Everything you never knew

about Mussolini,

submarines

and Italian coffee.

9781946409942-HisMostItalianCity-proof.j

Artist  Danijel Frka

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Fascist Italy 1928

Trieste, once the port of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, has become Italian. As fascism strives violently to create a pure Italy along its streets, Matteo Brazzi is forced to choose his loyalties with care. When his office is bombed, the police are baffled, but Brazzi knows who committed the crime, and he knows why. Though he is no seaman, he can easily identify the dark shape that disappeared into the Gulf of Trieste that dramatic night and, as he escapes to Cittanova in Istria, the mysterious vessel follows him down the coast.

Brazzi has successfully exploited fascism to protect himself - many people would call him a traitor - but he’s only ever had one real love. Now Nataša is dead and Brazzi owes his share of the blame. Too soon he discovers that not even Mussolini

can save him from an enemy who is bent on revenge.

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    'But worse, far worse than the stink, the machinery and his deteriorating self-perception was the need to leave this enclosure immediately: to escape the lowering ceiling and forge his way up to the sky. With the claustrophobia arose the conviction that there were not two people squashed into this iron cupboard but three. The third, an intangible menace, had arisen as he’d sloughed off his unconsciousness. Down the brief passage it had accompanied him, through the bulkhead and into the control room, and now it settled above his head, threatening and malevolent. By devious means it attacked his heart which began to thud wildly within his chest. Then it strangled his breathing. The weak tungsten globe fading in the clutch of its wire cage seemed like the last sliver of twilight and, as night closed in, the presence focused itself upon him. He felt as if he were travelling along a tunnel searching for daylight, with this awful phantom clinging to his back, and, at each moment, he anticipated the approach of the sunshine that would subdue it. But he saw no end to the tunnel. And no sun. And so the fear and the panic proliferated. It was distressing to think that he, a product of a comfortable home and a good education, had been reduced so rapidly to this desperation. The presence hovered just beyond his recognition so that he was unable to name it, but when he closed his eyes he saw its face melting like ice in a flame.'

Chapter One

 

Traveller, if you seek the finest coffee, disembark at Trieste. Back in the days when it was the port of the Austrian Empire, people said it resembled a tear weeping from the map of Italy, looking for its motherland. So at the close of the Great War, in a gesture of atavistic compassion, the Allies handed it over without objection, though its proximity to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes made it the focus of the Fascist Party.

 

Signor Matteo Brazzi ran a business in this city importing coffee from Brazil and he had an eclectic assortment of other incomes that he preferred not to advertise. When he read in Il Piccolo, Trieste’s right wing newspaper, that ‘holy Italy was rising again in history’ he sniffed the winds of change and became a card-carrying Fascist faster than he could down an espresso. Such was the feeling of patriotism in the Italian peninsula.

 

Signor Brazzi was not particularly patriotic but, like all good businessmen, he put profits first. On the whole, he was quite pleased with the benefits his change of allegiance had brought him in this respect until, one night in April 1928, someone broke the front window of his office and set the timer on an incendiary bomb. An angry young Slovenian thrust the device through the opening in the glass and, as the minutes ticked down to zero, three men hurtled through the sleeping streets to escape by sea.

 

For an instant the city held its breath until an amber flash winked from a quiet street and a sliver of sky below the Old Town reflected a growing apocalypse. To many Triestini, the blaze brought to mind the violent years following the war, when fascism had been working to secure its hold over this most easterly outpost of Italy. In five seconds the handwoven carpet beneath the bomb was smoldering in earnest, in thirty seconds the raw silk curtains from China were well alight and, a mere eight minutes later, Brazzi’s exquisitely decorated ground floor, his pride and joy, had been reduced to glowing rubble.

 

At about the same time, three hours past midnight to be precise, Brazzi tiptoed through his front door so as not to disturb his wife, after an evening of passion with – oh, what was her name? – and, as his office was blazing away, he was experiencing no more disquiet than a difficulty falling asleep on the sofa.

 

The suggestion of alarm within the city occasioned by the bells and fire trucks, and the not unpleasant aroma of burnt natural fabrics, wafted away in the background while he, flat on his back, found he was quite unable to roll over without his one-piece underwear either strangling his groin or boring a ridge into his shoulders, and the wool itched like chicken pox. It was supposedly the latest fashion: ‘Tailor-made from pure Australian merino, manufactured in Manchester for the pleasure of the discerning gentleman.’ – he had bought it when he still believed what was written on the label – but he only discovered in the small hours how uncomfortable it was to sleep in.

