While he was waiting for his gas tank to be filled at one of the many stations found at the beginning of the Cassia road, on the way out of Florence, attorney Adami kept looking at the girl in the blue tank top and jeans, standing on the edge of the road, a little further up. She was quite tall and slim, with loose washed-blond hair, and she had a large backpack at her feet. She must be a foreigner, possibly Nordic, one of those who hitchhike around Europe. But she must have been shy, or otherwise incredibly lazy, because she let cars go past without signaling them to stop. She didn’t signal attorney Adami either, but he, moved by some sort of indulgent concern, stopped his car anyway and, opening the door to invite her in, asked:
Maybe the girl was neither shy nor lazy, but just cautious: she looked at him with a pair of very light eyes, the color of the sea on windless days, and studied him with great seriousness, before deciding to note her consent. She then gathered herself on the seat, as far as possible from him, and seemed to become even smaller, with her tiny face, that, to be honest, seemed also not very expressive, as it is often the case with Nordic women, and her skinny arms, reddened by the sun.
Attorney Adami was no Don Juan, no seducer with little conscience. However, as he was sure he had been one in his youth, he was left with the calm awareness that, in the case of need, he would not lack the charm, nor the experience, needed to win a woman over. Naturally, the idea of using charm and experience with the girl he just picked up didn’t even remotely occur to him, and in fact, with great rectitude, he was thinking mostly of his daughter, and what she would be like when she grew up. This girl seemed to be fourteen or fifteen, she was pretty and delicate. In fact, he would not have minded at all if his daughter, in ten years’ time, would be like this girl, as pretty and delicate, but he would certainly not allow her to travel the world on her own, risking her falling into the hand of some villain. It wasn’t without any personal complacency, relating to his own virtue, that he thought he could be a villain himself if, faced by this very young and seemingly very pure girl, he wasn’t stopped by a sense of responsibility that could even be defined as fatherly.
The attorney was therefore feeling exceptionally well with his conscience, but it was this very sense of his cleanliness and appropriateness that made him feel he would appreciate it if the girl would show more trust, for example, by smiling back at him when he turned to smile at her. But instead, she remained enclosed and contained in her corner, and did not seem to be inclined to show any trust, to the point that it could even appear offensive, in the sense that it was possible to interpret it as an expression of doubt and suspicion that he, at the end of the day, did not deserve.
At San Casciano, at the café that is right at the top of the hill, he stopped for a moment to buy a bag of sweets. Sometimes children are won over this way, with small things, and indeed she finally smiled, when he put sweets in her hand, but immediately afterwards she returned to her corner, only that now she was munching on the sweets. The road was descending from the hills of San Casciano, one turn after the other, and on the trees the cicadas were singing in the air warmed by the sun. The valley ahead was wide, with a multitude of shades of green and yellow and farmhouses scattered on the hills, each with its own tassels of cypresses, and the attorney, who was feeling almost moved by all this beauty, was sorry that the girl from the north was not aware of it, it seemed. “Do you speak English?” he asked.
“Yes”, she replied with great calm.
The attorney gestured vaguely to the valley. “Beautiful Italy”, he said.
The girl confirmed with a nod, to show that she agreed. It wasn’t much to encourage a conversation, but the attorney thought that this was a start and explained to her that he lived in Rome and had a four-year-old daughter called Gisella. He also started to say that he would not mind at all if his daughter, when she grew up, would be like her, but this concept was too complicated for his English and he was soon stuck, and then asked her, in French, if she could speak French and she replied yes, of course. So he started explaining to her, in French, that he lived in Rome and had a four-year-old daughter called Gisella, and that he would not mind at all, etc. etc., but his French also failed him with this difficult concept, even ambiguous, that he could not explain, and she watched him as he struggled with foreign languages, and her face was no longer blank, but impertinent and amused, and in the end she said, in an Italian that was slightly softer than ours, that he could speak Italian to her, if he preferred, because she was a student in a college in Florence and understood Italian very well.
The attorney had the feeling, not entirely unfounded, that the girl was making fun of him, with the issue of foreign languages, and he resented that, not very much, but enough to encourage him to imagine treating her with less consideration than he had done to that point. Indeed, just because of that push, that the hidden resentment gave him, as he approached Poggibonsi, he thought: if that little flirt was a few years older, now, instead of heading for Rome, I would turn right and take her to San Gimignano, which is a place foreigners like and could lead to something. A few years older? Well, to be honest, the age issue was indeed a touchy one. He liked young girls, very young, in fact, but due to his legal profession, he was not the type to compromise himself with a young girl of fifteen, although, if he really looked closely, she was probably easily sixteen or even seventeen. Dear God, what if she was seventeen? With Nordic girls, you never know: they develop late and keep their virginal look even long after they lose their virginity. If she was seventeen, the situation would be different, reversed even. But she could not be that old. At seventeen, a girl, next to a man that, although he is a bit over forty, is certainly not unattractive, does not behave like that, in that disconnected, calm seriousness that the girl was displaying, while still munching on sweets. The attorney concluded that the temptation to turn right, to San Gimignano, a place favored by lovers, was nothing but bizarre fantasy, it was not right to act on such desires in contrast with the penal code, and indeed, when he reached Poggibonsi, he bravely remained on Cassia, and the road, having left the village, was again surrounded by vines and olive trees, with many twists and turns. The attorney was now satisfied, as one who just did what is usually defined as a good act, but, unfortunately, he was not one of those people who achieve perfect satisfaction from exercising virtue, and deep inside, he regretted missing San Gimignano, with that special timeless atmosphere, allowing us release from prejudice in our time. The attorney had no doubt that it was prejudice and stupid moralistic fancy. Who, at the time of Boccaccio, or, say, the Arezzo man — and those were, now we know this for sure, very civil times — who would hold back when facing such an adventure as the one that he had been offered? At the time, much worse used to happen, without anyone expressing any surprise, or causing inconvenience due to this penal code.
“At what time will we reach Rome?” the girl asked unexpectedly.
It was a standard question, maybe the most natural one could ask, under the circumstances, but it was asked just as the attorney, caught by nostalgia of what he could have done had he been born in any period preceding the Counter Reformation, was feeling rather touchy. “Why?” he asked. “Is anyone expecting you?”
She looked at him with an expression that was almost aggressive, funny in her tiny face, and persevered with her questions. “What about you? Don’t you have anyone?”
The attorney felt like laughing. “My daughter”, he replied.
“If there is a daughter, surely she has a mother”, the girl observed. “In Italy there is no divorce”.
Well, why did she care if there was divorce or not? What did she want from him, was she trying to provoke him? As far as she was concerned, he would have been equally separated, a bigamist or even a widower. For a moment, he wanted to make her believe he was, indeed, a widower, but then he preferred to behave like a gentleman. “Yes, I also have a wife”, he answered proudly. And then he added, less proudly, “Unfortunately”.
The girl was quick to react to the last word: “Why unfortunately? All Italians say that.”
This time, the attorney was truly annoyed. “I am not responsible for other Italians”, he retorted dryly. “I am an anarchist, an individualist, I say unfortunately and I mean it. I haven’t been getting along with my wife for years, if I could turn back…” He stopped himself because he was too miserable. A married man can lie like that, and usually he does, only when there is a concrete advantage, that is when there is a need to use emotional arguments to knock down remaining objections of a woman who is about to fall. But there, with that girl, saved, physically, and especially being legally underage, what advantage could there be? He felt malice toward her, as if she was to blame for that small fall of idle hypocrisy, and in a sense, she was, because no one authorized her to be indiscreet and even provocative, and the least one could think of her is that she had a bad education, despite the college.
But he could not remain angry, and on the other hand, could her apparently insolent questions and comments be, after all, the proof of a growing interest in him? Young pubescent girls are particularly susceptible to the charm of men in their forties, he knew it both in theory and in practice, as the daughter of the concierge at his building, a fifteen year old girl, but unlike this one, even somewhat over developed, tended to blush in his presence, get confused and make a thousand faces, in other words, she was showing in many ways her secret crush for him. Of course, this girl was not he concierge’s daughter, yet, in itself, nothing prevented her from falling in love with him, and it would be wonderful, even though, naturally, he would not take advantage of it in any way, not even to stroke her neck and kiss her closed mouthed. He would respect her in any case, even if, for example, at some point she would offer herself to him spontaneously, a possibility that was quite improbable, as the girl, after that indiscreet explosion of interest for his marital status, returned to her corner, where she was again consuming sweets with detached, melancholy seriousness. Could she be hungry? The attorney was pleased with this thought as it detracted him, at least to an extent, from the guilty and equally morbid fantasies that occupied his mind in the last kilometers, and because he was approaching Siena, he decided to offer her a cappuccino and pastries.
He drove to the piazza and parked next to the café across from Palazzo della Signoria. The sun was burning hot and there were people only in the shade, with the exception of tourists who were walking in the heat with their cameras and straw hats they just bought, admiring the monuments. They sat under the café’s canopy, where it felt less hot, and the attorney, despite being behind schedule, was happy to have brought her here, to this magnificent piazza, and looked like he had built it all himself. When the waiter arrived, she ordered a bottle of German beer. “Won’t it be bad for you?” he asked her.
“Bad?” she replied with a shrug, then politely excusing herself and went inside the café. Before she was back, the waiter brought her beer and the coffee ordered by the attorney. He waited for a little while, but then decided to drink his coffee before it became too cold, and she was yet to return. The attorney thought, irritably, how he would not reach Rome at breakfast time, as he had promised his wife, and thought that if it wasn’t for the girl’s backpack in the car, he would have left her there, in Siena, as she deserved. After all, picking her up was just a careless act, nothing good was going to come out of it, it wasn’t at all an exaggeration to say that he regretted it, as it always happens with good acts that are completed without any prospect of profit. But then, when she finally reappeared, everything he was thinking was suddenly erased to give space for something that could also be called enchantment: she had put lipstick on, she put her hair up in a bun on top of her head, and, with her tank top tucked into her jeans, she displayed a thin waist, slim hips and in addition, tenderly, what little breast she had. “Tell me the truth”, he asked her once he was able to talk. “How old are you?”
She took a long sip of her beer, then turned toward him, with eyes shining with malice. “Almost twenty”, she answered.
After Siena, the Cassia road roams around the chalky scenery, going down into the valleys and back up again to the hills on the other side, apparently without much need, like narrow and often complicated turns, which the attorney reached before even realizing it, as he was driving quite nervously. The issue was that the adventure with the girl, that became suddenly possible and even probable, took him by surprise, he was unprepared for it, and in a way it even scared him, for a number of reasons. The first, and biggest question, he wasn’t hiding that from himself, was the following: was it worth cheating on his wife, the mother of his daughter, with a girl he happened to meet and for whom he could not yet have any real, deep affection? Well, to be honest, he had to answer yes, it was worth it, and not so much for the basic comparison between the girl and his wife, which would be extremely ungenerous and also not entirely justified, but for the more general consideration that for a man of forty, even if blessed by more charm than average, it doesn’t happen every day to have a twenty-year-old girl, beautiful, fresh, with breasts barely outlined, but undoubtedly moving, and so unusually blond. When something like this happens to him, usually a man does not let it go, and indeed, the lawyer didn’t intend to let her go, but in some secret fold of his conscience he still feels some vague discomfort about the idea of marital infidelity, and mostly, he attributed this discomfort to the fact that, even though the conquest appeared to be easy, he had no idea where to begin. Naturally, it wasn’t that he was afraid of having a technical deficiency, but that fact was that now, imagining any contact with the girl, even the most simple, made him feel confused, and probably even more inhibited than before, when he thought she was just a young girl. It was as if he was facing a woman he had known as a little girl, and that suddenly appeared all grown up, but not changed enough to allow him to forget her as a child, and in conclusion, he could not let go of the fear and respect towards childish innocence, and he was almost sorry that she grew up, as he was full of guilt, but also full of anger for the guilt that appeared at the most inconvenient moment. It was this confusion of emotions that made him take the turns so badly.
The girl let him drive as he wished for many kilometers, but then, on the climb to Radicofani, the road became dangerous, and she asked: “Why are you driving so fast? Are you in a rush to get to Rome?”
“No. And you?” The lawyer asked, finding it difficult to address her informally.
“I just need to get there before midnight.”
“Why before midnight?”
“At eleven fifty the train for Calabria leaves.”
“Are you going to Calabria?”
“No, with a guy.”
“Someone from your country?”
“No, a guy from Naples. Last year we traveled to Sicily. This year we are going to Calabria. They say it is even more beautiful.”
The lawyer was hurt by that answer more than it was expected, but, as he almost rightly understood when analyzing his own state of mind, it wasn’t jealousy, at least not the usual kind of jealousy, but the regret that he could not put himself in the place of the Neapolitan young man that was going to Calabria with her, he could not even put himself there in his fantasy, because he was married already, and youth for him had gone away, life came upon him with a suffocating weight of responsibility and concerns, not leaving space for love outside the limits of a rushed and enclosed adventure. These were the things, ultimately, more than the years, that marked a man’s decline.
It was with that feeling of self-pity that lawyer Adami, feeling in some way authorized to catch in his garden all the flowers that it was still possible to pick, reached the conclusion that any further hesitation on his part would be out of place, and in other words, that he would be a beast if he let that girl, who dropped on him from the sky, get away.
At Acquapendente, even though there was no need for it, he stopped to refuel, and in the meantime, from a nearby hotel, he called his wife and told her that one of his clients from Florence asked him to negotiate the purchase of a fund, so he would not arrive for breakfast, and maybe not even for lunch, but she should not worry about it, because he would certainly be home by midnight.
Once he removed the main psychological obstacles that stood in the way of his adventure, lawyer Adami found himself facing what bullfighting experts call the moment of truth, when the bullfighter faces the bull face to face, but as he had no doubt as to the balance of power between him and his victim, he felt very calm, and indeed, he was no longer driving dangerously, but with lively and optimistic elegance. The road descended from the heights of Acquapendente to enter that kind of funnel at the bottom of which is Lake Bolsena, and it was approximately one o’clock. The summer sun was tiring everyone and everything, with exception of the cicadas that with unparalleled ardor screeched on every tree. The girl, maybe because of the heat, stayed in her corner where the wind from the window was better, and generally seemed inattentive, in other words, not suspicious or at least indifferent, of what could happen to her before the evening. Nordic women, the lawyer knew just like anyone else, are like that: peaceful, reserved, maybe a bit cold, but at the right time they give themselves with great simplicity, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, and actually nothing was ever said to claim that it wasn’t.
The lawyer did not have reason to worry about the girl’s apparent reserve, but was instead thinking of the logistical difficulties of the matter, that could not be neglected, also because the girl was not yet twenty-one, which certainly was a complication. Ruling out a decent hotel, where would it happen: in the country behind a bush, in a wood, in a room of a dubious guest house or on the beach? At this moment, everything was possible, even the beach. Rome was less than 100 kilometers away, so they would reach it around three, and in another hour he could reach Tor San Lorenzo, where a painter friend of his owned a hut on the beach, used for these purposes exactly. The only inconvenience would be not to find the painter at home, because of the key, but other than that, the beach was not only the safest solution, but also the best in absolute terms, and the girl, in a bathing suit, would undoubtedly look stunning, with her long adolescent body, firm and contained. “Do you have your bathing suit?” He asked.
Called back from her distraction, the girl smiled at the question. “Of course I have one. In Calabria I want to go to the beach a lot. I always went to the beach in Sicily, too.”
A little annoyed by this unintentional hint at a past and a future in which he had no part at all, the lawyer replied forcefully, “I’ll also take you to the sea”. And because she was looking at him surprised and vaguely wondering, he explained, “We will get to Rome first, then go to the beach. Do you mind?”
“It would be wonderful,” she smiled with her usual simplicity.
Now the lawyer was imagining the adventure in all its magnificence, and it wasn’t difficult, looking at the girl, to imagine her as she would look in a bathing suit, or even without it, also because the wind that was coming through the window, was pressing on her tank top and was accentuating her breasts, that appeared to be of acceptable size, such as would inspire tenderness and other feelings. And because there is nothing like fantasizing about love for causing impatience to reach the desired conclusion, or at least to receive a reasonable advance, the lawyer started looking at the road for a convenient place to stop.
When the car stopped on the side of the road, where a part of a lake was visible between the oak trees, the girl, instead of looking at the view, hanged her head down as if she was already aware, and allowed him to put his arm around her, pull her close and kiss her on the neck that was left bare now that her hair was tied up. She didn’t resist later, when he lifted her face and started kissing her mouth, but she didn’t take part in any way, leaving him quite unsatisfied at the end of the long kiss, even resentful. On her part, she did not appear to be in a better mood, indeed, she immediately hung her head down, without doing or saying anything.
“Didn’t you like it?” he asked her.
And she asked, “Why did you do it, because you love me?”.
The question, even accounting for the girl’s possible inexperience, was without a doubt inappropriate, and in fact, everyone knows that for a kiss it is not essential to have binding and powerful emotions like love. Now, the lawyer didn’t want to think he had kissed her simply for pleasure or to try and win her, in fact, at the moment, nobody, not even him, could claim that he wasn’t already in love with her, at least a little bit, but talking about love before they even started was a bit too risky. In any case, if pursuing the adventure depended on a little lie, the lawyer was more than willing to say it. “I love you”, he confirmed with as much sincerity as he could show.
“All Italians say that”, the girl replied, without raising her head.
Offended in his effort to be honest, the lawyer was about to retort, when he noticed drops dripping on her trousers, that due to their position and other circumstances, could have only been tears. “Are you crying?” he asked, somewhat stupidly. “What is there to cry about?”
“You are just like the others”, she replied, pulling her nose. “But this is not why I’m crying. I am crying because I am like the others, the foreigners that come to Italy to make love with Italians.” She started crying harder. “I’m not like the others”, she said.
