YASMIN

By Anthony Aikman
 

 
 


‘When the dull red eye of day is level with the lone highway and some to Mecca turn

to pray And I towards your bed ...Yasmin.’

James Elroy Flecker

"Antonio, do you remember our city when we were students and the future destiny of the world could be shaped by us alone. Do you remember the heady days during the student uprising when we felt as if we were storming The gates of the winter palace in St Petersburg when in fact we were drying Out from the rain in Mario's cheap trattoria, bundles of sodden posters and spray cans for graffiti at our feet while we waited for Mario's infamous soup (boiled-up leftovers). They claim that on Mario's paper-tablecloths epic poems, symphonic scores, historical novels had been composed by customers waiting to be served, while outside rain gushed down the gutters of Via del Moro and the horse drawn carrozinas whined on the cobbles as they clattered back to their steamy stables near the Ponte Sisto. Yes, Antonio, how we used our time at Mario's to change the world- but the world is more stubborn than we think and it is only we who have changed. You, Antonio, became by chance, choice, or circumstance not the great composer you dreamed of, but a humble 'bush' doctor in remote places far from the haunts of the ‘cognoscenti’ you once so envied. I, to my surprise, for as a student I despised teaching as propaganda of the establishment, became a university professor and Yasmin Ah, Yasmin, how even now after all these years mention or memory of her halts me in my tracks. Yasmin, who was at the centre, the core of our lives, and perhaps is still. Writing to you, Antonio is like corking a letter in a bottle and casting it upon the whims of the waves, for I can never keep up with where you are, or have moved on to, or even if you are alive, but two things conspired to get me to send this letter. One is that whenever --as recently, we see television pictures of students protesting meetings of the world's Rich and Great, I see Yasmin in the thick of it, banner in hand, storming the barricades, no matter whether it is Berlin, Beijing or Bangkok. And the other reason is a faded photograph that fell from my bookshelf the other day. Taken long ago by some street photographer sheltering from the rain, for their is cross-eyed Mario clutching plates behind the three of us; you, Yasmin, and I and although it is black and white and grainy I can see her green bewitching eyes and strands of dark wet hair sticking to her pale cheeks- a magical face. Had I been younger I might shared your infatuation but I had fallen in and out of love enough times already to recognize that as only a temporary madness that happens to us all and that love itself is very different.

What brought you to our city, Antonio? Apart from your music classes at the Santa Cecelia Institute where did you really belong? Yasmin too I remember the first time we came together, studying her and thinking how the blood of Europe and Asia mixed in her veins. She claimed, proudly to be stateless but wasn’t their rumor of a rich Lebanese father, and a mother; actress or danseuse part French, from Macau. So there we were in the same city. Each morning, Antonio , you caught the tram that clanged along the river and uphill past the museo dei belli arti and the borghese gardens where you got down and walked through the fashionable Via Veneto where everyone who was rich and famous-or who wished to be , sat outside the elegant overpriced cafes to see and be seen while you read the Times Newspaper to an elderly blind contessa in Via Sardegna, or dashed off to give mandolin lessons, or waited at Cine Citta-Cinema City, hoping to be chosen as an extra by some aspiring director. We finally came together-trapped you said, by an advert in the daily newspaper announcing a new literary magazine. What a strange band of co-conspirators we turned out: a couple of political exiles from Argentina, one heavily pregnant, an Italian count- so he claimed, a jolly Englishman from the British Council who wrote music reviews and raved over performances by Stockhausen, Cage and Nonno. There was an American painter who identified himself only by the picturesque sobriquet of "Pittore Euforico" and a writer who declared that writing his first novel was like carving a marble sculpture with a feather- which provided him with an excuse for never completing it. Antonio, I am sure you remember those boisterous editorial meetings in Mario’s where enough hot air was generated to float the foundations of society. We argued over everything, even the name 'the Rome Review'. For Yasmin the magazine was never more than a mouthpiece for her politics which recently under the influence of Che Guevarra had taken such a lurch to the left that even Marxist Leninism seemed bourgo is. But that didn't prevent her pinning a hammer and sickle badge to your sodden coat lapel. In honor of what, I wondered?

