by Peter Byrne
A Short Story
(Swans - January 15, 2007) "This is the place," Bill told Jo, who nodded.
He eased the car off the road and onto the track that went toward the beach. Both of them had been surprised that the tips they'd been given by their travel agent had for once been a wild understatement. The heel of Italy did have an aura of peace and remoteness from danger. Lecce was a splendid Baroque town. Gnarled olive trees in fact filled the surrounding countryside that was indeed ennobled by the occasional solitary umbrella pine.
The highway out of Lecce ran past dry stonewalls and hamlets that seemed to have grown out of the dark red earth. The Ionian coast road was deserted. They drove along miles of empty beaches until this one that looked not only empty but never yet tread upon by noisy humans. Of course it was October, the season long over. But the air was tepid and the sun warm. They spread their blanket, determined to break the local taboo and go for an autumn swim. First they'd rest a bit, their eyes lost in the huge blue sky.
"There's a boat," said Jo.
They'd both dozed. But now Bill sat up alert beside her.
It was a clumsy looking craft and coming straight for the protruding patch of beach fifty yards down the slope.
"But they can't land there," Bill said. "There's no dock."
"Maybe that's why they've stopped. It was a mistake," said Jo. "My God!"
People were tumbling off the deck as if pushed. The water was quiet enough but all the same reached their breasts. There was a thrashing of arms as at a first swimming lesson. A tall man sat a child on his shoulders. A woman pushed a wicker suitcase in front of her in the surf. There were two other figures struggling toward the shore. The boat backed rapidly away.
"They're illegals," said Bill, "taken aboard in North Africa or Albania or somewhere."
Jo wrapped her arms tight around her knees. "But one has a very black face," she said.
"Well, he could have started out from the center of Africa. They come from great distances."
"Buses, camels, on foot if necessary."
Bill stood up.
"This can't be right," said Jo. "They just can't wade into Italy. Shouldn't the authorities be here?"
"Naturally," said Bill, "It's illegal."
"Well, you've got your mobile. You ought to phone someone."
"Sure. It's in the car. I could call the police."
The new arrivals were regrouping now at the water's edge. The very black man had on a huge backpack. It had absorbed a lot of water and he had trouble keeping on his feet with the weight. The tall man who had carried the child was trying to get his breath back. The child clung to his leg with both arms. Both of them had dark olive skin. The woman with the wicker case was old. She had a fair face full of deep horizontal lines. She adjusted some kind of kerchief on her head.
"Maybe not the police," said Jo. "There must be some social service."
"Are you kidding? These people have done a dumb thing. They'll be put in a lockup and then sent back in the general direction of wherever they came from."
"The child too?"
"Yes, of course. I hope he only paid half fare."
"Their life savings."
"That's awful. But what will they do if no one phones about them?"
"Disappear into the countryside, I suppose."
"But they're all wet."
"Well, they're in luck with the weather. The locals claim October has never been warmer. Look, I'm going to fetch my phone. We don't want to be accessories."
"Accessories? Why, we're not even Italian. We don't have to defend the country. Anyway, those people may have come from Lecce like us. They simply went out for a spin on the water."
"You mean they're on a package tour with a boat ride thrown in?"
"We don't know, do we?"
There was a fourth person who landed, but he'd been stretched out on his back. Now he rose on his elbows, showing a gray face with dark shadows. The old woman had taken a flask from her case and leant over him.
"People can't just walk into one country from another," Bill said. "Europe would fall apart."
"They didn't walk -- they swam. And they did pay their way after all. It's only three and a half more."
"The number doesn't matter. It's the principle."
"The law. Tell me now. Would you like those folks living next door to you?"
"Maybe. I don't know. I'd have to meet them first and see what they have to say. The child doesn't look like the sort that would throw acorns at your barbeque."
"Oh I see. The tall guy might make a fourth at bridge and the old girl give you an exotic recipe for hot peppers."
"No need to be sarcastic. I don't see what you've got against them. It's not as if our neighborhood bristles with vivacity. Your great friends the Evans aren't exactly ideal next-door neighbors. I'd rather eat pepper stew than Suzy Evan's floury lemon meringues."
"I'm going for my phone," Bill said.
But he stayed where he was, not one to walk away with the last word stuck in his throat.
"Let's just get a couple of things straight," he said. "Though I've nothing against those people, I've nothing to say in their favor. I simply note that they've broken the law -- international law. As for our neighborhood, I'll remind you that you chose it. Once tied down there, with a mortgage I'll never see the end of, I did, noblesse oblige, make the best of it and behave cordially to my neighbors."
"Cordially?" said Jo. "Mooning over sultry Suzy when she exhibits her dimpled ass in her ridiculous gardening get-up? "
Bill stood there chewing the inside of his mouth and choosing among his heaviest weapons.
"Then let's sell the house and go elsewhere," he said, with theatrical calm.
Jo got on her feet and made a gesture with her arms that said, "We've already talked that one into the ground."
They looked down at the water's edge. The people had gone. There wasn't a boat on the horizon. The beach was as empty as if no one had ever put a foot on it. Bill began folding the blanket, and Jo the unused towels.
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