Magazine article The Spectator

A Home-Coming

Magazine article The Spectator

A Home-Coming

Article excerpt

The Naples boat was on time. The crossing - it was May - had not been too gruelling. Lightly one stepped ashore and into the funicular, and after a brief, slow ascent emerged into Piazza, still warm under a late afternoon sun.

I was elated. To be back, to be anywhere in those days - the year was 1948 - felt a miracle. One responded with a delirious sense of freedom, rediscovery, renewal: the Europe for so long known to be held down in agony and chaos, so long believed lost to us, possibly for ever, was beginning to be regained. I had spent - immense privilege - the winter in Italy, Venice first, then Florence, and was now living, somewhat precariously, in a back-street hotel in Rome. I had stayed up late the night before - all hours were precious - then left at dawn, driving south chanting poetry to myself in the car I had been entrusted to deliver. By full morning, when the near empty road (not much legitimate petrol around then) glared before me, I had to fight drowsiness till at one point there was a great jolt and I came to with the front wheel already off the road and I was just able to wrench the car back on course. Jolted hard myself, I stopped - I had missed the ditch, a milestone, a tree. Out of nowhere women arose from a field crying `Mamma mia'. I braced myself to inspect the damage; but no - no dent, no buckled mudguard, no burst tyre, the poor old Morris looked unscathed. I was not quite so sure about the steering as I drove on, slowly now, with circumspection, and contrite, appalled by my irresponsibility. This was not my car. Another 140 kilometres to go out of some 250, the prospect seemed long . . . The dawn jaunt had turned into a slow, hot, anxious drive.

In the end I got there. I left the car as arranged in a garage, considered, as far as this is possible in Naples, one of the less blatantly dishonest ones, and instructed them to check and, if necessary, repair the steering (the bill to go to me). After that, lunching with a friend, the young British vice-consul, I got my second wind. Constantine FitzGibbon was with us, and Theodora - we were all high with the same joy of being where we were, and I only just caught the boat to Capri.

On boarding, Constantine left me with a pill he said he had got off a German officer he'd taken prisoner during the Italian earnpaign. It was a largish capsule, a bit tacky by now, issued reputedly to keep a man efficient and alert for 48 hours or more without sleep. Constantine seemed to think I might need it before the day was out ( I had told him whom I had to face). Recklessness had returned: I accepted the pill, wrapped it in a scrap of tissue and put it in my pocket.

And now there was Capri. The Island looked itself. One point about the war was that where it had not destroyed, it had conserved. Craters and ruins yes, no new excrescences (yet); for five and a half years the developers had been kept at bay. And in Piazza there was the usual crowd, native and tourist, assembled to wait and watch the boat arrive and passengers appear. To my surprise and pleasure I saw Martha Gellhorn. I had not expected her to meet me, but she had.

'I say,' she said, `this is a glorious place.' She had taken a room for me at the pensione she was staying at, 100 feet up from Piazza. Clean and cheap. 'That', I said, `would be delightful.' But before we took one step further I had to tell her something (straight candour with Martha - anything else would have been unthinkable.) I had done something very bad, I confessed. Then I told her what had happened.

She and I had met only just over a week before at the studio flat of a man who to her was a fellow journalist and an excombatant (he had been parachuted into German-held Italy after Anzio and spent some intensely perilious months underground before the liberation of Rome) and to me a connection, a cousin in fact, of my step-father and a childhood chum. Meeting Martha Gellhorn, being addressed, being taken notice of by her, was like being exposed to a 1,500-watt chandelier: she radiated vitality, certainty, total courage. …

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