Author: LA Robbins
Oh, the thrill! The bell tinkled as Alice led the family into the village rental shop, so crammed with skis, poles and paraphernalia that they proceeded single file, an obedient line of ducklings behind her. Around the display stands they wove, with Algernon bringing up the rear; poor chappie – only ten so she hadn’t dared to leave him home alone. She elbowed passed jabbering locals and took a place at the counter, triumphant smile hurting her face, so wide it was. The five Cunninghams stood in a semi-circle behind her, absorbing Algie’s lesson in basic Italian while they waited to be served.
Finally, first guests for her B&B. After close to a year of preparations and waiting. At last she and Reg were on the same page. Under the duvet last night she had pressed her fleshy abdomen into his firm buttocks and sighed, yes, maybe it could work, maybe she had just needed to hang fire. Guests would come. ‘Didn’t believe me, Doubting Thomas,’ he’d muttered, parachuting into sleep after their first lovemaking in weeks. Little did he know. True, she didn’t believe him. But her doubts had been bigger: she had wondered why they’d come at all, what had got into them. A snore purred from Reg’s side of the bed. Alice stretched her arm beneath his pillow and moved her legs closer to his. She could play her part now; be as employed (and as chuffed) as he’d been for months, with his tour guiding and his job at the resort’s biggest ski rental shop. All her B&B preparations were paying off: she was guiding, chauffeuring, shopping and cooking. She’d even arranged New Year’s Eve for them all.
That morning when Algie was at school she’d taken the Cunninghams to the mountainside near the Assietta Pass, where the Piedmontese had defeated the French in the 1700s. Reg had yammered on about this at dinner last evening. Local Kingdom of Sardinia soldiers: outnumbered, three to one. Relentless French: climbed over their own dead to struggle up the palisade, but leader, brutally cut down while raising the tri-colored drapeau. His Royal Marine training made Reg a self-proclaimed expert in military history, a distinction he now perpetuated by studying the battles of Piedmonte. His Assietta Pass story had gone on a bit but was that any reason for Mother to have taken Alice aside, as she’d done this morning? To ask if the family might have future meals on their own?
Suddenly it was Alice’s turn at the shop counter. She stepped forward. ‘Vi l’ho detto!’ Told you so!, her stentorious voice announced to Roberto, who looked perplexed. She gestured importantly at her brood, the son, in a Union Jack woolly hat. ‘I nostri primi ospiti – finalmente!’ Our first guests, she beamed. A smile volleyed back from Roberto. The family would bring him business Alice was saying – they’d rent snowshoes for the trek up to the refugio, cross-country skis for the first days after the New Year. The shopkeeper motioned to his left where short skis were lined up, rack after rack: stripy blue, green, red and yellow sliders, waiting to be selected.
What shoe size? Alice turning to the family, all business. The son, a size up from Father, the twin girls, a size down from Mother. Alice whirled back to report to Roberto, colliding with the backside of a woman bent to fasten her clasps. ‘Mi scusi,’ Alice stepped back. Con calma: tripping over herself in excitement, that was all. It had been a year since she’d visited the shop, promising Roberto and Dario business. Maybe they could offer a special discount, she’d suggested. After all, she was the only B&B in the tiny village, there were two other ski shops she could go to, but she’d chosen them. ‘Si, si,’ the brothers’ heads had bobbed up and down on scrawny necks. But a year had passed and she hadn’t brought a single client. At least her costly online publicity had lured this family.
Cross country skis fitted, the Cunninghams followed Roberto to the far end of the shop, Father in his Michelin man snow jacket, Mother with layers of scarf snaking around her neck. ‘Like tennis rackets,’ Mother exclaimed, crouching to fasten buckles on the snowshoes. Alice held one of the metal-rimmed shoes aloft and swooped it gently down, in the slo-mo serve of Wimbledon’s Centre Court.
With shoes and skis parked on the counter, Alice shifted her girth from leg to leg, fingers working her zip up and down, waiting in the queue. Exciting to be a busy bee, flitting from shop to home to ski resort. She would email Mum and Dad, tell them her happy news, soon as she had time to pee! They had not been at all keen on her move to Italy, had tried to ‘talk some sense into you’, reminding her how Reg’s impulsive decisions and determined follow throughs had often been a case of leaping before looking. She had defended him: ‘courage and perseverance’, not haste without research. In truth, their comments had touched a nerve. She had huge misgivings, greatly compounded when no business came and coffers, thoroughly depleted by set up costs. Phone conversations with her parents had been filled with false cheer. More telling was what she did not report – her increasing doubt and despair. She missed Mum and Dad terribly – her erstwhile support and babysitters- but so feared their ‘I told you so’ that she held her tongue.
This morning had been a novel hustle bustle: breakfast for the boys: Reg off to ski shop sales, Alg, onto the school bus. Then breakfast for the Cunninghams, drive the family to the Pass for their museum tour and lunch. Quick home to prepare tea for everyone, then back to collect the Cunninghams and make it home just in time for Algie’s school bus – ridiculous that school finished at one every day. He’d bolted down lunch and they’d set off to sort the family’s ski rentals at the local shop.
Across the counter, Roberto waving: time to pay. He showed her his scribblings and Alice tilted her chin; how had he arrived at the figure? His maths, too fast to follow. What if the family thought it too much? Deep breath, big smile: his best price for her clients? Quick, before Roberto could respond, she hinted that the family might even decide to extend the rental – an unfounded premise but it might knock off a bit on the quote. She spread her feet and stood, hands clasped in front of her barrel-shaped stomach, as if about to receive the Host. ‘Un sconto di 15%, dai,’ Roberto said, scratching a new figure on the pad.
‘Grazie mille.’ She turned to Father, indicating: ‘15% off because Roberto is offering our B&B a discount.’ Alice pushed out her continental shelf and inhaled as if to sing ‘Glory Hallelujah’, while Father produced his wallet.