Finally, he cursed the offending undergarment for the circus act it was and fell asleep from sheer exhaustion, with the underwear half on and half off, clutching a bundle of blankets to his chest to keep out the spring chill.

 

At the terse knock on the door he swore as the wool wrapped itself around his trunk, and he lurched from the sofa with the dignity of a performing bear. Dignity had not been high on his list of priorities when he’d gone to sleep. He opened the door.

 

There on his threshold stood a red-faced sergeant with cinders in his eyebrows who conveyed the terrible tidings in a measured monotone while Brazzi’s uncomprehending eyes roamed the sitting room. Only the rumpled blankets on the sofa disturbed its understated pretentions.

 

‘Who did it?’ he at last managed to gasp.

 

‘Perhaps you have enemies, Signor Brazzi?’ suggested the sergeant.

 

‘Me?’ Brazzi blushed quickly. ‘Enemies?’

 

Yet even as he said it his eyes were becoming resigned.

 

‘So the perpetrators may be known to you?’ the policeman asked.

 

Brazzi shook his head and exhaled fitfully. Though the policeman’s lungs were full of fine ash particles, he kept his breathing calmly under control. Before the light from the shaded bulb the dawn retreated and the waning night pressed in on the room. The policeman observed Brazzi shrewdly, for it seemed to him that he looked as isolated as if he were alone in the universe. Fleeing from him into the bedroom, Brazzi re-emerged half-robed along with a dark-haired woman bleary with sleep who struggled to assist him into the arms of a dressing gown. Brazzi waved her away and she shot him a hurt look but remained where she was.

 

'We chased the perpetrators to one of the piers beyond the building of the Port Authority,' added the officer quickly to spare himself embarrassment and to emphasize the efficiency of the police force. ‘Where they escaped by boat.’

 

'By boat?' 

 

'A slim boat, signore. Our officers fired at it but it disappeared into the darkness off the end of the pier. One minute it was there, the next it was gone.'

 

'What do you mean, the next it was gone?’ Brazzi clutched at a love bite on his neck. ‘What boat doesn’t leave a wake?'

 

'We heard the shots hit the cabin, signore. That is all.'

 

'And then it disappeared?' 

 

'The port was very dark.'

 

And the seascape of Trieste a broad black abyss. Brazzi riveted a trembling thumb upside down into his mouth until his bottom teeth hammered away at the nail.

 

It couldn't be him, surely. Not after all this time.

 

'You seem upset, signore,' observed the officer.

 

'The bombing has upset me, naturally.’

 

The officer inclined his head. ‘Si, signore, naturally.’

 

'Matteo,' begged the woman, ‘please tell me what this is all about.’

 

The sofa, the blankets and their implications of adultery had relegated the pretty little wife to a dispossessed expression of concern in her own home. She looked fragile and swollen about the breasts and the officer, who had four children himself, wondered if she was pregnant. Busy man, he thought. 

 

'Go back to bed, Angelica!' Brazzi shoved the thumb behind his back. ‘Sergeant, how do the police propose to hunt down the perpetrators of this crime?’

 

‘The perpetrators would be wild Slovenian youths with a grudge against Italians,’ the policeman said with a shrug.

 

‘Given the number of Slovenes in this city, it usually is. Don’t worry, Signor Brazzi. There is no longer an emperor and there is no longer an empire. Austria can’t protect the Slovenes in Trieste any more.

 

'By the way...’ – he paused with a hand on the door – ‘I loved your last article in Il Piccolo, “Trieste è la città Italianissima”. Great title. It is the most Italian city now.’

 

Brazzi drew himself up to his full height. With his hat on he’d be nearly up to the man’s forehead.

 

‘Flatter me some other time!’ he stuttered. ‘What about my safety?’

 

‘Your safety?’ The cool brow creased. ‘Of course you are safe from the Slovenians, signore. We’ll get them. You must be aware of Italian ravages on their property? I have seen your name repeatedly in the newspapers and I assumed you were helping.’

