By IAN SEED.
Chinks of light fell through the peeling green shutters. Duncan lit a new cigarette from the old one and lay back once more on the pillows piled high on the bed. Smoke drifted up to the bare light bulb, swirled around it and spread across the stained ceiling. He crumpled the empty Diana Blu packet in his hand and dropped it to the floor. It landed with a hollow sound near two other empty packets. He closed his eyes and listened to the murmur of traffic from Via Nizza, a few streets away.
There was a sharp knock on the door.
The door knob turned left and right. There was a frustrated rattle of a key trying to find its way into the lock. His own key blocked its entrance. The owner of the pensione must have told his wife not to take no for an answer this morning; Duncan had been shut in his room now for three days.
He propped himself up on his elbows.
‘Sì?’ His own voice sounded as if it were not really him speaking.
‘Devo entrare! Mi dispiace.’ I have to come in. I’m sorry.
He was surprised at how much Italian he still understood, how quickly it had come back after thirty years. ‘Un momento, per favore.’ He swung his legs down. The coldness of the tiles against his bare feet made him flinch. He grabbed his shirt and trousers lying on a solitary chair and quickly dressed, putting his feet into his shoes without tying the laces.
A woman with wispy white hair and large sagging breasts stood facing him when he opened the door. She had a mop and pail in one hand and the large key to Duncan’s room in the other. A spray can of Mister Clean with a filthy yellow cloth was tucked under one arm.
‘Buongiorno!’ she said, pushing by him.
She dropped the cleaning materials in the middle of the room, put her key into her apron pocket and walked over to the shutters.
‘Un po’ d’aria non fa male a nessuno!’ A little bit of fresh air never hurt anyone. She leant out of the window for a moment, breathed deeply and turned around to examine him in the light. ‘Signor Grey, mi scusi se glielo dico, ma Lei non ha la faccia di uno che stia proprio bene.’
Duncan, shielding his eyes from the sun, looked at her questioningly. ‘Mi scusi?’
She said it again. This time he was able to make the translation: Sorry to tell you, but you don’t look like someone who’s very well.
To make sure he understood, she pointed her finger at him and then out through the window. ‘Aria fresca, Signor Grey, aria fresca.’ Fresh air, fresh air.
‘Sì, sì.’ He nodded to indicate his agreement.
‘Bene.’ She picked up her Mister Clean and sprayed the figurine of the crucified Christ, which hung crookedly from the wall above the bed. Duncan took this to be her way of dismissing him.
The bathroom was at the bottom of the landing. He bent down as he went in to avoid banging his head on the steeply sloping ceiling. There was a smell of bleach, even though the tiny window above the ancient bathtub was open. The signora must have just been here. He checked himself in the mirror. His face was split in two by a crack in the glass, making one side of his face seem higher than the other. He needed a shave, but that would mean going back into his room to get his razor. Ah well, he would shave later.
He sat on the toilet seat and bent down to tie his laces. Good black leather shoes. Only a few months old. All they needed was a polish. A wave of giddiness rushed through him. He let it pass. Putting one hand on the basin, he pulled himself up, and turned the cold tap on. The icy water felt good on his face, and he let it run down his cheeks and the front of his shirt.
Footsteps echoing, he walked down the wooden spiral staircase to the hallway. Thank God, Signor Boggiato was not at his usual place behind the tiny reception desk; Duncan was several days late with his weekly bill.
The heavy entrance door was pinned back by a hook. Duncan stepped out onto smooth, worn steps and looked up at the black balconies and green shutters on the wall opposite. A woman was humming as she hung out sheets. Otherwise, the narrow street was deserted. Although the sun was shining, it felt cold, but it was, after all, the last week of October.
Something rubbed against his leg. Startled, he looked down. It was the black tomcat from the hotel. A mosquito, which had somehow managed to survive into the autumn, hovered over a patch of the cat’s scabby skin. The signora had told Duncan when he arrived at the pensione three weeks before that the cat was almost twenty years old. Now that the cat had caught his attention, it hobbled away a couple of yards along the pavement, dragging a stiff back leg. It lay down in the sunshine and looked up invitingly. Duncan smiled at the cat – absurdly it occurred to him since the cat would have no idea that he was smiling – and stepped carefully over it.