In the SUV once more – did Algie have room, squished between son and Mother? – Alice backed carefully into the ice-rutted road and turned to join the sluggish queue of traffic. Everyone was ticking off errands, quick, quick, before New Year celebrations, when the entire mondo would close for a few days. The Cunninghams were telling Algie about their snowy hike, the ‘marvelous’ polenta and cheese at a chalet. Nice to see Algie engaged. He’d never brought a friend home from school, just returned after biathlon practice exhausted, inhaled his tea, did homework and went to bed. Maybe speaking English was putting him at ease.
Tonight, New Year’s Eve at the refugio: no need to cook! To be fair, it had been a pleasure to plan and prepare meals for someone other than Reg and Algie. She fed two machines, it seemed, neither one particularly interested in her, except as the provider – food for both, transport for Algie, sex for Reg. Maybe she a provider machine. Through the windscreen the sky was cloudless; a perfect evening for their trek. Would Paolo remember that she’d reserved for eight? His Capo d’Anno refugio feast booked up ages in advance; she was lucky he’d fit them in. And Paolo’s snowcat would make a perfect return trip at the evening’s end – how clever she’d been to sort that. He hadn’t promised them a lift back – ‘boh, dipende’ how things worked out on the night. Well, no sense worrying about what hadn’t happened. You couldn’t be sure with Italians: they lived right here, right now. No matter what was planned, in the flash of bare leg, the arch of an eyebrow, the production of a wallet, everything changed. Made sense that business was conducted mainly over the ‘telefono’ – terms could change in a thrice and the sole record of what was promised was conveniently ‘lost’ in a deleted conversation. Clever: you had to love them.
‘We’ll need to pack and be out the door in an hour to get to the refugio in time,’ Alice announced as she pulled up in front of the house. Once everyone had piled out, she handed Algie a set of keys to let them in while Father took skis off the roof rack. Their tall house was perched in a row of seven and parking their clunky SUV on the narrow road was strictly vietato. She drove on.
Once parked several streets away, Alice slid from the car and toggled the auto lock. She shoved hands in pockets and hen-stepped along icy roads back to the house. This terrifying decision to up sticks and move to Italy held so many unknowns – school and extra-currics for Algie, identity cards and a search for healthcare for everyone, no guaranteed employment for either parent. ‘Were they insane?’ Dad had rudely put it? She’d quit her teaching post in Milton Keynes with huge trepidation and a hard-won agreement that she could come back with a term’s advance notice. Their move was catalyzed by Reg’s work situation. He should never have left the Royal Marines – his very speech had morphed into Jackspeak that only RM bootnecks could understand. He hoovered his meals before she had even picked up her fork as if expecting an ambush. She turned right at a street corner, passing a scraggly line of cypress that dwarfed the houses behind them. Fine, she didn’t miss the wifely RM role she’d had to play. ‘Mandofun,’ Reg had smirked of the functions they had dutifully attended, week after week. But she had to admit, she more than missed the guaranteed employment and the security of the RM corporate umbrella.
Too bad. After that nastiness with the RM major, Reg had announced he would leave his beloved corps, soon as his request for release could be processed. The major was ‘FUBAR*, the post was FUBAR,’ he’d howled. (FUBAR = fucked up beyond all recognition.) Defensive, surly, skulking: a wounded animal. She’d never know what had actually happened. She did know that once Reg said he was going to do something, he did it. He was going ‘on the block’ and that was that. When he submitted his release request, another RM division approached, offering a new assignment. Pearls before swine: he looked the other way. Alice begrudgingly chose to trust his monomaniacal determination to make this new life work. That didn’t mean she trusted that it would. And there were good reasons for her incredulity.
The ‘block’ had landed him at a dull desk job, managing logistics for a removals company. He came home hunched and sighing, deaf to suggestions that he consider accepting the other RM job offer. Not an option. He could only see in one direction, if that could be called ‘seeing’. And he could only hear one thing: what he wanted to hear. When things weren’t going well, this blindness and select hearing intensified. He crawled into his cave. Alice had gone out with friends, escaped into romance novels, threw herself into tidying or renovating and enjoyed eating. Too much. She’d gained a lot of weight.
It was only months later that Reg had perked up. He clicked off the telly at the end of the Turin Winter Olympics and turned to her. What about running a B&B in Sestriere, Italy? She knew basic Italian, she was an ace cook. He could take their guests on hikes and ski trips. A first smile in months on his pale face.
Without consulting her, Reg went on a recce to northern Italy. When he booked a second trip, she left Algie with her parents and took off work to see what he’d been up to. She was miffed, but more curious. Reg and the local real estate agent showed her properties, saving what Reg called ‘best’, for last. This small house was a half-hour from the Sestriere Alpine ski resort. The perfect B&B, he’d announced. Price was right – they’d need to put savings from their house sale in Milton Keyes to feed themselves – they wouldn’t find work in Italy straight off. Miles ahead of her he was, planning to sell their only property.
As they walked through the house she voiced doubts. How could this work as both home and B&B? Not what she’d imagined at all, with its postage stamp-sized sitting room that the front door opened straight into. No communal place for guests. And no dining room; where would they eat? Alice trudged up the stairs after the two men to inspect bedrooms, which popped up on every landing, like moldering mushrooms: three, four, five and all, the perfect size for jolly gnomes. Reg, practicing Royal Marine drill, had taken each set of stairs at a two-second sprint while Alice was puffing when she reached the third landing. By the fifth bedroom – crikey, when did this house end? – she’d begun hauling herself up the banister. Reg stood there, exclaiming in a hoarse whisper: ‘see, five bedrooms. ‘Waz’ for guests. Too winded, her cheeks burning, she tried to summon the energy to say, ‘no’, not this, not all these levels, not the endless staircase sprouting gnome nodules.