He pulled her to cry on his shoulder, and was stroking her hair, sweetly, then said, “You shouldn’t cry, the two of us are different”, but as much as he tried, he could not think of a reason to complete and explain his statement. However now, and not only because of a sense of satisfied pride, he started to feel that he and the girl were indeed different than other people, he felt that there was something inexpressible creeping into his soul, and that if it wasn’t love, it certainly was similar to it, but this complicated the issue greatly, both because he could not forget he had a wife at home, and because he knew that the sentimental way is not the shortest path to reach certain results, and here there certainly was not time to lose. Maybe a few glasses of Orvieto or Montefiascone wine would be enough to bring the adventure back to the easy and careless tracks that befitted it. “Are you hungry?” he asked the girl who was still crying.
She replied yes with ease, like a child.
“Let’s go then. We will stop at the first restaurant.”
“No, I’d rather get to Rome” she replied.
A little less than an hour later they were sitting, very close to each other, under the canopy of one of the little restaurants along the Cassia road, in the outer suburbs of Rome, and the lawyer could observe how accurate was his prevision that a little wine would be enough to do away with any melancholy. He felt at his best physically and mentally, and as for the girl, she was completely transformed. She was twisting, with amusing incompetence her fettuccine with sauce around the fork, and was laughing, continuously laughing, asking him, “Do you love me? Tell me you love me”, but without expecting any seriousness in his reply, like in a game.
And he swore he loved her, and again he poured her a drink, and she begged him not to, not to make her drink too much, because she loved him and therefore did not want to get drunk, and she pressed herself to him, with her small, warm and slim body, and they were kissing, they could do it because there were no other patrons at that time under the pergola, and the waiter did not mind them, numb with the heat and the hope of a good tip. “What will we do afterwards?” she was asking.
“I’ll take you to the beach, to a place called Tor San Lorenzo. There’s a hut there…”
“Two hearts and a hut”, she interrupted him beautifully, because she already drank a bit too much.
“It’s an outdoors hut”, he explained. “But inside it’s very well arranged. There’s a shower, a small kitchen with a fridge, and there is a big bed, with a flower print blanket…”
“A big bed”, she repeated with disconcerting malice, and he felt all confused, and they went back to kissing. And then, with a damp mouth, dazed by the kiss, she asked, “And the key, do you have the key?”
“No, but I will call my friend…”
“Didn’t you call him already?”
“Yes, but he was sleeping. He will wake at four thirty. I will call him again at four thirty.”
“At four thirty”, she repeated, suddenly melancholic, as if the wait weighed on her, or for who know what reason. “What time is it?”
“Almost four”, she said, becoming even more melancholic, until unpredictably she started laughing and said, “Do you love me? Tell me you love me”.
And he, despite understanding that all this was nothing but a generous game, replied that he loved her, my God, did he love her so much, and while he was saying that, he didn’t understand anymore if he crossed the boundaries of the game, because in fact he felt like he truly loved her, everything about her enchanted him, her youth, her beauty, her freshness, and especially her splendid ability to do the most ill-matched things, deviled chicken and kisses, tears and happiness, the immodesty with which she looked at him when they talked of what they would do in the beach cabin, and the childish innocence that bloomed again in her as soon as she was distracted by something of her own, looking at a cat searching for food, or playing with the remains of the bread on the tablecloth. “What time is it?” she asked.
She asked again for the time six or seven times, before it was finally four thirty, and she laughed less and less, as if her merriment was being suffocated by the impatience of arriving to the beach, but when, when it was finally four thirty, she didn’t want him to make the call anymore. “Wait a little”, she said. “A little longer.”
“But if I wait, he may go out, and then we won’t find the key anymore.”
“Please, a little bit longer”, she kept repeating with painful sadness, it was possible that she found herself in a moment of such acute love that she preferred the rest of the adventure to fall through rather than being away from him at the particular time, and without a doubt it was a beautiful and moving feeling, but the lawyer did not forget the rest of the adventure was what counted most, and that on the other hand, she was the one teasing him with the constant questions about what they would do at the hut, so it was not clear how come she now wanted to hold him back, risking losing out on the best. And all things considered, although he still thought that she was the most extraordinary and amazing girl he ever met, partly because of her unpredictable changes of tone and mood, he was also starting to wonder if it wasn’t better if he had met a less complicated girl.
At four forty five, although she kept begging him to wait a little longer, he did not listen to her and went into the restaurant, where the telephone was.
His painter friend was still asleep, but he asked his housekeeper to wake him, which she did, and the painter, having been woken up in the middle of a muggy afternoon, came to the phone in a bad mood and pique. He began by demanding to know exactly who the girl was. The lawyer could only tell him her name was Inge and she was Swedish, not from Stockholm, but from Lulea, a town near the North Pole, apparently. Then the painter asked him where he found her, and also wanted him to describe her, and the lawyer, despite being annoyed at the wasted time, described her, feeling justifiably complacent, because at the end of the day, she made him look good. He told his friend she was not even twenty yet and was divine, slim, but not too slim, unimaginably blond, and yes, the legs were also perfect and the breasts were this way and that, but suited her, she could not have had different breasts. After describing her well, with all the necessary abundance of details, the painter said he also wanted to come to Tor San Lorenzo, and the lawyer had to work hard to make him understand this was not appropriate, this is a good girl, a college girl, and that if things were not conducted with full discretion, everything may be ruined, and as much as he hated to mention the past, the painter should not forget the many favors he owed him, he even defended him in court a few times without asking for anything in return, and if he didn’t give him the key now, he wasn’t a friend. The painter answered that it was the lawyer himself who was not behaving as a friend should, because true friends share everything, especially girls, but in the end, he was persuaded to give him the key, but he asked him to at least let him see the magnificent Swede, when he came to pick up the key.
The lawyer went back out and didn’t see the girl in her place. Maybe she went to the bathroom to touch up her makeup after eating. In the meantime, he asked for the bill, and while waiting, he sat down, and naturally he kept fantasizing about the girl at the sea and the hut and of what would be the best adventure of his life, but the girl did not return, could it be that she felt unwell in the bathroom, because she truly did drink too much, and that would really be a drag. “Did you see the young lady who was with me?” he asked the waiter who brought him the bill.
With calm, that considering the occasion could even be considered insolent, the waiter gestured toward the road. “She left”, he said.
The lawyer felt his heart contract. Left? Where? And why, more importantly? As the waiter would not be able to answer these questions, the lawyer hurried to the road, or to the car he left parked in the yard, he wasn’t even sure himself, but the waiter held his arm respectfully, “The bill, sir.”
More than right. But it was this trivial request that caused the lawyer his second, and not less painful, contraction of his heart, as he could not find his wallet in the back pocket of his trousers, where he usually kept it, or in any other pocket of his suit. Now, at least to all outward appearances, the wonderful and sole adventure, so longed for and planned, was reduced to a theft, a pickpocketing, something painful and ridiculous at the same time, but as at present he was unable to see the funny aspect, the lawyer was caught by rage.
While he was recklessly driving down the last and quite difficult part of Cassia Vecchia road, on the way to the Ponte Milvio, at the entrance to Rome, lawyer Adami was completely dominated by the desire to strangle the girl, and not only because of the 70,000 or more Lira that he had in his wallet, but for the actual fact that she was so unprecedentedly evil. This powerful impulse was quite natural, not to say legitimate, but he understood that, to act on it, it was first necessary to get the hold of the girl. Now, there were two options: either she stopped a passing car to take her God knows where in the city, or she took the 201 bus that went along the Cassia Vecchia, ending at Ponte Milvio. If lawyer Adami was driving so recklessly down a dangerous road and with many speed limit signs, it was not so much to release the overwhelming storm in his mind, but mostly to try to overtake one of these buses. He succeeded in doing so, and stopped at the terminal, ready to pounce on the girl the moment she appeared. But she didn’t come off that bus or the next one, and the lawyer’s fury, rather than subside, increased, as was his pigheaded determination to find her again, however unreasonable it was. He would look for her all over Rome and at any event, at ten to midnight he would catch her at the train leaving for Calabria, although, coming to think of it, the Calabria story could also be one of the many lies the girl told him, and in fact it was almost absurd that a delinquent of this kind, for whom the skill of stealing was a real profession, would have given him the correct information to help him catch her. No, he could only look for her in Rome, and with this clear purpose the lawyer started the car again and drove into the city of two million inhabitants, hot like an oven at the end of a summer day.
The assumption, in the lawyer’s way of thinking, was not easy, but neither was it so senselessly difficult as it may have appeared to those less expert than him. In fact, the search could be, by following common sense, restricted to ten or a few more places that foreigners visit in Rome. Assuming that criminal was a foreigner, the lawyer thought bitterly, actually, anything was possible, she could even be from Milan or from Venice, but no, Italy does not produce hair so blond or eyes so light, and in conclusion, he was certainly the first Italian victim of a Swedish pickpocket in his own country. She had to be caught, even from the point of view of national pride.
Following a clear plan, the lawyer explored first the area of Castel Sant’Angelo and St. Peter’s Basilica, he then climbed Mount Gianicolo, then went down to the Colosseum and the Imperial Fora and then climbed another hill, the Campidoglio. In every place he stopped to look with a wild-eyed look for a girl in jeans, slim and blond, with the false look of a good girl. From the Campidoglio he went down to Piazza Venezia, and then, progressively discouraged, he drove along many roads and piazzas in the center, now full of cars and of people who came out to enjoy the relatively cool evening. He also drove past the Central Post, which, although it was not a beautiful monument, is one of the places that foreigners visit most. He then returned to a more touristic itinerary, visiting Piazza di Spagna and Piazza del Popolo, until, when the sun was almost down, he thought that the little thief could be on the Pincio terrace, where sunsets are enjoyed, and where a pickpocket can always find some work.
Pincio was so busy it seemed like a fair, it was especially full of girls, but none of them was in jeans, and mainly, none of them was slim and blond and with a sweet face full of childish innocence, so sweet in his memory, that the lawyer found himself missing her sharply, against his will, whoever she was, with her dark soul. He only wondered how come God had allowed such a terrible mixture of physical beauty and moral depravation. And by appealing to God, in some ways he cleared her of at least part of her sins, and he felt that now, if he happened to find her, he would not strangle her or drag her to the first police station, but would simply try to understand why she was so perverse, and once he understood this, he would let her go, maybe even with the sixty or more thousands of Lira. Everything had become bitter for him, in the evening that was so sweetly descending, and not only because of her, as after all, she was just a symbol of the too many things in the world that are wrong, and that one is not quite sure why they are wrong.
Totally pervaded by this desolate thought on life and the whole universe, the lawyer got back into his car, drove aimlessly for a while through the alleys of Villa Borghese, sensing the sharp smells of the lime trees like metaphysical bile, seeing even the children playing with dogs on the grass as decaying mortals, and finally, especially in order to escape the disappointment that even nature seemed to give him, he drove to Porta Pinciana and entered Via Veneto, that at the time was shining with lights and signboards, clogged with cars and full of people walking like in a procession along the two sidewalks crowded with coffee shop tables. And it was right there, in the middle of the crowd, between two newsstands, that he, having stopped thinking of her as a natural being, saw her, or rather, noticed a blond head, and from the turmoil of conflicting feelings that caught him all of the sudden, he felt immediately sure it was her. Without thinking twice, he jumped out of the car, pushing through the crowd, progressing like a lunatic until, before even reaching her he realized that her blond head was not hers, the blond did not even remotely resemble hers, but in the meantime he already caused quite a lot of trouble as half of Via Veneto was honking horns and an angry policeman was whistling his whistle like the God Aeolus whistling up a storm at the reckless driver who left his car in the middle of the road during rush hour.
The lawyer complied with the command to move his car to a side road and there, furiously aware of the risk of ending up in prison for verbal assault of a policeman, he prepared to start an argument with the policeman, not so much because he thought he was even slightly in the right, but because this incident, happening at the highest point of a particularly baleful day, truly exceeded the daily amount of bad luck that a man can reasonably tolerate. Therefore, when the policeman began by asking if he wasn’t by any chance crazy, he exploded, shouting that he, a respectable professional, did not allow anyone to doubt his mental stability, and that the policeman needed to learn to respect tax paying citizens, and do his duty, if he cared about it, without making a fuss, because he had no time to lose. The policeman, with that superior smile that only people in a position of power have, did all he could to waste his time as much as possible, and started by asking him to show his documents: his logbook and driver’s license.
The lawyer, who due to his profession had a good understanding of the law, understood that he managed to get himself into big trouble, because he suddenly remembered that his license was in the wallet and he no longer had possession of his wallet. He also could not say his wallet had been stolen between three and four in the afternoon because, aside for the trouble with his wife, once she learned of certain details of the story, his duty would have been to report the theft as soon as possible and without prompting.
The lawyer, after a very quick mental analysis of the situation, reached the conclusion that in order to get out of the situation in the best possible way, he had better put on an act. With a confident gesture, he brought his right hand to the back pocket of his trousers to pull out his wallet, and immediately made an angry face, but mostly confused, as if he was surprised not to find it. Then, with professional ability, he changed his expression slightly, adding a touch of lost look, and in the meantime saying to himself, but loudly enough so the policeman could hear him, “Strange, I can’t find my wallet… A little time ago I had it… I really don’t understand… I hope I didn’t lose it, my license was inside…”.
The policeman sneered in triumph, and it was even possible that he thought he was dealing not with a lawyer but with a car thief. “Try to look for it better”, he said, without even trying to hide the irony in his voice. “Maybe you will find it.”
The lawyer was now trapped in an absurd situation that he caused himself. Dramatically, with growing agitation, he searched all his pockets, sighed and shook his head, even smiled at the policeman, trying desperately to defuse the malevolence, but he continued to say, with an increasingly nasty expression, “Look for it, look for it better”.
Then, the lawyer, feeling like a clown, and worse than a worm, left the car, took off his jackets, showing he was hoping the wallet would miraculously appear from somewhere, and because the policeman still did not seem satisfied, he started looking also inside the car, between the seat and the backrest, and then even under the seat, and there, not even hidden, he found the wallet that he evidently dropped after paying for gas at Acquapendente, and inside there was everything, his license and over seventy thousand Lira.
Hidden behind one of the pillars supporting the roof of platform 7 at Termini Station in Rome, the lawyer saw, at a quarter to midnight, the slim and blond girl arriving, preceded by a porter carrying her large back pack. She got on the train for Reggio Calabria, and almost immediately looked out of the window and remained there for a full five minutes until the train left. Looking melancholic and maybe a little worried, as if she was waiting, but without much hope, for someone to come to say goodbye to her.
The lawyer waited behind the pillar until the train left, then left the station, got into his car and drove home, to his wife and daughter and his destiny, and he was also feeling a little melancholic, but with that right amount of melancholy that every human cannot refuse to carry. Now he knew that the girl was truly wonderful, as he thought she was, and if she escaped in that strange way it was because for her, for her too, that adventure that started almost like a joke, had crossed the boundaries allowed for an adventure and it was not right to complete it, having to remain one of the things that don’t happen, and that therefore remain perfect in a way that things that happened cannot have.
© Giuseppe Berto Estate. All rights reserved. Published by arrangement with The Italian Literary Agency, Milano, Italy.
“It was a pitched battle…” – a description he had often read out to his classmates from history textbooks but never thought he would one day use as he had just done, speaking to his friend, to describe that night. He didn’t even know what ‘pitched’ meant. He just felt it captured the passion of his history teacher at the time.
“… The ground invasion began from the western side of Tel el-Hawa. As you know, the area is divided into two parts, west and east. The west has brightly coloured apartment blocks that have names and are stuck together in rows. It’s quite well known for its bourgeoisie since most of the residents work for the Palestinian National Authority that was created after the Oslo Accords and instituted their bourgeois class. But those people created no wealth of any kind. Actually, the good name of the bourgeoisie took a bad hit when the term was used to characterize that side of the area. Perhaps there was something problematic about applying the concept. Many people think that the bourgeois are the rich who own their own homes and eat well, and in that respect we can count the residents of the area as such. But the real bourgeoisie is a class made up of businessmen and factory owners that creates some wealth. They are also hard workers and those who spark revolutions.”
“I don’t understand why you have to provide all those details as if I came from a foreign country. Why do you have to explain what I already know to tell me about the battle? Perhaps you want to give me a masterclass in you Communist ideology that has been dead and buried for ages. Spare me and just tell me the story. I’m from the area the same as you. But I’m a real bourgeois and you’re a self-styled one.”
“Ha, ha, ha! Exactly! That’s just what I mean. Anyway, the other half of the area, the eastern side, is closer to the border but the invasion didn’t start there. It’s mostly agricultural land, and the Occupation Army started encroaching from the more vulnerable area, where it was not expected to encounter any resistance. The Army left the east of the neighbourhood till last. It’s where the true bourgeoisie live, the owners of farms and factories, even if most of those were shut down because of the siege. They were also behind the revolution. Many of the resistance leadership had homes there. The battle of the 2008/2009 war took place that night.”
Is there another war in history that when you want to talk about it, your have to append two years? Or when you write it down, it looks like you’re referring to the academic year, with a slash between the two numbers? Basically, apart from this war, is there a war that begins at the end of one year and ends at the beginning of the following year? A succession of questions, numbers, and years took his thoughts away, as if he was trying to uncover an algorithm to predict the outbreak of war, forgetting that in his situation, war was an inheritance.
He poked the fire in the grate and piled the coals beneath the teapot to heat it up for the third time. Through the fog of this thoughts he observed his friend Abu Ahmed watching and waiting for him to snap out of it, just as he had waited a little before for him to finish his revolutionary preliminaries. What he loved about his sessions with Abu Ahmed was that he rarely interrupted when he went on too long in speech or went too far in the imagination.
