Auf wiedersehen, auf wiedersehen, we'll meet again, sweetheart…
It was a busy, sunny, glorious day in the village. Feliciano strolled the streets with his hands in his pockets, whistling to himself, occasionally tipping his hat and flashing a grin at the pretty girls who passed in the sunlight. Most knew him well and just laughed, shooing him on his way with bright smiles and flippant waves of the hand. But Feliciano was surprised at the amount of unfamiliar faces around town lately. Foreigners in unfamiliar uniforms filled the cantinas, English could be heard on every corner, and here in the town square a big platform had been put up beside a brand new stone memorial. Feliciano had heard there was to be a ceremony of some sort, but he was not sure what all these Americans had to do with it. He did know that it had something to do with the war, so he had not troubled himself to find out more. Feliciano did not like to remember the war. As he walked past a large group clustered around the fountain, he realised that many of the people in the crowd were too young to actually remember it themselves. He shrugged to himself, continuing on his way to meet Ludwig at the old Cantina Rossa beside the square. His heart immediately lightened at the thought.
As he headed towards the edge of square, Feliciano noticed a man standing separate from the crowd, looking both confused and frustrated as he looked all around him. He was wearing a tweed suit and looked a little older than Feliciano, mid-fifties perhaps, with greying blond hair and quite possibly the largest eyebrows Feliciano had ever seen.
"Good day!" said Feliciano cheerfully, walking up to stand in front of the bewildered foreigner. He was not sure about all these Americans, but that was no reason not to help one of them if he could. "Are you all right? Can I help you?"
The man looked a bit panicked at the greeting. "Non… oh, bloody hell... Non Italiano…"
"Oh, sorry, of course!" Feliciano switched to English. "You're American."
"I beg your pardon?" Now the man looked genuinely affronted. "God no, I'm English."
Feliciano was immediately delighted. "Of course you are! I should have guessed from the suit! Tweed in this weather, my goodness, you English people are wonderful. I bet you quote Shakespeare all the time. Are you lost?"
"What? I…" The Englishman furrowed his brow in confused surprise, then continued to glance around the square as though searching for something. "I'm not lost. He's the one who's bloody lost."
Feliciano tried to follow the Englishman's searching gaze, then simply stared back at him. He had always been fascinated by England and the English, so it was a marvellous surprise to meet one unexpectedly in the town square. "Are you on holiday? There are a lot of people visiting Italy, lately. Well, this part of it, anyway."
"I'm here for the ceremony, with my, uh, friend." The man tripped over the word, then quickly tried to hide it. "Yes, my friend, an old friend of mine. He fought here, during the war."
"Oh! My…" Feliciano leant forward and winked, "…friend fought here during the war too. Was your friend in the British army?"
The Englishman looked completely stunned by that. Feliciano just grinned, until the man attempted an uncertain smile back. "No, he's American. He was a fighter pilot."
Feliciano gasped loudly. "No! Really? So was Ludwig! I'm going to meet him now, come have a drink with us! The cantina is right on the street here, and I'm sure your American will find you better if you stay in one place. My name is Feliciano, what's yours?"
The man fell into step beside Feliciano, though he looked like he wasn't sure how that had happened. "Uh… Arthur. Arthur Kirkland. Pleased to meet you."
"Arthur? Like King Arthur?! I always thought that English stories were the best. Ludwig is German, so his stories are dark and strange and oh, I hope you won't be upset to meet him, even if he is German…"
"The war was years ago." Arthur gave Feliciano another smile. "I have to wonder why we are constantly reminded of it."
Feliciano breathed a sigh of relief, then laughed lightly. "That is good to hear! You seem like a nice fellow, Arthur. Oh! Ludwig!"
Feliciano hurried to where Ludwig sat at the table on the street, a pot of coffee and two mugs on the table before him. Ludwig looked up and smiled, his eyes sparkling blue as always, his hat pulled forward over that little bald spot he hated but which Feliciano thought was cute. "Feliciano."
