Chapter 1: Florence, Italy
Arts & Crafts, fond memories, Rogue Brothers Inc. and baroque paintings
Alec was sitting on a comfortable chair, on the terrace of a nice Café. Maurice had gone out for lunch with someone and would meet him there for a drink. Alec had fallen asleep again after Maurice left, skipped lunch in favour of an extended late breakfast, and wondered aimlessly through the streets of Florence. Everything was so beautiful!
He felt odd without his work. It was delightful to sleep next to Maurice every night without the need of getting up at three in the morning; he loved it and felt relaxed and rested, as he hadn’t in years. It was wonderful to make lazy, sleepy love in the morning and then shower together. But he wasn’t used to so much rest and it gave him a strange feeling of guilt.
He asked for tea. Italian coffee was extremely strong, and extremely bitter, poisonous to his taste, really. Alec was a tea man. He leaned back in his chair, checked his watch for the time, and closed his eyes for a moment, remembering little things about Maurice, images he had collected in his memory from their years together, little details he alone had noticed, a thing he always did when he felt good.
Maurice with shining eyes, smiling mysteriously, just before they left their rented rooms in London for the last time, opening a small cardboard box to reveal a gold wedding band inside, slipping it on Alec’s finger and whispering in his ear «With this ring I thee wed».
Maurice leading him and Giovanna around the house before renting it, to be sure they loved it as much as he did.
Maurice sitting on the floor, next to Julie’s mother, his hand on her swollen belly, and a look of complete bewilderment and wonder at the feeling of the baby moving inside.
Maurice in his blue pyjamas, walking softly with baby Julie in his arms, humming random bits of Mozart and Beethoven to lull her to sleep.
Maurice on a stifling summer night, fast asleep on a rug in the patio, with Julie, wearing nothing but a nappy, sleeping peacefully, sprawled on his chest, like a pink frog.
Maurice bending over their bed to change Julie’s nappy, seriously talking to her about how pretty she was and how wonderful it would be when she went to Cambridge.
Maurice staring out of the window, eyes unfocused, and turning around to face Alec, in tears just because their life had turned out to be so wonderful.
- A penny for your thoughts! – Maurice had arrived and caught him vaguely smiling.
- Oh, I’ll give them for free. I was thinking of you…
- I’m a lucky man, then. You looked positively dreamy. What are you having?
- You know me… Tea. Coffee here makes me nervous.
- Too hot for tea! – he signalled the waiter – Bring me a Tom Collins, please! The Italians chill the beer to such senseless coldness it loses all taste…
- That’s mankind for you! They say we drink warm beer…! I’ll stick to my tea, it’s familiar. So, anything came out of that lunch of yours?
Maurice thanked the waiter that had just brought him his drink before answering.
- Oh, yes, most definitely. He was the right man. Saved a load of trouble to the chap who asked me to come here, so it paid for our journey and stay. Not only that but he introduced me to a Russian… never mind, it’s too dull for words. It paid, handsomely. So I got a little light headed and I made two audacious investments… Well, one really, the other was just an extravagant buy.
- Oh, God! I’m even afraid to ask… And to think I used to joke about HMS Scoundrel! Now it’s Rogue Brothers Inc., or is it Crook & Co.?
- This particular fellow, I think he would fall under the Rogue Brothers Inc. label, because he actually has a brother… –- Maurice answered with the most serious face he could concoct – But you should be asking about my investment. Or don’t you care how I use our money?
Alec lifted his cup before answering.
- I trust you. You know about business and money. It’s even kind of scary how good you are at that. Me, I just bandage broken arms and help deliver babies… –- he put down his cup, brushing Maurice’s hand as if by chance –- Do tell me about it, you’re dying to…
- I bought a painting. It’s really a shot in the dark, I know nothing about painting and this painter isn’t very valued…
- But you liked it?
- I did. It was an instant passion. You must know the way my instant passions work…
- Don’t I just! If the painting has a ticket to the Argentine, he’d better forget it, for it’s not going to happen…
They both smiled. There were no English in sight, and they could talk in absolute peace. Florence was teeming with them but, by that hour, they were all doing something else apparently.
- You don’t regret it, though…
- Maurice, if I didn’t know you, if I had never met you till now, I’d fall in love with you this instant. That’s how much I regret it… And to be perfectly honest, I had an instant passion for you right from the first moment… Now tell me all about that painting, since I’m going to share you with it…
- It’s a small landscape. All ochres and greens, just a dash of blue sea, reminds me so much of home…! By an Italian named Giovanni Fattori.
- And you say he isn’t a very valued artist… Is it safe, or just a whim?
- Art is a safe investment most of the time. In addition, it’s beautiful, and you can actually enjoy it. I mean, the safest investments, as I told you before, they just sit in a safe, and you can never be really certain about where they come from. Even I have some doubts about that. We have a nice stash of those by the way, all nice and cosy up in the Alps, just to keep on the safe side.
- You scare me… I’m not sure I want to know.
Maurice downed half of his tall glass. He said nothing, letting Alec breathe and take in his words. They had a kind of unspoken agreement: when Alec said enough, it was enough. Maurice tried to keep the worst bits of what he actually did from him. It wasn’t one hundred per cent risk free, and it was never clear. But it wasn’t illegal either, just dubious. He never acted against the law, only around the law, sometimes around the outside of it. He took great care not to tread on the red lines he’d set on himself – no people, no drugs, more recently no guns, harm as little as possible and assure himself that the victims deserved to be harmed at least a bit. Still, he was aware of the moral implications and of how that disturbed Alec’s keen sense of right and wrong. His own morals, as far as money was concerned, were rather flexible. The people who required his services were despicable and he felt no remorse about making them pay.
- I won’t tell you then. – he finally said, in his lowest and most persuasive voice – I just want you to be certain that no decent human being was harmed, though a few moguls may find themselves in a pretty tight spot soon. It’s just bad luck for them, they’ll bounce as they always do, and I cannot say I’ll lose sleep over it... Anyway, the man told me that, if I actually want to start collecting paintings, I should go to Wien and Paris. Maybe next time, what do you say?
They finished their drinks, and spent the rest of the afternoon in the Uffizi, admiring paintings. Maurice had been there before, with Clive, back in ’12, and had learned from his friend something about Art. How to look, what to look for, that kind of things. Back then, he had been so focused on Clive he hadn’t actually seen much, and remembered even less. Now, beauty came to him. He made no effort; he just looked with an open mind and no preconceived ideas. The colours, the shapes, the magnificence or the simplicity of each painting met his eyes, and he took it in naturally. In a way, he had grown better out of Clive’s influence he now perceived to have been rather conventional, and slightly patronizing.
They wondered through the rooms, admiring, stopping in front of one or other piece, hardly speaking.
- That’s intense… – was Alec’s remark, in front of a big canvas where two young women held down a man, while one of them slit his throat.
- God! – Maurice walked back a few steps to look better.
The painting was mostly dark, but the people, brought out of that darkness by strong light, had a golden skin tone. The clothes were in red and white; one piece of clothing was yellow, and the blood spurted red from the cut. That complete contrast gave the whole thing an amazing living, breathing quality. The physical strain was evident; they could almost feel the heat of the living bodies, smell the blood and the sweat, hear them gasping for air, and taste the fear and the pain of the dying man. That was a terrible moment, captured not only in colour and in light, but seeming to touch every sense. Most terrifying of it all was that, in spite of the violence of the depicted scene, both women seemed unmoved by it, just calmly absorbed in their task.
- This is something! I don’t think I could actually live in the same room with it, but it’s amazing! Now don’t go imagining the one I bought is anything like this… It’s just a small landscape, rather soothing. This is mind blowing!
Alec was reading the small label on the wall.
- Maurice, it was a woman… my God, a woman painted this!
- Women can do anything, Alec. You know that! Men can too, and you know that as well.
- I don’t know… it looks so extreme… so scary… and look at her. She’s killing that poor bastard, and she looks so serene, like it is something she has to do. She is completely focused, but calm as anything…
They walked out of the Uffizi, still talking about that painting. It had been a deeply unsettling experience. They were still discussing it over diner.
- There must be a purpose in painting such a disturbing scene. I mean, it is not ornamental, you yourself said you wouldn’t live in the same house with it; it cannot be the sharing of an intimate desire…
- How do you know that? Have you never felt like killing anyone?
