Behind the pain
“Uncle, uncle, tell us a story!”
Arthur watched the two brats grabbed on his legs. He’d never liked children. He used to consider them almost like pups that required too much attention for the affection they gave back. Still, Fate wanted to make him the twins’ only relative alive and, rather than abandon them starving in some orphanage, he did the sacrifice to welcome them in his home.
Farewell bachelor freedom, welcome responsibilities.
They had been given to him by a stocky built girl with dull eyes and green face, sign she was seasick. She held them by the hand, one by side, yanking them with no care. Just the time for two formalities – signing some papers – and the brats fresh of America were his. They were thin, dressed-up in baggy clothes and they rubbed their eyes crusted with dry tears.
Two months later the little family had done the crossing in the opposite sense. The children suffered too much from homesickness.
Matthew, the smaller, who used to wander around the house dragging a giant stuffed polar bear, had cerulean eyes veering purple, like the sky before a storm. Alfred’s eyes, instead, were the colour of the sea.
“I’ll tell you the story of the green knight,” Arthur agreed, ordering them to get under the covers. He examined the bookcase shelves and finally chose a heavy tome bound in leather and smelling like ancient times. Matthew peered from under the duvet, the inseparable bear at his side. Alfred, instead, was jumping on the mattress.
“Go to bed or the ghost who take away children who don’t want go to sleep will come!”
A moment after Alfred was under the blankets like his brother. The angel like face he had now didn’t hide his fear: ghosts terrified him. Arthur still hadn’t understood why.
“Uncle, you’ll stay with us until we fell asleep?” Alfred peeped. “Can you please leave the light on?” he added, looking hopeful, even if he knew how frugal Arthur was.
“Yes. No. Now close your little mouths and open your little ears.”
Before ’29 economic downfall, Arthur was rich, the last remaining of a wealthy gentry family. The neighbours, with their rotten teeth and their breath smelling like onion sandwiches, whispered he had taken with him a piece of his home country. In his bitter mood there was rain. In his eyes there were the green from the moors. In his words there were century of subtle sarcasm. America had made him poor, but never miser. At least so he believed, while he kissed goodnight on the twins’ foreheads.
Too bad the nephews had all grown up.
Matthew was quiet, to the point it was easy to forget about his presence. Alfred, instead, had a rebellious soul. Still at the beginning Arthur hadn’t worried about that. He himself had spent his teenage years hating all and everything, his elder brothers in primis. They enthusiastically reciprocated the loath. If moving cross the ocean had its bright sides, surely one was not having to suffer through their jokes.
Arthur thought Alfred would’ve got over it, screaming before a closed door till he had no voice left.
“Alfred, come back here this instant. I’ve not finished with you!”
Arthur chased him in the driveway, down the street, cursing the boy speed. He waited for him late in the night, holding cup of tea in his lap, cold by the time Alfred decided to return from wherever his spirit had led him.
Still, as long as he returned home, Arthur was fine. Alfred would’ve surely always returned back home. He owed him.
When it didn’t happen, the Englishman was destroyed. For the pain he spent all the day in a pub, drinking, only drinking, watering the gin with his tears He drank until he was kicked out. There was no point in denying it: Alfred had always been his favourite.
Arthur wrote hundreds of letters, each made by pages and pages. He used to consign them to Matthew, recommending to bring them to his brother and every time they returned, all closed. There were passionate letters. There were letters full of anger. There were letters that were just long lists of happy moments spent together.
All the letters piled up in a drawer.
“I’ve … not… raised … him to be … like … that!” Arthur howled, pressing the pen on the paper so hard he engraved the desk. “Stupid!”
He sniffed. “Ingrate!”
Alfred sent him only a three words telegram, in January 1942. “I’ve enrolled.” To Arthur’s dismay, Matthew did the same. Arthur cried till he almost choked. He threw back two whisky bottles and puked his very soul. Finally he returned to England and enrolled too.
“Lieutenant Jones, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you in person.”
“Kirkland, miss Bonneofy,” Arthur replied, reciprocating the handshake. At that point he considered useless hiding behind a fake name. Moreover hearing Alfred surnamed opened a still fresh wound.
