A Summer Night
A Summer Night.
It was a Roman summer night.
They came out of an 'osteria' - a wine-shop - near the Police station of Tomacelli street, the two of them, and started along the Corso, towards Via dei Condotti, heading for the Spanish Square, with its steps, the Fountain and the Church hovering above the street. It had been an extremely hot day, with a blazing sun which gave no respite, leaving one breathless, drained of strength and energy. There had been a mad desire to get out and go, but that was something they could not afford.
They were bums and beggers, Romanelli and he, satisfied with dragging along by the hour, with snatching a meal, somehow, or a cigarette. Romanelli was a writer waiting for his first book to be published. Albert was Romanelli's friend. He envied him his book, but affected a slightly contemptuous air of superiority, because his parents had been able to give him a more expensive education. They were friends, of a friendship the origin of which could more easily be found in a mutual need of company and in their utter indigence, than in a real affinity of mind and ideals. Albert envied Romanelli the book he had written, because he himself wanted to be a writer. Not in consequence of any need of his to say something important or deeply felt, but merely bocause the title itself (and what he thought was its range under a financial and social light) appealed to him.
They had first met in a house on the Via Flaminia, the consular road leading from Rome up to the Northern Provinces. The house had been converted into lodgings for the poorer type of guest, with seven or eight camp beds in each room. It was, comparatively speaking, good accommodation, where you could come and go as you wished, no questions asked, provided you had the money to pay. But oven that was a luxury often well beyond their reach, for Romanelli and Albert. There was, for instance, the meal problem that had to be solved first. Beppino, the owner of a restaurant patronized by tourists looking for local colour, granted them a cortain amount of credit, because, in a sense, they were part of his enterprise, representing the undiscovered-yet intellectuality of tomorrow; but, since more than a benefactor he was a caterer, he would not allow anybody to step over a limit he had previously set. So, many a time, page 12when the weather had grown better and Spring had been on the way, they had given up their bed at the 'hotel' and slept outside, in the Park of the Villa Borghese or - if they could find a discarded railway ticket to show that they had just alighted from a train and were waiting for a morning tram home - in one of the waiting-rooms of the Station.
They were in Via dei Condotti, now. The Spanish Square was straight ahead and they could see the outline of the Church steeple. The fashionable shop-windows, on both sides of the street, were empty. The heat of the day had receded a little. They had spent the evening drinking iced wine and idly talking with some American friends of Romanelli's, until closing time, and had refused a lift home in the Americans' car, because they had no idea of where to go.
They came to Via Mario de' Fiori, a cross-street, which boasted two of the city's cheapest and most sordid brothels, and were starting across it, when Albert said:
'I wonder if the cigarette-woman is still up.' There usually was an old woman, two blocks to the left, who stood on the corner of the street selling black-market American cigarettes, loose or by the packet.
'How much have you got?' Romanelli asked.
'Twenty lire. We might get two cigarettes, if we are lucky.'
They passed by the locked doors of one of the brothels, and Albert looked up at the window-shutters which, in accordance with some Police regulation, had to be kept closed at all times.
'Would you fall in love with a woman from up there?' he asked.
'Perhaps. They are women after all.'
'Wouldn't you feel any disgust thinking...?'
'Why?' Romanelli said, 'Were all the other women you have known as pure as lilies?'
Albert did not feel like arguing now. He had put that absurd question, but he did not know exactly where he stood and what his ideas were. Vittorini's Red Carnation, about a love affair between an ageing prostitute and an innocent youth, had just come on the market and greatly impressed him. He felt that he might like to make a whore fall in love with him, make her lose her head for him, if only to satisfy his vanity and a morbid sense of curiosity. But he could not go any further page 13than that; and he could not imagine what his reactions would be to such an unlikely happening. He did not care to imagine either: his age was still the age when all the complications of that most basic of all human relationships ware hidden behind a curtain of inexperience and vague cock-sureness.
Romanelli said, 'Someone is there. Look.'
Albert walked on, heading for the newspaper stand, right on the corner of the block, where the cigarette-vendor used to wait for her customers. He saw a shadow and thought, from the way it undulated out of the beam of a lamp-post, that it was trying to keep out of sight.
'Are you the...Oh, no,' he said, and then asked, 'Where is the woman with the cigarettes?'
'Asleep, maybe,' the shadow said, 'but I can give you a smoke, if you want me to.' They were very close now and could see each other. Romanelli, too, had come nearer.
'Think of it,' said Albert. 'It's Pierre.'
Romanelli chuckled and spat 'Jee,' he said 'He beats a street-walker hands down. Looking for a mate all the year round, night and day, day and night...'
