Archive for November, 2007

Italian job 5 – Monte Cssino

Wednesday, November 28th, 2007

I sat with Mr Hawthorn on a bench.  To say I was confused is putting it mildly.  I had been asked to come and see an old man who had left home without reason with a view to getting him to go back.  I had not bargained for a Sherlock Holmes mystery.

The two redeeming features of the day were that my vase head hurt less and the the sun had come out and it was actually a very pleasant day.

I decided to adopt a no nonsense approach.

“I am here to try to resolve a number of issues, so Why don’t you tell me what you know and let me see what I can do?” I said very bluntly.

“I am not sure you can do anything” He said with an air of resignation, “It’s all gone to far down the line”

“Well as it is my job to sort this out why don’t we wait and see on what can and cannot be done shall we”

He started to speak and I have tried to tell the story as he said it.

“You know its funny how life goes.  Here we are in peace and tranquillity, but at the time of the battle this was the scene of some of the most terrible blood-letting man kind has ever seen. Looking at it now I cant believe let alone start to describe the raging of man-made forces that ravaged the towns, valleys and the mountain slopes. So many many men came here just to kill each other.   Every day they carried away the dead, wherever and whenever possible, and buried them in temporary graves nearby. You could not go anywhere without tasting, hearing, and smelling the hot fetid breath of bursting shells and mortars.  The bloated remains of long dead men and mules. The suffocating stink of their rotting flesh permeated everything. But you know despite all that,  a man’s mind could still remain rational and his nerves intact despite the extreme physical conditions and the daily confrontations with violent death and for me that underlined the miracle of the human spirit”
He looked up at the Abbey.

“Of course that is not the original Abbey, the one that burnt itself on the minds of the suffering troops whose misfortune it was to find themselves within the shadows of its menacing hulk. The original was destroyed in the pinpoint bombing administered by American B-17 Flying Fortresses, Mitchells and Marauders on the 15th of February, 1944. It was destroyed on my intelligence reports alone.  They were made up because that is what General Clark wanted and then Freyberg the , its what .  My orders were to make sure my reports got through and were listened to and the British reports were silenced or discredited.  Clark and the high commands wanted the Monastery destroyed.”

His voice dropped to a barely audible whisper

“What was not generally known except to a few of us was the fact that the Abbey was not occupied by the Germans. There’d been only a dozen monks and close to 1000 civilians inside its walls. The Italian peasants and inhabitants of the town who could not leave had sought refuge from the fighting going on around their homes. Not a single German soldier had been inside the Abbey. When the last bomb had fallen and the last numbing blast’s echo had faded away into the hills and valleys, over 300 people lay dead beneath the huge mounds of rubble. The wounded exceeded three times that of the dead.”

In fact a few Germans  had entered the Monastery just before the bombing.  They had gone in to arrange for the transfer to Rome for safekeeping all art works, books, and religious documents and they had moved some very sick people and nuns and  a new born baby to safety.  The man who did this was apparently Lutheran corporal”

He gave a hollow mirthless laugh.  “It was only after the Monastery had been reduced to rubble that the Germans took over the ruins and utilized it in their defence system. It was one of the greatest  Allied high-level blunders ever because it gave the enemy an outstanding strong fortress position. Once the building was destroyed the enemy had no qualms about using the ruins for defensive purposes. What made matters worse was the fact that the ruins were taken over by elite German paratroopers from the First Division.  These were not ordinary soldiers by a long shot. They used their battle skills to the very hilt, turning every rock pile into a miniature fortress.  On top of this they deeply believed that to die for their Fuhrer was the greatest honour they could achieve. In the months that followed, the Allies were bled white trying to dislodge the Germans from the ruins and the surrounding heights, with little to show for their efforts.”

He was silent for what seemed an age.  I had a shed load of questions but I don’t think he would have heard me.  He was back at the the battle.

He stood up and started walking.

We passed a woman, a touch of grey in her hair kneeling beside a grave stone. A widow, a sweet-heart, a sister? I didn’t know which. Her  hand rested on top the stone where she had placed a rose. Her head was bent in prayer. She knelt there for a few minutes, and then, as she braced herself to stand I saw teardrops kiss the flowers on his grave.   Gone but not forgotten

I went with him back to Gretagos grave.

“I came here to try to makes things right. I tried to say a prayer, to say something appropriate, but no words came to mind.  It brings to mind that awful moment when Hawthorn died and how close I came to being killed along with him. Only a few seconds and a scant few feet, the difference between life and death. Words are irrelevant at that moment.”

I was confused again.  “Cratego, Hawthorn which is it”

“I am afraid This is where it gets complicated” he said.

Up date

Tuesday, November 27th, 2007

I am sorry for the lack of posts but Norman has been a busy boy.  Nothing very exciting, a touch strange maybe  but busy.

