Ben, my historical novel, was published in Italy in 2010, by Mursia, one of the country’s leading publishers. It is only partially a work of fiction. Fiction has been used only to glue together scattered historical fragments.
The main character of this story is a young James Bond, who I call John Macbeth (to avoid copyright issues).
I met Italian film director Sergio Martinelli (Porzus, The Battle of Legnano, The Other 9/11, Ustica etc.) who intended to produce a movie on this subject but – in spite of that – I have been unable to find an English publisher yet.
I am attaching here the DRAFT of an English translation of the first chapters with the historical Introduction, linguistic improvements are needed.
That the SOE (Special Operations Executive) was involved in the death of Mussolini is rather clear, what is missing is the ‘smoking gun’.
Contrary to common perception the last hours of Benito Mussolini are still shrouded in mystery, as Italian historian Arrigo Petacco said a few years ago: “The only certainty we have is that he was murdered. All the rest is still a matter of personal opinions.’
DEATH WALKS ON THE ROOF
“If one day I’ll feel in the right mood I’ll write a scoop for a newspaper, mind you, a sensational one. It should be enough for me to write five small chapters, as I intend to do, about the story that has seen me a protagonist…and I can assure you that sales will be so great…so great…”
Walter Audisio MP, Montecitorio Palace, summer 1959.
(Speaking to historian Silvio Bertoldi)
Then someone crept up. I tried to see who he was but darkness had already surrounded me. Then, someone, I could not see him, drew the dagger out of my chest, using his invisible hand. At that time, once again, blood flowed into my mouth. At that point I sank down into the darkness of an immense space.
Rashōmon by Ryunosuke Akutagawa
Salute, o genti umane affaticate!
Tutto trapassa e nulla può morir.
Noi troppo odiammo e sofferimmo. Amate.
Il mondo è bello e santo è l’avvenir.
Giuseppe Prezzolini wrote that Adolf Hitler ended his life in a sort of Wagnerian sunset, while Benito Mussolini was stabbed miserably in a tavern’s brawl. Well, Prezzolini was wrong. The last hours of Il Duce remain a fascinating mystery. We don’t know where his last hopes were placed, or the true motives of his useless trip on the western side of Como Lake. Those who say that he was trying to seek refuge in Switzerland did not even look up at a map. The city of Como is on the border with Switzerland and there was no need to go over the upper part of the lake to pass on the other side. On the other hand if his personal safety was his main concern he could have summoned a few thousand of his most loyal troops in Milan and then calmly wait for the arrival of the Allied troops. Why he did not do that? We have our ideas about this. Mussolini had built his political career on gamble and he was certain to hold a poker of aces in his hand. He discovered when it was already too late that the British had a royal flush.
Nino D’Aroma, Vanni Teodorani, Aldo Camnasio, Mirko Ardemagni, Franco Bandini, Luciano Garibaldi, where among the first journalist and historians to understand that the letters exchanged between Mussolini and Churchill where not a delusional fantasy. To grasp the mystery of the killing of Mussolini we must follow a special path, what is known in Italy as the “English path” which begins in London and ends in Dongo, on Como Lake. Luciano Garibaldi is the author of several well documented books on such subject, but what is still lacking is a ‘smoking gun’. A document that could cap the many clues and many witnesses reports which have been collected so far.
Sandro Pertini, the former president of Italy and former partisan leader, was interviewed in the seventies by the main Italian TV channel RAI1 for a documentary entitled ‘The great battles.’ Since then it has been aired several times. The future’s president of the Republic said: “…in the briefcase that Mussolini was carrying with great care when he was captured they say that there were letters exchanged with Winston Churchill, which Churchill wrote before and after the declaration of war and especially the latter constitutes a grave matter. Now, I believe that this is true, because later were sent by the British Government several emissaries here in Italy, I believe by Churchill himself, to try to repossess the content of such briefcase. I was also approached by a man belonging to the British command who asked me if by any chance I knew the whereabouts of such briefcase.”
French historian Pierre Milza, in his 2010 book Les Derniers jours de Mussolini admits that this is what could have been happened, with British secret agents chasing Mussolini to get back those documents. Renzo De Felice, an Italian historian considered the greatest expert on Mussolini, was finally sure that this “English Path” could explain some of the strange circumstances of Mussolini death; only because of De Felice’s premature death he was not able to write a book about this thrilling subject. Let us quote an interview that Renzo De Felice gave to the Corriere della Sera on 19 November 1995, the journalist was Pierluigi Panza and the title of this interview was The British Secret Service behind the death of Il Duce here are the words of De Felice:
“The documents in my possession point only to a conclusion: Benito Mussolini was murdered by a group of partisans from Milan solicited by the British secret service. There was an interest to avoid a trial with the head of Fascism put on the dock. The British suggestion was: kill him! At play were their national interests, which were connected to the explosive compromises which could have been agreed upon by the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to Mussolini, before and during the war.”
Again Pertini, the president of Italy, in 1974 after having preview the movie by film director Carlo Lizzani Mussolini: Ultimo Atto with Rod Steiger and Henry Fonda, jotted a quick note to Lizzani in which he said: “…and then was not Audisio that carried out the death sentence but this we can not say today.” The stunned Lizzani is still keeping this note in a safe box. Audisio is considered by most Italians the executioner sent from Milan to Dongo, on the Como Lake, to kill il Duce, even if he had not the profile of an executioner but rather that of a solicitous accountant.
People must have seen what really happened in those tumultuous days, many must know and it is not credible that no one had left behind a note, or a photograph. Someone must have done it but their descendants are still silent; perhaps to avoid troubles, as Pertini said because, this we can not say today. But their silence will not last forever. We are certain that in the following years the fear will vanish and the enigma will be finally dispelled.
SOE (Special Operation Executive) was a branch of the British intelligence service, which had been able to embed dozens of agents in partisan formations in German occupied North Italy. That was a special secret service that was dismantled at the end of WWII but, nonetheless, so secret that even at the beginning of the ‘60es common British citizens ignored it had ever existed.
Writer Matthew Cobb, who authored a book on the SOE, after having searched their archives, kept at Kew Gardens, was venting his frustration on an article on the Times Literary Supplement, dated 13 March 2009, noting that weeding, convenient disappearance of documents and strange fires have left little for the historians to search. And an agreement with the guardians of those memories it is still necessary to be able to consult them.
