Puccini: La Bohème - Che gelida manina
Uncle Fred plays this piece after telling Jack about his experiences in the war.
We listened to her footsteps, heard the bed springs creak then waited until the house echoed with her silence. Fred slumped back into his chair and reached for the teapot. He poured another cup for both of us. I wanted to leave but couldn’t.
‘What have your parents told you about me?’
‘Very little. Mum told me about what happened at Ypres, your posting to India and Russia, but Father has never said anything.’
‘Apart from “stay away from him”.’
‘I’m afraid so.’
‘Do you know why?’
I recalled Nutty’s words, but that was trivial. I thought I knew the real reason for my father’s dislike of his brother-in-law.
‘One reason, Uncle Ralph has said so as well, is that you’re a Marxist.’
‘Red Fred, eh?’ he laughed.
‘Yes, I'm afraid it's your nickname.’
‘I know, but I have worse names.’ He leaned forward. ‘Do you want to know why they call me that, why I believe in Marxism, why I believe that Hitler means what he says?’
I swallowed then nodded. I did want to know. I wanted to know why my fifty-year old uncle looked seventy, why his face was scarred with worry, his hair white, and why he lived with a woman who was barely in her thirties but looked older than my mother. Most of all, I wanted to know why they were all so frightened of this man and his ideas.
He told me. He used words like weapons, describing horrors which made my flesh crawl. How could men do these things to each other? I felt sick. I’d drunk far too much tea and had to leave the room and seek relief in the toilet in the yard. The physical and mental relief was incredible as I emptied my bladder and some of my mind. I couldn’t cope with much more, though I had wanted to know, to understand.
When I returned, the room was empty. I heard him shuffling about in the front room. Soon the sound of a tenor singing filled the house. It was Gigli or Bjorling — his Caruso records were more scratchy. It was from a Puccini opera, though I didn’t know which one. The Italian composer was one of his few passions. Caroline preferred Beethoven but I couldn’t help but feel moved every time I heard this music. If I could get a gramophone outside, I might try to sooth Victor with it.
Fred returned and slumped over the table. Devoid of expression, he seemed unaware of my presence. I looked at him with a sense of overwhelming sadness. I felt something for my father as well and now appreciated why he refused to talk about the war. I looked at my watch, it was time to go, but I couldn’t leave him like this. I wanted to put my arm around him.
I got up but stopped as I heard Malita's feet padding on the stairs.
He looked up and listened. He waited until the door creaked open, got up and walked over to her, put his arm around her shoulders and kissed her on the cheek. He led her to the chair, sat down beside her and whispered in Spanish. She nodded then they both looked at me. We sat listening to the music until it died away and the needle started clicking.