Today’s Sunday story – the idea I was given…
“there is a chap, standing in shorts in a narrow street in old town Perugia when a war veteran walks by and wants to talk about wine that he drank with the 8th army…… The rest is yours…..”
The heat of the day still clung to the walls of the steep narrow street as Robert stopped to take in the amazing beauty and feel of the place. He had arrived in old town Perugia, Italy only yesterday and already the magic of the place had captured his imagination.
The town breathed out its ancient historic story into the night sky. Robert basked in the atmosphere of amazing architecture dating back centuries, music drifting on the dusky air and the sultry smells of garlic, fresh herbs, wine and rich succulent dishes that wafted through the narrow streets like sprites being let loose from neighboring restaurants and cafe’s.
His senses were in overdrive.
He was lost in the moment.
Robert didn’t notice the old man until he was standing directly in front of him, watching him intently as Robert consumed his surroundings.
The old man’s wrinkled smile revealed gaps among his teeth, a glint of appreciation in his laughing eyes and a welcoming heart.
In broken English he asked Robert where in Britain he was from.
Robert was surprised that the man had guessed he was British and then he considered his Khaki shorts and very pale legs, though the England polo shirt may have been the giveaway.
” I’m from Yorkshire’, Robert replied.
‘Ah!’ exclaimed the old man, his face lighting up in recognition. ‘Let me buy you a drink. I will tell you about Hughie, a good friend. Yorkshire. I must share.’
Robert considered the request carefully. He wasn’t used to being invited to drink with strangers in strange lands. Yet the man seemed eager to tell his story and Robert had planned to find a cafe soon anyway.
He smiled and nodded acceptance to the old man, as he made to shake the old mans weathered hand. ‘I’m Robert. Robert Gilbert’ he said, as the man took his hand in both of his, smiling with open compassion and joy.
‘Aldo, my name is Aldo’ replied the old man as they continued up the steep sloping street of the picturesque hill town.
Aldo soon led them to a cafe hidden from the tourist route along a narrow street that snaked off to the left.
Locals were passing the evening deep in energetic conversation, broken by laughter and pure enjoyment of the tantilising banquet they sampled with gusto.
A waiter greeted Aldo enthusiastically and led them to a secluded table at the back of the restaurant where the view took Roberts breath away.
The moon was hanging like a huge lantern in the darkening sky, lighting up the hills and creating shadows and silhouettes of the ancient buildings and multi-coloured houses that make up the tapestry of Perugia.
Over a mouth-watering selection of anti-pasta, washed down with a velvet house red, Aldo began his tale.
‘Hughie he was a great man, a .. special man.
I met him during… la guerra … the war. Seconda Guerra Mondiale. eh… second world war. He was soldier. 8th Army…
It was 1944 when we crossed paths. I was a young soldier, still naive and inexperienced. Hughie had been transferred to Italy after fighting at EL Alamein and was to join troops at Monte Cassino.
He took me under his wing and I was invited to share dinner with the 8th Army.
I did not understand the honour of meeting such brave and experienced men, ‘Desert Rats’.
And they had come to help Italy.
And so I learned.
I learned about war, about life and about love, while drinking wine with the 8th Army…
Hughie had watched his younger brother perish in battle.
He had stared down frightened ‘enemy’ soldiers who should still have been with their mothers.
He had watched strong men break and horrors that lived on the back of his eyelids came to life when he lay down to sleep at night.
And he had watched as men worked together to save children, to rebuild villages, to protect each other.
He had new respect for the changing of the seasons, the blossoming of a solitary flower on a muddy battlefield, the defense of life itself.
His choice was not war, yet he understood that if he was ever to truly be free then this was his task, his destiny.
Yet the very path to freedom would imprison him in a battle with himself, his memories, his nightmares.
He was an extraordinary man, I remember he adopted feral cats and captured the magnificence of our country in simple paintings.’
Aldo paused as the main course of lamb in a rich sauce, with salad and potatoes was served and more wine was poured.
Once the waiter had left he continued…
‘He wrote poetry and long letters to a woman who kept him alive. The very thought of her spurred him on. His desire to be with her again so overwhelming that he persevered with each day.
Lydia. That was her name.
And he told tales of his young boy. His pride and joy, whom he longed to play cricket with.
And this is the important part. The jewel, the gift, the lesson he taught me that night over crimson wine and tales of war.
Forgiveness… of others and of self.’
He spoke slowly emphasizing the importance of the words.
‘He taught me that the enemy are merely men who have been instructed like us, that we are the enemy and must be fought.
That they too have sons, and brothers and mothers and sisters and lovers waiting for them.
They too are doing their very best to fight for a freedom they believe in. And they too will live with the fitful sleep of men who have seen sights that were never meant to be experienced in a life time.
That they too are living for the day they return home, return to a peaceful country, to a world of everyday humdrum that has become their dream of paradise.
‘Forgive them for they know not what they do.’
Forgive them because if you don’t you will never experience freedom.
Free them to free yourself.’
Aldo paused, allowing the weight of his words to settle before continuing.
‘And then forgive yourself.
Forgive yourself for all that you will do in the name of your monarchy and leadership, in the name of your country, for your families future, for the future of the world.
Forgive yourself even as you pull the trigger. Even as you take the life of another, even as you walk over body strewn battlefields.
Forgive yourself or lose the very freedom you are fighting for.
Forgiveness does not mean you condone. Forgiveness is about letting go of the poison chalice so that you can do things differently and in better ways, so that you can return and rebuild, rather than continue to be destroyed.
Forgiveness has a sneaky way of introducing love and compassion. Yet forgiveness is first.
That my friend was what I learned that night.
We build many battles and prisons on this earth, and the greatest are the ones we create in our minds when we do not forgive ourselves or others.
Peace can only be cultivated from a peaceful heart.’
Aldo took a deep breath and sighed…
‘And I tell you this because I see you have not yet learned forgiveness. I see the story in your eyes.’
Aldo watched and allowed his words to meld into the heavy night air.
He rested his face in his hands and felt the tears squeeze between his fingers.
Somehow Aldo had known.
For Robert this was to be his last supper.
He had come to this strange and beautiful place to forget forever. To take his life in the place his father had died all of those years ago.
Robert could not forgive his father for not returning, and leaving him to become the man of the house at the grand age of four.
He had watched his mother, Lydia struggle on alone. He had watched her heart-break and her eyes dull and finally watched the lights go out a year ago today.
He had never understood how his father had abandoned them, especially when Robert’s own wife and child had died in a car crash when he should have been there rather than staying for an extra drink with a friend.
He would give anything to have them back.
Aldo rested a hand on Roberts back as he whispered ‘forgive‘.
It was twenty minutes before Robert could uncover his face. He could not stop the flow of tears and the overwhelming sense of release.
Something had shifted in his heart.
When he finally raised his head he was alone.
The old man had slipped into the night, like the ghosts of the 8th Army.
With much appreciation