an extract from Chimera

David Hewison, half Italian, half English, is in Italy during the Second World War as an agent for the Special Operations Executive. In this passage, well into the book, his partisan group are on the run. Orlandi is the leader of the group and Tobasi is the communist representative of the Comitato per Liberazione Nazionale. They have a prisoner with them, an Italian Fasicst official named Alessio, whom they have tried for crimes against the Italian people. He also happens to be the husband of Hewison's mistress, Clara. And now that they are on the run, this man has become a dangerous burden...

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'The caves are further up,' Orlandi called.

Of course they were not natural caves. Like the eyes and mouths of carnival masks they stared vacantly out of the blank rock walls, partly obscured by the vegetation which clung to the rock and approachable only over a pile of mossy boulders. Of course they were Etruscan tombs.

They are perfectly dry,' Orlandi shouted. 'And unless you know they are here . . .'

He led the way up over the boulders, followed by his band of partisans humping their meagre equipment. It was difficult getting Alessio to follow. The rocks were slippery and he was only wearing town shoes. Hanging onto Hewison's arm he slithered and struggled, and when they finally got him up and onto the ledge he was pale and winded, barely able to stand.

While Hewison watched over the prisoner the rest of the group held a hurried meeting. Hewison felt that he had finally lost hold over them, that his power had been drained away from him by his defence of Alessio and by the subtle machinations of Tobasi. And he felt tired, physically tired of struggling through this damned wilderness, but also tired of Alessio's voice, tired of his taunts and his ironies, tired of having to be understanding towards a man whom he had disliked ever since Clara had first spoken of him; tired too of having to admit to himself that Alessio was not the insensitive fool that he had always imagined. There was, he knew, an easy way out. When Orlandi and Tobasi came from the meeting he offered no protest.

'Take him then,' he said turning away towards the mouth of the cave. 'Take him and do what you like.'

But Tobasi grabbed his sleeve. He was smiling, shaking his head. 'I'm sorry, I'm not too familiar with the gospels. How does it go? "I am innocent of this Man's blood: you see to it." Is that correct? He was right, you know? What he said about you. You aren't an Italian, you are a hybrid. You are neither for us nor against us: you are just playing this for games.'

With an air of finality he pushed Hewison back towards the prisoner. 'Well now the games are finished, signor ibrido. Now you can kill him.'

Then he left Hewison and the prisoner alone on the ledge and went into the cave where the others were waiting.

Alessio looked up at Hewison. Even at a moment like this he contrived an ironical smile. 'Is this what you expected, Englishman? he asked. 'Is this what you expected when you set out to war?'

'Shut up.'

'Is it what Clara expected when she set out to betray me?'

'She didn't set out to betray you. There was nothing you can blame her for.'

'Oh, but I don't blame her. I sympathize. The flesh is always weak, isn't it? But what you are about to do cannot be passed off as a momentary weakness of the flesh. Now you are going to damn your soul.'

There was a silence. A cold wind was buffeting the ledge and Hewison shivered. He tried to gather his thoughts into some kind of order, but for once he failed. His circumstances were far beyond appeals to reason. He had stepped into a world of pure chaos.

'Let's get on with it.' he said, as though he was referring to something distasteful but quite ordinary. He pulled Alessio to his feet.

A path of sorts led diagonally upwards through the trees from where they stood, presumably the traces of a way which had once given access to the tombs from the higher ground. Hewison urged Alessio towards it. He had a vague sense that death, like birth and love, was something that demanded privacy.

As they went Tobasi called from the cave, 'I'll give you five minutes.'

The two men stumbled and slithered in the leaf mould pulling themselves up on branches and roots, clambering over more boulders. After a while there was a small clearing guarded by an outcrop of rock. The rock was split at its base by a narrow cave from which a small spring issued. Alessio stumbled into the space and sat down on a boulder beside the stream.

'So,' he said. He sat with his back towards Hewison, staring across the gorge to the far side. His grey hair was plastered against his scalp. His suit was muddied, torn at one elbow and sodden up to the knees. He was shivering slightly, from fear or cold or an amalgam of both Hewison could not say. Hewison rather thought not fear; it was he who was shivering from fear. He wondered how much time had already passed and he glanced at his watch before realizing that he had not looked at
it at the beginning and that what it said meant nothing. Did time pass quickly or slowly in circumstances such as these? He had no means of knowing. Nothing they had taught him at the Club said anything about this.

Unexpectedly Alessio looked round at him. 'Give me a few moments, if you please. In the absence of a priest. . .' He attempted a smile. His face was grey, slick with sweat, but paradoxically he seemed far more composed than Hewison felt.

'Of course.'

'Ever a gentleman, la mia chimera.' When he had used the word before it had sounded abusive, but this time the possessive pronoun gave it an oddly affectionate sound, like a father talking to a son. He turned back towards the view across the valley and sat still for some time, his elbows on his knees, his hands clasped beneath his chin. And while Alessio sat and prayed, or whatever it was he was doing, Hewison thought of Clara and Gianluca: Clara pale and naked, splayed open before him; Gianluca on his knees in front of him, begging.

After a while, still without taking his eyes from the view before him, Alessio said, Thank you.'

Hewison fumbled with the flap of his webbing holster. He drew his automatic pistol and slid the action back to cock it. With one hand he pulled his scarf from his neck and wrapped it clumsily around the weapon to deaden the sound. Then, holding the gun with both hands as he had been taught, he took two steps nearer the prisoner. Alessio must have heard all this, but he made no move. His very immobility was a kind of reproach. With the muzzle of his pistol one foot from the back of Alessio's head and Clara's image still in his mind, Hewison fired. The shot, barely muffled by the scarf, rang around the valley. Long after the whole thing was over, to Hewison's mind the sound still seemed to be there, detached from its origins, ringing around the landscape. The impact knocked Alessio from his seat and flung him forward and down the slope. He came to a stop with his limbs folded under him and his head resting against a stone, his face half turned sideways.

Hewison ran down to him. His features were crumpled into the grass, but a single eye looked out at what remained of his world. Before anything could happen, before that single, accusing eye could blink or the crumpled mouth move, Hewison placed the muzzle of his pistol against Alessio's temple and fired again.

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Simon Mawer 2008 - 2015. This website is written and maintained by the author.