Spezzano Albanese, Calabria 1940
From Spezzano Albanese to Sala Consilina was going to be 65 miles. It would be quite hilly, so I assumed that it would take me a week to complete. The priests had added to and revised the list of stopping places along my route. Before I left Spezzano the priest had gone through my list adding “dinner” and “breakfast” beside the name of each priest. He had been amused when I told him that I had arrived in time for dinner because the previous priest had assured me that I could rely on a bed for the night with him.
“We were at the seminary together. We have been keeping each other’s secrets for very many years. This is the first time I have known him to be so open with a stranger… you must have impressed him… He was right to trust you.”
Now I was on the way to my next village. There would be a few villages before I reached Sala Consilina. Two of them had a bed for the night. One of them I had marked for breakfast… “He is kind and will feed you, but I have no reason to believe that he will want to give you a bed.” That was the priest’s advice, and I trusted his judgement.
Of the last village before Sala Consilina he spoke most seriously…
“Not even breakfast… he has a bad reputation. He comes from one of the teaching orders, the Christian-Brothers. He was a teacher. The bishop moved him from teaching to that obscure village… He was too… boys arrived in hospital too often for even the bishop to ignore. Then one died! No, not even breakfast there… he really isn’t safe!”
So my journey progressed. The two evening arrivals were greeted warmly by kindly elderly priests. Of course dinner and bed had to be paid for, or perhaps earned. I didn’t mind. It was no more than I had done with Luigi… It made the priests happy as our Don had said it should, and it helped me on my way. As far as I could see there was no great sin involved.
I pleased each priest by apologising for bringing temptation to their door before asking them to hear my confession… confession before breakfast each time. Each morning as I set out I was freshly shriven. I had a heavy knapsack to carry but there were no sins to weigh on my shoulders.
At the second village I gave the priest the letter from the Don… the letter that he would need in order to collect the plates from Maria. He promised to do so at the first opportunity, and that he would then arrange for them to reach the priest in Rome that was named in the Don’s letter. A large part of my task was now already completed… Yes, I had a spring in my step!
I was enjoying the nearest thing to a holiday that had happened to me in the fourteen years I had been on God’s earth.
That was until it started to rain at the end of the week.
I had visited all the “dinner and breakfast” addresses in my list. As yet I had found no need to spend any of my money. In fact each of the priests had pressed a small amount of money in my hand as we parted. I noticed that the amount seemed to depend on how much pleasure they had received, or more particularly how it had been given… my bottom brought me twice what my lips did and that in turn was twice what my hand alone could achieve.
As I wandered along I pondered on these strange realities. Perhaps the priests were actually working to an existing accepted rate. I knew that in our village there were a few young widows who, perhaps for company, perhaps from poverty would go with men, and that what they expected in return depended on what the man had wanted. Was there a scale for boys? … If there was then it meant that what I was doing was less unusual than I had thought. It also meant that what men wanted from me was also more common than I had imagined.
Perhaps more thought was needed.
So… it was raining… I wasn’t really prepared for it. I needed an old sack to use as a cloak and hood. I would ask the next friendly man that I met. I was as willing to make a farmer happy as a priest… a farmer was more likely to be able to find a sack for me!
I spent the night in the church porch. It was dry and there was a bench where the old men sat during the day. That was where I slept
I was woken up by a sudden blow across my back. A huge, black and angry figure loomed over me. He was accompanied by a very frightened altar-boy. This was the “no breakfast or dinner” village, and this was the priest who was reputed to have killed one of his pupils… or at least the child had died in hospital. I grabbed my knapsack but he was between me and escape. I moved into the church.
He continued to rain blows with his stick as he drove me towards his confessional.
“Hardened sinner, aren’t you?” He growled. “First your confession and then I’ll decide on your penance, sleeping in the porch indeed!”
I thought that it might be wise to say my confession… perhaps, once I was forgiven he wouldn’t have any reason to be angry. I was wrong.
“A few Hail Marys and a Rosary aren’t going to be enough… Our Lord was scourged!”