He poured the tea and resumed: “The Army infiltrated into Tel el-Hawa and occupied the residential towers, contrary to all expectations. At that point, the PA people who had come from Tunis and Lebanon felt they were in direct confrontation with the Army, something which hadn’t happened since the 1980s. Still, that area wasn’t the Occupation’s target, but the other side of Tel el-Hawa, the revolutionary side where we live. That day I stood behind this window watching the missiles and listening to the gunfire and the screaming. Some people got away from our street by driving away at top speed, especially those who lived at the ends. Those in the middle, like me, were stuck. I couldn’t even open the window one centimetre. It was pitch dark. There was no electricity. Sometimes I heard the gasps of the resistance fighters as they ran. Honestly, I couldn’t tell whether it was the Army or the resistance running. It wasn’t even really running in the way it was back in the first Intifada for example. It was more like stalking. Like a game in which you ended up either alive or dead. A game in which you could enjoy deceiving death. You stood in front of it, but made it pass you by. Something like Russian roulette: one bullet in the chamber, spin the barrel a few times, then pull the trigger as soon as it stops without wondering whether the bullet will get you or not. The chase was like that. The combat was like that.”
“Strange that it’s been ten years since the war and this is the first time you’ve told me these details.”
“Ten years, right, almost to the day. Cold like this. Then it was impossible to light a fire for warmth. A spark the size of a fly meant certain death. Anyway, my friend, I stayed in the house, dipping bread into oil and zaatar, after the kids and my wife and mother escaped to my uncle’s house a week before during the ceasefire. I knew they wanted to take revenge on the eastern side, which is what happened. But I stayed guarding the house. You know how much I love history. Perhaps I wanted to be part of the battle, which happened too. To begin with, I heard guys calling to each other. I didn’t recognise any of the voices. I saw black shadows running through the blackness. I did know the local guys, but wasn’t friendly enough to recognise one of them from his voice. I’m a smoker and don’t go to Friday prayers at the mosque, so I was shunned in a certain way. I went out to work and came home to watch a game or read a book. I wanted to be a history teacher, but unfortunately, my high marks in science made my family pressure me into enrolling in something connected with medicine, so I went to the school of pharmacy.”
“It’s like you’re standing on stage introducing yourself to the audience. You’ve told me the story of history, your exams, and pharmacy a thousand times. Have we got old and senile? Go and pray on Fridays, perhaps God will be merciful and you’ll stop losing your memory.”
“Just listen, Abu Ahmed, and I’ll finish telling you what happened. Suddenly, I saw things glint like flickering lanterns, but it was more like the sheen of glass than lamplight. Straightaway, I knew it was an Occupation special forces unit. I couldn’t tell whether it was their weapons or their helmets that were flashing. My heart was beating like it would burst and I was so scared that I would be shot in the head that sweat trickled down from the back of my neck to my legs. You can taste death when it’s close. I was terrified of making any movement. They would hear me for sure – there weren’t many houses around me as the land hadn’t been developed. It was empty and that was what had made it safe for the resistance and a problem for the Occupation. So they were backed up by two helicopters. I’ve never been to the cinema, but from this viewpoint I saw what must have been more dramatic. Cinema in real life.
“They knew exactly where they were going. A helicopter shelled one of the houses. Then came an exchange of fire that went on for a few minutes before the same building was shelled again. Then everything stopped. I couldn’t hear the battle anymore. They must have left or got into the helicopter, I’m not sure. Minutes passed then I heard the voice of one of the resistance guys calling for help. He was wounded. All his comrades must have been killed because his was the only voice and resistance fighters don’t usually move around individually. None of the local residents still there approached him. Fear gripped the hearts. Of course, I didn’t approach either. I heard him calling, ‘Help me.’”
“We’d left the house that day, as you know, and fled to our uncle’s house in the north.”
“I heard him moving in the dust. He seemed to be writhing on the sand like a cat that had been hit by a car. Have you ever seen how a crushed cut struggles? It’s a sight that tears you up. Those were the thoughts messing with my head when I could hear his voice but not see him. Soon he called out again in a fainter voice, ‘Arab nations, where are you?’
“Amazing. He was bleeding to death and in his final struggle it occurred to him that the Arabs might respond. Perhaps it was despair as he drew his last breaths that worked on his mind and speech, taking it back to earlier slogans. How could someone in his struggle call out to nameless people whose response he did not know. Do you know what it’s like? I’ll give you an idea. A criminal shoots you one freezing night in Sweden, and as you’re dying alone in the snow, you shout, ‘EU, where are you?’
“Was there anything more ridiculous than that phrase of his. It might have been a worn out cliché, but it made me want to burst into tears. I instantly understood his unshakeable sense of his own inevitable death. What he said wasn’t a history lesson. It was a lesson in human weakness and the love of life. I mean my love of life.
“The next morning, once we were sure the area was safe, we cautiously stepped outside our homes. The sand had soaked up his blood. He lay there in a black jacket with a mask over his face.”
“Uff. What are you going on about? You’ve made me shudder. It wasn’t your fault, Salam. It was his fate. His time had come.”
“Fate, are you mad? That guy would be in his thirties now. If he’d lived and got married, he might be a father. Submission to an unjustified death makes me sick. I feel it’s helplessness not faith. Where were the neighbours and the locals? Where was the sheikh of the mosque?… Where, my brother, were the Arabs? Everyday for the last ten years when I leave my house I see him lying there. Imagine how many times I’ve stood in the doorway. How many times I’ve seen him stretched out. I’ve been living with the dead since that night. The whole of this city lives with the dead.”
“It’s been three wars, that’s no small thing.”
“When is war ever minor? All the wars in the world that I’ve read about, especially those with millions of victims, were all lies, because you can only write about war if you’ve survived.”
“Let God guide you. Go and pray the dawn prayer. Enough talking for today. Without faith, our people would never have endured all this suffering and these crimes.”
“The secret of our strength isn’t faith, but living with the dead. Good night. I pray the morning prayer at home.”
“Oh I forgot. You’re a spoilt bourgeois. The mosque comes to your bed. God Almighty forgive me. No one wants to speak blasphemously. God give me strength and refuge. All you’re saying is from the heat of battle.”
“The real blasphemy is what’s happening to us.”
Abu Ahmed headed for the local mosque. Salam tided up the cups and scattered sand on the fire. The whole time they had been sitting there, he felt that someone was behind him. He looked at the spot. Nothing had changed except the barrel of dried cement that the dead man had lain next to was gone. “Ten years we’ve been neighbours, my friend,” he whispered, “and I’ve never once said good morning to you.”
‘I’m sorry,’ says the girl. ‘You’re mistaken.’
I listen to her without batting an eyelid, nodding my head as if being mistaken were the most natural thing in the world. Because there’s no other explanation. I’ve made a mistake. And I do a quick mental run through all the other times I might have made a little mistake and I can’t think of anything that comes close. But I shouldn’t blame myself. I’m tired, bogged down with work and, to cap it all, I’m not sleeping properly. This morning, in fact, I almost called my landlord. Why on earth did he rent out the apartment upstairs to such a noisy family? But what’s uppermost in my mind now has nothing to do with the neighbours or the landlord or my tiredness, it’s all to do with the weird experience I seem to have had just half an hour ago. A mixture of unease and conviction that made me rush out of a shoe shop and run down the street after a woman who I insisted on calling Dina. And the woman ignored me and walked on without paying any attention to me. Because it wasn’t Dina. Or at least, that’s what the real Dina Dachs says, sitting opposite me at her tidy desk, wearing the same innocent smile as she had when she received the offer of a permanent position with the firm just a week ago. ‘No,’ she says, ‘I’ve haven’t left my desk since nine o’clock this morning.’ And then, shaking her head sympathetically, she adds, ‘I’m sorry. You’re mistaken.’
Yes. Now I understand that it must have been a mistake. Because, although I’m still astonished by the likeness, the girl in front of me is just an ordinary girl, well mannered, polite, an efficient secretary. And the woman, the unknown woman I’ve just run after down in the street, had a face that bore the scars of a lifetime of suffering, with a cold, enigmatic stare that never wavered, in spite of me shouting and the crowds shoving past me in a busy shopping street the day before a holiday. And that must have been what caught my attention, what made me think that the woman (who I thought was Dina) was having a turn, a momentary loss of identity and wasn’t quite all there. But now I know that I was only half-mistaken. Because the unknown woman, whoever she was, did need help. And I look at Dina once more, at her angora jumper and her winter coat that’s hanging up on the coat stand and I think of the woman again. She was wearing a green silk dress in the middle of December. A thin party dress with a plunging neckline and she had a violet necklace around her neck. Indifferent to the cold, the traffic, the crowds. I leave it at that. The fact that I’ve mistaken a mad woman for this girl makes me smile. And I shut myself away in my office, leave the shopping on a chair and start to go through my correspondence. It will be a busy month, but it’s only one month. And then I’ll be in Rome, with Eduardo. I’m happy. I have every reason in the world to be happy.
Neither of the two pairs of shoes fits me properly. One pair is too narrow, they pinch my feet and I have to scrunch my toes up. The problem with the others is the complete opposite. I have to scrunch up my toes as well but the end result is very different. The shoes are like barges refusing to be steered and won’t do as they’re told, my feet slipping and sliding inside them. It’s too late to go back home now so I decide that I’ll just have to choose between the two forms of torture. I opt for the second one, but I don’t do it lightly. Half an hour from now I have to go to a work dinner. That’s why I came to the office all dressed up and that’s also why I went to the shoe shop earlier. It was silly of me to buy them. I was in too much of a hurry. I’ll return the ones that are too narrow tomorrow. Because now I realise that I’m not in the least bit hungry and in a half hour’s time I’ll have to sit down and eat. I’ve had to suffer this form of torture ever since I became a successful executive, although it’s nothing like the mirror opposite (starving with hunger and having nothing to eat) and that often makes me feel ashamed. That’s why I choose the slidey gondola shoes (I can’t explain why but they seem better suited for what’s in store for me) and that’s how I turn up at the restaurant, right on the dot, dragging my feet and not in the least bit hungry. I feel sick when I look at the menu. It’s a ridiculous feeling. Boorish. Just as the ten dinner guests seem boorish too, talking about their secretaries in a conspiratorial tone and about their wives with a certain respectful admiration. Just as the shoes, which I slipped off a while ago and left on the carpet, seem ridiculous as well. All I can do is wait for the dinner to be over and done with and hope that at some point someone will mention Eduardo, the last time they saw Eduardo, how well everything’s turning out for Eduardo. Luckily it doesn’t take long for someone to oblige. They ask me about the branch we’ve just opened in Rome and (even though when I mention Eduardo I call him “the boss”) I feel a slight sense of relief at being able to think about him out loud, despite the fact that what I’m saying doesn’t actually have anything to do with what I’m really thinking. But they don’t know that. Nobody, not even our work colleagues, could have the faintest suspicion about my relationship with Eduardo. No one in the office and of course no one at home (I mean his home). And sometimes I like to think that even Eduardo himself isn’t too clear about our relationship. I don’t care what his wife would say if she knew about it, but I do care what Eduardo might think, and that’s my strongest weapon. Eduardo doesn’t think. He doesn’t think of me as his lover, even though that’s the word that would best describe our situation, and I’d rather he didn’t think of me as his lover. Eduardo is scared of words. Words and his wife. That’s why, for once in his life, he’s found the courage to cheat on her, without even managing to say to himself, ‘I’m cheating on her’. As far as the dinner guests are concerned I just went to the same college as my boss. I’m his right-hand woman. That’s what his wife thinks, too. And that’s what I want them to carry on thinking. What’s more, I can play the part to perfection. When anyone asks me who’ll be in charge of the office in Rome I shrug my shoulders. Eduardo’s over there, hiring a team. Eduardo will oversee the work for the first year, commuting between here and there. Then, when he finds the right person, he’ll leave it all in their hands. Most likely it will be an Italian. And I think about an apartment in Trastevere. A life of freedom with no schedules, no family, his wife thousands of kilometres away. Someone tells me that I seem to not be eating, I’ve hardly had a mouthful, and he trots out the line that “a woman who doesn’t enjoy her food…”, and I take the opportunity all of a sudden to remember an important call. A business call, naturally. My feet search out my abandoned shoes, I scrunch up my toes and leave the table. But instead of going to the telephone I go to the toilet. I splash some water on my face and dry myself off with a paper towel. Then, when I’m about to touch up my make-up, I see her again.
I’m sure I did. I’ve hardly eaten anything but then again I’ve had a lot to drink. But she was there for a moment, a few seconds. I saw her quite clearly. Her green dress, her violet necklace, her cold, enigmatic stare. I don’t know whether she opened the door and then left the minute she saw me. I don’t know if she was already there when I came in. It all happened so quickly. I was drying my face with the paper towel, trying out the three-way mirror, checking my hair, my face and she passed by the mirror in a green flash, like a cloud of breath evaporating in the cold air. I readjust the mirrors, opening and closing the wings and, still in a state of shock, I manage to capture her for a few seconds. The woman is there. Behind me, beside me, I’m not too sure. I turn around quickly but only to see the door closing. ‘She ran away when she saw me,’ I think. And I can’t help remembering those eyes. A cold stare – enigmatic – but also, I now realise, full of hatred.
Dina Dachs is just like any other girl. That’s what I tell myself in the morning and again in the afternoon. In the evening I take the file with all the details of the new employees home with me. There are five of them altogether. They all have similar CVs, they’re all the same age and they all have the same prospects for promotion in the firm. Dina has a slight advantage. She speaks three languages fluently, has excellent references and was remarkably adept at filling in our application form. That’s why she was the first candidate I chose. That’s why, I realise now, I remembered her name so clearly that day I ran down the street after the woman in green. But then Dina Dachs is a difficult name to forget, perhaps because it doesn’t seem like a real name. It makes me think of a pseudonym, a stage name, DINA DACHS emblazoned across the front of a variety theatre in gigantic letters, cabaret stars. I’m not sure what to think any more. With the constant din from the neighbours upstairs I can’t get my thoughts in order. I’ll complain about them tomorrow, I’ll have a word with the landlord or I’ll move. And tomorrow I’ll speak to Dina as well. Tactfully.
I’ve spent the whole day watching her, studying her, monitoring her phone calls. I haven’t come across anything out of the ordinary so far, nothing to make me suspect a double life, to explain her strange appearances, first in the street and then in the restaurant. Dina tells me she doesn’t go out in the evenings. She says so very calmly, not knowing that it’s a trap question. She doesn’t mind staying on at the office, doing overtime, getting everything up to date. She hardly knows anyone here in the city. She doesn’t have any brothers or sisters or even parents. No brothers or sisters? No, none. Then I ask her to make a reservation for this evening in a particular restaurant the name of which, for some strange reason, has slipped my mind. I tell her the street, the exact location, the revealing detail that it has carpeted walls and the toilets have three-way mirrors. Dina doesn’t usually eat out but it suddenly occurs to her that she could ask one of her work colleagues. I leave her to it and, discreetly, listen at the door. She doesn’t seem to be pretending. Then I dictate a letter to her, then a second one and a third. They’re made-up letters that won’t be going out to anyone. Their only purpose is to let me observe Dina, trap her in a corner, catch her out in some way. She knows that what I’m dictating to her is completely absurd. She also knows that I’m watching her all the time. At one point, flustered, she instinctively smoothes her skirt down and uncrosses her legs. I make an excuse that the room is full of smoke and open the window. It’s cold outside. It’s a biting cold, almost as icy as the silence that has just come down between the two of us. It’s all getting embarrassing. I’m going to turn around, tell her to go home, she’s done enough for today, she should go home. But I can’t find the words. For the first time in my life I get vertigo, looking down from the fifth floor. Because she’s there. I can’t believe my eyes, but the woman is standing there, on the street corner opposite. I can see her green dress, the violet necklace, her hesitant figure standing out amid the bustle of the street. She looks like a beggar. Her dress strap has slipped off one of her shoulders. Her hair’s in a mess, she’s all dishevelled, she looks like she’s going to freeze to death at any moment. And her arm’s raised, stock still. But from the way she’s standing she doesn’t look like she’s begging. Unless she’s mad. Or drunk. Or unless her arm is pointing at nobody else but me. Here, on the fifth floor, looking out of my office window.
‘Anything else?’ asks a tired voice behind me.
I ask Dina to come over to the window. I make room for her and point to the exact place where she should look. ‘The beggar woman,’ I say. ‘That beggar woman over there.’ A bus stops right in front of the woman in green. I wait for it to move off. The woman appears now and again behind the cars. ‘Have a good look. There she is. No, she’s gone now. Wait…’ Without realising it I’ve clutched her shoulder. She gets annoyed and moves away from the window.
‘I can’t see a thing,’ she says.
She’s angry, cross. As she leaves she does something that no other secretary would have dared to do. She snaps the door shut behind her, almost slams it.
I can’t discuss what’s worrying me with anyone. Eduardo’s still in Rome, with his wife. I know it’s a consolation prize, a non-event, a clever tactic to enable him to engage in his forthcoming project without a guilty conscience. But I also know I mustn’t call him. His wife will be with him. She’ll be in the hotel, in the office, everywhere. I can’t confide in anyone else either because I’m not sure how to go about it. I briefly think about talking to Cesca, the firm’s longest-serving employee. Cesca likes and respects me. But Cesca likes to snoop around, poke her nose into other people’s business, pass around comments, spread gossip. Even so, if the woman in green appears again tomorrow, why would it seem strange if I asked Cesca to look out of the window? ‘Look at that woman. She’s been loitering around here for days now. It’s as if something strange is happening to her.’ And then Cesca, putting on her glasses, would tell me that she’s just a beggar woman, there’s so many tramps on the streets around this time of the year, maybe she’s mad, or a lush, or a prostitute. Maybe all three. And then, looking more closely, Cesca would realise that she reminds her of someone. She can’t quite put her finger on who, but she does remind her of someone. Or she’d call the concierge. And the concierge would go out to investigate. Or perhaps there’s no need. ‘She’s mentally disturbed,’ she might say. ‘Either that or she’s faking it. She always turns up around here at Christmas. People give her money because they’re scared of her.’ But I haven’t seen anyone stop to give her any money. In fact, from up here on the fifth floor, all I’ve seen is her down there in her green dress and her arm raised, pointing towards me, asking me for something, telling me something. And I’ve also seen Dina. Next to me, leaning on the window sill while I pointed towards the beggar woman. I say this to myself several times. The beggar woman down there, in the street. Dina next to me. This should be enough to reassure me and to put it all down to pure chance, a coincidence, a striking resemblance, to realise that it’s impossible for the same woman to be in two places at once. But then there’s that look in her eyes. Brushing my arm off her shoulder, flushing with anger, snapping the door shut. It’s all a question of degree, I reflect. Because Dina Dachs’ look of irritation could so easily become the woman in green’s angry stare. A cold, enigmatic stare. Full of hatred.
