Soldier | Part One
The women stand either side of the metal barrier, the mottled curved steel shines dimly under the bright lights of the airport lounge. Charlotte blinks and looks again across the space at her sister; a sister she didn’t know she had until a month ago. Alessandra mirrors the movement of her unknown sibling taking in her dark hair now flecked with grey, the lighter strands sketching out lost years.
Charlotte shifts on the balls of her feet unsure what to do but Alessandra is more certain, she always has been. She reaches out confident arms and enfolds her sister in a warm embrace flavoured by the salty flow of tears and scent of sweet perfume. Charlotte’s shoulders lower, her shield dissolving as a sob of relief escapes from her lips. This woman is her story, this woman knows the life that she did not have, this woman is her father’s other daughter. She is the one who grew up in his arms, who he pushed on a swing with a smile, who he tucked into bed with a gentle goodnight kiss, who he gave away on her wedding day her arm linked surely through his. This woman is her father’s story and she wants to hear it all.
Pietro’s body bursts with energy, to others it looks as if he is constantly eager to get moving. Most of his 2,000 fellow prisoners cannot understand where he gets this vitality from, it certainly could not be attributed to their meagre food rations. But few of them spend much time thinking about the how, instead they concern themselves with the now and getting listed onto Pietro’s work crew so that his quick arms and fast feet can supplement their duties working the farm lands, labouring at building sites or stoning the roads.
As he marches along easily keeping pace within the double thick crocodile line, Pietro hugs his thin standard issue uniform close to cover the sneaky holes that rise between his coat and waistband letting in the uninvited chill wind. He had once been a good looking, athletic man but the hard years of the war have carved their mark on him like a visible timeline etched into his skin. His black hair, dirty and matted, is streaked with a silver too soon for his years and the characteristic brightness of his face has faded to a pencil sketch as pale as the unnatural pallor that hides his Mediterranean roots. Pietro’s rough thread trousers and thick shirt are daubed with circular red paint marking his status as a prisoner of war and ensuring he is easily conspicuous in an escape attempt.
The Germans in the line ahead burst into song:
“We will continue to march,
Even if everything shatters;
Because today Germany hears us,
And tomorrow, the whole World.
And because of the Great War
The World lies in ruins,
But devil may care;
We build it up again.”
Their brash accents put a harshness on the defiant words, their voices loud in the grey half-light of the early morning. Everything here seems grey to Pietro, from the small suffocating sky to the rubble-strewn streets and miserable little houses. He tries to blank out the words of the men in front of him as he tries to ignore their very existence. His country may have sided with the mangiacrauti — the cabbage eaters — under Mussolini’s dictatorship but the whispered rumours say the Fascist party is losing its hold on Italy just as he’d lost his belief in the party and its support of the Nazi movement. All that either one has ever brought is conflict, starvation and death. Pietro vows under his breath that if he ever gets out of here, ever gets the chance to fight for his beloved homeland again, he will join the resistenza partigiana — the Italian resistance movement.
Pietro’s eyes come to rest on a stout middle-aged woman and her two children ahead in the road, their gazes pinned on the line of men marching along their roads. Locals; he can tell by the pale skin and orange hair matted at their heads like clumps of wet hay, but mostly he sees from the deep hatred that seeps from their stares.
One of the German soldiers turns his head and a globule of yellow phlegm catapults from pursed lips, arching high across the grey backdrop and landing on the scuffed boot of the round-faced boy with cheeks painted rosy by the cold dawn. A high-pitched shout of retaliation is flung in return and the mother lurches towards the crocodile line, her arm raised high. The blow comes down unchallenged because like many of the German prisoners, the man is restrained and he drops to the ground with a dull thud like a toppled fence post. Pietro sees a glint of metal in the woman’s retreating hand. She has hit the prisoner with a metal trowel. Crimson shiny blood seeps from a small opening on his temple, fuelling outrage among those who are roped to him.
The procession is guarded but not heavily, there are not the men to spare. One of the British soldiers steps up to intervene, dragging the woman away from the foreigners who have begun to circle her like a pack of dogs.
“Hynee Kraut!” The woman’s own spittle showers the German and the local guard who is swiftly losing control. Pietro signals to Antonio and Battista, men dressed in the same grey and dingy blue brightened only by the red circles. The trio moves forward efficiently separating the Germans as two more British guards approach from down the line.
Disturbances are commonplace in the lanes between the camp and the fields as hatred between the two sides of war simmer and bubble, always threatening near boiling point.
“Crucchi,” Pietro curses as he falls back in to step with the crocodile line. Antonio echoes the insult at the German with a small hand gesture and a sly smile creeps across his wide lips revealing teeth browned by neglect. Despite the repression of the camp and the heavy schedule of work, Antonio keeps up an encouraging good humour that, much like Pietro’s unexplained energy, the other men are eager to be around.
The formation of foreigners plods onwards hemming the outskirts of the village and weaving into the fields where the men set to work, another day to add to the endless smudge of weeks and months already behind them. The past three of Pietro’s 22 years has been mentally chalked off on the walls erected inside his head, the vision the only consistent structure he has known since his capture in Port Sudan, Africa. Following that confused day when his unit surrendered to the Tommys on the banks of a fast flowing brown river, Pietro Cosenza of the Regia Marina — the Italian Royal Navy — service number 45729 was dragged to a tented South African POW camp. Then, just as he was settling into the routine, when the place was filling with comradeship and music and the daily battle for survival had slowed to a slog of repetition, he was moved on. A sea voyage through waters clouded by war ripped terror into his hopeful heart and hunger pushed his cheekbones upwards and his stomach inwards. He was brought here to this grey land, the United Kingdom, so close to his home but so very far away. Now free from the suffocating heat, the incessant biting insects and the water-born diseases, Pietro’s greatest fear is that he may never return to his beloved bella, his Italy. His terror is that he will die here in cold starvation, toiling the hard earth of fields that fill the bellies of his enemies, the very men who will go on to kill his countrymen on distant battlefields.
Pietro’s day passes as unremarkable as the many before it alongside the 50 men who slowly work the small farm nestled in the chilled Lancashire hills. POWs present a way of alleviating labour shortages particularly in agriculture and although Pietro does not mind the work itself, in fact he almost enjoys the distraction and the purpose