 

‘Yes, yes. I help when they ask me.’

 

‘Often?’

 

‘When they ask. As I said.’

 

‘Then you don’t have confidence that Mussolini can protect you in the same way? The perpetrators of this crime will

be locked up in the San Marco prison in Venice with the rest of their agitators, signore, or sent to Sardinia. Or they’ll be hung.’

 

He opened the door, but Brazzi restrained him. 

 

‘You said three men were seen running towards a pier? It may be that your officers could identify one of them.’

 

The officer regarded him.

 

‘One in particular?’

 

‘Yes,’ mumbled Brazzi. ‘No, but can’t a better description be found than “three men”?’

 

‘Two ran faster than the third.’

 

‘And who was the third?’

 

‘I told you, signore, at this stage we don’t know.’

 

The officer departed, leaving Brazzi rolling in hopelessness, as if a time tunnel had opened at his feet and was leading him backwards. Just when the past had seemed closed. He began to dress, but the drawn out process, which usually gave him so much pleasure, had been spoiled and now he watched himself adjusting his silk tie in his mirror with all the enjoyment of a cat in the rain.

 

The clock on the mantelpiece read half past five. He couldn’t eat, but to calm his nerves he had smoked two cigarettes and woken up the dozing Angelica to percolate him an espresso. Now he stood, in a brittle temper, looking out the window of their apartment onto the waterfront, waiting for the sun to rise so that he could go down and inspect the damage. In the vague pre-dawn a cargo ship approached the harbor from across the Gulf of Trieste and a squat dredger raced behind it towards the Old Port. Even though it was so early the passenger piers had finished with the first morning’s traffic and the Audace pier extended, as empty as a wilderness, far out into the water, with only two small coastal steamers and a police launch tied to three of its many cleats. A long, long pier strolling back in towards the city and at its end the massive bulk of the Austrian commercial buildings that Austria didn’t need any more.

He watched as the first sunbeams struck the harbor, polishing the dusky gray water and bringing it to life. He imagined without excitement passengers travelling across the gulf to Venice or down the Istrian coast, while he watched the flags rise on Government House and heard the bells ringing for early Mass, until there was nothing else for it but to go down and see what remained of his office. 

 

The first sign of the fire was the water lying in puddles on the footpath and trundling down the gutter. Coming towards him from the building itself floated fragrant ashes, behind them the harsh reek of oil and varnish. A truck parked in the street had caught fire and there were, in addition, wafts of smoke from its scorched tires. Aside from several blackened windows in the offices directly opposite and above his own, the damage did not extend beyond the ground floor of his building, and Brazzi stood observing the destruction of beauty with the taut face of a trainer who has just lost his prize racehorse.

 

Ten meters away, beyond his charred desk and the skeleton of its chair, a detective and a young constable probed the still smoldering ruins.   

 

‘Does anyone know where they came from?’ Brazzi shouted to the detective. ‘From the harbor? From the docks?’

 

The man stumbled across a blackened floor while wood paneling transformed to charcoal crumbled in his path.

 

‘No one heard them come in.’ The crisp bass voice implied it was all in a day’s work.

 

The morning breeze squeezed between the old imperial buildings, seeking space. Finding none, it trickled away through Brazzi’s broken windows. Such a solid place, Trieste.

 

‘An entire harbor and no witnesses! How it that possible?’

 

‘We’ve made enquires up and down the sea front.’ The detective sounded bored. Better investigate an assault on the government than a small-time operator like Brazzi. ‘Planning has gone into this. This is not the work of impulsive young men, Signor Brazzi.’

 

‘But this morning the sergeant said wild young Slovenians…’

 

The detective interrupted him.

 

‘We found the remains of an incendiary bomb inside with a timer attached to the detonator,’ he stated brusquely, as if he had no time for Brazzi’s protests, as indeed he hadn’t. ‘This has been planted by someone with military knowledge. They didn’t just smash the window and hurl in petrol.’

 

‘So what now?’

 

‘A lot rests on you,’ said the detective. ‘Signore.’

 

There it was again, that significant pause and its relationship to Brazzi. This man in his shop-bought suit and pedestrian tie was implying that Brazzi knew more than he was letting on.

 

‘No one I work with is in the armed forces,’ Brazzi insisted regally.