But I can’t blame her. For the past few days all I’ve done is shower her with work, telling her to do one thing and then the opposite, calling her into my office or bursting into hers and making sure she’s still there, buried under a mountain of paperwork, grappling with accounts, documents, reports. It reassures me to know she’s busy and that it will still take her ages to finish the day’s tasks, that she’ll probably be the last one to leave the office at night. And meanwhile I think about the woman in green. I wait at the window for the woman in green to appear, holding the telephone in my hand, ready to call Cesca or the concierge. But not Dina. Dina’s not like the other girls. I’ve realised that after spending so much time watching her. Dina’s proud and dignified, and God only knows how long she’s going to endure the pressure I’m putting her under without facing me out. I know that I’m beginning to seriously annoy her and I also now know that Dina’s much more charming than she comes off as at first. She’s one of those calm, reserved women who win you over with time. So I confine Dina to her office and wait. Staring out of the office window, I wait.
She doesn’t make the appearance I was expecting the next day nor the one after that. All the work that I can’t manage I delegate to Dina. From my place at the window I can hear her typing frenetically in her office next door, but I’m not thinking about her anymore and I don’t care what she thinks about my behaviour either. All my senses are attuned to the prospective appearance of the woman in green. Maybe, I think, the poor amnesiac has got her memory back. Or she’s frozen to death. Or the local police have taken her away. I sit in my armchair and decide to call Cesca. ‘I don’t feel well,’ I’m going to say. ‘You’re in charge until tomorrow.’ But I don’t even get to dial her number. Suddenly I feel cold. It’s a damp, biting coldness behind me and it makes me react, realise that I really do feel ill and that it’s sheer madness to keep the window open in the middle of December. A gust of wind makes the pile of papers flutter around the room. I haven’t given that pile of papers the slightest thought for days and I’m not going to be distracted from my mission now. I turn around suddenly, although I already suspect that the sudden rush of cold has little to do with the bad weather at this time of the year or with the state of my nerves. The woman is down there. Across the road, on the corner. She seems resolute, determined, about to cross the road towards me. She dodges between the cars as if by a miracle. With her arm raised, always pointing towards me. The way she’s gone downhill is pathetic. Her green dress is in tatters, leaving her breasts on show and, suddenly, she’s not so much walking as staggering, unsteady and grotesque. What could have made me think that this monstrosity looked like Dina? I try to get a better look and leaning even further over the windowsill I notice something green on one of her feet, only one of them, and then I understand why she’s started to hobble. She’s lost the other shoe by the side of the road. But nobody picks it up, nobody kicks it away, nobody trips over it. Nobody, in short, takes pity on this poor woman and takes her to a place of safety. City life is inhumane, cruel, pitiless. Frozen stiff, I close the window and dial Cesca’s number. ‘I’m exhausted. Could you take over until tomorrow, please?’ And I go home, take a sleeping pill and, for once, not even the neighbours upstairs can stop me falling asleep.
It’s the same story every year on 23rd December. ‘I’m feeling exhausted, Cesca. I shan’t come in tomorrow.’ And every Christmas Eve I do the same running around, the same searching, the same wandering around the shops and department stores clutching a list of all the employees’ names. It’s one of the firm’s traditions. A childish ritual that starts with Cesca pretending to be worried about me supposedly not feeling very well and the wink I can imagine at the other end of the telephone line, then the “what will I get this year?” that I detect from everyone I come across as I leave my office, put on my coat and let the concierge open the door for me. On 27th December they will all find a gift on their desk. Something personal, that hits the spot, an inspired choice that was all down to me, but everyone without exception will thank Eduardo for it, as if they knew that he’s the one who always takes the most delight in this childish game, even though, like now, he happens to be thousands of kilometres away and, as usual, doesn’t have a clue about what they like, what they might need or what they might be interested in. I remember Cesca’s spectacles. She’s always losing them and they turn up hidden in some corner or in the most unlikely places, and I buy her a silver chain. After her, there’s the caretaker, the concierge, the cleaning lady, the messenger boy, the personnel manager, the new secretaries. I suddenly realise that I scarcely know anything about the secretaries, having focussed on just one of them. And I think about Dina. I wonder if perhaps she deserves a bigger present. Something extra to apologise for unfairly taking advantage of her, bullying her, bossing her around.
But wouldn’t that make her even more confused? I decide that all five girls in the office have very similar jobs and all of them will receive a similar gift. I go into department stores, perfumeries, record shops. I’ve got all the cards in my bag, signed by Eduardo and with the employees’ names already written out. That way I can put them together with the presents as I go along, so there’s no risk of any mix ups and in two days’ time everyone can show their surprise and admiration and gratitude for Eduardo’s attention to detail, as if it were the first time ever. The same as every year.
It’s bitterly cold on this December afternoon but I’ve always liked cold December afternoons. Despite the time of year and in spite of the shops’ bright lights, the Christmas carols and the profusion of Christmas trees with all their decorations, there aren’t too many people on the streets. So I can amble along and peruse the shop windows quite calmly, in the same good mood as when I woke up this morning. Sleeping pills. That’s the solution. An artificial sleep has let me recover from all those hectic, tiring days. Now I can begin to see things in a different light. Eduardo was expecting too much, leaving me in charge of the office for three weeks. I’m not up to it. I don’t have the right temperament. My nerves were shot. Who knows what blunders I could have made? But I’m happy now. For the first time in days I feel happy and all of a sudden I realise I’m singing along to a Christmas carol that’s being spat out by some loudspeaker in a nearby shop. People must think I’m mad. I burst out laughing. And that’s when, like a recurring nightmare, I see her again.
I’m not scared anymore and I don’t feel tired. I’ve just had enough. I’ve had it up to here. I’m going to follow her, get a good look at her, reassure myself that she’s just a tramp, ask her if she needs any help. Now she’s leaving the well-lit avenue and turning down a dark passageway. I run and almost catch up with her, then I hold back, keeping a safe distance, watching her walk. She’s barefoot, gliding across the cobbles like a cat. Her hair is a tangled mess. Her dress is in tatters. I don’t call her by her name anymore because I don’t know her name. Suddenly she stops dead, as if she were waiting for me. In spite of the dark I realise that we aren’t in a passageway, as I’d thought, it’s a dead end. But it’s too late to turn back now. My inertia has made me bump into her. ‘Excuse me,’ I say. ‘Just a moment, please. Listen.’ And then I’m mystified to find a piece of green silk in my hand, a bit of moth-eaten material that disintegrates between my fingers, and she turns and smiles at me. But it’s not a smile, it’s a grimace. An awful rictus grin. And her breath! I’m enveloped in a fetid stench. I feel sick, my senses cloud over. When I come to I’m alone, leaning against a wall, with the shopping bags scattered across the ground. I’m not surprised to find them still there. I pick them up one by one. Carefully, almost fondly. Now I know who the woman is. And I think of Dina again. Poor Dina Dachs. Shut away in her office, going back to her apartment, walking along the street. Because Dina, wherever she happens to be at the moment, still doesn’t know that she’s been dead for a very long time.
Or maybe I can still stop it. I forget all about the dictates of reason, which have turned out to be useless, and for the first time in my life I listen to a voice that comes from somewhere deep inside myself. Dina, even though she may not have died yet, is dead. The woman in green is the dead Dina. I’ve seen her decomposing, her impossible appearances in busy streets, in three-way mirrors, in dead end streets. I think of mirages on a hot beach. Maybe it hasn’t happened yet but it’s going to happen. And it’s fallen to me, by some inexplicable chance of fate, to bear witness to these strange events. It doesn’t stretch the imagination to conclude that I’m the only one who can do something about it. And I don’t feel frightened. It’s strange, but I don’t feel frightened, just resolute. So I do what I always do on every Christmas Eve. I leave the employees’ presents in the caretaker’s office, I check that none of the cards have come unstuck, remind him of exactly what needs to be done in two days’ time. The caretaker, as ever, tells me not to worry and sends me off, pretending he doesn’t know that one of the parcels is for him, then he locks up his office and goes home. But I don’t go home. I go outside and I walk a short way down the street, but there’s a light on up on the fifth floor and I know who’s there, typing away, sorting out files, working overtime again as a result of my ignorance and confusion. I open the street door with my key and call the lift. When I get to the fifth floor landing I hesitate for a moment. But I don’t ring the bell. All the lights are out except in one office. I go in quietly, cautiously, because the last thing I want to do is give her a shock. So I knock on her office door and wait.
‘Oh, it’s you,’ says Dina. But she’s really thinking, ‘Not you, again.’
Dina has her coat on and there are piles of papers, letters and files on her desk. ‘I was just about to leave,’ she adds. She opens her handbag and puts in a couple of letters, snaps it shut and then, since I haven’t moved away from the doorway, she says, ‘I needn’t remind you it’s Christmas Eve.’
I draw on all my strength and ask her to stay on for a moment. To sit down. To allow me a few minutes to tell her something. Dina obeys me resentfully. With a sigh of annoyance, weariness, disgust. She drums her fingers on the desk top.
‘I’m meeting friends on the other side of town in fifteen minutes. Please be quick.’
I’m not put out by her arrogance. Nothing that poor Dina does or says could upset me now. But I can’t find the words. How can I explain that it’s not worth rushing? How can I make her understand that, sometimes, time doesn’t follow the usual rules? Maybe it’s all an illusion. We see things as we’ve been taught to see them. Her desk, for example. Can we be sure that it’s a desk with four legs and a desk top? Who can be sure that in fifteen minutes’ time she’ll be on the other side of town? A quarter of an hour. It’s just a convention, isn’t it? A way of measuring, pigeon-holing, tying down or controlling things that are beyond us, things we don’t understand. An artifice to reassure us, so we don’t ask too many questions.
‘I’d appreciate it,’ she says, noticeably irritated, ‘if you would try to be more specific.’
But I can’t. I tell her that I’ve just seen her in the street. ‘Again?’ she says, with a sarcastic sneer. ‘Don’t you think you’re becoming totally obsessed?’ Any moment now she’s going to explode, force me to leave the office, threaten to call the police. That’s why I need to be quick. Yes, I saw her. Today and yesterday too, and the other day in the restaurant, and that first time in the busy street. At first I thought that she had something against me, was following me, searching me out. Later, I thought that it wasn’t her, but someone who looked strikingly like her.
Dina looks at me. She’s running out of patience. I insist that she stays a little while longer. I take off a glove and put it back on. I’m lost for words again. I don’t know how to tell her. I don’t how to let her know that the process is irreversible. That less than an hour ago, in the dead end alleyway, I saw the grimace of death on her mouth with no lips, her fetid stench, her decomposing flesh. All I can manage is to stutter out, ‘Be very careful, please. Maybe we can still stop it. Or delay it, delay it for as long as possible.’
Dina has got to her feet.
‘I’m sorry. Everything you’ve just told me is very interesting. But I have to go. Maybe you don’t have any plans for tonight, but I do.’
Dina hates me. She loathes me or thinks I’m mad. All I can do is let things run their course. I get up too, convinced that any explanation, any warning, is pointless. I feel small, insignificant but at the same time presumptuous and arrogant. I wanted to change the pages of destiny, but this poor girl’s destiny has already been written.
‘Why are you looking at me like that, if you don’t mind me asking?’
Dina’s indignant, standing in front of me, with her handbag over her shoulder and the office keys jangling in her hand. Maybe I’ve made a mistake. But when she slung her handbag over her shoulder so brusquely, her coat gaped open for a second or two and I caught sight of something that for all the world I would rather not have seen.
‘You’re wearing a green dress. A green silk dress.’ Dina Dachs’ eyes are spitting fire. ‘For the record, your position in the firm doesn’t give you the right to…’
I’ve no idea what she’s saying anymore. There’s something in her voice, in her tone, that defies any response.
‘And you can stop spying on me, following me around all the time. You give me the creeps. Don’t think I haven’t noticed.’
Now her words are coming out in a torrent, compulsively.
‘Whatever it is you want from me you’re not going to get it. And if you’re interested in my clothes, well here you are. A green silk dress. Brand new. I hope you like it.’
Dina has taken off her coat, brusquely. Now she looks like the same woman I’ve been seeing again and again over the past few days. There’s only one detail missing: a small accessory that she must have hidden away somewhere. I can picture her in the lift, putting on the necklace in front of the mirror. Or in the taxi. Or the bathroom in the office.
‘Your handbag,’ I say, ‘let me look in your handbag.’
Now, for the first time, she seems frightened. I try to do the impossible: persuade her that she shouldn’t go out into the street dressed like that. That everything I’m doing is for her own good. But words are not enough. Now, more than ever, I know they’re not enough. I don’t know whether I’m going mad or obeying the voice of destiny. Because I grab her and shake her. And she fights back. She clings to her handbag and fights back and tries to open a penknife. She’s frightened and won’t listen to reason. So now, resolute, I have no choice but to stop her, to reveal the awful truth, to shout at her, ‘You’re dead. Do you still not get it? You’re dead!’ But Dina’s not fighting back anymore. Her eyes are staring at me wide with shock and her body slips from my grasp down to the floor, powerless, terrified. There’s no time to waste and I snatch her handbag. I search desperately for a case or a box containing the necklace; maybe without the necklace none of what’s been predicted will come to pass. All I find are sheets of paper. Sheets of paper that are of no interest to me, that I ignore, throw away. Sheets of paper the exact contents of which I’ll discover in two days’ time, together with everyone else in the office.
And then Cesca will shake her head sadly. And I’ll hear rumours, footsteps, I’ll feel cold. The electricity bill, a note pad, a letter… Dear Eduardo… words that I remember well because they’re Dina’s. She’s always spying on me, following me around all the time. She gives me the creeps… And others I recognise even more clearly because they’re mine, even though the letter is signed Dina Dachs and I myself have not yet dared to write them down on paper. I think about Trastevere. Our apartment in Trastevere, counting the days until we meet in Rome… Memories that I don’t remember. I shall never forget our first night, in the hotel on the seafront… Absurd, ridiculous, obscene sentences. Promises of love intermingled with the sound of footsteps, keys, doors opening and closing, the neighbours in the apartment upstairs moving furniture, a man in a white coat telling me, ‘You’re exhausted. Relax.’ And, above all, Cesca. Cesca looking at me, full of compassion.
But that won’t happen for another two days. Right now I’m kneeling down, determined to prevent the inevitable, holding the empty handbag, surrounded by sheets of paper that I’ve not the slightest interest in reading, that I sweep aside angrily with my hand. I remember, ‘In fifteen minutes’ time, on the other side of town.’ And then a light comes on. It’s as if she were there, at a party, a gathering, at midnight and people are exchanging presents. But Dina will never receive the fateful gift. I’ve managed to frighten her, warn her. ‘I’ve stopped it happening,’ I say. I look at my hands. Still in their gloves. Still shaky, still possessed by a strength that I never knew I had. And then I look at Dina, on the floor, with her eyes still bulging in terror, in shock, at what she must have thought was the vision of a madwoman. But Dina doesn’t move. She’s wearing a green dress. Green dress, green shoes . . . And only now, as I get up slowly, do I notice the bruising around her throat and I understand the cold truth that nothing is missing. ‘It’s too soon yet,’ I say out loud, even though no one can hear me. ‘But by tomorrow, or the day after, it will have become a violet necklace.’
Here, people are only observed by the eyes of the night watch. The walls of Acre have not yet been completely built. Nor its lighthouse that looks over the sea to the west. The stones are cleansed by the sweat of the builders, scorched by day and then are cooled down at night by the waves of the sea.
The family sleeps, and Laila goes out under the cover of darkness. She shelters in the space between the piles of huge cut stones that are laid out east of the sea and the waves coming from the west. It does not occur to anyone that the night watch has eyes amidst the waves and in the labyrinth of emptiness among the stones.
Their love was forbidden. ‘Azim, a soldier in the guards of Ahmad al-Bushnaqi al-Jazzar, was not allowed to marry, and Laila was the daughter of a wealthy merchant family. They used to meet clandestinely there under the moonlit darkness where Acre met its waves.
“ ‘Azim, look how the sands of the beach delight when the waves break over them.”
“Laila, I will love you all my life. We will sit here, just the two of us, looking at these sands of ours.”
“But the sands of Acre will not be satisfied with one wave breaking over them.”
As dawn broke there came the din of the builders as they shifted the great building blocks day after day to line them up to make the great towering walls. Not one of them realised that the damp patch yet to dry on a stone was ‘Azim’s semen. It was not the only stain on the rocks.
“The eyes of the night watch never sleep,” whispered ‘Azim’s comrade at the barracks into his friend’s ear.
On that morning, 13 October 1784, the din of the builders was unusual. For some minutes it masked the tapping of the chisels, and only shouts were heard.
On the site for the construction of Acre lighthouse, there were only men and one woman. She had been brought to trial for cheating on her husband with a lover from the neighbouring village, who was reputed to be a maker of fine ceramics and an innovative artist. His pieces filled the houses of the wealthy and well-off of Acre. But as for her, nobody could remember her name or family. All that was said was that her husband was a butcher who had been stricken by illness for a long time, that his skin was covered with pustules, and that he had been married to four women before here and had no offspring.
On this morning the two of them were buried alive beneath the lower stones of the lighthouse. Builders’ clay covered their bodies until they suffocated.
