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Experiment 7


page 55


I thought, once, of an old man I knew, who came back from Brazil to fight a lost war for what he called his ideals, and was stabbed at one o'clock in the morning by three or four people he had welcomed as friends.

I brooded for a while over his puny figure stretched on the green baize cover of a billiard table, with his crossed hands kept together on his chest by an old brown Rosary and with his ashen face; I even wrote a poem about it, but then I forgot him and thought it was not important to be moved by his experience. His death had been his own personal affair, and perhaps that of his family, of the people he left, not mine. Me, I was glad I had not been in his place and I had not died then.

Now, it is Tonin, or Turlin as we called him with a childish perversity, because we knew he did not like to have his name twisted and ruined. I saw him live through a period of eight or nine years, in a very clear, concentrated sort of movie flash-bad, during the few moments I had been standing by a window in an office. Perhaps he, too, is dead now, and he must have needed an extra-size coffin. Because, the last time I heard of him, they told me he was as blown up as a rubber balloon, and he was full of water in his joints and head, an unusual malady, and could do nothing but sit on an armchair and let his mother feed him and wash him and put him to bed as if he had just been born. I did not go to see him, although I should have, because I would not have known what to do. And, probably, he would not have recognized me and I would have met him for the first time agai[unclear: n] a slobbering, drivelling idiot.

If he is not dead, unless I go there again, I will never know for sure whether he still sits by his window, in a new concrete block of flats built after the war, keeping his eyes on the valley where the river flows and the peasants sweat and ourse their fate, on the railway line and the hills opposite, or whether he has rotted or is rotting on a shelf in one of those cement cupboards they have built at the cemetery, because there is no room to dig holes in the ground any longer.

And, you know, I saw him all at once, from the time I met him when he was eleven, to the time I left him, without seeing him, when he was twenty, all in one great lump, too hard to split, too big to swallow, quite alone as if he were the only boy in the world besides myself. There were seven or eight of us, and he was the oldest. We were rushing up and down the hill where the town was, jumping fences and stealing peaches and watermelons, smoking cigarettes where nobody could see us, page 56swimming in a pool of that bony, trickling summer river, following the girls we did not know what to do with. Just following them and laughing and blushing if they saw us and whispered in each other's ear, in their summer frocks which were light and brightly coloured. There was a three-storey house where we said a girl fell in love with every man who gave her money, and we wished to be there so that a girl could fall in love with us.

And I saw him, too, walking beside me, in a narrow street in Naples, and I had a girl with me, and the war had been over for a while, and he was all envious and a little jealous because the girl was more beautiful than any of the other ones we had run after in those old summers of ours.

It was the only time I could not associate him with the warmth of summer and the dusty hill-tracks and the long evenings of our home town. It was the beginning of winter and he was in Naples to become a Veterinary surgeon and learn things scientifically about cows and dogs and stallions.

There is a fluttering of green and black, which was quite the fashion that year, but the girl is blurred. She is there between us, but I cannot see what she is doing or saying or why she left us at the entrance of the Gallery, in front of the Opera House. I cannot see her although she was, and has been for a long time since, the only girl that mattered, the great thing that puts a hand in you and wrenches and makes your mouth go dry.

When we were alone and went into a restaurant and sat down, Tonin said 'she isn't your girl. You'd never manage to hold a girl like that.'

'That so?' I said 'You think everybody is like you.' And we did not say much else.

The next summer I saw him again and he said 'You didn't fool me for one moment, I knew you weren't her type.' I never talked of her again, to him or anybody else, because I felt I had been too foolish to let her go like that.

The pool in the river had also gone. When I looked for it, Tonin said 'It went five years ago, when the 8th Army arrived.' We went along the bank for a while, searching for another place that looked like the old pool, but we could not find any. Tonin said 'There, look; there. The water is deep enough. That's where they go now.' But I did not like it and said 'No, you go.' I could not get used to the idea that something I had kept alive in my memory all those years had page 57disappeared so unexpectedly; I could not understand how Tonin could go and enjoy swimming in a place which was not THAT pool.