‘Way hey, lookie, there’s more!’ Reg was beaming as he thrust a hand up and pulled on a tatty loop that opened a panel in the ceiling. He lifted down a zigzagged aluminum ladder attached to the back of the panel. ‘Pitchings,’ Reg exclaimed in awe, already halfway up into the black expanse of the cavity. He’d obviously missed this feature on his first visit.
‘Don’t tell me, there’s another staircase and five more bedrooms,’ Alice remarked dryly. She stood on the landing next to the agent, arms folded on her heaving bosom.
‘Na. Storage space. Or we could make it into a spare room.’ Reg had climbed down and was dusting his jeans. Right, this castle of his had its own torture chamber in the loft.
Alice shook her head, ‘no’. Ugly surrounds, prefab, too far from winter sports. The agent’s mobile chimed. He chattered and gesticulated in rapid-fire Italian while Reg led her by the hand down two flights of stairs to the master bedroom and into the ensuite WC and shower. He positioned her in front of the tiny bathroom window and directed her gaze to the far right. Above the tiled roofs of row houses opposite, over the treetops that fringed the sunflower field, rose the first of many craggy Alps, white capped, even in August.
‘You get a bit of this mountain view in the kitchen, too. Over there,’ he breathed into the back of her hair, ‘is the Via Lattea, one of Italy’s biggest ski resorts, courtesy of Agnelli. The glorious Italian Alps, at their most westerly border with France. Winter Olympics at Sestriere, right in our front yard. Every year, 20,000 skiers. Over 140 pistes.’ He nudged her. ‘And summer, there’s hiking, Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, even golf. Tourists need to stay somewhere. Lots are Brits. Someone who speaks their lingo could set it up for them – lift tickets, transport, rentals. That’s us. We give ‘em breakfast and dinner. Oh, and you asked where they eat dinner? In our wine cellar! Down that set of stairs leading down off the kitchen. So,’ his breath, closer to her neck now, ‘you get their scran, I run ‘em to the slopes, they come back and fall into bed. They have a great time, fork over the dosh. Done and dusted. Irrefutable. Reg’s arms tightened around her, the embrace of an amorous bear. What a rush of cheer and bombast, after months of cave antics – grunts, sighs and long hibernations in cold, damp England. Alice squinted at the dusty scene from the bathroom window where summer’s hypnotic air pulsed with cicada chafings. She sighed. Reg wanted this so much. After hesitation, she launched gently into reasons why not. He parried with his own rationale: she would take ages to find the perfect property. They’d best get stuck in somewhere – Algie would need to start school soon. Much better if the boy could start on time, not months late, after Alice dithered around for the perfect palazzo …. which they wouldn’t be able to afford anyway. This house was more economical than the few others they’d been shown. No surprise, Alice thought. The house was mashed into a banal collection of row houses, surrounded by scrubby, donkey-eaten fields and a lift-sized grocery store, open only four hours daily. Far from the soft greens and gentle rises and the user-friendly Tescos of the English countryside.
Reg had pressed – a new beginning, risk-taking needed, Algie so young – easier now, yadda yadda. Decisive nod from the agent, who had appeared and could suddenly speak English. They should register interest straight away: Reg, again. Maybe they could pay a deposit now, fly back to Jolly Old, and then decide, he told her. The agent made a call. ‘Mi dispiace,’ he turned to them mournfully, there was another offer on the table. Alice raised an eyebrow, balked; surely they could tell him in the morning? The night in the hotel changed nothing for Reg. He was right, house 30 minutes from the slopes, not one other property had appealed. More rooms than the others. Guests who skied would be fit enough to hoof the stairs. He was chock full of vibrant energy; she was doom and gloom, static and staid, where was her pioneering spirit?
It hurt, the static staid part, because it was true. She had sighed, agreed. They met the agent at 11.00 after her night of insomnia, signed a compromesso, booked an appointment with a notary in the nearby town hall of Fenzene, and began the process of registering Algie in the local school.
Finally Alice arrived at the house. She stood at the side door, knocking ice and snow off her boots, then stepped inside to shed her winter wraps. In the kitchen she packed a first aid kit, water bottles and a few games. She put these things into two packs, the lighter one for Reg to take. The Cunninghams were in for a treat, from the soaring vista on their hike to the scrumptious food that Paolo would serve: a perfect New Year’s Eve. She looked around. Dishwasher needed unloading; she should punch down the bread dough. Was there enough muesli for the son? Right, make more yogurt and bring in grapefruit for tomorrow. Move pastry from freezer to fridge for tomorrow’s evening meal. Sneak a chocolate bar.
As she whizzed from chore to chore, she fretted about Mother Cunningham’s request that they take meals en famille. ‘We’re happy here,’ she’d assured Alice, ‘but there’s no public place to talk.’ Alice knew it all too well. Mother had mentioned something about decisions ahead – son considering a course change, twins making uni applications… rarely together as a family. ‘Of course we enjoy your family’, but would Alice understand if they took meals privately?
‘‘Course not,’ Alice had smiled beatifically and offered to begin the regime tomorrow. Tonight was New Year’s Eve, the one evening when they were all going out. And she had already requested that they be seated together. Well, it wasn’t as if the Cunninghams would know anyone else at the refugio. Last year when she and her menfolk had first discovered it, the bustling main room had reverberated with the laughter of 500 Italians. The Cunninghams didn’t speak the language. Tonight they’d have to make do with her family. Tell the truth, Alice had been delighted with their company. She’d relished Algie’s rapt fascination as the son showed him how to morph his visage into fun house monster shots through an app. Reg had enjoyed an appreciative audience for his spiel on the Battle of Assietta; Father was a good listener.
