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Winter  12  The wrong stop

(Italo Calvino — Inverno  12  La fermata sbagliata)

For people who have taken a dislike to their inhospitable homes, the favoured refuge on cold evenings is always the cinema. Marcovaldo’s passion was for films in colour, on the big screen whose scope can embrace the widest horizons: prairies, rocky mountains, equatorial forests, islands where folk go about with flowers on their heads. He would see the film twice, and only leave the cinema when it closed; and in his thoughts he continued to inhabit those landscapes and breathe in those colours. But the journey home on a drizzly evening, waiting at the tram stop for the number 30, the realisation that his life had known no scenario other than trams, traffic lights, basement lodgings, gas stoves, washing on the line, warehouses and packing areas, caused the splendour of the film to fade from him into a colourless, grey sadness.

That evening, the film he had seen was set in the forests of India; from marshy undergrowth clouds of steam arose, and snakes slithered along lianas and climbed over the statues on ancient temples swallowed up by the jungle.

Leaving the cinema, he opened his eyes onto the street, closed them again, opened them again; he could see nothing. Absolutely nothing. Not even a hand’s breadth from his nose. In the hours that he’d been inside, fog had invaded the city: thick, opaque fog, enfolding objects and sounds, squashing distances into a dimensionless space, merging lights into the darkness which transformed them to glimmers without shape or position.

Marcovaldo made his way automatically to the 30 tram stop and banged his nose against the signpost. At that moment, he realised he was happy; the fog, obliterating the world around him, let him retain before his eyes the visions of the panoramic screen. Even the cold was lessened, almost as if the city had been swaddled in a cloud like a blanket. Marcovaldo, wrapped in his overcoat, felt protected from every exterior sensation, hovering in the void, and he could colour this void with images of India, of the Ganges, the jungle, of Calcutta.

The tram arrived, evanescent as a ghost, its bell clanging slowly; things around barely maintained their solid existence; for Marcovaldo, standing that evening at the rear of the tram, turning his back to the other passengers, staring out of the windows at the void of the night interspersed only by indistinct presences and a few shadows even blacker than the darkness, it was the perfect situation for daydreaming, for projecting before him, wherever he was going, an uninterrupted film on a borderless screen.

Fantasising like this, he had lost count of the stops; he suddenly wondered where he was; he saw that the tram was already almost empty; he peered out of the windows, trying to make sense of the glimmers that shone through, decided that his was the next stop, ran to the door just in time, and alighted. He glanced around, seeking some point of reference. But the few shadows and lights which his eyes could pick out didn’t combine into any known likeness. He had mistaken his stop and he didn’t know where he was.

If he met a passer-by, he could easily ask the way; but whether it was the lonely spot, the time of day, or the inclement weather, not a shadow of a human being was to be seen. At last he saw such a shadow, and waited for it to approach. No, it was receding, or perhaps it was crossing the street, or making its way down the middle of the road. It could be a cyclist, not a pedestrian, on a bicycle without lights.

Marcovaldo shouted, ‘Excuse me! Excuse me, mister! Do you know where Via Pancrazio Pancrazietti is?’

The shape was receding still further; it was almost lost to sight. It said, ‘That way…’ But there was no way of telling in which direction it was pointing.

‘Left or right?’ shouted Marcovaldo, but he didn’t know whether he was addressing the void.

An answer came, or the echo of an answer: an ‘…eft’ which also have been an ‘…ight’. But since the one man didn’t see which way the other had turned, left or right meant nothing.

Marcovaldo was now walking towards another glimmer which seemed to come from the opposite pavement, a bit further down. However, the distance was much greater; he had to cross a sort of square, with a little grassy island in the middle, and arrows — the only intelligible sign — showing which way round the cars had to go. It was late, but surely there must be a few cafés or taverns still open. The illuminated sign which began to be decipherable said ‘Bar…’ and then went out. A blade of darkness like a shutter fell over what must have been a lighted window. The bar was closing, and it was still, he seemed to understand at that moment, a long way away.

So he might as well focus on another light; as he walked, Marcovaldo didn’t know if he was following a straight line, if the luminous point towards which he was heading was always the same, or if it was doubling or tripling or changing its position. The fine particles of a slightly milky blackness into which he was moving were so minute that he already felt them infiltrating his overcoat, which soaked them up like a sponge between each thread of the material, as if through a sieve.

The light he arrived at was the smoky doorway of a tavern. Inside, people were seated or standing at the bar. But whether it was the poor lighting, or the fog which had penetrated everywhere, even here the figures seemed blurred, just like those in some taverns you see at the cinema, set in ancient times or in distant countries.

‘I was looking… if by chance you gentlemen knew… for Via Pancrazietti,’ he began to say, but the tavern was noisy, there were laughing drunks who thought he was drunk, and the enquiries he managed to make, the explanations he managed to obtain, were themselves foggy and blurred. All the more so as, to warm himself, he ordered — or rather, he let people standing at the bar press on him — a quarter litre of wine, to begin with, and then another half litre, then a few more glasses which, with great slaps on the back, he was offered by the others. The result being, when he left the tavern, that his ideas as to where his house was were no clearer than before; on the other hand the fog seemed more than ever to contain all the continents and every colour.

With the warmth of the wine in his body, Marcovaldo walked for a good quarter of an hour, with steps which continually felt the need to range from left to right to take account of the width of the pavement (if he was still following a pavement) and hands which continually felt the need to grope the walls (if he was still following a wall). The fog in his thoughts, as he walked, was thinning out; but the fog outside remained thick. He remembered that in the tavern they had told him to take a particular avenue, follow it for a hundred metres, then ask again. But now he didn’t know how far he had travelled from the tavern, or whether he had just gone in circles round the block.