I have also have to go back to Italy which is connected with the story I am telling but that should be a formality – famous last words.

I promise I will do better in the next couple of weeks.

Italian Job 4- Cratego

Sunday, November 18th, 2007

Its only about a 150km from the airport to Cassino and I had as a leisurely drive as one could expect in Italy. I was not too disappointed that it was a short drive as my bonce was tender from the vase been broken on it and I had a bit of a headache.

The Battle of Montecassino was a costly series of four battles fought by the allies with the intention of breaking through the German lines and seizing Rome in 1944. The Monastery of Monte Cassino was founded in 524 AD by St Benedict. The area is very mountainous and the Germans had defensive positions set into the steep slopes below the abbey walls.

The Americans convinced the other Allies that the Germans were actually in the monastery. I should explain that the Monastery sits on a very high peak and over looks the town of the Cassino and is a hell of a vantage point. On 15th February the Americans mounted a massive air raid and bombed the monastery to rubble.

The bombing was based on the fact that the US commanders knew that the abbey was being used as a lookout post for the German (this position changed over time to admit that German military was not garrisoned there. Sounds a bit like the old weapons of Mass destruction story to me).

Anyway two days after the bombing, German paratroopers poured into the ruins to defend it. These were not any paratroppers, but the best of the best German fighting soldiers, the 1st Parachute Division and they made the taking of Montecassino so brutally tough for our men.

Consequently these defences were assaulted four times by Allied troops.

These operations resulted in casualties of over 54,000 Allied and 20,000 German soldiers. The town of Cassino was practically flattened. All in all pretty good going.

The town has been rebuilt as has the monastery and indeed does dominate the town. It was damp and misty when I got there and the monastery was shrouded in cloud. Mr Hawthorne had been staying in the Hotel La Pace and in the absence of a better plan I had booked into the same hotel. From the outside I must say it was not an inspiring place but the room was Okay and I wasn’t going to be here long.

I made some enquiries about Mr Hawthorne but the receptionist looked blank. There was no Englishman there and certainly no Mr Hawthorn. Was she sure? Oh yes quite sure. I showed here the photo I had been given. She looked at it. Yes she had seen an old man like that but he did not have a moustache and he was Italian not English. He was out as he was meeting somebody. I was just leaving the reception when the girl was joined by a colleague. They had a quick chat and then the second woman called me back.

“You want to see Signore Cratego?” She said in a very heavy Italian accent.

I was taken aback by the name and remembered it was one if the words written down on Hawthorns desk.

“Si er yes I do”

“He goes out everyday but he comes back ay about 5 o’clock”

“Do you know where he goes?”

“I think the Military cemetery”

I made quick phone call to Cyclops and asked him to look something up on the internet for me, I had a hunch. Cyclops had got back to me before I had reached the Cemetery. My wild hunch could be right but quite what it all meant I did not know.

The entrance to the Cassino War Cemetery is not one of archways or columns or marble panels, but of a simple design of granite stairs at both ends of a brick wall upon which is inscribed in white stone in bold letters the words, CASSINO WAR CEMETERY.

I have been to a lot of cemeteries bioth civil and military, but on entering the cemetery at Cassino your eyes are assaulted by the wide spread of grave markers. Its is hard not to be moved, a tightness came to my throat almost a sob, and I found it hard to hold back the tears.

There is a long and narrow rectangular pool, along the four sides of which runs a mosaic tiled walkway. Along the walkway, squares of flowers in a riot of colours blend harmoniously with low-cut box hedges. Standing like tall guardsmen on both sides of the pool, seven to a side, are the 15 foot high slabs of polished green granite on which are inscribed the names by Regiment and Corps of the  men who died in the Sicilian and Italian campaigns and whose graves are known only but to God.

At the far end of the pool a platform of gleaming white stone supports a three tiered hexagonal pedestal above which stands the twenty foot high Cross of Sacrifice. On its face is fixed a large bronze sword, its length more than half that of the stone.

All around this central theme of Remembrance are the grave markers, row upon row, mute testimony to the terrible legacy of war. Tall pines and acacia trees are planted all through the cemetery, their leaves gently rustling in the light breeze.

On our right as we face the Cross of Sacrifice, rises the great mass of Monte Cassino, its crest capped by the rebuilt Benedictine Abbey.

I composed myself and paid my respects to those soldiers who had laid down their lives, before moving on to find a man who was alive.

There were a number of old men who were here no doubt to pay their respects to colleagues and friends who died during some of the fiercest fighting mankind has ever known. One of these men was Mr Hawthorn.

After about 30 minutes I found him kneeling by a grave. I looked at the name on the grave and did a double take.

Captain Cratego.

