Love and War in the Apennines

Love and War in the Apennines by Eric Newby Read Free Book Online

Book: Love and War in the Apennines by Eric Newby Read Free Book Online
Authors: Eric Newby
we did, the sentries in the watchtowers beyond the wire used to fire shots at us, some of which used to come whistling through the windows – the glass had been blown out long ago – and bury themselves in the walls and ceiling of the bar which had the same ecclesiastical decor as the chapel below. These bullet-holes gavethe place a raffish appearance, like a middle-western saloon built by some renegade, gun-toting priest.
    But in spite of these fusillades we still continued to risk our lives by putting our heads out of the windows, in order to be able to look at the girls of Fontanellato who, every evening when the weather was fine, used to promenade along the road in front of the orfanotrofio.
    Some of my fellow prisoners had not spoken to a girl since they had been captured in 1940. Old or new prisoners, few of us had set eyes on girls like these for years and years. They were all shapes and sizes and colours and as they went past they laughed, as if enjoying some private joke, and tossed their heads impertinently in our directions. They all had long hair, short skirts and brown, bare legs and, as they swayed along the road, the high-heeled wooden sandals, which they all wore because there was very little shoe leather in Italy, clacked on the hard surface of the road. Some of them walked arm in arm with other girls carefully chosen for their inferior looks; some were so sure of themselves that they walked with girls who were their equals; others wobbled past in little flocks on bicycles, so slowly that they sometimes fell off uttering squeals of alarm – none was ever injured. There were scarcely ever any men with them. Presumably they were at the war.
    The effect of these visions on the wretched Italian guards who were immured high up in their watchtowers, was as powerful as it was on us. Utterly distracted, they turned their backs on the orfanotrofio in order to look at them more closely, until some N.C.O., old enough and sour enough to be indifferent to women, screeched at them so loudly that they whirled round and, seeing us, discharged their rifles in the direction of the bar.
    But not even the Italian Army in its most bellicose mood wasable to stop us looking at the girls of Fontanellato, or the girls at us.
    On one side of the orfanotrofio was the village cemetery in which the dead were stacked in recesses in the walls, one above the other, as if they had been put away carefully in some giant filing-cabinet marked ‘Pending’ until the last Trump sounded. Every Sunday, wet or fine, what must have been almost the entire girl population of Fontanellato as well as large numbers from the surrounding country, used to make the long pilgrimage up the via Cimitero to the gates, ostensibly to mourn their loved ones, and completely outnumbering the real mourners who could be easily distinguished by their black garb. If all these girls had been visiting the graves of their own kith and kin then the cemetery would have had to have been at least five times the size it was. Like participants in a slow-motion film they crawled past the front of the orfanotrofio , past the exercise field which had been opened a month after our arrival, and in which all exercise ceased from the moment the first of them came into view, and turned left up the road to the cemetery. Few of them bothered to enter it. Sometimes they waved if they thought the guards were not watching, or they might simply twirl a scarf, and from behind the barbed wire in the field and from every upper window of the orfanotrofio , from which the occupants could also see on fine days, and equally unattainable, the peaks of the pre-Alps beyond Lake Garda, more than 150 kilometres away to the north, the prisoners cheered and waved at them.
    But in spite of these distant encounters with girls we were not unduly troubled by the lusts of the flesh – perhaps it was something to do with the diet. As one of my friends said, after drawing on himself one or two random shots

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