Around the early sixties former agents of SOE began publishing their memoirs and, only then, British prime minister Harold MacMillan gave his nod to the preparation of an official history of that unit, using what was left in the archives. The task was given to a teacher of history in Manchester, a certain M.R.D. Foot and the book went in print in 1966 with the tile SOE in France, then in 1984 did follow a new book having the title SOE. The Special Operations Executive, 1940 – 1946 and finally, in 2001: SOE and the Low Countries.
Kew Gardens can be reached with the London underground: it is only 40 minutes away from the city center, but the access to those papers is still regulated. English Law, in fact, is regulating the vision of certain personal papers following a Freedom of Information Request 100 years from the birth of the person involved must have been elapsed. If we admit that the hero of our story, John Macbeth, a name of fantasy, was born in 1920, we’ll be able to read his reports only in 2021.
Winston Churchill told Stalin that history will treat him kindly, because he intended to write it. He kept his promise but the marble pedestal that he put under his own feet is progressively eroded by modern historiography. More than his vaunted virtues, the most acute biographers tend to point out his terrible mistakes; his cruel indifference to human suffering; his propensity to lie; his drinking problems; his childish behavior; his repeated interferences into military strategy during the war, a field in which he was not an expert, causing the death of thousand of innocent people and great destructions. To mention an example of his intellectual dishonesty let me just bring up this simple fact: in 1953 he got the Nobel Prize for Literature because of the great success of his six volumes of the History of WWII which met a great success in sales, making him rich. But those books were not written by him, as professor David Raynolds has been brilliantly demonstrated with his 2004 book In Command of History. Churchill fighting and writing the Second World War.
They were written by a team of historians who were paid a pittance by Churchill but who were given access to documents that he had taken away, illegally, by the State Archives. Churchill limited himself to supervise their work.
The examples of his carefree attitude to diplomacy are many. Let me just quote a couple, which have a paradigmatic value for this book. On 18 June 1940 Churchill gave in the British Parliament one of his most famous speeches, in which he declared the will of the nation to fight until the bitter end. The day before that speech, Edward Halifax, a minister in his government, considered an appeaser and his deputy, Richard A. Butler, were discussing the terms of a separate peace with Hitler. They spoke with a Swedish industrialist who was acting as special envoy for the Swedes in London, Bjorn Prytz and who by their own admission had met only by chance walking in St. James Park. Later they tried to stop the publication of the notes taken by him, and in a further bizarre twist, the minutes of point 5 of the agenda of the War Cabined for that day are still covered by State secret. Some historians think that point 5 was about the condition for a peace offered to Hitler.
The second example is, after all, a minor thing but that could serve well to illustrate the thesis we are trying to prove with this book. It is about a secret mission made to London in 1940 by Louis Rougier, a French intellectual and one of the fathers of the Neoliberism. He was sent to the British capital by Marshal Petain and together with Churchill he drew up a Gentlemen’s agreement with which prepared a switch of alliance by the Vicky regime, turning against the Axis front, was prepared. Later on the British Foreign Office denied everything, saying that they never did anything behind the back of Charles De Gaulle. It was then that a scrupulous professor Rougier, who kept a Xerox copy of letters, telegrams and the agreement was published in Canada (in France no editor was found) it was a book with all the documents inside, including the corrections made by Churchill with his own hand, I have a copy here in front of me Les Accords Pétain-Churchill. Histoire d’une mission secrete. Beauchemin, 1945.
Pétain himself, during his trial, admitted that such agreement existed. Facing this damned evidence the Foreign Office kept on denying everything; later on they even managed to get professor Rougier slandered and fired by his university. Historian thinks that original documents related to this story, if not weeded, will be released starting from 2016.
Why, then, Perfidious Albion insists on keeping a lid on these old stories? I believe they do basically for two reasons. To hide the fact that the two world wars were not fought to defend the homeland from a German invasion, as most British citizens still think, but to regulate events in Europe and the Mediterranean Sea. The same reasons that lead them to tackle Napoleon. They had made a fatal mistake to hand out white checks to several Countries in Europe, as a guarantee against Hitler attacks. When Poland decided to bank this check, Britain and France should have stay out, arm themselves to their teeth and then later make their move again a Nazi Germany probably weakened by her assault on the Soviet Union. This would have allowed to Jews to flee Germany and Austria through France and Italy.
At a lower lever, this secrecy was to protect the reputation of men and women involved in those events. Few are still alive, but their political successors still sit in Parliament and the interests involved are still huge.
I am using the book written by Bruno Giovanni Lonati: Quel 28 Aprile. Mussolini e Claretta: la verità Mursia, 1994 is used an history book, not as work of fantasy, even if some details seems not to match the evidence. To tell this story I have consulted many other books written by several historians, I just quote a few of them: Luciano Garibaldi Mussolini. The Secrets of his Death Enigma Books, 2005; Giorgio Pisanò Gli Ultimi Cinque Secondi di Mussolini Il Saggiatore, 1999; Fabio Andriola Mussolini-Churchill, Carteggio Segreto Piemme 1996; Giorgio Cavalleri e Franco Giannantoni Gianna e Neri fra speculazioni e silenzi, Edizioni Arterigere, 2002; Franco Giannantoni Gianna e Neri: vita e morte di due partigiani Mursia 1992; Luciano Garibaldi Mussolini e il Professore. Vita e Diari di Carlo Alberto Biggini Mursia 1993.
My book is novel and history at the same time, where romance is used only to close the open dots.
All the characters which I am not quoting by name and surname are only the fruit of my fantasy and they should not be mistaken for real people.
28 May 2010
I – THE WARRIOR
The sky over Legnano had the color of lead. That was a gloomy day, the first of the month of December of the year 1944.
Two young people, a man and a woman, were standing facing each other in a small apartment and discussing excitedly. The nom de guerre of the man was Georgy and he was twenty two years old. Before the war he had worked at the Franco Tosi Steelworks of Legnano and on the 8th of September 1943, when Italy turned against Germany, he went into hiding. He had chosen that name for the admiration he felt for Marshal Georgy Zhukov, the commander of the Red Army which, like the lava of a volcano, was advancing towards Berlin. The girl’s name was Cecilia and she was nineteen years old.
