فصل 05

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30 April 1941: Invasion

Though he said little, being almost incapable of speech due to his physical condition, Mandras was fully aware of the change in Pelagia’s attitude towards him and he hated the way in which his mother and fiancee had undressed him, washed him and discussed him as if he were not present. But the horrors of war and starvation had taken away from him the will to live, so that he lay for weeks in bed in his mother’s house, incapable of moving or even speaking, constantly revisiting in his mind the terrible experiences that had been his.

The brilliance of his Greek leaders had enabled him and many of his companions to survive the war against the Italians, but the freezing conditions in the mountains and lack of food meant that his body aged more in a few months than it would normally do in sixty years. Then, when the Germans had attacked from the south, Mandras’s unit had marched back down into Greece and had fought bravely but uselessly against their enemy, leaving Mandras the only survivor in his unit. With a vision of a loving, smiling Pelagia constantly before him, Mandras had found the strength to struggle home, wearing bandages instead of boots, through the wild hills, mountains and forests that made up the greater part of Greece.

For much of his journey he had met very few people and had consequently almost died from starvation. If he had been met on his return to Cephallonia by the loving Pelagia of his dreams, Mandras’s recovery might have been faster. But as week followed week, Pelagia, though she tried hard to love Mandras, felt only coldness towards him, coldness and the growing conviction that Mandras was remaining ill in order to punish her for her lack of warmth towards him.

‘He thinks that nobody wants him,’ said Dr Iannis, ‘and he’s doing this in order to force us to show him that we do.’

‘But I don’t want him,’ thought Pelagia, again and again, as she sat making the bedcover that had never grown beyond the size of a towel. But although she spent a lot of time either with or thinking about Mandras, there were other matters that occupied her mind just as much. By April 1941, the German army had reached Athens, and the royal palace there was occupied not by King George of Greece but by German soldiers. On the 28th of the month, the Italian army, claiming that the Ionian islands belonged to them by right, invaded the island of Corfu, making it inevitable that Cephallonia would be next on the list.

For the islanders, the waiting was painful. Every last moment of freedom and security was rolled about on the tongue, tasted and remembered. Fathers who expected to be beaten to death stroked the hair of pretty daughters who expected to be raped. Sons sat with their mothers on doorsteps and talked gently of their memories. Father Arsenios knelt in his church, attempting to find words to a prayer, puzzled by an odd sensation of having been abandoned by God instead of the other way round.

In these last weeks before the invasion, Dr Iannis wrote what he believed to be the final part of his ‘History of Cephallonia’:

‘Among those who invaded and occupied our island - the Romans, the Turks, the Russians, the French, the British’ - he began, ‘the Italians made the greatest impression upon us, because we spent the period from 1194 to 1797 under Italian rule. This explains a great many things that may puzzle the foreigner, for example, the numerous Italian words that exist in our vocabulary, and the architecture of the island, which is almost entirely Italian.’ He continued on this subject for a number of pages, then, when it seemed that the Italian invasion was due at any moment, he wrote: ‘I wait in the knowledge that this may be the last thing I ever write. I beg that whoever finds these papers should preserve and not destroy them.’

Placing the papers in a black tin box, the doctor lifted the old carpet beneath the table and opened a trapdoor, revealing the large hole that had been made in 1849 in order to hide island rebels sought by the British, who then governed the island. He placed his work safely inside the hole, then went outside to listen for the sound of approaching aeroplanes.

On 30 April foreign aircraft and ships were seen approaching from the horizon. Drosoula ran inside to Pelagia shouting, ‘Italians, Italians. It’s the invasion,’

Pelagia’s immediate reaction was to run up the hill to be with her father, whom she found standing in his doorway, as everyone else stood in theirs, protecting his eyes against the sun as he watched the planes. Out of breath, she flew into his arms and felt him tremble, then realized with a small shock that he shook, not from fear, but from excitement.

‘History,’ he cried, ‘all this time I have been writing history, and now history is happening before my eyes.’

The Italian soldiers stepped apologetically out of their aircraft and ships and waved cheerfully but hesitantly to the people in their doorways. In the village, Pelagia and her father watched the Italian units go by, their leaders consulting maps with puzzled faces. A line of men marched by, led by Captain Antonio Corelli, with the mandolin that he had named Antonia hanging on his back. When he saw Pelagia he shouted, ‘Bella bambina eyes left!’