He appeared from his side of the box with a whippy stick in his hand… it stung. I decided enough was enough. He had mis-judged me… I was not a town child to be beaten at his whim. I was from the mountains of Calabria… I was a man! Small, but a man!
When his arm descended again, my knife was waiting. His cassock had slid back onto his shoulder… I slit his bare arm from elbow to wrist. I must have severed an artery. There was blood everywhere. The priest looked at his arm in shock… I saw his face register the meaning of the spurting blood, and the rate at which he was losing it. He grabbed his arm and tried to staunch the bleeding.
I was a country boy and knew that what he should do was roll his other fist, put it under the armpit of his wounded arm, and press down on it… hard!
But… I said nothing. It was his wound… it was between him and his God to decide what happened next. His face went from the red of his anger, to pale and then, as he grabbed at his chest… he went a very unhealthy greenish shade of pale… and slid slowly down until he was sitting in the pool of his own blood.
The altar-boy looked pleased, and then he looked terrified… “Have you killed him?” He asked.
“I don’t know… would you care?” I asked.
He looked at where the huge pool of blood was spreading, and silently shook his head. The priest was surrounded by blood, his face was deathly white as he clutched his chest, his eyes screwed up in obvious extreme pain. Then his eyes closed and he slid sideways.
“We need to do something!” The boy said.
“Not yet.” I replied. I had slaughtered many goats and I recognised that he was dying. If we sent for help he might be able to tell… If we did nothing then there was a good chance that only we two would ever know what had actually happened to him.
He made a struggling noise and lay still.
“He’s at Heaven’s gates, explaining what happened!” I said quietly.
“What did happen?” The boy said… He clearly hadn’t seen my knife.
“He slipped while carrying a bottle, and cut himself on the broken glass!” I said.
“There’s no bottle.” The boy said. “There soon will be.” I replied… “Where does he keep the wine? Find me an open bottle… quickly!”
I took the wine bottle, broke it carefully against the altar-step, dipped the sharpest edge in blood and placed it on the floor immediately below the wound.
“Run, fetch the doctor I said!” Don’t mention me… just say you heard a crash and there he was. Remember… Now there will be no more beatings… Just leave the doctor to decide he had a heart attack... tell him that the priest was in pain and holding his chest after he fell.”
As he ran, I ran too. While he ran into the village, I ran up the hillside above the church onto the mountainside where I lay in the bushes to watch what happened.
There was a lot of rushing around. A man with a bag appeared and then one of the Civil Police. They stood around as if there was not really much to do, chatting and smoking. The doctor was comforting the altar-boy. The policeman was smoking. The undertaker seemed to arrive… at least two men with a stretcher and a dark blue cloth carried a body away. Two old ladies appeared with buckets and mops. An accident… the boy had kept his head. I had a clear run with no pursuit. With luck, the children of the village would never feel a priest’s stick across their backs again.
I set off across the mountains feeling quite pleased with myself… Although I had not yet had breakfast, I most certainly needed absolution. This was a day that I needed to not get killed before I had seen my next priest!
Sala Consilina to Salerno, 1940
It took me a few hours to walk as far as the next town. Atena Lucana had a fine church with beautifully carved confessionals. I went to wait my turn and then entered quietly. The priest slid back the small cover on the grill that hid our faces from each other.
“Bless me Father, for I have sinned!” I said… A dead priest lay in his own blood in my last church!
“How long is it since your last confession?” The priest asked.
“One day, Father. Actually, perhaps four hours ago, I’m not sure.”
“What can you have done in the last four hours that needs such immediate absolution?”
He sounded amused… That wouldn’t last long!
“Father, If I tell you a very serious sin… a crime… can I tell you safely? There will be no report to the authorities… even now under the Duce?”
“No, my son, there’ll be no reporting. I may ask you to right whatever wrong you have committed, but I’ll not report you, nor will I repeat anything you have told me, unless you ask me to.”
I took a deep breath… to calm my nerves.
“Father. This morning I accidentally met…” I mentioned the name of the priest I had killed.