'Take it easy' said Pierre calmly. 'As long as I don't bother upright and proper (and he stressed the adjectives) young people no harm is done, is it?' Then he added eagerly, 'How about some coffee? On me, of course?'
'Go to hell,' said Romanelli.
'Well, a cup of coffee doesn't mean a thing and there isn't much else you can do. Or is there?'
'No,' said Romanelli. 'We aren't going.'
'Listen here,' went on Pierre convincingly, 'What are you being pig-headed for? A lot of people with a lot of brains - think of Gide, Cocteau, even Napoleon, look at Williams - are like me. We don't smell; we indulge pleasures of our own. What is that to you?'
'I'd like to knock your teeth in,' said Romanelli. 'Shut up.'
Albert was uneasy. He had never seen Romanelli so upset and could not see any real reason for his sudden outburst of temper. For months they had contrived to live on petty expediences and tricks, luring perfectly unwary people, often met quite by chance, into inviting them to dinner or lunch; for months they had been putting aside all principles of page 14dignity and pride and self-respect merely to survive, and entrenched themselves behind an almost sincere belief that they would assert themselves, one day, that their merits would be deservedly acknowledged, and that, then, they would change their way of life. All considered, Albert reasoned, what difference does it make whether it is Pierre or...Ann, or Sciortino, or Lulli, or Margaret the Australian... So many names, so many faces. Too many, perhaps. And he could not even kid himself that their scrounging was passing undetected. At times he wondered why he had mismanaged himself into such a situation and, at times, he wished he could go back to the quiet, monotonous sort of family life he had left to seek he did not himself know what in the big, big city. But the way back was barred to him. Not because of his pride - he had none - not because of blind confidence in his own values, but simply because - in a much more bourgeoisway - his father refused to have anything to do with him any longer.
Pierre was smiling ironically, shifting his eyes from one to the other of the two in front of him. He had sensed that Albert had nothing really against him, that he might favour the idea of getting something for nothing, and kept an interrogative stare, for a brief while, on him.
Pierre was slim and tall and wore a white silk shirt with an open collar, styled after the romantic, slightly effeminate fashion of the last century, with a pair of blue trousers of gaberdine. A complicated bracelet with a few silver charms dangled from his left wrist. He looked extremely young: the air of a harmless, defenceless boy of 16 or 17. His face, only, was worn out and tired: the face of an ugly woman on the threshold of her forties. He had stopped worrying about his 'peculiarity' now, and accepted it as a natural phenomenon, unworthy of a second thought. People who disliked him did not touch him any longer: he had grown insensitive to criticism and impoliteness and armoured himself with the firm opinion that homosexuality was a sure sign of a superior mind.
'How about chucking it?' Albert said.
'Chucking what?' Romanelli retorted.
'Being fussy. You have been insulting him pointlessly. You need not go and sleep with him if he offers you a cup of coffee.'
'Yes, that's the way to look at it,' confirmed Pierre.
'All right. Let's go,' Romanelli said after a moment's pause.page 15
They moved and were in the Spanish Square a few minutes later. Albert turned to look at the Stairs. The previous night, they had crouched behind its balustrade, where the first flight of steps comes to an end to give room to the terrace, and talked and tried to rest beneath a dully blue sky, flickering with stars. They had been restless, full of desires and blurred hopes and could not sleep. Romanelli had started to talk about his book and Albert had felt a deep sense of humiliation. 'To tell you the truth, he had said, I don't think your book has any objective outstanding value.' He knew he was being bitter and unfair, but he could not help it. He wanted to break and destroy whatever satisfaction or pride Romanelli might feel. He was nearing an impotent form of obsession at the realization - slowly but surely coming on him - that he would never be able to write anything.
'What do you mean?' Romanelli had said.
'You know what I mean. You can criticize a book yourself, and you know that your book will attract some interest only because of the present political conditions. You have some good descriptions and some tension at times, but that something which makes a masterpiece, an ever-lasting book, is missing.'
Although Romanelli had been hurt, he had not shown it and had chosen not to debate the real values of his book, as people do sometimes when they do not want to discuss faults of other people they love.
'Who wants the masterpiece?' he had said, as if it had been a very naive mistake that of believing that he did. 'All I want is something with my name on its cover, that I can use as a testimonial for a job with a newspaper. I don't like having to wander around at night.' And the explanation, or justification, was plausible enough.
Albert had felt placated; somehow, the admission that Romanelli did not want any literary fame but only a chance to perform a routine job, had blunted the sharpness of his envy. He had just been told that Romanelli recognized the lack of any superior aspiration, and this had put them again on the same level. He had not felt pained any longer.
