And I can
see the light of a clear blue morning/ And I can see the light of brand new
day, (Dolly Parton)
The Old Farmhouse
Above the Village
Where is the bloody
gun? she spoke slowly and deliberately, emphasising each word equally, as
if she was speaking to a very stupid child.
I already told
you I havent seen any gun.
He was reminded of a
particularly unpleasant Sergeant when he was in Northern Ireland, but this
young woman was not his superior and shouldnt speak to him like that.
Jesus you are
an idiot and she stormed back into the farmhouse, she could not bear the
thought of being told not to blaspheme, or having the wisdom of
Dolly Rebecca Parton quoted, or worse, sung to her.
She looked once more
for the gun, the only weapon she had brought with her, and now it was gone, if
L. had been one of her previous conspirators she would have been suspicious,
but he was a fool, lacking even the most basic common sense; she realised that
he was just muscle, brought along as back-up, but even for that job you need
brains and the ability to blend in, and to speak the language. What on earth
had They done sending him down to work with her? She may not have always liked
the people that she had worked with in the past, but at least she could rely
L. meanwhile was
walking down towards the village in the late Spring sunshine, feeling cross and
hurt, his Italian was fine, it was just that when she was there stood next to
him, sighing and anxious to take over, it put him off, and anyway languages had
never been his forte, it was other skills that he had been chosen for. He hoped
that whatever they had been ordered to this village for would be over soon and
he wouldnt have to see that awful woman again.
Englishman said the young woman at the counter of the villages only
shop; he gave her a smile, but not too friendly, he knew she had a boyfriend, a
tall young man, who did not look the type who would countenance flirtation with
his lover, but her whole face was welcoming and full of mischief. Unfortunately
neither of them could speak much of the others language, so after some
smiling there was a silence until he pointed out the cigarettes and chocolate
that he had come in for, and as she handed them to him he felt the tips of her
warm fingers on his hand, and for a moment felt incredibly aroused.
Having a cigarette
at the back of the Farmhouse, she pictured him walking back; catching a faint
whiff of citrus from the orange and lemon trees on the way, and hearing the
faint buzz of cars on their journeys to either Naples or Sicily, although the
autostrada itself was hidden by the hills, which were almost grey in the sun.
She wondered if he would turn aside to go into the small Romanesque church on
the edge of the village and say a prayer.
In front of him were
an elderly couple walking along the same path as him, the man one step ahead of
his wife; they could have come from any time in the last three hundred years he
thought, the same clothes and mannerisms. Perhaps he should leave The
Neapolitans, it was time to move on, he could stay in Italy though, not in this
village, but in one of the large cities in the North, Milan or Torino, where
They would never find him, and he could get a job and start anew, away from
shrewish English women who were rude and dangerous.
Once back in his
bedroom he put on one of his Dolly Parton c.d.s
Cause I am
strong and I can prove it/ And I got my dreams to see me through/ Its
just a mountain I can move it/ and with faith enough theres nothing I
He heard her in the
study next to his room, where the fax machine was kept, and went in to see what
she was up to.
cooked anything? he asked her.
With what? You
have just been to the village, why didnt you get something? Or were you
too busy flirting with that girl in the shop?
wasnt in the shop, it was the old man, her father.
Well you could
still have bought something.
We have got
tomatoes and pasta. Couldnt you do something with that?
But he had cooked
when they arrived yesterday, and it hadnt been too bad, he had just used
too much food, and so about half had gone to waste.
Have we had
any orders yet?
She just looked at
him, and there was a silence, and they both looked at the fax machine which
refused to respond to their gaze. They were both nervous, waiting to know what
happened next; would they be sent to kill someone, or to spy on someone? She
wondered if L. had been ordered to murder her, as a punishment for her mistake,
perhaps he was pretending to be an idiot, but would turn into a ruthless killer
once he got his orders.