Your nightly forays knocking noses off the marble busts of noble heroes of the past, spraying graffiti, pasting posters and even, as you once candidly admitted, making love in the damp shrubbery behind the Museum of Fine Arts, which to Yasmin, for whom every action needed to be politically inspired seemed to suggest sufficient symbolism. At any rate your membership to the exalted club of such champions of peoples' liberty as Lenin, Stalin and Mao at least entitled you to a 30% discount at student restaurants even if, according to Yasmin, Mario drew his tawny wine straight out of the Tiber River.

Yes, Antonio, you never denied Yasmin’s jibe that you joined the communist party solely for economic reasons. But what was that photograph of us celebrating? Looking closely at a date penciled faintly on the back I am wondering if it was taken the night before you both set off to join your fellow revolutionaries in Paris. And next morning it was with mixed feelings I accompanied you to the bustling railway station, the train carriages festooned with red flags, Yasmin waving excitedly , singing of the 'international' interrupted by whistles of guards and shunting carriages and suddenly the track empty and the crowded platform of supporters falling strangely silent. Public transport being on strike I walked back across the city and over the ponte sisto bridge to my apartment in Trastevere where from the window I could view the statue of Garibaldi proudly saluting on horseback beneath the umbrella pines on the Gianicolo hilltop. Yes, Antonio, I thought Garibaldi setting off with his thousand strong motley band of red shirted militia a hundred years before to liberate the Nation- he would have approved. And how was Paris when you got there? Of course I never expected a letter. You were too busy being revolutionaries and the Italian post was on strike. I learned most from your anecdotes later. You found lodging in a cheap hotel in the rue St Jaques and how all night as you tried to clutch the excited Yasmin in your eager grasp, while she kept running to the window to cheer on the marchers below, and how the car horns hooted a cacophony of support,-in the intensity of your frenetic love-making did you not wonder with a pang of jealousy if Yasmin's passion was not as much or more for the chanting crowds in the streets below as it was for you. Yes how hard it is when we are young and everything matters so much and all at the same time. Then came that inevitable finale, that final confrontation in the boulevard san Michele; the riot police waiting lined up in neat squares at the street inter sections near the river while higher up the rising street students it fires, unfurled banners, hurled cobblestones, yelled taunts and the shopkeepers hurriedly pulled down their shutters expecting the worst. And when it came the students seemed quite unprepared for the speed and pitiless efficiency of the charges-which reminded you of phalanxes of Roman Legionaries with their long shields, helmets and batons raised like swords.

Except the Romans did not have teargas grenades to toss into sides streets as they ran, these modern mercenaries of the state were just as ruthless, clubbing the students down regardless of sex, and booting them bloody and senseless in the gutters. Somehow you managed to pull away the red flag Yasmin was brandishing and dragged her into one of the few cafe entrances still open, escaping with only a few cudgel blows and a ripped shirt- prized mementoes of your participation. And yet Yasmin didn't seem to regard this episode as a defeat. Back in Rome she never ceased to marvel at the extremist tactics of the Paris students. She denounced non- violent protest and declared that only direct action would force governments to change. But now-for the moment at least-a welcome lull. Summer had arrived. Italy in august is far too hot for revolution. The cities empty apart from perspiring tourists and the entire population heads for the coast. Politics are put aside for a month or two. Antonio, do you still play the mandolin- for it was with the proceeds of your lessons we bought that leaky little yacht-oddly named "dreamer”, from a penniless Englishman who had somehow reached Fiumicino. "She leaks just a bit," he advised off handedly as he counted the payment, adding,” be sure to pump her dry before going to sleep." We realized why the boat was so cheap when we loaded it onto trailer to tow across to Brindisi; the plywood hull was rotten and the bilge keels on the point of falling off. As there were only two berths in the tiny cabin it was decided I should take the ferry and wait for you in Corfu from where we would sail together to Ithaca following Ulysses course across Homer's wine dark seas. At Brindisi we sat eating with the fishermen who feted Yasmin with admiring glances while you played neapolitan songs on the mandolin. But the fishermen's infatuation with Yasmin didn’t stop them mocking the proposed voyage.