‘Cecilia, do you understand? You must go to Milano, meet Davide and explain to him that they are looking for me like dogs with a a hare, that I am out of the game, that I have to hide for a few weeks, otherwise the will skin me alive!’
‘But I want to spend some time here with you, Georgy. I need to talk with you of something very important. And then it is dangerous for me to travel to Milano to look for the commander. Why not stay here and make love?’
‘Don’t be silly! You must run the same perils we are all running; just think to what the fascists of Busto Arsizio did to Mauro Venegoni. He let them gorge out his eyes refusing to talk and betray us! You just have to go to Milan, a small jolly trip, that’s all! You enter the usual bar on Corso Sempione at the right time, give a kiss on the cheek of Davide and then tell him what you have to tell him. If he asks, you answer, otherwise you get back by the same way. Is this difficult…or dangerous? They must know what is going on here, in the Olona Valley!’
Cecilia looked up at Georgy, widening her languid eyes which made her look Carla Candiani, the famous film star from Legnano and then she asked for a kiss, as a way to find the courage to go. Georgy accepted with little enthusiasm. From the day he had been nominated political commissar of the 101st Garibaldi brigade he pretended respect from all the young couriers. Even Cecilia that, in a moment of weakness, he had bedded. He was getting tired of all her childish affectations. Cecilia was employed at the De Angeli-Frua spinning mill, in Legnano and then, because of her attractive looks she was courted by an old manager, a die-hard fascist working in that mill, who had her promoted to assistant secretary and then was kind enough to provided a small flat for her and her family.
Georgy was tall, with a face having symmetrical and masculine traits which attracted the attention of ladies. He was successful with women, but they were mostly young workers, of eighteen or nineteen years. After having seduced them, he got them involved in his formation, asking them to deliver orders to the other partisans. Usually, at the beginning they were feeling the excitement, like little Mata Hari, but when they realized that they were indeed running the risk to ending up in front of a firing squad, then they desperately tried to disentangle themselves from the trouble they had put themselves in, as Cecilia was doing.
Georgy pulled her against him, catching her arm. Then put his hand under her small neck, delicate like that of an ivory statue and, with a small degree of violence, kissed her on her mouth. Her dark and fine hairs fall back, releasing a strong scent of mallow soap.
‘Georgy, I may do anything to please you but just tell me now that you love me.’
‘I love you now.’
‘Come on, don’t pull my leg!’
‘I am not pulling your leg. Get ready now, that revolution is not waiting for us, now!’ and saying this, losing his patience, pushed her toward the door of that apartment in Via Calatafini in which they were having their meeting. She did not take well his brutal manners: her eyes shrunk and her face blushed, then she shouted back at him: ‘I know that you are taking Antonia to bed, and Marta too! I am not as stupid as you think, you know? Political commissar, yes, a warm shit!’
‘Stop with this rubbish and get moving!’ he ordered, stepping forward in a menacing way; then to cut short that scene he picked up her overcoat, gloves and scarf, throwing them at her. The message was clear: she had to go, and with great fury she opened the door and went down in the street.
Georgy went up at the window, slightly moved the awnings and glancing out, he saw her looking nervously around, while briskly walking. She was upset and probably crying, going toward the station..
‘Is she afraid to be shadowed?’ he tough. Then he made a mental note that they had to get rid of her as soon as possible, she was not to be trusted again. He would write a report to his regional commander, pointing out her scarce attachment to the communist cause and her bourgeois deviationism, and then he would request to put her to sleep. They had a group of comrades specialized in that kind of job, they will ask her to keep quiet and don’t talk to anybody. They normally had their way.
‘She had to learn the party discipline’ Georgy hissed. Then he moved out of that apartment, as he was always doing; was a precaution, and moved into the next flat, which was registered to Antonia’s brother, another of their couriers.
At the beginning of the insurrection, all partisan formations thought that Anglo-American would move up the Italian peninsula in a very short time, but this did not happened. This gave to the fascist and their Nazi allies the time to reinforce the so called Gothic line. Benito Mussolini created the RSI, the Italian social republic and all Italians that found themselves beyond the Allies line were facing a thorny dilemma: stay at the window, as most did, or chose one of the warring factions. The mind of Georgy was made up by the Venegoni brothers some time earlier, two enthusiast communists from Legnano who indoctrinated him and when Fascism did fall, in 1943, he had no doubts about which side to take. Mauro Venegoni with the messianic fire he had in his chest, won Georgy’s last reluctances. He convinced him that the future was red and that fascism and parliamentary democracy were just irrational and reactionary political systems, which were going to fall over their own contradictions. He gave him two books to read: The Communist Party Manifesto.With a new introduction for the Italian readers by Engels written by Karl Marx and the What do to? By Vladimir Lenin. Georgy did not understand much of what they were talking about, even if he read and re-read them several times, but at the end was their abstruseness that had the best over his reason. If they were so complicated they had to be deep and there were many men, like the Venegoni, that assured him that they were capable of grasping their arcane reasoning. Mauro Venegoni was shot on 31 October 1944, at Busto Arsizio, few miles from Legnano, but before he was badly tortured by fascists. He did not reveal the names of the other comrades. He had been a true communist hero.
At the beginning of his political involvement, Gorgy tried to find some sort of cooperation with the catholic partisan formations, which were know as White Carroccio brigades, but ideology divided them and he failed. The white brigades were just plotting slightly behind the altars of their churches but, when put in front of terrorist acts or selected homicides of civilians, accepting and even inviting Fascist reprisals, they always backtracked. This confirmed him in his idea that they were not able to carry out the revolution and that real armed resistance was possible only for the communist formations, like the SAP (Proletarian armed squads) and the GAP (Proletarian armed groups). He was soon promoted and was accepted within the Garibaldi Brigades thanks mainly to his war experience while serving in the Italian army. He carried out some operations in nearby cities, like Gallarate and Saronno, even if his group had to pay a heavy price. Four boys of his squad were captured and shot at Parabiago, on the bank of the Villoresi canal. During an operation outside his territory he met comrade Ivaldi, who then changed his name into Visone. His real name was Giovanni Pesce and later became the head of the GAP in Torino, a myth for all the communist partisans.