As she was hungry,
she did as L. had suggested and cooked a pasta dish; frying tomatoes and
peppers and then putting spaghetti onto boil, after which she added some tinned
tomatoes and rather tired looking herbs. Presumably The Neapolitans had sent
someone here before she and L. had arrived to get the cottage ready; she
imagined a quiet, discrete young woman getting her orders and driving down
here, not knowing who she was preparing the room for or why, just doing what
she was told, for the small cheque she received once a month. Why couldnt
she do that? She was tired of the killing, the sex with strange men and
(occasionally) women. Now she was stuck in a small farmhouse on a hill, with a
strange Englishman, who was clearly not all there, and was acting as if he was
her younger brother and frankly she did not have time for that shit. Normally
she worked with impossibly handsome Italians and reserved Scandinavians, who
inevitably she would bed at least once but who would leave her feeling cold
And then, unbidden
came a memory, almost as if from a film that she had seen long ago; a field
late at night in France and gunfire, she watched as the man she was with,
XXIII, screamed and fell into the mud, and then she panicked and fled into the
dark, leaving behind the bodies and the money, but not caring as she was
scared, more scared than she had ever been in her life.
The dinner smelled
pleasant enough; she was no cook, but she hadnt burnt anything, and the
scent of fried onions and tomatoes was permeating through the house, so that no
doubt L. would be down in a moment, but then just as she was about to dish it
out, she heard the sound of the fax machine disgorging paper and she ran up to
the spare room. L. had his dreadful music playing very loudly and so
hadnt heard it, thus she had a moment to read it before he came in.
As soon she picked
up the two pieces of paper she realised that they had been sent in error, that
is was something that was dangerous and would have consequences; quickly she
folded them in half and pushed them into her jeans pocket, and then looking up
she saw L. in the doorway.
Is that a
message? Was that our mission?
She looked at him,
nothing, just a test message. Dinner is almost ready. And she
slowly walked downstairs, the fax hard against her thigh.
The Girl in the
What did the
she told him.
He was looking a
little frightened which made her glad.
eat. She said, it will be cold.
They sat down
opposite each other at the kitchen table; the kitchen was the largest room in
the villa; the heart of it, and she could imagine in the past, families sitting
together after working all day in the fields, talking and laughing, as they
The fax. What
did you do with it? You put it in your pocket.
Why would you
destroy it if it was unimportant?
After eating the
pasta he went looking in the large fridge and came back with two bottles of
beer, putting one down in front of her and they both started to drink. He smelt
of cheap aftershave and sweat after his walk. She lit a cigarette and watched
him carefully; he seemed unstable, and after he finished the bottle, he got
more beer, one for him, one for her, even though she hadnt finished the
died he told her, killed himself. He was only twelve.
That is why I
am here, why I joined the Neapolitans.
And then he talked
on and on, as if he could not stop; about his guilt, how Mark was unhappy at
school and his wife had not known what to do and he had wanted to help, but he
was away in Belfast, trying to keep the peace, and he did not dare ask the
sergeant for special leave to go back, and anyway he thought, it was probably
nothing, just a phase his son was going through. And then his wife had
gone into his room one morning to find Mark hanging from the wardrobe, and had
cut him down with a kitchen knife, but he was already dead, or he was by the
time that the ambulance arrived.
She could feel that
he was desperate to cry, but somehow he could not do it, that it was pressing
on him, but that if he succumbed he would be overwhelmed, that he would lose
I went to the
funeral and then I didnt come back. I just left and havent come
back to England since, no need.
She is in
She found that she
had finished the second bottle of beer and was feeling confused and dizzy; she
lit another cigarette, sucking on it desperately. He talked and talked, going
round in circles, trying to work out who was blame, but she did not want to
listen, the story sounded familiar, as if she had heard it all before, and she
could not let herself get pulled into his misery.
What did the
fax say? An elderly woman sitting on a chair watching me, asking
What did the
I was naked under
the duvet, and could not remember going to bed or undressing; the last thing I
remembered was sitting with L. in a café and there was a young woman
with very dark hair, so dark it shone, staring at us, and now I was in bed
while an elderly woman fired questions at me.