“Go on my son…”
“I had not intended to… I had been warned that he was dangerous, but… it was raining and I fell asleep in his church porch. When I woke he was hitting me with his stick… then he drove me to the confessional. Afterwards instead of a penance he wanted to beat me with a whippy stick he kept in his booth!” I said all this in a hurry… I wanted him to understand the whole picture, before he interrupted, as he did.
“So, he beat you? Are you reporting this to me?”
“No Father, there is no need to. He will beat no other boy again… I killed him…”
I whispered the last few words. He can’t have been sure that he heard me clearly.
“Did you say, you killed him… he’s dead… are you certain?”
He too was now whispering.
“What happened? He’s a giant of a man… How could you even injure him?”
“It was my knife, Father. I held it to protect myself… I don’t think he saw it… his arm came down with his whip and… the blade sliced his arm open… I think it was the big artery near his elbow… There was a lot of blood!”
“And, that killed him?” He asked quietly.
“Not exactly… He clutched at his chest. I think the shock caused a heart attack… but… I waited and watched him bleed… like one of my goats… I’m sorry… it seemed the best thing to do.”
By now I was crying quietly.
“Did anyone see this happen?”
“Not really Father, there was an altar-boy, but he was already very frightened by his priest’s temper. He was curled up with his eyes tight shut.”
“Did he understand what had happened?”
“Yes, Father, he stood with me afterwards, when it was quiet… while the priest died. Then I asked him to find a wine bottle for me. I broke the bottle and left it to look like the priest had cut himself in a fall.”
“Did he agree to lie for you?”
“There was no need for him to tell a lie, Father. I just asked him to tell them that he found his priest lying in his blood, clutching his chest. All that would be true! Honestly Father, he didn’t need to lie, so I didn’t ask him to!”
“Good, that would have been a sin if you had!”
I’m not certain but he actually seemed amused.
“And killing him Father? Wasn’t that a sin?”
“Yes, my son, that was a sin, and for that you shall say two Hail Marys.”
“Is that all Father, two Hail Marys… that’s all?”
“Yes my son, I cannot give you a reward, but I can give you my absolution, the Church’s blessing… and two Hail Marys… In sinning you have done Mother Church and the children of that town a very great service… Go in peace my son.” Then he gave me a formal Absolution, and said.
“Now, I must go quickly… You did well to stop here. I’m the nearest priest so I will go to the village. At the very least, that altar-boy must need absolution… and encouragement. It sounds like he’s been brave and calm too, but he must be very frightened. I will speak to the authorities and tell them what a vile man the priest was, and that the Church is pleased that such a happy accident has overtaken him.”
I told him what I had seen… the doctor comforting the boy, the smoking policeman, the undertaker’s men…
“It seems your tableaux is playing out just as you wrote it!” I could hear the laughter in his serious tone.
“Now, forgive me… you deserve lunch, but I think that altar-boy needs me more than you need lunch. I must go and encourage his courage!
With that he rushed off. I stayed a few minutes to hide my face from him… and then continued my journey to the north, through Polla, Cisterna and Tempio. After Tempio the road curved west. I asked a farmer if I was still on the road to Salerno. He assured me that I was and recommended that I visit the Grotta di Pertosa when I was passing. I thanked him and asked if the Grotto was free.
“Not exactly,” He replied. “but I’m sure that some kind man will pay to get you in…”
When he laughed, I read more into what he had said than I would have a week earlier.
I reached the grotto on the following day. I had spent the night with a kindly priest, who had been more than happy to hear my confession before breakfast. I know he was more than happy, because I had made sure that he was… before we slept…. and again before breakfast.
I asked him if he knew the entrance price for the grotto. He smiled, and reached in his pocket for a few lire. “Enjoy yourself,” He said, and with a shy smile “and, anyone else you meet in the dark of the caves!” He laughed… but his laughter set me thinking. Both he and the farmer assumed that men would… The more I thought about it, the more I knew that they were right, and that a solution to all my problems lay in that knowledge.
He pressed in my hand the same sum of money that I was used to receiving after… well after he had received what he was grateful for.