The commotion did not die down, but changed just as the tones of music change in a stirring symphony. After the shouts and cries for help, the roaring of the soldiers and the curses of the angry husband came the turn of the chisels and the orders of the soldiers as they tried to get the work going in an orderly way once again.
Life returned to its natural order until the setting of the sun.
‘Azim stuck to the peripheries of the city, leaving the barracks heading westward. Laila would be waiting for him after sunset. If anyone saw him in the darkness he would not be able to avoid suspicion. Indeed his tumultuous thoughts were audible behind the dark sleeping windows. “The eyes of the night watch never sleep” repeated unceasingly in his mind. He suddenly gave a secret smile, “But I know them all. If any of them saw me, would they denounce Laila and me?” He went on smiling and shaking his head, “Impossible, under any circumstances. I know how to conceal myself and protect her from any scandal. I will go to Laila and snatch delight from her after the toils of the day.” That was what went on in the mind of ‘Azim as he made his way to meet Laila.
She was waiting for him. She was sitting on the stone that had been laid out that day, its edges sealed with damp mud. ‘Azim reached her. His desire for her was like a volcano about to erupt. She turned into red-hot lava when she caught sight of him. They embraced, exchanging lascivious kisses as if they were at war, using every part of their mouths as weapons. Wildly, impatiently, they pulled off each other’s clothes. He fondled her breasts with his rough hands. Her trembling hands undid the cord of his trousers searching for his penis. She grabbed it at its base and took it up to her hungry mouth. She loved to savour its heat in her mouth, and relished its gradual swelling, inwardly proud at her ability to make it stand to attention. She looked at it fully erect and said with a chuckle, “There’s no need for the builders to wake up tomorrow. The lighthouse is already lit up.”
There was a crescent moon. Stealthily, it watched over the land. The eyes of the night watch never sleep.
I must go back to the barracks now. Before they notice my absence. He wiped the head of his penis against her breasts. Her mouth was still full, so she nodded her consent. She swallowed her saliva and whatever was with it. “You go first,” she said, “and I’ll follow after a little while.” This was what usually happened so they would not be seen together.
‘Azim went back to his barracks. He slept long and soundly.
On the western shore the waves crashed violently against the sands one after another.
Laila was down on her knees on the cold rough stone; she sucked the cocks of the watchmen one after another.
The spume of the waves drenched the sands.
The transfer began at two in the morning, while a northerly wind blustered furiously outside. Some of the prisoners didn’t even have time to dress before the Federal agents burst into their cells. Shoving and kicking, they forced them to line up in the corridors, cover their faces with their arms and parade in front of a wall of soldiers who threatened to shoot them if they even dared to look up at their peers. All of them were shivering, some of them were worried about the welcome they might receive at their destination. Others were more confident; they’d already made arrangements at their new prison. Since mid-December, it had been rumoured that their current one would be emptied for a new Mel Gibson film, but this was flatly denied by the authorities even after the declaration of the closure of the facility due to its unsuitability for human habitation had been published in the state’s official gazette.
Almost a thousand prisoners were herded into rented buses and escorted by an army of Humvees to other prisons across the state. The doors of Allende prison remained open and dozens of women crowded around, waiting for dawn so they could find out where their loved ones had been taken.
Rodrigo was sent to the empty prison to check out the cells and photograph the graffiti the prisoners had left on the walls. Rats had taken over the halls, facing down any member of the public cleaning staff foolish enough to try to shoo them away.
When he remembers the sight, Rodrigo wrinkles his nose as though the stink were still in his nostrils.
“It was a pigsty. I don’t know how so many people could possibly have lived there, how they could eat at the stalls claiming to serve ‘tasty tacos’. It was so disgusting. You crossed the exercise yard and headed into a kind of nightmarish market. The wood was rotting, swarming with flies and cockroaches. It stank of drains and disinfectant.”
Rodrigo watched the police remove televisions, fans, cameras, and even industrial machinery. He also saw the women crying with receipts in their hands. The appliances they’d bought for their relatives and hadn’t even finished paying for weren’t on their way to their new cells.
“I spoke to the representative from Social Rehabilitation and asked him if the prison had closed because of Gibson’s film and he said no, it was being closed for health reasons. The fact that the transfer was happening at the same time as the start of filming was a complete coincidence.”
On the thirteenth of January, 2010, Fidel Herrera Beltrán announced to a conference of legal experts that several organized gangs had taken over the Allende prison and were planning a riot during which several prisoners would have their throats slit. Although he never identified the gangs in question, he insinuated that it was linked to the death a few months before of the founder of the Zetas, Braulio Arellano, aka El Gonzo or El Z 20, in Soledad de Doblado, a small rural town close to the port of Veracruz.
Although some protested (Representative Sergio Vaca, for example, described the transfer as a ‘Fidelism’ and declared that he would crucify himself naked if the building were ever sold. A transaction that, fortunately for everyone, never took place) the defunct prison was ‘loaned’ to Mel Gibson for the filming of How I Spent my Summer Vacation (which was released to little fanfare or acclaim in Mexico in 2012 under the name Atrapen al Gringo – Get the Gringo). The sum that Gibson paid for the loan was never disclosed.
And when the Municipal Director-General for Cinema was asked whether the prisoner transfer was carried out at the request of the Australian actor, he said, coincidentally, that the eviction of the prison and filming happening at the same time was a ‘complete coincidence’.
In early February 2010, Lalo had a day off so he went to a casting session for Mel Gibson’s film. He knew that they were looking for dark-skinned people with tattoos who’d been in prison. Lalo only met the first requirement, but he still got the gig. After queuing for five hours, they told him to come to the prison on the twenty-ninth of April at five in the afternoon and that he’d be paid four hundred pesos.
When he arrived, he learned that he was supposed to play a ‘civilian’. The extras also included ‘police officers’, ‘soldiers’, ‘prisoners’, and ‘reporters’. A friend of his, Eliseo, would play a prisoner: he’d ‘stayed’ at the Allende for a couple of weeks for stealing copper wire and the experience had secured him a role. Lalo recognized him among the extras waiting to head into the prison and went over. Eliseo confided his fears: “Hey man, I’m fucked up. I’ve been here before, I don’t want to go back… what if this time I don’t get out?”
Eliseo pointed to the extras he remembered from when it was a real prison: they were all young and skinny with scruffy hair and red eyes. Eliseo pointed to a kid covered in tattoos: “They call that dude the Devil. He’s not even twenty and he’s killed about five people. He must have been let out to work on the film. Mel wants everything to be as authentic as possible.” Lalo was terrified. He chatted to a fat woman dressed in a police uniform who turned out to be a real officer. She told him that a few hours ago she’d been recruited along with a few dozen colleagues. Her superiors had told them that they were being sent on a ‘special operation’. When they got off the bus, they found out that they were going to be extras in a Mel Gibson movie. Lalo looked around him. Giggling nervously, he realized that he couldn’t tell the officers from the ex-cons.
Filming began. The production team gathered everyone in the yard. The instructions were to act out a riot. They had to pretend it was an ‘ordinary visiting day’ and then throw themselves to the ground when they heard shots. They were doing that until three in the morning. Lalo’s stomach was red from rolling around on the cement floor. Then the film team split them up: some (Lalo included) were supposed to huddle together in the prison yard, the others were supposed to run into the surrounding passages. They were filmed from a helicopter. When the sky started to lighten, the crew began to take down the lights and sent everyone home.
They headed down Calle Zaragoza to Rayón and turned onto Independencia, the narrow avenue that runs in front of the cathedral and the municipal palace. There were two hundred of them, women mostly: old, chubby, their skin plump and shiny as dark fruit. They waved their scarves and shouted angrily for the restoration of government support – buses and food – so they could visit their relatives in the prisons to which they’d been relocated following the closure of Allende prison in January 2010. By May, the government programmes had been terminated: the ruling party candidate Javier Duarte’s campaign needed all the resources it could get.
More banners and slogans demanded greater empathy from the judiciary, who’d more or less suspended six hundred and fifty cases ‘until further notice’. Plenty accused Gibson of having swindled the government.
“Go fuck your mother, Mel,” screamed an old woman followed by a girl with green eyes in short shorts. “I was promised seven hundred pesos a day for me and my granddaughter, and so far they haven’t paid us half that,” she complained, red with anger and sunburn.
“How much did Mel pay for Allende?” someone said further back. “They say a million dollars…”
“No, it was much more than that, a lot…”
“Negro took it all for the elections…”
“No, no, Negro wouldn’t do that…”
“Don’t blame the government: it’s the judges and rehabilitation people who are the problem, you know?” chided a woman dressed entirely in red, from her fancy trainers to the tips of her hair.
“They say that after the transfer some people were never seen again, they escaped, or disappeared, like the guy who killed Yunes’ cousin,” murmured a young woman with long hair. “Some of the prisoners haven’t even been brought to trial, like that lady who stole a bike. She’s been locked up waiting for two years.”
“Poor thing,” they commiserated.
“At least I know that my guy deserves it…”
“The invention of the soul allows us to conceive of the body as a parasite. Hands can be objects that are devoid of feeling during the day but soft and tender at night. These actions do not contradict one another. They take part in the dual situation of not being me and nonetheless being mine.”
The phone rang, and when I answered it I heard a mumble and a stammer, then a cough. A few seconds later I heard a male voice: “You’ve most certainly forgotten, but you once promised to publish my book. We met in Baqa, Baqa al-Gharbiyye. You gave me your phone number and your email address. You haven’t changed it, but you’ve not been answering.”
He tried to refresh my memory about the conversation we had that evening in Baqa. As it turns out, it was an event that took place some ten years ago. “Are you in hiding?” he asked, “or has it still been possible to reach you?”
“No, it’s just that…”
“I do that too. I distance myself from people.”
He chuckled. “It’s a long story, and I promised myself I wouldn’t take up your time.”
“Email me the manuscript,” I said. “I promise, I’ll read it and write to you.”
“I would prefer to show it to you.”
His persistence annoyed me.
“I won’t take up much of your time.”
Based on his rich Hebrew vocabulary, it was clear to me that he was a man who had read many books in Hebrew, although his heavy Arabic accent smoothed it somewhat, and the language sounded affected at times. “OK,” I heard myself say.
It was August, and I was exhausted by the humidity. I never left the house and I did not feel like hosting, as I am fanatical about my freedom. What had come over me to make me acquiesce? I dialed his number with the intention of postponing the meeting but I hung up at the sound of the ringtone and grumbled to myself. I suspected that it was the fact that he was an Arab that had caused me to acquiesce. I stood by the window and peeked outside at Rothschild Boulevard. The street was packed and the sky had a reddish hue. The air-conditioner gurgled softly, producing sounds reminiscent of the large fan my father had installed behind the “cooling rack” he attached to the window in their small apartment on the kibbutz. Another person trying to fix the world… An hour passed, and the man did not turn up. I searched for stars in the sky which had grown dark, but I knew I would not find even one in the Tel Aviv sky. Then I heard a sort of scratching at the door. I went to open it. In the entrance stood a tall man wearing a white shirt, a yellow bow-tie, and black patent leather shoes. With his right hand, he grasped the handle of a blue trolley bag. “Doesn’t your door have a doorbell?” he asked.
“The button’s right here,” I said.
“Is it? I’m half-blind. It comes with the years. We don’t die all at once. We do it in installments.”
“Come on in,” I said. He walked in, pulling the trolley behind him, and he stopped in the middle of the room.
“Aren’t you hot? You’re dressed as if it’s not sweltering outside.”
“Hot? No. My father, may he rest in peace, used to say: ‘What people see is more than what they think. How you dress is your opportunity to be who you want them to think you are.”
He smiled, and I noticed that his two front teeth were broken. I gestured with my hand toward the sofa. “Please, have a seat. I’ll bring us something cold to drink.” He followed my movements. I could feel his eyes boring into my back. I almost turned to face him. What was I thinking when I invited him over? When I returned he was seated calmly on the sofa, his right hand grasping the trolley handle. I put the glass of cold water down on the table, and my gaze swept over his face. It was narrow and emanated fragility. For a moment he seemed to tense up inside himself, but then I saw him relax, lift the trolley and place it on his lap, open it, and remove a tall stack of pages that were tied together with twine. He placed the bundle on the coffee table. It was at least thirty centimeters high. Printed across the top page, in large letters, was the title: “Kaddish.”
“Wow.” The word escaped my lips. “How many years did it take you to write that book?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Who knows? My grandfather started writing it, and then my father. I finished it, or at least it seems that way to me. You tell me.”
“Where do you live?” I asked.
“I don’t live anywhere.” He cleared his throat. “In our little village by the sea, where I come from, there were guys who ate in a different house every day. My father used to say, ‘They don’t want to forget their true home.’ I spend every night in a different house. I have a brother-in-law, my late sister’s husband, whose house I sleep at two nights a week. I have a friend, a fisherman, and I can sleep at his place when I need to. I once lived in Baqa, but the house was designated for demolition and then demolished. I rented a place, but when I got sick and was in the hospital they stole everything I had except the manuscript and the books. The fisherman is keeping them for me, and I keep the manuscript in the trolley. After everything that happened to my family in the village by the sea and to me, I don’t want to settle down permanently anywhere.”
“What did you do before they demolished your home?”
The man wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead with a handkerchief and smiled at me. “I did what you told me to do, during that conversation in Baqa – you told me to smuggle myself, to sneak about, to slip away. You said then that this was human nature, that people cannot do anything in a straight line. That one always needs to maneuver between the forces of evil and insanity.”
I smiled. I did not remember telling him anything of the sort. He looked at me and closed his eyes for a long moment. When he opened them he said: “The moment a person acquires the power of some kind he becomes evil. Someone holding a knife – stabs. Someone holding a gun – shoots. And someone holding a pen writes laws that are always on the side of the thieves and the murderers. This applies to the entire human race, as well as to animals. Wolves devour sheep, lions devour zebras. I read what you wrote – that even when your father tried to fulfill dreams of justice and equality it turned into a nightmare. Dreams are only good when they remain in your head. If you want to fulfill them, it becomes a nightmare.” He took a sip of water from the glass. “It’s impossible to resume living normally after they demolish your home. And if you’re an Arab, you best learn how to speak about.”
Something inside me wanted him to leave. I stood up and opened the window. The air that flowed into the room carried the sounds of a piano as if trying to say: “Look, Iftach, I brought such and such, and such and such – that is, this and that type of jazz, and a good imitation of Ella Fitzgerald singing ‘Dream A Little Dream of Me.’ Free yourself of this guy…he brings nothing but trouble!” But I immediately became suspicious of myself and asked: “How do you make a living?”
“I’m a smuggler,” he said. “My father was also a smuggler. After your War of Independence, the people who fled to the Gaza Strip wanted to move back to Israel. He would smuggle them. When the Egyptians came to the Strip to introduce order, they closed off our village. He smuggled us out. That’s how we got to Baqa. My grandmother was also a smuggler. During World War II my grandfather was drafted and she smuggled meat, tobacco, and other contraband.”
“What do you smuggle?” I asked.“I smuggle myself. I’m the only one left from my family. My sister got married and died of an illness. My older brother went to Jordan and was killed in Black September. I stayed in the house until they demolished it, and since then I’ve been smuggling myself.”
“So, the book is your family’s life story?”
“No, no. The book is about the war against ego. That is, war against the temptation of believing that you have the ability to change things. It was my grandfather who started the war. He would say Kaddish for the ego every morning and every night, in Hebrew, to make his life miserable. This book contains the history of all the wars against ego.”
“Do you believe in God?” I asked.
The man slowly untied the knot on top of the bundle, pulled out the first page, and said: “This is the preface that my grandfather wrote. He was a fisherman, but he had books that he would copy out of: ‘God is a cosmic wolf, the tyrant of all tyrants, everything is his work: the hungry wolf, the frightened sheep, the struggle for existence, cancerous illnesses, heart attacks, insanity. He created all the evils that you know and can imagine. They say he also creates new angels every day. They ingratiate themselves with him and sing him songs of praise, and then when their ego sprouts and grows they are destroyed.’”
“So, your god is some kind of a heavenly wolf?”
He was silent. I walked over to him and picked up the stack of pages, read two of them, and said: “Leave it here. I’ll read it. Do you have a copy?”
“No,” he said. “I didn’t plan on leaving you the book. I also didn’t intend on you publishing it. Who needs books in our day and age? Not even the authors themselves. All I wanted was to speak to you.”
“I know a few people who need to do that,” I said.
“No. It’s surrendering to the ego.”
He straightened up, retied the twine carefully around the stack of pages, and placed it back in the trolley that was on his lap. Then he stood up and made his way to the door, pulling the trolley behind him. I walked him to the hallway, and I told him again that I’d be happy to read the book. “Thank you very much,” he said. “But what can literature do? Nothing. Good night.”
Sometime in June, my back started to itch. I thought I’d been bitten by a mosquito or some other insect. That’s how it felt. It was always worst when I’d been out running and worked up a sweat. The thing was, the itch was in such an awkward place – right in the middle of my back and quite high up – that I couldn’t reach it properly with my fingers. I had a go with a pencil and a toothbrush, but that didn’t seem to help much.
I’d headed off to my holiday cottage in the countryside to chill out and find myself. Things were starting to get me down rather. I was forty-something, and many aspects of life had got much trickier since my thirties. Just drifting around wasn’t as pleasant as it had been. But I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and I didn’t want to stop the things I wasn’t doing. What was the point?
I felt I needed some peace and quiet to work out who I really was and what my goals were. So I decided to go to the cottage all on my own, for the whole summer break – just me, my notepad and my running shoes.