With no further ado he followed the woman in a small but clean apartment, in 1944 Alsace.
“Do you smoke?
“Only in certain occasions.”
“Like this one?”
She lit a cigarette, holding it with nicotine stained fingers. She indicated a chair, inviting him to sit down.
While miss Bonnefoy, Céline Bonnefoy put the kettle on, Arthur bended on the table for examining the map posed on it. The folding line were worn out.
“Is this the point?” he asked, pressing his index finger on a dark spot.
“No, that’s just a coffee stain. More on the East,” Céline answered, not even turning. The Englishman moved his sight a few centimetres on the right. After having found the point, he measured the distance from the nearest British base.
“Twenty kilometres. Do you have any mean of transport?”
“A car. A couple of bike,” Céline opened her arms “our legs. The tea.”
Arthur sniffed the liquid. “Are you sure this is tea?”
Still he took a sip, making a face. “This is just coloured water. Do you have any milk?”
Arthur ended up drinking what was offered without further protests, taking big sips before it went cold. Arthur loved tea. He loved English classic black tea. He loved his home country even more thinking about the tea.
Céline prepared coffee for herself. Something looking like coffee, at least. She poured two cups. Answering the question already forming on Arthur’s lips, a blond head peered from the door.
"Celine, qu'est-ce qu'il passe?" (Céline, what’s going on?)
"Monsieur Arthur est arrivé. Tiens, il y a une lettre de Antonio!" (Mr Arthur had arrived. There’s a letter from Antonio!)
"Oui, qu'est-ce que ça dit?" (Yes, what does it say?)
"Je ne sais pas. Je ne l'ai pas ouverte. Plus, je ne parle pas espagnole." (I don’t know. I haven’t opened it. Moreover I don’t speak Spanish.)
During the whole dialogue Arthur had stayed focused on his tea, frowning so much his eyebrows touched. Well, his eyebrows were big. Very big.
“This is my cousin, Francis. He refuses to learn English. Do you speak French, monsieur Kirkland?”
Céline gave her cousin the stink eye. He was too occupied studying the Englishman to notice. Céline was on the verge on face palming herself, thinking about the fact that, after months of preparations, the whole mission might fail because someone decided he didn’t want to learn the Enemy language. Like they were in the Nineteenth century!
It didn’t matter. She would’ve intervened to summarize the salient points of Francis blabbering. He was the only person able to put words like romanticism or affinity while discussing on what was the best way to blow the Germans up! Merde.
Céline deliberately loathed Germans. She was raised hearing “they robbed us Alsace” every day. She used to drink her morning coffee with milk and pills of Revanchism instead of sugar. The woman had mourned the day she learnt her cousin – almost a brother – had befriended a German guy. A. German. Guy. A freshman, an interesting fellow and – no! She had covered her ears and started singing The Marseillaise at the top of her lugs.
Paris invasion was the classic last straw. Of course, there had been the sweetest satisfaction of French victory in WW1, but it hadn’t lasted much.
In June 1940 Céline was thirty-two and every cell in her body was waiting for just a thing: Lisa birthday party. The girl was an adorable porcelain doll, who had been blowing out twenty candles for years now. Her parties were the right combination of sophistication and fun. With just a hint of Parisian perversion.
Céline had thrown the radio out the window when the occupation was announced. On the bed the never wore nightgown lie. The party remained only a bitter mirage. The Frenchwoman animosity took roots, along the conviction she was persecuted by the molest neighbours cross the border.
“To sum it up: the plan is to make the mine explode, here, and disappear?”
Arthur question stopped her dwelling. Céline nodded. “Boom. Do you want to see the place?”
Yes, of course he wanted to see the place. Otherwise he hadn’t done the effort of parachuting and infiltrating into enemy territory. At least he was wise enough to change his uniform for civilian attire. Else he could walk around with a sign reciting, “English soldier, shoot!” around his neck.
They drive on the right side. They drive on the right side.
“Prends the moto, s’il te plait!” (Take the motorbike, please!) Céline ordered Francis. The motorbike was too small - too ragtag – to sustain the weight of three persons, albeit slim.