I noticed that my
room was not how I remembered it, all my possessions were gone, my make-up, my
books; there was just two chairs and a small wardrobe, not even a television,
and I am sure that there had been one before. And was it always this small? It
did not feel like a bedroom, more like a room in a hospital.
Where are my
clothes? The woman sighed with exasperation.
What did the
fax say? Did you read it?
I looked at her, and
had a picture of a piece of paper in my head, but what did it say? Perhaps I
had hidden it? Or had L.? I was not going to say anything, I needed time to
think, and where on earth was L.? Was he in the next room? I got up, and
realised she had a gun pointing at me.
I ignored her; I can
tell when someone is prepared to shoot, and the old woman wasnt; well not
yet. Looking inside the wardrobe I found my clothes tossed there, as if
they had been searched and then discarded.
Two men came in as I
dressed, and without a word the younger one pushed me back onto the bed and
bent over me while punching me repeatedly in the face, the other one, old with
steel grey hair, sat down next to the woman and they both watched in silence,
until I rolled with a bang off the bed and onto the marble floor, I lay there
gazing at the expensive shoes of my attacker, hoping the L. would come in and
rescue me, but he didnt.
me, L. had said, let us go to Nashville, we could meet
He laughed, I
have money, and we have a car. We can drive anywhere. Imagine being in the
States, Dolly on the stereo and the wind in our hair.
hurriedly and took some of the food out of the fridge, and she drove out of the
village, heading North.
North? he asked.
More space, we
can go anywhere, Milan has an airport.
He laughed as
Love is Like a Butterfly played loudly on the car c.d. player, and
he sang along.
They followed me
everywhere; when I was having my bath, making myself something to eat, all the
time asking me about the fax, whether I had read it, and what I had done with
it. The three of them, taking it in turns to haunt me, the woman was probably
in her sixties or seventies as was the man with grey hair, but the other was
younger than me, and seemed to be the muscle, there to do any
punching and kicking, and when they decided to kill me, I imagined that he
would be the one to pull the trigger.
The older man sighed
quietly, he was wearing some kind of white jacket, like a doctor.
What do you do
this to yourself? You were never beautiful, but now
and he sighed,
as if he was sorry, and he stroked my ribs which were red and very sore. He
kissed my forehead, all you have to do is tell me what happened, what you
did with the fax, tell us and then you can go back to your work, or you can
leave and live the rest of your life far from here, put an end to all of
It was then that I
knew they had no intention of letting me leave alive, that as soon I had told
them what they wanted to know they would kill me.
between the beatings and interrupted sleep, I began to remember what the fax
had been; a list of names and telephone numbers, presumably important ones,
sent to the wrong fax number in error, the person responsible floating down the
Tiber with his or her throat cut. I imagined what happened when they
discovered; Gina quaking when she reported it, knowing that the Neapolitans do
not countenance mistakes, and the panicking men beside her, equally frightened
I was sitting at the
kitchen table with the elderly woman.
remember me she said, looking surprised, I shook my head and she
I am in charge
of The Neapolitans she told me, I like you, I always personally
choose our employees and if I dont like the look of them, then they are
sent back to where they came, or if they know too much, well
she waved her hand in a dismissive gesture.
But you I
liked, from the beginning. You were a soldier in Belfast werent you? You
have seen bad things, but kept your humanity, I like that.
I looked at her
blankly, at her humorous smile, giving the impression that all the beating up
and questioning had been a dream, as if we were old friends, discussing the
She sighed you
were only meant to stay here for a fortnight, time to recuperate and learn from
your mistakes, but then the fax arrived. If only you would tell us what you did
with it. We know it arrived but
. And she shrugged, we just
need it back, to know it hasnt gone anywhere it shouldnt
I looked at her, my
face aching, my stomach a ball of pain, so that I pingled with the food in
front of me, unable to eat properly.
