Aleisha’s firm right hip was warm in Giulio’s hand, as she kneaded his leg just above the knee.
Overhead, the fans turned, barely stirring the air. Every door and window in the place was open.
Insects and moths circled endlessly around the lighting fixtures.
The girls didn’t drink much but the men were pretty sauced. Here was a kind of peace and serenity, cool after the long hot day where the sweat just flowed and your shirt stuck to you and the underwear was even worse.
The air was blue with smoke and the hour was late. The music was alien and unfamiliar and the atmosphere bizarre. It was a repressive culture, even more so than home, and yet the girls were mostly naked and very accessible. Back home, women were presumed to be angels, here they were property and capable of anything. They were not exactly up on a pedestal, sold into servitude as they were.
He was far from home and they did things differently around here. Perhaps things would change under more enlightened rule. These women were whores and the more respectable, matrons and virgins alike, were veiled and sequestered well away from profane eyes. You had to bear it in mind.
Giulio had to fly tomorrow, which meant that if anything was going to happen they’d better get on with it. Jesus, it was only about ten lire. It was the sort of thing you didn’t put in a letter home to your little (or at least younger) brother. Which your mother and sister would undoubtedly read as well.
According to letters from home, Emilio had grown an inch since he’d seen him last.
According to letters from home, Emilio had grown an inch since he’d seen him last.
It was the dance of the Seven Veils. The girl front and centre was a bit skinny for his liking.
Aleisha was as comfortable as an old couch, something he had read once and always remembered. He remembered her from before, when it seemed she was the only one in this whole Godforsaken place with a shred of kindness, or perhaps it was merely weakness.
He wasn’t particularly horny, and the Turks were getting pretty good at shooting at low-flying aeroplanes. The music droned on and on, interminably. At one time he had found it fascinating.
As it was, it was merely different.
Giulio leaned over towards Cacciatore.
“I may be crazy, but I’m not stupid.” With that, he rose, taking Aleisha by the hand, leading her towards the cramped and dingy rooms at the back where the ladies, (and the Italian officers were nothing if not gentlemen), plied their trade.
For tomorrow, we may die.
We have to have our priorities.
Even then, he found it hard to get the aeroplane out of his head. Now that was true love.
The motor had sputtered once or twice that morning and he was wondering what it could possibly be.
The chill of the night was wearing off. The shimmering orange ball that was the sun had just topped the horizon.
“I’ve checked every little thing. There’s nothing wrong with the motor.” Crespo, his mechanic, shrugged. “Maybe the fuel.”
They had strained and filtered it three times, and yet it was a constant concern.
“Very well.” The Taube had only let him down once before, and he’d been able to safely set her down in territory controlled by the Army.
A few words tapped out in Morse, a few hours of waiting, and Crespo and the boys had gotten her going again. Giulio had climbed aboard and flown her the last few kilometres.
Today he could do without such complications.
Generally speaking, the Mercedes inline four-cylinder was one of the most reliable power-plants available. Perhaps he’d merely imagined it, but the engine had stumbled, ever so briefly, the previous afternoon. The heat of the day was considerable, and it was possible that the fuel had gotten a little too warm and begun to boil off in the lines. There was such a thing as vapour lock, although the Taube was not known for it.
The conditions in Libya were completely different from Italy, and certainly Germany, and native design faults would make themselves known. The mechanics were always fiddling around with the motors, speaking their own arcane language. While he understood much of it, there were times when his eyes glazed over.
Giulio took off his coat, and someone took it away. He snapped his flying helmet tight and, with his goggles on his forehead, used a small step-ladder. One had to step carefully or risk putting one’s feet right through the thin fabric of the fuselage. No tie today, and the top buttons of his tunic were undone. To hell with tradition.
He made sure the ignition was off. Giulio opened up the fuel cock. He stuck his head over the side.
Crespo, with his assistant standing by, rotated the propeller through two turns and stopped.