'Still, it is a beautiful night' he had said softly. 'Isn't it a beautiful night?' he had asked. 'You can nearly touch it. It's velvety; it's a lovers' night. I wish I could be in love and express what this place and this night are: the whiteness of the stones and the lights of the streets, the muffled scent of the flowers, long after they are gone, the page 16years, the warmth that comes up and wraps you. If I only could do it, I might any perhaps that I have given beauty a new shape or, at least, that I have been able to reach it.'
Romanelli had looked mockingly at him. 'How much of this stuff is yours,' he had said 'and how much is copied? I'd like to know from where your augary sense of aesthetics comes. Your beauty is nonsense. Where is it and what is it like? Of all the stupid wishes you might have wished, couldn't you have chosen a more practical one?'
Romanelli probably had been taking an unconscious revenge for what Albert had said about his book, but he had said what he really thought. The night was there, and it was uncommon and he himself was affected by it, but Albert had miseed its qualities, he felt, or perhaps used inadequate words. Above all, Albert had sounded stale and untrue. Like a resume of old text-books or a digest of all the verse that was being written by the useless artistic flops of the 'Baretto' or 'Via dei Grecl'.
It was then that Albert had hurriedly said, 'Let's do something; let's do something. Let's go.'
And all desires had gone; and the feeling, true or not, that he was on the edge of a new knowledge or discovery had no longer been there. They had descended the Stairs and headed for a bar in a street nearby which stayed open all night.
The same bar they ware heading for now.
The water of the Fountain was the only break in the quietness of the night. From the Piazza del Popolo, through Via del Babuino, a huge American car floated by, silent and mysterious, slowly over-taking them.
They walked on, without saying a word. They had their thoughts and dreams; they were different and detached, each in the safe shell of his own private world. Pierre and his degradation (or was it degradation?); Romanelli and his book and the suddenly comforting thought that they might go and have lunch at the cafeteria of the unita', the official daily of the Communist Party, next day; Albert and his envy, and his despair at knowing that he was just a common specimen of humanity.
'Ehi...' Romanelli said, while going past the dark entrance of a cinema 'Tomorrow....'
'Today...' corrected Albert, just to say something. 'It must be three o'clock.'page 17
'Today,' went on Romanelli, 'we'll go and eat at the Unita'.'
'Are you Communists now?' said Pierre.
'Mind your own damn business,' snapped back Romanelli.
And suddenly Albert realized that Pierre was submissively taking all that Romanelli thought of handing him and did not seem likely to react in any way, be offended and leave them alone.
The fact that they could eat at the Unita' was funny. Romanelli had had one of his stories - one about a serious execution carried on playfully and jokingly - refused by that paper. 'It is illogical, they had said, and without the slight trace of social struggle. This poor dope of yours, for instance. You can't let him hang to give a side-show to a country-town fair, on a charge of stealing three pears. He ought to be a martyr, die for something, (as if anybody could really die for something). And the Mayor; and the teacher of the village...Can't you make them something more than two stupid and cruel men?' They had failed to see the grotesque side of it, or, if they had not, they had not thought of letting their readers see it. Romanelli had said he could not and he would not change his story, and the story had been rejected. But he had gained something from this approach; permission to go and have, every now and then, a very reasonable meal at the Staff-cafeteria, if he just cared to go without becoming too conspicuous. Romanelli took Albert along with him as a matter of course. He kept to himself the fact that he had joined the Fascist Party during the war and did not let his conscience be troubled. Albert had no political ideas whatsoever and therefore had no problems. He went there for a practical purpose only, and forgot about it as soon as he left the table.
When they came to the Largo del Tritone, they saw, slightly to their right and flooding through open doors and windows, the lights of the bar. Straight ahead, shone the long empty tunnel with its myrias white enamelled tiles, like the inside of a public lavatory.
Albert was beginning to feel tired. He wanted to sit down and sleep. And, confusedly, he wanted to write a story. A story with no great ideas, with neither love nor hatred, with only common people attending to common things. 'Like those from the 'Tortilla Flats',' he thought. He had not liked them; he did not like Steinbeck at all, for that. But Tortilla page 18Flats had been a great success, the public had liked it and one has to please the public if one wants success so badly, he thought. A story with a sprinkling of truth in it, beautiful and musical, with its words creating the impression of rhythm, evocative of something clean and peaceful. Something to outsmart the huge beast: something different from and at the same time similar to 'Cannery Row', or 'Arc of Triumph', or 'For Whom the Bell Tolls'. He had come to the conclusion that the Americans held the key to literary success and that, as long as he followed the pattern, nothing could go wrong. The only trouble is - he was convinced - that we have no Missouri or California here, no wide plains, no oceans, no swift sounding names like Rock Teel or Jimmy Lo, no language apt to catch the nervousness and energy of our times.