The grottoes were off the right hand side of the main road. The entrance was a high arch of rock, with darkness within. I paused outside, within sight of the entrance, and sat under a tree to eat my lunch. While I was eating a man arrived, smiled at the sight of my meal and sat under another tree. He chose the sunshine, while I, after my morning in the sun had chosen the shade.
I stood up and brushed the crumbs off my clothes. I watched the small birds chase after them. I appreciated how they felt. My life was much like theirs, nothing of my own, but living well on the crumbs from other tables.
The man stood, and walked over to me… “Are you visiting the grotto?” He asked.
I smiled and said that I was. “It seems very quiet. No-one has entered while I have been here, nor has anyone come out… I expect it’s the times… it must be difficult for the owners.”
“Have you travelled far?” He asked.
“From Calabria… Cosenza… I’m on my way to Rome!” I said, with some pride.
“Walking?” He said, with disbelief in his voice.
“Yes, I am off to make my fortune… or die trying!” I laughed at his expression.
“How old are you to tackle such a journey?” He asked.
“Fourteen!” I said… I swear his eyes glittered. It crossed my mind that I was not tall for my age. “Only… since the summer.” I added… so recently thirteen… I left him to do the arithmetic.
“So young… and so bold!” He said thoughtfully… Then he appeared to make a decision.
“To help your journey just a little… may I pay your entry to the grotto? … I’m alone and would appreciate the company.”
I smiled and thanked him and said we must do what we could to ensure that we got the most from our visit. He laughed and discreetly patted my bottom as we walked up to the entrance. He put his hand on my shoulder as if to suggest we were related, although the difference in the quality and repair of our clothes and shoes would not fool anyone who was worried about such things.
The caves were spectacular. We were given small oil lanterns to light our way and the flickering light made the stalactite formations seem more mysterious. There was a stalagmite that a small sign called “The Medusa” that looked just like many snake heads. The flickering light from the oil lamps made them appear to move… very startling. I was quite glad that I was not alone. We ignored the possibility of a boat ride in the cave, and took the long walk instead.
He spotted a side passage accessed by stepping over the rope that marked the path.
“Come!” He said “Let’s have an adventure!” I joined him.
“Please excuse me… we don’t have much time… How much?” He asked.
“How much for wh… Oh,…” I mentioned sums in lire… “for my mouth and bottom, unless you only want…”
“Oh your bottom will be fine!” He said quietly, finding coins to pay what I had asked.
I opened my knapsack and found the remains of my lunch… there was butter between the slices of bread… it would have to do… no olive oil today. I would be better prepared tomorrow!
He blew out the lamps after he had seen what I had to offer… “So smooth, almost no…”
He seemed pleased with what he saw, and felt… he brushed his hand down my stomach, perhaps checking for stubble. I knew he would fine none… the Don had called me a late bloomer. Having absorbed the whole wonder and enormity of what he had stumbled on, he turned me away from him, and I put my hand to my rear to butter his late lunch.
He was very excited and rather rough, but my small sounds seemed to excite rather than calm him. His hand sought me out, to share his pleasure, which I thought was nice of him.
When we had finished he pulled his trousers up, checked that I was dressed and re-lit the lamps.
“That was perfect!” He said happily. “You seem very experienced… for fourteen, so recently thirteen!” He joked.
“Oh no!” I said. “I wouldn’t want you to think that… You are my first customer. Before you there were only my friend Luigi and a few priests that I have made happy. You are the first that I have given a price.” I swear he thought about going round again! Then he said how he had paid for my bottom but not for being my first customer… and he paid me again!
I had found my vocation!
When he left he asked if I was coming with him. I said no, that perhaps I would explore a little further, now that I was so much more experienced than when I entered. He laughed, patted me on the shoulder and then on the bottom. He wished me good luck.
By loitering near the entrance and following single men who entered the cave I attracted three more during the afternoon. Two chose my bottom and one my lips, no-one settled for just my hand. The butter ran out, but my bottom was now so slick that it didn’t even matter that the last man was exceptionally large! Well… it did matter to the extent that I decided he had to be the last for the day… if I was to be able to walk to the next town… I suspected that anyone watching me from behind as I walked away from the grotto would guess what I had spent the afternoon doing.
