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Early One Morning
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Chiara Ravello is about to flee occupied Rome when she locks eyes with a woman being herded on to a truck with her family. Claiming the woman’s son, Daniele, as her own nephew, Chiara demands his return; only as the trucks depart does she realize what she has done. She is twenty-seven, with a sister who needs her constant care, a hazardous journey ahead, and now a child in her charge.
Several decades later, Chiara lives alone in Rome, a self-contained woman working as a translator. Always in the background is the shadow of Daniele, whose absence and the havoc he wrought on Chiara’s world haunt her. Then she receives a phone call from a teenager claiming to be his daughter, and Chiara knows it is time to face up to the past.
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ROME, OCTOBER 1943
A young woman marches briskly down a Rome street. Her coat is tightly belted, a scarf is wound around her head and a large cloth bag is slung slantways across her body. Over her arm she carries a smaller bag, containing her purse with a few lira in it and her papers–her identity card and ration book. 'Chiara Ravello, spinster,' the card declares and gives her address as Via dei Cappellari 147, flat number 5. She has no umbrella against the steady rain falling out of the dark sky, an unrelenting downpour that will continue for hours, as if complicit in the day's events.
Within fifteen minutes of the phone call summoning her–'Mamma is sick,' Gennaro had said–she was out of the door. That she is decently dressed at all, given her speed and the fact that her sister, Cecilia, followed her around the apartment, getting in the way and asking fatuous questions, is a minor miracle.
'Who was on the telephone?' This at the bathroom door as Chiara splashed water on her face. 'Why are you getting dressed? It's only a quarter to six.' This as Chiara fetched her stockings from the rail in front of the stove and tugged the damp resistant things up her chilly legs.
The rain has pervaded the inside of the apartment; a faint fog seems to hang in the kitchen air.
'You can't go out without a petticoat.' This as she pulled her red woollen dress over her head and buckled her belt. Then, rallying, 'Shall I make you a coffee?'
Finally, while Cecilia rinsed out the pot at the sink, Chiara had a second to think what might be needed: to don her coat and scarf, and to locate that extra bag in case anything could be salvaged, to consider and discount taking her bicycle on the grounds that it would take too long to manhandle down the stairwell and it would be quicker to walk. Gennaro's bar on Via del Portico d'Ottavia was less than a kilometre away.
At the kitchen door she turned to say she had to go and saw that Cecilia had stopped, was standing with the empty coffee pot dangling from her hand, her mouth open. Chiara knew Cecilia had remembered that there was no coffee in the house, that there had been no coffee for over two months. She knew too that the memory had stirred up all that went with that knowledge: the bombs, the deaths, the Nazi occupation, everything that collectively Chiara referred to in her own head as 'the rubble'. On another day she would have comforted her sister, but not today.
'I won't be long,' she said.
'Don't go out,' Cecilia said, in her little-girl voice.
'Oh, for the love of God,' Chiara shouted and she was out the door, her boots clattering on the stone stairs but not loudly enough to drown out her sister's wail.
At street level, she thought better of it and ran back up the two flights. 'Get dressed. Pack a bag with warm clothes.'
The dithery, wilting look that made Chiara want to slap her into awareness came over Cecilia's beautiful, doe-eyed face. 'Is it a holiday?' she asked.
'Yes. We're going away,' Chiara said. 'Pack a bag for me too. I'll be home in a couple of hours, or less.' She showed her on the clock. 'I'll bring you back something special.'
'Shall I take my sewing stuff?'
'What you can fit in. Not the machine.'
'I'll put in a blanket each.'
'I'm sorry I shouted.'
'I won't tell.'
Whom Cecilia thinks she might tell is a mystery.
The street is dark. A curfew operates now, and the street lights are not lit. Chiara's feet are damp, her boots leak and she slips on the wet cobbles. When she gets to the corner of Campo dei Fiori, she pauses. The first glimmers of this grey dawn that have not yet found their way down into the narrow shaft that is Via dei Cappellari illuminate a deserted square. It is six o'clock on a Saturday morning, and the market should be setting up. The statue of Bruno Giordano is the only human form to be seen. She glances up at him, solemn, hooded, portentous, as if there might be comfort to be had. She shivers.
