Soldier | Part Three
Carla Dow | Joe Zabel
Pietro sees the girl everywhere after that. She is there smiling prettily from the corners of her mouth when he goes to fill his bowl from the serving plates in the dining hall, she is there looking up shyly from beneath her lashes when he lines up for roll call in the courtyard and she is there discretely swaying her hips as she walks daintily when he marches from the old mill to the farm to work away the days in a haze of summer routine. But mostly she is in his head. He cannot decipher his thoughts of her, are they simply the urges of a man long away at war, a man locked away from natural urges? Or is it more than that? Something tells him only she can fill the unmet need that sits heavy within his closed-up heart. She is young of course, still just a child in many ways, he guesses she is 16 but to him, she is a woman.
It is days before he gets the chance to talk to her again shortly after a failed escape attempt by two Germans plucked from the unprotected shelter of the woods after breaching the wire fences surrounding the camp. Work duties are rescheduled and guards redirected to keep watchful eyes on the mangicrauti who are more of a flight risk and more valuable POWs than the Italians whose position in the war wavers with Mussolini’s leadership. Now, Pietro, Antonio and the others are no longer forced to crocodile march to the farm but instead go in a smaller contingent alone, marked carefully on a register at either end. Their tentative freedom is a test and no one dares to jeopardise it, so the short walk transforms from a crocodile to the casual pace of a tortoise and it is during one of these strolls that Pietro finds himself risking everything to be alone with her.
“Mussolini will be gone within the month, I’d bet you the chocolate from my next Red Cross parcel,” Antonio grumbles as they walk along the rural lane, lagging behind the rest.
“I wouldn’t wager against that,” Pietro replies.
Despite their incarceration, rumours get through. Filtering the propaganda from the truth is not always easy. Antonio is not satisfied with his friend’s answer, he wants to secure a little more fat on his gut and fast, his trousers are loose and he needs to rebuild his girth to stop them falling down.
“How about next week? You bet on next week?” he asks his pal, desperate for the bet. But Pietro is not listening; his eyes are fixed on the young woman ahead in a field gateway. Her back curves against the wooden post, her head rests on the top and her freckled face titled up to receive the yellow warmth of the morning summer sun. Her eyes are closed and she looks as though she could be dreaming.
“Ciao, hello,” Pietro greets her softly so as not to startle. Antonio’s mouth rises into a smile and he shakes his head, slapping his friend on the shoulder before continuing on alone.
The girl opens her eyes and shrinks back against the gate, the open curve of her body now folding inwards. Her face closes and her eyes fix on the well-trodden earth at their feet. For some reason Pietro becomes aware of his grimy greying clothes and is ashamed of the things that have been issued to him by his captives, ludicrous given his circumstances that she knows only too well, but back home he always scrubbed up before talking to a pretty girl at a dance or a café.
“Mornin’,” she replies, her voice quiet.
“You work at the camp?”
He thinks that is a yes. There is a silence.
“I wanted to say thank you, for not…”
Her head shoots up and she looks around, frightened someone else may hear and know she allowed his stealing, because that is what it had been and the punishment would be heavy for them both.
“Tha’s dandy,” she says quickly. “Thee were hungry, yon all ‘re. They don’t give thee enough to eat.”
The words come out fast tripping over each other, her accent is thick and he relishes the way her words slide out accentuating the vowels, even if he does not understand all of what she says. She glances up to look in his face and notices the smile that has grown there without him realising, echoing it feels good. God only knows how long it had been since a man, a handsome one at that, smiled at her. She assesses his dark features, the shadow of overgrown stubble on his jaw and the hard line of his olive-skinned arms under rolled up shirtsleeves. A small nugget of warning spins in her head, this is no local, this is a POW. He may be an ‘Itie’ but he is still what her father would call ‘the enemy’. She squashes the nagging warning and draws her smile wide across her lips, he seems nice enough and Papa is not here right now.
Having seen so much suffering, too much for her young years, she has taken it upon herself to relieve it wherever she can and is still naive enough to believe she can make a difference to the war, one person at a time no matter what side of the Channel they are from.
“We’re going to the farm,” Pietro says nodding up the road to where his friends had slowed their pace, glancing back with undisguised interest.
“Ah’m goin’ t’ work,” she replies, “t’ camp.”
“What’s your name?”
She pauses and lowers her head again before saying it quietly. “Molly.”
“Molly, a beautiful name.”
She looks up to check if he is joking, taking the mick, but he seems serious enough.
“Fancy a walk?” He shuffles his feet, nervous now the words are out.
“Tha must be jestin’?” The surprise snaps her face up so he sees again the sprinkle of freckles coating pure skin that is otherwise as pale as milk.
“No,” he looks around. There are no Tommy guards or locals in sight. She follows his gaze and smiles her acquiesce.
They pass through the gateway and into the long grass of a meadow. She bounces up and down as she walks, bending and rising to clip the tops of the long grass with her palm, enjoying the freshness of the morning dew on her skin. Pietro is drawn to her easy way, her carefree manner.
“Do you live in the village?” he wants to make conversation, to hear her voice dance.
“Aye,” she replies, “Wi’ my Ma and Pa and me three older sisters.”
The sweet tone in which she mentions her family makes him turn to look at her. She is young, although she tells him when he asks that she is 18.
“Not too old ‘fer a game are thee?” she teases.
“What game?” he frowns, worrying for the first time if he should trust her quite so implicitly.
“A race,” he catches the words as they are thrown back over her shoulder. She takes off through the grass, her long skirts whipping around her ankles and her orange curls escaping from the pins that had secured them around her face but now fall loose, gleaming in the sunlight. Pietro speeds after her, caught up in her youth and energy, relishing the rare feeling of freedom giving an abandoned laugh. She is quick but no match for his speed and he soon reaches her side, tempted by the notion of wrapping his arms around her small waist nipped in by the belt of her thin blue cotton dress decorated with tiny daisies. But something cautions him and he decides against it, overtaking her instead, the twitch of a wink creasing his face.
She laughs breathlessly and tries to catch up but his stride is longer and he easily keeps in front. After a minute he slows, not bearing to be far from her easiness that has brought an unexpected lightness to his day and not daring to stray too far from the farm where he knows the guards will soon perform the register.
Pietro stops and she barrels into him with a little cry