Sunday, December 09, 2007

Here's the second extract from my novel. In the Mss. the Italian speech is in italics rather than quotation marks--so that explains the absence of inverted commas for direct speech when Italian is being used.

Calypso of the Appenine Way


1. The Assignation

I came out of the apartment on Via Tiziano, closed the blue door and locked it behind me. From the next apartment I heard the usual sounds of dissention: the old man arguing with his son about a girlfriend perceived to be too common for him.

“Understand Pietro, I know how it feels to be nineteen years old. However, it is foolish to trap yourself in a marriage with that tart merely because she is pregnant. It is all a trick. She knows that you are studying engineering at the university and will make a good catch. Do you really believe that she will be faithful to you? The baby is merely the means by which she controls you. After a while she will resort to type and make a cuckold of you. Is that what you want?”, the old man screamed. “Is that what you want?”

The young man’s reply was dismissive.

“Va fanculo old man. I live my life as I want to. My decisions are not subject to your approval. Have you made such a great success of your own life that you feel qualified to give me orders?”

The old man’s voice quivered with rage.

“Ungrateful wretch; you will be the death of your mother!”

I had heard more than enough and began to walk down the dark spiral staircase to the ground floor below. Usually there was an electric light on the stairs, but for some days all the bulbs had been burnt out and no one had bothered replacing them. It really made little difference as I knew the way down like I knew the back of my own hand. As I descended, I could hear the force of the winter winds buffeting the block of apartments outside. It was a cold January night, a little after seven, and I was meeting Mario in Piazza Garibaldi in just under half an hour. Usually, the walk would take about fifteen minutes, but tonight that time would be doubled due to the wind and at least two inches of snow on the ground. It was unlikely that there would be many people around on such a cold winter’s night.

When I stepped out of the apartment block, I was dismayed to see that the snow had started again. It was coming down thickly and I doubted that I would be able to arrive in Piazza Garibaldi in just twenty five minutes. Still, Mario would wait I thought. What else did he have to do?

Sheltering outside the silent building, I unfastened and then put up my strong blue and white canvas umbrella. It was actually a beach umbrella, but offered equal protection from rain and snow as from the sun. On a really windy night in Parma it might easily be blown inside out, but the weather was not that bad tonight. It was just a typically cold and inhospitable winter’s night in middle January. From the doorway of my apartment block where I still stood I could not see a single person passing by. Only a distant light, further down the road, in the direction of Piazza Garibaldi burned a fluorescent orange in the distance. This I knew was the light of the nearest bar and I resolved to stop by for an aperitivo on my way to the bridge which I would need to cross in order to reach Parma’s central Piazza.

I took a deep breath and thrust the umbrella out in front of me. Next I detached myself from my snug hiding place and plunged into the inclement night. The snow scrunched loudly beneath my feet as I hurried along. A dog barked in the distance and a cat miaowed laconically. It was a wretched evening and I was unlikely to meet many fellow travellers on the way to my appointment with Mario. Did I really have time to stop for an aperitivo? I was already late and if I broke my journey I was unlikely to arrive at Piazza Garibaldi before 7:45 PM. Still, Mario would wait. Yes...he would wait.

After five minutes of breathless battle with the snow and the wind I came abreast of the little bar, “Lo Scrigno”. I pushed open the door and passed into the welcoming heat inside. “Lo Scrigno” was empty but the barman, a familiar acquaintance, called out a pleasant greeting:

Buona sera, Giovanni. Perche sei fuori casa su una notte cosi’ tempestosa?

I hardly knew what to answer, but finally I told the old bar man the truth. I needed to see a friend in Piazza Garibaldi about an important matter that couldn’t wait. The old man’s eyes shone with curiosity. I was his only customer on this dismal evening and a little idle nosiness would no doubt make the time go easier until he could lock up the bar and slip into his warm bed, with his wife, in the small apartment where his family lived over the bar.

Lo so che hai tanti segreti, Giovanni. Comunque, sei Inglese e non capisci bene come le cose vanno qui in Italia. Perche non stai qui con me per un po’? Ti aiutero’ con il tuo cuore spaccato.

Cuore spaccato? I repeated to myself in wonderment. What did this old man know of my life in Parma?
Paolo (for such was the old man’s name) nodded his head wisely and then touched the side of his nose.

Si, signore. Non ti vedo da tanto con quella bella ragazza rossa. Era chiarissimo che eri innmorato di lei.
I gave a disconsolate grunt. What business was it of Paolo’s if I was nursing a broken heart? Anyway, the old man was wrong: it wasn’t true. I told him that he had a fertile imagination like most Italians and that he should mind his own business.

The old bar man smiled knowingly before recommencing.

