The window in the bedroom overlooked the town of Varenna and when the mist lifted off the lake she could see Menaggio and from there she would take the train to Dongo. This is where the war had ended and she wanted to see the fascists hanging, they who had taken away her youth, her family and sent so many others to Germany.
Getting up from the rumpled bed that still smelt of men, Paola stared at herself in the mirror. She could not drag herself away from what she saw. Her lips, once lipstick red, were now kissed pale, her eyes a vacant brown and her hair needed a coarse brushing. Signorina Flavia ‘la signora bordello’ would never again knock and fuss around her, picking up the torn stockings and lace underwear, chattering, tutting and asking about the last client.
She had been the first to leave that morning, shamefully slinking away as the church bells had started, echoing across the lake from village to village, announcing that it was safe, it was over at last. Paola started to pack a small valise with what she had salvaged from her short seventeen years. A gilt photograph frame with three stern black-dressed aunts looking out towards the camera with bland and dull expressions was to be wrapped in a silk handkerchief that belonged to her father along with a few leather bound books of devotions that had not helped her plight these last years.
For a few minutes Paola was to be alone in the house and she liked the silence but the guilt that used to be written all over her face had gone. She did not feel anything anymore. It was the only way she could have kept her Jewish family safe with the money she paid out to the ‘capo della polizia’ who was the last client she told herself she would ever entertain. Of course he called her his ‘caged prize’ as he sweated on her, heaving his belly against hers and then falling asleep completely satisfied with his efforts. She hated the sight of his creased uniform draped over the chair and she always made sure to spit into the thick local wine that he demanded to be placed by the bed. The worthless cardboard lire notes felt scratchy and she looked away as he would place them between her breasts. His breath smelt of Alpha cigarettes, the cheapest type, made with dark tobacco and bolstered with wood dust. His rough fingers would no longer explore her, touching her and exposing secrets that only women knew.
He had deceived her of course and her parents had been taken from the small bakery on Via Venini, her mother grabbing onto the doors, pleading for anyone to save her. Her father stunned by events had gone meekly as the neighbours turned away not watching or getting involved as they might be next.
Defiant, she drew the Star of David with her finger over the filthy glass in the window and without a glance or thought of the past left the room of shame and sin. The door had never shut properly and so it remained open, swinging slightly in the morning breeze.
The town was emptying as she wandered with the curious and angry down to the ferry station for the passage to Menaggio. Paola kept her head down, her fingers entwined on the last lire for the journey. They could have bought her a small bread loaf but her hunger would be her proud weapon of defiance. The queue snaked onto the battered ferry which had been swabbed with graffiti denouncing collaborators and fascists. With a belching gasp, the engines started and the paddles thrashed the cool deep lake. She said nothing, just looked into the water of dreams that rushed past like the life she had missed.
The train to Dongo rattled on the single track surrounded by scenery that no-one deserved to see, such was its beauty and tranquility. There was smoke rising ahead in the town and they had to get off and walk the last yards as the rails had been blown up. Old men were helped down and children frolicked like it was a communion outing. Her shoes hurt, her frock was grimey and stained but she wanted to witness and see and stand proud.
Mussolini had been captured, shot and taken away. In the market square police had rounded up the remnants of the occupation and summarily strung them up. The crowd bayed louder as they pleaded for mercy. It was a scene from the hell she knew was coming and did not want to watch the man who had defiled her swing or make eye contact.
She turned quickly and ran out. She knew her mother and father were alive, would have survived and she had a mission now to get them home. She continued to run as long as she could, then broke into a walk, smiled to herself and felt the sun warm her bare shoulders.
Today she would start her life.