She crosses the square by skirting its edges, hugging the buildings. The streets have been emptier since the Nazis took over. As during a bad weather warning–earthquake, snow or landslide–the people of Rome huddle indoors and go out these days only if it is strictly necessary. Always, at night, there are the sounds of sporadic gunfire. There are stories of people being stopped arbitrarily, lined up against walls and marched away, to be interrogated in buildings newly occupied and adapted for the purpose, from where screams can be heard. Later, families are summoned to collect mangled bodies. This is not new; it went on throughout the years of fascism, but it has reached a more terrifying dimension, now that Rome has been declared an open city. It is no longer possible to stay safe by keeping your head down. There is a confusion about sides and allegiances.
Halfway down Via dei Giubbonari, Chiara turns right into an even narrower street, a route that will bring her out farther down the main road, away from the principal junction. She does not know what she is going towards, only that her help is needed and that, whatever this new trouble, it is happening in the old Jewish quarter. If it weren't for the gold levy that the Nazi command imposed on the Jewish population of Rome a few days ago, she might not now be so sure that the location of Gennaro's bar, in the ghetto's main thoroughfare, is significant.
Fifty kilograms of gold. She had helped organise and collect donations–rings and lockets, old coins and cufflinks. She would even have contributed her father's signet ring, but it wasn't in the jewellery box where she kept it. Afterwards, after the officials had weighed the gold and pronounced it sufficient, she had found the ring wedged in a gap between the tiles on top of her dressing table. She had been glad not to have had to give up this ring that had belonged to her dear father, five years dead.
Babbo, she thinks, her precious father, and she reaches for a comforting memory of him, but instead an image appears of Carlo, her fiancé, who died only a month later. A grief so strong wells up in her that she whimpers. Loneliness travels through her like cold in her bones.
With the gold collection, they thought they had pre-empted further trouble and bought the Jews of Rome some peace. But now, she thinks, her steps slow with the rain tumbling down on her, what if an error in the counting has been uncovered? What if the Nazi booty is short by ten grams? By the weight of a ring? She shakes her head, her scarf sodden against the back of her neck.
She hurries on. It might not be anything so serious. She might be tormenting herself needlessly. And at least she will get a proper cup of coffee at Gennaro's.
She emerges at a small intersection where there is a patch of grass out of which a lone plane tree grows. She has it in mind to take cover under this tree and assess the situation. There is nothing to assess. Or she has no way of assessing whatever there is. The main road, Via Arenula, is silent and empty. She loiters underneath the tree, clinging to its protection. She is still on 'her' side. By stepping off the kerb, crossing the road, she will enter another world. It is as if the walls that used to surround the ghetto half a century earlier have been rebuilt. They are invisible, but they exist.
She still has the option of turning back.
She thinks of Cecilia. She visualises her listening to light music on the radio while she packs and then switching it off when the regular government communiqué comes on. In her mind she has her instead putting on the gramophone player and packing their cases to the rhythms of her song of the moment, sung by her new favourite matinée idol, Gino Bechi. They saw the film three times when it came out in March. 'The Road Through the Wood' is the tune playing in homes across Rome as people pack their bags, lock up their houses and flee the city. Why should she and Cecilia be any different? They are luckier than most. Their grandmother–their nonna–still lives up in the hills.
A far-off rumbling noise gets louder. She keeps close in to the tree, envisaging a military vehicle. Then a bus with steamed-up windows rolls into view. There seems to be no one on board apart from the driver. A dog comes trotting down the road, stopping to sniff at odd pieces of boggy rubbish in the gutter. The municipal services have broken down, and the streets have not been cleaned for weeks. The dog wanders onto the pavement and cocks a leg against the tree.