And then she was in
the car with L.
What was the
letters and numbers. Probably an error message.
He sounded serious,
do you have it with you?
No, I told you
I threw it away, shredded it like we always do.
He said nothing, and
put on another Dolly Parton c.d., how many songs had she recorded? She would
have much preferred silence but was too polite to say so.
They stopped at a
café which smelt strongly of coffee, in a small town whose name she did
not know, and he ordered pizza for both of them, she sat opposite him picking
at it with her fingers, it was a Margherita pizza with a very thin base, L. was
tucking into his eagerly and watching the dark-haired woman at the counter.
She is too
good for you she told him.
She reminds me
The woman was
looking at them now and chewing on a pencil as she did so, her eyes seemed
humorous, as if she was trying not to laugh.
minute and L. got up, she saw him whisper something to the woman at the
counter, as he walked past her in the direction of the toilet. She felt
the womans continuous observation as she ate the rest of the pizza and
drank her lemonade, and then she sat and thought, before realising that L. had
been gone quite some time and that he wasnt coming back.
Where did that
man go? she asked the young woman.
She sighed and ran
outside, and as she expected the car had gone, and that is where they found her
thirty minutes later, sitting on a park bench close by, hoping L. would come
back, but knowing he wouldnt and not knowing what to do. The younger man
got out of the car, and ushered her into the back of the car, his hand on her
elbow, and she sat in silence as the older man drove them back to the village
and the farmhouse.
What is the
fax? Why is it so important?
So you have
that all you do? You have come all the way here, what is it?
She looked at me
sternly, and then the two men came in and sat either side of the woman, and
they all looked at me.
Why does she
want to know what it is? Asked the younger man, sounding genuinely
She must have
it, must remember it.
What is she
Once she tells
us she is free, does not have to worry about it ever again, can go wherever she
The three of them
batted the conversation about as if I was not there, whilst I tapped my left
foot and realised that I needed to urinate, but was determined to hold it
There was a
fax, but I realised that it had come to me in error, so I hid it, but I cannot
remember where, you have confused me with all your questions I paused to
get my breath, as I was feeling anxious, and L. was nobody, just a sad
soldier, who is still mourning his son and is confused and has driven off to
find Dolly Parton.
The three of them
But you are
L. the woman said.
I saw the woman
exchange a look with the older man, a look that I could not interpret, whilst
the younger man got some glasses out and some wine from a cupboard and we all
drank in silence. And then there was a mechanical sound from upstairs, the fax,
and both men hurriedly ran out of the door.
The gun was under
the table, I had taped it there when I first arrived, however long ago that
was. When the two men came back down I was pointing it at their leader; I kept
it steady, they knew that I was a killer, and so they handed me the car keys
without hesitation, and then sat down in a row away from the table. I shot the
younger man anyway, he had hit me and made me ugly, and I thought that he would
go for me if he got the chance, risk his life, whilst the other two were more
sensible and less able. I watched him slide to the floor and lie there, a
puppet, and then I left the building, picking up the fax from the vase at the
side of the front door, where I had left it, before getting into the car and
driving through the evening gloom.
As I drove, I ripped
up the two sheets of paper, and scattered them out of the window, probably a
mistake, I should have kept it then I would have something to negotiate with. I
knew I would have to change cars soon, that they would send word but it was
getting dark and I would have time to escape, an organisation that sends out
secret faxes to the wrong address cannot be that efficient. And I needed to
think about my son, to mourn him, stop running away from him, retreating into
death and fantasy.