Céline saddled up, signing Arthur to imitate her.
“Pourquoi to?” (Why you?) Francis protested.
“Parce que tu te fermes toujours chez thes femmes!” (Because you always stop for seeing your lovers!) Céline replied, starting the engine. Arthur grabbed her hips with all the gentleman care he had.
Céline had recognized the gaze Francis had given to Arthur. It was the gaze he had when he liked something. Having an English lieutenant traumatized for her cousin advances was one of the things Céline wanted to avoid.
If heaven had blessed everyone with a special talent, Francis had a gift for seduction. He was pleasant, audacious, never vulgar, he had a series of occasional lovers of both sex from Paris to Strasburg. When he had joined the Résistance most of them became a precious source of information.
The mission day arrived too soon.
Arthur pointed the binoculars at the mine for the tenth time in the last five minutes. The moon changed the shapes of things, touching them with her hypnotic silver light. At dusk he and Francis had set the explosive in a way it wasn’t visible from the outside the mine if not after a thoroughly inspection.
“Do you want the honour?”
Céline offered him the detonator. She had painted her face with a mixture of ash and clay. The wind blew up her shawl. It was possible to see the original purple under the thick lay of dirt. Arthur pulled the trigger with all his might.
“Je ne sens rien …” (I don’t hear anything)
No explosion noise came. Arthur pulled the trigger again. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Céline took it from his hands, but her attempt wasn’t luckier.
“Merde!” She cried.
Francis echoed her. Arthur dropped the heaviest curses he knew. “Goddamnit!”
“Miss Bonnefoy five minutes from now pull the trigger. Cours, je te couvre!” (Run, I cover you) he concluded for Francis.
Five minutes were a utopia. Such a work would’ve required at least ten at best, if Arthur had guessed the problem right. Too bad they didn’t have ten minutes.
“Three, two, one … go!”
They had to cover five hundred metres, with heads down.
“Wer da!” (Who’s there!)
Shots. Fucking shots. He felt an excruciating pain in his shoulder, side, calf. The last shot made him trip when the goal was just a couple of metres away. It didn’t matter. Francis was the technician. At the moment his safety came first. Moreover Arthur had the firm conviction his fairies would’ve protected him one more time.
The blast came like a promise. After that five fingers closed on his wrist and darkness fell on him.
Arthur survived. He came to Paris short after the liberation. His body was bruised and there was a medal for bravery on his chest.
“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” Francis blew out with his cigarette smoke, pointing at the city. Arthur nodded and laughed. Francis’ accent was terrible. He almost regretted the time he spoke only French. He noticed that the pinkie finger and the ring finger of Francis’ right hand and the index of the left hand were missing. When the man bended over the wrought-iron balcony, his shirt moved to reveal a pattern of scars on his back, memory of the months spent in Gestapo claws. Céline had been tortured to death.
“American soldiers were great. Mathieu, for example.”
“Matthew Jones, do you know him?”
The face Arthur made was enough for an answer.
Matthew was staying in an ex Wehrmacht barracks and was surprised like Arthur to see him again. The severe brush cut was growing in mild blond waves that suited his delicate face more. A corner of his mouth bent in a smile, twisting his burnt cheek.
Simply, with his soft spoken voice, with no anger or pride or delusion. Guadalcanal, by chance. It could have been Montecassino or Iwo Jima or Omaha Beach or whatever other damn place. He had been swallowed, digested and expelled.
Matthew had come to know Alfred had been sent on the Italian front, but not what had happened to him.
“I’ll end going crazy” Arthur burst out the very same evening, holding his legs. It was about to rain. He could feel it. Francis posed a calloused hand on his shoulder.
“I owe you. I’ll help you with your search.”
1945 passed. 1946, 1947, 1948 passed. Arthur contacted both the Red Cross and the English-American army, but he was just tossed around, from Paris to Rome. People in charge didn’t seem inclined to spill the beans. In all this, Bonnefoy kept his promise. Wherever the search brought Kirkland, he followed, no matter how much the Englishman protested.
1951 passed. 1952 passed. Finally Arthur could hold the dossier with all the answers in his hands. Alfred had fallen in German ambush in the woods in Southern Lazio.
