The beginning of a novel – to be continued
The wedge of saliva slapped him like a great wet tongue, wrapped around his cheek and lay thickly across his upper lip. It seemed to be a mixture of thick foam, half-masticated millet stalks, and the foul-smelling exudations from the camel’s stomach. Apparently the animal had a serious digestive problem, for the taste was disgusting.
Giuseppe was stunned for a moment by the shock of the attack. He looked in the direction from where the slimey missile had arrived. He recognised the source instantly.
“Hiiiyhh, yaaaaark, he exclaimed, spitting furiously to rid his mouth of the camel froth, slapping and wiping viciously at his face with the sleeve of his uniform. His legs seemed to do an involuntary dance, like a man demented, as he carried out the depollution. All about him, Italian and Abyssinian alike, roared and guffawed in laughter, rolling about as a drunken rabble.
The camel was unreactive, observing the spectacle dispassionately, continuing to chew its cud, perhaps preparing another gob should it be needed. A flicker of the lidded eyes suggested the hint of a smirk, apparently satisfied with the incident he had caused.
I knew nothing of my grandfather but the sketchiest details of his story, and a picture of him hanging on the salon wall. He is a slender smiling man, with an open pleasant face framed by a large pith helmet, wearing the uniform of an Italian colonial soldier.
My papa never met his father, for he was still cossetted in the belly of his mama when her husband boarded the ship at Genoa, bound for service in Abyssinia on the horn of Africa. Papa’s version of the history of his origin was obscure and foggy; why he left at such a critical moment when his wife would give birth; when he intended to return, how he met his death in that arid corner of Italy’s colonial pretensions? There were no clear answers. All papa could tell me, was that he died in about 1938, and was presumably buried somewhere in that obscure part of the world.
When we were invited to do a brief work stint in Eritrea, it seemed to be a coincidence worth exploring a little, just in case there might be some documentation of his existence. I went to the Italian Embassy in the capital of Asmara, where we were based during the visit. It was almost directly across the street from our hotel anyway, so little time would be lost with a casual enquiry.
My chance visit to the embassy was an unexpected boon. Not only did they confirm that he had actually died in what had only 15 years earlier become recognised as Eritrea, independent from the former Ethiopia aka Abyssinia. They could also direct us precisely to where he was buried, in a still well-maintained cemetery by the shores of the Red Sea. And one more priceless piece of information; he did not die in 1938, or even vaguely near that date. A mystery was born; of course I must try to unravel it.
The month was July and, down at sea level thousands of metres below Asmara, the heat was ferocious, dry as a bone, with a wind that seemed bent on scorching mere humans to the very bone. As promised, the cemetery was immaculately well-kept, a little patch of marble and green, like a surreal rectangularised oasis deposited in the midst of a parched treeless inferno.
I was surprised that my heart was beating strongly as we approached the gate. It was ornately worked metal, suspended between grand portals that anchored the ornate marble wall surrounding the sanctuary. Surely the stone had been imported directly from Massa on the Tuscan coast, as if to comfort the souls of the departed, unable to return to their beloved Italia.
I knew the moment I entered the cemetery exactly where I would find the tomb of Giuseppe Simonetti. Most of the old soldiers were entombed in thick marble walls, the identity of each fallen countryman chiselled perfectly with name, rank, date of birth and death. Some were honoured with a brief sentence of eulogy. I instinctively knew that I would not find him there. No, he would be amongst those more ornate memorials that occupied the rear half of the compound.
Like some form of colonial apartheid, those who resided back there were remembered in more memorable ways, with soaring obelisks, and romanesque mausoleums. Surely That was not his. Over towards the back corner perched on its own little hillock, stood a solitary spreading tree which I recognised as neem. Under it stood a mausoleum unique from the others; it had the distinct form of an elegant boot. I knew I had found Giuseppe. Why a long-dead soldier grandfather of mine would have such an eccentric form for his tomb, I had not the slightest idea. Logic said No, intuition said emphatically Yes.
I did not even examine the headstones of the other graves, but walked directly to his ornate white marble boot. Before I could actually read the letters, I could see that I was right.
Adorato da tutti la sua famiglia e gli tanti amici,
E da tutti creaturi conoscuiti.
That it was him was certain. But 1986, all his family and known animals? I actually shook my head vigorously, trying to fathom what I read, what it might mean.
The old watchman was a silent man who had greeted us gently smiling with one hand placed on heart as he respectfully half-bowed. He had maintained a discrete distance behind us as we searched for whatever interested us. Now he approached us where we stood in front of the grave.
“Do you know the story of this man, my grandfather,” I asked, thinking it proper to declare my connection.
As a response, the elderly man nodded affirmation, but indicated his mouth and throat, mimed some words and shook his head sadly. He was mute. What he could express though, without need for speech, was pure love. He placed one hand on his heart, the other softly cradled his own face, and he looked to heaven, a stream of tears tracing down his dusty cheek.
It seemed that for our friend the watchman, Opa Giuseppe was closely related to the angels, had perhaps even become one. Angels never having proliferated in our family, I was even more intrigued by the notion that my grandfather had transcended the rest of us and taken his place ‘up there’.
The only connection I had with him was the embassy, which so far had furnished me with useful information, but grossly inaccurate, and a mute admirer whose relationship to the old man was obscure and inaccessible. However, a lack of one sense invariably heightens the perception and capacity of other senses. My thoughts were apparently transparent to him, for he took out a dog-eared spiral-bound notebook and a stub of a pencil, and began to inscribe a name and address. Completed, he carefully tore out the page and handed it to me.
I looked at the text, first drawn by the inscription, before I could define them. It was a delicate work of art. The letters were perfectly formed, sculptured and embellished, and as neat and uniform as if they were the work of a printing machine. They distracted me for some minutes while I admired the elegant sweeps and intricate filigree of his handcraft. The content of the words finally drew me away from the refinement of the script.
The address he handed me added nothing to clarify the mystery.