by Musetta Joyce ©2014
By the Eighties the motorway from Messina to Patti cut the journey down to under an hour, and private coach companies made it more convenient than the train. After a frustrating morning at the university I had just found a seat at the front of the coach and I was all set to enjoy the scenery when an elderly gentleman asked politely if he could sit beside me. It wasn't long before he began to speak in wobbly English.
'You are a professoressa I think, yes? I see you often. English?'
'Yes, I teach, but I'm Irish.'
'Ah, Irlanda del Nord? We see it much on the television. Many bombs!'
'No, the Republic. No bombs.'
'Capisco. Please excuse my English; she is bad; I want speak better but I am old.'
'Your English is much better than most of my students at the University after their years of schooling. How did you learn?'
'I was in un tipo di prigione, how you say?'
'Prison?' I looked at him cautiously; he didn't seem very dangerous.
'It was in the war. I fight with Mussolini. He is bad man and I not want fight but is not possible refuse. The English catch me and keep me in England.'
'You were a prisoner of war? Was it terrible?'
'We have compensazioni. We are free sometimes. I meet English girlfriend.'
'How did you manage to meet girls? Weren't you locked up?'
'Not always. Englishmen all away fighting so they use Italiani for heavy work after Italy join with Americans and English.'
The sunshine returned to beam through the windows as we finally emerged from the long tunnels piercing the hills surrounding Messina to rush along the flat northern coast, bypassing seaside villages.
'So, you enjoyed your days in England, did you?'
'I have, how you say, a love story. Is born a baby; my son.'
'But – you didn't marry her?'
'I am not free. I marry before the war. We have two sons.'
'What about your wife? What did she say when she heard about this other child?'
'She never know; nobody in Sicily know; it is my secret pain.'
'Your pain? What about your girlfriend left on her own to cope with the baby?'
'I am very sorry but I can do nothing. Every day I think and worry about this my other son but I cannot break the heart of my wife.'
'Hmm! Did you keep in touch?'
'Actually, you are the second man to tell me about conceiving a child in England during the war. Two men in our small town! How many others must there be all over Italy?'
'Another man? Who is he? I like to know him.'
'I'm sorry but he told me in strict confidence; his family have no idea either. He gave me the name of the woman once when I was passing through London and asked me to try to find her. But the details were too few and it was impossible. He's dead now. I often see his son and sometimes I wonder if I should tell him that he has a brother somewhere in England.'
We sat in silence for a while as the coach passed Milazzo on our right, with its refinery chimneys sending flames and fumes to pollute the mild spring air while, on our left, distant Etna puffed smoke signals into the cloudless sky.
'Perhaps you do good to tell him. It can be a bella sorpresa to discover to have another brother. My sons, they are very happy.'
'Yes, when my wife die, I go to England to find my son, Mario. His mother, she call him after me.'
'And, did you manage to find him?'
'Is not easy. Mario, he have twenty-five years then. His mother, she marry, but Mario not happy with this man and he run away long time ago. After much search I find the mother and she give me his address in London, but Mario, he go away again. I am one month there before I find him finalmente.'
'What was his reaction when he met you? Was he angry?'
'No, he is molto sorpreso. Always I fear he not pardon me but, no, he is very happy. His mother, she tell him I am Sicilian. He study a little Italian and his girlfriend, she speak good and translate for us.'
'It must have been marvellous to find one another after all those years! What luck!'
'No luck, it is un miracolo. I walk up the mountain to thank the Madonna of Tindari!'
'And … have you kept in touch?'
'Naturalmente. My other sons, they have the restaurant in America. I think maybe they angry but, when they come home for vacation and meet Mario, they are contentissimo and invite him to join them.'
'Did he go?'
'Si, si! It is now six years they work together.'
'And what about yourself? Do you go to stay with them in America?'
'Per sfortuna I cannot travel in the air because my bad experience in the war. But every year they all come home to visit me.'
'And the rest of the year you live alone? How sad! Still, it must be a great relief to have been able to meet your son and make it up to him for having abandoned him for all those years! Such a pity you can't all live in the same country though.'
'Ah, questa e la vita. The life, she is never perfect. Always there is something missing. Only in Paradiso is true happiness. But for now I am contento, for I find Mario and he pardon me. For too many years I carry the weight but now my heart is light again.'
'What about Mario's mother? Didn't you care about her any more?'
'She change. She find another man, but Mario, he not find another father before he meet me.'
'Now he has a real family at last, and I know well how important family is here.'
'Sangue del mio sangue – blood of my blood! Too many years not knowing.'
'Loving one's children is like an extension of loving oneself though, isn't it?'
'Maybe we love the image of ourselves in our children, but we want them to be better. That is evoluzione, progresso, no?'
The coach was now racing through the long dark tunnel beneath mount Tindari with its miraculous Black Madonna enshrined inside her garish Sanctuary. Soon we would be home.
'Mario and my other sons Gianni and Stefano come in summer. Maybe I present you to them, yes?'
'I'd love to meet them. Thank you for sharing your story with me.'
'Prego, my pleasure. Stories are for sharing, no?'
Many years later I met a buxom blond woman from London at a Living Magically retreat in the Lake District, and she told me her story:
'I had always suspected that my mother's husband wasn't my real father, although he always insisted that he was. I spoke to people at the London College of Psychic Studies and they told me I might very well be right in my intuition. But it was only after her husband died that I managed to get the truth from my mother, after plying her with a lot of sherry. She told me about her love affair with an Italian prisoner of war in the Forties. When she told him that she was pregnant he confessed that he was already married and had a family back in Italy who were eagerly awaiting his return. Well, I wanted to try to find him, so I contacted a solicitor who was familiar with Italy and he suggested putting an advertisement in the Familia Cristiana, a Catholic monthly magazine that was very popular throughout Italy. It took a few months before I got a reply and then, as soon as I could, I flew to meet my real father at last. He lived in a small town near Venice, and the whole family couldn't have been more welcoming. They were so excited to meet me. That was the first visit. Unfortunately, on my second visit I got a much cooler reception and I'm afraid I haven't been back since they informed me of my father's death.'
'I expect it had to do with the inheritance laws in Italy. They made it illegal to exclude illegitimate children from sharing in their parent's estates,' I explained. 'They might have feared you wanted money or property.'
'Well, anyway, I was glad to have met my real father at last – and to discover that my instinct had been right.'
More than half a million Italian soldiers, sailors and airmen who were prisoners of war between 1940 and 1947, were used as a labour force especially after 1943 when Italy joined the Allied Forces and were no longer enemies but were kept in Britain or sent to the Commonwealth countries.
The children born to unwed mothers at the time came to be known as 'War Babies.'