to a barn. On the other side of it the land rose then dipped and they could hear the sound of bells of cows or goats. Sandro returned mid-morning, in sombre spirits. He greeted them amicably enough and went to find Ferro. When he came back, alone, he said they should leave soon for the place he wanted to show them. He sat leaning on the rock wall with his feet out straight in front of him, rigid, like a Pinocchio puppet while his guests stood around in an arc, all of them smoking. Tommaso asked him if everything was all right.


“Yes,” Sandro said absently. Then he added, “But I had to execute someone this morning.”


The others looked suitably astounded so Sandro explained that he had gone to the Val di Fiemme, to the house of an ex-member of his group. He had turned informer and so had had to be eliminated. Urogallo asked if this was the first such case.


“Of an informer that we had to get rid of, yes. But I’ve had to shoot two spies, one up here and another who got back to the valley. Plus three or four times we’ve taken out individual fascists, in their homes.”


“My God,” Tommaso said, “is all that really necessary?”


“I think so,” Sandro said evenly. “I’ve lost eleven men, in raids and executions. This is not a game that we’re playing here. I’d be amazed if you don’t have spies up on the Grappa. You have no control up there, from what I’ve seen. People just wander about wherever they like.”


This was true, as Tommaso had to concede. These days anyone could claim to be a new recruit, and it was no problem if after a couple of days looking around they just vanished. Some he thought had gone to join the garibaldini. Now it seemed likely that others had gone down the mountain to report to the enemy, more or less as Merlo had done.


“And after you’ve shot your fascist,” Urogallo wanted to know, “isn’t there a response?”


Sandro laughed shortly. “Oh yes,” he said. “There’s always a response. They usually take it out right away on miserable individuals near at hand. Anyone who looks as if they might be liable for military duty is hauled away. If they don’t have a very good story they are classified as ‘hostage.’ After every attack of ours one or more hostages is shot or hanged and their body left in the open as a warning. But do you know something strange? The more hangings there are down in the valley, the more recruits we get up in the mountains.”


He motioned that they should start. An hour later, after a steep descent down a mule track, they came within sight and sound of a village. A church bell rang twice. Sandro explained that they had a system of signalling between the village and one of his outposts, to convey information about threats and movements. A white sheet in a certain window, for example, would warn them that a nazi-fascist patrol had come to the village. He led the way over a broken wall. After crossing an open space under trees with low branches they entered a tiny piazza with a circular stone cistern in the middle.


It was immediately obvious that war had come to the village. Three of the houses around the square were gutted wrecks. The church itself had its front door smashed and its grey plaster was also badly scorched. Many of the windows around the piazza were broken and on most of the walls were scrawled fascist graffiti, ugly black lettering in praise of the Duce and warning of death to the ‘bandits.’


“What happened here?” Tommaso asked, gazing around in alarm.


“Just over a week ago a nazi soldier came,” Sandro explained. “Out of curiosity, perhaps. He seemed to be off duty although he was in uniform. One of the villagers had just lost a son to the nazis. He spotted this one wandering about, got his gun and shot him. Other people helped dispose of the body, in that disused well over there, covering it with rocks.”


“And then?”


“A few days later a truck came with soldiers, dogs and flamethrowers. They seemed to have some idea that this was the right village and so they terrorised the place, searched everywhere, destroyed whatever they fancied, burned the houses. They were going to burn down the church but the priest persuaded them not to. At that point one of them with his dog found the body in the well. The priest insisted he knew nothing. They shot him on the spot, and six other men they found in the village. There, against that wall, where you see the bullet holes.”


They walked around the little village, which appeared deserted. Sandro put his head through the open door of one of the houses that had not been burned and called out a woman’s name. A haunted-looking teenage girl emerged and greeted him.


“She lost her father and brother,” Sandro explained. “They weren’t even here. They were in a field below the village. The nazis shot them as they were leaving, from their truck, as though for sport.”


Sandro added that it was one of several villages in the area that strongly supported the partisans. His men could always come here for relief from the rigours of camp life, and this had been invaluable during the winter. They had even had parties, and the girls had been friendly. But now the nazi-fascists were making regular visits to villages in the foothills. Not only were these places no longer safe for them to visit but the penalties on the villages also increased the chance that some in them would agree to collaborate, just to survive.


It was in pensive mood that they returned to the camp. Tommaso was reflecting that Schievenin, Seren, Alano and other places he knew so well could be subject to this sort of treatment at any time. He was anxious to get back, and felt that he and his two companions had probably learned enough for the present.