"Do you really expect to cross the Adriatic Sea in that coffin?" "This yacht,” you corrected,” has sailed from England." but the fishermen laughed even louder.” People swim across the English channel,” they scoffed. I waited and worried for five days in Corfu. Morning and afternoon I walked down the steep narrow alleys of Kerkira the old Venetian town, to the harbor in specting new arrivals and anxiously scanning the horizon. Finally on the feast day of St Nicolas-patron of seas and sailors, I was happily rewarded by the sight of a familiar sail flapping in a dying breeze and a small yellow quarantine flag hoisted in the shrouds. Warning of what impending plague, I wondered. For these were troubled times in Greece. Following a military coup a junta of Colonels ruled the country. King Constantine had fled to Rome and Colonel Papandreous declared himself Regent and Head of State. All opposition was ruthlessly repressed. Watching you pry a mooring space between fishing boats while Yasmin waved from the stern, the yellow flag reminded me of Churchill’s comments when Lenin was dispatched in a sealed railway carriage from Switzerland to Russia, 'like a plague virus sent to start an epidemic'. I wondered how the Colonels might have reacted had they known about Yasmin's political background. Re-united and exhuberant we wound a way through the festive throng. Parades of Boy Scouts, brass bands, and gold-coated priests with long beards accompanied the saint whose skeletal remains hoisted into a glass canopy wobbled dangerously as acolytes waving gilded icons danced and pranced like whirling dervishes. In a cafe under the long colonnades at the top of the town we had to bellow to hear ourselves speak. The tale of your voyage emerged. "For two days we were held up by storms," yelled Yasmin between greedy mouthfuls of mousacha. "Then came the ‘tramontana’-the wind from the sunset and the fishermen told us to go, but no sooner had we cleared the coast than a gale blew up from the south." She waved an arm dramatically at the sky,” Waves as tall as the mast." Antonio, I remember you explaining how the charts indicated an anchorage, Punto San Cataldo, marked by a lighthouse and tucked behind high rocks but the seas were crashing with such force you couldn't see the way in. "Then crash, bang!" rejoined Yasmin. "The skies exploded. Shells falling all around!" It seemed you had unknowingly strayed into a military firing range and were being used for target practice. But Saint Nicolas must have been on your side and drew you out of danger. Now on the shore there were figures waving and pointing. Heading the boat straight into what seemed a solid wall of surf you suddenly found yourselves flying through a narrow opening into the quiet security of a little lagoon. Fishermen helped you tie up. Antonio, you took a photograph we later enlarged of Yasmin in a yellow sailing jacket, hair stiff with sea-salt, seated on a coil of ropes against the mast. Those fishermen were so proud of their catch they feasted you at the taverna on fried octopus and next dawn you set off for Otranto from where at evening having had your papers duly stamped by the port commandant you headed across the night sea for the Ionian islands. Ah, that was a night to savour, flying fish falling on the deck, a misty moon in a silvery aurora, the ocean rollers splashing lazily past and finally the welcome glimmer and flash of the Fano lighthouse. Reaching the island at dawn just as the rising sun lit up the soaring Pindus Mountains of Albania you moored in a sheltered bay and sitting beneath a pomegranite tree a fisherman’s wife cooked you red mullet. South acrss the wine-dark seas lay the mythical islands of Samothraci and Merlera.Later with a wind filling the patched sails you crossed to Sidari on the north coast of Corfu, attended by a school of pla yful dolphins leaping past the bows into the clear blue depths. That night you moored in a still bay that the moonlight magicked into quicksilver and night birds sang among the olive groves.

Now, though, luck changed. Could it just be possible that the Colonels whose portraits dominated everywhere sensed a 'viper' in their midst, or was it just that yellow flag or talkative fishermen who drew us to the attention of the authorities. Without warning the police arrived and took away our passports. After long difficult discussions aided by a dictionary we gathered the problem lay not with our papers but with the boat. According to the maritime regulations which the port police thrust before us –despite the fact that our boat floated (at an angle) had mast, sails and even a small engine, it lacked two vital features which every international yacht must possess- a cooking galley and a toilet. The port commandant was adament. Next morning there would be an official inspection to decide our fate. We hastily removed a poster of Che Guevarra and other revolutionary emblems that might offend the scrutiny of the Colonel’s emissaries, secured the paraffin cooking stove and worried how to improvise a toilet. Promptly next morning, wearing immaculate white pressed uniforms the three senior port officials descended from the dockside trying to maintain their dignity as they stooped inside the tiny cabin.

