Friday, May 4, 2018

Marie by James McEwan

A Scottish veteran returns to Italy to face his past, and maybe find his old sweetheart; by James McEwan.

Carl Mackenzie caught a glimpse of her. His heartbeat raced, he stumbled and sat down on the edge of a pushcart. Was it Marie? He drank some water and took a few deep breaths. He stood up to look around in the fish market, searching for her among the crowd, but the woman had moved on. He wet his handkerchief with water from his bottle and wiped his brow and neck to cool himself. The heat of the Mediterranean climate made him feel lightheaded, and his shallow breathing sucked at the warm air. He wanted to speak to her, but what he would say after all these years? He wandered on, gazing about at the bustling groups, and he took frequent sips of water that seemed to leak through his skin and out under his armpits. He could be wrong about the woman, after all it was only a fleeting glance of her head and shoulders.

The ripe smell of fish lingered around him, impregnating his shirt and hair. Sellers screamed their prices for tuna and, once sold, the buyers dragged boxes away scraping them over the wet concrete towards waiting vans. In front of him labourers grunted as they hauled a fish carcass along the aisle, they shouted obscenities and he jumped out of their way before being pushed.

The fishmongers gutted, cut the heads and tails off the fish and scraped the entrails into buckets. On wooden blocks, they sliced the fillets to order and their customers carried them off packed among crushed ice in plastic cartons.

The bustling noise gave him a headache and the sharp stench clogged in his nostrils and throat. A sense of nausea began to ascend from his stomach, he needed space. Forcefully, he pushed through the sweating fishermen who protested by blowing cigarette smoke onto his face.

Out on the dockside he sat down on a steel mooring post where he lifted his head towards the warm breeze that blew from across the harbour; he gasped in the refreshing air. Relaxed, he watched seagulls squabble over floating fish offal, their squawking an accompanying chorus to his thoughts. What had occurred, had he seen Marie? He shuddered, perhaps what he saw was an apparition conjured up from suppressed memories. Ones that had haunted him for nearly twenty years, ones that had kept circling away in his mind and provoking unforgettable feelings of guilt and shame. He loved Marie, but could he be with her again? For years, he had treasured his memories of her warm smiles and had recurring dreams of reuniting their love, but there were also the cold sweats and nightmares from which he awoke feeling emotionally fragile and depressed. An inexplicable message in a recent letter astonished him, and he felt compelled to return to Italy.

It was a cold day when he, as a young troop commander, had disembarked from the landing craft with pack mules onto this dockside. Loaded onto their backs were radio equipment, spare batteries, small generators and rations. His task was to set up a Divisional re-broadcasting station in the hills around Sessa Aurunca overlooking Torelle, on a location with a clear radio line of sight over the valley towards the river Garigliano. The 5th Division's aim was to clear the enemy from positions beyond the river, the geographical feature designated by the Germans as part of the Gustav Line.

Carl stretched his left leg to release its numbness, his recovery from the stab wound had been complicated by bouts of recurring infections and, at one time, the surgeon even considered amputation. He got up and walked back towards the guest house. The fish odours clung to his clothes; he would shower and change before breakfast. Opposite the building, he waited on the pavement as a bus passed. Then he saw her again, he was sure it was her, the woman from the market was in the coach. He watched as it turned right and took the road towards the Aurunca hills. Later, he intended to catch the same number eleven bus that would take him to Sessa Aurunca and then on to Torelle, the small village where Marie lived. He entered the hotel lobby convinced he had seen her, but had no idea what he was going to say or should say. Back in his room he stripped off and felt the chill of the air conditioning sweep over his body. The water from the shower trickled down his back and his thoughts drifted. He had only arrived last night, and yet, was it possible he had seen Marie in the fish market? What was he doing coming back to Italy? He washed and rubbed off the soap trapped in the long scar on his left leg. Was he prepared for the worst?



Through the bus window, Carl scanned across the flat Italian countryside of neat fields with rows of tomato plants and irrigation channels. In the distance, he could just make out workers tending to the vines on the hillslopes. The road ran straight across the plain and was lined on each side with cypress trees giving him the impression of a civilisation structured in uniformity and orderliness. He leaned back in his seat and enjoyed the vista as the cool air from the interior's air-conditioning blew over his face.

Twenty years ago, these fields were overgrown and the journey on foot along the road was a precarious trek open to air attacks. He had stumbled over the hastily repaired bomb craters and his mules were often startled by the occasional exploding ammunition from within the smouldering and wrecked vehicles abandoned in the ditches.