Feliciano loved the sound of Ludwig saying his name in that deep, unfading German accent. Everyone else called him Feli – everyone but Ludwig. To Ludwig, he had always been Feliciano, and always would be.
"Look, Ludwig, I found an Englishman!"
Arthur looked a little startled at the introduction. Ludwig just nodded politely. "Good afternoon. I hope Feliciano did not scare you, he tends to do that."
Arthur shook his head and let out a short breath of laughter. "Good afternoon. And not at all, I assure you. In fact I am… almost reminded of someone."
Feliciano fell into the chair beside Ludwig and gestured for Arthur to sit opposite. "His name is Arthur, Ludwig, can you believe it? Arthur, this is my friend, Ludwig." Feliciano winked again before gesturing to a nearby waiter. "Excuse me, young man, could we get some tea please? He's English." Ludwig muttered something that sounded suspiciously like an apology. Arthur looked like he was trying not to laugh.
"So," Feliciano continued, turning back to the table cheerfully. He was always happy to meet someone new, especially someone English. "Have you ever seen so many people gathered in one place?" he asked, gesturing around the busy cantina.
"Actually, yes, but I am from London," explained Arthur, resting his hands lightly on the table. He glanced between Feliciano and Ludwig, like he was trying to study them discreetly. "I suppose everyone is here for the anniversary."
"The anniversary?" Feliciano was still not entirely sure what the celebration was about.
Ludwig passed Feliciano a mug of coffee. "Feliciano, don't you know what today is?"
"Yes, it's Tuesday."
"It is too, Ludwig, it's Tuesday, I know because last night we had bolognese and we always have bolognese on Monday so today must be…"
Ludwig interrupted quickly. "It is the thirtieth anniversary of the American landings."
Feliciano paused for a second. "It is?"
"Oh." Thirty years. Feliciano could remember the landings of thirty years ago like it was yesterday. The landings he had told Ludwig about, on that awful winter morning in the rain, betraying the Resistenza by doing so. The landings that had taken Ludwig away from him. That was what everyone was celebrating? Feliciano suddenly felt quite ill. Before he could think how to react, a loud voice interrupted the silence.
"Arthur!" Feliciano looked up to see a blond man in glasses, a military uniform, and a crooked little hat race up to the table and grasp the back of a chair breathlessly. "I think I got lost!"
Arthur managed to scowl and look relieved at the same time. "You did get bloody lost, you fool."
"I can't help it! So much has changed since I was here!" The man turned to Feliciano and Ludwig and gave a little wave, grinning cheerfully. "Hello! Er, sorry, I mean..." The man took a small book from his pocket, flipped to a front page, and shouted, "BUON GIORNO! Arthur, who are these people?"
Feliciano giggled while Arthur muttered an apology. "Alfred, for heaven's sake, they speak English. This is Feliciano and Lud... wig..." Arthur trailed off slowly, a look of realisation dawning on his face.
At that moment, a strange sort of stillness fell over the table. Alfred's smile faltered as he stared at Ludwig, unmoving, his eyes going wide and his cheeks turning pale. Feliciano glanced between Alfred's stunned expression, Arthur's bewildered face, and Ludwig's wide, unblinking eyes. It took a few moments before everything fell into place in Feliciano's mind. Alfred, an American fighter pilot who fought here during the war... Arthur, an Englishman with big, bushy eyebrows… If it was him, I'd take on the whole German military single-handed...
"Oh!" Feliciano's blood fired at the memory, and he could not hold back the loud outburst of understanding.
Heavy silence fell again until Ludwig spoke, steady and deliberate. "Pleased to meet you, Alfred."