- Oh, I have! In a mad moment of rage, maybe… but never like that. I never imagined myself taking a knife, and slitting another man’s throat with that coolness. What could have possessed that woman to use such a fine skill to paint that?
- I don’t know. Maybe she had a mad moment of rage too. I may try to find a book about her if you want. There weren’t many woman painters so there must be something written about her…
- Yes, please. I am curious about it now.
Maurice finished his dessert before going on. Italian ice creams were absolutely luscious!
- I have a faint recollection of Clive saying the baroque paintings in the catholic countries were supposed to be theatrical. Maybe this painting is supposed to be like Greek tragedies: you identify with the character, suffer a thousand deaths and it cleanses your soul; you leave the theatre completely drained and clean.
- I’ll pass, thank you!
- Now, the landscape I bought is completely different. You’ll love it, I’m certain. Let us go up to have a look. Julie will love it too.
He smiled, thinking of her.
- I’ve sent her a postcard. – Alec said – I miss her! Don’t get the wrong idea, I love having you all to myself, waking up late, and living la dolce vita, but I miss home, I miss Giovanna and the boys, and Julie… why, I even miss work!
They were standing by the door of their hotel room. Maurice opened it to let them both in, closed it again and pressed Alec against the wall to kiss him.
- I know. I feel a bit guilty to keep you away from your routines. I know you prefer a calm life. But I couldn’t stand the idea of two weeks without you. I’d go mad! – he searched in his pocket for something – Oh, I almost forgot! I bought you something. It’s terribly out of fashion, yet …
He produced a small blue leather box. When Alec opened it, something sparkled inside. It was an amazing gold pendant. The gold looked smooth and soft as if it had been stretched by hand, around a glittering opal surrounded by two green enamel leafs and crowned by several blue enamel dots. Alec was dumbfounded.
- Oh Maurice, it’s beautiful. It really is! But it’s a girl’s thing, isn’t it?
Maurice smiled again, unbuttoning Alec’s cream coloured linen shirt.
- You may give it to Julie, when she is old enough to use it. But first I want to see it on you…
The picture that captured their imagination is this amazing Judith by Artemisia Gentileschi
Chapter 2: Rome, Italy
Rome was not Florence. The beauty was not so evident; you had to search.
Hope you are both enjoying Italy.
Here it’s terribly hot. Swimming is no real comfort, for the water is so warm it feels like soup.
Angelo is terribly in love; you and Maurice were right about it. Her name is Madina and she is training to be a kindergarten teacher. They make a beautiful couple, although Santo is grumbling about how boring they are and Mario seems a bit under the weather. Well, Giovanna approves and that’s what really matters.
We all miss you terribly. Do hurry back, please. Angela sends her love, and so does Giovanna.
Kiss you both, my dears.
It had been quite a nice surprise to find Julie’s postcard waiting for them in Rome. Thanks to Maurice’s careful planning, Julie knew all the addresses of all the hotels they would be staying in. They had received a sweet little letter in Florence and now this postcard. Alec knew Maurice wrote her every day and he sometimes added a few lines.
They had arrived in Rome a week before, but hadn’t seen the city. Maurice had an appointment in Florence and they had been on the train that same day.
- We’ll come back here, I promise you. There’s a lot to see. And I’ll be having a meeting here too, in about a week.
So here they were again, in the heart of Rome now, in a beautiful hotel. Their room had a luxurious look, with extravagantly gilded twin beds and red damask on the walls, and a view from the window beautiful enough to take one’s breath away. Maurice had dragged him on a shopping spree and had bought what seemed like a lifetime supply of silk neckties, a quantity of extremely pretty silks and linens, the measurements of which he had carefully noted down in Malta, under Giovanna’s specifications, and a pair of absurdly expensive, though beautiful, gold cufflinks. The last ones, he explained, were meant as a wedding present for Angelo.
- Maurice, the boy is barely nineteen…!
- Believe me, he will end up marrying this girl. And these are at a wonderful price, I may never find them again. Better safe than sorry! It is a classic model; they won’t go out of fashion.
They had had a wonderful dinner. It was not, as Alec noted, their home cooked food, but it was good and the small dining room at the hotel was rather cosy. As he ate a plate of gnocchi with tomato sauce and fresh basil, Maurice remembered with a smile:
- I hated Italian food when I came here with Clive. Was I green!
- Maybe you didn’t really appreciate food back then. Most young fellows don’t. When you’re still growing, it’s just fuel to keep you going, never mind what it tastes like…
- I was only really interested in Clive. I was just silly, lovesick and ridiculously young. It’s even strange to think I was that young once. What could have crossed my mind to dislike these scrumptious things?
Alec looked at him and there was so much in that look, even a little spark of delayed jealousy. They were so accustomed to be inconspicuous in public their eyes could tell each other volumes without a single word. He smiled in the end.
- I’m trying to imagine your younger self, all high and mighty, complaining about the heat, the bugs, the garlic, the cheese…
- … the excess of frescoes and primitive paintings, the pasta al dente, the strong black coffee, the inefficient plumbing… Now that I think of it, I even pity poor Clive! Of course, I was disinclined to accept anything out of the ordinary English menu. You know how I was…
Alec smiled again and softly touched his hand, in a casual gesture, quite innocent to anyone but them.
- You were drop dead gorgeous and a regular pain in that place…though you had already started to grow on me, and I had the feeling you’d come around, eventually. Now finish that pudding and let’s go up. We’ll have to burn all that sugar out of you, won’t we?
Maurice looked at him, his eyes wide with amused surprise.
- Aren’t you tired?
- Of shopping, immensely. Of you, never!
Alec woke up quite late. He could tell by the brightness and the heat of the strips of sunlight the heavy red curtains let in the room. He looked across to the other bed that laid unmade and crumpled with all signs of having been slept in. Due to fascist views on homosexuality, they were extra careful. Maurice was still sleeping, his arm heavy around Alec. He slowly turned around to look at Maurice’s sleeping face, that open and relaxed expression he almost never got to see, for Maurice was usually an early riser. «So damn beautiful!», he thought. He loved every single detail of that face; down to the thin lines that age and frequent smiles were etching around his eyes, and to the long blond eyelashes. Tenderly, he brushed a fair curl from his friend’s forehead in a light caress.
Maurice mumbled softly and turned, snoring lightly. Laughing, Alec kissed the tip of his nose and shook him.
- Wake up, love! You’re snoring…
- Hummmm, I’m certainly not!, was the answer he got, completed by a pair of blue eyes lovingly looking at him.
- You were! But never mind, I love you just the same. What’s the programme for today?
Maurice’s hand was blindly roaming over the bedside table, searching for his watch. When he finally found it, he looked at it and almost jumped out of bed.
- Is that the time? I’m frightfully late!
He ran into the bathroom.
- I have to meet this fellow for lunch. I’ll have to be at the restaurant in less than an hour! Alec, be an angel and call reception for a cab in twenty minutes.
Alec peeped into the bathroom. Maurice was shaving.
- And do the men downstairs speak English?
- Yes, they do.
Alec called for the cab. When he returned to the room, Maurice was already half dressed. He looked extremely smart in his blue linen suit, with one of his new silk neckties over a striped shirt. Alec preferred him in more casual clothes, but couldn’t help admiring how beautiful he looked.
- I’ll meet you at that place where we had the ice creams yesterday. Babingtons, isn’t it? Can you find it? My lunch may be long; Italians love to talk around the table, but I hope to get to you before five…
- Oh, don’t worry. I’m having a huge breakfast after you leave, then I’ll stroll around to digest, do a bit of sightseeing, and I’ll find the place. I always do, you know. I’ll just sit there with my tea waiting for you and writing a postcard to Giovanna.
He checked the time. Maurice was picking up his hat and gloves.
- Let me look at you…
Maurice pirouetted on the spot, showing off.
- How do I look? – he asked.
- Dashing! I don’t know if it is safe to let you out alone looking so good… some resourceful Italian might fancy you!
But he sent Maurice out with a kiss as soon as the phone rang to announce the cab.
- Don’t be late. And don’t forget to buy the notebooks for Julie!
He took a long shower, and ordered a big breakfast with all the things he liked, the creamy latte, hot buttered toast, and that wonderful Italian fruit, the grapes above all. He ate at leisure, really enjoying each bite. It was past one when he finally got dressed and went out.