“Signore Cratego?” I asked. Hawthorn looked up

“Si” he replied with a distinct Italian accent

“Cavallo Alato” I said

He looked frightened and vulnerable

“What, how?”

“Mr Hawthorn I am Pegasus”

His knees buckled and he sagged as if kneeling, as he did so he put his hand out and braced himself against the headstone. I moved quickly and caught him round the waist to stop him falling head first to the ground.

I Helped him up and he looked dreadful, in fact I thought he was having a heart attack, he was white as snow and he looked very very old and frail. He opened and closed his mouth like and old catfish out of water but could not get any sound to come out. Eventually he was able to make some sound and then speak.

“I have waited a long time for you, I expected someone older” he croaked in a hoarse whisper “You know then, about everything.” He gave a massive sigh “Its over. What will happen to me Pegasus, what will they do to me?”

I couldn’t answer him because to be honest I didn’t know what the fuck he was on about.

Italian Job 3 – The vase

Tuesday, November 13th, 2007

I have to be honest and say I thought Christmas had come early.  Quick jolly down to Rome in the Autumn, find some old bloke ask him what the problem was and then do a little courier job all for top dollar.  If only life was this simple all the time.

My phone call from Dawn was very unsettling.  Try as I might she would not tell me what she had to done that could be so bad.  If it had been a conversation with somebody I got on with, it might have been easier, but to say it was awkward would be putting it mildly.  However I did get her to calm down and told her that as soon as I was back we would get together to talk through what the problem was.  When I suggested this I expected a succinct “Piss Off”, so when that did not come I really knew that thinbgs must be pretty screwed up.

Eventually my flight was called and I had to end the conversation.  She sounded a little happier, if happier is the right word and she had promised not to say or do anything that could cause any kind of fallout. The problem is that people promise not say or do anything and then do the exact bloody opposite.  I don’t know why but they do.  In fact I am starting to think it might be more effective to say “throw it all in and confess” or whatever and it might be more effective.  Reverse therapy or whatever the term is.

I took my seat on the aircraft and returned to my magazine whilst the other passengers were boarding.  My plan was to fly to Rome and then head down to the town of Cassino, find Mr Hawthorn first, then head back to just North of Rome pick up the art works and head for home with all the goodies.  After all I didn’t fancy punting about with a few thousand quids worth of paintings and  lump of sculpture in the boot of the hire car.

An overweight lady of forty something with her hair pulled back in a sort of bun and wearing the standard British uniform for travelling to Europe ie imitation canvas walking boots, combat trousers and a Berghaus fleece approached my row of seats.  She had a little back back pack and a carrier bag.  She effectively blocked the whole aisle while she huffed and puffed and got the pack off her back and then decided to put the carrier bag in the over head locker.  Why she didn’t take the back pack off before she got on the plane I don’t know.  Anyway she eventually got it off and with more heavy breathing she swung it with what I can best describe as gay abandon in the sort of general direction of the the overhead locker.  Quite what the fuck she intended to do I don’t know but what I do know is that the bloody bag cracked me fair and square on the melon.

What happened next was all rather quick and sort of rolled into one. There was a loud crack and it was obvious that either she had done some untold damage to my skull or she had broken what was in the the bag. A woman next her shrieked “OH MY GOD” I looked round to see what else had gone wrong and realised for the commotion breaking out that I was what was wrong.  Blood was pouring from a wound on my head.  Bollocks just what I needed.  I got my hankie out and located the offending wound.  Head injuries bleed like there is no tomorrow usually look worse than they are.

The lard arse woman in the Berghaus fleece then shouted at me “You have broken my vase”

“What?” I exclaimed “I broke  your vase?  I don’t bloody think so, you hit me over the head with it.”

“I did not” she bawled.

“Explain then why I am sitting here with blood pouring out of my head and you are standing there holding a carrier bag with God knows what in it.”

The stewardess appeared and this girl should have been an ace detective.  “Is there a problem” she beamed.

“No” I said “It is quite normal for me to bleed from the head” I said somewhat sarcasticly.  It was wasted on her.  She looked at me and said “Maybe sir you should put a dressing on that before you boarded the aircraft”  For fucks sake.

“I was being witty” I explained slowly “This lady has managed to break a vase or something that is in that bag on my head”  There was murmurs of approval from th other passengers.

“NO I DID NOT YOU FUCKING BASTARD” shouted my assailant

“Excuse me madam” There was a bloke of about 45 standing there.