The galley looked quite presentable with a plastic bowl and cups but where was the toilet? From beneath her bunk Yasmin drew out a Chianti flask with a large green funnel. "Toiletta", she announced with a flourish. Banging their heads and glaring with distate the three officials backed out. From the dock the commandant tossed down our passports. "Go!" he declared and we did so at once in case he changed his mind, hoisting the sails and slipping past the old ruined citadel and the steep wooded shores beyond. We managed to reach Lefkimi, sailing up a narrow river to what the guidebook described as a 'decayed township', where not even Colonel Papandreous countenanced his portrait being displayed. A drunken fisherman adopted us. His Italian was limited to "Domani nienti venti", (tomorrow no wind), something he repeated again and again until collapsing in the cockpit he commenced snoring like an artillery barrage. By dawn he had vanished but he was right about the forecast-all day we drifted over a limpid sea towards the hazy green outline of Paxos Island. In the end we never got any further. Ithaca would have to wait. Paxos provided enchantment enough. We renamed it Prospero’s island. Massive gnarled olive trees covered the island from end to end. Yasmin was sure that beneath their veil of mystery the ancient Gods still thrived and looked out for any large horned goat that might oblige her by turning into Pan. Pungent scents of myrtle and wild thyme followed us as we wandered along stony tracks and ruined farmsteads.

We moored the boat at Gaios where a pine covered isle sheltered the harbor seawards. All the cottage s were whitewashed with tile roofs and the small square beside the quay contained a tiny church so white in the sunshine it blinded us. Every shop was also a taverna, selling along with nets and ropes retzina wine that tasted of the sametar the sailors used on their boats. Antonio, do you remember how the Greeks love to discuss politics. Greek men think quite naturally they are better than their women, so it came as a shock for them when Yasmin held forth with vigorous tirades denouncing the military junta. They never quite understood her-perhaps a good thing- for, as you know their are two Greek languages; the official 'kathourevu' and the ordinary 'demotici'. Our phrase book contained the former, so when we inquired at the taverna we frequented where was the toilet the 'apokoritirio', we were surprised when the fishermen rose and doffed their caps in mock respect. It appeared we had asked for 'the ladies and gentlemen’s retiring chamber'. "We call it 'topos' the place. It's round the back." Adding candidly, "We only use it at lunchtime when all the flies go to the kitchen!" In the evenings I can still hear you strumming the mandolin. The Colonels had banned Merlina Mercuri's songs, but there was one local renegade with a wind - up gramophone in his rowboat who used to paddle about the harbor in the dark playing her songs.

Then, one Saturday evening, defying all regulations you started strumming "Never on a Sunday" and within minutes the town went wild, the entire population of Gaios lined up , linking arms , dancing and singing along the quayside, Yasmin in the middle. Finaly, you remember, she went up to the young lieughtenant - the military representative, on the island and persuaded him to join in, waving his arms and dancing with the rest. What a night that was! One of Yasmin's political partisans was Spiro the baker. Late at night in the bakery they drank ouzo and argued reform.

Spiro tossed flour into the open revolving drum and chased out cockroaches with his toes. One night he slipped and the blades took off his big toe. "I've lost my toe!" he exclaimed, and Yasmin probing the ball of dough around his foot replied, "Why, so you have." While she helped him hobble to the doctor, Spiro's wife returned and finding nobody about promptly shaped the dough into loaves and put them in the oven. Next morning after the bread was all sold we wondered what family was surprised to discover a big toe in their breakfast. Sometimes we walked across the island to the wilder western side and one day standing high above Mousmouli bay on the very edge of the cliffs of Hiros with the dark sea thundering in the caverns far below Yasmin raised her arms in exultation or supplication to the Gods. "If I had wings!" she cried, "I would fly to the sun like Icarus." Then on impulse she grabbed both our hands as if to gather us in one great leap into space. "To throw away our lives is the ultimate liberation, " she challenged, as we dragged her back and collapsed laughing hysterically among the undergrowth. The narrow harbor mouth was guarded by a statue of a Paxos patriot brandishing a firebrand. Island legend claimed that during a naval battle when the islands were fighting the turks for their independence, this young hero swam to the Turkish fleet and set fire to the armaments vessel which exploded and blew up most of the boats. During our evening strolls along the harbor Yasmin always paused by the statue. I rather think the gesture symbolized for her the blowing up of present-day society, for she was as scathing in her criticism of the complacency of the masses as for their political overlords. "Religion is not the modern opium of the people!" she declared to an astonished priest. "Materialism and well-being are far more seductive drugs." But you know, as well as I do, Antonio, there was nothing sinister in these statements. It was as if she was teasing the world, poking her tongue out at society. Despite all that happened later Yasmin was fired by simple idealism there was nothing demonic about her. And how she loved to laugh-at herself too, at her own irrationality. It was joy to watch her laugh, green eyes shining; head flung back, hair flying in the wind. She never wore make- up. It was as if nature had given her adornment enough. Antonio, you know I never meant to pry- for I loved you both equally, 'amici miei'- but I wondered on Paxos did you and Yasmin grow closer together or go further apart. I, of course, did not live on the boat. There was no room and it would have been an intrusion. Instead, you may remember I lodged with a delightful old woman, "Aunt" Euridice. This sprightly lady spoiled me rotten and charged me next to nothing. The little garden of her house overlooked the harbor - there were lemon and pomegranite trees. In the early evening looking eastwards she related how during the war they sent boys up to the ruined fortress among the pines on the harbor island to watch out for German planes. To reassure me she insisted she