Rome was not Florence. The beauty was not so evident; you had to search. He walked slowly; trying to remember the exact steps of the walk they had taken the previous afternoon, and was rewarded with the same surprise: a huge and beautiful piazza appearing at the end of a narrow street. It looked much more grandiose in the fierce sunlight, with the white marble fountain sparkling.
From there, he walked to a small church nearby where Maurice had taken him the day before, to show him a special painting.
- If you liked that Judith in Florence, you will love this one. I saw it back in ’12 by chance, it wasn’t even in our plans, and still remember it.
The church had noting remarkable on the outside; it was just a plain white marble façade. Inside it was cool and it seemed relatively dark to visitors who came from the bright street, but when one’s eyes became adjusted, one could see the marble interior was trimmed with gold, and in one of the side chapels was the painting Maurice remembered.
Alec had liked it very much, though it was supposed to be religious painting. But it actually depicted a woman, a dark woman with a beautiful austere face that had instantly reminded him of Giovanna, standing barefoot in a derelict doorway, holding a naked child that was really too big to carry, a little boy of five or six. Both the mother and the boy were looking down with a serious expression at an old couple kneeling on the street with ragged clothes and dirty feet. They had probably walked a long way just to see this child. If it wasn’t for a faint halo around the woman’s head, they could be normal everyday people. Yet, he could feel the spirituality and it did not come from the halo, but from the grave and serene look of that mother and her son, and from the light that brought them out of the surrounding semi darkness. Unknowingly, Alec was surrendering to the theatrical beauty of baroque painting.
As he walked along the riverbank, he thought about the painting and the mixed feelings it woke. Maurice would probably laugh and say he was ripe for conversion, he who had refused Confirmation. Alec knew it wasn’t that. He knew the sense of divinity had been on the painter’s side; Alec was just reacting to the beauty of the object, as Maurice reacted to music or poetry. He knew he would return to that church every single day he would spend in Rome just to look at that painting.
He sat at an inside table at Babingtons, asked for tea, and wrote a postcard while he waited.
Italy is beautiful and we are having a great time, but nothing compares to Malta. I miss you all, and I know Maurice misses you too, even if he doesn’t say so. Travelling is good, but there is no place like home!
I’ve seen more amazingly beautiful things in these few days than in the rest of my life. Still, there’s something oppressive in the air. Maurice insists it’s nothing, he says I’m just imagining, but I have a weird feeling.
Give our love to everyone and our special love to Julie. We’ll be returning soon.
He had bought the postcard on the way, and would post it latter. It would probably arrive just before them. Maurice had told him Italian post was famous for its tardiness. On second thought, he decided to use an envelope. He really had a weird feeling, something he couldn’t give a name to. Maurice had told him the country looked much better than it had when he first had been there with Clive. «Streets are clean; things open on schedule, even trains run on time. Whatever this new prime minister is doing, he’s doing it right.» Alec found the omnipresent propaganda oppressive and aggressive too. The posters with the portrait of the Duce or with rather crude and sketchy figures were offensive smudges on the city’s timeless beauty; he had already felt the same in Florence. But he would not quarrel with Maurice over Italy’s government. After all, they were just passing through and would be returning home in a few days.
For one who has never been to Rome, the first view of Piazza Navona is a wonder.
The painting described is Madonna dei Pallegrini by Michelangelo Merisi, il Caravaggio. It is one of my favourite paintings and every single feeling and thought I atribute to Alec about it is, in fact, mine, including the resolution to go there and look at it every single day. I did that when I was in Rome. I actually carried a small stash of 0.20€ coins in my pocket to light the painting.
Please rest your souls. Maurice is not a fascist. He’ll come around. I would NEVER make my Maurice a fascist! But remember he is a conservative, or at least believes he is, and lots of people had that same feeling about Italian Fascism in the beginning. They did not know better.
Chapter 3: Rome (Vatican), Italy
- This is the kind of thing everyone should have the opportunity to see at least once. I really don’t know it could be done, but it ought to happen… It’s so sad to think about the millions who will live and die without even knowing it exists! It’s like they are being robbed…!
- That’s dangerously socialist, Alec! Even if you are probably right.
It's after midnight where I am, so technically it's my birthday. It's always a greater pleasure to give than to receive, so here's a birthday gift from me. Hope you like it.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It was their last day in Rome. They were packed and ready to go, leaving only their overnight things and a small handbag to carry them in. Still they had the whole day ahead. The boat would only leave the next morning. For that reason, Maurice got up early and called a cab to have their luggage carried on board, efficient as ever. Alec was still sleeping when he left, and Maurice stood at the bedroom door for a few minutes, looking at him before leaving with as little noise as he could. He never ceased to admire how gracefully Alec aged. He had a good bone structure, as Baird used to say with a small spike of envy. Maurice didn’t care if it was a good bone structure or happiness, love and family. Alec was every bit as beautiful as the day they had met, though his dark hair was turning a very nice silvery grey, and he had kept it very short since the war.
As for himself, he had no illusions. He had eyes and he had mirrors at home. He knew he did not look bad, and he did take care, but in spite of his best efforts to keep fit, he’d always had a tendency to put on a little too much weight, so he was getting a bit squidgy round the edges. He fought it valiantly, nonetheless. He walked a lot in Malta, always took the longest way to wherever he was going; he swam a great deal, so he was more or less in shape. Most of all, he had the comforting knowledge that he would remain beautiful in Alec’s eyes.
«It’s some mercy my hair is so blond. I doubt it would have greyed so wonderfully as Alec’s does, if it was dark…!», he though.
In the cab, he leisurely rolled back in his mind the film of their years together. Almost twenty to the day, if one cared to count. Oh, they’d had their share of silly moments, petty quarrels, sullen moods, the small but significant disagreements all couples have. They were far from perfect. Yet, their love had always persisted. It had surmounted the tests of poverty, of war, of parenting, of oncoming middle age, and of habit. It had always been there. He could not imagine his life without Alec.
When he returned to the room, Alec was just getting out of the shower. He appeared in the small entrance room of their hotel suite wearing a white bathrobe, his hair wet and ruffled, looking so handsome Maurice’s heart leapt in loving admiration.
- Oh, there you are! I can’t believe you’ve been out already! Well, I’m famished! – Alec announced, tying his bathrobe – Are we going down for breakfast? My, you look energetic! Where have you been?
Alec, who enjoyed his morning sleep, and liked waking up leisurely but seldom was allowed that luxury, seemed to expect the tale of all the incredible things he had accomplished before breakfast, but Maurice just put down his gloves and hat, and walked up to Alec to kiss him good morning, with a radiant smile.
- Our luggage is in place. I ordered breakfast here; the breakfast room is teeming with English, I don’t know where did they come from! Might spoil our appetite… though I feel like I could eat you whole right now! – and kissed him again as if to prove it.
A knock on the door announced breakfast. Alec disappeared into the bedroom, laughing. When he came out again, his hair pulled back but still in his bathrobe, Maurice was sitting at the breakfast table, spreading jam on a toast. A colourful postcard was propped up on a cup. Alec picked it.
How wonderful to get your cards! Italy must be a beautiful place.
Still, I’m glad you’ll be coming home soon. It’s not the same without you two.
Angela asks me to assure Uncle she has been to the office every morning, and everything is «smooth as silk».
Everybody sends love, including Smoke. Oh, and do not forget my notebooks!
She had inked one of the cat’s paws and lightly printed it next to her name. Alec laughed at the idea, and Maurice smiled, knowing what it was about.
- Eat up, Alec! – he pressed – We have to go out before it gets too hot!
- What happened to you? – Alec wanted to know, as he sat down at the table – Is the hotel on fire or did you have one of those poisonous expresso things downstairs?
- None, but it’s our last day and you still haven’t seen the Pietá. We’re going out for a last bit of breath-taking art before going home.
- I haven’t seen the what?
- It’s something absolutely and unbelievably beautiful. You have to see her. I won’t even give you a clue. Just trust me; it’s something you have to see. I saved it for the last day.
Maurice seemed so happy, he looked so much like an excited little boy keeping a secret, Alec did not insist. He had his breakfast faster that he might have done it, got dressed and they went out. It was going to be a hot day, so it had been wise to hurry a bit.
- Alec, do remind me of buying Julie’s notebooks. She’ll kill me if I don’t!