Alfred looked from Ludwig to Feliciano, then gave a short disbelieving laugh. His blond hair was streaked with grey, and he certainly filled out his uniform more than he once had - especially around the middle - but Feliciano could see that same cheerful American pilot from all those years ago. The American who had led him to Ludwig; the American whose life Ludwig had saved in return. Alfred's look of disbelief turned to joy, and he fell into the chair beside Arthur, grinning brightly. "It sure is a pleasure to meet you folks! And it'd sure be swell to speak to some locals, rather than these stuffy military types trying to drag me everywhere. Excusi, waiter, BUON GIORNO! Coffee, per favore... COF - FEE!"
They quickly broke into cheerful, light-hearted conversation, though Feliciano and Alfred carried most of it. There was no need to speak of the past; no need to explain. They all understood, and that was enough. Feliciano gave Alfred help with his Italian pronunciation, and spoke about his and Ludwig's excitement for the upcoming FIFA World Cup, which was to be held in Germany this year. Arthur told them about London, with its busy streets and cricket grounds and little music clubs. Alfred and Ludwig spoke for a long time about the new fourth generation jet fighters, which Feliciano did not really understand very well. Feliciano learnt that Arthur owned a pub, that Alfred was a military flight instructor, and that they travelled often between America and England.
"But America is very far from England isn't it?" asked Feliciano, fascinated by all he learnt about these strange, faraway countries. He and Ludwig had never been able to travel further than Germany. America almost seemed like another planet.
"Ten hours or so to fly commercially," replied Arthur, stirring more sugar into his tea. "Although I almost prefer the days of the ocean liners. At least then I did not have to deal with Alfred racing to the cockpit and trying to convince the pilots to let him fly the bloody plane."
"The American pilots let me," Alfred muttered. "Damn British airlines and your stupid 'rules.'"
"We often visit New York in the summer," Arthur continued, easily ignoring Alfred.
"New York, wow! We go to Germany in the summer, don't we Ludwig, because it is not so cold then. Sometimes we stop in Vienna on the way home."
"Oh?" Arthur was very polite, Feliciano noticed, even if he did sometimes kick Alfred's foot under the table. "Aren't Francis and Matthew in Vienna now, Alfred?"
"Apparently. Damn fine excuse for Matt to leave me doing this ceremony alone." Alfred snorted as he leant back in his seat. "Francis and Matt are friends of ours," he explained. "I'm pretty sure they've travelled everywhere by now."
Feliciano wondered if Alfred was speaking of his fellow pilot Matthew Williams, the nice Canadian with the little polar bear. "Have they been to the moon?"
Ludwig sighed almost inaudibly. "Feliciano, I've told you, just because one man went to the moon doesn't mean everyone can go."
"The military asked me to go to the moon," said Alfred proudly.
Arthur touched his forehead briefly. "Alfred, I've told you, they were being sarcastic, and it wasn't a compliment."
"Me and Ludwig watched the moon landing on the television in the village, but my brother Lovino says it didn't really happen, he says they faked it."
That immediately got Alfred's attention. Arthur groaned as Alfred sat up eagerly. "No, no, they went to the moon, but it was a distraction."
"A distraction?" asked Feliciano, instantly intrigued. "From what?"
"Mars," Alfred replied, his eyes fixed and intense.
Feliciano was confused and fascinated all at once. "Why Mars?"
Alfred leant forward on the table and gestured decisively as he answered. "Aliens."
Feliciano gasped breathlessly. "Of course!"
Ludwig and Arthur exchanged a resigned look of mutual understanding.
Another round of coffee and eventually the crowded cantina started to thin, everyone filtering away to the thronging square. "It looks like the ceremony will be starting soon," said Arthur, discreetly squeezing Alfred's arm. "We should probably be going."
Alfred looked reluctant, but he shrugged, sighed, and pushed back his chair. "Unfortunately, duty calls."
Feliciano felt a little sad to see them go. He couldn't help wondering if he would see them again. "What happens at the ceremony?"
Alfred took a moment to answer, and glanced briefly at Ludwig before he did. "Well, I get to stand up there smiling and looking proud while someone shakes my hand and thanks me and probably gives me another medal."
Feliciano wondered why Alfred looked so uncomfortable as he said it. "Well, that sounds nice!"