bore no ill- feeling for the Italian occupation. "We share the same culture," she said, but she did not disguise her hatred for the Germans and the attrocities they committed. Our holiday drew to a close. At the feast of the Madonna we all rowed out to the windswept island offshore, where following the mass there was a simple meal of bread and wine and olives and goats cheese. Next day our little yacht was hoisted aboard a ferry bound for Brindisi. So we arrived back in Rome rather dejected. The boat was sold to a policeman named Pesce (fish) which helped cheer us up because we were convinced he would soon be joining them.

Antonio, you remember we had whitewashed the hull as we couldn't afford real paint and on the day of the sale when we lowered the boat into the dock at Fiuicino she 'wept' in a spreading pool of milky white. Pesce seemed unconcerned. He thumped the hull - fortunately missing the rotten patches where his fist world have gone straight through, christened her ‘the mermaid of the sea,' and set off for Anzio, twenty kilometers to the south. Perhaps he even got there. By now Yasmin was completely beyond control. Even you, Antonio admitted as much. Megaphone in hand she addressed the massed thousands of students. "Communism," she derided,” was an elitist, intellectual, philosophy that manipulated the masses with spellbinding rhetoric but simply drove them into another state of slavery." Anyone else would have been shouted down with howls of derision, but Yasmin somehow held her audiences spellbound- perhaps it was her sheer audacity. She went on, "Nowadays the masses are more educated, they can see through the pretence of the so-called democratic process, they realise the corruption of the party system, the vote

buying, the big business interest. People are not so easily fooled by grand sounding words such as Globalization-when they know it is just a tool to colonise and dominate small economies. Why," she demanded, her voice hoarse but afire as ever, “Why should the world be run by a few multi- nationals who buy up and starve out al competition. What is wrong with village economics, tarifs to protect the small local producer; the local ice-cream, the village firecracker maker? Why should countries and cultures be forced to unite. What is wrong with city states? Why have states at all.

Do away with States, with laws, with money- start again from scratch!" Antonio, how many times have we stood together in the crowd fearing for her safety as Yasmin held forth, cheered, booed, heckled, but I think always admired. She was a female Che Guevarra- nowadays she even wore his black beret, and her hair whipped by the autumn wind lay over the collar of her black raincoat. By now she had been expelled from the university but that didn't deter her. She had moved in with you, Antonio, until one day your landlady declared she needed the room. Oh, we knew it was a setup. For days a detective- you can always tell them as they model themselves on the movies; the turned down hat, the turned up collar, the big newspaper they pretend to read for hours- had been waiting in your alley. The landlady had been told to chuck you both out. So you moved in with me. I had a spare room. But it wasn't long before the strange telephone calls started; - warnings, threats, obscenities. Of course it wasn't all gloom. Yasmin was magnificent and her face shone with excitement. She delighted in the challenge. "At least they are worried," she argued. But she also had a precarious existance. Her father would have nothing more to do with her. It appeared she really was stateless and had papers to prove it. Perhaps her father was frightened the whole family might be deported. Antonio, we could not keep up with her. Even at night she hardly slept. Sometimes I could hear her talking to you until dawn. We tried cooking at home to be more economical we agreed, but it never was, and Yasmin was not made for domestic life. So we returned to Mario's and a pizzaria in Via Giovanni Vecchi where Yasmin scandalised the more bourgois artisan customers by her outspoken opinions on eveything.Even religion did not escape her scathing- if God is creator, God must be a woman. "Madre nostra qui es in coelis" (our mother who is in heaven), became her credo. But there was nothing hostile about her. Yasmin's charm was warmth itself. We sat around her just as we sat around the ceramic stove that warmed the apartment. I had recently bought an old open lancia and us sometimes we drove around the city late at night with Yasmin standing up singing arias from Verdi. She liked Verdi, saying that a hundred years before instead of Viva Castro painted on the walls it would have been Viva Verdi-which also stood for Victoria Emmanuelle Re D'Italia. Sometimes we drove out to Lake Bracciano and lunc hed in a cave- Yes, a cave at Anguillara reached by steps and dominated by two old moustachioed sisters who were forever quarelling while the customers consumed their patience playing chess. And then the violence began. Bombs at railway stations in Milan and Bologna, parcel bombs at post offices and the university. And the kidnappings. Now a new name began to emerge, Brigati Rossi (the Red Brigade). At first Yasmin denied absolutely any involvement, but we suspected she knew more than she admitted. Just to listen to her approval of terrorism was to doubr her innocence.