Before they turned in for the night they were greeted laconically by Ferro. As he tried to get off to sleep Tommaso found himself churning over the days events and Ferro’s earlier question to them about the price to pay for self-respect or principles. Even Gabriele had implied that Merlo should pay with his life for switching sides, no matter what personal pressure he was under. Were there any limits to the pressures, or to the price to pay, Tommaso wondered. He could see no limits to human nastiness. Death came quickly and easily these days – but also slowly and painfully, sometimes, according to Fionda’s account of the torture of his captured men. A stray bullet was one thing. Tommaso quavered at the thought of pain, or of someone he loved being in peril.


They left in the morning accompanied by two of Sandro’s men who were going in the Lamon direction. Although progress was often slow they were able to return to Monte Grappa without incident. Tommaso was keen to detour via Schievenin and although this added two hours or more to their return to base it was almost easy compared with some of the places they had visited in the past few days. They reported to Signora Trevisan that her nephew was in good health, and then at Tommaso’s home the three of them ate a meagre meal with the family, no one saying much, all sensing the crisis to come.


Throughout the hours of trekking since they had left Sandro’s hideout all Tommaso had been able to think about was the grip of his feet, the chill of the wind and the invisible, ever-present danger of the enemy. With the journey nearly over and the way so familiar he could have negotiated it with his eyes shut, all manner of visions and doubts began troubling him. Some whole days had gone by recently without his even once remembering Loredana, but now she flashed ahead of him on the path, her words about him being a silly boy and an outlaw resonating in his mind in jarring tones that were not hers. Aspects of what he had seen with Sandro, the scorchmarks and the grave-well and the fear on the faces, came at him as shapeless menaces. The apprehension that his own destiny was on the brink urged him to find out what was really going to happen. But this need for action was overtaken by a siren-like singing in his head of how futile it was to try to influence anything. In the fatalism beginning to infect all three of them they were taken unawares by their own sentry repositioned lower than usual down the track. His call back up the slope had Gabriele striding towards them.


*


Tommaso’s account of their journey to the Vette and of what the partisans there were doing gave Gabriele plenty to think about. His mind was already mulling over the implications of a raid carried out across the river three days before, on agricultural inspectors. It had been an opportunity to profit from the despair of farmers all around who faced the prospect of their harvest being assessed and then much of it being requisitioned and sent to Germany. The penalty for not promptly handing over the assessed amount was summary execution. Some farmers had sought help from the partisans.


The raid had gone well and the inspector had been kidnapped, threatened, stripped to his underpants and set free with a good hike to get back to Valdobbiadene. But next day soldiers of the Alpini had laid an ambush and wounded two partisans, both recent recruits, whom they had had to leave behind. It was some consolation that one of the Alpini soldiers had got lost and they now had him as a prisoner. Gabriele said he would try and negotiate a swap of this man for Hank and Nero, and maybe all four of the men thought to be in custody as long as they were still alive.


“You’re right about things hotting up,” Gabriele said, “because the republican army is now on the offensive against us. We’ve got to do more, while the weather is good, and the Anglo-Americans are advancing. And quite frankly, we have to do at least as much as the Reds. We’ve got to be tough, too, like them.”


That logic of Gabriele’s had prompted him to plan another raid, that very evening. The three who had just come back from the Vette would not be required. Elio and five men were to descend the valley on this side of the river once more and bail up any vehicle taking requisitioned farm produce north. The idea was to follow the garibaldini example and endeavour to win over the local populace by sharing out the seized grain among the most needy in the villages. A small amount could be kept for themselves.


The raid achieved its objectives, with no casualties on either side, but had one disastrous outcome. A truck had been intercepted, and its driver left bound and gagged down an embankment where he could perhaps be found by daylight. The truck had then been driven some distance over rough ground at Colmirano where it had tipped over in a ditch. Elio’s group had split into two units of three to seek help in the village, leaving a man behind to guard the truck. One of the units had stumbled across a girl coming out of a farmhouse. She had seemed ready to scream so one of them had clamped himself muffling on to her. The others were there quickly to take her legs up and help wrestle her into nearby trees by which time her helplessness had roused them and they were soon scrabbling at their own clothes and hers in their madness. As they then raped her in turn she did scream. One or other had to keep striking her and it was a final silencing blow that killed her. Elio had heard the commotion and come racing into the woods, too late. He had ordered everyone back to camp. The girl’s body had been taken to the truck and left in the driver’s seat.