At the next corner he turned into a street of tiny shops. Three boys were kicking a ragged tennis ball around in front of a greengrocer’s. He wondered briefly why they were not at school. A group of men in overalls were drinking coffee at a brown plastic table outside a bar, while a heavily made-up woman sat alone at another table drinking a glass of red wine. Duncan pushed open the glass door of the bar and walked inside. He was greeted by a smell of stale cigarette smoke mingled with coffee and warm croissant. The portly barman recognised him, but still looked at him with suspicion.
‘Buongiorno, Mister!’ A large crumb dropped an inch down the barman’s dark beard. ‘Espresso?’ It sounded more like a command than a question.
‘Sì, per favore.’
‘Glielo porto io.’ I’ll bring it over to you. With a brusque nod, the barman indicated the table in the corner.
Duncan sat down and waited, looking out of the window. The men were getting up to go. The woman was looking into a hand mirror and applying fresh lipstick while her burning cigarette lay untouched on the ashtray.
‘Meester!’ The barman put down Duncan’s espresso on the table with a clatter. A rivulet of black liquid spilled over the top of the small cup onto the saucer. The barman held out a huge palm with stubby fingers. ‘Un euro, signore.’
One euro was over 2000 lire. When he had last been in Turin, an espresso had cost just 200 lire. All he had now in his wallet was a fifty-euro note and a couple of coins. His bank cards no longer worked. He gave the note to the barman, who shook his head despairingly at the sight of it. The crumb in his beard fell to the floor.
‘Aie-aie-aie, signore!’ Still shaking his head, he took the note and walked out of the bar.
Duncan watched him disappear into the tabaccheria opposite, then turned his attention back to his wallet. In the front pocket was a passport-sized photo. He took it out and looked at it, as he had done so often since arriving. A black-and-white photo of a girl with long curly hair and large eyes. On the back was written the date 23 September without a year. Duncan remembered she had not wanted to go into the photo booth at Turin Porto Nuovo station the evening he had left on a train. She was cross, thought she wouldn’t look good on a passport photo. Anyway, she said, they would see each other at Christmas, only three months away, when he finished his first term at university.
He put the photo back in his wallet and looked through the window. Still no sign of the barman. Perhaps he should go into the tabaccheria and find out what was going on. Anyway, he needed some cigarettes. As Duncan stepped outside, the barman appeared grinning in the doorway opposite with a large wad of notes in his hand.
‘Signore, signore, non dimenticare!’ Don’t forget. Licking his fingers, the barman counted off some tattered notes and pulled out a few coins from his trouser pocket. ‘Grazie, signore. Alla prossima!’ Until next time.
The woman at the table smiled briefly at Duncan as he put the money in his wallet. He had the vague impression that he was owed more.
The cat was still sunning itself on the pavement when he passed the entrance to the pensione. He looked up at his room. The signora had closed the shutters. She must have finished. For a moment he was tempted to go in and lie down once more, but then he decided he would head for San Valentino park by the river. He and Mariangela had spent a lot of time there. It was only a few minutes’ walk away. Turning into via Giovanni Giolitti, a long straight street of mustard-coloured buildings leading down to the river, he held his breath for a moment. He had walked down this same street holding Mariangela tightly to him, her hip bumping against his. Every few yards they had stopped and kissed, not caring about the looks they got. By the time they reached the bench by the river, it was raining. She had drawn back laughing as he put his wet hands through her unbuttoned blouse onto her breast. What if he met her now, turning a corner? Surely she would never recognise the white-haired man with the pot belly as the youth she had cried over when he told her on the phone he wasn’t coming back at Christmas.
The bench was still there by the river. He sat down. Shadows of recently-planted silver birches criss-crossed the grass at his feet. A middle-aged couple walked arm-in-arm along a path on the other side of the river. There was a sound of distant laughter and shouts from Borgo Medievale, the mock medieval castle a couple of hundred yards away. He could just make out children’s heads popping up over the red turrets and disappearing again. He searched in his pockets. Damn, he’d forgotten to go into the tabaccheria. Strange how quickly he’d become a smoker again after all these years. He would head back into the city, go to the tabaccheria at the station where he had bought his very first pack of Italian cigarettes.