For the first few days, everything was just as usual, except that I was on my own. I was used to having lots of people around all the time. Having plenty of company had become like curling up under a cosy blanket. I just liked people and didn’t mind leaving decisions to others. It was fine by me to go with the flow, taking it easy. I was happy to go along with any decision or opinion, no matter what the subject – football, politics, art or whatever. I liked just being in the midst of things, not having to make too much effort. The solitary life has never been my thing. I get restless and anxious, can’t be doing with that stuff they talk about, sitting alone with a book over a cup of tea, meditation, relaxation. I start to get the twitches. I want to go out and meet people, ask them round to my place, or just sit and chew the fat with someone or other. I’ve never been that particular about who I talk to. I used to plunge into random discussions pretty often. If there was a subject and someone had a definite opinion, I’d generally go along with them – or keep quiet. That worked out fine to begin with. We’d agree, and avoid rubbing each other up the wrong way, and most people found me likeable. Thought I was a nice guy, easy to get on with. But after a while I realised that people felt let down if they discovered I’d taken quite a different view when talking to others.
It wasn’t that big a deal as far as I was concerned. After all, what mattered most to me was having a chat for its own sake. But it ended up becoming hard to socialise except two by two. Then I found out that people were even avoiding talking to me one to one. They’d demand my opinion on something first. Things got so bad that some people thought I was unreliable, undependable, two-faced, that sort of thing.
So I decided to take some time out, head over to the cottage and think the whole thing through. Who was I? What did I stand for, what opinions did I have, and did I have any goals? I thought I’d take off and hang out with the wolves, as it were, work stuff out for myself. I did exactly what was recommended – wherever I’d got the idea from, probably some magazine or TV programme – I left my laptop and mobile at home and went off to the cottage without telling anyone. Just did whatever I felt like, went out for the odd run, quarrelled off and on with the gas stove, which stopped working at regular intervals. After that I’d sit there with my notepad, just staring into space.
It was mostly rather dull. I’d spend most of the day browsing through back numbers of ‘The Phantom’ comic and gazing out of the window, and no matter how I racked my brain, I never came up with any particular thoughts or feelings. Not beyond thinking that coffee tastes good, rain is wet, and that sort of stuff. I found my old guitar, which was short of an E string, and sat around for a while trying to tune it, but it wasn’t that easy, so I just let it be.
After only a few days I was already starting to regret the whole project. I’d pictured myself coming up with new insights into myself, one after the other, yet I didn’t seem to be discovering anything at all. I began to wonder whether all that stuff about finding yourself was just so much pretentious bullshit. Was it something people invented because they didn’t have much of a social life? It was then that my back started to itch.
When it had been itching for over three days and nights, I went and had a look in the bathroom mirror to see if I could spot anything. It felt as though the itching was coming from a small patch quite high up on my back, just to the right of my spine.
I stood for a long time with my back to the bathroom mirror, looking at the patch and thinking that it seemed somehow familiar. I thought I recognised it, like a birthmark or an old acne scar. Surely I’d glimpsed it before when I’d chanced to see my back in a mirror? That’s not something you do all the time, after all. Presumably, it had always been there, without my giving it a thought. Now it had started itching it was hard to think of anything else.
For a while, I tried to ignore it. I just tried to avoid thinking too much, despite the itching. I had a tendency to get lost in my own thoughts when I was supposed to be concentrating on something else. It was just like me to find something totally irrelevant to focus on when I was supposed to be chilling out and finding myself.
Anyway, a few days later I could feel that it had grown into a little bump. At about the same time, the itching calmed down, and for a short while, I found what was by now an oversized pimple quite amusing if anything. It wasn’t normal, of course, but I was so relieved the itching had finally let up that I wasn’t too bothered about having a little mound on my back. Surely it didn’t matter that much. And it wasn’t as though it was that big – although it was growing.
At any rate, it was easier to concentrate on other things now it had stopped itching so badly. I found I could sit for long periods thinking about myself and my doings. I even noted down the odd idea or two. Things I thought might be important, that I didn’t want to forget. I made a list of pluses and minuses, noting down the good and the bad – mostly individual words I liked the sound of and which somehow summed up who I was. I wrote down ‘roly-poly’, for example, not because I was at all overweight, but simply because the word appealed to me and gave me good vibes. It seemed to me that if only I could get a grip on something, no matter how insignificant, I could keep hold of it, and eventually I’d haul in something weightier and more definite, whatever that might be. I jotted down ‘mini, midi, maxi’, then I hummed the words to myself for half a day. That felt good too. ‘Itching’ went down in the minus column. ‘Mounds’, on the other hand, went into the plus column. ‘Mounds – good’, I wrote. ‘I like mounds. Especially grassy ones.’ Fun – I liked having fun. Being sociable. Company. Pleasant company. Good manners. Nice people. Good looks. Raspberry gums. Suddenly the words were pouring out of me into the two columns on the paper. I could fill half a page just with the TV programmes I liked or disliked, for instance. It was only now and then that I went past the mirror and looked at my own mound, the one on my back.
It grew a little with each day that passed until it was slightly bigger than a five-kronor coin. I was beginning to suspect that some kind of creature might have got under my skin after all – a tick or some other creepy-crawly that had dropped out of a tree on one of my runs. It was probably infected. I seemed to recall some jungle story or other about ants – or was it larvae? – crawling under people’s skin to lay their eggs. That wasn’t pleasant, of course, but somehow it struck me as the most reasonable explanation. Ants and larvae both went into the minus column.
It occurred to me that I should put something on it, but I had no idea what might work on a sore spot like the one I had. I tried splashing it with aftershave, and eventually I managed to lay my hands on an old bottle of acetone in what had once been the broom cupboard, which, over the years, had turned into a glory hole full of paint tins, tubes of glue and turps rags.
I splashed a drop or two onto a cloth and rubbed at the lump. But nothing happened, except that the skin around it got drier and began to sting.
It was rather annoying that I had no-one to talk to. It would have been quite something to show off such an amazing physical change. And maybe it would have changed my detractors’ minds. I wasn’t sure whether ‘detractors’ was quite the right word. But it gave me a warm glow when I thought of it; it was a good word to have in your vocabulary. I wasn’t certain whether it belonged in the plus or the minus column, nor was I one hundred percent sure of the spelling, so I didn’t put down anything at all. But I kind of savoured the word for the rest of the day. ‘Detractors’ – it had a certain style. I’d have to remember to use it once I was back among other people. Maybe I’d even look it up to see what it meant.
One morning the bump was so big and my skin so taut that I realised something was going to happen that day. The bump stood out like a sugar loaf as if someone’s finger was pushing at the skin from the inside. I kept running to the mirror, and in the course of the afternoon, a split started to appear.
A rift opened in the middle of the bulge, and in the middle of the weeping sore and the pus, I glimpsed something that looked like a tiny little … head.
It struck me as quite repulsive, and I stood stock-still for ages, staring into the mirror to see what was going on. I’d never seen such a small head before. Tiny though it was, it had a full set of human features: eyes, nose, mouth, even a wisp of hair. I realised straight away that it wasn’t an insect, but a new body part that had suddenly decided to make an unexpected appearance. It dawned on me that it must have been there the whole time, somehow – like a wisdom tooth. Complete with mouth, jaw, eyes, ears, nose, and forehead.
I took an instant dislike to it. I didn’t want it on my back – I just wanted to get rid of it as soon as possible. I took out my toothbrush again and started scrubbing at the opening from which it had emerged, but neither the head nor the film of skin over it would disappear completely. All that happened was that my skin went red, and after a while it began to hurt a good deal.
That evening I couldn’t get off to sleep. Time and again I got up and stood in front of the mirror. I wandered round and round in the cottage, sat down at the kitchen table and wrote ‘I like heads’ in the plus column. And ‘But not on my back’ in the minus column.
I felt that summed up my views pretty well.
Staying in the cottage got more and more boring, and if it hadn’t been for the Head I’d have left a long time ago. But it was clear to me that I couldn’t show myself in public, disfigured as I was. When I woke up in the morning I hoped it would be gone, but when I checked in the mirror it was there as usual. After a while, I didn’t even have to get up. I could clearly feel its presence between me and the sheet. The Calor gas stove broke down regularly, and sometimes the smell of gas hung over the cylinder. Sometimes I’d thump it and get it to work for a while, but I wondered whether it was leaking a bit. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the raw patch on my back seemed to have got slightly infected, but I didn’t make any particular effort to get it to heal. I thought that might be a natural way to get rid of the intruder.
Gradually the Head grew bigger and bigger, and it generally kept itself hidden under its protective membrane. It would peek out just for an instant, then withdraw again. In early July it got up the nerve to pop out and have a look around for a little longer. Its features looked rather like mine, and I would often stand in front of the mirror waiting for it to peek out. Once or twice our eyes met momentarily in the mirror before it popped back inside the bump.
Sometimes I wondered what the Head thought of me. It must have been pretty striking to see its full-size alter ego, so to speak, towering above it on my neck and shoulders.
Since the Head had ears, eyes and a mouth, I soon started talking to it. I’d say ‘Hello’, ‘Hey’, ‘Hi there’ and so on. I’d threaten and cajole by turns, but mostly I chatted away to it as if I were talking to a plant or to myself. After all, in a way, I’d longed for someone to talk to, and now it turned out there was a head inside my back, I thought it would be a pity if we couldn’t hang out together now and then. I started telling it the names of the things around me. For example, I’d say ‘running shoes’ when I put them on to go jogging. ‘Mug’, I’d say when I took out my coffee cup. Then I’d add ‘cup’, just to be on the safe side. I wasn’t sure myself which word was best. Anyway, I thought it was a good idea to give the Head an opportunity to learn some of the words and phrases people use most, so we could rub along together more easily. But it didn’t reply, and after a while, I stopped talking. I felt daft talking to someone who never said anything back.
It became harder and harder to sleep on my back. Sometimes, when I was lying stretched out, reading damp old Donald Duck comics in bed, the Head would suddenly move slightly behind my back. It was as though it were stretching out, or curling up into a ball. I’d always press a little harder when that happened. I don’t really know why. It just happened. Maybe it was a bit mean of me, but I wanted to make the point somehow that it was my back. After a while, the Head would start to resist, and we’d sometimes engage in a low-key wrestling match, which generally ended with my shifting onto my side.
I noticed I was getting hungrier and hungrier. There were days when I’d suddenly crave things I’d never liked before, such as boiled cod, peas in white sauce, grapefruit, muesli, and wholemeal bread. To my surprise, I also noticed that I was gradually becoming less fond of beer. I could see it was all the fault of the new head. It was taking in nutrients through me, of course, not through its own mouth. Now it was clearly trying to influence my habits, to bring them into line with its own tastes and its own aims.
I was annoyed that the Head was starting to take up more space and that it was kind of getting above itself in the evenings and at night, though it wouldn’t reply when spoken to and didn’t even have the guts to come out properly during the daytime.
I started to think the Head had something of an attitude problem. It would never look me in the eye. It wasn’t willing to learn anything about my habits or to repeat any of the words I tried to teach it. And then there was the way it took what it wanted, expanding more and more in the evenings. On top of that, the few times I caught a glimpse of its mouth, I detected a rather superior expression.
To begin with, I interpreted its behaviour as shyness. I thought it looked diffident, touching. It was, after all, so small, and if anything it came across as rather timid. In time, however, I came to think it was being pretty rude in keeping itself to itself. Just what was it scared of? I felt my approach had been quite respectful. Apart from the episode with the toothbrush and the after-shave, I’d been nothing but friendly and obliging, helpful even. Of course, you have to be careful in relations with other people, but the Head’s avoidance tactics sent a negative message, almost like disdain. As though it had no interest whatsoever in its – what could one call me? – host. Didn’t it like my company? I was quite sure I could detect a certain overbearing look in its eyes. Who did it think it was, this creature, to turn up and make silent demands on me? I was gradually feeling more and more determined to show it who was boss.
‘Listen here, you gutless little pipsqueak,’ I said one evening when I was sitting with a can of lager, staring at the wall. I was getting wasted out of pure defiance, just to show who was boss, though the lager was like vinegar. In fact, it tasted vile, and several times I was on the point of throwing up. The only thing that kept me going was the thought that it must be worse for the little beast on my back. I’d laid in plenty of lager, but I had no TV, stereo or anything else that might have taken my mind off things. In the absence of any entertainment, I’d generally end up on the sofa in front of the big, empty wall. ‘Why don’t you come out and party a little?’ I said.
That wasn’t like me. It wasn’t my style to carry on and throw my weight about, but what I needed now was to find myself and deal with this uninvited guest. After all, I was over forty. I couldn’t carry on pussyfooting around. I was starting to lose my patience. I sat gazing at the damp around the broken electricity cables where the wallpaper had split.
Everything was silent and still behind me. Gulping down the last drop of lager in the can, I squeezed it in the middle and slung it into the corner where the TV should have been. Opening a new can, I wriggled my shoulder blades a little. I thought the creature might have gone to sleep. ‘Hey, you!’ I called again. ‘Come on out and have a beer, will you? Come on, try and be sociable.’
I raised the can over my head, held it carefully at an angle and let the lager run down the back of my neck. A small amount ended up in my hair, but the rest ran down over my skin, over the mound on my back. I’d thought the Head could just hold its mouth open and have a drink. But nothing happened.
‘Don’t fancy it? Well, it’s your loss,’ I said.
Then I sat there, the can in my hand, without a TV, while the lager gradually settled in a sticky mess between my skin and the leather upholstery.
I decided to try cutting my losses. If the Head didn’t want any contact, well, I was damned if I was going to carry on dancing attendance on it. I made it quite clear that I wanted peace and quiet. Staggering into the kitchen, I found a pencil. Each time I felt any movement inside my back, I jabbed at the opening with the pencil. It took several attempts to hit the right spot, but pretty soon I’d got quite accurate. The least sign of activity and I’d be onto it with the pencil, and as soon as the Head felt me jabbing at it, it would freeze. That gave me a power rush that was pretty cool. I’d have preferred to be on friendlier terms, of course, but with things as they were, there was no alternative. After a while, however, I realised the jabs weren’t having the same impact anymore. The Head would keep shifting around inside my back even after I’d jabbed at it several times, and sometimes I jabbed pretty hard.
I went out into the bathroom and sat in front of the mirror for a long while, quite light-headed and a little queasy from the booze. I nagged loudly at the Head to come out so we could agree on how we were to get on together. As usual, however, it refused to put in an appearance. At one point I got up, went out and pressed my back against the stove two or three times. Really hard. I felt the Head shrinking in on itself, seeking protection from each new impact. But there wasn’t the least sign of any willingness to communicate.
When I’d had no response for over an hour, and the Head had done nothing but keep itself to itself, I felt my patience coming to an end. I took the mirror off the wall and carried it over to the bed. Then I fetched a pair of scissors from the kitchen drawer, sat down on the edge of the bed with the mirror leaning against the wall behind me, and waited. I breathed slowly, trying to steady my pulse.
Nothing happened for a long while, but then the Head’s curiosity must have got the better of it, for when I was completely still, I could clearly sense it slowly emerging. I stayed where I was, leaning forward, and let it continue for a good while. The longer I sat, the more distinctly I could feel the Head sliding in and out of my back. It was taking the opportunity to move around, thinking I wasn’t really aware of what was going on. Maybe it thought I hadn’t noticed anything, and that was what really got me – the fact that it seemed to want nothing to do with me as if I wasn’t good enough for it. Presumably, it had discovered the mirror; it felt as though the thing was slipping out at regular intervals to look at itself. It was becoming bolder and bolder, taking longer each time. It must have thought I was asleep, as pretty soon it seemed to have stopped paying me any attention.
‘What’s that?’ I said, my tone of voice calm and measured, but with a note of surprise, as though I’d spotted something unexpected and was more or less talking to myself. I thought that would tempt the Head out to have a look. And lo and behold, it finally emerged, prompted by curiosity. I waited and waited, breathing calmly, biding my time.
When I thought enough of the Head was out in the open, I swivelled round as quickly as I could and snapped the scissors shut, just where I thought its neck must be. The Head must have had a terrible shock; its eyes were goggling like ping-pong balls. Somehow it had managed to start withdrawing, so the cut had sliced into its chin more than its neck. It was almost as if I’d cut through its mouth. A tongue slid back and forth over the blade, cutting itself again and again.
And a cry came from its mouth. It was all quite horrible. The blood and the tongue, those goggling eyes, and the cry, rising into a scream.
I tried to snap the scissor blades together and snip the whole thing off, but as I’d caught it at an odd angle, there were jaw muscles and bones in the way. It was a terrible mess.
In the end, I opened the scissors and let the creature take cover again.
Blood continued to flow out of the opening for quite a while, so I had to stand in the bathroom splashing water over it for a long time. The floor got messy, and I had to dig out an old 1950s vacuum cleaner to hoover up the blood and the water. The hoover crackled and sparked, and it had little suction power. I had to go over the floor inch by inch with the metal mouthpiece. The Head didn’t show itself.
The morning after, I woke up lying in an awkward position on my front, with my face pressed into the pillow. I had a headache and a bad conscience about the previous evening’s attack. I called to the Head to come out, but there was no response. I begged and pleaded, but nothing happened.
It stayed inside for several days, and I felt nothing at all beyond a dull pain in my back – unsurprisingly, as the Head was linked to some extent with my own nervous system. Though I looked in the mirror a few times, I could see nothing. I began to wonder whether it might have died from its injuries, but little by little, in the evenings, I once again started to feel tiny movements, a cautious scratching. It was if it was literally licking its wounds.
For a while I was afraid it would try to get its own back somehow, slide out when I was least expecting – who knew how quickly its neck was growing? Or maybe it would start eating me up from the inside?
Once again I cursed the fact that I was all on my own. I dared not turn my back on any knives or scissors that might be lying about, and I constantly tried to be aware of whatever was within reach each time I turned round. I developed such a keen awareness of what was behind me that I sometimes forgot to look out for what was in front. I started walking into things, bumping my head when looking through the kitchen hatches and stubbing my toes on the furniture. I should have brought someone along right from the start, I thought. It’s never a good idea to go off on your own as I’d done. If I’d brought someone else, I’d have had someone to talk to who would have witnessed the whole process and understood my plight.
At the same time, I could see it would be tricky to turn up anywhere with the Head as it was now. People would think it was peculiar, maybe even rather frightening. No-one would want to touch it. They’d think I’d done this to myself, that I’d had some sort of operation.