Chiara looks for signs in these occurrences–the absence of passers-by, the fact that public transport is running, the glimmer of the paler patches on the mottled bark of the plane tree in the early morning light, the way the rainwater drips off the end of the yellowing leaves, the dog choosing this tree to urinate against–interpreting them as first one thing and then its opposite. Her consciousness flickers between extremes: that the message was wrong or misconstrued or a false alarm, and it is as normal a day as Rome gets to have these days, or that something untoward is taking place on an apocalyptic scale.
A bird squawks in the branches above her; a cold drop of rain lands on her nose. The rain has soaked her through, seeped up into her boots and down through her scarf to her hair, dampening her shoulder blades and the tender, chilly place between them. The rainwater gurgles down the drains, and she is standing as still as Giordano himself, frozen in stone. She wants to go home. She pictures a blue china bird with its head thrown back and its beak wide, perched on a windowsill. The view of the tower of San Lorenzo from the window, the pine trees of the cemetery beyond. Their childhood home.
Rubble, she thinks.
Across the road there is a movement. A man in uniform has appeared from out of the shadows of one of the streets leading into the ghetto. And with that sight, that reminder of danger, doubt falls from her. She moves out from under the tree and steps off the pavement.
Mamma's sick, she thinks. That is what Gennaro said to her on the telephone. It's their code in case the line is tapped, but they hadn't worked out what the next part of the story should be.
And she is thinking, as she crosses the road, about what she will say if stopped. She can't say she's going to visit her mother, who died in the San Lorenzo bombing three months ago and wouldn't be living in the ghetto anyway. An old lady who does live in the ghetto comes into Chiara's mind. She doesn't know her real name but everyone calls her Nonna Torta–which might mean Granny Pie or Granny Wrong; both epithets would suit. She used to supply bread and pastries for the bakery in Piazza Guidia. The unleavened bread made with coarse, unhusked flour and used at Passover, the rye loaf with caraway, the plaited challah, the twisted loaf with poppy seeds, the nutty pastries filled with dried fruit, figs and plum paste. Priests and nuns had been known to come and queue for her famous wild cherry tart, and there were rumours that the pope himself had tasted it.
Chiara will say, if stopped, that she has heard Nonna Torta, an old friend of her grandmother's, is sick, and she is on her way to see whether there is anything she can do for her. Perhaps it is because she knows Nonna Torta's address that the old lady has presented herself in her mind. She is a regular at Gennaro's bar and lives in Via di Sant'Ambrogio, just behind. Or perhaps it is because Nonna Torta is indeed unwell, not sick in her body but wandering in her mind.
The soldier has taken up position against the side of the building. He ignores Chiara as she passes him. She understands that he is not there to stop people from entering the Jewish quarter but from leaving it. He has the spread-winged eagle insignia on his cap.
Terrible noises assail her as she enters the ghetto. Screams and bellows, metal sparking off stone. As she walks farther in, Chiara assembles everything she knows about Nonna Torta. The effort keeps her from crying out or running or reacting in any way at the sight of German soldiers stationed at corners, battering at front doors; the frightened faces at windows. From high up in buildings come shrill cries.
Nonna Torta wears her pinny at all times except on the Sabbath. She is bow-legged. Her hair is white as the feathers of a dove. She is a storyteller although she often repeats herself. Chiara finds her difficult to understand because she mixes in words and phrases from the Judaeo-Roman dialect. She has lived in the ghetto all her life and was born before Italian unification. She remembers the ghetto walls being torn down, back when she was a girl, and the place opening up. People moving out across the river to Trastevere, which was previously unheard of; before, the Jews had all been crammed in there together, cosy and separate. No change occurs without something being lost, after all.
The thought of Nonna Torta gives Chiara a frisson of hope. It is the thought of longevity, of lives lived out to complete their natural course.