Alfred's smile looked a little forced, and Arthur quickly changed the subject. "If you're ever in London, please look up a pub called the Emerald Lion. We'd be delighted to see you."
"The Emerald Lion – that sounds pretty! Do you actually have a lion?"
Arthur laughed softly, and again he exchanged a strangely sympathetic glance with Ludwig. "No, but we have frogs in the back garden."
Alfred winked at Ludwig. "They ain't poisonous, though." Ludwig almost laughed at that. Alfred stood, held his hand out to Ludwig, and Feliciano noticed for the first time that it was missing two fingers. "It's been good to meet you folks." Alfred waited, still and expectant, until eventually Arthur spoke very quietly.
Ludwig very briefly looked down at his chair, then back up at Alfred. With a sudden gasp of realisation, Alfred clenched his hand into a fist and looked away, his expression painfully shocked and almost angry. He shook his head, closed his eyes, and swore under his breath. But Ludwig spoke quickly. "I am grateful to have met you again, Lieutenant – or is it Captain, now? And I am glad to see that you are happy and well – the same as I."
It was the first time all afternoon anyone had acknowledged the fact they had met before. Feliciano hadn't ever thought he would see the American pilot again, and he certainly never expected to meet the Englishman whose photograph Alfred had shown him all those years ago. In some way it felt freeing, to see that they were living a happy life together; it felt like a resolution. Ludwig's sacrifice had not been in vain.
Alfred smiled reflectively, glancing between Feliciano and Ludwig. He still looked a little sad, but there was a relieved sort of joy in his face. He nodded, took a step closer, and again offered his hand, this time so Ludwig could reach it. "You deserve to be standing up there today, Lieutenant. You're the real hero."
Ludwig simply shook Alfred's hand firmly. "Good luck at the ceremony."
When Alfred turned towards him, Feliciano felt his chest fill with old familiar emotion and gratitude. Thirty years ago this man had told Feliciano of Ludwig's location in an American base. Consequences aside, it was still the most startling, selfless thing a stranger had ever done for Feliciano. Instead of shaking his hand, Feliciano pulled Alfred into a bruising hug. At the same time Arthur took Ludwig's hand in a handshake, holding it for a few moments with an intense, unfathomable look in his eyes. Finally he spoke one word, his voice breaking slightly. "Thank you."
Ludwig nodded at Arthur while Alfred laughed cheerfully, patting Feliciano on the back. Feliciano waved as they finally parted ways, Arthur and Alfred pressing through the crowd into the square. "Auf wiedersehen," he called brightly.
Arthur turned back and smiled. "We'll meet again."
Later, as Feliciano pushed Ludwig's chair past the town square, they were greeted by the strains of a familiar song being sung by the crowd.
Una mattina mi son svegliato, o bella, ciao, bella, ciao, bella, ciao, ciao, ciao! Una mattina mi son svegliato, e ho trovato l'invasor.
Feliciano came to a slow stop at the back of the massing crowd, looking through the sea of Italian and American flags. The new stone monument had been unveiled in the square, to honour the American air crews who had liberated the town. It stood beside the older memorial, the one inscribed with names of murdered Italian resistance members. Alfred stood at the front of the singing crowd, a row of shiny medals on his chest, while several official looking men in suits stood beside him and a local villager prepared a big microphone on a tall stand. Feliciano could just see Arthur off to the side watching. Alfred stood waiting to be hailed as a hero; Ludwig sat at the back, unnoticed. But the four of them knew: the four of them understood.
Feliciano and Ludwig watched the ceremony for a few minutes, as an Italian official began talking about the heroes of the resistance and the sacrifices of the town and everyone's gratitude for the American military's defeat of the occupying German forces. As the man spoke, a fleeting memory ran through Feliciano's mind: of that moment thirty years ago he had almost witnessed the execution of two resistance members in this very square. He remembered Grandpa Roma's unfaltering determination to fight for a free Italy; he remembered the torment and years of pain Antonio had gone through after his interrogation by the Gestapo. Then Feliciano touched Ludwig's shoulder. He had been a member of that occupying German military, yet without him Alfred would not be standing on that podium today. Feliciano wondered if anyone in the crowd had any idea how complicated the entire situation actually was. There was no black and white when it came to war: no good guys and bad guys like there were in storybooks.