I’d have to deal with the problem on my own.
I started talking again. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was probably stuff like:
‘Hallo? Are you there?’ or ‘How’s it going?’ ‘Why don’t you answer? I know you can.’
But the Head kept mum. I had the feeling it might have learned its lesson, or at least grasped who was boss. Whenever it moved, its movements were very cautious.
I was gradually beginning to relax a little.
In a way, everything had calmed down considerably after the incident. Maybe being a bit rougher had been just the right thing? Maybe I’d held back far too much and given it far too much room for manoeuvre? Cut it too much slack for too long? Perhaps a firmer hand was needed to instil a natural respect for me in the intruder, and to put it in its place.
One day in early August, when I was standing in front of the mirror looking at the igloo-shaped lump on my back, which was growing larger and larger, its forehead and eyes finally emerged, and, for the first time, it looked me straight in the eye for a long while.
‘Are you angry?’ I asked.
It was still for a moment. Then it slowly shook in a way that might well have meant no.
‘How’s your mouth?’ I asked, and the Head’s gaze darkened slightly. It blinked a few times and breathed through its nose as if preparing for something. Finally, it popped out completely, stretching its neck. It gave me quite a fright, as I recall. The Head was already bigger than a fist, and its mouth had healed well. The only visible signs of the scissors’ treatment were a few pink streaks.
It withdrew after showing me its mouth, and neither of us made any further attempt to communicate for the rest of the day. A strange, oppressive atmosphere filled the cottage. Maybe it was angry about the scissors incident, but if that was the case it could have said so, always assuming that it could speak. Of course, my attack might have damaged its powers of speech, but I didn’t think it was that badly injured. After all, it had managed to scream.
Next morning I went straight to the mirror and tapped the bump on my back with a toothbrush. It took a while, but eventually the eyes peeped out. I don’t know whether it was my imagination, but it seemed to me that the Head had grown slightly bigger overnight.
‘Hi there,’ I said, ‘Shall we be friends, then?’
The eyes looked at me for a long time. We just stared at one another. I don’t know what I’d been expecting, but in the end I thought I saw it give a cautious nod.
‘Good,’ I said. ‘I’m sorry about that business with the scissors. That was unkind. I won’t do it again.’
Motionless, the eyes continued to stare at me. After a while, the Head decided to come right out, revealing a slightly distant, superior expression.
‘Can you speak?’ I asked.
‘What do you think?’ said the Head.
I was so astounded that I dropped my toothbrush on the floor. True, I’d heard it scream, and I’d suspected that it had a voice. But it felt strange to hear actual words. It changed something. I felt quite unsure of myself. It was as if it suddenly dawned on me that it had actually understood everything I’d said, which doubled the stress I felt. I tried to control my feelings and maintain a semblance of calm before the Head, which was continuing to stare at me as though amused by my confusion, though it didn’t give that away for an instant. It gave away nothing. And its very expressionlessness only reinforced the menacing impression it made on me. Its voice sounded just like mine.
‘Nothing, just wondering,’ I said. ‘You haven’t said anything.’
The Head said nothing now either but continued to scrutinise me with a slightly blasé expression. He was very like me.
‘Er… are you male or female?’ I continued.
That wasn’t a particularly well-thought-out question, but I felt I’d better seize the opportunity to find out as much as possible, now we’d established some kind of contact, so to speak. What did I know? Maybe the Head wasn’t intending to come out again for another few months.
‘What do you think?’ said the Head again.
The voice was calm and steady, like a more stable variant of my own. At the same time, it sounded – how can I put this? – rather reserved and haughty. ‘I think you’re a man,’ I said. ‘And I really don’t like your snarky tone. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have a little chat together, without getting on our high horses.’
The Head didn’t reply now either, but it seemed to roll its eyes briefly, exhaling rapidly rather as though it were sighing.
‘Oh, all right then, forget it,’ I said.
The Head said nothing. It just slipped swiftly back into its lair.
The next morning we stared at each other in the bathroom mirror while I was brushing my teeth. He stuck out his whole neck and head and yawned expansively. I could have sworn this was a minor demonstration of power. He’d got even bigger. Soon he’d be the same size as any other head. He was only very slightly smaller than my own.
I said nothing. I’d been feeling a little hurt since the previous day and rather anxious about how all this was going to end. The toothpaste tube slipped out of the washbasin and landed on the floor. My knees creaked when I bent down to pick it up.
A few days later, when I was in front of the bathroom mirror again brushing my teeth, the Head suddenly popped out again, and this time he managed to stretch up over one shoulder. It looked funny to have two heads the same size on the same body, and I couldn’t stop myself asking:
‘How big are you going to get?’
The other head smiled and replied:
‘What do you think?’
For the first time, it felt as though he was actually challenging me in some way, but I just didn’t understand how he was doing it or what it was he wanted. It was as though we were sizing each other up for a while.
Quick I could, I tried to come up with a flash of repartee that would answer that question once and for all. After all, he hadn’t exactly been wonderfully articulate himself. Yet, in just a few brief rejoinders, he’d managed to seize what you might call the rhetorical high ground. And however hard I racked my brains and struggled to think of something, it didn’t really work. Finally, I had to say the first thing that had popped into my head, and I still doubt whether it sounded very smart.
‘Hmmm…,’ said I. ‘What do you think?’
Obviously it was easier for him to inject that edge of ambiguity into what he said. After all, he had the advantage of surprise. Hell, surely anyone would be pretty taken aback if a head on their back suddenly started to talk? He could have said anything at all. Besides, he’d certainly had plenty of time to think of something. I now see I shouldn’t just have recycled what he’d already said; I should have come up with my own unique, quick-fire rejoinder. But that just didn’t work.
He merely smiled, and from that moment on he no longer seemed to pay me much attention. Increasingly, he didn’t bother to crawl back into his lair; instead, he spent more and more time next to my own head.
For several days I went around regretting that unfortunate exchange of words. It felt as though I’d lost something, without really understanding what it was. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything at all? Whatever I said, things only seemed to get worse.
‘Can’t we go out some time?’ he asked one day.
‘How would that look?’ I said. ‘Surely you understand it’d scare people silly to see such a monstrosity? No, we’ll have to stay in here till…’
I fell silent, not knowing how to continue.
‘Till what?’ he said.
‘Till we sort this out,’ I said, making it clear the conversation was over. I noticed him looking over my shoulder at the notes I’d jotted down, and sometimes he seemed to be scoffing at something I’d written. As his neck grew stronger, he pushed my head down closer and closer to my shoulder. He tried both sides a few times, but soon he’d made his choice, and there wasn’t much I could do when he made himself comfortable in the middle.
We did some things together. Now and then, out of the blue, he’d take control over an arm or a leg, as if for a joke. He’d make me cross out some new words I’d just written in the plus or minus column. He’d spill a glassful of juice just for the hell of it, so I’d have to wipe it all up before it ran over the chairs as well.
He’d take over for short periods without my noticing. If I didn’t watch out, he’d suddenly stow the coffee tin in the cupboard over the coffee machine, rather than the one over the stove where I’d always kept it. He’d throw rubbish straight into the bin instead of the sink, or turn the gas off. I generally took over control again as soon as I noticed what was going on, but sometimes I’d let him do his own thing, just to see what he’d come up with.
At any time, and without any warning at all, I could be struck by a sudden numbness. It was as if my arms had gone to sleep and it was nearly impossible to raise them – as if he’d decided we were going to take a rest. And once, when I was doing my usual twenty press-ups, just as I was relaxing after the last one I felt as though he’d taken over and was forcing me to do another one. My arms ached, and it was incredibly tough, but I had to go through with it, though I was tired and felt I’d done my fair share already. Once we’d got up again, and I’d sat down, I turned my head as far as I could and yelled straight into his ear, ‘Don’t you bloody well do that again!’
I knew full well how much it hurt when someone bellowed into your ear, but all he did was laugh.
‘What’s that?’ he said all of a sudden one day, looking down at the floor with a startled expression. I bent down to see what he was talking about. But before I’d managed to spot anything, I felt him wrapping one of my arms around my neck. I resisted, trying to push my head back up again, but he seemed to have locked it in place with my other hand. I was held in a grip under one arm. And try as I might to wave my arms about and gesticulate, it was his will that mainly commanded my muscles now. ‘When are you going to let go?’ I yelled as loudly as I could, muffled by the body and the clothes around me.
‘What do you think?’ said he.
When I got back up again I was livid with fury. I tried to punch his head, but my arms would only half obey me. They were directionless and weak, like the arms of a puppet. That felt even more humiliating if anything, so I left off pretty quickly and sat down on the sofa.
‘This isn’t working,’ I said.
As usual, he said nothing. We sat that way for a long time, without doing anything in particular. It was as though we were waiting. Waiting for something to happen.
‘Hey, you,’ he said. ‘Why don’t we go out?’
‘No chance,’ said I.
When we had our breakfast, each would have his own bowl of cereal, but we’d use the same two hands. I noticed the spoon went up to his mouth more often than to mine. But since I had little appetite, it didn’t matter much. We hardly ever spoke to each other, just exchanged brief utterances like ‘Mind yourself!’ or ‘Shift!’ and stuff like that.
A few days went by in comparative peace. It was getting easier and easier to synchronise our movements. We generally agreed on what our arms and legs should be doing. We’d go out for a short run, shower, sleep, eat – all the usual things. I noticed I no longer needed to think so much. I generally just went along with whatever he was doing, and that was quite agreeable in its way. I could sense that I no longer had the strength I’d once had.
One afternoon, when we were standing in front of the bathroom mirror cleaning our teeth – first mine, then his – he said, in passing as it were, his mouth full of toothpaste:
‘You can hardly see the scar now.’
Looking up, I realised I couldn’t tell straight away which of the two heads was mine. Each was the spitting image of the other. After a moment, it occurred to me to focus on the eyes. The face that gazed back would be me, of course. The whole thing was made more difficult by the fact that he was looking at me too, with an indulgent, almost contemptuous expression. I yelled at him to stop gawping and looked in the mirror to see which one of us was shouting. The tired, worn-out one – that was me.
The new head took over my body more and more, and began to do things differently. It felt unfamiliar and rather irritating. He forced me to climb on the roof to mend the hole in the roofing-felt. Then he’d be off round the whole building, taping up all the loose contacts, taking out the rugs to air, listening to discussion programmes on the radio – that sort of stuff. He dug out the brush and dustpan and set about cleaning the cottage from top to bottom. He started cooking and setting the table, rather than eating straight out of a tin. He’d pour milk into a glass. Then we’d have to stand around washing up afterwards.
My appetite dwindled. Everything went to the other head. He helped himself eagerly, while the flesh shrank from my cheeks and chin. My temples grew closer together, and my eyes were sunken in their sockets.
He picked up the guitar, gathered up all the comics, and put the lot away in the loft, where he found a book about birds and another about flowers that he dusted off and brought down.
Now and then I’d find the Head writing with my hand. I thought I might still be able to tell his handwriting from mine, so I made no particular effort to stop him.
He would write and write, sometimes for hours at a time, and I thought it all terribly boring. He used such complicated language, with difficult words and long sentences. For a while, I was rather impressed and felt a spark of pride at the thought that it was my handwriting it all down, after all. But all things considered, it was dull and hard to understand.
He never wanted to do anything fun. Just boring stuff.
The summer ended and autumn came. After a while, I realised I was finding it harder and harder to hold up my head. I wanted to kind of lie on one shoulder. It was as if my neck muscles had atrophied, and all of a sudden my neck was so scrawny, desiccated and skinny, shrivelled, withered in the middle, that I wondered how the oxygen could get through. Maybe it couldn’t. Maybe my entire oxygen intake was now coming in through the new head?
I realised that I was gradually getting used to his dull, monotonous routines, and would often just hang to one side. For a while, he would help me by holding me up with his hands from time to time, but he tired of that soon enough. As he took on more and more activities, I would all too often remain hanging at an angle, unable to hold myself up, so that I viewed the world half upside-down. My neck had shrivelled into a thin thread that increasingly resembled a scrap of umbilical cord attached to newborn babies, which gradually dries out and eventually falls off.
One morning after breakfast he went out to the toolbox and fetched a pair of pincers. He clipped me off and laid me in the bed, on the pillow.
‘Want to be on one side, or facing upwards?’ he asked.
‘On my side,’ I said.
He laid me with one cheek on the pillow, so I could lie there and watch him getting undressed and smartening himself up. He disappeared into the bathroom, and I heard him turning on the tap and splashing water around. He came back into the bedroom, freshly showered. He’d put a waterproof plaster, such as you might stick over a shaving nick, on the tiny wound where I’d been attached. He opened the wardrobe and changed into smart clothes right in front of my face.
‘What are you going to do?’ I asked.
‘I saw from the calendar that we’ve got a table booked for lunch at “The Gondola”. Thought I’d go along,’ he said.
Before he went, he tucked me in with the cover over my chin. I took the opportunity to have a nap. It was so pleasant to be on my own again, even though my mobility was now severely limited, but it had happened so gradually that I hadn’t really noticed what was going on. Now that I was over forty, I thought to myself, I no longer placed such high demands on life. There was no need to win or to be a top dog all the time, or to have arms and legs and all that sort of thing. I was quite content with everything just the way it was. I wouldn’t have had the strength to creep around outside anyway.
By the time he got home again, it had been dark for a long time. I awoke when the door closed, and pretty soon I saw him looking into the bedroom. Apart from his wet hair, he looked just like me. He wore my clothes, was a little older, and had a slightly more pronounced widow’s peak. The scar had disappeared completely. No-one would ever think he was anyone but me.
‘Are you awake?’ he whispered.
‘Sure,’ I said.
We were both whispering, although there were only the two of us in the cottage. It was as though we didn’t want to disturb the night. Or maybe what we had to say called for a lower volume. He sat down on the edge of the bed but realised that the rest of it was empty. So he edged up further and leaned against the wall.
‘I’m thinking of taking up smoking,’ I said.
He sighed and looked at me. I rocked back and forth a little. I could feel something like a speck of dust settling on my nose. I grimaced a little, trying to get rid of it. Finally, he stretched out a hand and helped me scratch.
‘What’s it like out there?’ I asked.
He leaned back, sinking down against the wall. Shook his head slowly, as though he couldn’t decide whether it was wonderful, or terrible, or just too hard to explain.
‘It’s a different world,’ he said. ‘Trust me, pal, you’d never cope out there.’
I was in the process of completing some research on the progress of democratization in Tunisia under the threat of terrorism when a message notification popped up. The message read: “I would like to connect with you in a civilized way, yes civilized, like drinking coffee together, if you know what I mean. A cup of coffee with you would mean the world to me. Sugar cubes touched by you would turn my cup into the Sea of Marmara, which shimmers more brightly since you inscribed your name in its sands. If only you knew that you have the enchantment of the orient in you. O women of the sea of Carthage, the font has run dry and the company of friends has parted.”
I pulled my earpieces out and reread the message, which was dripping with desire. Calling upon what skills I had in Arabic, I returned to Shahrazad’s tales of oriental men, and also recalled my grandmother’s advice and all the ploys and schemes of women, to make my response commensurate with his words.
I tapped away at the keyboard and started composing my reply. But I held off. I had no great longing to drink a cup of coffee with him. Stories about Marmara seas did not tempt me, and I cared little for such romantic notions on the lines of Nizar Qabbani. My sights were set on the vineyard of his bronzed chest, which I would make a cozy bed for the approaching autumn nights that would coincide with his return from Turkey. I wanted a great deal from the lips topped with a light moustache. Yes, I wanted to exhale sighs of love over him. Using the mouse, I moved the cursor over his image to outline in my imagination the taste of his kisses.
I got up from my desk, made a mug of coffee, and with a sigh of relief lit a cigarette to take a break and to show that handsome man sitting at the other end of the Mediterranean some indifference. I knew that was a classic strategy for dealing with men, but I found it useful in cases like this one.
I finished the democracy and terrorism report and left the office for my small apartment. I opened the door, kicked out the neighbour’s stupid cat that, to my annoyance, came in whenever I was out and sat down to make a routine call to my mother, who had been living for a while in Gulf with my big sister. I gave her my daily newscast, full of lies, and which I began by telling her that I had cooked food at home and ended by telling her that I had become a serious woman of thirty-one no longer interested in one-night stands. That always reassured her, plus I said amen to her invocations for me. Then I turned on my computer and took a bite of the sandwich I had bought from the shop at the end of the street.
Messenger pinged. Another message from him: “I hope my words did not offend you. I’m dreaming of that cup of coffee with you.”
I cried out aloud, “Allah, Allah, a gift from God!” I reeled off my reply: “Not at all. I’m honoured to be of interest to a writer of your standing. I’m grateful for your good taste.”
He replied: “No my dear, you deserve better than that. The honour is all mine to engage in dialogue with a woman of your standing.”
I kept the dialogue going, a chorus line of nymphs urging me on. I was amazed by his refinement and his words that went no further than that cup of coffee, the articles he published in the cultural press, and his admiration for my research on democratization in Tunisia. His discourse slipped between the personal and the public, and I went along with everything he said and refrained from comment. I considered inviting him to turn on video so he could see me in my sheer white one-piece and I could pretend to be all coy with him. But he didn’t fall into that trap. He lived and breathed in the medium of language.
Despite his handsome looks, albeit tainted by a rampant look in his eyes, he did not seem very interested in women. I remembered that I had deliberately sat in the Mondial Café with a copy of a magazine that he had an article in, so that I could go and discuss what he had written on literature and revolution. I intended to make it seem that at the Democracy Institute, where I worked, we were aiming to support writers interested in literature and publish free thinking.
My trick worked on him, and he started explaining his creative project. He mentioned the reasons why he had published his recent books, but I don’t remember anything he said because at the time I was in a trance from the scent of his sensuous Parisian perfume. I barely managed to stop my left hand from playing with his soft white hair. I ended the encounter after taking down all his details, even his marital status, parentage, and hobbies. If time had not been so short – he had to leave for a meeting with the director of a publishers – I would have learned what his favourite food was and the size of his underwear.