Gabriele had got the details from one of the men who had misread his commander’s impassive listening and had spoken graphically, almost boastfully. Gabriele now had a real problem. His policy of assisting the villagers had backfired and in Colmirano at least, and more widely as the story spread, local sentiment risked actively turning against the resistance. Discipline within the ranks was also at risk and unless he moved decisively to mete out severe punishment the effectiveness of his unit was in jeopardy. He had Elio arrest the delinquents. He summoned a meeting of the whole group, now approximating a full strength army company. He read out the charges, and the penalty on which he had decided. He asked if anyone challenged it. Nobody did. The three men, arms tied behind their backs, were guarded while Gabriele planned his next move, and summoned his inner council.


They sat in the main cave. Gabriele said he needed a firing squad of three. He would be one of the executioners, Pablo who was the best shot in the unit should be another and Tommaso should be the third. Tommaso cried out in horror and asked why on earth should he should be part of it?


“Because every one likes you, Tommaso. Because you are a funny sort of ex-soldier. Because your participation will mean everybody accepts the sentence. You understand? I don’t want any argument.”


Urogallo interrupted Gabriele asking if he could have a word with him. With ill grace Gabriele followed him outside. Tommaso never found out what his friend had said to the commander but Urogallo was clever and could produce words and ideas that amazed Tommaso with their felicity. Sometimes he came up with things that were nestling in Tommaso’s head or poised on the tip of his tongue, things he himself could never give voice to. Maybe he had said something about Tommaso’s promise to Loredana, as he himself would have surely done.


“Out, everyone,” Gabriele barked to the group in the cave. “Let’s get this over and done with.”


The man who had delivered the lethal blow was made to stand against the rock wall on the far side of the clearing. He was a hardbitten youth who refused a blindfold and faced his accusers with a defiant stare. Urogallo stepped forward with Gabriele and Pablo each with a rifle and with no delay or further ceremony the man was executed. A shot was fired through the thigh of the principal rapist. Lev, the third member of the unit, was ordered out of the camp for good. The two surviving culprits, one leaning heavily on the other, hobbled towards Seren and an uncertain future.

A few nights later another problem arose. Fearing that their airdrops would fall into communist hands, the British command had selected a site below Schievenin, within Gabriele’s territory. He was apprehensive it was too low down but he was given no alternative. In the event the wind blew strongly and carried the parachutes even lower. The party of twenty that had gone to intercept them had scrambled down only to hear the sound of soldiers advancing towards them and the same objective. A firefight ensued in which one partisan was wounded. He was taken back up and left above Schievenin. On the enemy side a blackshirt was wounded and seen to hobble away while a German soldier was killed. Gabriele and Elio hauled his body off and left it behind some rocks.


Reprisals inevitably followed, with a sizeable joint patrol of blackshirts and German soldiers. A house-to-house search in Alano and surrounding villages produced three young men who could not explain why they had not enlisted. Two were taken away as hostages. The family of the other was ordered out of their house and made to witness the hanging of their son from the corner eave. The house was then set fire to.


“We’ve got to hit the fascists, above all,” Gabriele told his team next morning. “They’re the real criminals, and we’ve got to start hurting them. Quinto’s right, or rather his friend Vipera is. We are talking about people who will still be around when the nazis pull out.”


“You mean assassinations?” Urogallo asked. “Because that’s what the Reds are specialising in.”


Gabriele hesitated and said assassinations would bring more reprisals. But all-out targeted attacks on fascist institutions could work. They should again go for the comuni, and destroy things, especially documents. If officials got in the way, they should be taken prisoner or, as a last resort, dealt with appropriately. In other words, killed, but in the line of duty.


The plan was to attack the small local office in the village of Quero, down on the railway line, by the river. It was an hour on foot from there to Pederobba and Tommaso asked if he could be part of the assault force. Gabriele had no objection at all. Perhaps he felt Tommaso had been toughened by his visit to Vipera’s command or shamed by Urogallo over the firing squad exercise. Tommaso, who had voiced no objection to the actual death sentence passed on the rapist, didn’t care what Gabriele thought. Sandro’s harsh response to enemy provocations did make some sense. But he had other motives for being part of the sortie to Quero.