That was the first thing they did. They stopped in a small newspaper and magazine stand to buy notebooks. Alec thought they were rather ugly, the first truly ugly things he had seen in Italy, looking like smaller versions of the propaganda posters that disfigured most walls, but he knew Julie had a collector’s spirit about notebooks, and didn’t care if they were pretty or not.
Then, carrying a bag of Italian notebooks, they walked to the Vatican. It was ridiculously close. Alec might have stumbled upon it in one of his wandering sprees, but hadn’t and Maurice had resolutely kept their walks in other directions.
Entering the big round piazza was the first surprise. It did not look nearly as huge as it felt while walking to cross it, maybe because everything had been built on the same grandiose scale. Entering the enormous basilica was overwhelming. Everything was in such balance Alec didn’t notice how big a thing really was until he was close to it. The holy water stoups, held by two cupids that were bigger than him, were in fact so high he could hardly reach them. The bronze bees on a Pope’s magnificent tomb were about the size of his hand, when he approached enough! Now, Alec was the little boy and Maurice, in spite of having been sufficiently careful to take him round by the left side, let him wander about, smiling at his amazed exclamations.
- Everything is huge! This is all so wonderful! Did people actually pay any attention to the mass? I’d be turning my head around to see all this, and not listen to a word!
- I said more or less those exact words to Clive when he brought me here. He knew all about this place, he had read about it all, and was trying to explain it all to me. He wasn’t even looking! It was as if what he had read was the actual thing…
But Alec, just as Maurice had done back then, was no longer listening. He had looked up and seen the painted ceiling. His face was so much like that of a child, so lighted up with surprise! Maurice had perceived Alec’s sensitive and beauty loving nature very early in their relationship. It was such a pleasure to introduce him to beautiful things! He felt almost sad, because he could never experience that amazed wonder a second time.
After a rather long while, Alec returned to the world. He was dizzy with excitement and, as he put it, almost overflowing with beauty. Maurice, who had been desperately longing to hold him, touched his arm in a gentle and unobtrusive gesture, and whispered:
- Wait! Keep a bit of that passion for what I’m about to show you.
- Do you mean there is more?
- Come with me.
Slowly, they crossed the big church to the opposite side. There, quite close to the door, was a marble statue. As soon as Alec set eyes on it, everything else vanished. He had seen dozens of beautiful marble statues in Rome, but this was something else. Mary, sitting, held on her knees the dead Christ. A lovely young woman held on her knees her dead son. The dead young man was extremely beautiful too, and it was painfully apparent he had just died. His limp body was still supple, it showed clearly, where the woman’s hand was holding it; one had the temptation to touch, and expected it to be soft and warm. Yet, he was dead, all his weight upon her knees, as he had been when he was a baby. Her other hand, half open in a gesture of impotence in the face of death, had been caught in marble before she was able to hold his legs, just like she had done when he was little.
A baby. Alec thought of Julie, and of the beautiful Madonna in the painting he went to visit every day. The dead man had been a baby on his mother’s knees, she had nurtured him, she had let him fly away as all parents must do, and now he was dead in her arms. The woman’s calm and beautiful face was so full of pain it made his heart feel small. Her son was dead. She had given birth to him, and now he looked older than her, and he was dead. He felt his eyes fill with tears he knew were going to fall any moment, but he could not look away. It was too beautiful to let go. It didn’t even look like marble, but like some other substance more akin to living flesh, with the transparency and the soft glow of ivory, or of a perfect pearl. It seemed impossible that one man had actually carved that out of a marble block.
- Alec…? Are you all right? – Maurice’s voice sounded very soft and low, and very close. He shivered, and the enchantment was broken.
His first natural urge was to throw his arms around Maurice’s neck, hide his face and cry his heart out. That, of course, he knew he couldn’t do. There were others around, something he had entirely forgotten while admiring the statue.
- You knew this was here? – his voice was uneven, as if he had been crying.
Feeling how shaken Alec was, Maurice answered in a whisper.
- Yes, I saw it back in ’12. I left Clive talking about it and looked until I was certain I would never forget it.
- You could have warned me…! It nearly made me cry…
- No, I could not. There’s no way to prepare for this. It has to be seen. It has to be approached with no preconceived ideas. But you were much more touched by it than I was then. You are a wonderfully sensitive man; I was just pompous boy. You see now why I saved it for the last day?
- Oh, yes! After seeing this, nothing would look even remotely beautiful enough.
- I thought so too. Come. Let’s have lunch. There’s a beautiful chapel with frescoes, but it’s enough emotion for now. We will come back to Rome.
They had lunch outside, under the white umbrella of a sunlight terrace. As Maurice already knew would happen, Alec didn’t manage to eat much. He ate some of the olives and cheese, but mostly pushed his salad around the plate, and listened to Maurice as he told him all that he knew about the Pietá. That was Maurice’s way of giving him time to take it all in. He had come to learn how after a big aesthetic emotion, Alec was as tense as a violin string, he needed to work it out in his head, and talking about it was the best way.
- It’s the only work Michael Angelo signed, because there was some idle talk about how it had been done by someone else. He carved his signature on the ribbon across Mary’s chest, but the legend says he later regretted it and vowed never again to sign any work.
- But how could there have been doubts?
Maurice wrinkled his nose. It was just something he did before expressing his belief in how widespread meanness is.
- You know people will find motives to be mean and disdainful easily enough! And he was only twenty-three when he began it…
- Twenty-three!? – Alec swallowed a bit of mozzarella, nearly choking with surprise.
- I remember having been amazed at that as well. I was twenty-three when I saw it for the first time and I had done absolutely nothing.
- Most fellows have done nothing of significance by that age. This man was obviously very special. To me, it seems just about miraculous someone actually made it. I would believe if you told me it had sprung into existence, with no human intervention!
He pushed a small tomato around the plate for a while, before stating:
- This is the kind of thing everyone should have the opportunity to see at least once. I really don’t know how it could be done, but it ought to happen… It’s so sad to think about the millions who will live and die without even knowing it exists! It’s like they are being robbed…!
- That’s dangerously socialist, Alec! Even if you are probably right.
Maurice was now peeling a peach, something he could do with an amazing skill, without getting the delicate fruit squished or dribbling sticky juice down to his elbows, two things Alec was almost certain would happen to him in the same circumstance. He then cut it into pieces and gave the plate to Alec.
- You haven’t eaten a thing. Have this, I know you like it.
Alec thanked him not only with words, but with an affectionate look. The peach was delicious and he appreciated the fondness in the gesture. It was one of those subtle little things they frequently did for each other.
- Fancy this, we both sitting here talking about art… Who would imagine it? – he was finally relaxing, Maurice could hear it in his voice – I’m a far cry from my beginnings, and you didn’t pay much attention to beautiful things when you were surrounded by them.
- I think about that a lot. Maybe one has to mature a bit before really appreciating the beauty of things. I was so slow back then! I used to feel like I had some part of me missing. It was probably you…
Alec gave him another loving look, but kept his line of thought.
- Twelve years ago, we were committing ourselves to raising a new-born baby, learning it all from scratch. Fifteen years ago, we were nursing wounded soldiers, and desperately fearing that terrible war might never end.
Maurice was now silent, listening to Alec’s voice and taking in everything he said. Alec sighed before moving on.
– And twenty-one years ago, give or take a few months, we had never even seen each other… – he laughed very softly – Remember the grapes in the hothouse?
The terrace was full of people but nobody was paying any attention to them. They could just look into each other’s eyes in one of those moments of wonder, when their life together seemed almost too perfect to be true, and resurface knowing it was just like that, and it was real.
A SMALL NOTE:
Italian notebooks of the fascist era were rather ugly. Propaganda aimed at children is always revolting. See for yourselves:
1. For a moment, I thought of inserting a link to a photograph, but I share Maurice’s opinion (how bizarre!) that nothing can reproduce such beauty. The Pietá is one of those works of art you actually have to see with your own eyes. So, put it on your bucket list, it’s worth it!
2. Again, I transferred my own emotions before the Pietá to Alec.
Chapter 4: Berlin, Germany
June 1933 was probably a bad time to visit Germany. So, no tour of the museums this time, just Maurice and Alec to the rescue.
Maurice was surprised. Almost in shock. He had never been to Germany before but he had heard about it from others. He had heard things were changing, but nothing had prepared him for what he had found. This was nothing like he had heard, it was far worse.