The places around seemed uninhabited, bounded by brick walls like factory enclosures. At one corner there was definitely a plaque with the name of the street, but the light from the streetlamp hanging in the middle of the carriageway didn’t reach it. To get closer to the words, Marcovaldo shinned up the post of a no-parking sign. He got close enough to put his nose against the plaque, but the writing was faded and he didn’t have matches to illuminate it better. Above the plaque, the wall ended in a flat, wide top, and by leaning from the post of the no-parking sign Marcovaldo managed to climb onto it. He had glimpsed a big whitish sign stuck on the top of the wall. He took a few steps along the top, up to the sign; here the streetlamp lit up the black letters on a white background, but the words ‘Entrance is strictly prohibited to unauthorised persons’ offered him no enlightenment.

The top of the wall was wide enough for a person to keep his balance and walk along it; so, now that Marcovaldo came to think about it, it was better than the pavement, because the streetlamps were just at the right height to illuminate his footsteps, laying down a bright stripe which cut through the darkness. At a certain point the wall ended, and Marcovaldo found himself up against the capital of a pillar; no, it took a right turn and carried on…

In this way, what with corners, recesses, bifurcations and pillars, Marcovaldo’s progress followed an irregular pattern; quite often he thought that the wall was about to end, and then found that it continued in a different direction; amid so many deviations he no longer knew in which direction he had turned, and therefore on which side he would need to jump if he wished to get back down to the street. To jump… And supposing the difference in height had increased? He squatted on top of a pillar and tried to peer down, on one side and the other, but not a single ray of light shone up from the ground; it could be a matter of a little leap of two metres or at an abyss. There was nothing for it but to carry on upwards.

The escape route soon came into view. It was a flat, whitish open space, touching the wall; maybe it was the roof of a building — of concrete, as Marcovaldo realised once he had begun to walk on it — stretching into the darkness. He instantly regretted having started across it; now he had lost any point of reference, he had left behind the line of streetlamps, and any step he took might bring him to the edge of the roof, or beyond, into the void.

The void really was a chasm. From below, little lights shone up, as if at a great distance; and if they were streetlamps down there, the ground must be much lower even than that. Marcovaldo found himself suspended in a space beyond his imagination; sometimes, high up, green and red lights appeared, arranged in irregular shapes like constellations. Studying those lights with his nose in the air, he soon happened to take a step into the void and fell headlong.

‘I’m dead!’ he thought, but at that very moment he found himself sitting on soft earth; his hands probed the grass; he had fallen uninjured into the middle of a meadow. The low lights, which had seemed to him so distant, were so many little lamps in rows at ground level.

It was an unusual place to put lights, but useful, because they traced a path for him. And now his feet no longer trod on grass but on asphalt, illuminated by those beams of light at ground level. Around him there was nothing: only coloured flashes very high up, appearing and disappearing.

‘An asphalt road must lead somewhere,’ thought Marcovaldo, and he set off down it. He came to a turn-off, or rather to a crossroads, with each branch of road flanked by those little low lights, and with enormous white numbers painted on the ground.

He began to be discouraged. What was the point of choosing a direction, when all around there was nothing but this flat grass prairie and the emptiness of fog? It was at this point that he saw, at the height of a man, a movement of beams of light. A man, a real man with open arms, dressed, it seemed, in a yellow jumpsuit, was waving two luminous bats like those which station masters have.

Marcovaldo ran towards this man, and before even getting to him, he began to say, all out of breath, ‘Hey, sir, help, I’m here, I’m stuck in this fog, how do I… can you hear me?’

‘Don’t worry,’ answered the calm and courteous voice of the man in yellow, ‘above a thousand metres there’s no fog; you’re quite safe to proceed. The steps are a little further on; the others have already boarded.’

It was an unclear but encouraging statement. More than anything, Marcovaldo was happy to feel that not far away there were other people; on he went to join them without asking any further questions.

The mysteriously announced steps were indeed a little stairway flanked by two handrails, which showed whitely in the gloom. Marcovaldo ascended. On the threshold of a little door a young woman greeted him in such cordial terms that it seemed impossible that she was actually addressing him.

Marcovaldo offered profuse expressions of gratitude. ‘My sincere respects, signorina! Every good wish!’ Cold to the bone and soaked to the skin as he was, he couldn’t believe that he had found shelter under a roof…

In he went, blinking as his eyes were dazzled by the light. He wasn’t in a house. Then where was he? He thought he must be in a bus, a long bus with lots of empty seats. He sat down; normally he took the tram, not the bus, to get home, because the ticket was a bit cheaper, but on this occasion he had got lost in such a remote district that buses must be the only form of public transport. How fortunate that he had arrived just in time for what must be the last run of the day! And how soft and welcoming were the seats! Now that he knew this, Marcovaldo decided that he would always take the bus, even if the passengers were obliged to submit to certain obligations — ‘You are requested,’ a loudspeaker was saying, ‘to refrain from smoking and to fasten your seatbelts,’ — and even if the roar of the engine starting up was excessively loud.

A man in uniform was passing between the seats. ‘Excuse me, signor conductor,’ said Marcovaldo, ‘do you know if there’s a stop near Via Pancrazio Pancrazietti?’

‘Beg pardon, sir? The first stop is Bombay, then Calcutta and Singapore.’

Marcovaldo looked around. In other seats impassive, bearded, turbaned Indian men were sitting. There were a few women too, wrapped in embroidered saris, with a spot of lacquer on their foreheads. Through the windows, the night showed full of stars, now that the aeroplane, having crossed the thick blanket of fog, was flying through the great heights of the upper air, in a limpid sky.