“WHAT” she shouted back

“I am a police office and I have to tell you that unless you amend your behaviour you are liable to be arrested.  You dropped your bag on this gentleman’s head as a result of which he has sustained an injury.  An accident as I am sure the gent would agree”  I nodded dripping claret on the floor “However your behaviour since the little incident is not acceptable and if you persist I will have no alternative but to ask the security police to attend the aircraft and eject you from the flight”

The woman turned and looked at him.  Her face was beetroot her eyes bulged and she was snorting like a bull.  “You officious little prick why don’t you just fuck off and mind your own business.  You should be arresting rapists and criminals”  spit and flem flew from her mouth and onto his face and jacket

He smiled back at her totally unfazed by the verbal onslaught “Madam nothing would give me greater pleasure that to have nothing to do with you, unfortunately you have blocked the gangway of the aircraft with your body thus preventing me from getting to my seat.  Trust me, if I could I would  ignore your loutish behaviour.  Regrettably however due to your conduct and demeanour I have no choice but to interject”

“YOU…”She started

He held up a hand and said “Not one more word.  Sit down or get nicked” He meant business and she knew it.

“But..my vase” she said

He pointed his finger at her and I knew she was a hair of gnats knacker of pissing this bloke off.

“You should have been more careful with it.  You will have to buy another” He said “Now then” He said very calmly but with total authority ” I think you owe this gentleman and apology” and then turning to the dim airhostess “Perhaps you could sort out a dressing and plaster for this mans head”.  The air hostess scuttled off for a first aid kit.

“Sorry…”The large lady stammered “I have been under a lot of stress recently and..well Oh I know I should not have acted like that”  She was bright red and tears were in her eyes.

“No harm done” I said smiling.

No harm done!  Norm you spaz how bloody English is that?  The lady sat down in the row behind me and the policeman took the seat next to me.

“I hope you didn’t mind me butting in,  but I got the impression you were about to get up and chin our friend”  He said pleasantly.

I grinned “I think I might have got a bit of kicking”

He looked back at me and gave me a withering look  “I doubt it” He said “But some of these Greenham Common ladies fight dirty”

I am pleased to say that nothing remarkable happened on the flight to Rome.  I chatted to the copper and we had few mutual acquaintances.

There was a slight hitch at the car hire place because they had run our of cars and the only thing they had was a brand new top of the range Ford Mondeo.  I am not  great lover of Fords, but this car was the dogs whatsits.  Black with black glass, it was a real pimp mobile.  It was very nice to drive. Pokey and handled like a dream, big yet not cavernous, I made a mental note that should I ever decided to buy a biggish car this would be up there as good value for money.

Now I was ready to face a thousand deaths as I headed for the Italian Autostrada.

Dogged

Monday, November 12th, 2007

Somebody asked me recently how I got the time to write this blog. At the moment the answer is with difficulty. I have been dogged with one thing after another. The biggest problem is that the bloody bank and my ISP/phone company keep insisting I am dead. It was amusing to begin with, but I can tell you that the situation has lost its chucklosity factor big time. I am seriously thinking about killing some bastard. I hope to able to continue the Italian saga in the next 24 hours.

Talk about being dogged – half the post for yesterday evaporated into thin air.   It is back now.  I hope.

November 11th – IF

Sunday, November 11th, 2007

They shall grow not old, as we that are left, grow old.

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.

 If people want to comment ion this site that’s fine but I don’t normally make reference to emails I receive.  Today however I want to make an exception and I have been given the authors permission to publish the following email.

 Dear Uncle Norman.

 I wanted to wish you a happy remembrance day. 

You probably wont remember me but I wrote you a couple of times already about my dad and brother.  I started reading your site when I was in college and a friend of mine told me it was back up recently. My grandad was in europe in ww2 and my dad was in Vietnam.My brother was sent to Iraq and before he was sent overseas i wrote you because i was scared what might happen.  i didn’t think you would replie but you did and said i was right to be worried.  you told my brother to look at the poem if  and to remember the 7 dwarfs because you said if it all came on top it would help him.  I thoiught it was a joke a t first but we learnt the poem and i used to say it every night while he was away.  my brother got ambushed in irag and his left eg was blown off and his right leg was real bad.  he was hurt bad but he remembered the poem but forgot some of the dwarfs.  He is back with us now and we are real happy.  i know that you lost some real good friends like my brother dad and grandad but i am so happy that my brother is alive and i wanted to say thank you because i think your advice helped him.  you might think i amstupid and that this dont make much sense but i keep cring when i try to write you but i just wanted you to know that i appreciate the time you took.  i hope your friends and comrades are in a better place but we should be glad for those who have come back alive.  i think what i am trying to say is remember the people who have paid the price but give thanks for life.   the story about your sister made me cry and my family have made af lower bad outside out house of fresias as a thank you for my brother and as a gift in memory of your sister.

Thank you

Samantha 

Samantha.  Thank you so much.  I think you are right.  Remember the dead but embrace life.   I promise I will come and see you and your bother and the flower bed.  Why are those bloody dwarfs so hard to remember?  There are only seven of the little bastards!

IF…..


IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
‘ Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

Italian Job 3/Dawn 1 – The Airport

Friday, November 9th, 2007

I got to Heathrow airport in plenty of time for my flight to Rome which was at 10.50. I did the old automated check in and as going well until I ran the gauntlet of British Airport security. What a load of old bollocks that is. I will give British Governments their due, and this is a cross party statement, they certainly know how to fuck about and increase the fear factor where it does not need to be increased. I was searched, if that’s what you can call it by some officious prick aged about 976 who told me it was in my interests. I have fuck all idea why he told me that, because I had not said anything to him. Clearly a case of answering the question that had not been asked. As it is anyone with half a brain could down and aircraft with very little effort. Still nice to know the DW and his allies are going strong on terrorism. I asked an American Politician about how this all stood with the help and aid that the IRA got during the 70’s and 80’s fromm the States. His reply was “That was different they were fighting an oppressive regime” – To which I replied “You mean the regime that is doing a lot of the dirty work for Uncle Sam now” He clearly did not know what the fuck to say so he did what all politicains do and ignored it.

Anyway, having been declared safe to travel by Old Father Times Granddad with my Aftershave, toothpaste and deodorant securely sealed in a freezer bag I was airside. Time to get some grub. I had a fat boys breakfast and a pot of tea and read my magazine Mercenary World or whatever it was. Its one of those mags that “Builds up into a fascinating library for you to keep and treasure and pass on to your loved ones. Free severed head with issue…..” all in all the world was looking a very rosy place indeed.

It was Rosy anyway until my mobile bleeped o say I had a message from young jack my nephew. I did not know it but this was the start of my week going tits up. I listened to the message and he didn’t sound too happy.

For some reason my mobile would not connect for ages but eventually I got through and Jack answered the phone.

“Hello who is it calling please” said Jack in that very prime and precise way kids have of answering the telephone.

“Hello Jack its uncle Norman, how you doing?”

“You rang me!” He said in a croak

“Of course I rang you, what’s the problem, you didn’t sound too happy on your message.”

“Well I err …..Its silly don’t worry, but thanks for ringing me.”

“Hang on a mo young man, you didn’t just ring me for no reason, what’s up?”

“You don’t want to know your busy, I am sorry it was really silly”

“Jack” I said in my sternest UN voice “I do want to know, what is the problem”

“You wont be cross”

“I wont be cross”

“Promise”

“Jack if you don’t spit it out I will be bloody livid now what the ffuuuurrry animals is going on”

He laughed ” Naughty words get you in trouble Uncle Norman, I’ll tell grandma”

He went silent

“Well what is it?” I said

“I dreamt you were dead” He whispered “You were lying in the dirt you were wearing a greeny browny shirt like soldiers wear and the front was all torn and there was a hole and there was blood and and and there were these men and they werre laughing and one of them kicked you over and and and there was a bigger hole in you back and all the blood was coming out making mud in the dirt and there was bits and bone and and and and…….”I think he had run out of breath.

“And what” I said calmly

“I wet the bed Uncle Norman” his voice quivered and it sounded like he was fighting the urge to cry.

“Thanks for thinking of me Jack, I really appreciate it”

“But you were dead” he gasped still fighting the tears. In my minds eye I could see him in the hallway his little face all serious and biting his lip and does this thing of rubbing his  right leg with his hand when he is thinking or upset.

“Ah yes but only in your dream. You see Jack you were thinking about me and worrying about me. That’s good for me, but hard for you. I am sorry you wet the bed because of me, but I am really pleased that you think of me when I am away. If I am ever in a tight spot or feeling lonely, and I can tell you I do get lonely, I can look up at the moon and I will know that my mate Jack is thinking about me. How many people can say that?” He didn’t reply “Now then I am not dead am I?”

“No” He said

“I will be one day and so will you for that matter and there is sod all you and I can do about that, so best we dont worry about things we cannot control. Anyway I don’t intend to die for sometime yet”

“Humm”

“What did your mum say about the bed?”

“Nothing, that’s the really funny thing” there was a pause “Actually Uncle Norman its not funny, ……that’s the other thing I want to talk to you about” he went on hesitantly.

Now then I as I have explained in previous posts, Dawn, that’s Jacks mum, and I don’t really see eye to eye, in fact we don’t like each other. She is a self opinionated self righteous, shit don’t stink, grumpy cow….not to put too fine a point on it. I suspect she speaks highly of me as well!

She used to go friggin ape shit at Mad Jack the Bed Wetter when he had his little accidents. I know its a pain in the arse having to strip the bed and get the stuff washed and dried, but with washing machines, driers and plastic sheets, I just cannot see what the big deal is. He has done it at my place when he has stayed over with the others and so I have dealt with it, I am not just yakking from an observers point of view.

“What’s the problem with your mum then Jack is she OK?”

