by Peter Byrne
(Swans - March 10, 2008) When Angela and Harry got out of the car to shake hands with Mario, he said to Harry, "It would be good for you to speak to Father." Now, a hundred yards along the seafront, he was saying, "You can explain to Papa."
Harry thought it best to call at least a temporary halt and shepherded Angela and Mario to a café table with a view of the sea.
Angela didn't mind sitting down, just as she wouldn't have minded going on walking. The main thing for her was to be out of her own house and, dressed for the occasion, engaged in some activity with her husband Harry.
"You see," said Mario as soon as he sat down, "he's concerned about the boat people."
Harry tried to look confused as if he didn't know that "he" was Mario's father. But Mario caught on or anyway instinctively countered by saying, "You'll see when you meet Papa again."
Angela went on about their last trip there. She was a scrupulous historian in such matters. Harry, who had read and even written history, couldn't be sure whether it was ten or twenty years since they'd last been to this spot on the Adriatic.
After zeroing in on the year and the season, Angela now pinpointed the day of the week.
"Of course it was a Friday. Your mother said how strange it was not to eat fish."
Then her voice dropped and she looked sad, "What a pity you lost her."
Mario may have thought so too. But it was his father who was still alive and needed attention.
"Living here by the sea makes it worse. You know what a great reader Papa is."
Now Harry remembered with a wince. The old man spared no energy in proving his standing as a cultivated professional man. On that visit he'd recited from memory Ugo Foscolo's I Sepolcri, all 295 hendecasyllable lines. The performance had been unstoppable, like an epileptic fit.
"Does he still have his taste for poetry?" Harry ventured.
"No time for poems now. Papa has put all those books on the Mediterranean away too. He hardly has time for his newspaper. The European situation is too dire."
"Well, there's not much growth in the E.U. economies," Harry said like a sage.
"Papa doesn't care about that. He's gets his pension. It's those dangerous countries on the other shore that worry him."
Angela empathized with Mario, or perhaps with his father, by clenching her jaws. At the same time, she liked all those strange places over the water. You could ship out from Otranto to Durazzo in Albania. Otherwise you went up to Brindisi where ships for everywhere departed.
Mario couldn't be stopped, like those lines of Foscolo.
"Papa feels he has to keep watching the sea, even at night."
Harry looked out at the horizon. There was nothing but a local pleasure boat fooling around close to shore.
"There's not much going on out there in the daytime. Surely after dark...well of course the weather can change quickly and blow up a storm."
"No, no, weather reports we've got on TV. It's them over there," said Mario, irritated, and making a large gesture above the pleasure boat, which was coming ashore for the big midday meal that no local was going to eat on a boat.
"They want to get into Europe and will come across in anything that floats."
"So your father helps the police," said Harry, careful to keep a distance.
Mario looked distraught.
"Not directly," he said, "Papa's never trusted the police since they backed down in Salo. He feels he has to keep his eyes peeled."
"That's great if he has the time," said Harry. "All that fresh air. Does he use a telescope?"
"He uses high powered binoculars and has a telescopic sight on his rifle."
Angela gulped at that, and her empathy receded. She could wage a violent enough argument but abhorred firearms.
Harry cut in, in order to avoid misunderstandings, or so he would have explained. "Couldn't that be dangerous? I mean, you know, accidents?"
"It could get Papa into trouble," said Mario, glad finally to get Harry roped into the subject. "With his eyesight, how could he be sure to hit them only in the legs? They wear such crazy clothes that you can't tell head from feet."
Angela couldn't keep quiet. "But, Mario, he can't shoot people simply because they want to come ashore here in Italy."
Mario had obviously heard this kind of female sentimentality before, and gave a tolerant smile. But he quickly went back to frowning. "Papa says they're thieves. They want to steal our culture."
Harry thought about Ugo Foscolo being carted away in a cage by some turbaned figures. He remembered that in 1480 the Turks landed at Otranto. There was a terrible battle. He'd once been to the cathedral and saw a pile of leftover skulls. But he'd forgotten whether the skulls had belonged to the Turks or to the local resistance.
Mario kept talking. He said something about the new arrivals not having our ways. They were given to huge families and unreasonable interest in money. They threatened Christian Europe.
Harry translated the Italian in his head and came up with "Christendom." He looked at Angela and tried not to smile. She probably wouldn't see the joke. But they'd recently thought about all the Italians they knew and couldn't come up with one who had any intention of entering a church, except in a coffin.
"It's Papa's health I'm worried about. A man of his age shouldn't be out in all weather. The excitement pushes up his blood pressure too."
"Does that affect his aim?" said Angela. She couldn't get over the old man's rifle.
But Mario was talking, not listening.
Harry didn't like to cross anybody, but thought he'd better inject an ounce of reality before they finished their drinks.
"But aren't most of these people grouping in North Africa and striking out for Lampedusa? It's a Sicilian problem, surely?"
"Papa says it's all one sea. The wind can blow them over this way. Remember when the Albanians landed?"
"Did he ever, er, have a confrontation with people disembarking?"
"There was a dust-up with a couple of British tourists. But it was their fault. They were fiddling around in a rubber dinghy and had dark skin."
"No danger to Christendom," thought Harry, but he wasn't going to say that.
"My idea's that you could put it all in a larger perspective for Papa. I talked to him about you at breakfast, and he remembered how you loved Ugo Foscolo."
"Perspective?" said Angela. "You mean how he would be breaking the law?"
Mario smiled again. He hadn't really listened again.
"Harry," he said, "you've lived in so many countries. You know Europe. Now I want you to explain to Papa."
Harry was now genuinely curious about what he would explain.
"You tell him that these people may land here, but that they don't stay. They move on up to the north and then over the borders."
"But some of them stay up there in Emilia and Lombardy and get jobs," said Angela, and this time right in Mario's face so he had to take it in.
He spoke to Harry. "Papa doesn't worry too much about those places, and it's best to just say they all go over the border to Germany. You see, he's something of a patriot, and he's never cared for the Germans since they left us in the lurch at Salo."
"And the French, the Swiss?" asked Harry.
"They've always looked after themselves pretty well," said Mario, starchy. Then he continued his train of thought. "Papa's active and not lazy. If we let him know that these people don't mean to stay with us, that they're only passing through, he'll change his tactics."
"He won't shoot them in the legs?" asked Angela.
Mario ignored her. "You can tell him that, well, 98% of the arrivals only pass through Italy. Papa likes figures. Don't be afraid to use them, 87%, 99%, that sort of thing."
"You think he'll get down on the beach and shoo them on north?" asked Angela.
"Exactly, Angela, something like that," said Mario. He paid attention to her when she agreed with him. "I mean he may still go to sit in his chair occasionally. But he won't feel he has to be on duty continuously. There'll be no need for the binoculars. He'll relax. After all, if he's not around, they'll still walk north. Papa's reasonable. There's no other direction to go."
Harry shrugged agreement to that, since there certainly was no other way to go. They were at the absolute bottom of Europe down here, maybe you could say of Christendom.
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