 

The detective examined a tiny flake of ash soiling his cheap lapel – clearly he didn’t believe him – and checked his wristwatch.

 

‘Then perhaps someone you used to know.’ A tram rattled down the hill and the milkman hurried past with his horse and cart and a glance at the destruction. The city was waking up. The interview was over. ‘When a crime scene presents with excess passion or a degree of unwarranted care and foresight, Signor Brazzi, the explanation is always found close to home.’

Brazzi evacuated his devastated premises like an army in flight and began pacing up and down the Piazza Unità, to the waterfront and back, until he was wheezing and dizzy and couldn’t pace any more. The clock on the Town Hall dragged its hands towards the hour. Not yet eight o’clock! Even time had turned against him. He realized that he had started looking back over his shoulder, so utterly had the police convinced him that the perpetrators were people he knew, to whom he had an accountability. Truly, he had come to believe it himself, as if he had constructed a desperate plot against himself and put one man at its head. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy. A warped revenge.

 

Yes, that’s exactly what it would be. It was interesting, also, that, by a division just as diabolical, he seemed to have reduced the three men to one. Not perpetrators, perpetrator. Men who made money always had enemies, but Brazzi could not explain his conviction that it was this one enemy in particular. The police had said that he left by sea? So? Trieste was a seaport, no surprise there. All the observation had really done was jog his memory of a man he would rather forget and the heartache he had forgotten with him. Had he forgotten it? Well, he had loved and lost, so perhaps he hadn’t quite, and those days when he might have been redeemed were behind him. So the desperate soul-searching continued without resolve, until finally it was nine o’clock and the commencement of the business day. Without further delay he headed towards the offices of the Fascist Party, where he hoped someone might help him without the subtle intimation that it was all his own fault.

                                                                                                *****

 

Francesco Giunta, Mussolini's right-hand man, rose to greet him from behind a roll-top desk so beautiful that Brazzi, even in his agitated state, felt tempted to make an offer for it. Yet it was the office of a military man and well ordered even so. An ink well, a quill, three nibs and a blotter were arranged upon the desk beside writing paper and envelopes, and labeled files waited neatly in chronological order on a bookshelf beneath the window. Framed upon the wall was a map of northern Italy, proudly swelled along its eastern borders by the Slav-filled territories acquired from Austria since the war.

 

Within the present government, Giunta had a well-deserved reputation as a superb organizer. He had read the preliminary police report on the attack on Brazzi’s premises and now stood eyeing the elegantly tailored coffee merchant trembling in front him, before straightening his mouth and commencing a grave discourse on the danger of the Slavic races to Italian purity.

 

‘And now you, signore,’ he concluded, ‘have seen the atrocities of these barbarian Balkan criminals for yourself.’

 

‘Good,’ blundered Brazzi before recollecting himself. Such a slip would not shift the limelight from him. ‘Though it has not yet been proven that the bombing was the work of the Slovenes.’

 

‘The Slovenes in Trieste are antagonistic towards Italy, Signor Brazzi. The Party has been very pleased with your actions against them on our behalf, but perhaps you are not aware of the scale of the Slavic threat in the territories redeemed by Italy?’

 

‘Like Trieste?’ blurted Brazzi.

 

‘Trieste was always Italian, Signor Brazzi.’ It was just possible to detect menace in the evenness of the reply. ‘I was referring to Istria. We could possibly have an opening there for an honorable fascist. How would you like to serve il Duce in Istria?’

 

‘You mean to integrate its Slovenes and Croats into Italian society?’

 

‘Assimilate, signore, not integrate.’

 

‘But I haven’t decided to leave, Signor Giunta,’ gabbled Brazzi with a weak smile. Seeking help from Francesco Giunta might have been a fundamental error. ‘Not entirely. I am a loyal Italian and I love Trieste. In fact, I would state without qualification that I am a city man. This bombing has unnerved me… What I was hoping for from the Party was reassurance … Yes, “reassurance” is entirely the word I was looking for.’

From beyond the window he heard the splash of a fountain, the squeals of local children playing in its water.

 

‘I require a man on the ground,’ Giunta went on while Brazzi backed against the door. ‘Begin by changing surnames so that they sound Italian. I don’t anticipate you will have any problems; in every Slavic name there is an Italian root.’