“Well I dunno” he said. “She spend ages at her computer, but in the last few days she has being crying a lot when she types and well I dunno” he sounded perplexed.

“Where is your mum now Jack?”

“She is in the study on the computer”

“Right then should I have a chat with her?”

“Oh I dunno”

“Don’t, T T T, its don’t know not dunno” I said through gritted teeth.

“Sorry Uncle Norman”

“Go and get her and I will have a chat to her. Hey before you go Jack, two things. I am off to Italy for a few days. Nothing dangerous just a bit of business and I will be home in a few days, how about I see if we can get together at Grandmas or do something the next weekend”

“Yeah that would be great, but what about the bed, everyone will laugh at me again?”

“Its not a problem my old mate, its a one off, you haven’t done it for ages have you?”

“No I haven’t” He said with some confidence

“Anyway” I continued “Grandma wont be bothered, but if you’re worried about the others you can come in with me and I’ll cover for you.”

“Wicked I’ll get mum” He enthused and I heard the phone crash on to the table. It was then snatched up again “Uncle Norman ….I am glad you’re not dead and thanks for ringing me back wherever you are. I will look at the moon tonight and think of you see ya”

“Yeah see you in the next day or so”

I heard him calling his mum and A few minutes later and I heard Dawn, Jacks mum, pick up the phone.

“Hello” she sounded really croaky and hoarse.

“Hello Dawn its Norman are you Okay?” I said as tactfully as I could. I expected a “piss off” or “I hoped you were dead”, but instead she started to sob quietly and gently down the phone.

“Hey up chicken it can’t be that bad” I said using my best consoling voice. I think I might need to practice the consoling voice bit, because apparently it was that bad and worse. Her quiet sob became a wail and eventually she wailed “OH Norman I have been such a bloody fool I have ruined everything”

Being a genius in matters of the human condition, I suspected that this was not good news.

The Italian Job 2 – The Brief

Tuesday, November 6th, 2007

I got a telephone call from Mrs White, a client of some standing, who lives out in Sunningdale in Berkshire.  She had a little job that she wanted me to do and wanted to talk it through with me.

I know Sunningdale quite well, because my mate Billy used to live there before he moved to France and BIL1 and his wife dawn live in the next “Village” of Windelsham.  I say “Next” and “Village”, but in truth they are not villages at all and apart from a sign post on the tree lined A30 there is no reason to believe you have left one place and entered another.  It is an affluent area and somebody once told me that this part of Surrey/Berkshire had the highest concentration of wealth per km2 in Europe.  I don’t know if that is fact or estate agent’s bollocks, but it certainly is a well healed kneck of the woods.

I took the train out from Waterloo and got a taxi to the clients address.  She is an elegant woman of 50ish.  Actually, she score pretty highly on the stroke-ability scale and gives the impression of being a dirty mix, not that I have ever confirmed my suspicions.  Never mix business and pleasure.  I digress.  Apparently she had been an opera singer and had been quite famous.  At about the time I was slogging my way across the delightful Falkland Islands, she was slumming it in the Opera houses of London, MIlan and Paris.  You have to feel for her!

Over a mug of Earl Grey she told me what she wanted me to do, and to be honest the job was really very simple.  Could I go to Italy (not far from Rome) and collect 3 paintings and a small sculpture and bring them back to the UK.  Now I have to say that I am not usually hired for the movement of arts and antiques, bearing in mind there are lots of specialist firms who do this sort of thing every day.  Plus I am sure that I was going to be expensive for the job and so I said so.

“Ah, yes Mr Norman, but you see two of the paintings are Picassos, the third is a Dali and the sculpture is very early Stephen Cox and quite small so rather valuable.” She explained

“Even so Mrs White I am sure that there are firms who specialise in this sort of thing and they would be much cheaper than me”

“Maybe, Mr Norman, but the thing is,  if I tell you I want the items here in say two days time you will have them here in two days time.  No whingeing and whining or delays with lorries and all that.  You will go to Italy get the things and bring them back.  You give them to me, I pay you.  Simple” She gave me a big smile to reinforce the point that is was that “simple”. “As it is Mr Norman there is no major rush, but if you could do it before end of the month it would be helpful, but if you can’t it is not a calamity”

I had deliberately not put too much into the diary for few weeks as I felt I needed a bit of down time so knew that I could easily do it by the end of the month.  I did some calculations to work out a time frame for the job.  A day travelling either end, a day to do the pick up, a day for cock ups/sightseeing and to ensure the items were all packaged properly.  Four days work, plus expenses plus profit.  I said I could do it and would try to have her things with her in about ten days and gave her a ball park price,  which I have to say was not cheap and said I would have to confirm it later.  She did not bat an eye lid and said it was fine and we would finalise the details in the next 24 hours.