Of course her family was luxuriating in these guests. Who was there to spend time with in their village of 20 families, mostly local Italian farmers? They had nothing in common. An hour to get to Margie, whose inglese family lived near Turin. When Alice went to visit, the pleasure of speaking English and re-enacting her own cultural shifts with two Romanian 20-somethings. The two glams motor-mouthed in Romanian while Alice smiled uncertainly, a schoolmarmish mum, her textbook Italian phrases useless. And pathetic pay. Her UK colleagues would have laughed. She missed them terribly. Well, the Cunninghams were paying good room and board. With more guests she might even be able to abandon waitressing and begin making Italian friends.
Alice stashed backpacks by the front door and zipped her boots over her thick calves. Reg would get a lift home from work and set off on foot, so he could do his RM sprint up the mountainsides and meet them at the refugio. Over the last months, he’d used more Jackspeak, seemed more ‘Yield to None’, more ‘corps pissed’ as he would say, than he’d ever been when a Royal Marine. He didn’t fit in here. She knew not to bring this up. She called the Cunninghams down and they set off.
Righty ho. Clobber on, Bergen on back, crikey, what’s she packed in this? Six stone almost. White puffs of breath. First aid kit and full battle rattle. Why didn’t they yomp their own? Ah, well, embrace the suck! Compass – tick, small binocs – tick, oggin – tick: pats his full canteens. Armored personnel carrier – locked. Keys, squared away. Oops, lace up boots, you crabby maggot. Oars his shoulders, one, then the other, to adjust Bergen straps and stares up steep, tree-studded rise.
Sound-off; 1 – 2; sound-off; 3 – 4; cadence count; 1 – 2 – 3 – 4; 1 – 2 — 3 – 4.
Headband from pocket. Earflaps down. Sets stopwatch: beep, beep-beep. Ahead, black pine trunks, muddy track, slick ice and snow, terrain rising up and up. Piece of cake for a bootie; yomp this one in 45, no probs. Inhales, strikes out, one step, two steps, sets pace with a jodie:
me trousers are baggy, me braces are tight, me balls are swinging
from left to right. Left right, left, right, left right, leffffft
New post at ski rental shop – hoofing. Base of slopes locations – perfect for custom. Maglioni Fratelli – biggest shop on Sestriere strip. Busiest, too. Queue out the door this morning: a veritable ora di punta. No surprise: last chance before New Year’s Eve and the hols. I turisti renting out the snow gear. Queue creeping along at closing time: standby-to-standby. Grunts. Swerves to avoid large tree trunk in path, white smoke from flaring nostrils.
Lingo – hoofing, too. A month now and no need to sneak-a-peak at Dago-Eng pocket dictionary. Alice – essence! Close to native. Struggling at bar job but other waitresses: Roma gypsies. Proud of her. Both of us lucky: natural linguists. And Algie – harry von hoofing! Acing every exam. Talking Dago circles around him and Alice. Corrected Reg the other day: cheeky bugger. Ahead, increase in angle of rise. Fewer conifers. More energy into his jog now, balanced breath, steam train at full throttle. In, out, in, out …
me trousers are baggy, me braces are tight, me balls are swinging
from left to right. Left right, left, right, left right, leffffft.
Steeper still and nearer edge of precipice. Pine and spruce, flash of refugio perched on outcrop far ahead. To the left, mountain ridges profiled: tall, bald-white. Skegs at timepiece: 17:30 hours: good progress. Full battle rattle clunking on back. Nothing compared to the kit a bootie would yomp.
Alice, one-woman tornado over last days, cooking scran, shuttling Cunninghams from rental shop to slopes. Taking them up, to refugio in two hours, she’d predicted. Ha, pre-schoolers bimbling along in snowshoes. Tied-on tennis rackets. Came undone, slowed you down. Chad valley rubbish. But Alice advised them after last week’s heavy snowfall. Algie probably using snowshoes, too. Actually liked them. Wee mite weighed less than 10 stone so no sink down/sieve up through snow. And Alg – no lightweight. Zigging through trees – champ on slalom when off piste. Completes ski trail in record time, thanks to biathlon training.
Inhales, exhales, chest swelling. White funnels from nostrils. Company: halt! At ease. Stops, breath see-sawing. Swigs from canteen, six long gulps – ace! Punches canteen down into holster. Company: quick march. Double time. Boots crunching – ice and snow, here we go..
In the deepest depths of jungle, where the yanks have never been,
lays a body of a dead gorilla, shagged to death by royal marine,
with his can of Pepsi Cola, and his tub of Walls ice cream,
he’ll fight for queen and country, because he’s a Royal Marine.
Ha! that feckless group of civvies he’d guided up here last summer, all 30-something, appetites for hiking twice the size of capacity. Kept pace, but winded, snorting with every oggin break. One bloke with blister like a fried egg. Four breaths in, four breaths out:
Sound-off; 1 – 2; sound-off; 3 – 4; cadence count; 1 – 2 – 3 – 4; 1 – 2 — 3 – 4. Algie would’ve normally been right by his side on this yomp. Wanted to go up with Cunninghams earlier. Poor sprog, starved for friends. Schoolmates mainly Dago. Plenty PT with them at least: biathlon training. Couldn’t ask for better education. These northern Dagos had it right. Ski and shoot. Challenging course of 15 klicks. Stamina, aptitude, precision. Hoofers. Proper Ninja PT in primary school! After initial wobble, Alg bobbed right back up, his father’s son. Would be ready to receive his lid by time he started scuola secondaria.
Alice encouraged the wobble. After Alg swamped the bed night after night she’d announced: rifle too heavy. Ha! 3.5 kilos – yomping the air. She’d tisked – kids taught to shoot at school?! And Alg’s asthma? But this was no time for wrap hands. And Alg himself had insisted – wanted to learn to shoot. Hay fever, not asthma. Others in school training – I will, too, Mum. Attaboy: man up! Alice zipped it after that.
Swerves left to negotiate up-ended tree trunk. Short-needle pines flanking both sides.