The year before, in Rome, Alec had confessed a certain uneasiness, something he couldn't quite put his finger on, and Maurice had dismissed it. But in the morning after their arrival, looking at the street he could see from the hotel room window, he wondered if they shouldn't simply turn their backs and take the next train out of Germany.
And yet everything seemed normal on the surface. There were maybe a few too many flags, on their way to the Hotel they'd passed two different groups of uniformed children carrying flags and chanting, but it was a different country, things were bound to differ from home, even from Malta.
This time, he had the uneasy feeling and didn't want to let Alec out of his sight.
- I'm sorry, my dear, I know you'll be bored into a coma, but I don't trust these people. Please, come with me. It's just a quick drink and a few words with this fellow, and then we'll have a nice lunch, we'll see a museum or two and we'll be on the train to Paris first thing tomorrow morning.
Alec had fully agreed with the plan. He felt ill at ease too. Too many flags, too many uniforms, those strange letters everywhere, signs in shop-windows in German and some also in English, urging customers to buy from German stores and not from the Jewish.
So they called a cab, and left for Museum Island, where Maurice was going to meet some man, have a drink with him and receive something to take to Paris. And there, things changed drastically.
They met the man at the Museum's Kaffee. Maurice introduced Alec as his brother, and the man, Herr Schmidt (a dubious name, Alec thought, as he would have about any English presenting himself as Mr. Smith, but then again Maurice only met with crooks and dubious characters) introduced his companion as Doctor Goldfarb. They all sat around a small table and asked for Viennese Coffee, four scrumptious cups of strong coffee with whipped cream.
- Well, Mr. Scudder, I'll have to ask an extra favour from you. I'll meet you at the train station tomorrow, with the little packet you so kindly agreed to take, and two extra items.
- Two extra items?
It was the other man, Doctor Goldfarb, who answered.
- Two little girls.
Maurice's face became deadly pale when he retorted in a voice so forcefully controlled it actually sounded a bit tremulous:
- You were wrongly informed, Doctor. I don't trade people.
The older man smiled. He had been looking morose, but the smile showed a nice open face. He was younger than he seemed, around Maurice's age maybe.
- You got me wrong too, my friend. I am not asking you to trade people. The fact that you do not trade people is very reassuring to me. I am begging you to take my two daughters out of this country.
He lowered his voice, and spoke in a casual tone, not to attract any unwanted attention.
- I don't believe we can live in Germany for much longer. They burned books only last month, my friend. I believe they'll progress to people soon enough. I've had an excellent offer to work in England, and I intend to take it. I had the tickets bought, everything in order... but the unexpected happened. I have an urgent surgery to perform tomorrow. So, when my dear Schmidt told me he was meeting you, I decided to ask you this small favour.
Maurice was silently sipping his coffee. The man went on.
- Alma and Rose are children, they cannot travel alone. My wife is a nurse and is staying to assist me. The life of a young boy is at risk, his parents had to flee for their lives and were obliged to leave him behind.
Schmidt continued. His voice was low enough so no one would notice them.
- I'll add the two girls to your passport, as your daughters, it's easy to do. And in a week, at most, Doctor and Frau Goldfarb will join you in Paris with the little boy.
- As soon as he can travel, we will go. His poor parents must be so anxious!
Maurice was still silent.
- You will be paid for your services, of course...
- No? - the man's consternation was plain to see.
- No, I wont be paid. I'll do it, but I won't take your money. As I told you before, I don't trade people.
The man's face lighted again and he was clearly relieved. Maurice and Schmidt began discussing technicalities over their coffee. Alec looked attentively at the doctor.
- Your brother is a fine man. I'll feel one thousand kilos lighter knowing my girls are almost out of here. Do you have children, Mr. Scudder?
- A girl, Julie. She's thirteen – and he pulled his wallet to show Julie's photograph. The man did the same but took the photograph of the two little girls and discreetly gave it to Maurice.
- Keep it, my friend. You'll be expected to carry a picture of your children in your wallet , it will look far more natural when the guards ask for your documents in the train– and noticing Maurice's hesitation, he added – I have another just like this one.
Maurice studied the photograph. Two young girls, looking about Julie's age, smiled at the camera, genuine, happy smiles, that put dimples on their cheeks. They had long blond plaits and clear eyes. He would have no difficulty to pass them as his daughters.
- Schmidt, listen. Is it possible to have the girls taken to the hotel this afternoon? - and before the other could answer – Listen to me, it is not a whim. If I warn at the Hotel that my daughters will be arriving to meet me, let's say that they have been in school, and I came to Berlin to take them home... We actually have two double rooms. It will be much more plausible if they leave with us. Do they speak english?
Doctor Goldfarb smiled again. He seemed fascinated with the whole thing, and quite captured with Maurice.
- I see what you mean. You are right, it will look far more natural. And yes, they speak english. My wife was born in Canada. I'll have someone bring them to your hotel, let's say about six o'clock. Where are you staying?
Maurice gave him the address and the room number. Then he arranged the delivery of whatever he was going to take from Schmidt, and the two men got up to leave. As they were getting up, Alec said:
- This is ridiculous. Please, sit back and listen.
Wanting to avoid calling attention, Schmidt and the doctor sat back. Even Maurice was surprised.
- As I said, this is ridiculous. No, Maurice, let me...You cannot send two little girls away with a complete stranger. Two complete strangers as it is. It's insane! Maurice is a good man who would never harm a stray cat, let alone a child, but you have no way of ascertaining that. For all you know he could be a complete crook!
Goldfarb looked at him, a mix of genuine amazement and fear in his eyes.
- Germany in becoming a dangerous place for two young jewish girls, Mr. Scudder...
Alec looked straight into the man's eyes.
- I can see that. You are right in sending them to safety, I'm not discussing that. If my girl was living in Germany right now, I'd move heaven and earth to get her out of here. Just don't send them alone. Send their mother away with them. I'll stay behind.
- No! - Maurice's voice was perfectly low and under control, but his panic was still noticeable.
- I need my wife to assist me with the surgery. It's a very small private clinic, and there is no one who will assist a jewish surgeon operating on a jewish boy, and the child of a communist couple on top. My wife is a trained nurse.
- So am I - said Alec in his low, calm voice - I can easily assist you.
Alec held Maurice's hand under the table and squeezed hard.
- Think about Julie, Maurice. How would you feel if she had to be taken away from home with a complete stranger? - he waited a few seconds to let his words sink in – Take Frau Golfarb and the girls to Paris, Maurice. We will join you in a week. There is no danger. I am a british subject, all my papers are in perfect order, I will be in no danger.
- If Frau Goldfarb travels as your wife, you'll have absolutely no problems. An english family travelling, no one will look at you twice. Even your luggage will be totally uninteresting. It would be ideal!
Maurice could tell he had been beaten. Yet, he still felt absurdly scared. He and Alec had never been apart, never. He knew he was being irrational, but he was terrified. He forced himself to sound calm and casual.
- You are right, of course.
When Schmidt and the doctor finally left, all arrangements had been made. Alec would take a taxi to the clinic at seven p.m. Half an hour later, Frau Goldfarb and her girls would arrive at the hotel, with Schmidt, as Mrs. Scudder and daughters, to join their supposed husband and father, with their luggage ready for an early morning departure.
- Is this safe?
- Taking Frau Goldfarb and the girls with me? Perfectly safe.
- And the other thing? What are you taking this time?
Maurice was frowning, though Alec could see it had nothing to do with what he was supposed to carry across the border.
- Paintings. It's not even unlawful. There are quite a lot of good painters that are not very considered by the new regime, and they are threatening to destroying their paintings, so a few people sold them out to some french marchand. He knew I had planned this trip to Paris, and he knows I have been buying some paintings lately, so he asked me to stop here and contact Schmidt to take the paintings with me, and maybe see if I would be interested in buying one or two myself.
- Is his name really Schmidt?
Maurice gave him a flash of a smile and crinkled his nose.
- Not really. But I don't know his real name, witch is perfectly fair since he doesn't know mine either.
He was still terrified. Alec knew he couldn't help it. So, as he was packing a few things in a small bag, he advised:
- Don't sit there thinking about all the unbelievable horrors you feel that may happen to me while I'm not under your eyes. You have a whole lot of stuff, important stuff to see to.
