Authors: D C Grant
Tags: #Pregnancy, #Young Adult Fiction, #Social issues, #World War, #Anzac
Christmas Day and Nico
Aroldo is sick. He has a fever and is coughing all the time. Patricio says we are both a liability, Aroldo with his illness and me with my expanding stomach, but we can’t go anywhere else so Patricio is stuck with us. Amelia is grumpy and admonishes Patricio all the time. They argue like Mama and Papa did before Mama got sick and died, only then did I see how much Papa loved her.
I fear that Aroldo will die. There is no medicine for him and we can only give him water for he won’t take any food, but he needs to eat as he’s so thin, because he’s been giving up his food ration for me.
There is no movement on the Anglo-Americans line, the rain and snow have stopped them. It seems we must wait for the spring. How much longer must this war go on?
The men are out today, travelling to a location where supplies will be dropped from the British planes. I hope it is successful. So many times they come back empty handed, the drop abandoned due to bad weather or too many Germans in the area. Sometimes the cells smash open on impact, destroying the contents, and sometimes they land where the Germans are waiting. The snow is falling thick now and it is hard for the men to move about and carry the supplies that we need, but still they go out. They have to.
Aroldo lies close to the fire, exhausted. The sickness has taken all his energy, and now it is I giving up my ration for him. At least the fever has broken, and apart from fits of coughing, he is no longer severely ill. His eyes follow me as I move around our hideaway, and it is nice not to have all the men in this small area. When Amelia leaves to scrounge for food, we are even alone for a few hours. We talk. He tells me about his home in New Zealand, the fields of green and mountains like ours. It sounds like heaven, so far away from this hell that our world has become.
The priest, Mark, didn’t just look up information for me, he brought me a pile of books.
“I’m down on conference,” he said.
We sat opposite each other at the small dining table with the books piled up beside us. I’d made some tea and got out the tin of biscuits that Nonna always kept topped up with ginger nuts and shortbread. Mark stirred sugar into his cup.
“So this is where you grew up?” he asked, looking around the unit. It wasn’t that tidy, I’d been going through drawers and cupboards and sorting stuff out into three piles: keep, chuck and donate; I’d seen it on TV once. The keep pile was bigger than the other two. I was going to have to go through it again. “Yes, I lived here with my Nonna.”
“You were happy here,” Mark said.
It wasn’t a question. I wondered how he knew. Do all priests and ministers have the ability to read your thoughts?
“Yes, how can you tell?”
He smiled. “You’re more relaxed here and you move around with confidence. You seem happier here than I’ve seen you in Auckland.”
He was right. Being here felt good, like this was where I should be. I liked being here on my own, to do as I liked, when I liked to do it and not have anyone to get in my way.
“We might have to sell it,” I told him. “To pay for Nonna’s care.”
“Oh, I see. That’s unfortunate. I can see how much this place means to you.”
I felt a tear roll my check. I brushed it away angrily.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you cry,” Mark said. “Let’s change the subject. Bevan said that you found a diary written by your great-grandmother and that’s why you were looking for information on the war in Italy?”
“Yes, I was looking for something on the partisans. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of information about them. My great-grandmother, Lina, was with a group of them in the mountains of Italy, but she never says who or where they were.”
Mark nodded as he considered this. “She might have done that deliberately, so that if she or the diary were captured by the enemy, then they wouldn’t be able to use the information. That way the band of partisans would be safe.”
I hadn’t thought of that, but I realized that must have been the case. Then I had another thought. “But if she’d been captured with the diary, they would have known that she was with the partisans, and from the diary I know that they killed people who were with the partisans.”
“It must have been a risk that she was prepared to take, but she must have done it without the other partisans being aware, or else I’m sure they would have destroyed the diary. Have you talked to your mum about this, or to your grandma? Do they know anything about it or your great-grandmother’s life in Italy?”
“No, I don’t get on well with Mum and she’s been so busy lately with getting Nonna into the rest home. Nonna seems all confused, and I don’t want to upset her with the diary. Besides, I’d like to get to the end of the diary before I say anything to either of them. It’s difficult to think of my great-grandmother suffering like that.”
“So many did, Gina.”
I suppose he’s right, my great-grandmother’s story is just one amongst so many. And yet this story is personal, and because of that it means more to me than anyone else’s story.
“Are there any clues in the diary that might tell you where she was?”
“None, except that I’m now up to a date in December 1944 and the partisans are still fighting the Germans behind the defensive lines. From what I’ve been able to find out so far, it took ages for the British and Americans to make their way up to the north of Italy, and Lina keeps waiting for them to come and chase the Germans out. But then it wasn’t just the Germans, it was the Fascists as well, who seem to be Italians that were fighting on the German side.”
