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Summer  2  The park-bench holiday

(Italo Calvino — Estate  2  La villeggiatura in panchina)

On his way to work each morning, Marcovaldo walked under the green of a tree-lined piazza, a carved-out square of public garden in the midst of four roads. He looked up through the foliage of the horse chestnuts, where they were at their thickest and only let a glimmer of yellow rays penetrate the shade, transparent with sap, and he listened to the off-key racket of invisible sparrows in the branches. They sounded to him like nightingales, and he said to himself, ‘Oh, if only I could once wake up to the twittering of birds and not to the sound of the alarm clock, and the new baby Paulino’s screams, and my wife Domitilla’s rants!’ Or, ‘Oh, if only I could sleep here, alone in the midst of this green cool, and not in my nasty hot room; here in the silence, not with the whole family snoring and talking in their sleep, and the trams rattling down in the street; here in the natural dark of the night, not in the artificial dark of those closed blinds, striped with the reflection of headlights; oh, if only I could see leaves and the sky when I open my eyes!’ It was with these thoughts that every day Marcovaldo began his eight hours — plus overtime — as an unskilled labourer.

In one corner of the piazza, under a dome of horse chestnuts, there was a secluded park bench, half hidden. And Marcovaldo had already selected it as his own. On those summer nights, when he couldn’t get to sleep in a room where five of them were sleeping, he dreamed about the park bench, as a homeless person might dream about a bed in a palace. One night, silently, while his wife was snoring and the children were kicking in their sleep, he got out of bed, dressed, put his pillow under his arm, went out and walked to the piazza.

There, there was cool and peace. Already he was looking forward to the touch of those wooden boards, which he was sure would be soft and welcoming, altogether preferable to his bed’s unyielding mattress; he had looked up for a moment at the stars and had closed his eyes in a sleepiness which soothed all the hurts of the day.

Cool and peace were there, but the bench wasn’t free. Two lovers were sitting on it, looking into each other’s eyes. Marcovaldo discreetly withdrew. ‘It’s late,’ he thought. ‘They’re surely not going to spend the night in the open! They’ll soon finish their billing and cooing!’

But the two of them were definitely not billing and cooing; they were arguing. And when two lovers are arguing you can never tell when it’s going to finish.

He was saying, ‘But won’t you admit that when you said what you said, you knew it would upset me instead of pleasing me like you pretended to think?’

Macrovaldo understood that he was in for the long haul.

‘No, I won’t admit it,’ she answered, just as Marcovaldo had expected.

‘Why won’t you admit it?’

‘I will never admit it.’

‘Oh dear,’ thought Marcovaldo. With his pillow squeezed under his arm, he went for a walk, to look at the moon, which was full, huge above the trees and the roofs. He turned back towards the bench, circling at a little distance so as not to disturb them, but in fact hoping to be a bit of a nuisance and persuade them to leave. But they were too carried away in their discussion to take notice of him.

‘So you admit it?’

‘No, no, I absolutely do not admit it!’

‘But supposing you did admit it?’

‘Even supposing I did admit it, I would never admit what you want me to admit!’

Marcovaldo went back to looking at the moon, then to look at a traffic light a little way away. The traffic light showed yellow, yellow, yellow, continually flashing, again and again. Marcovaldo compared the moon and the traffic light: the moon with its mysterious pallor, yellow too, but with an undertone of green and even blue, and the traffic light with its vulgar little garish yellow. And the moon, utterly calm, radiating its unhurried light, veiled now and then by delicate wisps of clouds, which she majestically let fall over her shoulders; meanwhile the traffic light, always there, constantly going on and off, on and off, breathless, falsely lively, weary and enslaved.

He went back to see if the girl had admitted it; certainly not, she wasn’t admitting it, in fact it was no longer she who wasn’t admitting it, it was he. The situation had completely reversed, and she was saying to him, ‘So, do you admit it?’ and he was saying he didn’t. Half an hour passed in this way. In the end he admitted it, or she did; at any rate Marcovaldo saw them get up and walk away, holding hands.

He ran to the bench and threw himself down on it; but the fact was that in the interim, with all the waiting, something of the sweetness he was expecting to find there he was no longer in a frame of mind to feel; moreover, he no longer remembered his bed at home as being as hard as all that. But these were trifles; his determination to enjoy the night in the open remained firm. His face sank into the pillow and he composed himself for sleep: the kind of sleep to which he had not been accustomed for a long time.