We went up and chose another track and we reached a high point on the hill and we had all the winding road from the South beneath us, when he said 'In 1943, five Germans held up the British here for a day and a half. They had an anti-tank gun and they kept shifting it all over the place and shooting them up. Want to see their grave ? They are buried near here.' I said 'No.' and he said 'Oh well...'

I think it was then I remembered the other man who had been stabbed to death.

We never talked of the war too much, because that - in a way - had been to us what the stormy winter had been to the pool, the ultimate cause of the flood that had rubbed it out of existence: the war had rubbed the landmarks in our souls away. But there, near the grave, I said to him 'Why aren't they buried in the cemetery?'

'They're Germans' he said 'Why should we worry?'

'They were people, too' I said 'And after all, we were with them to begin with.'

'Let their own folks cove and get them.' he said.

They speak of lights going off all over the world and coming on again and all that, but one never thinks of what those lights really mean: one sees electric bulbs going on and off, like flashlight signals, and hears an old voice on an old record and some noise in the background.

Nobody ever says what happens when the light in a man's soul dies out and he can see only an endless expanse of burned tree-stumps and black-market cigarettes and strumpets and pimps and strangers. And neatly stacked heaps of square stones from bombed buildings.

'Turlin,' I said 'you've got no sense of honour.'

'That's a luxury only who wins can afford. Don't talk rot' he said.

One, two, ... ready ... go ... We race, we swing on a rope-swing from the branch of an oak tree.

When we are by the jail building, we always look up and hope to see the faces of someone behind the bars, of nasty men, page 58of criminals. We don't like being shut inside and there is a strange feeling that we must not disturb them: we stop shouting when we pass by the huge iron gate, we walk on tip-toes and we feel pity for the men in there. We hate the men in peaked caps who guard them and we would boo if we were not too afraid.

I said goodbye to Tonin two or three days after we had stopped near the grave of the German soldiers and went back to Naples where I was working. He said he would come and see me when the new school year started, but I did not give him my new address. I could not help it. I said 'Yes , I'll see you' I did not mean it and he must have known it, because he smiled and said 'Come on, cheer up. It is as if the world were dead. What's the matter?'

I heard that he was ill less than a month later and that he was not likely to ever get up again. Tonin was already a non-entity for me, the thread that kept us together had been broken and, by then, I looked on him as I would have looked on one of those invertebrate, limbless, creeping creatures which you cut into two and which still manage to survive as if nothing had happened.

I did not pay much attention to what they wrote to me; I was too far away to be physically affected by his absence and I preferred to keep him out of my mind, not to be obliged to be sorry or compassionate. It occurred to me that he was the one who always signed himself when we passed a church and always kissed a priest's hand when we met one; and it made me smile when I thought of all those gestures and hand-lickings gone for nothing.

When I went to my home-town for the last time before I left, to have a look around and walk the main street once again and see the people I knew and the old Cathedral and the market-place, that had shrunk since the days I was a child, I refused to see him. I brooded over him for a while and I was glad I was not Tonin and I was glad I still had the world within my reach. His experience was just his own, personal affair, and probably that of his mother as well, but not mine. I said to Mimmo, one of the old gang who still saw him occasionally 'What would be the use? He doesn't recognize anybody; he doesn't remember anything.'

At six. o'clock one morning, one spring-time morning, I turned around, just before disappearing behind a corner, and had a last long look at the lanceolate leaves of an oleander on the balcony of a grey house where I had happened to be born.

page 59

And now that I have seen Tonin, the boy-Tonin he has remained in some forgotten corner of my mind, although I am not certain of whether he is still alive: a bubble of inert living matter, I seem to be sharing a window-watching experience with him.

We are both inside, in two rooms twelve thousand miles away, looking out for the hills and valleys we would like to have again, for our youth without time that is irreparably gone: he, unable to see because there is water in his brains; I, unable to see because there is a sad, concrete cupboard for living dead across my road, not farther than 30 yards away.

I must admit Tonin got to the window first.