"Where does passive non- violence get us," she declared. "Where has non-violence got the people of Tibet or Vietnam?" For this was the height of the anti-war movement in America. Students shot at Kent University. We had all been to see a film at the student cinema in Campo dei Fiori, "Sangue e Fragole (Blood and Strawberries), and it seemed somehow to chart Yasmin’s progress from a peaceful idealistic student to a grenade throwing terrorist. And then came the day but for Yasmin's timely intervention you, Antonio, would certainly have been a victim. Late afternoon and you were hurrying to give a music lesson. The tram stop was at the end of Piazza Navona, you could hear the tram car clanging along the track hooting to clear the traffic, only you could not yet see it

when yards from the stop Yasmin darted out of nowhere and literally threw herself in front of you, blocking the way, before vanishing in the crowd just as the tram you would have caught slowed to a halt abd blew up- exploding in flames. Most of the passengers seemed to be carabinieri who ran screaming into the street their uniforms ablaze. "I was terrified you would be killed," Yasmin exclaimed later, hugging you close. It was the first time I ever saw her burst into tears. You were too stunned to say anything-but what did you think as you brushed the strands of hair from her tearstained cheeks. A week later the police arrested three leading members of the Brigati Rossi and with astonishing speed considering the usual lengthy legal process they were brought to trial in a steel cage. We watched on television. Yasmin commenting merely, "I would kill myself before anyone imprisons me." She meant it. She carried a phial of barbituates around with her. Yasmin was a creature of the light and her one fear was incarceration. Viewing the appalling scenes of maimed and mutilated bomb blast victims even her own rhetoric failed to sustain her. Antonio, you were merciless in your attack. "You consid er these legitimate targets," pointing to the television pictures. "If your idealism is so fine why not direct your terror at war ministries or munition factories or could it just possibly be that mindless mayhem delivers a more brutal and effective publicity." For once she was mute. Only later as the tension between us unwound did she declare, "I could be a suicide bomber if it meant changing the world for the better or getting rid of a greater evil," But ,Antonio, believe me it was herself she was prepared to sacrifice- not innocent bystanders. Yasmin was not made that way. She did everything herself-you, of all people know that. She did not use others. The next day a great demonstration was planned starting from the Colleseum to gather in Piazza Venezia. No one knew how many would be there. Some predicted half a million, but the police set up barricades and when the students broke through the police opened fire. It went on all afternoon and late into the night. I watched the news on television. Demonstrators had been shot, it was claimed, but no one fatally. Later that evening an anxious cry for help came up from the street below. Antonio, you were supporting Yasmin. Between us we carried her up the narrow spiral staircase to my apartment and laid her on the bed. Beneath her raincoat her clothes were drenched in blood.