There were some men and women, on the pavement, just outside the bar, talking. A woman laughed, tiredly. There was a hunchbacked dwarf with them, and Albert remembered having seen him in some vaudeville show, years back, during the war: a comedian specializing in impersonations.
The dwarf turned to look at them and, recognizing Pierre, waved his hand.
Pierre said, 'Hallo, darling,' and Romanelli shook his head. And he wondered if it could really be true: here they were, in the great city they had been brought up to think of as the 'cradle of civilization'; here they were and here were the people and this was the city. 'Perhaps the trouble is with us; with Albert and me,' he thought. 'We are on the wrong side of the road and don't see the people on the other side. Or, perhaps, it's the artistic colony to be like this.' And he scorned the word artistic, within himself, as if it were worn-out and meaningless.
A stooping man stood leaning against the door-jamb. He looked down on them, disdainful and condescending, his head slightly bent, his eyes half closed. It was as if he were winking and saying, 'Go on, go on; there is no harm. And you must live too, mustn't you?' He was slightly familiar, although they could not say who he was.
Pierre nodded at him, while going in, but he did not answer. He stood there, still, superior and far-away.
The bar was empty, but for a man asleep at one of the small tables and a woman standing by the cashier's desk. The man lay with his head on his forearms, slumped across the top page 19of the table and there was a touching air of loneliness and despair about him.
When the bartender saw them, he shouted, 'Three espressi?' half-way between an enquiry and a flat statement. Albert said, 'No. A beer for me and a roll.'
Pierre looked at Romanelli, 'And you?'
They wont to the cashier's desk. The girl behind the cash-register stopped talking with the other woman and stared at them waiting for their orders.
The other woman kept her eyes on Romanelli for a moment, then smiled and said,''Hi, Gio'. Hallo.'
Albert thought that he had met her somewhere, but he could not remember where or when. He did not like being seen with Pierre now. Something in his background, deep in him, had stirred instinctively. A faint sense of shame. He glanced at her quickly and lowered his eyes. Then turned and went to the counter, while Pierre handed the money to the girl and Romanelli and Gloria started to whisper. He thought, 'I'll have to ask him about her.'
He said, 'God, I am dead tired.'
The bartender said, 'What will you have in your roll?'
'Ham,' Albert said, 'What's the money like in a job like this?' The bartender handed him the roll, in a paper wrapper, and ignored his question. He went to his machine and pulled levers and turned taps and switches: steam whistled through the jets and white bubbles of coffee.
Pierre was standing by the counter, waiting.
The dwarf came in and cried, 'One for me, Alfredo.' Then he pointed at Albert and said, 'Well, Pierre, do introduce us, will you?'
And Pierre, with a curt jerk of his hand went through the formalities, 'This is Valdemaro; this is Albert.'
'Wonderful.' Valdemaro smiled. 'We are friends now. We are friends, aren't we? Have you ever seen this?' He searched one of his pockets. 'Wait a minute, wait a minute. Tell me now; isn't it cute?' and thrust forward his hand, for everyone to see.
Pierre was sipping his coffee.page 20
Albert was esting his roll and holding his glass of beer in his other hand.
Alfredo, the bartender, his shoulders against the large mirror behind the counter, was yawning sleepily.
Pierre addressed Romanelli, who was still by the cashier's desk talking to Gloria, 'Your coffee, Gio'. Before it gets cold.' Gloria and Romanelli moved and Gloria said, 'One coffee for me, Alfredo. I am a derelict tonight,' and giggled.
Valdemaro - a court-jester's silhouette, his back distorted, short and old and hopping funnily, the obscene caricature of a featherless bird - went around from one to the other showing a small toy of celluloid: a naked hunch-back wearing on his head an out-of-proportion rubber hood. When he squeezed it, a thin thread of water flowed out. 'Ah ah,' he laughed convulsively, 'isn't he funny? and look, look...Isn't it big and nice for a hunch-back so small? A mule; I tell you he's a mule.' It was like a sudden attack of hysteria. 'What do you think?' he asked and went close to Albert. His eyes were fixed and bright. He leaned heavily against him and lifted his head and looked at him expectantly.
Albert felt the sudden impulse to throw his beer in those eyes. He felt embarrassed and uncertain about what to do. He could not feel any real anger and he could not make himself believe what he saw. 'It must be a joke,' he thought. 'This must be his sense of humour.' And again he felt ashamed for being with Pierre. Then he could not stand it any more. 'What a cow, what a cow,' he thought. He pushed Valdemaro back violently.