We spent the next 30 minutes chatting about this that and the other when were interrupted by  the door bell.  It was the gardener.  He was a big bloke at least 6’4″ tall, built like a brick shit house, about my age but with a very distinct upper class accent.  Gardener? I think not!  True  he had a flatbed truck outside and was dressed as if he had fallen out of a bush or taken fashion tips from Wurzel Gummidge, but he was no gardener.  However before my taxi had arrived old Wurzel was out attacking the flora like a man possessed and to be fair, the garden looked magnificent.

I could have gone round to the BIL1 but to be honest the idea of swapping small talk with his bilious wife Dawn did not fil me with Joy.  Had the kids been there I would have plucked up the courage to face the lioness in her den, but I really could not be arsed.  so I went home instead and and worked out flight costs, car hire, hotels and all that sort of stuff.

I rang Mrs White with the definitive price.

“That’s fine just do it as soon as you can” She sounded very curt, which was not like her.

“Are You alright Mrs White?”

“Yes fine thank you I will pay you 50% now and the rest on delivery ring me later to talk details” and she hung up.

Very odd.

My next port of call was to go to Reading and to see a man whose farther in law had gone missing.  I rang him and arranged to see him the next day.

I headed out to Reading on the Train from Paddington.  It only takes about 30 minutes or so and gave me quick chance the flick through a Private Eye I had picked up at the station.  My taxi took me to a quite and elegant house not far from the University, where I was met by Mr James my contact.  Mr James was about 60 and was tall, lean with grey, well kept wavy hair.

From the outside the house was almost twee, but inside it was a very comfy family home and had that homely lived in feel, that immediately puts you at ease and makes you feel safe and protected.   It smelt of coffee and weekend breakfast.  I don’t mean it stank of cooking but warm cosy yummy Saturday things from when you were a kid.  When I was kid no doubt there would have been Junior choice on the radio with Ed Stewpot, but times move on.  Old git that I am.

There were a couple of teenagers there who were introduced themselves as being Daniel (age 19) and Sophie (17).  I could hear the sounds of smaller children and Daniel called them into say hello.  Sally was 13 and Mickey almost 11, they came in shook hands and introduced themselves.  Mr James came in with is wife – Maria and joined the family group.  The word to describe Maria James is WOW.  She was about 5’10 in height jet black hair, large brown eyes, olive skin, and a fabulous figure.  Not skinny, but not fat and very very pretty.  No that does not do her justice,  the best person I can liken her to is Raquel Welch in her hey day.  I would have said she was about 50, but i found out later that I was not even close on the age. Anyway, I put my tongue away and stopped drooling over the floor and we sat round the dining table with a cup of tea and a large plate of chocolate hobnobs – a particular favourite of mine.

It was Mr James who opened the family meeting “We are really grateful you could spare the time to see us at such short notice.  Its my father in law, he has left home”

“You say left home, do you have any idea where he may have gone?” I asked

“Oh yes” chipped in Sophie “He is in Italy”

“Yes South of Rome” said Mr James

“OK how do you know that?” I asked a little taken a back at the progress this missing persons job had suddenly taken.

“From his credit card” Said Mrs James.

“OK, why don’t we start at the beginning.  One of you tell me the broad story and then we can fill in any gaps as we go along” I said

Everyone looked at Daniel

“Go ahead Daniel, you tell Mr Norman the story your closest to Granddad” said Mr James.  I was impressed that it should be one of the grandchildren to be given opportunity to deal with what I am sure was an upsetting ordeal.  The whole family had an air of unity and solidarity about it.  I might be talking total utter bollocks, but I think this kind of respect and cohesion is rare.

“Sorry” Said Daniel “Just Granddad is such a great bloke and he has not been himself for some time, and then without a word of warning he just took off.  We feared the worse and then we checked his bank account on line and saw he had bought a flight to Italy and hired a car and then made payments and cash with drawls.”

“Are you sure its your granddad?”

“As sure as we can be, the amounts are not large and they are in hotels and restaurants, there is nothing obviously untoward”  He said.  “I have done a schedule of what has been spent where which I can give you”

Again I was impressed.

Daniel Continued “At the end of last year Granddad started getting anxious and fretful.  He kept saying he needed to speak to someone called Carllo Alato.  I think that’s what he said, but the problem was he mumbled it like he really didn’t want us to hear.” He paused “Then in January and February it got worse.  Feb was really bad and on the 15th He went to London to go to the catholic Cathedral”

“I take it he is not a Catholic then?”