It was sound advice, so Maurice sat by the phone and soon was engaged in what he was really good at – dealing with the impossible and getting it done. He warned the reception that his wife and daughters would be arriving around dinner time, and booked a dinner table for four. He then cancelled the tickets they had and booked two adjoint first class sleeping cabins on the Nord-Express for the next morning. He proceeded to order a cab for seven o'clock sharp, another one to deliver the bulkier luggage to the train station as early next morning as the train would take it, and a third one to carry the family. Alec, whose packing was done in less than half an hour, sat listening to him. He had never heard Maurice speak in such a cold commanding tone. Maybe it had to do with him speaking in German, he thought.
As soon as Maurice finished, the phone rang.
- It's my cab... - Alec picked up his bag.
- Wait... - Maurice was writing him a check – Take this, you may need it.
Alec glanced at the small slip of paper and laughed.
- I'm just staying at Doctor Goldfarb's for a week, Maurice, I'm not booking the Adlon's royal suite for a month.
- Use what you need. I'll feel less anxious knowing you have it. Come here... - he kissed Alec as if they were parting for life and then let him go and didn't even go to the window to watch him leave. He knew he would break down if he did.
There was little time to worry, for a few minutes later a call from the reception informed him that his wife and daughters had just arrived and were already on their way up, accompanied by Herr Schmidt. Maurice let them in, and Schmidt introduced the tall blonde woman.
- Frau Goldfarb, Mr. Scudder.
- Elsie, please, Mr. Scudder. If we are going to pose as husband and wife, we ought to be on first name terms, am I right?
Maurice made a half smile. She was rather beautiful, he thought, not in the way some women he had seen classified as beauties, but in a wholesome sense. She looked and sounded perfectly composed, thought he could guess she was quite bewildered underneath. He shook her hand.
- Maurice. You are absolutely right - he then looked at the little girls – And these must be Alma and Rose, yes?
- I am Alma – said the tallest of the two – and this is Rose. We are to call you Pappa, aren't we?
They were so close to Julie's age, they even dressed like her! How strange and frightening all the situation must be for them! His voice became as sweet as he could make it when he answered back.
- Just until we cross the border, my dear. And your Pappa will join you in just a few days.
- Well – said Schmidt – since everything seems to be in perfect order, I'll be going. Have a safe trip.
- Thank you so much for your kindness, Herr Schmidt.
- Is the packet quite safe? - Maurice asked.
- Perfectly. It's with the bulk luggage. Frau Goldfarb has no trunk so we put the pictures inside a trunk. Good-bye then.
- Good-bye and thank you. Please tell the doctor I'll wire as soon as we set foot in Paris.
He explained Frau Goldfard he had booked a table for dinner.
- It will be an extra for our little charade if we are to be seen dinning together as a family, an early dinner because we must leave so soon tomorrow.
He showed her to the next room and gave her the key to the connecting door.
- Please, feel free to lock the door at night. I understand how upsetting this must be to you, and I assure you that if you do lock the door I will not feel the least bit offended.
She smiled. Her voice was quite agreeable, he noticed, when she spoke back.
- You are so very kind, Maurice. I'm certain we can trust you completely, and Franz told me he had been very favourably impressed with you – she turned to the girls – Take off your coats and hats, my dears. Alma, help your sister fix her hair, you know how it gets undone when she's been wearing a hat. Wash your hands and get ready for dinner, will you?
The girls obeyed without the slightest hesitation, and left the room as their mother continued her talk with Maurice.
-Will you be staying in Paris?
- No, Franz had an excellent offer to work in London. We were ready to leave when these people asked for Franz's help. That's why we haven't any big luggage, it's all been sent to London.
- He must be a wonderful man...
- Oh, he is! He accepted at once to stay, and take care of the boy's surgery. His only concern was for the girls. So when Herr Schmidt told him he knew someone who might accompany them to Paris, he was so relieved! He was almost in tears when he told me that you had demanded to take me too and leave your brother behind instead...
- It was Alec's idea, really. I'm afraid I am too selfish to have thought about it... I must say, your girls seem to take all this remarkably well.
- They have been prepared to take this trip. I am more surprised than they are, really.
- Still, it is better they have you here. Children are surprisingly accommodating with the strangest situations, but I would hate to think of my niece depending on a complete stranger. She's about the same age as your girls – and seeing the two girls were ready – Shall we go down to dinner?
I twisted things a little. From what I could find out, the Nord Express left Berlin in the late afternoon and arrived in Paris early in the morning since the journey took about 12/14 hours. I made the journey a bit longer, that's all.
Chapter 5: Paris, France
Maurice didn't sleep. He didn't even try, he knew he wouldn't sleep properly until he had Alec back with him. Though he was certain there was no danger, he still felt nervous, anxious, as if he was leaving a part of himself behind.
Maurice didn't sleep. He didn't even try, he knew he wouldn't sleep properly until he had Alec back with him. Though he was certain there was no danger, he still felt nervous, anxious, as if he was leaving a part of himself behind. He lay on the bed, staring at the ceiling and trying to imagine where Alec might be and what would he be doing. He'd probably be resting, the surgery would only take place around lunch time next day.
The street lights reflected through the curtains, and gave the room an eerie yellowish glow. The silence was almost complete. One of his contacts had warned him about how changed Berlin was. He'd told Maurice that the vibrant nightlife had completely died down with the new regime. People were scared, and rightly so because their friends were disappearing. He had even uttered the name of a place, Dachau, and hinted about what was going on there, but it had sounded at the same time so gruesome and unbelievable that Maurice had dismissed it as impossible. Now he was inclined to believe all that and some more. In the end, he did close his eyes and dozed off for some half hour, only to wake up startled and face the sad reality: Alec was not there.
In spite of how nervous the two adults felt, the journey was boringly uneventful. The girls, feeling secure with their mother around, were delighted with the sleeping cabins and spent the first hour or so exploring all the clever contraptions they could find, with little «ahs» and «ohs» when a touch on a knob revealed a hidden sink, or caused a wooden panel to slide and show a mirror.
Frau Goldfarb did try two or three times to order her daughters to behave and sit down, but Maurice asked her to let them explore all they wanted.
- It's a long journey, they will get bored in the end.
- Mama, are we going to sleep on the train? - asked Alma.
- Yes, we are. We'll be arriving very early in the morning, but I have asked for them to let you sleep till a little later.
The girls looked thrilled beyond words and proceeded to further explore the beds and to discuss who would sleep on the upper berth. When that had been thoroughly debated and agreed upon, they sat by the window and since they had brought a small stash of books, they settled and read for most of the morning.
Maurice had a long talk with Frau Goldfarb, where he learned that she and her husband had met during the last months of the War, when he had been wounded and taken prisoner, and she had nursed him back to health and liked him at once, amazed at how civil and gentle he was, «not at all what I had been told about the “beastly huns”». They had married a few months after the Armistice.
- Had I known the way things in Germany would take and we would have settled in St. John at once – she confessed – But in '20 Germany seemed such an open society! And it was far easier for me to have my nursing qualifications recognized in Germany than it would have been for Franz to have his medical degree accepted in Canada.
They had lunch on the train's restaurant. The two girls were extremely well behaved and though they were plainly having the time of their lives, they never raised their voices and ate with impeccable manners.
During the long afternoon, Maurice did his best to lighten the atmosphere, and told stories of Julie and Giovanna's boys, and the cat, told them all about Malta and taught the girls to make paper aeroplanes, boats and birds. Yet, his anxiety must have been evident, because Frau Golfarb asked him more than once:
- You are worried about your brother, aren't you? - and when he didn't answer, she said – He is in no danger, I can assure you. I wouldn't have accepted his offer otherwise. But I do understand, I feel the same way about Franz.
She added that, if he hadn't accepted to accompany the girls, they would have stayed a few more days. It wasn't really dangerous to stay, she said, at least not yet, but Franz feared it might become so very soon.
- He was appalled by the book burnings. He quoted Heine to me when they did it, and I couldn't help being scared too. «Dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.» - she recited, and then translated - «Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings.» Franz had been listing the pros and cons of accepting the position he had been offered in England, but after that he had decided to say yes. He said he wouldn't have his daughters grow up in fear.
They dinned as soon as it was possible, to ensure the girls would go to bed early. They passed the border control at nightfall and their family passport was looked at, but no guard gave it a second look. Then, and as the bunks were really small so Elsie would not be able to share the girls compartment, she went in there to change clothes, while Maurice changed into his pyjamas in a hurry and climbed to the upper berth, to leave her as much as ease at it could be done under such extraordinary circumstances.