The attack was timed for the following Saturday, in broad daylight. Gabriele led the first team of twelve men, with responsibility for the assault itself. Four others would secure access roads into the village, keep civilians well away, provide covering fire if needed and ensure nobody escaped from the building. It was not possible to conceal the movement of so many partisans but by now Gabriele felt those who saw them would not be able to report them in timely fashion. In any case they would be moving at speed.


An official car parked outside the comune and this gave Gabriele pause. He decided to brazen it out and walked in full view towards the driver, seated behind the wheel, while two of his attack force crept up from behind. Gabriele looked important and confident. The driver got nervously out of the car and was struck hard by the butt of a pistol. The door to the comune was open and half of Gabriele’s party streamed in. Tommaso and two others went around one side – the other was joined to a second building – while another group of three including Urogallo went to check out the rear. It was a warm day and the windows were all open. Through one of them Tommaso caught sight of two men standing in conversation. One could have been the podestà, whose office this would have been. The other one Tommaso recognised with alarm as Loredana’s father, looking even grimmer and, with his close-cropped hair and rigid stance, more teutonic than ever. He was in fascist uniform and he glanced up at the movement in the window.


“I know you!” he shouted at Tommaso. At this point the door crashed open and Gabriele and his men charged in. Tommaso clambered over the sill into the room. Loredana’s father turned his head from one intruder to the other, as though making sure to memorise their faces.


“Bandits!” he spat at them, “you’re a disgrace to the fatherland.”


“This one I think we should eliminate,” Gabriele said. “The other one is not worth the effort. Where are your archives?”


This question was addressed to the podestà who was visibly shaking. He pointed vaguely at the door to the room. Gabriele grabbed him by the collar and hauled him forward.


“I’ll take this one to show me what we need. Quinto, you guard that fascist, you and Cesare.”


Cesare was the biggest man in Gabriele’s group although not the brightest. He strode over to Loredana’s father and pushed him so that he fell back into an armchair where, all of a sudden, he seemed small and afraid. For a time no one said anything while from other rooms could be heard voices, the opening of drawers and doors and the sound of books and files being dumped on the floor.

Tommaso’s mind was racing. Somehow or other he had to prevent the others from killing Loredana’s father, or that would be the end of his dreams with her. An appeal to Gabriele, asking to spare him as a personal favour would probably fail. Gabriele these days was drinking grappa every night, perhaps to help him cope with the pressures of command and the recent atrocities, and was decidedly bilious most of the time. He might see in the uniformed ghoul slumped in the chair, as Tommaso was suddenly seeing now, the living symbol and even author of many of those atrocities. While he was racking his brains Loredana’s father spoke to him.


“Are you my executioner?” he asked querulously.


Tommaso looked at Cesare who seemed to be on the point of volunteering for the task himself.


“I am,” Tommaso confirmed emphatically. Then Gabriele charged in, looking slightly wild.


“People are coming!” he barked, “We’ve got to get out of here. The other room’s well alight. Shoot that bastard, someone. Elio’s got my pistol, his has jammed.”


“I know this fellow,” Tommaso said, pointing at the fascist and pulling as ugly a face as he could. “I’ll do it. But he owes me an explanation for a couple of things. You go while I interrogate him. I won’t take long.”


Gabriele looked perplexed and then shrugged. “You’d better be quick. Do it properly, Quinto. Some local farmers with guns are out there, and I want to avoid a fight with them if I can. Come on Cesare!”


Tommaso knew he had to act fast. When it was clear the others had left the building he turned, pistol levelled, to the ashen-faced figure squirming in his chair.


“Please….please!” the man whimpered.


“Listen,” Tommaso hissed. “You are the father of the girl I love. For that reason alone I’m going to spare you. I’m going to fire a shot to make it look like I killed you, and I’ll tell the others that’s what I did. But you must not leave this room, you must not show your face. I’m going to hide and watch and by God I’ll really kill you if I see you.”


With that he pulled the trigger. The bullet missed Loredana’s father by a few inches, embedding itself in the headrest of the chair, and caused him to shudder in terror. Tommaso raced to the window and jumped out. The street seemed to be empty and he could see neither partisans nor farmers, but he was sure that hidden behind the windows of the houses people were taking in everything. He raced around a corner and spotted a bicycle leaning against a wall. Without thinking he jumped on it and pedalled rapidly away, downhill. This was not the way home.