Cecilia was really upset that day, but not for the reasons that Georgy had imagined. She turned in Via Roma and went down till the ends moving by nervous steps until she reached the most famous monument of that town: the Warrior, the forty-four years old creation of sculptor Enrico Butti. It had been casted as a commemoration of the Battle of Legnano of the year 1176 when Frederick Barbarossa was defeated by Milano and his allies around that place.
She was not yet sure about what to do. She raised her eyes to that silent man of bronze, covered in droplets of humidity and constantly pointing his sword to the sky. She felt disgusted about it. It reminded her that men love war and despise peace, that his life was hard and useless, just like that chunk of metal. She felt upset by all that represented and the men that were like it. The Fascist rhetoric called Legnano the Bethlehem of Italy because of that battle, but it had been just a sideshow between the Milanese and the people of Como, allied with the Germans.
‘Nothing has changed after so many centuries’ she thought ‘and me, which side should I take? With the partisans or the fascists?’
Then she felt sick, it was fear and the cold of the day, she puked on the dry flower bed under the monument. She had made a big mistake with Georgy, thinking that he was different from the lot, she thought that he loved her, as she loved him; that he accepted her for what she was. But now she could see that he had just taken advantage of her, like with all the other girls. No, that morning she was not going to board that train to Milano and without a second though she went into Via Benito Mussolini and entered the offices of the Fascist police were she asked to speak to commissar Santini. He found him sitting at his desk and she revealed to him, with the heart in her throat, where he could find Georgy. The partisans did not know that Cecilia was arrested three months earlier and then released after telling them a part of what she new; she did not mentioned Georgy to protect him, even if they threaten her with torture. She had accepted to keep them informed of what was going on in Legnano.
As soon as he sat into the next apartment, Georgy brew a coffee made with a mix of herbs, real coffee made with coffee beans had disappeared. He drank it eating two Amaretti di Saronno, the almond based biscuits, a real threat in those days. They were smuggled out by the factory by one of their partisans that was working there. Then Georgy lied down on the bed, falling into deep sleep.
After about an hour he was woken up by the noise of boots coming up from the marble stairs. He was soon alert and holding his breath, he waited. They were knocking at the door of the other apartment, not getting an answer they set to work to break down the door, using a sledgehammer. Georgy knew who they were and what they wanted. It was more than a week since they were looking for him, they had threatened his old parents and his friends, but they just said that they needed to ask him a few questions. In reality they knew, and he knew that they knew, that he was involved in the attack at the Hotel Mantegazza, a place on Legnano that was a meeting point for Fascists and the Nazi. That had been his bold plan: on the 4 of November, the date of Italy’s victory in WWI, they had left a bomb on one of the windows of his restaurant, facing the road. Five people were dead and twenty five wounded with that explosion, mostly civilians. Then, emboldened by that, on the 26 of the same month, with other partisan formations, they mounted an attack on the barracks of the National Guard and the prison of San Martino, that as a show of force. They knew about him after they had taken Mortara, one of their men, who had spoken under torture.
Georgy did not waste time. When they would force the door of that apartment, finding it empty, they may want to look also in the next one. He jumped out of the bed and run to open the window on the back, putting his legs out he walked on the ledge like he was on a rope. Then he heard a shout: ‘There! He is him, freeze! Shoot at him, he is getting away!’
Four shots followed in rapid succession and he felt the hissing noise of bullets whistling close, before hitting the wall. He thought that his life was over but fortunately they must have been bad shots, new recruits and feeling that he could still make it, he lowered himself down on the balcony of the third floor. With a shoulder push he opened the windows of the sitting room, where an old couple stared at him, terrified, the he proceeded into their bedroom. Looking down from that window, he could see that the road was empty. Not long before the alarm for aerial attack had been sounded and the workers of the Rebuffetti, a factory close by, had been walked out of the building. Legnano had suffered already with dead because of the bombing by British planes and since then all alarms were taken seriously. Some of the workers were smoking a cigarette and other were chatting. With the presence of mind typical of those who feel that nothing is left for them, Georgy had no other alternatives but lower himself down as much as he could to shorten the long jump. At least four meters, and he hoped not to break his legs. He did fall on a layer of soft sand which somehow reduced the shock when landing, and he tried to imitate a parachute jump, rolling forward as much as he could, but he put down badly the wrist and felt a sprain at his back. He jumped up, he had still his shirts sleeves rolled up and run forward entering one small side road. The workers that had seen what has happened feigned indifference looking elsewhere. After about half mile he found himself facing the door of Antonia’s sister, where they kept the small record of their brigade. He went in and he did hide below the roof, to collect his thoughts. After a couple of hours arrived a socialist doctor, one of their secret supporters, called to visit him. His wrist was probably cracked but he fixed it with a stick and some bandages. They had always false documents ready which were provided by one of their moles: a false identity card and papers showing that he was soldier in the fascist black brigades. They just had to add his picture. Later that afternoon a comrade came to pick him up with a bicycle, his name was Marino, who let him sit in the front bar of the chassis, at the time was a common sight to see two men or a man and woman to go around like that. They went on the Saronnese Road and in thirty minutes they got to the railway station of Castellanza. Georgy bought a first class ticket to Turbigo, where Antonia’s mother was living, and a small village where he was planning to spend a couple of weeks, right the time to recover and let the waters calm down. Turbigo was safe because there were many evacuees fleeing from the bombs falling over Milano and was rather easy to find food, it was enough to visit the farms dotting the two sides of the Ticino River and with some cash it was possible to find fish, corn and cheese. That was a wise decision that he took, because Antonia fall into the net herself just a few days later and then she was condemned to death. Mussolini, after reading that she had the husband away at the front and had a small baby, commuted the sentence to life imprisonment, knowing well that in a matter of months she would be released. And in factAntonia walked free on 26 April 1945 from the San Vittore prison in Milano and returned to Legnano.