Nor Maurice nor Frau Golfarb slept a great deal. Both were feeling awkward and both feared for the loved one they had left behind. At the break of dawn, Maurice perceived, from her deep breathing, that Frau Goldfarb was asleep, so he got up very quietly, shaved and dressed in the minute toilet compartment, and left to have an early breakfast.
As soon as they arrived in Paris, he wired Alec from the post office at the railway station. He had booked rooms in a small hotel, where they were to wait for Doctor Goldfarb, Alec and the little boy that had been the innocent cause of all the havoc. The next day, a telegram from Alec informed that the operation had been a complete success, the patient was recovering very well, and they would be ready to travel in three days. Maurice felt as if a huge weight had been lifted from his shoulders, but knew he wouldn't be able to rest until he could actually see Alec.
- There...! - Elsie said with a smile, when he told her the good news – Now you can rest, knowing your Alec is perfectly safe. You two must be very close...
- We are... - he answered truthfully.
During the following days, he occupied himself as hard as he could. He slept poorly. He missed Alec. They had slept apart during the War, when they were working on different shifts, but that had been a minor inconvenience of wartime. And those had literally been the only nights they had ever spent apart. He wasn't lying when he complained he did not sleep without Alec. Of course he did sleep but it was uneasy, unrestful, light sleep, and every small sound woke him.
Every morning he could see Elsie wasn't sleeping any better. If he was so tremendously scared about Alec, who really was in no danger, he could barely imagine how anxious she must be feeling about her husband, who was in real danger from what Maurice had perceived.
He went out every morning, leaving the mother and the girls at the breakfast table, and always returned around lunch time and then he devoted the afternoons to them.
He took the paintings to the marchand, and ended up buying a remarkable painting by Egon Schiele. He liked some of the most unconventional ones, but he knew he couldn't hang them on the wall and wasn't going to buy a painting only to have to keep it hiding. So he bought a beautiful small portrait of the artist's wife. It had the kind of drawing and the vibrant colours he had liked about the painter's work.
Another morning he went to the hotel where they had planned to stay in the first place to pick up the mail, and he found a letter from Julie. It was addressed to Alec, so he kept it and did not open it. What he did was write a postcard home, to let them know everything was going well and to inform they would be staying a few days longer than they had planned.
In the afternoons, he accompanied Frau Goldfarb and the girls around the museums and the parks. Years of happy family life and the experience of being a parent had given him a completely new vision about women and young girls. He could now appreciate how wonderful a mother Elsie Goldfarb was, and how she shielded her girls from the worry she couldn't help feeling about her absent husband. He sometimes noticed her looking at him as if she was trying to assess how similar to hers was his own repressed worry. Once or twice he almost told her the truth, and when he didn't, it was not out of fear or mistrust but because he expected she had enough on her plate without being burdened with such a secret.
A week after their arrival, Maurice was woken up by the telephone. It was the reception desk, warning that Alec, Doctor Goldfarb and a little boy had just arrived. He jumped out of bed, told the reception man to send them up and knocked on the communication door to call Frau Goldfarb.
- They have arrived!
From the muffled sounds he could gather she was just putting on her dressing gown before opening.
- Oh, how wonderful! Now we can both rest! I'll call the girls...
The two girls were sleeping soundly having had a very tiring albeit very exciting tour of the Louvre the previous afternoon. Still, as their mother told them that Pappa had arrived, they both kicked back their bedclothes and excitedly put on their dressing gowns as well. When they stormed into Maurice's room thought the communication door, they found their father, Alec whom they only knew from Maurice's description, and a little boy of about seven or eight years old, thin and pale. Maurice was holding Alec in such a tight hug he was almost crushing him.
- Maurice, please, let me breathe... - were Alec's first words – I'm fine. Nothing happened to me...
And, as the doctor was kissed and hugged to death by his daughters, Alec introduced the little fellow that was looking at all the commotion with an astonished face.
- This is Jacob. He had a spot of trouble but he is now as good as new.
Though it was plain that the boy didn't understand a word of what Alec was saying, it was plain as well he trusted the man and liked him, for he smiled and said something in German.
- He says you were always with him, and never left his bedside – translated Elsie – He seems to think you have some kind of magic powers...
Alec gave the boy a wink. The little face opened in a big, childish smile, and he poured another cascade of German.
- I did stay with him – Alec admitted – He had no family to sit beside him and he looked so small and frail... and I couldn't sleep much, anyway...
Still slightly embarrassed for having jumped at Alec's neck with more enthusiasm than might be proper for a brotherly greeting, Maurice tried to put some order in the apparent chaos.
- Shall I order breakfast? You must all be starving. And shouldn't someone warn Jacob's parents? They must be frantic...! - and went on to actually order breakfast when he caught sight of Alec's all understanding and rather mischievous smile.
Heinrich Heine's quote in German and the translation (one of the many possible, and the one that made more sense to me) were taken from https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Heinrich_Heine
Chapter 6: Paris, France (2)
Paris in the summer rain and hardly a romantic line. 1933 was a bad year...
After the Goldfarb family had been safely seen to the train, and Jacob delivered to his very relieved and extraordinarily grateful parents, they were free for a couple of days, to wander around Paris. Maurice had done all he had to do during the mornings of that week of waiting, and they were completely free. They had Paris in late springtime and all the time in the world. It was a lovely sunny afternoon, the air was warm and sparrows were tweeting and hopping around. Yet, the first thing they actually did was to sleep. In each other's arms, yes, for the first time in ten days. None of them had slept properly during the previous week.
Alec had been the first to suggest it. As the train for London departed with the Goldfarbs on board, he had grumbled through a discreet yawn:
- I'm done in! I need to sleep a whole day at least!
He let out a deep sigh, and went on:
- First, there was the surgery to prepare. Then, I sat beside Jacob most of the time, so the good Doctor could pack his stuff and make his last arrangements. And, to tell you the plain truth, I felt kind of edgy. I only went out a couple of times, to have a coffee and to send you the wire, and I regretted it at once.
And seeing Maurice's inquisitive look, he added:
- I'll tell you afterwards. I promise... I'm just too tired to have a serious conversation.
So they took a cab back to their hotel, had a late lunch brought up to their room, asked not to be disturbed, went to bed at about tea time and fell asleep almost immediately. They had acquired the habit of falling asleep in an instant during the War, when each hour of sleep was precious and unpredictable, and Alec, because of his work, had never really lost it.
The late afternoon light grew dimmer and dimmer, then the room was submersed in a grey half darkness, then the street lights gave it an eerie half light, and through all those changes the two men slept deeply, Maurice spooning Alec, one arm over his friend, Alec holding Maurice's hand, the long-standing habit of half a lifetime together. Throughout the night they hardly moved. Once Alec moaned something, in some bad dream, and Maurice, still asleep, squeezed his hand and mumbled «I'm here... sleep...». It was enough to calm him down and none of them even awoke. They had had years of practice. As dawn approached and the horizon, at least the part of it visible through the tall narrow buildings across the street, grew clearer, Alec began to stir. Maurice had taught himself to be an early riser, but Alec had an internal clock that had never failed to wake him up at five in the morning at the latest.
As he woke, he was invaded by a wonderful feeling of completion, of deep inner peace. Closing his eyes, his memory took him back to their very first months together, when he had felt that same peace every morning, waking up in the thin grey light of the breaking dawn, feeling Maurice's heat by his side, and thinking «Maurice is here. We are together. It is real.».
Carefully, he stretched one hand out of the bedclothes to search for his watch. Two minutes past five. Outside their soft nest of blankets it was cold, and he put his arm back under the covers. He heard the patter of rain against the windows and smiled. He had the most wonderful memories of summer rain and a hotel room. And the saddest and most disturbing and heart-wrenching ones as well.
With the utmost care not to wake Maurice, he turned around to face him. As always, he was invaded by a warm wave of love, immense, overwhelming love. It may be true that beauty lies most in the eyes of the beholder, so in Alec's eyes, Maurice was the most beautiful man in the world even now, in his mid forties, his blond hair thinning, a few strands of silvery grey showing here and there, and putting on a little weight in spite of his valiant efforts to fight it. He would always be the most beautiful man in the world for Alec saw what nobody else could see.