When she turns into Via del Portico d'Ottavia, she falters. A column of grey-clad soldiers are lined up along the pavement, the officers standing at strategic intervals. One of them is addressing the soldiers, instructing them. Gennaro's bar is shut, locked up, the blind pulled down behind the glass. Beyond, where the Theatre of Marcellus looms up, massive and ancient as if untouchable, three lorries with dark tarpaulins are parked. Suddenly, the men all start to shout, a terrible bellowing roar that makes the hair on her body stand on end and the damp place between her shoulder blades throb. Just as suddenly, they stop. Then they disperse, in groups of two or three, disappearing down various streets of the ghetto. The few remaining ones take up position, some in front of the lorries, others at each of the tributary roads.
Chiara knocks at the door of the bar.
'It's me,' she whispers through the keyhole.
The blind lifts a fraction, and Gennaro's face appears, his eyes black and wild, his cheeks smeared with soot. He opens the door a crack, bundles her in and leads her through to the storeroom behind the bar where an overstuffed, pot-bellied stove belches out smoke. This is one of the places they keep the anti-fascist pamphlets that a team of volunteers leave around the city, moving quickly and as if they are going about their everyday business. There are several stores at different locations around Rome, and a printing press in a sound-proofed chamber behind a butcher's refrigerator in the Testaccio area.
Gennaro has been burning evidence.
'Can you get on with this?' he says, gesturing at the stove and the small mountain of leaflets next to it or strewn around the floor. He must have just swept them from the shelves. 'I need to get the bar open.' He makes a noise that could be interpreted as a laugh. 'Business as usual. Give the appearance of.'
'They're not here for us,' Chiara says.
'No,' he says. 'But still, we wouldn't want them to find all this, would we?'
'They're rounding up the Jews,' she says.
Then she notices the headline article on the uppermost pamphlet, written by a prominent Jewish intellectual. Like many, he had returned to Rome after Mussolini was ousted in July and before the armistice was declared in September. In that brief period, when they thought that for the first time in twenty years they could say what they wanted, he had produced a flurry of articles. She wonders where he is now, and hopes he has got out of the city.
'You've got soot on your face,' she says to Gennaro.
He wipes it off with his sleeve, grimaces at her as if she is criticising him. It is hard to be kind when you're frightened.
'Go on,' she says and smiles. Her smile probably looks like a grimace too.
Gennaro has packed the stove too tightly. Chiara has brought the spare bag with some idea of rescuing pamphlets for another time, or for posterity, or for some other reason that had seemed compelling in the kitchen fog earlier. It escapes her now, when, like Gennaro, she urgently wants to obliterate all traces of them. She snatches up a long, slender piece of wood from the sack of logs and kindling, and jabs at the dense mass of smoking newsprint. The piece of wood snaps.
She casts about for a better tool, flings wide the half-open door of a cupboard and finds a metal dustpan and broom, a big bottle of pink liquid that might be a cleaning product or might be paraffin–should she pour it in? Would the whole building go up in flames?–and yet another pile of pamphlets. These date back four months, to the beginning of the summer, and feature a photograph of Mussolini addressing the crowds in Piazza Venezia, the people filling the square like ants, and a caption she can no longer read. A powerful, disgusting smell emanates from the cupboard. She pushes the door to, returns to the stove, armed with the dustpan, and pokes fiercely at the wodge of paper inside, trying to break it up. The stove is like a little animal that they have been force-feeding. It is starting to choke.
A vision of Cecilia as a child appears. She sits opposite Chiara at the table in the kitchen of their former home in San Lorenzo (rubble, Chiara thinks automatically). A steaming plate of tripe sits untouched on the red-and-yellow-checked cloth in front of her sister. Meat disgusts Cecilia, and offal most of all. With ham and mortadella, the kind of meat that is served in slices, she has developed a method of furtively scooping it into her lap, to be thrown away, hidden or devoured by Chiara later. It is the discovery of the hidden stashes of rotting meat behind the sofa that has invoked greater vigilance from their mother at mealtimes. Tripe stew in tomato sauce is too messy a dish for lap scooping but, in any case, their mother is in the room with them, or in and out at least, so Chiara cannot help.
'Eat up your food, Cecilia, or you won't grow big and strong,' their mother says, for the hundredth time.