The heads of the soldiers turned in her direction, and for one unbelievable minute Pelagia was forced to watch the most ridiculous behaviour. There was a soldier who crossed his eyes and folded down his lower lip, another who pushed his lips out and blew her a kiss, another who pretended at each step to stumble over his own feet. Pelagia put her hand to her mouth. ‘Don’t laugh,’ ordered the doctor. ‘It’s our duty to hate them.’

All over Cephallonia the islanders painted rude remarks about the invaders in huge letters on all available walls. The men related Italian jokes. What is the shortest book in the world? The Italian Book of War Heroes. Why do Italians wear moustaches? To be reminded of their mothers. A decision was made that the local population should provide Italian officers with accommodation. So one day the doctor came home and found a round Italian officer standing in the kitchen.

‘Buon giorno,’ said the officer.

‘Buon giorno,’ the doctor replied. ‘Perhaps you could tell me why you are here.’

‘Ah,’ said the man uncomfortably, ‘I am sorry to say, you are going to have to provide accommodation for an officer.’

‘Impossible,’ said the doctor angrily. Then an interesting thought occurred to him and he asked, ‘Do you have a supply of medicines?’

‘Naturally,’ replied the officer. The two men exchanged glances, understanding perfectly what the other was thinking.

‘There are many things I need,’ said the doctor.

‘And I need accommodation. So?’

‘So it’s a deal,’ said the doctor.

‘A deal,’ repeated the officer. ‘Anything you want, send me a message through Captain Corelli. You will find him charming.’

In the early evening Captain Corelli arrived, driven by another soldier, Carlo Piero Guercio. The captain looked around, appreciating the signs of a quiet domestic life. There was a goat tied to a tree, and a young woman with dark eyes at a table, with a scarf tied round her head and a large cooking knife in her hand. The captain fell to his knees before her and exclaimed dramatically, ‘Please don’t kill me, I am innocent.’

Pelagia smiled, against her will, and glanced at Carlo, amazed to see that he was as big as Velisarios. The captain leapt up. ‘I am Captain Antonio Corelli and this…’ he took Carlo by the arm, ‘… is one of our heroes. He rescued a fallen friend under fire.’

‘It’s nothing,’ said Carlo with a shy smile, and Pelagia knew immediately that, despite his size, he was a soft and saddened man. ‘This…’ Corelli continued, tapping a case in his hand, ‘… is Antonia. By what name do men know you, may I ask?’ Pelagia looked at Corelli properly for the first time and realized that this was the same officer who had commanded his men to march past at ‘eyes left’. At the same moment Corelli recognized her. ‘Ah,’ he exclaimed and smacked himself on the wrist, then fell to his knees once more and said softly, ‘Forgive me, I have sinned.’

Dr Iannis came out, saw the captain on his knees and said, ‘Captain Corelli? I want a word with you. Now.’

Surprised by the authority in the older man’s voice, Corelli stood up and held out his hand, but the doctor did not put out his own, instead saying sharply, ‘I want an explanation please. Why has the teaching of Greek history been forbidden in schools? And why is everyone being forced to learn Italian?’

The captain felt himself wanting to run away like a little boy. ‘I am not responsible for it,’ he said.

The doctor frowned fiercely and shook his finger at the captain. ‘There would be no wars, captain, if men like you took more responsibility.’

‘I must protest,’ the captain replied weakly.

‘Fool,’ said the doctor forcefully and returned inside, very satisfied with himself. Pelagia could not help feeling sorry for the captain. ‘Your father is…’ he said, and the words failed him.

‘Yes, he is,’ confirmed Pelagia.

‘Where shall I sleep?’ asked Corelli, eager to change the subject.

‘You will have my bed,’ said Pelagia.

Under normal circumstances Antonio Corelli would have asked brightly, ‘Are we going to share it then? How kind,’ but now, after the doctor’s words, he received this information with horror. ‘Impossible,’ he said. ‘Tonight I shall sleep in the yard and tomorrow I shall request alternative accommodation.’

Pelagia was shocked by the feelings of anxiety that rose in her. Could there be something inside her that wanted this foreigner, this invader, to stay? She went inside and told her father about the captain’s decision. ‘He can’t go,’ he said. ‘How am I supposed to be nasty to him if he isn’t here? And anyway, he seems like a pleasant boy.’ He took his daughter’s arm and went back out with her. ‘Young man,’ he said to the captain, ‘you are staying here whether you like it or not. It is quite possible that we will be sent someone even worse.’