In the deepest depths of jungle, where the yanks have never been,
lays a body of a dead gorilla, shagged to death by royal marine …
Major FUBAR’s face, bristle-brush mustache and big round eyes – aging seal. Year-end promotion assessment. Shuffling though papers, barking questions. Complaint from an e-man: Reg hadn’t given proper instructions for ambush training. Analysis section in his report missing; third time. Incomprehensible in places. FUBAR showed him copy of recent email, warning that analysis required. Monthly attendance stats non-existent. Disorganized, attention to detail nought. Boxes not ticked. The major’s round eyes widening above pursed lips. Bristles horizontal. Implication: Reg = a right clusterfuck.
‘Proper instructions for ambush training’? F-ing useless! The e-man he’d been assigned to train, a self-deprecating Chink with rudimentary English and indecipherable pronunciation ..‘Prease, sir, crarify what means: ‘rogistics’? How pran ambush? not know where eremy? Reg frowning, calling over Dickson to translate. Dickson incapable. Ambush training impossible. In the field, a battalion head would bowl over the simpering gibberish, order the squaddie to bloody move out. And the slant-eyed yellow prick had welched on him.
Third time, passed over for promotion, thanks to FUBAR Seal Bristles. Well, they could have their desk jobs. Mincing meetings and unintelligible EFL recruits. Good f-ing luck. Stumbles over tree root, quick rebalance. Clunk of battle rattle, double time step, catches breath, white puffs, chest heaving. Turning west to final ascent, well-worn path – skegs at timepiece stopwatch – 44 minutes and counting.
Sound-off; 1 – 2; sound-off; 3 – 4; cadence count; 1 – 2 – 3 – 4; 1 – 2 — 3 – 4.
‘Bonasera.’ Alice brushed her damp fringe off her forehead and struggled out of her backpack. Paolo’s pretty cousin sat at the corner of the bar in the refugio’s big dining hall, already filling with guests. She pointed to an empty table toward the front left. Alice nodded and exhaled. Thank heavens, the reservation was honored after the long hike to get here.
She turned back to find her wards. The Cunninghams and Algie were in the far corner of the anteroom, half-obscured by other hikers. Alice wove through the chattering groups until she stood next to Algie, who was teaching the Cunningham son ‘twins’ in Italian. ‘Gemmele’; he pointed at the two sisters who were discarding jackets, hats and scarves. While everyone had peeled off and stowed boots and anoraks, salopettes and ice-encrusted wool caps, Alice collected their dripping snowshoes. Outside she strapped the pairs to the already full rack. Across the deep gorge the mountain ridges shone, slender wedges of frosted cake, illuminated by a pale moon. England’s manicured green hills were far, far away. She shivered, fingers working faster to secure the last pair.
Algie had taken the family into the main dining hall when Alice re-entered. The noisy room was a wooden affair, the width and height of a church nave, set with fifty long, rectangular tables. Most of them were already alive with guests, from red-cheeked bambini to white-haired signori; all wafting hand movements and mouth wags. You could tell what an Italian was saying from a long way off by looking at his gestures. That bloke had been ripped off. The ladies to the right were talking about delicate knickers. But even if she did learn ‘la geste’ perfectly, she would always be the alien, the straniera who couldn’t manage idioms or was too old to get the jokes
Mother, now seated between the twins, was frowning as she leaned across the table to say something in Father’s ear. Algie and the son, next to Father, were examining Algie’s compass, though the son looked bored, glancing about now and again. From her backpack Alice extracted a board game and a deck of cards. The serving of the ‘cenone’, would not even begin until around 9 pm, and continue with course after course until midnight. Most of the guests had arrived early because it was easier to hike up to this erstwhile monastery in daylight, which disappeared around half past five. At least her lot would have a ride back in the dark in the snowcat. Alice slipped onto the bench next to Father after a moment’s hesitation. Hardcore Reg would be belting up the final summit now; he could sit next to Mother.
She took in a breath and smiled at the twins as she handed them Cluedo and offered to join them in a game. The twins consented and Alice let out the breath she’d been holding. She looked in the direction of Algie and Father and son. Before she could invite them to play, the two male Cunninghams rose and left the table. Glancing at the son’s receding back, Algie shrugged and leaned forward; nothing else to do – he’d play Cluedo. Alice raised her eyebrows at Mother – would she? – but Mother was finding her place in a paperback. Well, holier-than-thou Mother could amuse herself, never mind. Alice and the others selected their playing pieces. When they were a few minutes into the game Reg, red-faced, beaded with sweat, just as Father and son sat down again. The three began conversing about Algie’s biathlon.
Then the many dinner courses began to arrive: small-sized appetizers – panna cotta with salmon, a white risotto, small gnocchi with Gorgonzola, pumpkin-stuffed ravioli. Wild boar ragu and a pork sausage with lentils made up the mains, accompanied by sautéed garlicky spinach, crispy roast potatoes and delicate onion tarts. By the fourth appetizer, the Cunningham family had already eaten their fill, it seemed. When they patted full stomachs Alice reminded them there were two mains and three desserts to come. Each course had been delicious and beautifully presented, Mother remarked admiringly. Alice’s dimples appeared and her eyes gleamed. That Paolo could produce such exquisite flavors and arrangements for close to 500 people on the top of a mountain, miles from civilization was a tribute to his culinary expertise and organization. She sipped her fourth wine of the evening, a red ‘Gattinare from the Nebbiolo vine’. The waiter had explained in halting English that Nebbiolo came from ‘nebbia’ or fog; the grapes were harvested at the advent of autumn’s first mists. A Muscatel comes with dessert, he added as he moved to the next table with his napkinned bottle.