The guardian of the entrance seemed to have, and was clearly unimpressed… “You’ve been in there all afternoon!” He complained. “You’ll get us a bad name! I don’t want to see you again… this week. Next time… pay each time as well.”
Clearly his displeasure had its limits, and was as much as anything because they had only received one entrance fee from me. I resisted the opportunity to offer to become a special attraction. I wondered how many friends of the four men would now come looking for me and be disappointed. Not everyone can have an adventure… that’s why they are called adventures.
I smiled to myself and walked on… into the rest of my life.
I now knew what I was… I just didn’t know yet what it was called.
The road over the next few mountains brought me a few more churches and a few more priests. Then I breasted the brow of a hill, and there, in front of me lay the Tyrrhenian Sea, Salerno, its port and perhaps my short-cut to Anzio and Rome.
Salerno, Italy 1940.
Salerno was vast, huge… I was used to small country villages. This was large beyond my comprehension. I felt dwarfed and wanted to simply run away. The immediate choice seemed to be between the harbour and the hills. I tried the harbour… but it smelled of the sea and fish… I thought I might try the hills. I understood hills much better.
While I was approaching the city from the north-east I had been fascinated by the huge castle on a mountain directly overlooking the north of the city. It was surrounded by high walls that descended to steep ravines. It looked like a good place to find a quiet corner to sleep, at least until I found the church and the priest on my “dinner” list!
When I woke next morning it was to the wonderful blue of Salerno Bay. Even up on the mountain I could hear the bustle of the port below me. I decided to explore the harbour before looking for my next church… The San Pietro Mission to Seamen. It sounded as if I would find it not far from the boats, so it could if necessary wait until I needed dinner and a bed.
When one of the priests had mentioned the Mission to Seamen I thought that perhaps I might be able to get a ride on a boat from Salerno to Naples. It would considerably reduce my remaining walk to Rome.
I looked forward to meeting some sailors. In my fourteen years I had met goatherds, farmers, priests and teachers… I had never met a sailor or a fisherman… and this was supposed to be an adventure. Sailors could hardly be more dangerous than priests if the last few days were anything to go by!
I could hardly have been more wrong!
In fact, almost the first thing I saw was a knife-fight. Two fishermen had quarrelled over a place at the quay. It was an unbalanced fight, one of them knew what he was doing… the other was in big trouble. To my surprise, his opponent then did the decent thing, a quick swipe across the man’s ribs produced a lot of blood, but no serious injury… a dozen stitches would fix it. Honour had been satisfied and the injured man wandered off to seek a surgery.
The winner came to sit near me, on the sea-wall.
“That was nice of you.” I said in an undertone.
“Hey kid… What was nice?” He asked.
“That you didn’t really injure him… he was pretty useless… He’d do better to keep his knife for slicing salami!” I said, with a quiet smile. He laughed, a fine belly laugh.
“You noticed… I hope he didn’t… It would be better to have a friend than a shamed enemy!”
“Nah, He waved his knife around and attacked a few times… I guess he’s pretty pleased with himself… and he’ll have a nice scar to show off! The women will love it!” I smiled at my own joke. He ruffled my hair… I started to react, but then relaxed… he seemed a nice guy, and I needed friends.
“Have you eaten yet? It’s time for my breakfast… will you join me?” He asked.
I smiled back and stood… accepting his invitation.
We walked to a bar in a small side street, and he ordered sliced meat, sausage and cheese. It arrived with hunks of fresh bread, still hot from the oven. He asked if I would like a beer… or a coffee. I accepted a beer… and then said…
“But, let me pay for the beer!”
“No, indeed!” He laughed… “I would prefer to have you in my debt!” More laughter.
I was now enjoying the joke… “Were you ever a priest?” I asked. “That sounded just like a priest’s invitation to breakfast!”
Now we were both almost in tears laughing. Clearly we shared a low opinion of Christian charity.