II – THE ALPINE TROOPER
After buying the train ticket, Marino turned his bicycle and went back to Legnano. Georgy cast a look into the first class waiting room. There were some iron benches touching the walls and in the middle there was a large stove with burning wood inside. The air was warm but smoky, perhaps they were using cheap robinia wood. Two old ladies were sitting in a corner. That warm feeling was enticing but he thought that was too dangerous just to sit there, like a sitting duck, he could be picked up. Was still shaking with fear after his escape. His grandfather once told him that when your fingers are burned with hot water, you will be afraid even of the cold one. He slowly crossed the waiting room, opened the glass door and went out on the departure platform; then he turned on the right and strolled calmly in the falling darkness, close to the small gardens, full of cabbages instead of flowers. A small fountain was at the center, with red fishes swimming in the icy water. Only ten minutes to wait for the departure of the train of 18 and 17. It was better to stay there in the darkness made deeper by the covering of all fires and lights. He moved quietly trying not to look nervous, even if he was still very much nervous and in pain. After five minutes he had the unpleasant surprise of seeing a patrol of three soldiers, two with helmets and rifles Carcano Mannlicher 91/38 on their shoulders and a young officer in the middle. As soon as the head of the station saw them on the platform went out of his office and gave the fascist salute with the right arm stretched out. Then he strokes a conversation with them, moving their feet because the cold was really hard to bear.
Georgy lighted a cigarette and decided to do the contrary of what his legs were commanding him to do that is run in the opposite direction. Slowly he moved in their direction, he was expiring smoke and was calmly looking around. The officer looked in his direction but he did not look back at him, even if he was checking his overcoat and his shoes.
‘Now it is too dangerous to turn and get back’ he though while his heart was pounding like the piston of an engine ‘I have nothing to be afraid of, my papers are in order. Stay calm!’
Georgy proceeded with his slow walk in their direction; the officer was still staring at him while the soldiers were chatting with the station master. He could see their patches on the collar and on the sleeves.
‘Legione Autonoma Ettore Muti’ he though, shivering ‘Damn, they are the worst bastards! Today it is not my day.’
He went over by a few steps and breathed a sight of relief, hoping that the officer will not question him.
‘Hey, hey, I say you!’ Georgy heard the voice of the officer and he felt lost.
Georgy turned and went back, now also the soldiers and the station master were staring at him. He halted two steps from them, clicked the heel of his shoes and gave the fascist salute, all were forced to return it, but the young officer did not answer it: he was still gazing at him. He was a young lieutenant, a boy actually, with glasses and red freckles.
‘Have we met before?’ asked the officer, with a stern voice.
‘I cannot recall seeing you, I think this is the first time’ answered Georgy with a resolute voice. ‘Unless you were on the Volga River two years ago, but I don’t think it is possible because of your age.’
‘Julia, alpine troops.’
Georgy wanted to be a bit rough with that boy, to put him back into his place.
‘Oh, here we have a hero from Russia! What an honor! And now what are doing here, without a uniform?’
‘Now I am a volunteer in the black brigades, a sergeant actually. I have a week convalescence to recover from this’ he said, pulling out the bandaged hand from the sleeve and then added:
‘A fall while we were looking for partisans around Cicogna, in the Val Grande.’
‘Did you catch any of those pigs?’ asked the officer, and at that time the loud bell announcing the arrival of the train, started to tinkle.
‘Sure, arrested three. Two shot on the spot, one taken prisoner.’
The officer swallowed for the emotion and then commented: ‘Here is different, here we don’t know who is against and who is on our side. On the mountains it is all clear. There you can disregard good manners; I would love to be posted there.’
‘True, indeed true, officer but it is also more risky. However, this war will be soon over, very soon and we shall go back to our homes and to our work.’
‘Really, do you think that it will be over soon?’ asked the boy, with a puzzled expression on his face.
‘Certainly…Hitler’s secret weapons will force the enemy to surrender. We are close to it now, the Duce said that and, mind you, I heard this from Alessandro Pavolini’s mouth.’
‘Oh, you have met Pavolini? Demanded the officer with the enthusiasm of a baby asking for a panda bear.
‘Absolutely, we were together at the rounding up of some partisans, even Prince Borghese was there.’
The young lieutenant was very impressed and forgot to close his mouth. He was convinced that Georgy was what he said he was and at that time the black profile of the train appeared at the end of the rail line, panting clouds of white smoke. The locomotive whistled announcing its approach to the station.
‘Should you really take that train? I am sorry we can’t continue our conversation’ he said, but then one of the soldiers that were close to him whispered something into his hears.
‘Ah, the rules, we have to see your documents, Please, show them to us.’
‘Certainly, lieutenant, I just hope not to miss this train. He pulled his wallet from a pocket and passed the military card and his ticket. They checked it with the pale light of a torchlight and that filtering from the station master’s office.
‘Let’s see. Sergeant Marco Colombo. Born in Turbigo in 1922. Ah, you are from Turbigo, this is this why you go there?’
‘Yes, to spend a week with my mother.’
‘I have an aunt there. Perhaps you know her, Torno Mariolina…’
The train made its stop with a strong screeching sound of brakes and a few passengers coming from Saronno and Milano disembarked.
‘Is he bluffing with this aunt or is he truthful?’ though Georgy
‘Is she living near the lower church?’ risked Georgy, thinking that in a village with three thousand souls and two churches, one on the hill and one on the plain, it was not possible to make big mistakes. He had visited that village several times before the war, with a group of girls and boys going to the Ticino River by bicycle, stopping at the bar in the main square and then returning back in the evening with the train.
‘Exactly, right there, in front of the Church of Saints Cosma and Damian. If you will have time, please find the time visit her, and send my regards to her. Tell her that her Pinuccio is well and thank her for the biscuits received.’
‘Me, her darling nephew living in Saronno. Now go, we don’t want that a hero from Russia will miss his train. Long live the Duce!’
Georgy mounted on the train right on time, the head master had given a whistle signal that they could start. It was true that Georgy had been in Russia, and seem it was yesterday to him. He had been for a year in that white hell: he was fortunate to come back, in may 1943; many of his friends did not make it. They were in a band who managed to help each other when the front broke and they withdraw on foot. They slept into their Russian isba during the night, with kind farm girls helping them with milk and bread dobra, dobra, Italianski they were repeating, good good Italians, with their mild eyes. During the night they heard the Russian skiers coming, they did not touch them; they just picked up Germans, unlucky souls like them after all, and had them shot outside the door. It was there that he begun to see communism under a different light. With his band they managed to get a lift on a truck that took them close to Warsaw and then, by train they got to Innsbruck. Walking and thin like skeletons they managed to get home to Legnano.