Alice was beginning to feel quite full herself. Across from her Reg seemed insatiable, shoveling in forkful after forkful, a well-oiled threshing machine. She looked away. The waiter was bringing Piedmontese frigittori delicacies – small pieces of porcini mushrooms and carrots, fried to golden perfection. More side dishes: tiny potato and cheese croquettes and – Algie’s favorite – fried semolina cream. Button onions and peppers in the Bagna Cauda garlic and anchovy sauce. She sighed contentedly as she bit into her peppers.
Speeches were made while waiters cleared the tables. Alice glanced occasionally at the Cunninghams during these long-winded affairs, which Italians were used to. The family did not seem bothered by the droning from the mic. The wine had put color in Mother’s cheeks and no doubt, added drama to the thumb wrestling session between Father and son. Algie was adjudicating. Soon guests got up and served themselves from the dessert table – Budino Freddo Gianduia – hazelnut and chocolate: Reg’s favorite – or Bicciolani di Vercelli, the autumn-spiced biscuits of the region and, of course, panna cotta. With a port-laced berry sauce.
With winter gear fitting more tightly now, Alice and her group joined the others filing out into the frosty dark for the fireworks that would mark the close of the celebrations. As they passed the bar, Paolo motioned to her. She stepped out of the queue to greet him. After cheek kisses, he frowned and apologized; snowcat not available after all, a lady had sprained her ankle on the way up. She and her party would be taken down in the vehicle. Alice forced a smile. She thanked him, swallowed and ducked back into the queue to exit with the others. As the fireworks sparked and showered Alice looked at the black beyond them, conscious of an emptiness that no amount of food could fill up. Everything was balanced so carefully. She was holding it all.
A first firework shot up, uncorking the sparking shower of bright lights. Alice was looking across the vast ravine instead. The thin flanges of mountainside looked less like cake slices, more like a rack of rugged metal sheets. Beneath them, austere mountains in cold, white swaddling. She and Reg had gambled everything, built a tentative structure. It was beginning to fill up with the sound and color and texture of their routines: the advent of first B&B guests lent it a solidity. She shivered. One slip and – an avalanche. Snow on the peaks – new snow falls on what is already packed. It can overload the old layer, which is, itself, made up of more tiers of snow, tempered by sun and drought, rain and freezing ice. A weak foundation, made up of layers. One that can slide into a moving mass without warning, gathering snow and momentum. …Questions pricked. Angels rushing in? Her eyelids pressed shut, momentarily …these brave charades. surrounded by the cooing crowd – ‘bellissssimo’, ‘mamma mia’ – Alice stood silently, inhaling deep breaths of chill air.
Bang! Whoosh! Bang. Uprushing streams of small white stars. Pop! Snap! Crack! They erupt into a burst of white arrows, out and down. Another whizz, another display of starry beams replaces by the first even it fades out. Bing! bang! boom! three and five and seven starbursts, until the black sky is exploding with expanding disks. Click. A cartoon fight; Zap! Pow! Kaboom! Click. Algie points his phone to capture the lot. Click. Exclamations from onlookers – ‘bravi, che bello!’
Wait’ll Henry and Mike see the fireworks from my phone. Algie shivers: boiling inside, freezing out here; what does Dad say? Redders to Icers. Glancing over. Dad using his binocs, shouting about the burst of light ‘at 0800 hours’. Algie slips a gloved hand up his jacket and strokes his protruding stomach: bursting! What a ‘cenone’. Careful, could paralyze himself. Guillermo had put two frogs to sleep in just this way last spring. They had swung stiffly from his pinched fingers: gummy bodies almost flattened to two-D, bent knees out to the sides, webbed feet, splayed. Will get him to show me how – I could scare the ragazze this spring. Algie aims hisin a sci- fi garden phone at the sky again.
Bright light stalks streak upward, some straight lines, some, spiraling in a sci-fi garden of curlicues. Quick – a video! In a moment, a similar garden of pink stems and blossoms and then, above them, white floral disks, swirling, expanding. Higher still, bloom white weeping willows in tiny, phosphorescent sparkles. Appreciative whistles and whoops.
As quickly as it had begun, the star show finishes: the night’s black canvas obscured by skeins of dispersing smoke. Mum gently tugging him back toward the refugio where the yellow rectangle of doorway makes the only light. Yawning, exhaling, shoulders slumped, Algie shuffles behind her, one step, then and the next. He enters the crowded anteroom and reaches the shelving where Cunningham males are threading arms into backpacks. Mother pulls a wool hat over her ears while the twins sit nearby, zipped, gloved and hatted. Around them the Italian crowd is laughing and talking while they button and zip, and shake backpacks down to stuff in one more thing.
Algie lifts a foot onto the bench and reties a loose bootlace, then struggles into his backpack. He scrolls through the photos on his phone: a good one – the cartoon punch fight – awesome – the weeping willow shower. Did that video work? The footage is halfway through when Mum’s voice announces: ‘time to go’. Outside it’s ‘pitchers’, as Dad would say. Dad steers him from behind; Algie stumbles in the direction of the rack. Everyone straps on snowshoes in the powerful beam of Mum’s torch. No snowcat she’s said. Algie fastens his webbed shoes onto his boots and walks toward her into the night. Super organized, Mum is a giant duck in snowshoes, handing a small torch to each of them as they file past to begin the long walk down the mountainside. Father and son take the lead and Mother walks with the twins. Then comes Dad, with Algie behind. Mum brings up the rear.
Bed – so good. The pack weighs tons. With each step, Algie’s butt cheeks complain. Seven penalty loops at biathlon training today. Seems like weeks ago. Two wipeouts, one spectacular, chin scraping along the frozen verge that rose, half a meter, on either side of the cross-country course. ‘Peio Pisso, Peio Pisso, Peio Pisso,’ Algie mutters aloud, teeth clenched, stomach bloated, marching, marching. Torch making a circle of light on the muddied snow. First one snowshoe in the spotlight, then the other. Will repeating this again and again get him to the car? Then he can sleep. When will that be? So tired. Lots of other groups are walking nearby, talking. Same at school, everybody talking, and maestro just talks over them but rarely asks them to be quiet. Everyone and no one is his Italian language teacher – labels, shop signs and TV adverts. Let in the sounds – issimo, etta, alare, isco, ino – until he can parrot them back. Dreaming in Italian; images accompanied by nonsense words that he understands perfectly, takes orders from, talks back to.