Since that encounter, I began planning to make him fall for me. That was no easy matter, especially with a respectable man like him who loved reading books and listening to music, and didn’t like drinking alcohol. He didn’t go out to the capital’s bars with his writer and journalist colleagues, a fact that tired me out when I wanted to find out his news.
Nobody knew much about his personal life, but it was stressed that he was a respectable man. That usage of respectable did not make me too happy, because I know the standards of respectability for my society. It’s said with reference to a guy who’s no good at kissing girls and a man who’s never tasted the wine of this country.
He was the writer Mohammed Aziz, a man with an aristocratic heritage, refined, and elegant, and well known in cultural circles for his calm temperament and politeness, his love of reading books and refusal to join in drinking sessions, and his signing himself: A man exhausted by his Arabism. Although he was in his forties, Aziz had no little respect for those younger than him. He had been involved with a Palestinian poet. Then, after the last Gaza Intifada, they broke up. Since her, his heart had not skipped a beat for any woman.
My heart, on the other hand, was like a public housing project, expansive enough for all the men around, provided they were handsome and butch, irrespective of their nationality and affiliations. I was an internationalist when it came to passion. A defender of pluralism when it came to love as much as I defended it when it came to the Tunisian political scene.
The absence of his Palestinian girlfriend made him very sad and very supportive of her cause. We’ve forgotten about Palestine since the outbreak of the Arab Spring revolutions, possibly because we saw victory in our own sons: in Bouazizi we saw Muhammad Durra, Samir Kuntar, and all those heroes from the Arab east whom we loved. Despite that, Mohammed Aziz carried on wearing his kufiyah, ever faithful to Hanzala.
I wrote to him: “ ‘Because I love violently and expect to be loved violently back, today I am going to kill you with love.’ I dedicate Jaafar Majed’s poem The Enchantress to you.”
He replied with the speed of someone in wait for a woman’s yearning: “I fear the enchantment of Carthaginian sirens. Go easy on my heart, you naughty girl.”
I laughed, but wrote, with real yearning: “May God strengthen the heart present before me like the rhythm of prayers being chanted. Yours truly.”
I finished my literary phrases, inspired by someone’s blog post, shut down my computer, and slept. Yes, I slept and dreamed of a shameless prince charming, cynical even about my swooning and getting lost in his eyes.
I woke up a little worn out from my late night of chat and verbal hide-and-seek with Mohammed Aziz. I sat in the L’Univers Café to drink coffee and smoke a cigarette. I invited one of my nation’s miserable poets over to drink coffee and smoke a few cigarettes with me to elicit whatever information I could about Mohammed Aziz, who seemed to have got inside my head. I tried to speak about him and his excessive commitment to Arab causes, in spite of the terrible things happening in our own country. The poet gave a shrug and said, “You don’t know that Mohammed Aziz studied in Damascus and was a militant with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. It’s rumoured that he was in the armed wing and had a relationship with a PFLP poet.”
I exhaled the cigarette smoke. Talk about resistance and militant female comrades was well known to me. All left-wing Tunisians who studied in Damascus or Beirut or Iraq would come back to us as heroes and authorities on leftist, Islamic, pan-Arab, nationalist, and even separatist thought. A few words in an eastern dialect and praise for the taste of arrack, made someone the centre of attention. Mohammed Aziz was one of that sort: Tunisians who had lived under eastern skies, those who claimed a lineage from the tribes of Adnan and Taghlib, and whose grandfathers were of Ottoman descent and whose mothers were from Saguia el-Hamra.
Having his eastern leanings confirmed inspired a certain patriotic feeling in me, along with a tinge of possessiveness towards the men of this country, whom on my blog I normally described in the vilest terms and mostly accused of being effete and lacking real manhood. But now I felt a burning sense of injustice when I saw Mohammed Aziz publishing love poems to the women of Syria and the women of Iraq, while overlooking the women of Carthage, Numidia, and the alleyways of the old city like me.
I spent the whole day thinking of strategies and techniques to make him fall for me. It had become an issue of national pride for me, almost chauvinist. I made a bet with myself: either I made him fall for me or I wasn’t the high priestess of the Majiri tribe.
I thought about waiting for his return the following week and tricking him by inviting him to a kofta place for some renowned Tunisian food with the taste of the alleyways of the old city. But the fire burning inside me since the day at the café did not allow me to make the arrangements for dinner. I had to rush to his Facebook page to find he had written what mattered to me: “I’m thinking how will I deal with the treasures of my beloved?”
I pressed the chat button and wrote without any Arabic allusions: “Kiss them and mourn in her arms. The heavens will be grateful for your effort.”
He answered in a flash: “I had no idea you had such a dangerous poetic sensibility.”
“Your presence is more dangerous, Mr Mohammed Aziz,” I replied.
“More dangerous for whom?”
“More dangerous for the women of this country. More dangerous for the women of Tunisia who weep when their prince charmings leave for the east. Don’t you know that the women of Tunisia bear the wombs and clay of this land?”
He stopped chatting. Perhaps my last sentence was like a random bombardment of his soul. I had gone way too far to start brushing the dust off the memories of that Palestinian woman who still lingered in his almond-shaped eyes and attractive chest. God, please let me sleep in his arms in the cold winter of Tunisia. I slept with my computer on, so that I might wake to a love letter from him. But to my disappointment, he said nothing, but posted on Facebook things that crushed me: “When one of my female friends wrote to me, ‘Don’t you know that the women of Tunisia bear the wombs and clay of this land?’ I understood why the poet Kamel Bouajila said ‘Tunisian women are beautiful in word and deed. They are Tunisia’s refuge when she yearns. God bless the daughters of the priestess.’”
Comments from his friends about his praise for the women of Tunisia multiplied in the dialects of Syria, Lebanon, Morocco, Algeria, and Egypt. I devoured what was written and smiled. I put on the song, Barsha, Barsha, ya mudallal, 1 and danced until my body ran with sweat. I went into the bathroom to put a stop to the dancing with warm water. It was an invigorating day. I started it by giving an amorous smile to the director of the centre, whose name I can’t endure saying and whose hateful screwed-up face I can’t endure seeing when he asks me to produce a report or set up a workshop on the constitution and human rights. Workshops, seminars, and reports that I write to satisfy our followers and in line with the inclinations of funders. I write like waiters at a café: presenting what’s ordered.
The skills in flattery I had acquired through my work with civil society organizations made me a dab hand when it came to dealing with men, particularly those special cases like Mohammed Aziz. It was enough to lend an attentive ear and show plenty of interest for you to win his affection and trust. I suspect that the world is well aware that in our countries, we don’t want to listen but desire only to talk.
A week went by, during which Mohammed Aziz told me the date and time of his return to Tunisia and asked me to meet him at the Carthage Airport café, shortly after his arrival. I said yes. The generosity of my spirit correlates with the good looks of the man arriving, and our writer dripped machismo from the palms of his hands to the soles of his feet, which were dressed in a classic black shoe of Italian crafting.
I sat in the airport café and ordered a black coffee without sugar. I lit my second cigarette and suddenly felt a tap on my shoulder as a sign to turn round. Another hand, drenched in perfume, embraced me. He kissed my cheek and I pretended to be taken by surprise, leaping from my seat to hide how I had melted at his embrace. I started chatting and asking questions about his trip as a means to distract my bold tongue from inviting him back to my place.
He talked about his trip, the books he had bought in Turkey, and his Syrian comrade whom he had met in secret, away from Erdogan’s spies. He also mentioned Syrian women’s resistance to Daesh, and I thought, “God granted us a respite from Palestinian women, so he sets his sights on Syrians. Will I have to wait for a war to break out in Tunisia to make him satisfied? My God, what’s it about?”
We finished our coffees and he invited me for dinner at a Damascene restaurant that had recently opened in El Manar. I made my acceptance conditional on changing the restaurant for one in the old Medina of Tunis. I got what I wanted.
We met at the walls of the Medina to make our way to the restaurant which was lost in alleyways lit by dim streetlights. I took his left arm and started singing Tunisian melodies full of suggestion and flirtation. He commented on my voice, which he liked, and I continued singing while giving explanations of the lyrics, none of which he understood.
We arrived at the restaurant and he expressed his approval of the place. Then he expatiated in praise of my extensive knowledge of Tunisian women’s songs, as if he were discovering them like a tourist exploring a foreign country. I steered the conversation towards the history of resistance on the part of Tunisian women, the stories of el-falaqa 2, Mount Bargou 3, Kheil Salim 4, and the sabayhia 5, and accounts of women who took up arms. He commented by referring to the Free Officers revolution and Ahmed Orabi. He certainly knew the history of Gamal Abdel Nasser in detail, while quite lacking knowledge of el-Daghbaji 6. He couldn’t even understand a rural Tunisian accent, and I had to explain to him the meaning of poems and names, even the name of my tribe with its ancient Amazigh roots, as old as the oleanders and the flow of the Medjerda River.
“You’re drowning in being Tunisian.”
“No, you’re the orientalist who lost his bearings and became so enmeshed in the east that you don’t even understand our Tunisian dialect, let alone my mountain tongue.”
My answer didn’t go down well and the tenor of his conversation changed. I, however, redirected the conversation when I spotted Hamouda el-Naknouk 7, the Tunisian guitarist, sitting behind Mohammed Aziz. Even though I hated him because he acted like a prostitute, I was obliged to mention his name to stop the atmosphere from becoming any more fraught. “Aziz, have you seen who’s sitting behind you? It’s Hamouda. He’s just re-recorded My Heart is Set on an Arab Little Girl.
A spectrum of happiness danced in his eyes and he got up to say hello to the effete Hamouda, leaving me alone at the table. Hamouda leaped from his seat straight into Mohammed Aziz’s arms and showered him with kisses. He rested his head on my prince charming’s shoulder to inhale his perfume. Then I saw him invite him to join him and his friends. At that point, Mohammed Aziz gave me a sign to join them. I grabbed my bag and headed over before the anger rose in me.
“I’m sorry, I’m feeling tired and would like to go home.”
Mohammed Aziz replied, “No worries. I’ll take you back home with Hamouda.”
“Are you intending to continue your evening with him?” I retorted.
No one answered me, and I don’t think my oriental prince charming heard the question in the first place. I left the restaurant and walked defeated behind Hamouda el-Naknouk, who had tucked Mohammed Aziz’s arm under his.
I’ve always enjoyed everyday violence. I remember one incident in particular: broken glass in the dark. I’m not certain that it’s a real memory but when I relive the scene, I find it hard to contain my pleasure: the object falling, shattering to pieces. The crash made and then the whirlwind of voices in the middle of the night. My mother turning on the light to reveal the glinting shards of glass. Her open palm swooping through the air. The sound of the slap, which was very different from the sound of the glass hitting the ground, and the feeling that came with realizing that this was all part of the ceremony. A form of violence that begins with glass and ends with pain inflicted by a mother upon her child.
Many years have passed and the glass, mother and shards are long gone, as is the boy I once was, his face still stinging from the slap. Now I live in Ehio with the rest of the community. Violence is present in this town, but harmony reigns too. Amalia comes by at intervals and we love Amalia very much.
We know when she’s coming back because the air grows thick, the horses whinny and the children scream for no reason. Sometimes they’re the first to know. At first, we think they’re crying because they have a toothache, or they’re just being fussy, but then the shutters start to bang against the walls, the weather vane begins to squeak and we know she’s coming.
When Amalia comes, the red earth on the path starts to shift, it lifts up in mini-tornados and spreads through the air.
When Amalia comes, some of us start to sing.
When Amalia comes, we cross ourselves and give thanks for the wind. We’re quick to put out our offerings before she reaches the houses.
In the fifteen months since she last came, we’ve barely had time to replenish the livestock, reinforce the foundations, rebuild the wall and make holes for all the people who have joined us in the last year. Cristian and the younger men and women built double roofs for all the houses and the rest of us took care of the food and water. The children drew coloured lines along the road so she can find her way. Everyone in town has chosen their offering: embroidered textiles, plaited hair, precious metals, wooden figurines and a few carved teeth. This year, the people in the third house are going to offer up their third child: the youngest one. He’s sick. They’re giving him to her so she can sweep him up and away to a place without pain. They believe; I’ve heard them whisper it to each other after the meetings, that Amalia is the invisible arm of God.
We leave everything in the road and make a big effort with the presentation and layout so she’ll be able to see all the offerings and be tempted to take them with her. But usually, she just takes everything. The years when she leaves something behind, the person who made the offering has to go so as not to bring misfortune down upon the entire community. This year, our daughter Sally decided that our offering should be Gianfredo, our bull, so we’ve painted him red and tied him to a post decorated with flowers. He’s a little anxious. He won’t stop mooing.
We still have time to watch the first trees disappear in the distance. We all stand together and hold hands as we watch her – a ghostly white shadow moving around apparently at random, but we know she’s coming towards us. She always does. We watch the earth move and the first carts get sucked into the funnel. The lighter objects are lifted into the air and spin around in concentric circles.
“Oh, messenger from heaven, Amalia, Lady of the Wind: accept our offerings.”
After the prayer, we let go of each other’s hands and lock up the animals we were able to catch in time. Then we run for shelter behind our stone and cement wall, our fort, and make sure that everyone has a hole to watch through. We stand still and silent. We don’t speak because we like to listen to her approach, the cracking windows, thousands of objects breaking, the first house collapsing. We hear the screams – weak, sickly screams – of the ailing child from the third house. I look at the family and see that they’re crying with smiles on their faces. It might just be my mind playing tricks on me but I think I can hear Gianfredo too. Whether I can or not, there comes a time when she is all we can hear. We all creep closer to our hole to watch. No-one wants to miss it.
Inside Amalia are all the things we’ve left in the road: three cows, a bull, five horses, a pack of cards, a bath full of milk, a sick child, a sculpture made of fruit, a string instrument, a collection of books, and plenty of food and water. There are also all the things that we didn’t leave but that Amalia has taken anyway: rocks, trees, carts, whole houses, fish from the river, a few errant sheep, a wild boar she must have found somewhere, and five dead people whose bodies look as though they’re being borne aloft on a cloud of flies.
They say – I’ve never seen it myself – that when you’re right underneath, right at the point where it all begins, that it’s like a tunnel leading directly up into the sky and that at that moment it’s completely quiet and calm, all you can hear is the music of the floating things. Everything slows down. The people this happens to find it to be a life-changing experience. They are looked upon with new respect from their peers. I’d like to experience it one day myself, to hear the void and understand that sense of fulfillment they talk about. Maybe what you hear inside isn’t silence but glass breaking in the darkness and the sound of a good, hard slap. I don’t know yet. Maybe next year, when Amalia comes back.
The Imam’s words to me at the entrance to the mosque that night were strange and dramatic. He said that a pack of ferocious black cats had attacked the district and was destroying everything it came across. People had not come to evening prayer because they knew that around here the cats ruled the dark and this had struck terror into the residents. What he said was incredible, but he did not go on for long and ushered me in to pray.
Three of us prayed in reverence and calm: the Imam in his mihrab plus me and my friend Saeed behind him. I stood there firmly with a sense of serenity and confidence as if I had forgotten the frightening words of the Imam. Once we had finished prayers, he asked me to give him a lift home. I agreed, happy at the request, then went further and invited my friend Saeed to spend the night at my house.
The Imam held a large stick, but I did not ask why. I had started to question his sanity. That view changed, however, when we set off in the car and the Iman returned to his topic. I turned to my friend and asked, “What do you think about it, Saeed?” With a serious look on his face, he replied, “Yes, I’ve heard the same thing too. A neighbour told me that a group of cats attacked Mrs Nafisa. She’s pregnant and was on her way home from her parents’ down the road. The cats sprang at her and tore at her long dress. The poor woman froze helpless on the spot. All she could do was scream. She screamed with all her might, which only maddened the cats and they swooped on her. Fortunately, Mr Daniel, the French hunter, came to help her. He had his shotgun with him as well as his three dogs, and they threw themselves at the cats in a gruesome fight. With difficulty, the man rescued Mrs Nafisa from the beasts’ claws. He carried her to his house between life and death, then went back to save his dogs. But he was shocked to see that the cats had savaged them.”
My friend did not finish, for the Imam interrupted him: “Yes, my lad. God Almighty protect us, I heard the same myself and more…” Then he broke off his answer, said, “Here is far enough, thank you,” and got out after making his goodbyes. We continued our way back home, discussing the horrific and dramatic happenings. Suddenly we heard loud noises. Yes, it was them. The meowing was ear-splitting. Then they were running around us. I turned on the headlights and blew the horn. I tried to avoid them, but they crashed like waves towards us. I hit some and the meows mixed with caterwauls. Terror struck our hearts and we felt the night darken, as though the moon had been extinguished or eclipsed. God, O God, how to escape?
I stopped the car in front of my building. I steeled myself and decided to get out whatever the consequences. I opened the door and set a foot on the pavement. I tried to put my other foot down and they hurled themselves at me as one: rabid beasts driven by a fierce desire for revenge. I fell to the ground, flailing with my arms and legs. Saeed blew the horn without let up, and the neighbours hit out with sticks and ropes from every direction.
“Water! Water!” I shouted. “Spray the rabid cats with water. It’ll stop their frenzy. Water! Water!” After a few moments, I was drenched with water pouring down from above and the sides. The cats dropped back. I managed to get away and manhandled my friend Saeed and a neighbour to the house. I insisted on going to the balcony. The night was cold and damp, and the cats were jumping around in pain and fury. I felt raindrops falling. The rain gradually grew harder and the shrieks increased. Water and death spread beneath. The bodies piled up. I decided to go down and get my revenge. I rushed down the stairs and was confronted by a horrific field of death. I insisted on walking over them. One step… another… a screech… a convulsion. The black cats writhed beneath my feet.
I screamed and opened my eyes. I was alone in my room.