‘He failed to notice the figure leaning on the wall just outside the bar who pulled the collar of his heavy jacket tight around his neck, threw a darting glance to his right and his left and then fell into step about twenty yards behind him.’
Extract taken from The Partisan Heart
By Gordon Kerr
Published by Muswell Press
The station bar was quiet. The waiters lounged at the till, talking to each other, glad of the rest. The gap between breakfast and lunch seemed, to some of the old- timers, at least, to get shorter every year and soon they would again be gliding across the stone floor, trays carrying impossible quantities of drinks, hands dealing out change like lightning and placing receipts on tables, or pulling the tops off bottles, always with their eyes looking in another direction, searching out the next order or the nearest short skirt.
Michael sat at a table close to the wall with a good view of the entrance to the bar and ordered his usual macchiato. ‘Dirty coffee,’ Rosa used to call it. To make identification possible, he had asked, in his letter to the man who had been with Rosa, that he carry a copy of each of two newspapers – La Gazzetta dello Sport and the London Times. This was a mixture he felt was unlikely to be found very often. The place was so quiet, however, that this fussiness seemed slightly redundant.
There was a huge clock on the wall behind the bar. The hands moved laboriously, with a loud clunking noise. It was, indeed, as if time had become audible, as if it could be heard passing.
Ten to twelve . . . clunk, clunk . . .
Seven minutes to twelve . . . clunk, clunk . . . The hands moved as if passing through something viscous and heavy. Michael began to sweat, in spite of the fact that it was chilly in the vastness of this huge edifice.
With four minutes remaining before the appointed time for the meeting, he regretted having sent the letter. He regretted having gone to Rogerson & Gilchrist, he regretted his trip to the Lighthouse Hotel. He began to feel very warm. What was he going to say to this man, anyway? ‘So, you’re the chap who was screwing my wife? Pleased to meet you.’ It was not going to be the easiest conversation. He fought for the right words, but his mind was confused and nothing of any sense was rising to the surface. Most likely, he was going to walk away without saying a word, but, somehow, for some unknown reason, he felt he had at least to see him.
Three minutes to twelve . . . he lifted his coffee cup to his lips only to find his mouth filling with the bitter dregs from the bottom of the cup.
Two minutes to twelve . . . A man came in carrying La Gazzetta and Michael sat up, but there was no English paper and he turned round and walked out again just as soon as he came in.
Three minutes past twelve . . . He checked his watch, but the bar clock was indeed correct.
Ten minutes past twelve . . . His eyes darted to his watch again and his heart sank and rose at the same time. He need not find out the truth, need not confront Rosa’s secret life.
Twenty- three minutes past twelve . . . Positive joy at the thought of not having to deal with this, of being able to luxuriate in the idea that it might not be true; he may, in fact be wrong about what had been happening in the most important part of his life.
At half past twelve he stood up and negotiated a path between the tables to the door and out through the main section of the station towards the massive exit.
He failed to notice the figure leaning on the wall just outside the bar who pulled the collar of his heavy jacket tight around his neck, threw a darting glance to his right and his left and then fell into step about twenty yards behind him.
His train of thought was interrupted by a plump figure making his way between the rows of desks. Bruno Barni and Michael had spent time in each other’s company on several occasions. Most memorably, they had travelled together across America with Bill Clinton’s cavalcade of journalists and hangers- on for the last month of the 1992 American election campaign. They had spent many nights carousing and bemoaning their journalistic fates in small town America and, as is always the case in such circumstances, had, on their last night in each other’s company, sworn eternal friendship. Since then they had exchanged the occasional postcard, but had always failed to meet up whenever Michael had visited Italy or when Bruno had come to London.
‘Michael, how are you?’
‘All the better for seeing you, my old friend.’ They clasped each other in a bear hug and then Bruno stepped back, holding Michael by the shoulders.
‘I was so sorry to hear about your wife, Michael. I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t.’
‘Me neither, Bruno. As you can imagine, it’s not been easy.’ Bruno put an arm around Michael’s shoulder, walking him back the way he had come.
‘Come on, let’s get out of this dump and grab some lunch. I’ll just get my jacket.’
They had almost finished their first bottle of red wine before the food arrived at the table. Michael had explained everything to Bruno and Bruno now sat shaking his head and running his hand through his thinning black hair.
‘You mean you had no idea?’
‘None whatsoever, Bruno.’ He smiled at the apparent absurdity of it. Surely you can tell when someone has fallen out of love with you? Surely you know when that someone is dreaming of a life with someone else? ‘Hey, I know what you’re thinking. How come I didn’t realise? Well, Bruno, it seems you just don’t.’ He smiled at Bruno and reached for the bottle, sharing the remnants between both glasses, at the same time indicating to a passing waiter that they were in need of another.
‘Ah, Michael.’ Bruno shook his head and stared into Michael’s eyes. ‘But, hey, you remember what we used to say whenever we hit one of those small towns in the States in ninety- two?’
They said it together, smiling at the memory: ‘It don’t get much worse than this!’