Feliciano looked again at Alfred with his medals and the admiration of the crowd. "Ludwig, do you have shiny medals like that?"
Ludwig took a moment to respond. "I once had many, Feliciano. But fighting for your country is not always the same as fighting for what's right."
Feliciano understood that, but still found it hard to accept. Ludwig was good, and noble, and all those years ago as a German officer, he had only ever tried to do the right thing. But Ludwig was on the losing side, so he would never be a hero.
They turned and headed out of the square, leaving the ceremony behind them; through the village and out into the countryside. The quiet of the country air was a relief after the heat and noise of the village square. Buildings had sprung up around the town in recent years, and it always seemed that the country road was growing shorter. But further out in the fields it was still quiet and empty: the tall grass rustling gently, the familiar scents of flowers and herbs drifting on the wind. They walked in silence, Ludwig allowing Feliciano to push his chair over the narrow dusty road; Feliciano stopping briefly by the completely overgrown old tank to pick a sprig of wild rosemary from its side.
The old field had not changed in years, though there was now a track long worn through the grass towards the oak tree. As Feliciano slowly pushed Ludwig's chair along the track, that old familiar feeling enveloped him. This same easy peace, this same tranquil stillness, like they were the only people in the world; like they were somewhere else. Although it took a little longer to reach the oak tree now, and Feliciano's knees creaked as they stopped, and it took him a little longer to sit down on the grass. He sat beside Ludwig's chair, leaning his head against Ludwig's knees and playing with the sprig of rosemary. "I will place this at the memorial. When there is not such a big crowd."
Ludwig ran his hand through Feliciano's hair. "Rosmarino, for remembrance."
Feliciano did not usually like to remember those days, even though they were imprinted on his memory, and Ludwig's also. Their life was more now than those few days when it began. Their life was sunny afternoons in the Italian fields, taking all day to walk to the town or to just watch the clouds. It was mornings in their little garden, gathering herbs and flowers to sell at the market. It was long, warm summers in Germany, though they had to take the train to Munich since that big wall was built in Berlin. Feliciano supposed that by some people's measure of success he had not achieved much in his life. He could not write great symphonies like Roderich, or great books like Lovino. He was never a national hero like Grandpa Roma or Antonio. He could not even work in the fields like Grandpa Roma used to, not with the pain in his chest. But he could love. He could spend his days with Ludwig, and look after him, and that was all he wanted. That made Feliciano's life important.
"What will we do tomorrow, Ludwig?"
"We could go for a drive out to the vineyards. If you promise to remember you are not on a racing track."
Feliciano laughed. "My driving is just fine, Ludwig."
"Yes. For a racing car driver."
Feliciano ignored that. "The vineyards would be nice. We can get some wine for when Lovino returns. Can you believe he is going to play his guitar in Vienna? And Roderich said his orchestra would play our song! There is even a famous soprano going to sing it, but I can't remember her name..."
Ludwig brushed Feliciano's cheek with a cold hand. "I would much prefer to hear you sing it, Feliciano."
Feliciano smiled up at him. No, he did not often think of those days, but sometimes it was important to remember. It was now thirty years since they found each other. Thirty years, and this could have been any moment they had spent together. Because these feelings never changed. So Feliciano sang to remember, twirling the rosemary between his fingers, as the wind shook the leaves overhead and the sun started to descend in the sky.
But Feliciano did not sing the last line. He just hummed the melody, feeling Ludwig's hand through his hair, his strong, steady warmth behind him. Yes, sometimes it was important to remember. But there was no need to ever sing that last line again.
Auf wiedersehen, sweetheart.