She had been shot in the chest and we were able to staunch the wound. I didn't ask why you had not let an ambulance take her to the hospital for the news earlier that contained the by now familiar pictures of the court proceedings of the Brigatti Rossi - defiant in their steel cage , showed another picture.The photograph of a girl who was wanted for questioning about the tram bombings. The photo was fuzzy and not so easy to identify but had you gone to hospital the police would have arrested her. So what were we to do? Then I remembered my cousin Roberto, a young doctor at the hospital in Terni, one hundred kilometers north of Rome and near the hill village where our grandmother lived. I was sure I could persuade Roberto but I dared not use the telephone in case it was tapped. We carried Yasmin down to the Lancia and sped off up the via Cassia-avoiding the autostrada in case the police were stopping vehicles. We reached Roberto’s apartment by midnight, fortunately he was not on night duty. At first he was worried and confused but we managed to calm and to convince him. We were anxious not to implicate him in any way otherwise his career would be ruined. As a casualty officer Roberto was the ideal person. He carried a bag of surgical equipment for emergencies at any time. We did not bring Yasmin into the apartment but transferred her to Roberto’s car and drove to grandmother’s village in the hills nearby. It was one of those places where everyone is in bed by ten o'clock and the piazza was fortunately deserted. Our grandmother lived in a large house and Roberto had his own key. We let ourselves in quietly, prepared everything and operated on Yasmin on the kitchen table. Antonio, it was, you remarked later like something out of a wartime movie; the table, the bottles, the bandages, a local anaesthetic and Roberto trying to extract the bullet which had lodged between two ribs just above the heart. With profound relief I finally heard the metallic clatter as he dropped the bullet in a tin dish. He bound her up, gave her a strong sedative and turned to us weary with exhaustion but jubilent too. Roberto was one of us, remember Antonio. "Where are you going to keep her?" he asked. "She will need time to recover and she cannot stay here." "Or in Rome," I added, certain my apartment would now be under surveillance more than ever. Then we hit on a plan. It came to both of us at once. "Sensati," we exclaimed. Antonio, you looked puzzled. I had never told you of this abandoned village in the mountains. Everyone had left it years before and now only animals inhabited the ruins, but there had once been a village school and that house was still intact. I knew, because my family owned land nearby and I had gone up there the previous winter. There was no road-only a track for foot or a donkey. What made it more attractive was that it was off-limits to hunting-an 'oasis of protection,' they called it. Once installed there, Yasmin would have a safe refuge to recover in-if you stayed with her, which you agreed without hesitation. By now the early cockerels were crowing and the village would soon be awake. In the cellar below the house lived the donkey, Rondinella- all village donkeys are called Rondinella, I know. But we managed to get Yasmin on her and guide her up through the village onto the mountain track above the church. The story that Roberto would put about was that I and a friend were going up to check on our land.

He returned to clean up the kitchen and sleep off what little was left of the night. We three made our way slowly through the forest as the sky paled overhead and the mountain peaks started to glow in the first rays of the sun. It was a gruelling climb but Yasmin never complained. You and I took turns to lead the donkey while the other propped Yasmin up- for we were mortally afraid she might fall and her wounds haemorrage. The path climbed steeply, leveled along a wooded valley side from where we could hear the waterfall and once past it the path narrowed where it cut across a cliff face before winding up to the village set out on a spur above. As expected the lower floors of the houses were tenanted by wild mountain cattle while in the church a little way off lived a snorting bull. Yasmin even managed to joke that we should rename the village ‘Animal Farm, ‘.Later she called the bull George in honor of Orwell. Most of the roofs were fallen in but school-house as I remembered had remained intact although the stairs shook precariously. There were even school benches, tables and a decent fireplace. Now in the daylight the view from the window was fantastic. The valley below lay hidden in low cloud while all the peaks rose majestic-some just capped with early snow. We had only managed to bring basic supplies;-what we could take from grandmother's kitchen; eggs, pasta, smoked ham, wine, olive oil, bread, but enough for a few days until I could return. For we agreed that to allay any suspicion it was vital I got back to Rome as soon as possible. Robert was waiting for me in the village and after some essential gossiping with old acquaintances in the piazza and assuring my grandmother-to her delight, that I would be a frequent visitor from now on, Roberto drove me back to Terni and I reached Rome in the late afternoon. Only the elderly Swedish artist, who lived on the second floor, was suspicious. Old Bjorn knew everything that went on. Yasmin joked that he painted green frogs for the walls of French restaurants. Now he waited for me on the landing having presumably watched me park the lancia."So where are your revolutionary friends?" he chuckled. "Gone to join Marx, off to Cuba...” I forget how I joked to get away from him. Antonio, I cannot tell you how anxiously I waited those next few days for the T.V. news

bulletins, the newspaper reports and worrying about the two of you up there in Sensati. Finally at the weekend I drove back, buying supplies at a supermarket in Terni and parceling them into sacks I loaded up Rondinella and climbed up to Sensati. How great was my relief to discover you both well-Yasmin especially. There was even color in her usually pale cheeks. You had been sitting out in the autumn sun. Yes, and Roberto had been up the day before to check Yasmin over. And now I had brought the mandolin.