“It sounds like there was almost a civil war, with Italians fighting against each other on either side. I don’t know too much about the war in Italy, I’m afraid. Most books and documentaries I’ve seen focus on the war in the west of Europe. I’ve not seen much on the partisans either, but maybe the books can help.”
I looked at the pile of books Mark had left on the coffee table in the lounge, and wondered how I was ever going to get through them. I liked to read when I was at school, but I hadn’t read anything other than Lina’s diary for a while.
“Thanks for bringing them down,” I said to be polite.
“I did the same for Bevan when he was having his dreams. He sends his love.”
I realized then that the reason Mark had brought the books was so that he could be a spy for Bevan, at least I thought so. Why else would he deliver them in person?
“I suppose he wants me to come home?”
“He misses you, but I’m trying to keep him busy with assignments. I’m not sure it’s working though. He loves you a lot, you know.”
“Me or the baby?” It came out harsher than I intended, but I was cross with Bevan for sending Mark to check up on me.
“Both, Gina, both,” Mark said with a smile. “He’s just a bit confused because he thought that you would be happy to marry him and raise the child together, but he feels that you’re pushing him away and it hurts him.”
I wasn’t about to open up to Mark right then; he was Bevan’s friend, not mine. “I’m just trying to figure things out,” I told him. “I just need a bit of space, that’s all. You can tell him that.”
Mark raised his eyebrows at me – he knew I’d found him out. But he smiled and said, “I’ll just tell him you’re busy sorting out your grandmother’s things but that you’re happy and looking after yourself. You’ll be home by Christmas?”
I haven’t thought much about Christmas, but here we are at the beginning of December and it isn’t that far away. Now that we’ve found a place for Nonna, I suppose there won’t be too much for me to do. I’ll have to go back sometime, I guess, and it might as well be at Christmas.
I could see that Mark wanted to give Bevan an assurance that I was actually going to come back. Perhaps he thought that I had left him again, like I’d done in the past, but I hadn’t thought that way for a long time. While I couldn’t quite imagine spending the rest of my life with him, neither could I imagine life without him. How confusing!
Christmas Day and Nico is here! I couldn’t believe it when my brother walked into the hideaway, thinner and harder and grim. He halted when he saw me, looked at my bulging stomach and spat, “I will kill the man who did this to you!”
Aroldo came up behind me and put his hands on my shoulders. Nico immediately took his rifle from his shoulder. “Was it you?” he demanded.
“No, Nico, no, it was the Germans,” I said.
“So who is this man?”
“He is my husband.”
Nico still held the rifle in his hands as he looked
up and down. “Who are you? Who are you to marry my sister without my father’s permission?”
“Corporal Harry Thomas Smith, sir, and I believe that your father is dead.” I knew that Aroldo was trying to match Nico’s aggression by making the pronouncement, and I saw then that this news was not unknown to my brother.
Nico sagged then, lowering the rifle to the ground, and I went to him and embraced him.
“Come, Nico, come and sit by the fire. Where have you been? What have you been doing?”
We had chicken that night, which Amelia cooked in a stew so that we would all get a piece of meat. Nico told us that he had gone back to the farmhouse two months ago and found it burnt to the ground. I gasped at the news, our home destroyed! I told him that I had left a note for him inside the farmhouse, but he hadn’t seen it, said that it must have been burnt in the fire. He had found some survivors from the village who told him that we had all been killed and buried in front of the house. I told him that Papa and Anna had been buried there, that Patricio had found me and taken me with him.
“I believed that you were all dead,” he said. “When one of the other partisans said that there was someone in this band saying she was my sister, I refused to believe them. Then someone else came and when they described the girl to me, the one who had been a courier for Patricio, I still didn’t believe because they told me that the girl was pregnant and I knew that you didn’t have a husband.” His shifted over to Aroldo. “When I heard that, I had to find out the truth.”
“It is true,” I said quietly, resting my hands on my stomach.
“You must kill it as soon as it born!” Nico said. I was horrified. As much as I hated the fact that I had been raped, and that now I was bearing a child as a result, I couldn’t kill someone so innocent just as he or she was born. I had to admit, as I rested my hand on my belly, that I felt a strange fondness for the life within me. My head told me that I should hate it but my heart told me to love it, for it was a part of me and I could no sooner hate it than I could hate any other part of my body. I could see that Nico didn’t understand that. Sometimes I didn’t understand it either.
“Aroldo wants me to keep it. He says it’s our baby, no matter how it was made.”
“What are you going to do when it is time for the baby to be born? You can’t birth it here.” Nico’s eyes rolled around the makeshift space we were in – the earthen floor, the boughs covering our heads holding up the sheets of corrugated iron, the fire that filled the space with smoke and not much warmth.