Cecilia is constantly admonished thus. She must be nine or ten years old, Chiara thinks, after the onset of her illness but before that summer when a spate of uncontrollable seizures damaged her brain irrecoverably. As their mother comes to the table, Cecilia grabs a hunk of bread and stuffs the whole piece into her mouth. To show willing, perhaps. Her jaw clicks. She cannot move it to masticate and cannot get the huge unchewed lump down her throat. Her eyes are popping. Her face is going red. If she were a snake with a rabbit in its jaw, she would throw back her head and her powerful neck muscles would take over the business of swallowing. But Cecilia is not a snake. Her little neck cannot expand. Then Mamma is there, banging Cecilia's back, which doesn't work, then sticking her finger into Cecilia's mouth and hooking the mush out, which does.
Chiara uses the dustpan handle to hook the papers out of the stove. She lays them out on the floor, unpicks and loosens the wad, then starts again, tearing the sheets into smaller scraps, stoking the flames. Their mamma was a demon for physical intervention in their maladies: greased fingers up the bottom for constipation, vigorous chest massaging with oil for colds, tincture of iodine slathered over cuts, methylene blue for sore throats. If poking and rubbing and the application of unguents, ointments and poultices didn't work, then you were malingering. If the malady continued or worsened beyond denial, then it was to the priest with you. She didn't believe in doctors.
Chiara is making progress. The stove is burning at full capacity, and she starts to warm up. Steam rises from her clothes. As she gets into a rhythm of tearing, shredding, burning, poking, she shuts her mind to the intermittent roars, to what might be going on outside. She is like an engine driver, stoking her little train, thundering down the rickety track. She needs to get to her destination. This is her job.
She clears the pile, sweeps up the debris and tips it in. She watches as the last scraps are consumed and then remembers the other stack in the stinking cupboard. The stench hits her anew when she opens the door. She lifts most of the pile of papers, which are pulp in her hands. When she stuffs them into the stove, a heavy, noxious smoke billows out. She wraps her scarf over her nose and mouth, soggy fragments of newsprint sticking to her fingers and catching around her wrists, and works at the damp mass with her improvised poker, forcing it to fragment. She coaxes a flame, then another. It catches fire.
She goes back to check she has cleared the cupboard. She peels a leaflet from the cupboard base and seems to see, for a fraction of a moment, two little green lights, instantly extinguished. She leans in, clutching her scarf around her nose, and the lights reappear. They are the eyes of a cat. A black cat with white paws, lying at the back of the cupboard, four or five tiny kittens at her breast. To one side, stiff and lifeless, lies the runt, the tiniest of creatures. Chiara sees that she has destroyed the cat's newspaper nest, her refuge, the home she has found for herself and her offspring. Now she pulls the last pamphlet out from under the family and takes their bed. The emaciated cat makes a sound, attempts to stand but lacks the strength.
Chiara picks up the runt's body with the last remaining leaflet and chucks it in the stove. She returns to look at the cat. She allows herself to contemplate the cat's life: running from dogs, skulking, roaming the city's ruins, scavenging for scraps. The brief wild moment when these babies were conceived. She ponders leaving the cloth bag as a bed for the animals. The cat is patently starving.
People are going hungry.
It is only a cat.
She wipes her face and hands with the end of her scarf and goes through to the bar. There are no customers. Gennaro has raised the blinds and set some tables and chairs out on the street, in the rain. Chiara looks out at the people there. She has never seen human beings being herded before.
'Coffee?' Gennaro says.
Chiara wants to go now, but she is overcome by a wave of nausea and her legs tremble. She steadies herself against the bar, turning away from the sights beyond the window.
'Please,' she says.
She stirs sugar in, three spoonfuls, and becomes aware that Gennaro is talking to her, telling her some tale. He is saying he didn't notice anything strange when he first arrived at the bar at five o'clock this morning. He had cycled in as usual from his home on the other side of the river. All the way, nothing strange, except that the river was swollen with all the rain. On Garibaldi bridge the rain had intensified, and he had paused to pull up his hood and adjust the bike light. He had been cycling slowly because his brakes didn't work very well.
