Soldier | Part Four
Pietro is enjoying his freedom, Italy surrendered to the Allied Forces a month past, following the invasion of the mainland. Mussolini was ousted from his rule in July and the Italian POWs are regarded as ‘co-operators’, volunteers in a war they have lost on the battlefield as well as in their hearts and minds. The only thing Pietro can be certain of is the new independence that extends beyond ambles to and from the farm, that means he now lives in an old warehouse in the grounds of the cotton mill with the rest of his country’s stolen soldiers. Away from the lazy guards they come and go as they please and it almost feels like liberation, but not quite. He still can not go home to fight.
The best part of Pietro’s new found freedom is Molly and here she is now, hips swinging, head tilted to the side, face lowered demurely but eyes raised in the unhidden inquisitiveness that led to their blossoming friendship and Pietro’s uncontrollable desire for her company. And just as he is smitten with her, she is love struck for the handsome foreign soldier who whispers sweetness in her eager ears, melts kisses on her soft rosebud lips and is filled with an energy that not only matches her enthusiasm for life, but now motivates it.
“Mornin’ soldier,” she greets Pietro with her thick jumping accent. “Colder today, ain’t it?”
She always calls him soldier, no matter how many times he asks her to use his name. To hear her say it would have been delicious, personal and intimate, but she will not. She pulls her scarf into the neck of her coat as she speaks, tucking in the lose strands of gold hair. The beat of his heart quickens as he glimpses the delicate white skin at the gentle curve of her throat. There is no fighting it, he is in love. The free spirit of her youth, her innate simple kindness and her positive belief in humanity despite the horrors of war are irresistible to a man in his position. So far he has managed to curtail his desire to a few snatched kisses and even fewer fumbles through her blouse, but each time they meet he loses a little more self-control. She reminds him of a life he had once had, feelings he once believed in and, for a short while when he was with her, could enjoy again.
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Pietro wastes no time pulling her towards him, wrapping his hands in her thick skirts. His eager lips seek hers and he feels the contrast of her hot breath billowing on his cold cheek. Her mouth is small and ripe, her tongue soft.
Over the weeks that their friendship had taken root, they shared childhood stories from Genoa and Lancashire, of school teachers and lessons, friends and neighbours, seasons and landscapes, traditions and food — so much food; her thick pastry pies and his loops of pasta, his deep red wine and her light sugary lemonade. But mostly they shared music. It began when Molly sung him a verse from the latest Gracie Fields film she had seen at the local theatre and he returned the favour with an old Italian love song that filled her green eyes with tears even though she could not understand a word of it. They repeated the exchange the next day, behind the kitchen stores of the basement, each time unveiling a little more from behind the mysterious curtain of culture that separated them.
At first Pietro tried to control the inevitable turn their closeness was taking, but he could not and she would not. Molly brought the only sweetness to his day and now he had tasted it, he could not give it up. Now he and Molly had far more opportunity to meet up, he counted the seconds to each union. They were hooked on the daring of crossing boundaries built by war, intrigued by each other’s worlds. Molly began to secretly recite Italian words and even song verses in her head as she went about her chores. It was only during her morning walks along the quiet deserted lane that she would dare to taste the foreign words aloud, to roll them across her tongue, each learned phrase bringing her closer to her new friend. In turn Pietro began to fleck his speech with a northern tone, an accent that grew as unconsciously as his love for this local lass until he realised both at the same time one morning when he found himself smiling at nothing more than the sight of her waltzing walk as she crossed the camp.
The war has made them all bitter and a little bit of fun and sweetness can not be left untasted.
The shortages are at their worst this Christmas, The Ministry of Food estimating just one family in ten will get turkey or goose for their Christmas dinner and many are planning on mock substitute recipes with lamb. Once again presents are ‘make do and mend’ and Molly and her sisters have spent weeks scouring magazines for inspiration and instructions for embroidered bookmarks, knitted gloves and brooches created from scraps of felt.
“We are pretty well on our beam ends as far as Christmas dinner is concerned.” Molly sighs as they walk the lane between the village and the camp. “No chance a’ turkey or goose nor even a despised rabbit. If we can get a wee bit o’ mutton t’is best we can ‘ope fer. There’s few Christmas puds in’t shops but it’s three puddins for 800 cuss’omers.”
Pietro pulls her close trying to compensate for her uncharacteristic sadness. He has saved up his stash of cigarettes for weeks now hoping to get something special for his Molly, to show his gratitude for her kind generosity towards him and his friends with her smuggled cookhouse rations. No one talks of money in the camp, prices are set out in terms of tobacco here, and finding a gift for a female is proving a little more than difficult.
Just a week later on Christmas Eve Pietro’s problem is overcome. Thanks to a colleague of Molly’s in the kitchens and some help from Antonio, Pietro recreates the atmosphere of a romantic Genoa restaurant in the basement where they had first met and serves a meal of the best rations his cigarette currency can buy. It is not much, but he knows she will love it.
Pietro leads Molly down the steps, trying helplessly to quieten her excited squeals while keeping his hand laid softly over her eyes.
“Stop looking,” he chides with a quiet laugh.
“I can see nowt,” she protests loudly.
He positions her in front of a small table covered with a plain white cloth and lit by the flickering stub of a candle. He slowly lowers his hands from her face, resting them protectively on her shoulders.
“Merry Christmas bella,” he whispers in her ear, “Buon Natale.”
Her body tenses and the disbelief widens her eyes. No one has ever done anything like this for her. She spins in his arms and wraps herself around him, pulling him close and drinking in the scent of musty sweat and fresh farm earth.
“Ti voglio bene.”
She does not know what it means but she likes the warmth with which the words and his silky accent encases her body and in that moment she dares to dream this man will be with her forever, that the war will soon be over and now that the Italians are fighting alongside the British their union will be accepted. The naivety of youth allows Molly to convince her eager heart that all of this is not only possible, but likely.
They sit close at the small table enjoying the food and soaking up the dreaminess of the festive night. Time passes too soon, drawing the fantasy to an end too soon.
“I can’t leave thee,” she murmurs in Pietro’s ear her neck tingling with the touch of his cold fingertips on bare skin and the chill December