 

Certainly Giunta possessed an attractive degree of hubris, though Brazzi hesitated to call him narcissistic. He watched as Giunta smoothed an erudite finger from the arch of one temple down the side of his nose. Licking his lips would have been just as effective, and Brazzi wondered what sort of woman was waiting for him at home and her expectations when he walked through the front door.

 

Maybe he should get away for a while? Perhaps if he went somewhere where his name wasn’t written on his door, nothing worse would happen to him. He would be running away, yes, but would he phrase it in quite those terms? A short break… Business interests?

 

And then his eyes fell on the police report lying on the desk. Giunta hadn’t even bothered to conceal it. ‘Destruction of commercial premises. Perpetrator known to victim. Wasteful employment of the police.’ Unstated: a public nuisance. And below the words he saw a list that included several of his associates known to police, but not the one name he was thinking of.

 

They were trying to get rid of him.

 

‘I’m happy to see you have no objections, Signor Brazzi,’ observed Giunta, nonchalantly raising his quill.

 

He didn’t take the trouble to look up and acknowledge Brazzi’s mounting panic. He dipped his quill in the ink well. He was writing, he mentioned with the vagueness of his disinterest, to fellow soldier Giuseppe Monfalcon in Cittanova, a popular tourist resort of the old Austrian Empire, to say that he was appointing Matteo Brazzi to be the fascist mayor of the town and his representative in eradicating any residual Slavic culture in the area.

 

‘You will have the help of the Prefect of Pola,’ concluded Giunta as he blotted the letter. ‘And I know you can rely on him. Hand this to my secretary as you leave.’

 

Brazzi was amazed he didn’t ask him to post it on his way home.

 

                                                                                                *****

 

He opened his front door to noises of commotion coming from the bathroom. From the random flaps and thuds, he thought at first that a bird had flown in through the open window and was unable to get out. One flap had scarcely started when the next thud began, and when he went to investigate, swearing a little under his breath, Angelica stumbled out, one hand clutched rigidly to her abdomen, her face convulsed with crying.

 

Wearily, he confronted her.

 

‘What is it, Angelica?’

 

‘Matteo,’ she moaned, ‘I’m bleeding. Again.’

 

Not right now. He couldn’t manage anything else, now. He stormed over to the new telephone on the hall table, hoisted it up in front of her, then brutally slammed it back down.

 

‘Telephone your mother!’ he snapped.

 

Then he remembered the inlaid wood. Ah, what had he done? Abandoning his wife to her inglorious howling upon the tiles, he examined the surface of the small table, relieved to see that the intricate pattern had survived his tantrum undamaged. He dusted it down, then carefully replaced the telephone.

 

                                                                                       *****

 

Capitano Giuseppe Monfalcon was accustomed to being feared. It was a leftover from his involvement in the Great War and he couldn’t shake the attitude. As an officer of the Arditi, the elite Italian forces, he had waged bitter trench warfare on the Southern Alps against the soldiers of Austria and Hungary. He was brave, as he had had to be, for they had given him the most risky assignments, though he had never been the fine specimen of Italian man expected of that daring force. He carried his shoulders too far forward, in the attitude of a bulldog, his face was puckered at the edges through conspicuous valor, and he did not have the firm mouth expected of heroes. But something of the physical prowess of the Arditi lingered in the bearing that still suggested he was about to leap into a trench with a dagger between his teeth.

 

Teresa Urizio was terrified of him. He reminded her of a vulture. He had the height and the stoop, and seemed just as omnipresent when seen from below.

 

‘I have had a letter from the Party in Trieste,’ he had explained, looming over Teresa while she struggled to gather herself together – he was offering her a job, after all – ‘requiring me to employ a cook and a maid for one of their members, whom they are sending us. And you are a good cook and gregarious, Signora Urizio.’

 

‘Thank you,’ answered Teresa, ‘but there are dozens of other women like me in Cittanova.’

 

‘You speak Italian and they don’t.’

 

‘I learned a bit from the tourists, Signor Monfalcon, that’s all.’

 

‘Nevertheless, I feel that you would be the ideal fascist welcoming party.’

 

‘What’s fascist?’ quavered Teresa.