Ho visto solo due casi di amore veramente grandi. Il primo era il secondo era l’amore fra tu e Eleonora.

Non parli senso! I spat out at the old bar man. Did everyone in this small town know everything about me and my deepest needs? Was I merely a source of gossip here for old men like Paolo and his even older wife Silvia? Why did I always feel that everyone in Parma knew everything about me and my problems? Wherever I went, knowing glances were constantly cast in my direction and I felt like the victim of some vast and baffling conspiracy. How did the people know so much? From where did they receive their information? Or was it all just my imagination? Were these emotionally sensitive people in some way able to sense and understand my changing moods--to see my feelings in my face? Perhaps they knew nothing tangible, but merely read an age old story in my darkly flickering eyes?

I finished my drink, paid and quickly left the warm bar, Paolo grinning at me stupidly as I made my exit. Outside, the snow was easing off a little and I didn’t feel the need to reopen my umbrella. I strode on past Via Botticelli on my right: the little road where my English friend Howard Verity lived with his Italian wife, Serena. Probably Howard was entertaining a few Italian guests as he did most evenings around this time. I had been to several of these little get-togethers where wine and food flowed freely, but Howard’s friends with their bourgeois attitudes bored me. Howard himself was beginning to bore me. Most of all, his tedious Italian schoolteacher wife bored me. Serena was a bitch.

After passing the street in which Howard’s home lay, I immediately came abreast of the old church, “San Antonio”. Here a small group of Franciscan monks lived and at least one or two of them could usually be seen hanging around outside the main entrance talking to acquaintances and passers by. Foolish old men with nothing better to do I reflected. Yes, there was someone out now, beneath the portico, talking in baroque tones to an old man with his dog. What on earth did they find to chat about? Human mortality? The grace of God? The faithfulness of dogs?

I passed the two old timers and took a sharp right turn on to the old bridge in the centre of Parma. Now there were more people to be seen, scurrying in this direction and that, determined to complete their unknown business before the snow started again and the clock should slip round another hour. In the distance, as I passed over the old bridge, I could see the burning yellow light shining out from Eleonora’s office on the third floor of the Via Mazzini building. I imagined her sat flirting with some Italian nonentity and cursed. Who could resist her red hair and sexy dark throated tones? She laughed with the dark saturninity of one who knew everything about her power over the male species. I cursed her silently.

Just now, my business was not with Eleonora and I crossed the bridge and strode past the building where the Italian girl crouched, sharpening her claws. The time was 7:45 PM and I was already more than quarter of an hour late for my appointment with Mario. But Mario would wait--if he had even arrived as of yet! Why not stop off for an espresso in the bar opposite Eleonora’s office and next to the apartment where she lived? They--her friends--would see me and I would see them (which was not necessarily a bad thing). Also, I could warm up a little prior to the exertions of the evening.

Inside the little cafe, I found there were about thirty people sat around or stood at the bar drinking mostly strong spirits. I felt a little hungry, so I ordered a panino with prosciutto crudo and a Jack Daniels whisky. The middle aged bar man recognised me but decided to say nothing--though he did glance over at a group of three or four men who sat at a table in the far corner of the room drinking from a large decanter of wine. I’d seen them before and thought them to be friends of Fabio’s. Naturally, they would report all my movements back to headquarters. Already, I sensed their interest in me and their eyes fixed quizzically on my back. One of them was dressed in a black overcoat, similar to my own, with a blue scarf around his neck. Obviously they had been sat drinking for a while, although it was hardly hot inside the bar: the outside door opened too frequently for that in order to let in frozen customers from the street.

It seemed that the boy in the black overcoat was paying me particular attention and he hardly attempted to disguise his interest. I felt pretty sure that he’d once eaten lunch with Eleonora and myself in the mensa at Parma University. I remembered that his manners had been charming--though he hadn’t actually said very much. Now he watched me with his pale blue eyes and whispered to his colleagues alternately. After a while, his friends began to steal surreptitious glances in my direction. I decided that it would be better to be moving on, so I finished the last bite of my panino, paid the bill and walked slowly out of the bar into the porticoed arcade outside. It had started snowing again, but at least I didn’t need to open my umbrella. The portico gave adequate protection from the inclement evening and I pushed on towards Piazza Garibaldi, now only a hundred meters ahead. The porticoed arcade was well lit and lots of people were to be seen flowing in both directions. One well-known face was caught in the light as he came pushing towards me from the opposite direction. On suddenly seeing me, his jaw dropped involuntarily and he hurriedly buried his chin in his scarf before hurrying past without an acknowledgment. I had been tempted to quote T.S. Eliot at him:

“Stetson, you who were with me in the ships at Mylae!”

