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Extract from Still Life

In a wood, somewhere between Staggia Senese and Poggibonsi, Allied
troops were waiting to enter Florence. Dusk was looming, and through
the trees came the sound of an accordion stolen from a factory near
Standing by his jeep, peering into a broken mirror with the lower
half of his face covered in soap, was a young man. He was running
the blade carefully across his upper lip, avoiding the scar that had
risen two years before.
He had blond hair that revealed a hint of red under the early evening sun.
No one in the family knew where the red had come
from, both sides being dark, and his father often joked that the winter
his son was conceived, he’d eaten his fill of beetroot. You were stained,
his father liked to tell him.
His features were his mother’s: straight, slender nose, slightly longer
than the required ratio of hairline to bridge, or chin to tip, that would
have signified a face in perfect symmetry. Eyebrows at an upward angle
conveyed a good listener, and his ears, though not wildly protruding,
were definitely alert. When he smiled, which he did often, a dimple
appeared in either cheek, which was immediately disarming.
His wife, Peg, said he should’ve been better looking seeing as he’d
inherited all his mum’s best bits. She’d meant it as a compliment, but
her words danced both ways, hot and cold, kind and cruel, but that
was Peg. Unknown to everyone, his apotheosis would come in later
years. He would be a fairly handsome middle-aged man. An eye-catching
elderly man.
The squeal of birds overhead delighted him. He and they had
travelled hundreds of miles north against all odds to arrive at that
place in time – swifts at the end of March and him in June – and
the catalogue of near misses, or lucky escapes that had accompanied
his journey across Africa, Sicily and up the Adriatic would have
astonished priests and astrologers alike. Something had been watching
over him. Why not a swift?
He looked at his watch and rinsed his face. He threw his pack and
rifle into the jeep just as Sergeant Lidlow was coming out of the mess
Where you off to, Temps?
Picking up the captain, Sarge.
Bring us back a bottle or two, will you?
Ulysses turned the ignition and the old jeep caught first time.
He drove into the hills, leaving behind the silhouettes of tanks and
men. He passed different Allied divisions, young men like him worn
old. The soft light moved with him across the groves and meadows,
until the sky held only ripples of pink and the night chasing in from
the west. He’d tried to practise ambivalence towards this country, but
it was futile. Italy astonished him. Captain Darnley had seen to that.
They’d travelled up the country together, mostly reconnaissance, but
sometimes mere wandering. Through remote villages, seeking out
frescoes and hilltop chapels.
A little over a month before, they’d driven up to Orvieto, a city
built on a huge rock overlooking the Paglia Valley. They’d sat on the
bonnet of the jeep and drunk red wine out of their canteens as bombers
roared overhead towards Mount Cetona, the boundary of Tuscany.
They’d stumbled into the cathedral, into the San Brizio chapel, where
Luca Signorelli’s masterpiece of the Last Judgement could be found.
Neither of them believers, the images had still held them to account.
Darnley said that Sigmund Freud had visited in 1899 and had
somehow forgotten Signorelli’s name. This he’d called the mechanism
of repression and it became fundamental in Freud’s The Interpretation
of Dreams. God – but you probably know this already, don’t you,
Temps? And not waiting for an answer, Darnley marched out into the
crisp June sun, leaving Ulysses giddy in the whirl of information, and
in Darnley’s unwavering belief in him.
The road straightened out and from the trees in the distance, a
glint of light flickered across his face. He slowed and came to a stop
with the engine running. He reached down for his binoculars and saw
it was a woman standing by the roadside watching him through hers.
She waved him down with an unlit cigarette, and when the jeep
came to a halt, she cried, Oh thank God! Eighth Army?
Just a tiny fraction of it, I’m afraid, said Ulysses, and she held out
her hand. I’m Evelyn Skinner.
Private Temper, said Ulysses. Where’ve you come from, Miss
Skinner, if you don’t mind me asking?
Rome, she said.
What? Now?
Good Lord, no! From that albergo behind the trees. Came up a
week ago with a friend and stopped off in Cortona to assess the damage
to the Francesco di Giorgio. Miraculously, untouched. We’ve been
waiting ever since.
Waiting for what?
I’m trying to contact the Allied Military Government.
For what purpose, Miss Skinner?
To liaise with the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Officers.
They know I’m here, but they seem to have abandoned me. I’m an
art historian. I thought I could be of use once they’ve located all the
works from the museums and churches. They’ve been sequestered
around these hills, you know. All the masterpieces. The whole gang
– even dear old Cimabue. But I suppose you know that, don’t you?
Ulysses smiled. I did hear a rumour, Miss Skinner.
Do you have a light? she asked.
I wouldn’t recommend it. Look what happened to me, and he pointed
to the scar at the corner of his lip. Sniper, he said. A near miss.
Evelyn stared at him.
But it hit you, she said.
But not the important bit, he said, tapping his head. Nearly took
my lips off, though. Then where would you be?
Struggling with my plosives, Private Temper. Now light me up.
Ulysses leant across and struck a match.
Thank you, she said, blowing out smoke in a perfect circle. She
raised her arm and looked about. See? No snipers. So, do you think
you can help me? I’ll be no trouble at all. And my lips, still perfectly
intact, will be forever sealed. What do you say?
You’re putting me in a bit of a bind, miss.
Oh, I’m sure you’re no stranger to that.
Do you believe in fate, Miss Skinner?
Fate? It is a gift. According to Dante, anyhow.
A gift? I like that. Come on then, miss, hop in.
Oh, drop the ‘miss’, for God’s sake, said Evelyn, sitting down next
to him. My name’s Evelyn. And yours?
Ulysses! How wonderful! And is there a Penelope waiting for your
Nah. Just a Peggy. And I doubt she’s waiting, and he turned the
ignition and the jeep pulled away.
The rogue shelling that had accompanied the afternoon had ceased
and a soft, almost believable, peace lay across the wooded hills and
hilltop refuges, across the dark symmetry of vines that terraced the
Ulysses lit a cigarette.
So, said Evelyn, tell me a little—
London. Twenty-four. Married. No kids.
Evelyn laughed. You’ve done this before.
You gotta be quick, right? Could be dead tomorrow. You?
Kent. Sixty-four. Unmarried. Childless. And what of life before all
Globes, he said. Dad made ’em and I sold ’em. Then he died and
I just made ’em.
You made the world turn!
Find a Temper & Son globe and you’ll find my mum’s name hidden
somewhere on the surface.
A town called . . . ? she asked.
How romantic.
Nice, right?
You and Peggy like that?
Nah, me and Peg are the opposite. Left to me, I’d name stars after
her. We got married on a bender, only way we could do it. When she
woke up and saw the ring, she punched me in the face. Happiest day
of my life, though. Then I joined the Army and we’re strangers again.
Don’t you write to one another?
He shook his head. We know what we’re both up to, he said. Thing
is, it’s always been us when the others have left. Always that spark
when the lights have gone out. Is that love?
Oh, don’t look at me. I’ve not stayed long on that particular horse.
Once or twice, maybe.
Once is enough. We just need to know what the heart’s capable
of, Evelyn.
And do you know what it’s capable of?
I do. Grace and fury.
Evelyn smiled, and drew heavily on her cigarette.