After about an hour
I stopped the car down a side road, dangerous but I was so overwhelmingly tired
that I had could no longer drive. As I lay dozing I remembered visiting the
doctor after my son died, the medication he had given me which I refused to
take, and then the day after the funeral my husband leaving me, not back to the
army this time, just disappearing, leaving me with an empty house and my
sons bedroom which I dare not enter. And I wondered if I was going mad
and what was the smell of pine disinfectant that was suddenly all around me and
somebody was singing, and then there were screams and shouts that echoed all
My room smells of
disinfectant and stale food; everything is attached to the wall or floor, they
do not even let me have books in case I throw them at the doctor or try to eat
them, so all I do all day is lie on my bed, fighting off sleep and the awful
dreams that sleep brings, and listen to the screams of the other patients and
the sound of fist against body as someone lashes out at one of the orderlies or
at another patient.
And then it is
breakfast time; the orderly who loves Dolly Parton smiles at me nervously as he
unlocks my door and hands me a plate with toast, little pots of marmalade and
margarine and a large mug of coffee on it. I eat the toast plain, ignoring the
marmalade (which I hate anyway) and margarine because I suspect they put drugs
in them, but I doubt they could interfere with the toast, and anyway I have to
eat. I take a sip of my coffee to help the dry toast go down, there were
probably drugs in the coffee too but what can I do? Once when I threw it
at another orderly, the ex-soldier who I particularly hate, I noticed powder on
the floor where I had spilled it, but still I was having these dreams about
being a secret agent in Italy, and they seemed more and more real, so they must
be giving drugs somehow, unless it is true of course, but the doctors tell me
that it isnt.
After eating my
toast I sit on my bed, I had asked for a radio or a television, but was told it
was too dangerous that maybe when you behave yourself a
bit better, then we can ask Doctor Thornberry. I must have dropped off,
because I wake as two orderlies come in, the ex-soldier and a young woman with
dark hair who look at me with the slightest of smirks.
Time to see
I lie there watching
Do we have to
put straps on you?
I get up gingerly
and with one either side, walk through several white corridors, the floor is
cold on my feet, and I wish that I was allowed slippers, but perhaps they think
I would try to swallow them or slap one of the orderlies with them.
I am ushered into an
office, the man leaves but the young woman stays, sitting in the corner sucking
on a pencil while never taking her eyes off me. There is an old woman at the
desk, writing and when she looks up, I realise that is I, the woman from my
you? she asks.
But by the time that
I have thought of something to say, she is offering me coffee.
You must be
thirsty she tells me and pours some into a mug from a cafetiere, and
after drinking some of it herself; presumably to show it is not poisoned, she
hands it to me, and I have a sip or two. I notice the fax machine in the
corner, white and with some sheets of paper on top of it and I wonder what they
are, and if any of them are about me, or are a list of agents sent to the
doctor in error, and it is difficult to resist the urge to get up and look.
You are still
not eating she tells me.
eat much, I never have.
Two pieces of
dry toast is not enough, no wonder you look ill.
I glance at the
young woman, who is still looking at me, taking it all in. I would like to ask
her to leave but know that my request will be refused.
I am glad to
hear that you have been keeping your clothes on, thank you, you were
embarrassing the orderlies.
But where are
my clothes? I cannot wear these horrible things I tug at my dressing gown
and grey pyjamas, all they will allow me to wear.
Maybe when you
are feeling better, and when you tell us what you did with the fax.
I said maybe
when you are feeling better.
You were in my
dreams I tell her, and her I indicate the young woman, whose
expression does not change in the slightest.
Was I the
leader of a mob again, the Neapolitans?
Yes, I must
have told you about it before.
I feel a faint
pressure in my bladder, but I have learned to train it, as I am sure that they
watch me using the toilet, so I only go when I am desperate.
Tell me about
I try to think, as
if remembering a lesson, he was called Mark, and he was at school and one
day he hanged himself. And I found him in the morning.
What was he
He had blonde
hair and was clever, but quiet, and I thought that he seemed more down
nods in approval, and waits for me to continue, but I cannot think of anything
else to say.
I need the
toilet I tell the young woman, and at a nod from Doctor Thornberry she
takes me back to my room.
When an orderly
comes in with my lunch I ask if I can eat it in the television lounge.