At the bus stop in Sessa Aurunca he decided to get off, since he was drawn to the nostalgic idea of retracing his route up the mountain to the site where he had set up the radio station, if he could find it.

The track through the vine yards was a gentle climb, but after fifteen minutes he regretted getting off and leaving the comfort of the bus. He stood, while sipping water, and looked back down the hill towards the town's prominent cathedral where he could just make out the wall, against which the communist fascists had been executed by a retreating German unit, only a day before the 2nd Battalion Scottish Rifles had manoeuvred up the valley.

He was gasping and panting, like a collie sheep dog, as he reached the row of olive trees that contoured along the hillside. The line also marked the boundary between the vines and the mountainous scrub. He refilled his empty bottle from a trickle of clear water in a stream and took a moment's refuge in the shade away from the sun's glare. The early afternoon breeze felt cool and the heat had begun to subside. While resting and looking around he realised that he did not exactly know where to find the path leading up on to the ridge.

He followed the stream until it dried out and after an hour of stumbling in a zig-zag scramble through the scrub he found a goat track heading upwards. He was sure this was the same route he had led the pack mules along to find a position for the radio station. By now he had finished his water, but the colder air along the ridge had dried his sweat and subdued his thirst. He concentrated on his surroundings and searched for the two distinct boulders that he remembered were in the proximity of the troop's camp. Half a mile further on he found them and climbed onto the larger of the two. He had sat on this rock when the battle to cross the Gustav Line began and he had watched the smoke rise along the river bank, and had listened to the explosions of the sporadic shelling and rattle of gunfire. Yet after so long, the view over the plain below and toward the Garigliano river seemed unchanged, and he traced the route of the winding road down the mountainside towards Torelle.

He opened up his knapsack and took out the letter and read, once again, the enigmatic message about Marie and her longing for him, and about important information that could only be revealed to him in person. There was no signature. Was it from Marie, and did she now consider it safe for him to return? But why now? He guessed that her father was dead, a man who had once made his intentions clear, to kill him. Otherwise, was he being drawn into a precarious situation of revenge? This letter had rekindled deep hurtful emotions, which had tormented him for decades, but he did not recognise the writing; it was not Marie's. In her last letter, eighteen years ago, she had begged him to come back to Italy. He had promised he would in his numerous letters that were never answered, except one from her father making his sentiments clear.

He wandered around the hill top among the scrub noting where he had positioned the troop's tents and placed the masts for the antennae. Warm nostalgic notions flushed through his mind. During the late spring of 1944, as the weather improved and warmed, the troop became relatively comfortable and felt remote from the war in the valley. It had been unusual for the rebroadcast station to remain static for so long since the Division had been constantly on the move. However, the Germans, along the Gustav line and on Monte-Cassino, managed to maintain their positions for months against the allied advance, consequently his radio station remained stationary longer than expected.

He took the descending path towards the Torello road and found where he had piled stones stacked as a marker; the rendezvous point where the company quartermaster would meet them to deliver rations, resupplies and mail for the Radio Troop. The rocks had been cemented into a cairn with a brass plate bolted into one side. He came looking for the marker, but the plaque and the name:

Georgio Donatello Pastore

Ventiquattro Anni

Eroe

His legs shook and he sat down on the ground, he teased out a last drop of water from his bottle. It was a memorial tribute for the man he had shot; had it been an accident or murder? It seemed as if a paranormal force had brought him back to this place where the plaque was waiting his return, perhaps looking for forgiveness or a retribution for past actions? He stared at the stones, his eyes welled up. Who was to blame? He blamed Hitler, he blamed the world for the madness of the war, but still he knew that this death had nothing to do with the battle for Monte-Cassino. It was about the intensity of love, family honour and a stupid waste of a life.

That night, he had kissed Marie in the barn and by avoiding the road he followed a rough route back up the mountain. Half way along the track, he noted a figure was following him, he hid and waited near the stones. Georgio had appeared and was in a confrontational mood. He accused Carl of dishonour to his family, and of raping his sister. He pulled out a switch blade and struck out at Carl, cutting him across his thigh. He had fallen and rolled over the ground, pulled out his pistol, and when Georgio rushed at him he fired a number of shots. He had lain there feeling infuriated and staring at the body of Georgio. Marie had told him how her father would never accept them being married, but she didn't care and she intended to leave Torello and be with him in Stirling. Nothing would keep them apart, but it seemed Georgio intended to preserve the family's honour.