The train was nearly empty, he lowered the window and sent a hullo to the officer, who coyly answered. Then he sat down on a soft seat covered with Bordeaux colored velvet. On another seat were sitting two beautiful ladies. They were both wearing black furs and a matching hat, one of them had a veil on her face. That was the funereal, decadent, fashion among the well to do, sort of they were preparing for the coffin. He watched them, smiling and they smiled back. They felt safe, perhaps were the women of some fascist top dogs. They alighted in Busto Arsizio, leaving behind a delicate scent of French perfume. Georgy breathed it inside his lungs, like the smoke of a cigarette and then rested his painful back against the seat, closed his eyes to enjoy it, dreaming for a few seconds from which hidden part of their bodies that angelic scent was coming from. It had nothing to do with the smell given by the girls he was used to take into his bed.
‘Ah, the corrupting power of bourgeois luxury, they are worst than the devil. We comrades should be always stay on the alert against it!’ he tough then, lifting himself straight and opening his eyes.
After Busto they halted in Vanzaghello, then Castano Primo and finally, after only five minutes, they reached Turbigo, his final destination. On the opposite trail was another train, ready to depart in the opposite direction with some passengers on it. When they had reached Galliate, on the opposite bank of the river, in Piedmont, they had to get over boats to reach Lombardy. The bridge had been bombed by Americans planes a few weeks before.
Very slowly they halted close to that train and then, with a jump and screeching of the brakes, they alted there. Georgy opened the door on the left side, put the foot on the wooden dais and then closed the door behind, as he was the only passenger getting out from that coach. In front of him there was a mill, which seemed shut, perhaps a leather tannery, judging from the smell. A side of that construction seemed ruined by bombing. Turned and patiently waited for the two trains to move. Finally the two trains left and he could see, emerging from the smokes of the two engines, a square shaped edifice, similar to most of the Italian railway stations. There was a gentleman standing over there. He was wrapped up with a heavy woolen overcoat with a scarf inside his neck. On his head he had an alpine hat, with a black feather on it. From the distance he looked like of middle height and of middle age. Georgy went down on the sloop that was crossing over the rails to get closer to him; he went very close in fact to see his face.
‘How are you, Georgy, did you have a good trip? Demanded the hidden figure.
‘Now my name is Marco.’
‘Yes, Georgy died this morning, now we have Marco.’
‘You can bet on that, comrade Marco and who may be you?’
‘Carlo, my name is Carlo; I am not using a nom de guerre as you do.’
‘Good, Carlo, then.’
‘We may walk to our destination’’
‘I know where is the mother of Antonia, here at the end of this road, Via Giulio Cesare, number 11, right?’
‘No, we are having a change of program. They may come to look for you; it is not safe after what has happened this morning. We have another refuge for you. Let’s move now, we better don’t stand here like conspiring carbonari.’
‘Fine…command, Duce, We follow!’ joked Marco.
They went out, crossing the flower beds and the fountain then opening a small metal gate that was leading directly on the dusty square facing the station. They went after Via Giulio Cesare, walked in front of a pharmacy, with a rusted sign over it, then turned right and walked thru a wide road with threes in both sides. In the dark sky the clouds were opening and a large full moon looked down at them, poor mortals. A white marble plate, fixed to the wall of a house, gave a sort of phosphorescent light; the engraved letters on it became visible with the name of that street, Via Allea. Few people were still around, the curfew time was approaching: some were briskly walking other were pushing on a bicycle, but were mainly boys and old men. They were going faster than them; some were saluting Carlo, who looked very well know over there. They passed in front of a shop selling coal, with Bonza written on top, probably the surname of the owner, then a small shop selling fabrics. They were all closed. They went over San Francesco Square, with a gracious fountain in the middle, in the center the bronze statue of the saint from Assisi.
‘The Nazi are quartered there, we should be careful!’ warned Carlo, lowering his voice and pointing to a villa hidden behind a wall with barbed wires and shreds of broken bottles on it.
‘Today they are particularly furious.’
‘Ah, don’t you know it? There was a large strike staged by the workers of FIAT in Turin. They had to point the machine guns against them to force them back in the factory. It was a great show and everybody think that the workers insurrection will spread all over the north. That’s why they are furious and worried. Seeing thirty thousand workers on the march is scary, isn’t it?’
‘Let’s stay on guard against adventurisms, comrade, against machine guns and tanks what can they do?’
‘And who is manufacturing the machine guns and the tanks? As you communists say, things must be seen in a future’s prospective. Marx said that if the workers are not revolutionary, then they are nothing. That is what I think that today’s strike goes in the right direction. Right?’ asked Carlo, with subtle irony.
On the other side of the road was visible the Casa del Fascio, the seat of the local Fascist Party. A large bronze head of Mussolini was visible, with the fateful words below: Walk, Build, Fight, Win. Two white marble slabs were put under it, the names of the fallen from that village. Left side those who gave their lives during WWI, on the other those of WWII, with further space available.
‘Well said, Carlo, but here I can see a tavern which is still open. What do you think, can we safely get in and have a drink?’
Marco asked, trying to move away from a political subject: he could not understand if Carlo was talking seriously, testing his loyalty to the party, or if he was just making some fun of them.
Carlo pushed the door of that small bar and put his head inside. Was just a narrow room with a small covered lamp on the ceiling. Two customers were inside, close to the fireplace.
‘No problem, they are friends’ Carlo said, inviting Marco to get inside. Some chairs and four small tables were visible in the plae light. On the wall was the sign of Biancosarti and Fernet Branca. Both popular liquors. Standing, behind a bench, was a small lady, she looked very tired and sleepy, she was wearing a dirty apron. Gray hairs collected in a bun with the help of long needles, a typical head arrangement on the Lake of Lecco.
‘Good evening, Pina. How is your back?’ demanded Carlo showing real concern for her health and using the local dialect.
