Soldier | Part Two
Pietro scratches at the scars pickling his legs, souvenirs from African insects. The only treatment available for the infected bite wounds was to scrape the pus from the flesh until the blood flowed, then apply iodine. The pain of opening old wounds is still fresh in his memory.
Lying idle in his bunk, Pietro lets his mind wander to his first days with the Regia Marina when he signed up as a deck boy. The wage was princely and he was promised the equivalent of five English pounds in danger money that he hoped was still reaching his family in Genoa. Pietro glances around the roo he shares with Antonio and eight other men, a cell big enough to house just half that number comfortably. The wooden sleeping platforms suffer the same inadequacies, built for one man but serving two or three at a push.
The wide soulless building is a former cotton mill reclassified a year or so ago when the men needed to run the large machinery became just too scarce to source. The first prisoners had hastily carried out the transformation from a factory to a POW holding camp and conditions have been poor ever since. There is little food to sustain the unanticipated large number of men sent here and equally few blankets to keep the cold northern night from aching limbs.
Pietro scrawls his name at the bottom of a hastily written letter, his efforts half-hearted, uncertain if it will ever reach its intended. Camp address are forbidden from the letters but like many other men Pietro tries to hint to his location in his missives, drawing a map with his words, hoping that his family will feel a little closer to him despite the thousands of miles of land, sea and war between them. Pietro rubs a hand across his face, digging his fists into the sockets of his eyes strained by the dim light. Giving in, he stows the letter under his hard rag pillow, his thoughts turning to potatoes.
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The hunger claws uncontained in his stomach, each day the scratches digging deeper into the scars of months of malnutrition. POWs are given just one meal a day at midday and the energy from that is stolen in an afternoon working the fields. Pietro pushes his head deeper into the unyielding bulk of his pillow and tries to tempt sleep to pass the hours.
Waking later he is surprised to find that complete darkness has swallowed the shadows and even the murky light from the moon has clouded over. He guesses it is about three or four o’clock as the camp is quiet, the silence broken only by loud rhythmic snoring. Hunger tears at his belly.
“Enough,” the word comes out loud and sharply impulsive as Pietro swings his legs over the side of the wooden cot bed. Outside, the guard post is empty and he takes full advantage of the open doors to pad softly down to the dining area, faintly hoping to find something to soothe his groaning stomach. His luck is out. Dejected, Pietro is about to retrace his steps when an open door to the basement store catches his eye. This is unusual; the food stocks are always tightly secured. Curiosity and hunger quashing his caution, he slips through, his bare feet chilled on the cold stone flag floor. There is no one in sight and he shuffles forward.
Creaking hinges punctures the dark silence and a shadow crosses the wall. He turns, spinning his head around, but he can see nothing except the demon black of the night. ‘Must be the hunger playing tricks on my mind,’ he assures himself and returns to a sack of potatoes still wrapped in a thin layer of dusty brown earth.
“What t’ doin’?” The voice breaks into the darkness.
Pietro turns to see a young woman with a child’s round face but a lady’s full figure. Her accent is thick and lilting, unmistakably the strong local tone. He freezes, what happens next could mean the difference between life or death for him.
“You escapin’ ain’t ya?” the girl says matter of fact but without the hatred he expected.
“No, no I’m not,” his answer comes fast, clear. If he was trying to escape he would have gone the other way, up the stairs not down, surely that much was obvious.
“Oh,” is all she gives back. Her orange hair glows in the half-light, her green-blue eyes bore into his deep brown and Pietro is unable to break from her gaze, hypnotised. There is no challenge from either side and they remain like that for what seems like many minutes, so long in fact that Pietro becomes aware of the gentle bird song and the warmth of the rising sun on his neck, through the small crack of a window high up in the wall.
“What’s your name?” he whispers, deciding to take control, but the words release a shutter that closes across her dancing pupils and he knows she will not tell him. He recognises the feeling of regret.
“You shouldn’ be down ‘ere. Thee better ge’ back.” She lowers her face to the ground and the shadow of the sun casts a pale light on her left cheek while the other is completely masked by darkness. Pietro cannot help but try to peer under the mask, drawn in by the lightness of her eyes beneath thick pale lashes. She is still listening. With a thud of his heart and a stirring somewhere deep inside of him he is pleased and strangely relieved.
“Thank you,” he says, repeating in Italian, “Grazie. My name is Pietro.” He holds out his hand to her but she does not take it. Instead, the corners of her small mouth curl and she mumbles his language in her thick lilt.
“Arrivederci Pietro,” before slipping back through the door. He can hear her speaking hastily to another before he hurrys back to his cell, pocketing three round potatoes to sate the clawing hunger. Sharing the spoils with Antonio, he reminds himself that stealing from the enemy cannot be considered a crime.
If you enjoyed this second installment, please stay tuned for Saturday next week, when part three will be published.