With fuel in the cylinders, the feel was completely different.
He looked up at Giulio.
He turned the switch on.
“Ignition on, fuel on, ready to start.”
Giulio pulled down his goggles and made sure the map was secure.
Crespo stood, as was his habit, with his assistant holding his belt to pull him out of the way.
Giulio had always wondered what good that would do. It’s not like the aeroplane would lunge forward, not on idle, but an accident or two over the years and people were very aware of the dangers. A mechanic had walked into a spinning propeller just weeks previously, dying almost instantly in one of the few casualties so far among the air service. How in the hell a person could actually do that, was another question.
Must have been brain-dead.
That was the general consensus.
Crespo threw the propeller against the compression and she fired right up. This was both a relief and not a relief at one and the same time. It was always the same. Blue smoke spurted and drifted away on the light breeze, with the engine mixture rich and the choke full on.
Checking the spark advance, she was right where she should be.
Assistant mechanic first class Antonio came up beside the cockpit as a half a dozen other hands stood in front of the wings, holding her back as Giulio watched the engine temperature.
“Here we go, sir.”
Giulio took the leather bag of four bomba, unfuzed, (safety first!), and placed them on the floor, where if he was lucky they wouldn’t interfere with his feet, the pedals or the control cables.
Antonio handed in the fuzes, separate for safety. Wrapped in thick rags, Giulio put one in each side pocket of his battledress jacket, one in each upper pocket, and then he was pretty much ready to go.
Crespo had his water-bottle.
Someone was standing there with a rifle but he waved them off. He would have enough on his hands without that thing rattling around in what was already a pretty restricted cockpit. He had his pistol, which was more to prevent capture and torture rather than any serious defense against the irregular troops the Turks were mostly using.
In other words, the suicide option.
The cylinder head was up to temperature and Giulio shouted at the men, his words lost in the roar of the propeller, which wasn’t so much the engine as the big wooden paddle blades slapping aside the air.
More men came and held the plane. He revved her up, pulling the throttle back sharply. The motor was responding well in the relatively cooler air of morning. It was all in your guts, at some point. Again, he revved it up and pulled back, as he tried to stall her deliberately.
The motor sounded sweet, the vibration strong through the pedals, the stick and the seat of his pants. People’s mouths were moving but he couldn’t hear them anyways. Now she idled quietly away.
With the map and his mission foremost in mind, Giulio waved them off. When he advanced the throttle again, the wheels struggled momentarily against the soft sand. The tail came up on her own. The aircraft broke loose. They went bumping and jouncing as he kicked at the pedals, trying to keep her straight and narrow, and when he had cleared the small flight-line area, with its bare half-dozen serviceable aircraft, he turned into the wind and opened up the throttle. Within a hundred metres she broke the surly bonds of Earth, the airspeed indicator holding strong at seventy-five kilometres per hour.
They were airborne. With a little luck, he’d be back in an hour and a half and then he could have a proper breakfast.
Libya was an arid hell, described as lush, green and well-watered in the press back home. In their patriotic fervour for war with a more primitive society, people were presuming victory with little knowledge of actual conditions.
The population, also described in the press as anti-Ottoman, which may have been true to some extent, was even more vehemently anti-Italian. Especially since the invasion…tribesmen they might be, but the whole pastoral existence was a kind of disciplined camp life, and camp life was the one essential element of both modern and ancient warfare.
You really couldn’t go to war without moving men and materiel to temporary quarters and sustaining them in the field—hopefully someone else’s field and not your own—for extended periods of time.
It would be a learning experience.
Giulio grinned ferociously, climbing out, circling the field once, with its flagpole, its lines of tents. Even at this relatively late hour of the day, there was not a single senior officer on hand, in other words, no generals. The parking spaces in front of their one permanent building were empty, and he waved at the mechanics on the ground.
The tall, spare figure of Captain Piazza was there as well.