Later Tommaso learned that the podestà had been bound tightly with his own bootlaces and that the chauffeur outside had been given another whack on the head and his tyres had been punctured. The farmers had been startled to see so many partisans in the village and most of them fled. Loredana’s father would have lain low for some minutes before going to release his colleague. The fire had not spread beyond the pile of papers in the middle of the room.


The bicycle took Tommaso in record time to Pederobba. The only possible way there for him was along the main road and although this was madness he no longer cared who saw him. He abandoned the bicycle in bushes near Loredana’s house and forsaking all caution hammered on the door at the side. Loredana’s mother came immediately and behind her he could see Loredana.


“Loredana!” Tommaso shouted, puffing and panting, “I was ordered to shoot your father, at Quero. But, signora,” and here he turned to Loredana’s mother, “he is alive and safe and probably will be home soon. He will tell you everything. I love your daughter!”


Neither of the two women moved although they both looked frightened. They stared at the madman in front of them, wondering what he would do or say next. Tommaso had no idea and instead shrugged and opened his arms helplessly.


“I must go!” he said then. “Things are getting really bad. For you, too. You’re on the losing side! You’re in as much danger as I am!”


“Tommaso…” Loredana said, making a supreme effort to be calm and pushing past her mother. “Give yourself up! It’s not too late.”


“It is!” Tommaso insisted. She looked so lovely. He wanted to kiss her, maybe she wanted that, too. But this was hardly the moment. “Loredana, I love you!”


Now he had nothing else to say, and she was evidently not going to respond, not with her mother there. After an instant that seemed like an eternity, and as both of them looked at each other with so many emotions crammed into a single blankness, Tommaso turned away. He sped up the slope towards Monte Tomba into thick scrubby vegetation where he followed the roughest of paths along the contour line on a sharply shelving slope. He battled his way falling down often until physical exhaustion brought him to a limping halt, still less than half way to Schievenin. Much later he staggered into the camp.


Gabriele was pleased with the way the assault on Quero had gone. His group had suffered no casualties whatever. Apart from the fascist official no one else had been killed and from reports coming to him the reprisals so far had been astonishingly light, meaning the local populace should remain fairly supportive of the partisans. The great majority in the villages on that side of the mountain, tacitly or openly, had helped make them look good and the fascists foolish and powerless.


The next day two English soldiers who had been on the run since September arrived. Partisans near Modena had sheltered them but down in the plain it had become much too dangerous. Gabriele called a general meeting, to show off the new recruits and to impress upon the newcomers the capabilities under his command. He made a lengthy speech whose theme was that they were now at a turning point. The war was entering a decisive phase. It might be over before autumn. He sounded one sobering note of warning.


“Men,” he announced, “Radio London has confirmed the fall of Florence. But it also reports something terrible that happened near Lucca. More than five hundred people, in one village, were massacred two days ago by the nazis and their fascist friends. Most of the victims were women and children and the elderly. We had to expect this. The nazis are on the run, and they are getting very desperate.”


Tommaso had not been able to think of anything but her since he had left Loredana. Of course he had done the right thing in not shooting her father, and it was right that he should have told her about it. But it was easier to predict the weather in the mountains than how anyone might react to ashock. Even his own feelings, he knew, swung violently – he remembered irrationally destesting Sandro for having helped him out in Padova a couple of times. Now Tommaso thought about it, Loredana’s father would feel absolutely no gratitude towards him. He had been totally humiliated. Released from his terror and free to act as he liked he would probably lead the fascists on a rampage against his recent persecutors. He would tell Loredana that her boyfriend was a murderous bandit like all the others and turn her against him. Moreover Gabriele could easily find out what Tommaso had done, and curse him for it.


In the twilight an ironic owl hooted from an oak tree directly above him, scoffing at the idiocies being played out below. Grating English voices rose from the party Gabriele was organising for his latest recruits with the last of the requisitioned wine. Also heading towards heaven was the perfume of cooking meat from a goat that had made the fatal mistake of crossing the path up from Quero at the wrong moment yesterday and been bludgeoned to death by a quick-thinking partisan. Tommaso tried to imagine the grand-scale massacre near Lucca. His own individual near miss with Loredana’s father turned into a magnified and multiple absurdity. Unrealities chased impossibilities through his mind, like his holding Loredana once more as he had in the front of Signor Trevisan’s truck, this time for ever. The lower of the two sentries came up the hill looking for whoever was supposed to relieve him. Tommaso volunteered that he would do it, and for the next few hours sat on a rock staring into the gathering darkness in the valley.