He had stopped to buy some coal, and the chap there, whom Gennaro had known for years, a real busybody of a man who had his finger in a lot of pies, a lot, had told him that he had heard this great noise during the night, coming from the ghetto. A cacophony, he called it. Round after round of gunfire and explosions. Shouting and bellowing, just like they had been doing on the street when Chiara arrived. It had gone quiet again at about four in the morning.
Anyway, this bloke, Federico, had told him there wasn't any coal, and he didn't know when supplies would next come, so Gennaro had bought a bundle of firewood instead. It was a bit damp because of being tied on the back of his bicycle and that's why it was so smoky in the back room when he had first lit the stove. It wasn't even seasoned wood. But you had to take what you could get these days.
'Where do you get your coal?' Chiara finds herself asking, as if that is a more pressing subject than the night-time noises or what is happening outside in the street. 'Do you go to that place off Viale Trastevere?' She imagines for a moment that she is interested in the answer, that she will change her coal supplier.
A young man enters the bar. A soldier accompanies him but stops at the threshold, neither in nor out. Gennaro greets the man by name. Alberto. He puts his fibre suitcase down beside his legs and orders an espresso. The case is tied shut with a blue dressing-gown cord. His black scarf is neatly crossed at the front and tucked into the upturned collar of his shabby coat. His hair is flattened from standing in the rain. His face is pale, broad, unshaven. His cheeks hang slack, his full-lipped mouth slightly open. There is no conversation while Gennaro prepares the man's drink. The cup rattles against the saucer as he lifts it. He has to use both hands. His fingernails are dark with oil or dust.
Chiara's thoughts have become a case of ball-bearings, skittering and careering. She thinks about the treat she is going to take home to Cecilia and wonders whether perhaps Gennaro has something squirrelled away that she might do a deal on. Some biscuits perhaps. Or whether, if the buses are running, she could get up to Tor di Nona where the black marketeers trade and see if there is cheese to be had, or a tin of tuna or beans.
She tries to stay with these thoughts. They are comfortable. But then the flames licking at the kitten's lank fur are in her head and she questions whether it was actually dead. She is horribly present in this room, now, in this moment. It is as if the damp seepage that, despite the heat of the flames, persists in the hollow of her back, is not rainwater but something else, some residue from a deep pool of human pain. She has been dipped in it, and it coats her.
The man swallows noisily, puts his cup down on the counter and runs his hand along the wooden surface. He leans forward and, in a quiet voice, he asks Gennaro a question. He says, 'What are they going to do with us?'
Gennaro shakes his head.
The man looks around him, his gaze lingering on the tables and chairs. Chiara feels his eyes on her, but she doesn't meet them. The soldier at the door calls him. He picks up his bag and leaves.
Chiara follows him as far as the doorway and watches as he is escorted back into the line of people being herded along the street to the waiting lorries. The population of the ghetto–the old, the young, babies in arms, people on crutches, women and children–all shuffle towards the trucks in an almost-silent procession. Some of the very smallest among them are crying and griping, the way babies do, but the adults and the bigger children, the ones capable of speech, do not speak. There are some young men like the one who came into the bar, but not many.
'Where are the men?' she asks.
Gennaro comes to stand next to her. 'It's tobacco ration day,' he says. 'They'll have gone to get their ciggies.'
She glances sideways at him. 'What?'
His face is solemn. Streaks of soot remain in the creases of his jowls, accentuating their droop, as if he's been made up to look doleful. Can lives hang on so little as a packet of cigarettes? Chiara wonders.
'Yes,' Gennaro says as if she's spoken out loud. 'That's how it is.'
Some of the people still have their nightwear on underneath their coats. Most are carrying bags or have bundles strapped to their backs. They are being nudged along with the points of guns. On the other side of the line, two officers lean against the wall, chatting and smoking.
'What will they do with them?'
'They're probably taking them to a labour camp up north,' Gennaro says.
'Babies and old ladies in a labour camp?' Chiara says.
- On Sale
- Sep 13, 2016
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Back Bay Books