“No, he is a Methodist of sorts” said Mrs James “The funny thing is, that he always went to a Catholic service on the 15th February without fail.  I don’t know why and he would never say”

“Anyway” said Daniel taking up his thread again “By March he was sleeping badly and very distressed and then as suddenly as it started it stopped.  We all though that it was over and then a few weeks ago it started again, but it was worse and then bingo one morning he had gone leaving a note saying it was something very important and not to worry”

“I suppose before we go any further I should ask your fathers name” I said to Mrs James

“Oh yes sorry its Hawthorn, Clark Hawthorn”

“Clark?” I said

“Yes, why?” asked Mrs James.

“Just a slightly odd Christian name for an Englishman of your fathers generation, that’s all, no reason, I just don’t think I have come across another one who was not American”

I started asking questions about family friends etc.  Despite then obvious affection from his immediate family  he was very much a loner and they didn’t really know that much about him.  He was born in 1918 which made him about 89.  His first wife had died during child birth when Mrs James was born during the war, but they did not know much about her.  So in fact the hot Mrs James was in her sixties. Well I’ll go to the foot of our stairs,  I have to tell you she didn’t look it.  Maybe Its a sign that I am getting old but I have never knowingly fancied shagging a pensioner before.  No offence to any pensioners reading.

Anyway Mr Hawthorn had not remarried, although he had been something of a ladies man and had had a succession of lady friends.  He was an academic and had studied architecture and structural engineering at Oxford before and after the war.  Sometime in the fifties he had gone into the Civil Service and had worked in London.  He liked to travel and was a keen fly fisherman and golfer.  However what was odd was that when I really tried to find out what he was like I got the impression nobody really knew.  Maybe its common that we don’t know mega amounts about the elderly members of our families or maybe we just cannot quite put the bits of jigsaw that make up their lives together.  Try it for yourself, how much do you really know about your parents or grandparents?  Maybe we should ask them more about what they have done and seen in their lives.

They gave me some photos of a distinguished looking man with a twinkle in his eye.  He looked more like Mr James than Mrs.  A lean but muscular face with toothbrush moustache,  piercing blue eyes and fairly thick grey hair.  He reminded me of, and I stress he reminded me of and did not look Clark Gabel.  How odd another Clark, maybe it was the name!

The family showed me Mr Hawthorns self contained flat at the back of the house.  It had a bedroom, reasonable size living room with a small kitchenette, a small bathroom and a little sort of courtyard garden.  It was very agreeable and very clean and tidy.  There was roll top desk and when I opened it, found it to be immaculately tidy.  I would have said too tidy.  There was a jotter pad and some doodles and notes which were in very fancy handwriting.  One of things I noticed was the name Cavallo Alato. it was jotted down a couple of times along with Cratego, but apart from that there was not much.  I will come clean and tell you my Italian aint so hot.  I can get a room for the night some grub and am rather partial to both Peroni and Nastro Azzuri beer, but that’s about it.

They also gave me the schedule of where Mr Hawthorn had been spending money.  Nothing odd, flights, car hire, meals and a hotel in the town of Cassino.

“Can I ask you why you have not gone to get him yourself?” I asked

There was shuffling of feet and they all looked a bit embarrassed.  “His note said not to come and he would disown us if we did” said Mrs James “He could be very harsh and strict sometimes, he loved us all but he is not an affectionate man in the sort of modern gushy kind of way” she looked me directly in the eyes.  “Somebody gave us your details and said that they thought you were a younger version of my father, not to look at maybe, but in manner and thinking.  I think you might be able to find out what is wrong and get him to come home”

“What if he doesn’t want to come home?” I asked

“We will respect his wishes, just make sure he is alright and we can work round it.  He must be Ok and happy” She said.

I started to tell her my fees and she held up a hand.  “Mr Norman, my father has been good to me all my life.  I have wanted for nothing and I am not about to repay that by worrying about how much it will cost me to make sure he is OK.  I would just like you to go as soon as you can cost does not come into it”

Arrivederci.

Religion

Thursday, November 1st, 2007

Before I embark on telling the story of my recent Italian job, I thought I would share this little story with you. I don’t know if its true, but to be honest, who gives a toss.

Apparently, a CNN journalist heard about a very old Jewish man who had been going to the Western Wall to pray, twice a day, every day, for a long, long time. So she went to see him and find out abit more about him.

When she got to the Western Wall there he was, walking slowly with a walking stick up to the holy site.

She watched him pray for about 45 minutes and then he turned to leave moving very slowly.

She approached him for an interview.

“Excuse me, sir, I’m Rebecca Smith from CNN. What’s your name?

“Morris Fishbone,” he replied.

“How long have you been coming to the Western Wall and praying?”

“For about 60 years.”

“60 years! That’s amazing, what do you pray for?”

“I pray for peace between the Christians, Jews and Muslims. I pray for all the wars and all the hatred to stop. I pray for all our children to grow up safely as responsible adults, and to love their fellow man.”

“How do you feel after doing this for 60 years?”

“Like I’m talking to a fucking wall.”