By now he had found the most comfortable position. He wouldn’t move a millimetre for anything in the world. Only it was a shame that in staying like that, his glance didn’t only take in a prospect of trees and sky in such a way that sleep would close his eyes on a vision of absolute serenity; but before him there appeared, in a foreshortened line, a tree, a general’s sword on the top of his monument, another tree, a billboard carrying public notices, a third tree, and then, a bit further away, that fake intermittent moon the traffic light, which continued to blink its yellow, yellow, yellow.

I need to say that recently Marcovaldo’s nervous system had been in such a bad state that, however dead tired he was, it only needed a tiny thing, he only needed to get it into his head that something was bothering him, and he couldn’t sleep. And now it was that traffic light that was bothering him, flashing on and off. It was a long way away over there, a solitary yellow winking eye; there was no need to worry about it. But Marcovaldo must have been suffering from nervous exhaustion; he stared at the light flashing on and off and said to himself, over and over, ‘How well I would sleep if that wretched thing weren’t there! How well I would sleep!’ He closed his eyes and seemed to sense under the eyelids that stupid yellow light, going on, going off; he half-opened them and he could see dozens of traffic lights; he opened them fully, and there it was just as before.

He got up. He had to put a screen between him and the traffic light. He went up to the general’s statue and looked around. At the foot of the monument was a laurel wreath, nice and thick, but now dry and beginning to fall apart, mounted on sticks, with a wide faded band: ‘The Fifteenth Lancers on the Anniversary of their Glory’. Marcovaldo clambered onto the pedestal, lifted up the wreath, and slipped it onto the general’s sabre.

Tornaquinci the night watchman on patrol was crossing the piazza on his bicycle; Marcovaldo posted himself behind the statue. Tornaquinci had seen the shadow of the monument move on the ground; he stopped, full of suspicion. He examined that wreath on the sabre; he knew that something was out of place, but he wasn’t quite sure what the something was. He aimed the beam of his torch up there and read: ‘The Fifteenth Lancers on the Anniversary of their Glory’. He nodded his head in a sign of approval and went on.

So as to let him get further away, Marcovaldo took another turn around the piazza. In a nearby street, a gang of workers was repairing the points on the tram tracks. At night, in the deserted streets, these little groups crouching down in the glow of their welding torches, their voices echoing and then suddenly muffled, have an air of secrecy, as if of folk attending to things which inhabitants of the day must never know about. Marcovaldo approached and stood looking at the flame and at the workmen’s movements with slightly embarrassed attention and with eyes which kept wanting to close in sleep. He looked for a cigarette in his pocket, to keep him awake, but he didn’t have any matches. ‘Anyone give me a light?’ he asked the workmen. ‘With this?’ said the man with the oxyacetylene torch, which threw out a shower of sparks.

Another workman got up and handed him a lighted cigarette. ‘You work nights too?’

‘No, I do days.’

‘So what are you doing up at this hour? We’ll be knocking off soon.’

He went back to the bench. He lay down. Now the traffic light was hidden from his view; now, at last, he could go to sleep.

He hadn’t noticed the noise before. Now that buzz, like a deep intake of breath and at the same time like an interminable rasping and even a crackle, was continuously filling his ears. There is no sound more haunting than that of a welding torch: a kind of whispered scream. Marcovaldo, motionless, huddled there on the bench, his face against the crumpled pillow, found no escape from it, and the noise continued to call to his mind the illuminated scene with the grey torch spewing out golden sparks, the men crouching on the ground with smoked-glass visors covering their faces, the rapid trembling movement of the welding torch in the hand, the pool of shadow around the tool cart, the tall tower, formed like a trellis, reaching up to the wires. He opened his eyes, turned over on the bench, and looked at the stars through the branches. The untroubled sparrows continued to sleep up there in the leaves.

To go to sleep like a bird, to have a wing you can bend your head under, in a world of branches suspended over the terrestrial world, which you’re hardly aware of below, its sound muffled and distant… Once a person begins to disavow his own present state, who knows where he will end up? Now Marcovaldo, in order to get to sleep, needed a certain something, but he didn’t quite know what it was. Not even complete and total silence would work for him now; he needed a background noise softer than silence, a light breeze passing through the thick of undergrowth, or the murmur of water trickling and losing itself in a meadow.