The noise of drivers hooting their horns on Corso Vittorio Emanuele made him put both hands over his ears. A two-carriage tram, stuck halfway across the road where it turned into via Nizza, was blocking the traffic in both directions. This same avenue had been almost deserted when he’d arrived back in Turin three weeks ago in the early hours of the morning. He had walked down it in the dark, looking for the all-night bar where he and Mariangela had drunk too much on his last evening in Turin thirty years before. The bar was no longer there, replaced by a children’s clothes shop, but he could still picture the round wooden tables, the cigarette stubs on the floor. He’d poured one glass of red wine after another for them both from the litre carafe he’d ordered until she began to cry. Still crying, she’d accompanied him to the station to see him off on the midnight train.
‘Cretino! Ma guardi cosa me ha fatto fare!’ Cretin! Look what you’ve made me do.
Lost in his thoughts, he had walked smack into a plump, middle-aged woman. The contents of two shopping bags were spilled across the pavement.
‘Mi dispiace.’ He bent down to pick up a tomato.
‘Lei non tocchi roba che non è sua!’ What was that she had said? He had to think for a moment. The woman’s dark eyes looked at him with hatred. Don’t touch things which are not yours.
‘Veramente, mi dispiace, signora.’ I’m really sorry.
‘Se ne vada, per favore.’ Go away, please. This time it was a man’s voice. The words were polite, but the tone had a dangerous edge to it. The man wore a suit and had close-cropped grey hair. Only a few weeks ago Duncan had not looked so different from this man. He was suddenly aware of how he must look now, with his unshaven face, crumpled jacket and trousers, and dusty shoes.
A small crowd was starting to form. The woman muttered something about these foreigners as she got down awkwardly on one knee to gather her scattered fruit and vegetables.
‘Non glielo ripeto un’altra volta.’ I won’t tell you again. The man took a couple of steps closer.
Duncan turned and walked away. The Italians had made such a fuss of him thirty years ago. ‘Alto, bello, biondo,’ they would say with a knowing look. Tall, fair and handsome. Mariangela would sometimes repeat it to him, laughing and waving a finger warningly. ‘Tu sei mio. Ricordatelo!’ You’re mine. Remember that.
The tabaccheria was at the side of the station, still there next to the taxi rank, the disgruntled‑looking drivers waiting in their yellow cabs. With its rows of cigarette packets on wooden shelves, the inside of the shop was almost exactly the same as he remembered it. He bought two packs of Diana Blu. Outside the station, he tore off the plastic from one of the packets, and with hands trembling lit a cigarette. The sky was starting to cloud over. He pulled up the lapels of his jacket and was about to cross the street to make his way along via Roma, with a vague idea of dropping in at the English bookshop, when an orange bus drew up in front of him. Number 33. This was the bus that ended up half an hour later at Piazza Bengasi near the outskirts of Turin, the same bus that used to take him to the flat Mariangela shared with her mother and brother. Without thinking, he followed the small crowd onto the bus and found a seat at the back. The doors closed and the bus swung around the corner into via Nizza.
He didn’t have a ticket – the same mistake he’d made once before. The inspector had got on and made him pay a fine of 30,000 lire. The equivalent of a day’s teaching work at the time. He had been planning to take Mariangela out for a meal that evening, but instead turned up at her door with only a few coins in his pocket. She laughed, saying it was her turn, anyway, to treat him. With her job at the bank, she was, after all, earning three times as much as he was with his temporary job teaching English. ‘Non abbiamo bisogno di uno più povero di noi,’ her mother said to him as Mariangela disappeared for a moment into the toilet. We don’t need someone who is poorer than us.
The bus crawled now with the other traffic down Via Nizza, past bored-looking prostitutes in doorways. It stopped at some traffic lights just before a railway bridge. A group of Moroccans crossed the road with their trays of small household items and packets of Marlboro for sale. They chatted and laughed, showing tobacco-stained teeth. One of them rapped on the bus window for fun. The bus lurched forward, throwing Duncan back in his plastic seat.
The FIAT factory was halfway down via Nizza, the bus stop for the FIAT workers still there in front of ancient steel gates. He remembered how once a crowd of them had turned in their seats to stare at him having a stupid quarrel with Mariangela at the back of the bus because she’d accused him of looking at another girl. A fat man in a greasy T-shirt started laughing, and Duncan had dragged Mariangela off the bus to stop her getting into a fight.
Piazza Bengasi. He had forgotten how vast the square was with its numerous side streets and small shops lining the edges. Which was the street she’d lived in? Now he remembered it, via Candiolo, and the number, 87. A passer-by gave him directions, shouting to make himself heard above the sound of a road drill.