 

‘We are all fascists,’ beamed Monfalcon. Her fear was very pleasing. ‘Mussolini says that if you are Italian, you’re a fascist.’

 

This had Teresa stumped but she remembered her manners.

 

‘Would you thank Signor Mussolini for me?’ she replied politely. ‘I’ve only just got used to being Italian.’

Monfalcon patted her on the shoulder, even though Teresa was older than he was.  

 

‘Urizio is an Italian name.’

 

‘But my father was Vellovich,’ explained Teresa. ‘And you still haven’t told me what fascist means, Signor Monfalcon.’

 

‘A fascist is someone who looks after Italy, Signora Urizio.’ 

 

‘Well, I don’t know whether I can do that, but I can cook. So when do I start?’

 

‘When the boat gets in, signora. If you would kindly meet Signor and Signora Brazzi when they come in on the steamer from Trieste on Monday week.’

 

                                                                               *****

 

When, two weeks after the bombing, Matteo Brazzi left his beloved Trieste to sail south down the Istrian coast to Cittanova he succumbed to a misery as grand as Trieste’s architecture. His delicate nose was upset to be loaded onto an elderly, grubby, single-funneled coastal steamer along with farmers in old clothes who smelled of manure. He became seasick the instant the San Carlo pulled out from the pier. He clutched the rail, gagging and wheezing like the asthmatic albatross he was, and, as the boat met the swell of the open sea, he experienced an existential urge to remove his shoes and socks and baptize his feet in the holy water he was leaving. Signor Brazzi vowed he would never again be seen unclothed by a member of the police force, or the public, so he bravely resisted this longing though it broke his heart to do so.

 

The four-hour trip was extended to five when a wretched woman fell in whilst attempting to board one of the smaller craft that came out from the shore to meet the boat. To general applause, the ship's mate dived from the bow to rescue her, though it was clear to Signor Brazzi that she had done it on purpose and didn't deserve the attention. Indeed, he could scarcely credit her conceit when he was perishing at the hands of a coastal steamer, and the sight of dolphins dancing merrily down the coast only made it worse. He finally became aware that his misery was about to end when the San Carlo sounded its siren and turned in towards a sheltered, west-facing cove where a town of red-roofed houses, a campanile and a multitude of parks beckoned to him across the final stretch of water.

 

At the end of a broad pier that swept in towards the town, a large two-masted sailing ship had docked, and the steamer pulled around it to a square expanse of wharf forty meters further along, where an eager crowd awaited it. The arrival of the pottering old vessel was clearly a highly anticipated event, and Signor Brazzi observed with distaste a squad of barefoot little boys poking barge poles into the water, plump housewives wearing headscarves instead of hats, and working men with their sleeves rolled up and cigarettes hanging from their lips, all shouting and waving in greeting. But he also noticed how the sea encroached upon the town until it lapped the rock it was built on, and how its houses sheltered in the sole safe wedge that remained.

 

In a querulous mood, he brushed the legacy of his travelling companions from his coat and escorted his wife down the gangway. To their right he saw a row of tall houses and seawalls; to the left, fishing vessels, fishing tackle and fishing nets. 

 

'Angelica,’ he announced, ‘we will stay away from the fish!' 

 

Angelica Brazzi did as she was told, for her husband had an aversion to seafood. She had dressed that morning, for his benefit, in a lovely coat of fine red wool, with a cloche hat and gloves to match, and had vamped her naturally sultry eyes (which he liked), and now she observed his response to the crowd with unease.

 

‘Perhaps we shouldn’t move too far away, Matteo?’ she whispered. ‘Didn’t Signor Monfalcon write that we were being met?’

 

But the jubilance of the throng surged up and overflowed into the sunshine, and just who might be meeting them was not clear, so they eased further down the wharf, passing, as they did so, three cats, a dog, and a seagull as big as a turkey. From the high prow of a fishing vessel the bird opened its beak, threw back its head and squawked purposefully at them.

 

Angelica shrieked, and her husband started as if he'd been struck. At once a woman in her middle years hurried up to the bird and shooed it away. Behind her, a dour man watched in silence with one hand in his pocket and the other resting on the head of a donkey hitched to a small cart.

 

'What was wrong with that bird?' demanded Brazzi.

 

'With the seagull, signore?' panted the woman.

 

‘Is that what you call it?’