He had an idea and he got up. It wasn’t exactly an idea, because, half dazed with the sleepiness steadily overcoming him, he wasn’t forming any thoughts properly; but it was a kind of recollection that around there somewhere was something connected to the idea of water, to its subdued chatter as it splashes and flows.

As a matter of fact it was a fountain, close by, a grandiose work of sculpture and hydraulics, complete with nymphs, fauns and river gods who interwove gushes, jets and sprays of water. Except that it was dry; at night, in summer, given the meagre flow from the aqueduct, they closed it. Marcovaldo wandered around it a bit like a sleepwalker; more by instinct than by reasoning he knew that a cistern must have a tap. He who has eyes finds what he’s looking for even with eyes closed. He opened the tap; from the shells, from the beards, from the horses’ nostrils fierce jets shot out, a glistening patina veiled the artificial clefts in the rocks, and all that water resounded in the great empty piazza like the organ in a choir loft: a combination of all the gurgling and roaring that water can make. The night watchman Tornaquinci, who was coming back on his bicycle in the pitch dark, putting tickets under doorways, suddenly seeing before his very eyes the fountain exploding like a liquid firework, almost fell off his saddle.

Marcovaldo, trying to open his eyes as little as possible so as not to lose that remnant of sleep which seemed now to be in his grasp, ran and threw himself onto the bench. And yes, now he was as if on the bank of a stream, with woodland above him, and yes, he slept.

He dreamt of a meal. The plate was covered so that the pasta wouldn’t go cold. He uncovered it, and there was a dead mouse, which stank. He looked at his wife’s plate; there was another mouse carcass. Confronting the children were other little mice, smaller but half putrefied too. He took the lid off the soup tureen and saw a cat with its belly in the air; and the stink woke him up.

Not far away was the city dustcart which goes round at night emptying rubbish bins. He made out, in the half light of the headlamps, the crane jerkily creaking, the shadows of the men standing on the mountain of rubbish, guiding with their hands the bucket attached to the pulley, emptying it into the dustcart, bashing it with blows of their shovels, their deep voices fractured like the jerks of the crane: ‘Up… Let it go… Go to hell…’ Then a few metallic clashes like the strokes of solid gongs, and the motor started up again, slowly, only to stop a bit further away and repeat the operation.

But Marcovaldo’s sleep was by now in a zone where noises no longer disturbed him; those falling on his ears, however harsh and rasping, arrived as if swaddled in a soft cushioned halo, perhaps because of the very consistency of the rubbish tamped down in the dustcarts. It was the stink which kept him awake, a stink intensified by an intolerable idea of stink, within which even the noises, those muffled distant noises, and the image of the dustcart with the crane silhouetted against the light, came to his mind not as sound and sight but as stink. And Marcovaldo was filled with longing, vainly pursuing in his nostrils’ fantasy the fragrance of a rose garden.

The night watchman Tornaquinci felt his forehead bathed in sweat as he glimpsed a human shadow run on all fours across a flowerbed, violently tear up some buttercups, and disappear. But he thought it must have been a dog, which was the dog-catchers’ responsibility, or a hallucination, which was a psychiatrist’s responsibility, or a werewolf, which was who knows who’s responsibility, but preferably not his; and he ducked round the corner.

Meanwhile Marcovaldo, returning to his billet, pressed against his nose the twisted mass of buttercups, trying to overwhelm his sense of smell with their perfume, of which he could only squeeze a little from those almost odourless flowers; but the fragrance of dew, of earth and of pressed grass was already a great balm. He threw off his obsession with rubbish and slept. It was dawn.

His awakening was an unexpected opening of broad sky full of sunshine on his head, sunshine which had as if obliterated the leaves and then restored them little by little to his half-blinded sight. But Marcovaldo couldn't linger there, because a shiver had made him jump up: the spray from a hydrant, with which the municipal gardeners were watering the flowerbeds, and which sent cold trickles of water running down his clothes. And all around him the trams, the market lorries, the handcarts, the delivery vans were impatiently on the move, and the workers on their mopeds were racing to the factories, and shops’ iron shutters were crashing upwards, and blinds were rolling up in the windows of the houses, and window panes were sparkling. Dazed, with a dry mouth and eyes sticky with sleep, an aching back and a sore hip, Marcovaldo hurried off to his work.