Half of the buildings in via Candiolo were no longer there. The blocks which had previously been joined to number 87 were torn down, leaving the raw bricks exposed on either side. There was a smell of diesel and rubble, and a fine red dust covered the pavement. Most of the labels next to the buzzers had no names on them. Mariangela’s buzzer had been the third from the top on the left, Famiglia Buzzati neatly typed on a card. Now there was a piece of paper stuck behind the cracked plastic with a name written in illegible handwriting. He raised his hand to press the buzzer, then saw that the door to the building was already open.
A smell of cat piss greeted him in the stairwell. MORTE AI JUVENTINI, DEATH TO JUVENTUS FANS, was scrawled across the lift door. He pressed a filthy white button and waited. The place had never been rich, but it used to be kept clean. The Italians, especially the poorer ones, hated dirt. When the lift didn’t come, he started the climb up the concrete steps. By the time he reached the fifth floor, he was out of breath. He stopped and leaned on the greasy banister for a moment. There in front of him was the door with its spyhole. Hadn’t it once been painted green? He seemed to remember a smell of fresh green paint. Now the door’s paint was of a nondescript colour and peeling off. Underneath, it looked as if the wood was actually rotting away. He stopped his finger half an inch from the buzzer. This was a dead end. She couldn’t possibly be here. In any case, he was thirty years too late.
‘Io la vedo. Che cosa vuole?’ I can see you. What do you want? It was an old woman’s voice from behind the door.
‘I…I…I…’ he began.
‘Se ne vada! Qui i mendicanti non li vogliamo.’ Go away. We don’t want beggars here.
‘Ma io solo cercavo una persona. Buzzati, Mariangela.’ But I was just looking for one person.
‘Mai sentito nominare!’ the voice spat without hesitation. Never heard the name.
‘Va bene. La ringrazio.’ Okay. Thank you.
He heard the woman mutter and footsteps going back down the hallway, that same hallway where he had waited for Mariangela while she got ready to go out. Perhaps the woman would have given him a different answer if he had shaved and worn a tie. He walked slowly back down the stairs.
It was raining lightly when he stepped out into the street and made his way back to the bus stop in Piazza Bengasi. The bus he had come on was still waiting. Instead of getting on, he walked past it and crossed the square. He would walk all the way along the river.
The rain made tiny slashes in the river’s sluggish brown surface. The overgrown path he remembered, which had gone all the way to the Valentino park, was now a tarmac cycle path. The tangle of brambles and nettles was replaced by neatly-cut grass. But the half dozen or so fishermen sitting on small folding chairs were still there on the bank. He even thought he recognised one of them, a man with a weather-beaten face who now had white stubble on his cheeks. The man always used to smile and make the same remark about ‘i giovani innamorati’, the young lovers, whenever Duncan walked past with Mariangela. Once he had asked Duncan for a light for his pipe. The man looked curiously now at Duncan, then fixed his gaze once more on the river.
Duncan pulled his collar up and kept walking.
It was already dark when two hours later he turned the corner into the street where his pensione was. The rain had stopped ages ago, but he was still soaked. He stopped to light a Diana Blu under a doorway. There was no one else on the street apart from the three kids he’d seen earlier kicking a tennis ball. They were bent over something he couldn’t see on the pavement.
‘Ti dico che sta morendo,’ he heard one of them say. I tell you it’s dying.
Dying? Duncan came closer and peered down. The black tomcat was lying against the wall, eyes closed, its remaining fur plastered to its slowly heaving ribs. A small pool of vomit lay next to its head. The boy who had spoken touched the cat’s forehead with one finger and looked up at Duncan.
‘Meester, sta morendo, vero?’ Mister, it’s dying, isn’t it?
Duncan opened his mouth to say something, then stopped. A woman was calling his name.
He turned around. The signora had come out onto the steps of the pensione. She stood there, arms folded, waiting for him.
IAN SEED’s latest publications include The Dice Cup (Wakefield Press, US, 2022), from the French of Max Jacob, The River Which Sleep Has Told Me (Odd Volumes, 2022), from the Italian of Ivano Fermini, I Remember (Red Ceilings, 2021), The Underground Cabaret (Shearsman, 2020) and Operations of Water (Knives, Forks & Spoons Press, 2020). Night Window is forthcoming from Shearsman in early 2024. His website is here.