Yawning. Then a bigger yawn. Why can’t he slide downhill, whoosh – one long, icy shoot, all the way to the car? Butt cheeks: ouch. What did the ruggers coach used to shout in Milton Keynes? ‘Burn those gluts!’ Well, Algie takes top honors in burning gluts tonight. Will send Henry and Mike his photos tomorrow. Better than the Guy Fawkes they’d gone to, families milling around on the darkened school playing field while classical music blared on the speakers. Ok, so there was no musical accompaniment at the refugio, but brill fireworks. No light pollution, no city anywhere nearby. His mates will rate this whiz and bang, he knows it.
If they answer his email, that is. Henry hasn’t emailed in almost a month and Mike hasn’t thanked him for the jokes he sent days ago. They were supposed to Skype but Sod’s law, and not a word. They were far away in Milton Keynes. What are the names of their teachers this year? Is the science class trailer still there? Maybe Henry’s family will come ski this spring; he said they might spend five or six days. So good.
Since none of Algie’s group are talking, it’s crunch and slide, crunch and slide all around. Further down the trail, walkers have morphed into bobbing, lights, their voices fading. Their lights wink on and off as tree trunks and rocky outcrops hide-and-seek them. So tired. Has it been an hour yet? Are they close to the car? Body protest: not another step, feet still, eyes blinking, puffs of smoke from mouth. Then a branch brushing his left shoulder? No – Mum, tapping, “Algie, c’mon now.” He straightens. Dad’ll be turbo threaders if I don’t step on it. One step. The next. And the next, like taking a penalty loop at school.
Never mind penalties, the biathlon is way cool, five laps across the white hills, best with new snowfall. Before, the thin, hard snowpack had made the course a rolling ice-field. He’d skittered from shoot to shoot, praying he wouldn’t fall, damage the rifle. Henry and Mike would be learning the Romantic poets or working out algebraic formulae in the afternoons while he was skiing. Sit-down learning in Italy always finished at 13,00, it seemed, when everyone goes home for lunch. At two-thirty, they would reconvene at the start of the Olympic course to begin biathlon training. The only crap bit is school on Saturday morning.
Henry and Mike would love the shooting. Today Algie had hit three out of five on each target – so, only two penalty loops at each shooting station. Hard work; one minute, skating fast across the snow in a thinning pack of competitors, the .22 strapped to his back, heart racing. Next minute, prone, rifle in arms, sighting through the viewfinder at a target 50 meters away. Weeks spent trying to hit even one of the five bull’s eyes. Only 1.8 inches wide. More penalty loops than targets. Then the instructor reminded him – shift gears at the targets. ‘Respira ancora, profondamente.’ Algie had inhaled deeply, exhaled, then inhaled again. Like magic, his hands had stopped shaking and the pump in his chest had slowed. He’d hit the next two targets. ‘Meglio!’ the coach patted his back.
The ski part was brill; quick as lightening, good control, poles propelling him fast. Duck walk up the hills, shifting weight, no probs. Now he could shoot, too. Kerchink! the shell case popped out the top and he was already firing at the next target. The stand-and-shoot positions were harder, too much body movement to get under control, but at least that target was bigger.
Boring, boring, this trek downhill. Yawning. No energy. Stopping. Top half of body folding forward over bottom half, floppy rag doll, torchlight, a bright igloo buried in the soft snow. Weight of pack sliding forward, pressing on back of his hat… ‘Algie, straighten up and fly right. We’re halfway there.’ Mum’s too cheery voice. And too loud. Crap! Dad’s in front of him suddenly. Algie unfolds, straightens.
‘Squad! ‘ten-shun! Or drop for 50!’ barks Frowning eyes, fake smile.
Ha! 50 push-ups. Can he manage even three more steps? Algie walks: one snowshoe, the other. Peio Pisso Peio Pisso Peio Pisso.
Peio, highest village in the Austro-Hungarian Empire at 1600 meters, once a key battlefront during the First World War. One snowshoe, then …. yawning. The words of his prepared spiel about special mountain troops of the White War are surfacing. Algie recited it to Dad’s hikers that summer. Artillery and engineer corps constructed ice trenches and a basic cableway to convey the Alpini, in feathered caps, with their munitions. A ‘war at altitude’ for the newly unified Italy, which had joined the Allies in 1915. Local mountain men recruited for both Italian and the enemy Austrian sides in attempt to settle borders with Trieste. Soldiers recognized relatives’ voices across the divide. Temperatures of 30 below: frost killed more men than fighting did. Sudden death by avalanche – frozen waves thundering over thousands in a flash. Algie breathes in sharply to dispel sudden nausea.
Backpack straps cutting into the dip between neck and shoulders, blades of twin circular saws: buzzzzzz. In the 1990s, melting glaciers at Peio uncovered a mummified body, 17-year-old Austrian, well preserved, a spoon pocketed in his puttees – trench soldiers ate from common pots – his skeleton of connected bones… dizzy, so tired, folding over, everything black.
Alice’s voice, shrill, flapping. Whirls, bootie headlamp panning in strobe: tree trunks. What’s up? Father’s surprised face above. Alice bending over him, tearing gloves off with her teeth, loosening backpack, gently turning him. ‘What happened?’ Headlamp spotlights Algie’s closed eyes, white visage, Alice burrowing into the swaddling of his jacket up to her forearm.