‘But look, you say you don’t know who this guy is . . .?’ Bruno said this between hungry mouthfuls of cotoletta alla Milanese and Michael recalled just how much Bruno had loved his food in America. He would start the morning with a huge pile of pancakes and maple syrup and work his way through whatever food he could get his hands on as the day wore on. Michael, a sparing eater at the best of times and especially when on the road, would look on in wonder and sometimes even disgust, as steaks, ice cream, waffles, and hamburgers would disappear in ever larger quantities into that grinning mouth. ‘You have no idea . . .?’
‘Well, I know he’s Italian. I know he wears a size forty- four jacket. I know he has expensive taste. Oh, and I think I have a name that has some kind of connection to him.’ He put down his knife and fork and searched in his inside pocket for his wallet. From it he fished out the card that he had discovered in the jacket pocket that drunken night at the Lighthouse Inn and handed it to Bruno. ‘Or it could even be him, for all I know. I found that card in the pocket of the jacket I was sent.’
Bruno, in turn placed his knife and fork on the table and took the card from Michael.
‘Massimo Di Livio, Via Broletto No. 110, Milano.’ He read from the card and then turned it over in his fingers like a playing card with which he was performing a conjuring trick. ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know the name, but I know the street. To live in Via Broletto it helps if you have a lot of money in the bank. This guy is pretty well off.’ He sat up, as if a thought had just occurred to him. ‘But, hey, here’s an idea. Why don’t I run his name through our computers back at the office and have a word with a few people? Even if this isn’t your man, he may at least be able to point you in the right direction.’
Michael concurred. ‘Well, if it’s not too much trouble . . .’
‘It’s no trouble at all, Michael. To tell you the truth, I’d like to help you get to the bottom of this. You seem a little, how do you say . . . dislocated from things, my friend. Understandably so, I might add.’
‘Yes, you’re right, Bruno,’ Michael replied, nodding and smiling slightly. ‘I think I need what our American friends would call closure.’
They finished the meal talking about the old days and took leave of each other, agreeing to speak by telephone later in the day once Bruno had made his enquiries.
Michael walked unsteadily back to the Stazione Centrale and, even after drinking a bitter espresso at the bar in which he had waited in vain earlier in the day, he dozed all the way back to Beldoro, waking with a start as the train pulled into the station. He had intended to finish his piece at the office, but he had drunk way too much and would need to sleep it off before he could concentrate sufficiently to put together something cogent.
His shadow in the heavy jacket who had followed him to the newspaper office and sat at a corner table of the restaurant, slowly eating a dish of pasta, watched him climb onto the train before walking purposefully in the direction of a phone box at the exit to the station.
‘Michael! I so enjoyed our lunch. I am just sorry it couldn’t have taken place in happier circumstances.’
Michael’s head felt fuzzy. He had lain down and almost immediately fallen asleep on the bed when he had returned to his room. Just before the telephone’s shrill ring had jarred his senses around seven, he had once again found himself in the blue room with Rosa’s flailing body speeding towards him, but never quite reaching him, on the bonnet of the blue car.
‘But let me tell you, I’ve found something on your Massimo Di Livio. Something very interesting.’
‘Yes, go on, Bruno. What have you got?’ He rubbed the sleep from his eyes, making himself comfortable against the headboard of the bed.
‘Now look, Michael, you said that this man was a big man?’
‘Yes . . . the jacket was a size forty- four. I don’t know what that is in European sizes . . .’
‘Oh, don’t worry, Michael, I’ve bought clothes in England. Forty- four is a substantial man. Not as substantial as me, of course, but that only comes with a lot of practice.’
‘No.’ His voice turned serious now. ‘This Di Livio character, he is known to us. In fact, he is known also to the police; perhaps a little more intimately than we know him.’
‘What do you mean, Bruno?’
‘Well, I asked around – as you know I have some friends in the police – and I also had a look in our archives and came up with some interesting stuff about signor Di Livio.’ There was a moment’s silence and Michael guessed that Bruno was probably taking a sip from a glass of the bourbon he had grown to like so much in the States and which had been the cause of so many hangovers during those few weeks. ‘For example, in 1968, he was suspected of being one of the henchmen of a guy running a protection racket in Turin. Three of his colleagues went to prison. He walked.’ Another pause, another sip. ‘In 1973, he was charged with rearranging the face of another character in the same line of business. Again, he walked – this guy has good lawyers, believe me. He stayed clean for ten years and then in 1979 he did time for some very tricksy financial dealings. His crime had gone legit,’ – Bruno enjoyed using the argot of the American crime novels he loved so dearly – ‘but signore Di Livio hadn’t. He did three years and since he came out he seems to have kept his nose clean. He is very careful.’
‘Good God, Bruno. That’s unbelievable! How could Rosa get mixed up with such a man?’ Michael was by now sitting bolt upright on his bed.
‘That’s just it, Michael. I’ve asked around and I also found some pictures. This is a seventy- year- old man who is as thin as a string of spit and is no more than five feet five inches tall. And if that wasn’t enough to convince you, well, let me just say that from the conversations I have had, Di Livio’s proclivities lie on the more, erm, muscular side, if you get my drift. No, believe me, Michael, this is definitely not your man.’
The Partisan Heart by Gordon Kerr is published by Muswell Press, priced £12.99
‘The tensions between them grow just as the thunderstorm brews on the horizon, and we’re all waiting …