 

‘He won’t hurt you. He’s just saying buon giorno!’

 

She inspected the couple with undisguised delight and smoothed the front of her dress.

 

‘Signor and Signora Brazzi! For a moment I was wondering how I’d find you!’ she exclaimed in barely passable Italian muddled up with dialect. ‘Then Emilio said, “That’s them, Teresa!” and I said, “What a beautiful coat his wife is wearing! You don’t see coats like that here!”’   

 

Brazzi struggled to understand her. His small moustache bristled and the woman anxiously tightened her headscarf. She had little experience of bristling moustaches.

 

‘Signor Monfalcon sent us to welcome you,’ she proffered tentatively. ‘I’m Teresa Urizio and this is my husband, Emilio.’

 

‘But could not Signor Monfalcon have come himself?’ enquired Brazzi.

 

Teresa hesitated, either because she didn’t want to answer the question or because Signor Brazzi had spoken in perfect Italian.

 

‘Signor Monfalcon doesn’t like crowds,’ she said. 

 

She let the explanation hang in the air and signaled to a seaman who was unloading luggage from the deck.

 

‘Now, the house we have prepared for you is on the other side of the piazza. I will be your cook and Signor Monfalcon has organized a girl to help you around your new house. If you would kindly walk with me, Emilio will collect your boxes.’ She cast a sharp eye over Angelica in such a way that Brazzi could not fail to notice. ‘You’re very pale, signora.’

 

Yes, Brazzi knew she was pale and he knew why, but she would hobble along bravely by his side. They’d have to wiggle through these old buildings to get to the piazza – he could see no direct route – and she wasn’t good at wiggling today. He felt annoyed, all of a sudden, that Angelica seemed to elicit concern from everyone who saw them together.

 

Teresa held out a consoling hand and Brazzi wanted to slap it.

 

‘Cittanova should be just the place for you, signora,’ she continued warily. She withdrew the hand. ‘The ladies here are so friendly. Do you like fish? I know a thousand ways to prepare it.’

 

‘Fish?’ snapped Brazzi so crossly that his wife was embarrassed. ‘One method will suffice, served infrequently.’

 

‘Poor Matteo,’ explained Angelica to Teresa, ‘he was so sick on the boat.’

 

The women were already confidential – a very bad sign – and so they set off towards the piazza and the pretty town floated passed them.

 

Time and chance had divided its proud Venetian walls until only segments remained as a reminder that, like Brazzi, Cittanova had once required protection against an enemy from the sea. An ancient duomo extended into the clustered piazza and by its side stood a modern campanile with a bronze saint crowning its peak, to defend the town from Turks, waves, and all slim boats that were there one minute and gone the next.

 

Brazzi regarded it morosely.

 

'Here is the sea again, Signora Urizio! You have led us around in a circle!’  

 

‘Indeed, I haven’t, Signor Brazzi!’ protested Teresa. ‘It’s just not a very big town.’

 

On they walked, to an alley of weathered limestone houses and, for a third time, there was the sea like a grim assassin, grinding its knife on the rocks below the Venetian lookout.

 

This was the end. Brazzi’s valor, hastily constructed from thin air that morning, departed to its afterlife. The long day declined and his heart of paper sunk into its purple limbo. By the time Signor Urizio and his donkey lumbered along with their boxes, he had succumbed to nervous oblivion in a modest, salmon-colored Istrian house.

 

Angelica regarded him on the sofa, marveling at how vulnerable he looked. Such vulnerability as she had so often hoped for. Since the afternoon was cooling, she took off the red coat and laid it over his legs to warm him.

Teresa touched the soft wool with the tip of one finger.

 

‘That’s the loveliest coat I’ve ever seen,’ she whispered.

 

‘Do you like it?’ Angelica plucked wanly at a leaf that clung to the hem. ‘Matteo bought it for me so that it would match his.’

 

‘And did you mind that?’

 

‘Oh, dear Matteo,’ explained Angelica, blushing, ‘I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.’ 

 

Teresa left without a word, which was unusual.

 

As her departing footsteps fell silent Angelica whispered, ‘Matteo, do you think this is where I’ll finally have my baby?’

 

Matteo didn’t hear her. Angelica brushed her lips softly across his forehead and he murmured something that might have been her name.