He was up early—he must have shit the bed.
Came to say goodbye, did you.
We have to give him credit for that.
Six or eight kilometres out, Giulio steadied her up at a thousand metres to evade the bulk of ground fire. He pointed her nose to the southeast. Following the roads was always problematical in Libya. Half of them were unmarked, or in the wrong place, or didn’t really look much like a road at all.
The map was folded and paper-clipped into a stiff oblong. Only the section he needed was available without major refolding, impossible anyways in the heavy buffeting of the cockpit.
He pulled it out but it was essentially meaningless. He knew where he was going. It was either there or it wasn’t.
Tobruk, Derna and Khoms had been easily conquered, Benghazi was quite another story.
The twenty thousand troops put ashore had been deemed sufficient for the task of taking what the Ottomans called Trabluscarp—Libya, in a tongue that Giulio had found harsh and barbaric when privileged to sit in on one of their infrequent interrogations of a captured Turkish officer.
The modern army, the Regio Esercito, had been curiously unprepared for a war that everyone had seen coming. The only ones who hadn’t seen it coming were those commanders most likely to be tapped for the duty and (of course) those political types voted most likely to initiate such a useless endeavour. The press were just screaming for it, and the reading public nothing if not malleable…Giulio didn’t care either way. The politics really didn’t matter.
He had wanted to fly and had no real love of the noble savage, which he had long suspected was a contradiction in terms. Civilization was a thin-enough veneer over human passion and pretension.
He was heading out over the vast wasteland, sweat already pouring down his armpits, heading for a rumoured enemy troop concentration at Tajoura. On the way back, he would fly over the oasis at Ain Zara, another good staging point for an attack on Tripoli. So far the opposition had been fairly well organized, and this was without much support from the Sublime Porte. If nothing else, the Italians were heavily outnumbered, in a land where pretty much everyone who was anyone, all of them nobody at all, hated their new masters.
One of the more heavily populated areas, the roads lay out before him and he followed his usual route, with the dull patches of green small and forlorn in the greater desolation. The shadows of clouds lay on the land in dark patches and the unthinkable might even happen, a bit of rain later if this kept up.
Aleisha was a whore, of course, and yet she did so much for him—thinking ahead, as to what he might need, what he might like, and what he might want. She listened so much better than Marice.
The wife, back home and putting all of her petty angst, all of her bullshit, every stinking word of it, all of that bourgeois sturm und drang, into every interminable letter she ever wrote, stood out in stark contrast, and she was a lot more expensive to boot.
So someone snubbed you at the flower show. Big deal. Out here, the price of a mistake was very high.
Out here, this was real. It was something Marice would never understand and maybe that was the problem.
All of a sudden, one day, for no particular reason, he had suddenly hated his wife, someone he had nicely tolerated, even genuinely liked, up until this point and only so far before that.
Not that he was making sense much lately. It was a guilty feeling, to be the only one that knew that.
All of that drink. All of that isolation, all of those people afraid to make a decision, but God help you if you were of a different mettle. They were very good at fucking things up…
When all of this was over, he would sign himself in someplace for a nice, long rest.
It occurred to Giulio that in spite of all the promise of the morning, he was having a bad day.
None of them bastards were out here this morning. The very thought helped for some reason and he brightened. The plane was good, very good. Small black dots caught his eye. There were small, spidery figures below, the forms and shadows of men and horses.
“So you don’t want to be conquered, eh?”
He stared as tribesmen on the backs of camels unlimbered their weapons. They were probably shooting at him, the rifles, little black sticks one minute, now disappearing due to perspective and foreshortening.
The horizon shimmered in the haze of heat and what little moisture there was in the air. One must assume that the air was being torn by bullets, and yet the idiots were probably shooting at him, when they really ought to have been leading him by quite a bit.
It wasn’t much comfort, but it was at least something.
(Apologies to the literary agents of this world. - ed.)