As long as you
I nod and carry my
sandwich and bottle of orange juice and sit down next to a young man who is
intently watching the television.
venture but he does not reply, he also has a sandwich and orange juice which
are on a table in front of him. The orderly sits down a few seats away from me
and watches me, but I know he will have to look away eventually; and when a
young woman comes in whimpering with bleeding cuts on her wrists, he goes over
to her and calls for a nurse, which gives me the opportunity to swap my
sandwiches and drink with the idiot next to me, and quickly eat and drink them
Later I go to see
Doctor McDonnell, who I see every afternoon, he has steel grey hair and a
smooth, false voice, and reminds me of someone unpleasant, but I am so confused
I cannot remember who. As usual there is a nurse with him looking bored, and
who exchanges arch looks with the doctor throughout the session.
I go behind a
curtain and put on a robe and then lie on the bed and he looks at the bruises
on my chest and on my face.
Why do you do
this to yourself? he asks, and I wonder why he is trying to trick me and
stay silent, but he asks me again.
Come on I know
you can speak. Why do you hurt yourself?
But it is your
orderlies, they want to know about the fax.
Now come on,
we have been through all that. He looks in exasperation at the nurse, who
shrugs in reply with a what can you do expression.
Sometimes I believe
what the doctors tell me is true that I can remember coming into my sons
room, and desperately trying to cut him down, and eventually I did it and he
fell onto the floor and I lay down next to him not knowing what to do. Perhaps
I should have telephoned the ambulance first, nobody would tell me how long he
had been dead, or if I could have saved him if help had come more quickly, or
perhaps I should have shouted for a neighbour, or held him up, eased the
pressure on his neck.
And I remember my
husband, sitting at the kitchen table drinking beer whilst I smoked, but then
he turns into L., crying and telling me about his son, and we are in the
kitchen in Italy, and L. seems more real than my son or my husband, and I
cannot remember who is who, and they all become L. who is so real that I cannot
have made him up.
I try to remember
what my everyday life was like when I was married; apparently I worked in a
library, but I cannot remember that, cannot imagine what a librarian would do
all day, or what my colleagues were like, or if I had any friends. But I can
remember killing people and hiding, and a muddy field in France and the sound
of gunfire, and someone dying next to me; that is what seems real.
After examining me
some more the steel-haired doctor makes a telephone call and two orderlies come
to take me back to my room, he does not wish me a good afternoon like he
normally does, as if I had failed him in some way, or am being stubborn like a
naughty child, the nurse frowns at me as I leave, and I pitter pat back to my
room on my bare feet, whilst the orderly holds my elbow so that I dont
I sit in my room
until there is a knock on the door and the orderly who likes Dolly Parton comes
sweetheart, here is your tea and he hands me a tray with lasagne and a
large glass of fresh orange on it, and I can smell the citrus which reminds me
of Italy and that village. The orderly stays close to the door because he knows
that I have attacked people in the past, and then once I sit back down on my
bed he leaves, and I hear him whistling Jolene as he walks away
down the corridor.
After a moment I
throw my dinner against the wall, and watch it slide to the floor, and then I
weep for a village in Italy where I could stay with my son and be happy. I am
dreadfully thirsty; perhaps there was something in Doctor Thornberrys
coffee, so I drink the orange juice down, and then try to be sick, but nothing
comes up. Having that drink was a mistake, but I was so thirsty and you cannot
not drink, but they must have put the medication in there, and I fall asleep
wondering if the orderlies and doctors spoke to me in English or Italian.
And as I always do I
wake up and the hospital is deadly quiet and sitting either side of my bed are
the woman and the man, the two doctors, and I am naked under my duvet.
What did you
do with the fax? they ask again and again, and then a young man comes in
and starts to punch me, harder and harder, whilst in the distance someone is
singing something by Dolly Parton, and I sing along, ignoring the pain and the
endlessly repeated questions.
I can see
the light of a clear blue morning / And everything's gonna be all