We got out a flask of Chianti classico and lit candles and after a wonderful meal of chicken stew (chicken by compliments of the village), and wild mushrooms and panetone, we sang our old taverna favorites;-from Puccini and Verdi and finally as the moon showed his face above the imposing peaks you played Yasmin's song. Something I forgot to mention earlier was the gun- pistol really, no bigger than ones used to start races except it had bullets not blanks. We had discovered it in Yasmin's capacious raincoat pockets when we unrobed her. She claimed and we believed her that it was only for protection and she had never used it. Where and how she acquired it we chose not to inquire for we realized that Yasmin had enemies on both sides who would prefer her silence to her witness,-- those of the Brigati Rossi still at large and the authorities for whom she might prove an embarrassment. Why? because when the threads start to unravel who knows where it all leads. Have not recent events showed these Politicians at the pinnacle of power now disgraced. So, who do we blame? Our own carelessness. Bjorn-the artist of green frogs? He had once painted a portrait of Yasmin seated in a high-backed wicker chair. I think he envied her capacity to live life to the full, or envied you, Antonio. So was the motive jealousy? Or had I failed to take precautions that my journeys along the Via Cassia might be followed, or that every village has an informer with links to who the local Carabinieri. So it was next weekend when I reached the village anticipating a pleasant weekend- even scenting the wood smoke, the cooking, grandmother snapped me out of complacency by commenting that I should be careful as the woods were full of huntsmen. "Here," I asked, trying to check my anxiety. She shrugged. "Oh, they have left here- gone up towards Sensati I supose."How many, who, what were they carrying? But grandmother didn't know- all Italian weekend hunters wear army camouflage suits and carry automatic rapid-fire shotguns. All pretend they are great men, returning with a few sparrows to prove it. And where was Antonio, I asked. "Antonio has been here-this morning. So helpful. He took the donkey. He had bought a sack of cement for repairs." I rushed out and ran up through the village. "Your things!" cried grandma, but I was deaf. I only needed to be ahead, ahead of you plodding up the track, ahead of the hunters who should never be in an area banned to hunting. I needed to be instantly at Sensati. I was out of breath before I passed the church. I caught up with you, Antonio, securing the cement more safely on the cliff path. And then above the roar of the waterfall we heard the patter of gunfire. Oh, these were not the shots of ordinary hunters. We left the donkey to find its own way and raced up the path. There was still an acrid tang of spent cartridges in the room but Yasmin lay on her side as if sleeping. Only as I turned her over I saw with horror and disgust that the lower side of her face had been shot away.

Her eyes opened a little and she tried to speak. "Shoot me," she gasped, her hand reaching limply towards the where the pistol lay on the floor just out of her reach. I shook my head, aware she was focusing her attention at you, Antonio, standing behind me, paralysed with shock. "If yo u love me, shoot me," she begged. I pressed my eyes tight and opened them only to reach the doorway. I glanced back once to see you kneeling beside her, holding her in your embrace. Antonio, forgive me, my mind was reeling. I stumbled to the orchard and collapsed kneeling among the fallen leaves. I waited --It seemed an eternity for that single final shot. The kiss of death, of love only you could deliver- death for love for Yasmin. We laid her on a schoolroom bench and stepping carefully between the stones carried her to the ruined church. For once even the bull stood silent, barely snorting. A couple of rusting shovels did the work and when it was over I left you sitting among the autumn flowers. If there was a fitting resting place it was there -in a ruined chapel, in an abandoned village high in the forests above a precipice with only the sound of the waterfall, and an occasional eagle soaring overhead. From far below in the valley I heard a church bell solemnly tolling but really I was back in Paxos the evening you played the mandolin and the whole population of Gaios danced on the quayside, arms linked, Yasmin laughing in their midst.

"Shower downs your love, so burning bright for some night or the other night will come the gardener in white, and gathered flowers are dead, Yasmin."


James Elroy Flecker.

© Anthony Aikman 2001

 

 
     
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