Alec began to leaf through his mind book of memories. The first time he had ever seen Maurice, the manic way he had stood guard under the man's window, even under heavy rain, unable to forget his sad blue eyes and his lovely face. The night he had climbed the ladder to his room, and how shy and gentle Maurice had been then. The night they had spent together at the London hotel, and their heart breaking goodbye in the morning.
«That train journey back home, God, it was pure misery!», he remembered as he feasted his eyes on the sight of that beloved face, «I still can't figure out how I managed not to bawl my eyes out. The pain! It felt like someone had cut a piece out of me and left me maimed and bleeding... I couldn't stop thinking about him all alone in that hotel room, naked and hurt, looking back at me with those clear blue eyes. He looked so lost, so sad. Everything in me was screaming for that train to stop, to go back, to take me back to him... and yet I sat there, staring out of the window, and did nothing...»
- Hey...! - a sleepy voice brought him back to the hotel room and the warm if rainy early morning.
- Morning, love! How do you feel?
- Rested... happy... blessed for having you here... warm and snug, and in desperate need of some kissing and cuddling...
- Maybe we should bathe and dress, and go out to eat. It's raining, though...
Maurice stretched lazily and smiled.
- Hummmm, summer rain, how lovely! Brings all kinds of naughty memories to mind, doesn't it? Come here and greet me properly, will you? I've missed you so much!
They went out for lunch. As he walked out of the Hotel, Alec looked ahead, to catch a glimpse of Maurice standing on the glistening wet side-walk, holding an umbrella under the summer rain. He rolled back the film of his own life to superimpose the modern version to the old and dear memory. It was like a déjá vu only it wasn't. He had actually seen that before. He too had missed Maurice more than he could put in words.
Sharing an umbrella gave them the perfect excuse to walk close together. Maurice had enjoyed perfect sunny days to his business mornings and to his touring afternoons with Elsie and the girls, and he now welcomed the rain for the closeness it allowed them. Even in Paris, it was better to be discreet. They walked for a couple of blocks and sat in a little bistrot around the corner to Boulevard La Rochefoucauld, where they asked for two big bowls of thick, creamy onion soup, with crunchy croutons and melted cheese, a meal in itself, and two glasses of white wine. It was rather late and the other costumers, finishing their own lunches, hardly gave them a look.
- Now, I want to hear everything about your week! Mine was rather uneventful. Business in the mornings, walking the girls around in the afternoons, talking to Elsie to share our mutual worries and try to cheer up each other...
Dipping his spoon into the thick, steaming brown soup, breaking through the crust of half melted, half grilled cheese, Alec began:
- Mine was quite trying, on the other hand, even though I spent almost the whole time at the clinic. Even the doctor didn't go out much. On the second day, after the surgery was over, a friend of his brought him his personal luggage, so he wouldn't have to go home again...
He ate a few spoonfuls of soup.
- That bad, huh? - Maurice noted.
- That bad... - Alec agreed – That same day, I went to the post office to wire you the news. Mind you, it was just around the corner from the clinic's kitchen door, the one we used so not to attract unwanted atention. As I was waiting for my turn, mentally practicing my recently learned german phrases and hoping they would suffice, I saw through the shop-window two open trucks full of those brown-shirt fellows stop in front of a building just across the street. It was a small publishing house, someone told me later. So these brown-shirts... people actually nicknamed them «brown-shirts» and the real name is beyond my vocal range. Too many sillables!
He had another couple of spoonfuls of his soup. It tasted wonderfully after a week of hospital food, and was the right thing to have on a rainy day. Giovanna made some very good onion soup too, but in Malta it was rarely cold and wet enough for it to taste so comforting. They usually ended up sweating and having to undo their ties and shirt buttons afterwards. The wine was very good too, light and crisp, with a fruity note.
- This is delicious! Onion soup really needs cold and rain to taste this good! Well, as soon as they hopped out of the trucks, everyone in the post office receeded a bit, trying not to be seen from the outside and most looked away.
- What did you do? Nothing reckless, I hope...
- Of course not! You konw me, when in Rome... Anyway, I kept my low profile and receeded as well, but I also kept my eyes wide open. You wouldn't believe it! They went up the stairs to the first floor like a storm of guttural screams and thumping boots, threw papers, books and stuff through the open windows, must have wrecked the whole place by the sound of it, arrested the people that were inside, threw them in the most brutish way into one of the trucks, and left as swiftly as they had come, leaving a couple of thugs behind to burn the books and the papers, toghether with some pieces of broken furniture, and to stand guard. I can assure you that I've never felt so scared in my life...
He finished his soup and fished the last couple of soggy but deliciously tasty croutons from the bottom of the bowl.
- Oh, God, I had no idea it would be so dangerous! I should never have let you stay behind...
Maurice looked terrified. He actually seemed to have some difficulty in breathing properly. Alec held his hand under the table and felt it cold and clammy.
- Are you feeling well? - he asked, cautiously.
Maurice exhaled with a strange hissing noise but smiled in the end.
- Oh, yes, don't fret. It was just some kind of delayed shock, a panic attack or something along those lines. Silly thing, really, it's all past now. If I had known...
- Would you have left Elsie and the girls behind? I don't believe...
- You're right, I wouldn't. But I would have worried much more while waiting, that's certain.
- So it's all the better you didn't know.
And he said no more about the past few days. He said nothing about the conversation he'd had the following day with a young nurse, for it had been much more frightening than the scene he'd witenessed.
It had been past midnight, and they were alone in the little nurses' lounge. There were only two patients spending the night and both were sound asleep. The girl, in her mid twenties, could have sat as model for the picture of the exemplary nurse. Tall and slim, a perfect oval face, grey blue eyes and blond hair done in two thick braids wound around her head like a crown, her white uniform perfectly fitted and pressed. She seemed so perfect that Alec might have suspected her if Doctor Goldfarb hadn't introduced them on the very first night and assured Alec, afterwards, that Nurse Horst was the best person in the world and had no simpathy for the new regime. «Being pretty, blond and blue eyed doesn't make you a nazi, you know?», he'd told Alec «She hates the whole thing, but what can she do on her own? Still, she helps whenever she can, in spite of being afraid.»
- You looked quite taken aback when you returned from the Post Office... - her english was rather good, though she had a noticeable accent and sometimes seemed to struggle for the right words – You saw the brown-shirts when they closed down the publisher across the street, didn't you? They are very scary...
- I'm a foreigner here, I'd never presume to judge... - he answered cautiously – It looked somewhat drastic, though...
She looked around, went up to the door to listen, then came back and sat next to him, lowering her voice to a faint whisper.
- They are inhuman brutes. People are terrified of them. Only last week, two friends of mine were taken away, brutally beaten and told to get out of Germany fast if they wanted to leave the country alive. They were both English. - a few tears had rolled down her perfect cheeks – The brown-shirts ran over Val's right foot with a truck, besides breaking a couple of Martin's teeth. When Martin threatened to complain to the British Embassy, they laughed and told them they were certain no diplomat would give a damn about two fucking queers.
The whole story was too gruesome, and Alec wouldn't have believed it if he had not seen the fellows in action. Still, his heart had skipped a few beats at that final remark.
- I'll be away in three days. I don't think anyone besides you has even noticed me.
- I know. I wasn't threatening you, I wasn't even warning you. I just needed to talk to someone. You see... Valentine, my friend, is a dancer. His career ir over now, he'll never be able to dance again. I assisted Doctor Goldfarb and although the doctor did his best, the foot was broken in three different places.
She had wiped her tears and smiled bravely.
- I'm glad you are going away to safety. I'm glad Doctor Goldfarb is going to England. I only wish I could do the same! But I cannot, all my life is here, all my family... besides I'm german, I have blond hair and blue eyes, no jewish ancestry and I am of childbearing age, so they'd never allow me to go away, even if I wanted to leave everything and everyone behind, which I don't.
Alec knew Maurice would have been scared to death with such a story, so he kept it to himself. But he never forgot it. He emptied his glass, and tried to sound as cheerful as he could.
- Well, it's all behind us now! We needn't give it another thought, right? - and before Maurice could answer, he added – Look, it stoped raining. Let's walk a bit, maybe buy some notebooks for Julie, she loves french notebooks. And after that, I want you to take me to the Louvre. I know you've already taken Alma and Rose, but I've never been there, and it seems a pity to come to Paris and miss the Louvre...