They hadn’t been able to find to body.
The plump girl who had helped Arthur to not get lost in the archive depths added to not have much hope. It was a carnage.
Arthur had always thought that, after the war, he would’ve found Alfred. He would’ve made up with him and everything would’ve returned like it was once. He would’ve even let Alfred go – he was a grown man after all – with the promise he would showed up for Sunday lunch. Arthur had imagined the scene so many times he couldn’t believe it wasn’t real.
He staggered down the street. He staggered up the stairs.
Arthur didn’t answer. He was choking. He would’ve died; surely, he would’ve choked. There was a damn nut in his throat. His face was distorted by pain. From his chest escaped a sound that was meant to be a word, but was just an inhuman weep. When the Frenchman’s arms held him, Arthur didn’t escape. Normally he hated being touched. Now he couldn’t care less. Breathing was painful. His nose was stuffed and is brain watered down in tears.
“Shirt – wuined – Al --- not --- wight.”
Francis liked Arthur. Céline knew it – might her soul rest in peace – and after all even Arthur knew it. It didn’t matter. He would’ve even let the French frog fuck him if that meant being able to forget for a while.
But Francis just held him until Arthur had cried so much he couldn’t stand on his feet. So he helped him going to bed.
Arthur rolled out the bed only a week later. He decided to go back home, in England, in London countryside. There he would have been able to pick up the pieces of his broken soul.
“What about you?”
Francis shrugged. “Qui sait, mon cher Arthúr.” (Who knows, my dear Arthur).
He didn’t say farewell. Not with words at least. He intertwined fingers in Arthur’s messy hair and attired him for one, chaste kiss.
On the doorstep, with the suitcase between ankles, mouths full with the taste of unsaid words.
In his long life of academic and WW2 veteran Arthur received hundreds, thousands of letters, from students, professors, admirers, and soldiers. He took pride in saying he’d never let one unanswered, even for just a line of greetings or a “thank you” word.
Nothing, however, could prepare him for the envelope that appeared in his mailbox a day in 1991. At first Arthur opened it with the same automatic gesture he had reserved to many others. The letter came from Rome, but that didn’t worry him. His publications were world famous. He read the first and last lines. The letter fell flying on the carpet. Arthur keeled over in the armchair.
In the years he had discovered a lot about the Alfred who had cut ties with him a day of July, almost fifty years before. He had come to know he was accepted in Harvard thanks to a scholarship. He had discovered Alfred was brave and that his comrades loved him.
He could’ve never imagined he had become a father too.
Arthur thought it was all a joke. Still the headshot attached to the letter, now under Arthur’s eyes, was a sufficient proof to give the benefit of the doubt.
The sender (Alberto Vargas) offered to pay a trip to Milan. Arthur had just to call the attached number to confirm. It would have been a collect call, of course.
A month later Arthur arrived at Milano-Malpensa airport.
He immediately found Vargas. Not for the target with his name held in plain sight, among dozens of similar targets, but for his look. He was … he was Alfred. His hair was Alfred’s, even the rebel tuft. His eyes were Alfred’s. Even in the way he walked there was something that reminded Arthur of Alfred. He was the adult Alfred Arthur couldn’t know.
“Vargas? Like the Vargas from that restaurants chain?”
“He’s my uncle,” Albert answered nonchalantly, sucking a forkful of carbonara spaghetti. His English was perfect.
“And your mother?”
“She died a couple of years ago, poor soul. She had always been reluctant to speak about my father. She hardly remembered his name.”
While the Italian man told him of a search started when he was a teenager up to that very moment, Arthur considered how all was just a big causality. By chance Alfred had taken part in Anzio landing. By chance Matthew was in a trench in Guadalcanal, right in the point where a grenade had fallen.
“How could you find me?”
“Your nephew, Matthew Williams. He gave me your address.”
Arthur puffed: “Matthew! Williams! I always forgot he goes by the name since he was in the NHL.”
An embarrassing silence fell again between them. It was the silence of two strangers who suddenly discover to have a bond.
“Tell me about my father.”
Uncle, uncle, tell us a story!