“There are some good ones…” He said.
I nodded in agreement. “… and some real bastards!” I said.
He nodded in agreement to that too.
“I hear that bastard just south of here met a nasty accident!” He said. I nodded in agreement.
“He was a nasty piece of work… it’s a pity it was an accident… He’d been asking for some kid’s angry papa to finish him off.” The fisherman observed.
“Yes, he had been on borrowed time. It was what he deserved for the kid he killed!”
I must have said it more loudly than I intended… He looked up, startled.
“I hear he was cut…” He said very quietly…
I tried not to react to his words, but maybe I have no future as a card-player.
“My God,” He said even more quietly… “It was you… you offed the priest… He was a big guy too.”
“And slow… he depended on his stick… you only have to step inside the swing.” I regretted it the moment I said it. I stood…
“I had better go!”
He placed a hand on my arm, gently and with respect.
“No, stay… it’s an honour to eat with you… We all risk having a first, and yours was righteous, an honourable one… I salute you!” He raised his beer.
I touched my glass to his… “And I respect what you did just now… so we’re even.” I replied.
“Indeed we are… indeed we are.” We sat in the morning sun, in a comfortable silence.
Then he said… “Where are you staying?… Can I ask what you are doing here in Salerno?”
I replied… “The priest died in my old village in the south…” He glanced up, I laughed…
“No, no, he was my friend, I loved him… he died of old age!” I reassured him.
“I was afraid you had a bad habit with priests!” He said… I enjoyed his humour.
“When he knew he was dying, he asked me to deliver some books to a friend in Rome, so that’s what I’m doing. I started in Calabria, and now I’ve reached Salerno… It’s the first time I’ve seen the sea.”
“You say you loved this priest… He was one of the good ones?”
“Yes, a very gentle man… He was more than a priest to us… he kept us safe and fed… a good man. All I can do in return is to deliver his books to his friend.”
“Then you will return?” He asked.
“I don’t think so… maybe one day… when old-Maria is dead…” I mused at my incomplete thought.
“Ah, old-Maria knew then?” He asked gently.
I looked up. Once more I had said more than intended… twice so far this morning…
“I really ought to go!” Again he stopped me.
“No, please stay. If you loved him and he was a good man then I respect your love… where was the harm?”
“There was no harm, we made each other happy, and at the end I made sure that he was warm, fed and comfortable… it’s just a pity that old-Maria…” I said in a whisper.
He put an arm round my shoulders and hugged me to him while I controlled my tears.
“Death takes us by surprise, and there is always an old-Maria out there somewhere, ready to make mischief.” His words made sense.
“Yes, we had tidied almost everything, just a few photographs left… We should have been more careful, left him with less.” I said regretfully.
He responded boisterously with. “No regrets… come on… no regrets… you are on the road to adventure in Rome… without the photographs and old-Maria you would still be herding your mama’s goats!” He was right of course… Here I was by the sea chatting to a fisherman, and eating his breakfast. Life was actually good, very good in fact!
Eventually the sun rose in the sky and it became uncomfortable. He said… “I must return to my boat… I have nets that need mending. The boy who helps me on the boat is visiting his grandma in Naples… so I have to mend them on my own.” He sighed.
“I would offer to help.” I said. “But, I know less about fishing nets than our priest did about goats!”
He laughed, and said “Go, and look round the town, visit the castle… avoid the paths just below it… Unless you are looking to make money…” I looked up, interested… “in which case… go find the paths below the castle!”
He laughed, and patted me on the back… “Go along with you, a handsome boy like you can find his fortune in a port.” He laughed again. “Come back when you have made your fortune… or the sun is setting… whichever happens sooner!” I stood to go.
“Seriously… If you would like some company and some dinner tonight… I will look for you here… If you want we can have breakfast together… in the morning.” He said it diffidently, as if to make it easy for me to refuse with honour. I didn’t refuse…
“Here at sunset then… I shall be here.” I said seriously and with certainty… I knew what I wanted and it wasn’t just an evening meal… or somewhere to sleep…
I wanted the company of this man.