‘There’s a pulse. Must’ve fainted.’ Alice glances up, frowns. Cunninghams in a circle: five chimneys, puffing white smoke. Quick shoulder shrug out of Bergen. First aid kit inside zip – rifling through blister packets, micro-porous tape, Ipecac, plasters, tweezers, diarrhea powder, insect spray, antiseptic, thermomet…
‘Eyes are opening!’ Mother’s strained voice. Kneeling in the snow at Algie’s head. ‘Yes!’ Algie, struggling to get up.
‘Take a minute, slowly, that’s the way.’ Mother and Alice help him. Algie blinks. Stands, swaying. supported by hands. More blinks. A lop-sided grin on his face.
‘I – I crash landed.’
Reg emits a high-pitched whinny. ‘Where’s my racing snake? Here.’ Holds out canteen to Algie. ‘Get some oggin down your neck; you can catch your zeds when we get back.’
When Algie has gulped a few swallows, Reg corks the canteen, shoves it into the holder. Alice whispering in his ear. Nods; the boy is thrashed. ‘Hop up, not much further,’ squatting in front of Algie. Lifts chin at Alice as boy climbs on. First aid kit back in backpack, Father takes Reg’s pack: ‘ta’. Algie wraps arms around neck. Reg weaves own arms beneath son’s knees, belts them in front with clasped fingers, stands.
‘This is how we yomp the sprogs. Move out!’
In close procession, the group sets out anew down the mountain trail, the twins walking abreast.
It is two days after the New Year when Alice collects the Cunninghams from their second day of cross-country ski training. The family places their skis in Mother’s outstretched arms. They are rosy-cheeked and sweaty, except for Mother, who looks as though she’s come from a ladies’ social. Did she not ski with them? Alice secures the skis to the roof rack and plants herself in the driver’s seat. To her surprise, Father, sneezing in rapid succession, climbs into the backseat with the children and Mother seats herself next to Alice. Alice forces a smile as they make eye contact, then turns her attention back to the road. Some message she doesn’t want to hear is about to be delivered.
‘Alice, we’ve decided that we’d prefer to move closer to the Sestriere resort rather than stay on with you and your family,’ Mother says. ‘Of course, you must keep our payment for the final four days – we’ve given no notice for this change of plans.’ Alice nods, keeping eyes ahead, straining to catch Mother’s quiet words over the SUV’s noisy motor. ‘I’ve been calling around,’ Mother continues. ‘We’ve found a good deal – a cancellation – on a rental flat at the resort for the rest of our stay. This way we can focus on the downhill. We can walk everywhere – to slopes, shops, starting places for hikes. It’s too far – forgive me, from your place. Too much chauffeuring for you. Car rental pricey. We, we feel we are imposing – asking you to drive us all the time, feed us twice a day.’
While Mother talks, Alice breathes in, then out, to slow the fluttering of her heart. Her roll-neck top is a hot constriction that she itches to jerk brusquely over her head. What more could she have done? She’d ferried them from doorstep to snowy course to snowshoe trail, cooked every breakfast and dinner, barring New Year’s Eve. She’d catered for the son’s bottomless appetite and the twins’ persnickety preference for white bread and sweets. Her own family had taken meals in the tiny kitchen so the Cunninghams might eat en famille. She and Reg had avoided the lounge, to free it up for the family, not that she’d seen them there. This morning she’d offered to do a laundry for them.
‘We’re most grateful – huge efforts – chauffeuring, cooking ..Mother is saying. ‘We can’t take over your lounge’. Bruce (Father’s Christian name) has a chest cold – we want to be closer to chemist. It makes sense, all round. Please understand … nothing to do with your kind hospitality.’
‘Of course,’ Alice’s smile hurts when she nods at Mother. She looks back at the road, gripping the wheel, steering carefully to keep in line with cars that make a slow procession out of the resort. Her hot feet are too large for her boots and her armpits are wet. She clears her throat. ‘When would you want to leave?’
‘We could collect our things when we get back, drop off the equipment – we would like to move this evening. Bruce spoke to Reg about returning the cross country skis early, soon as it is convenient for you.’
What is there to say? Reg hasn’t called to tell her. Doesn’t matter. The house is too far from the resort, no communal space for guests to relax, to eat on their own. And there is what Mother had not spelled out: that they felt imprisoned, no transport. Alice understood, alright. She’d understood before they’d signed the contract on the house.
‘Yes, of course,’ she says. ‘We can drive there as soon as you’re packed. I am sorry that it didn’t work ou-’
Mother interrupts. ‘- could not have been more accommodating – so grateful …’
While the family packs upstairs Alice stands in the kitchen, making the vanilla cream icing that only she and Algie and Reg will eat on the cake she had prepared earlier. She shakes the icing sugar onto the mound of Philadelphia cream cheese in the mixing bowl. The dry powder envelopes the mound while pebbles of white sugar trickle down the steep sides. A small side of the mound breaks off and cascades down and down. Her tear drops into the mixing bowl, followed by another. The Italian Alps are cold, uncaring annihilators, even for those who stay attentive. Deaths from Peio’s avalanches are numerous.
Alice paddles her wooden spoon back and forth, fast as she can. Wisps of sugar powder rise, like tendrils of fine snow that sift up in the blue winds that buffet the Alp’s pointed shards. When she has achieved a thick, smooth consistency, Alice slides the bowl to the back of the counter. Later she will find the energy to decorate the cake. The three of them will need to eat their way through four more days of Cunningham provisions. She opens the fridge, fingers a bowl of marinating chicken, taps a cling-filmed pile of fresh carrots and potatoes. With the whoosh of the closing fridge door, the air inside her siphons out until she feels like a hoover bag, white, flat, folded. She gazes out the window to the needle-sharp silhouettes of mountains in the far distance. Somewhere tiny snow pebbles form, the avalanche is beginning. She is sliding, sliding down, down, into whatever it may bring.