'Christ,' he said, 'stay away, or I'll smash you. Go pigging somewhere else.'
Valdemaro looked at Pierre with a surprised querulous look on his face. Then his eyes wandered to Albert.
'Go to bloody hell,' said Albert.
Pierre shrugged his shoulders. 'Someone must have had a wrong feeling...' and asked for a glass of water.
Gloria and Romanelli started to laugh and suddenly everything was again normal. Valdemaro, after a last helpless glance, headed for the door.
Gloria said, 'I am going now.' Her eyes went from Romanelli to Albert to Pierre and she added dubiously, 'Well... Bye.'
'Albert and I'll see you home, if you don't mind,' said Romanelli.
'That'd be fine, but...' and she looked at Pierre.page 21
'Let the poor bastard be,' said Romanelli. 'He only wanted us to have something on him. Didn't you, Pierre?'
'That's right,' nodded Pierre.
'Thank you very much, then.'
'See you,' said pierre.
'Cheerio,' said Albert. Then, to Alfredo, 'Would you speak to the boss when he is back?'
'Oh, forget it.'
The street outside was empty. The darkness of the night was fading and the light from the lamp-posts was no longer bright. A night-watchman yawned and pedalled by, going down Via del Tritone to Piazza Colonna. Gloria shivered in her light evening gown and held Romanelli's arm tighter. Three people out of place and anachronistic at that hour. The city was going to wake up soon: tram and bus-drivers, street-sweepers and taxi-men would be out. A lorry cut through Piazza Barberine leaving a faint echo behind.
Gloria quickened her pace. Because she was cold and sleepy perhaps, or because she did not want to meet anyone.
Without actually speaking to either of them in particular, she said slowly, 'When I saw you two with Pierre, I thought you'd made up your minds.' And there was a strange tone of finality in her voice. Romanelli was brought to see himself in the actual dramatic gesture of casting the die and crossing a bridge over to a land from which no return would be possible. And he smiled for an instant at his way of dramatizing things. 'Caesar at the Rubicon,' he thought. 'What a crazy life.'
'It isn't so simple as that,' he said after a while. 'There are certain things one can't do. Lack of courage, maybe. But at times, when one is down and hungry and can't see any way ahead, one can talk and try to be logical and business-like. One might come to the conclusion that anything would be easy: stealing or being a prostitute. Making love to a woman or a man, in the end, must be quite the same thing: they ought to give the same sensations and the some results. But, in my case, and probably because I am a coward, when I come down to realities, I seem to go bang against something which does not want to work. It is neither decency, nor morality, nor even... It's the body and a fear or will-power of its own. I am not, that is I wouldn't like to be a boorish prig - I can't afford to be one - but there is something like physical revulsion and loathing. They are not in one's mind, but one can't do anything against them. Actually, it seems that one's mind, these days, seems page 22ashamed of making distinctions between morality and immorality, filth and cleanliness. I don't know if I am clear and if you see my point. It must be different to a woman: it is sort of natural with her. All she has to do is lie down quietly, shut her eyes, let herself go and wait....'
Gloria stiffened and slowad down.
'I am sorry, Gloria,' he said. He could not think of anything else to say. 'Shall we ever have a normal life again?' he wondered.
Albert took her arm and intervened gently. 'Don't take him seriously, Gloria. He hasn't grown up yet and he's got complexes. Will you answer a question?'
'Where have we met before?'
'Does it matter really?' she said. 'I work in a night-club, and those blonde girls are so much like one another that you might easily confuse me with someone else.'
He did not go on. He felt his tiredness again: his legs were heavy and did not want to move. It's the body's own willpower... Rome's pavements and her steep streets; History, with a capital H in each and every stone of hers; one of her walls, solid and ancient, covered by grass, and the cars parked by the kerb; the colour of dawn in his eyes heavy with sleep and the thought of a future stretching no farther than twelve a.m.. The future of man who is a date with the hangman.
When they reached Gloria's place, it was daylight.
She went through a small silk bag (had it ever been a sow's ear?) hanging from her wrist, found her key and opened the big gate. She stepped inside and turned to Romanelli and Albert, who had stopped outside.
'Come up and sleep, if you like,' she said. 'I have nobody today.'
'What was she doing five or six years ago?' Romanelli thought. 'No, thank you all the same,' he said.
'Don't let's waste time,' she said, 'and don't be fussy. There's a settee and a bed, and they are yours.'
'No, it's very kind of you...'
'I'm going up,' said Albert. 'If you won't, I'll see you at twelve.' He smiled at Gloria, stepped in past the gate and went to the lift.
It was going to be another day.