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Lamb Holm Whispers

12 Feb

Alberto walked across the island to the chapel and went in.

‘Alberto’

He looked around.

‘Alberto?’

He looked around again but could see no one.

‘Alberto, over here, come and see.’

He followed the direction of the voice and found Luigi, kneeling in the Sanctuary, gazing up at Our Lady, smiling down from the ceiling.

‘It’s finished.’

Alberto fell to his knees to thank God for the miracle. Was the miracle the ceiling or that he was kneeling next to Luigi?

Alberto and Luigi were both serving with the Italian Tenth Army in North Africa when they were captured and brought to Lamb Holm.

Lamb Holm, a small lonely island in Orkney. The surrounding sea, dark, hostile and menacing, whipped up by the ever threatening storm. The spray, biting and salty. Bitter and bleak, the surf breaking on the shores of Scapa Flow and the rusty frames of the blockships, obstructing the narrows, made this a miserable place to be. It was the perfect location for a prisoner of war camp. The Italians, captured during World War II, were brought to this desolate isle and set to build the Churchill Barriers.

Camp 60. In 1943, the camp commandant and the camp’s priest agreed that a place of worship was required. Two Nissen huts were joined together and formed a makeshift chapel.

It was constructed with whatever materials they could lay their hands on. Domenico Chiocchetti painted the sanctuary end of the chapel, his fellow prisoners decorated the entire interior.

Alberto and Luigi often came to the unfinished chapel and not wanting to disturb the angels they spoke in whispers.

Luigi: ‘How I wish it all to be over and we can go home.’

Alberto wasn’t sure.

‘To what, Luigi?’

‘To Mamma, the food, the wine, to the sun and the warm sea.’

Alberto tried to interrupt. It was futile. Luigi was in full flight. He made his homeland sound like heaven. Alberto didn’t feel he had left heaven when he was sent to North Africa. Just left one hell hole to end up in a worse one. But here, in Orkney, it was all over peace. He could live with the cold.

He didn’t pass these thoughts to Luigi. No point. He hoped when Luigi returned home, he would be made welcome. He hoped he would sit in the sun, eating pasta cooked by his madre and everything would be how he imagined.

Alberto tried to engage Luigi in conversation about the war and how lucky they were to be out of it. But Luigi was having none of it, and so it was back to the sun and the sea and the food and the wine and Mamma.

And always they had to return to their work.

At the weekends it was the chapel. It was surprising how accomplished they had both become, how they had all become, under the direction of a master. Alberto would never have believed himself to be capable of such artistry. Such creativity. Domenico stressed that imagination knows no limits.

Luigi sang as he created. He sang as loud as he could. He would sing for Mamma when he got home. His voice echoed from every corner and rebounded into the chapel. Alberto and the others, applauded the songs they all knew so well. O Sole Mio and Sorrento. Sorrento always left someone crying and they all cheered and joined in Funiculì, Funiculà.

How Luigi and Alberto had come together they could not remember but they had become friends, comrades. Comrades as different as they could possibly be. Comrades, tolerant and strong.

A comradeship that would end suddenly and dramatically.

For some reason, no one ever knew why, Luigi left the hut, where they slept, in the middle of the night. He passed the guard, unseen, and into the dark. With arms outstretched and singing, he walked into the sea. His body was found the next morning, He had been battered against the rocks and was hardly identifiable. Alberto was stunned. Stunned, shocked and distressed. His friend had given no indication he was so unhappy. They were prisoners, yes, but Luigi was always on about going home and how wonderful it would be. How he longed for home. The sun, the wine, Mamma.

Alberto reproached himself. He should have noticed something. Had his attitude to going home affected Luigi? Dashed his hopes of a happy return? Alberto wished he had kept his mouth shut but they had shared so many intimacies. It wasn’t Luigi’s fault that Alberto didn’t have an adoring Mamma who wanted to cook his favourite food, who wanted to love him and welcome him home from the war with open arms. He wept, wept for Luigi and for himself.

Alberto went into the chapel often after that. He prayed for Luigi’s tortured soul and prayed for his own forgiveness. If only he could tell Luigi he was sorry.

And so it was a miracle that he was kneeling next to Luigi now.

He didn’t have to ask. Luigi spoke first.

‘Alberto, you must not scold yourself. I am happy and with Mamma. She called me that night, she wanted me to sing and I went to her. Now we sing all the time. We eat pasta and drink wine and the sea is never cold.’

Alberto began to cry. Large tears, loud sobs.

And then a voice from nowhere. The voice of a child.

‘I heard them Daddy, there were voices, voices and sobbing. I heard them.’