‘Eh, yes, what good evening! C’mon, good night, we should say. Here no one sleep, always working, then how do you think my back will feel after the daily routine, eh? Always worst that the day before and this cold do not help!’ she answered, while vigorously passing a rag on the bench and keeping her eyes low.
‘This is my cousin, Marco. He arrives from Novara and tomorrow morning, very early, he will leave to Milano.’
‘I don’t know a thing. I don’t want to know anything about that. Your business, not mine. What can I serve you, a glass of wine or a special grappa we are producing?’
‘What do you want, Marco?’
‘Vin brulé can I have some?’
‘Yes, with cloves, cinnamon and anis. We have everything here, like in America. I can understand from your accent that you are from Legnano, am I right?’ Pina noted, expecting surprise for her cleverness in picking up different accents.
Carlo slightly paled in his face and then gave a sideway glance to Marco, telling her: ‘Good guess, Pina. But this young man is from Borsano, near Legnano and now lives in Novara.’
‘I don’t care, all you business but when I was working at the Val Ticino Cotton Spinning Mill I met a worker from Legnano, that is why I pick up the accent immediately. Perhaps you know him, his name was Luigi Cattaneo. Have you heard of him?’
‘Don’t think so, in Borsano nobody had that name, as far as I remember, but I left many years ago.’
‘Tall, dark hairs, truly a handsome man. Look, even if you came from Legnano for me it is just the same, I don’t care, and you should never worry about me. Are you travelling like that, without a bag to change your shirt? Please, you both sit down now; I need some time to prepare it.’
Carlo and Marco sat at table, with a bad mood stamped on their faces for having been tempted to enter there, meeting that tabby. Now they had to stay put. She was heating some red wine from Buscate, a nearby village where they could still manage to produce some decent red wine. Ten minutes later, shuffling about in slippers she served it at their table, together with a dish with dark bread and slices of salami, a rarity which was impossible to find in Milano. Marco now was able to study in detail the face of Carlo: he was over thirty, and slightly overweight, bushy eyebrows and precocious wrinkles under his eyes, hairs were ruffled, a mix of white and black. He sported two thin mustaches who gave him a smart air. Certainly he was well off, judging from his good overcoat made with thick wool woven in herringbone pattern, the buttons were of real horn, and had a black fur collar of Astrakhan.
‘Carlo, what are you doing here?’
‘I was born here, in 1909. I still work as an accountant, that is why they all know me.’
‘Why your face do not match those of our area.’
‘Good point. My father was from Naples. Albanian nobility, so to speak, Scanderbeg’s blood and perhaps a few drops of Scottish blood of the Stuart. I love genealogy’
‘Have you been at the front?’
‘Certainly, sir. Greek front, captain in the alpine troopers. I was one of the heroes sent to break the back of Greece. Now I am in the Fascist Territorial Milizia because I am the only son of my mother, now a widow. I escaped Russia because I knew an old general who had been a comrade of General Attilio Vigevano. Have you ever heard of him? He died in 1927, also an alpine trooper and also a native of this village. He was the founder of the Italian military secret service. He knew my parents and he liked me when I was a small boy.
‘And what are you doing for the partisans?’
‘I help where I can. I keep the books for the National Liberation Front. I know commander Gallo, but I like more Este.”
“Then you also belong to the Garibaldi Brigades?’
‘Yes, they asked me to join, but I do prefer to keep my hands free and don’t be put among the Bolsheviks. This allows me to be useful also to other partisan formations.’
‘Yes, but, after all you are one of us, I mean a communist, right?’
‘If you need to put me into a special slot, then, fine. Here they know who I am, even the fascists but they keep quiet because war is ending and they should maintain a good relationship with the winners. When Italy declared war on the USA here everybody understood that the war was lost. We have people who have been there for years working in their factories. If Mussolini would have emigrated to the United States instead than in Switzerland he would have understood that they are too strong for us and also for the Germans.’
‘In my opinion the war will be won by Russia’ concluded Marco, forcefully.
‘France or Spain, doesn’t matter as far as our belly is full of grain, dear comrade, as they said during the Renaissance.’
‘Where are you living?’
‘Via Vittorio Emanuele III… sorry, six months ago the name was changed, Via Ettore Muti. Death to the traitor king! Difficult to keep track with all the changes. May I ask why are you asking so many questions, don’t you trust me?’
‘No, simple curiosity.’
‘Welcome then, I have nothing to hide.’
They drunk and eat all what was placed in the dish and then left after paying the bill and having respectfully saluted Pina.
Once on the road they saw a bicycle, with a military on it, who was playing the trumpet, signaling the beginning of the curfew, set at 9 pm.
Marco had to release his inner tension, because of the questioning made by Pina.
‘How come that you did not know that this is a damn tabby?’
‘I swear, she never acted like this. You should have left a mark on her, perhaps that old fiancée of her, but we can rest assured, she will never speak.’
‘You don’t know much about women, right? I can guarantee to you that she will mention it to her best friend, that she will mention to her two best friends, one of which is screwing with a German soldier. Damn you! If the Gestapo will torture you, you will sing, I can guarantee that!’
‘You would do the same, if I am not mistaken…’ answered Carlo, feebly, trying to calm him down. Then they proceeded further ahead on the same road, Via 28 Ottobre 1922, the date of the March on Rome by Mussolini and then, taking to the left, went up for a rising road. It was very steep and in spite of the cold they were panting and sweating. On their right, in the darkness, after a high wall, they could see some old oak threes then an old castle with two crenellated towers appeared.
‘Carlo, where the hell are we going?’
‘This is Turbigo’s castle, the Nazi were using it until two weeks ago, but now they have all moved: a few into the De Cristoforis Palace, the other in the Convent of the Augustinians. Their command is in the villa I had shown to you before. They are concentrating their soldiers, don’t know why. Within the castle you may stay safe. This place is isolated and the owner is a friend, that had already offered shelter to our people on the run. The advantage is that no one will see you, no danger, no kind of Pina around. A fine man like you can raise the blood pressure of ladies, there are so many men away in the war, and even to some men, if I am allowed to say that, can feel something sinful about you’ Carlo said, with a malicious smile.
‘C’mon, you know how pansies end up in our formations, right?’