I just shook my head. Aroldo and I had discussed it several times, but all we could do was wait and hope that the war would end soon and then I could get to a hospital in time for the baby’s birth.
“The baby will kill you,” Nico said, scowling. This wasn’t the happy, carefree brother that I knew. He had seen death, he had killed, he knew all about war – more than I did. I wanted to take him and make him back into the brother that I once knew. But it wasn’t going to happen. The war had changed us all.
While Nico and I talked by the fire, Aroldo hovered around, not too far from me but also understanding that I needed time with my brother. He sat at the back where we had our sleeping area, and watched. The men had some grappa and they raised a toast to the Christ child, but I knew that all Nico could think about was the child within me and the German who had put it there. From the look of murder in his eyes, I knew that if the officer was still alive, and still in Italy, his time on this earth was going to be short if my brother ever found him.
I found Lina’s marriage certificate today, in a box with old photos and letters. The certificate was so tattered that I almost threw it away, until I saw her name on it. The yellow paper was delicate in my hands, almost tissue thin, the writing on it faded over time, and I could hardly read it. Only her name, Lina Giorgi, is clearly visible, and what looks like the name of a town, Bettola. I plugged the place name into the search engine on my phone, but it was just this tiny place with hardly any people, just a dot on the map with a few small hotels and restaurants. It looked very touristy if you like that whole “rustic Italian village” experience. I folded the certificate gently and placed it in an envelope, which I’ve put at the back of the diary.
The photos are black and white and slightly fuzzy, like old photos are; one of them is of a man and a slight woman holding a baby in her arms. The man has his arm around the woman, as if protecting her from something. I knew that this was Grandpa Harry, Lina, and Nonna as a baby. Grandpa Harry looks happy, but Lina is looking to one side, as if waiting for someone to come to her. She has the look of a trapped animal.
I took the photo with me when I visited Nonna. I visit her every day – she’s always pleased to see me.
“Is this you, Nonna?” I asked pointing at the baby in the bundle.
“Poor Mama,” Nonna replied, not answering my question. “Poor Mama, the sins of the fathers, just one baby, the sins of the fathers.”
She wasn’t having a good day. Sometimes she’s fine and is the Nonna I know, but other days, like today, it’s like she’s in her own world. It’s hard for the caregivers, because on the bad days she only speaks in Italian. I’ve taught the regular caregivers some words of Italian so that they can communicate with her, but they still rely on me to translate for them when I visit.
One of them looked in on us as she went past.
“How’s she doing today?”
“Back to the Italian,” I said.
“She’ll be better tomorrow.”
Somehow I doubted that. Nonna just seems to be getting worse.
Nico has left to return to his own band of partisans. Patricio tried to persuade him to stay with us, but Nico said he wanted to remain with the Communists. He says that when the war is over, the Communists will form the new government and run the country for the benefit of the people. I’m not sure I want people like my brother to run the country, as much as I love him. It was sad to see him go, but he left with a promise that he would not return until he found the officer who had made me pregnant.
“Look after my sister with your life,” he said to Aroldo, a hint of a threat in his words.
“I will,” Aroldo said, and I knew he meant it. I leant into him as I watched Nico go out into the snow.
Patricio found my diary and threw it fire! He said that if I was ever captured then it would give everything away. Aroldo grabbed it from the flames and quickly dampened it while I screamed at Patricio. I had kept it hidden for so long, I said, and besides, I never took it out with me when I was on errands, which I haven’t done for some time anyway. Aroldo argued as well and in the end Patricio turned and stormed out, not happy. The book is scorched, some of the pages curled and I will have to be careful and make sure that he doesn’t see me writing in the book again.
Aroldo says that we should leave. He is certain that the war will soon be over, that the Anglo-Americans are gathering for one final push to retake the rest of Italy from the Germans. We are certainly getting more supplies, there are night drops daily with machine guns and ammunition and there have been more missions to break down the German defence. We have lost many men, but more are joining us as they realize that the end is coming soon. The Fascist government will be finished once and for all. Once we believed in el Duce and Fascism, but the war has destroyed everything in which we had faith and we can no longer trust in the men that were our leaders. If we can avoid invasion by Tito’s forces in Yugoslavia, and dominance by the Communists, we can possibly have a proper elected government, one chosen by the people. This, Patricio says, is what he is fighting for – a free Italy with a democratically elected government.
We can only dream. First there is a war to be won.