Still, I reflected, it would hardly have been appreciated--and I really owed the man a severe beating rather than an ironic turn of phrase. I had lived in Parma for over two years now and too many people knew me, or knew of me: Indeed, I was almost famous! Two years! I reflected: so little real time had passed and yet water had hurtled under the bridge in a veritable torrent. The life I had lived before coming to Parma already seemed unreal and distant to me. Here, I had embraced my destiny in the midst of a people who lived constantly on the edge of their emotions. Some I loved and some I hated, but all demanded a response. Indifference was not an option.
Suddenly I passed out from the porticoed enclosure and there in front of me lay the almost deserted expanse of Piazza Garibaldi. In the summer, the many bars situated there, put out tables and chairs so their guests could relax in the mild summer air. In contrast, tonight everything seemed silent and glum as I headed towards the spot where I had arranged to meet Mario: beneath the equestrian statue of Garibaldi himself, in the very centre of the exposed piazza. Well before I arrived at the base of the impressive statue, it was apparent that Mario wasn’t there. I now had the problem of trying to figure out whether he was late himself or had got bored with waiting and gone home. I reflected for a moment. Knowing Mario, I decided that it was far more likely that he had not yet arrived. I looked around the desolate square and saw few signs of life in any direction. I would give him until eight I resolved. After that, I had to be getting under way.

Perhaps five minutes later, I spied Sceriffo ambling over to the spot where I waited. I despised the man, but sometimes he could give information that it was difficult to pick up anywhere else--always provided you were ready to buy him a drink.

Buonasera, called the uneducated voice as he neared the spot where I stood. Perche sei fuori su una notte cosi’ brutta?

I understood that I’d have to begin by replaying the earlier conversation I’d had that evening with the old man in the bar near to my house.

Ho un appuntamento col mio amico Mario. Dobbiamo parlare di qualcosa e dopo andremo in ristorante.

Solo tu e lui? shot back the odious Sceriffo. Non sembra il modo in cui ti comporti di solito.

I wasn’t in the right mood to fence with Sceriffo tonight and therefore I asked him a direct question.

“Have you seen Fabio this evening?”

Sceriffo shook his head. “No, I think he is at the university studying for a pressing exam. Some of his friends are in the bar opposite Eleonora’s office.”

I nodded my head. “Yes, I saw them sat down there just ten minutes ago.”

“They all like and respect you”, whined the unctuous Master of Ceremonies.

I nodded my head. “That’s good to know, Sceriffo.” I was looking beyond the slightly hunch-backed figure in front of me to another, approaching at speed, on an old motorino. The quickly moving figure was well wrapped up against the weather in a blue padded coat, red scarf and white hat pulled down over the ears. It was Mario and he pulled up beside us cutting out the engine on the little motorino. There was a big smile on his face.

Buona sera he intoned for Sceriffo’s benefit and then shook me by the hand.

“Sorry that I am late John”, he told me in his Italianate English, “but Ilaria phoned and I had to speak to her for a while”.

“That’s no problem”, I told him. “Shall we take a walk?”

Mario understood that the suggestion to take a walk was intended to get Sceriffo off our backs, so he nodded and we moved off together, Mario pushing his ancient motorino over the snow covered pavement. Ci vediamo, he shouted briefly over his shoulder at the little hunchback and Sceriffo waved his hand and smiled slyly.

It really wasn’t the kind of night to be walking aimlessly round, but we felt the need to communicate in open spaces when everyone we met seemed to have an ear cocked.

“How was your study today?” I asked Mario. After working for several years, he’d gone back to school and was taking his high school diploma this year.

“Tiring, as always”, he replied. Mario attended a private school in Modena and needed to travel in both directions by train--a journey of one hour each way. Nevertheless, he rarely complained much as he knew his father was paying a lot of money in order to nullify his son’s past mistakes. “What about you?” he enquired.

I shook my head. “Nothing special: the usual stuff. I received a phone call from Eva and she said that she wanted to meet us tonight in the pizzeria as she’s been working in central Parma all day.

Mario raised his eyebrows. “Oh yes? And what about Sharokh?”

Sharokh was Eva’s live in Persian boyfriend, who though born to great riches in the Iran of his birth, had been expelled with all his family after the revolution without a dollar to his name. Now he worked as an operaio, or factory worker. Eva was looking to dump him and we had formed a clandestine relationship--although Eva would have been more than happy to have made it more public. Eva came from Dusseldorf in Germany and, together with Mario, she was one of the very few people I completely trusted in Parma. I certainly never trusted Eleonora.


Anonymous Pluto said...

Great invention!

11:29 AM  
Blogger pluto85 said...

il racconto è bello, ma la foto mi ingelosisce!

12:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

just stopping by to say hi

1:52 PM  
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123Issue one page

2:48 PM  

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