‘Yes,’ said the captain, overcome with embarrassment.

‘Kyria Pelagia will bring water, some coffee and food. You will find we look after our guests, even those who do not deserve it. Your vast friend is welcome to join us.’

The captain went to call Carlo to the meal in a state of miserable obedience and utter defeat.

When the captain woke after his first night in the doctor’s house, he went into the kitchen, saw Pelagia fast asleep and did not know what to do. He looked down upon her and realized he wanted to crawl in beside her - nothing could have seemed more natural - but instead he returned to his room and took his mandolin, Antonia, out of its case. After practising for five minutes or so, he began playing a very fast, complicated piece, forgetful of the sleeping girl next door, so that Pelagia woke to indescribably beautiful music coming from somewhere in the house. She lay listening, then went to dress in her father’s room, and Corelli, realizing that she had risen at last, came out into the kitchen.

‘That was lovely,’ commented Pelagia.

He looked unhappy. ‘I’m sorry, I woke you up.’

‘That’s very beautiful,’ she said, gesturing towards the instrument. ‘Why do you play the mandolin?’

‘Why does one do anything? My uncle gave me Antonia and I discovered I could be a good musician. When the war’s over, I’m going to become a professional concert player and composer.’

‘You’re going to be rich and famous, then,’ Pelagia said jokingly. ‘Why don’t you play me something?’

The captain picked up the mandolin, and a stream of notes poured from it that made Pelagia’s mouth fall open. She had never before heard such complex, lovely music. She realized for the first time that music was not just a sweet sound, but was, to those who understood it, an emotional and intellectual journey, a journey that she wanted to share. She leaned forward and put her hands together as if she were at prayer.

‘There you are,’ said the captain when he had finished.

In her excitement at the music, she wanted to dance and spin round, but she only said, ‘I just don’t understand why an artist like you would descend to being a soldier. It’s a waste of time.’

‘Of course it’s a waste of time.’ He rose and glanced at his watch. ‘Carlo should have been here by now. I’ll have to go and find him.’ He looked at her with one eyebrow raised and said, ‘By the way, Signorina, I couldn’t help noticing that you have a gun in the pocket of your skirt.’

Pelagia began to tremble but the captain continued, ‘I understand why you might want to have it, and in fact I haven’t seen it at all, but you must realize what would happen if someone else saw it. Be more careful.’

She looked up at him, appealing with her eyes, and he smiled, tapped the side of his nose and was gone.

Carlo had not arrived with the car to pick up Captain Corelli, because it had broken down some kilometres from the village. After kicking the car a number of times, Carlo had set off on foot towards the village. Velisarios passed him and the two men looked at one another with something like recognition, because both men had become accustomed to the sad suspicion that they were unique in a peculiar way. They were both amazed at the other’s size and for a moment forgot that they were enemies. ‘Hey!’ said Velisarios, raising his hands in a gesture of pleasure. Carlo offered him one of his disgusting cigarettes, Velisarios accepted, and they made sour faces to each other as they smoked. They then went their separate ways, more content than before they had met.

As Carlo walked up the hill towards the house, his mind turned towards Captain Corelli. For the first time since the death of Francesco in the mountains of Albania, the soldier was experiencing a kind of happiness; in the captain he had once again found a man whom he could love and serve. In his eyes, Corelli was endlessly optimistic, a clear fountain, a kind of saint who remained a man of honour because he knew no other way to be. Carlo knew that some people thought that Corelli was a little mad, but for him, the captain was a man who loved life so much that he did not care what kind of an impression he made.

One of the pleasures of Carlo’s life, at that time, was an opera group called La Scala that the captain had organized from among those of his men who could sing. Carlo, who had a fine singing voice, had been invited to join when the captain had heard him singing as he polished his boots. There was another more unusual member of the opera group, a young German soldier called Gunter Weber, part of a troop of three thousand German soldiers who had accompanied the Italian army on their invasion of the island. Although relations between the Germans and Italians appeared friendly, the Germans thought of the Italians as inferior, and the Italians were puzzled by German discipline and lack of humour.

But Captain Corelli had made friends with Gunter Weber, a boy who spoke some Italian and whom the captain liked because his face was open and friendly, and because when he got drunk he laughed and lost his German seriousness. Weber became a member of the opera club despite the fact that he could not sing a note. Neither Corelli nor Carlo knew that one day the German would betray his friends with a storm of bullets that would open red and bleeding wounds in the bodies of the companions he had grown to love.

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