He took long breaths as the ghost of the past reemerged, taunting, and he rubbed his fingers along the letters on the plaque as if seeking forgiveness. He got up, stretched the numbness from his leg, and carried on along the path taking his time downhill towards the village, physically it was easy, but he struggled in his mind to find an explanation. What was he going to say to Marie?

Carl couldn't understand the reason for the plaque. The noise of his shots had alerted the troop who had come running, and the medic had taken him to a field hospital for treatment. He never knew what had happened to the body of Georgio, and never asked. Perhaps this was the information alluded to in the letter. Did someone know the truth? After all he had lied to the Military Police during their rudimentary investigation, and they had accepted his version about challenging the man for spying on their location; the incident was closed.

In the letter, the instructions were specific, go to Salvatore's, order an expresso from the waiter in English and just wait.

He reached the barn built on the vine slope above the village, a place where his love for Marie had kindled and had raged through his dreams ever since. Its blackened roof had collapsed from an apparent fire sometime ago and its walls sprouted a thick growth of vegetation. Its condition contrasted with his memories, he shook his head as a surge of tiredness drained through him; now the idea of returning to Torello seemed a pointless futility as he couldn't imagine a warm welcome. Would Marie meet him in the Salvatore café? He walked on, following along the boundary wall to the cemetery where he noticed a recently placed display of cut flowers, he strolled in to have a look. It was a moment of procrastination as the sight of the dilapidated barn had diminished his enthusiasm for the meeting in the café.

The name carved on a marble headstone confirmed his presumption - Donatello Umberto Pastore - Marie's father. Unashamedly he smiled and felt a release of tension wash through him, he looked around and noted a light granite stone further back in the family plot. A jolt struck his heart and his left leg went numb, he dropped to his knees, he shook as he read the name again:

Marie Cristina Francesca Pastore

Figlia amata

1924 - 45

Carl checked the timings at the main bus stop, he had an hour before the next service departed back to the fishing port. He wandered into the plaza, avoiding Salvatore's Café on the east side where outdoor tables were occupied with customers catching the warmth of the afternoon sun. Instead, he made his way along the opposite side of the square to an open-air restaurant, and took a place facing the road.

He ordered a starter salad, a main dish of beef carbonara and a jug of water, then he sat back in his seat to observe the life across the square and watch Salvatore's. Although no specific time was mentioned in the letter, he had been expected to arrive during this week, and on any afternoon at his convenience. His first instinct was to ignore the proposal, but the idea of seeing Marie progressively overpowered his reluctance, what did he have to lose? What now? From the revelation of Marie's grave, there was no reason to stay.

A Fiat car slowed and stopped at Salvatore's; at the same moment the waiter brought his leafy salad, sliced bread and olive oil in a small bowl. In the distraction he didn't see if anyone entered or left from the car before it drove away. When he had finished his carbonara he saw the same yellow Fiat drive past on his side of the plaza, it drove into a carpark space facing the restaurant.

"Signor MacKenzie, Si?" A waiter addressed him.

"Yes, I -"

"Un bicchiere gratuito di vino bianco," he interrupted and placed the glass of wine on the table then waved a table napkin in the air as he walked away.

Carl sipped the wine.

A car door slammed. He looked towards the Fiat, a young woman came striding across the car park. Marie! Impossible. She skipped off the pavement, crossed the road and marched onto the restaurant patio. She pulled out a chair at his table and sat down. The hair, the dark eyes, the sultry confidence, Carl felt a surge of adrenalin bolt through him, a ghost, an illusion. She was wearing the same blouse as the woman he saw in the fish market. A young woman about eighteen, Marie!

"Signor Carl Mackenzie," she said.

He stared at her face, the same face that smiled at him in his dreams, in the moonlight, in the barn.

"Signor Carl Mackenzie." She reached out and touched his hand.

"Yes."

"Il mio nome Silvia, tua figlia."

"Silvia was my mother's name."

"Yes, and I am Silvia Marie Cristina Pastore." She gripped his hand tightly. "Mia madre è morta quando sono nato." Her eyes welled up and watered. "My mother died as I was born."

4 comments:

  1. A taut emotional story, engaging and well written. Thank you, Ceinwen

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  2. A beautiful story. The excellent descriptions and strong sense of place really brought it to life for me.

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  3. Memory and intuition intertwine in a compelling way. I too was drawn into the detail of landscape and heat, every stone seemed to contain a strange sense of recognition.
    B r o o k e

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  4. wonderful. like the others i was seduced by the beautiful imagery and rewarded with a first class story.
    Mike McC

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