‘I know, I know. Well, you may spend a couple of weeks here and then return to Legnano.’
‘I’ll wait for instruction from the command in Milano, they will tell me where to go and when to go.’
‘Right, we all obey orders…here, we have reached the gate.’
Carlo was in front of a wood gate, under an arc made of bricks, he pulled a rope and they could hear a bell in the distance.
They waited for somebody to come and open, then Marco turned around and he could see a square up there, with a great church, below were the red roof of Turbigo, and far away under the pale light of the moon they could see woods in the distance until the horizon, with a silver sliver in the middle.
‘That is the Ticino River, it marks the boundary between Lombardy and Piedmont, over there, at the end is Novara.’
Carlo explained, pointing his finger in the dark.
III – GIANNA
A small window opened in the gate and a faint light became visible. An eye was checking them: the eye of a woman.
‘I am Carlo, open up!’
‘Yes, right now!’
A rusted sliding lock moved and a door opened in the wooden gate, there was a girl holding a candle that invited them to come forward on a small courtyard, then she close the door.
The ground was very irregular, round stones of quartzite beated down. They crossed them, taking care where to put their feet. Guided by that girl they climbed up on a stair, placed on one side in the wall of the tower. Once inside they walked into a narrow corridor and then entered a vaulted room with a window that was facing the park. The girl looked very young but she was moving with confidence, not even looking at their faces. She was wearing wide trousers and a military sweater gray-green in color. There was a small bed made of iron bars, a table with a jug full of water and a washbasin. The impression was that of being in the cell of a friar, not a bedroom. The walls were lime-white.
‘The loo is at the end of the corridor’ she said ‘there is some cheese and wine. I’ll take it here later. We have only this.’
‘What’s you name?’ asked Marco.
‘Gianna’ answered Carlo, before she could speak.
‘I confirm, my name is Gianna.’
‘Do you live here? How old are you?’
‘I hope you don’t work for the OVRA. Few months here, 21 years old.’
‘Are you a servant?’
‘No, not a servant’ she blushed slightly ‘I am a model for the time being….’
‘Yes, Marco, she is posing for an artist who is living here. His name is Bonomi, Carlo Bonomi. A painter, a sculptor, an architect, a man we can trust, the glory of our community. The statue of San Francesco on top of the fountain that you have seen was modeled by him. You will meet him tomorrow.
‘Full of trustable people this small village’ commented Marco drily.
‘The master was very kind to me to he let me stay, yes, we can trust him’ reaffirmed Gianna.
‘My name is Marco, comrade’ and he shook her hand.
He gave a look at her while she was lightning another candle put on an empty bottle of wine, using the one she was in her hand. Her traits were fine, a sort of farmer doll with wide blue eyes, and big tits, the mouth was large and the nose small, the cheekbones were high like for a Russian girl. Her high was slightly over the average; her hairs were black and slightly curled. He understood why she could be a model, she was young and attractive.
“A ripen apple ready for the pickling and a wild flower’ he thought.
‘Fine, Gianna. Can you take something to drink and eat to Marco?’ demanded Carlo.
‘I am going to get it. Just wait for me here.’
‘Can I have a gun?’ Marco asked after Gianna had left.
‘You will not need one, but if you insist…’
Carlo went out and returned after two minutes holding a semi automatic pistol, he gave it to Marco.
‘What is it?’
‘A Glisenti, nine millimeters, with five bullets.’
Marco extracted the magazine and took out a bullet, looking at it carefully.
‘Are these bullets British?’
‘Yes, most of the ammunitions and even most of the guns we have are British; we get them from parachutes launches made by our British allies. We are in contact with their agents.’
‘British here, in these areas?’
‘Yes, where then? We have three only in Milano’s province. They are preparing the ground for the end of the war.’
‘We have to be careful, using them and not being used’ commented Marco.
‘We know that. Our top people know this danger very well, don’t worry about that. Now I must go, it is late and I have to return home. Very soon it will be impossible to get around.’
Sure, you may go.’
‘I leave you in good company. Do you need anything else from me?’
‘Nothing comes to my mind right now but how can I contact you?’
‘Speak to Gianna; she will pass me you messages.’
‘Is she a partisan?’
‘A very good partisan, a real fighter, don’t be fooled by her appearance. It is a strong bone. Her real name is Giuseppina Tuissi, ex worker at the Borletti workshop. Then she worked at a hospital in Milano. The henchmen of the Muti brigades discovered that she was falsifying medical certificates to let the soldiers go home, they beat her up. They were planning to put her in jail but she managed to run away. Her fiancée, Gianni Alippi, was a member of the GAP; he was shot on the 28th of August.
‘One of the boys shot in Via Tebaldi?’
‘Yes, one of them. She went to the mortuary to give them his name for the burial. She will stay here for a few more days; she has been already assigned to the 52nd Garibaldi brigade on the Como Mountains.’
‘Where is she, from Milano?’
‘No, from a small village close to Milano, Abbiategrasso, but she grew up in Baggio. Here she is coming back.’
‘52nd brigade? Never heard before. Probably newly formed.’
‘They are only few boys, but they are good. There is one of my friends with them, Pierino.’
Gianna was carrying a tray with two glasses, bread, cheese and red wine, she put it one the table and then she said: ‘Here is what we have.’
‘Don’t worry, Gianna. We have been gracious guests of Pina’ commented Marco.
‘Ah, then, I feel relieved.’
After having tided the black feather on his hat, Carlo pushed it down on his head and then added: ‘I am not hungry. I go home. I will go through the cemetery, so that Marco will be able to rest. This a bad day for him…’
Marco stepped forward and shook his hand, telling him: ‘Thank you, Carlo, for what you have done for me and for all the risks that you are running. I’ll not forget it.’
‘Oh, thank you, but it is my duty, don’t worry. Gianna will take good care of you.’
‘And I of her’ Marco said, with a faint smile, also the girl smiled.
‘At what time do you want your coffee?’
‘When you like and where to drink it?’
‘’Here at the end, turn right and you will see the kitchen. At nine o’clock I’ll knock at the door.’
‘Very well, good night to both of you.’
‘Marco, eat and rest. Tomorrow will be Saturday. I’ll let you have news as soon as I can. Now, I must really go.’