Well, now I know how the diary came to be scorched. I’m glad Lina saved it or else I wouldn’t have been able to read it. I’ve been going through some of the books that Mark brought me. It’s hard to line up what’s written in the books with what Lina has written in her diary. The book has something like, “The partisans fought in the hills around the Po Valley,” and that’s about it. Most of them talk about the Allies’ push up through the main part of Italy, steadily heading north and taking part in battle after battle. The only time the partisans are really mentioned is when massacres occurred because of something that the partisans did, or didn’t do but were suspected of doing. It didn’t seem to take much for the Germans to retaliate, but the partisans were just as good at killing the enemy or blowing things up.
There is one thing that I have found that may be significant. One of the books mentions a massacre in a town called Bardine, near Mont San Terenzo, on 19 August – the day that Lina was raped and her family murdered. Her rescuers mentioned that all the people in the village had been killed, and I wondered if it is the same event. I searched for it on the internet and found a report on former Nazis who had been given life sentences as recently as 2009 for massacres in that region. Apparently it took so long because the witness reports were only found in 1994, in a cupboard in Rome. The statements had been collected by British and American troops shortly after the war, and I wondered how they could have been forgotten for so long. There were names of the dead, some of whom were just children, which was really sad, but I couldn’t see Lina’s family amongst them. Maybe, because they lived on a farm and not in the village, they weren’t counted. Other websites show holiday homes for let. It all looks beautiful now, but I wonder what it was like back in 1944?
We have moved into a village, but it is temporary as we will have to move again shortly, we can’t stay in one place for too long. I would like to stay here, in a house with a bed and a proper roof, but it is too dangerous for the men to stay in one place for too long. When the women saw the state of my clothes, tight over my stomach, they collected dresses for me and threw my old clothes into the fire, for they were filthy and full of lice.
I have washed in warm water with soap, and I am dressed in clean clothes while I await the return of my husband, who has also gone to bathe and change into clean clothes supplied by the villagers. We have one night together in this bedroom before we move on. I’m nervous but not afraid. I know Aroldo will be gentle, besides there is nothing that can frighten me any more.
I have not written in my diary for some time in case Patricio sees me, but he is away and there are just a few of the men left behind. It is said that the Germans are deserting, leaving the army and just walking over to surrender to the Anglo-Americans. They are as short of food and supplies as we are, and for them the war is not going well. Some say that Hitler has gone mad.
Patricio says that I can remain in the village when they return to the mountains, for I can easily blend in here, but Aroldo cannot because they must not risk him being captured and revealing their identities and movements. Aroldo refuses to leave me so I go with him tomorrow, back into the mountains, but for one night we will be like a proper husband and wife – just this one night.
Mum is down for the weekend, to see how I am doing and to visit Nonna. She says that she has put in the subsidy application but we won’t hear back for some time. In the meantime she has to pay the fees, which are about $100 a day! She’s got some money in savings, she says, but not much. Mum has no property against which to raise a loan, so Nonna’s unit is the only asset we can use to pay for her care.
We visited Nonna together. She was okay today, talking about the view to the garden from her room and asking me how I am, looking after myself and the baby. She seemed normal apart from when we left, when she said, “I’ll be home soon.” Mum and I looked at each other and said nothing.
Mum took me out for dinner, said that she didn’t want to cook anything at the unit. She said that I had done a good job of sorting out stuff in the unit and this was my reward. I would have preferred to cook something in Nonna’s kitchen using some of her old recipes, the ones that once belonged to Lina, handwritten in a musty-smelling exercise book. I suppose she did them from memory. I have a distinct memory of standing on a chair beside Nonna in the kitchen as she cooked something from that book. Then I remembered that when Lina was pregnant she had little or no food. Poor Lina, poor Nonna, damaged by the effects of a war in which she had no place, just a victim like so many.
“Were Grandpa Harry and Grandma Lina happy together?” I asked Mum this evening as we ate.
“That’s a strange question,” Mum said. “I suppose they were. I always used to like visiting them. They spoilt me, like all grandparents do. I remember Grandma being very sad when Grandpa Harry died. She really seemed lost after that, even though Mum and I were around – she just shrank inside herself. At least she lived long enough to see you. Do you remember her?”
I nodded my head. “But she was really old by then. She must have loved Grandpa Harry a lot to miss him like that.”
“Well, she did leave Italy to come and live with him here, so she must have loved him. It would have been hard for her to leave her country.”
“But it would have been better for her here. It sounds like the war was really bad.”
“Are you still reading the diary?”
I nodded. “It’s hard work, sometimes I have to look up some of the Italian words and the writing is in pencil so sometimes its smudged and difficult to make out, but I’m getting there. You should read it one day.”
She shook her head. “I don’t think so, my Italian is not that good. Mum taught you more than she taught me, or maybe I just didn’t want to learn.”
I thought it was more of the latter, but I didn’t say anything.