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Spring  17  Smoke, wind and soap bubbles

(Italo Calvino — Primavera  17  Fumo, vento e bolle di sapone)

Every day, the postman deposited a few envelopes in tenants’ letterboxes; only in Marcovaldo’s was there never anything, because no one ever wrote to him, and were it not for a final demand for payment of electricity or gas bills from time to time, his letterbox would have had no use at all.

‘Daddy, there’s post!’ shouted Michelino.

‘No chance!’ Marcovaldo answered. ‘It’s just adverts as usual!’

A folded blue and yellow flyer was sticking out of all the letterboxes. It said that to get up a good soap lather, Blancasol was the finest product available; anyone who took the blue and yellow flyer to a shop would receive a sample free of charge.

Since these flyers were narrow and long, some of them were protruding from the mouths of the letterboxes; others had been screwed up and thrown on the ground or were only a little bit crumpled there, because many of the tenants, when opening the letterboxes, used immediately to throw away all the publicity literature cluttering them up. Filippetto, Pietruccio and Michelino, by a mixture of picking them up from the ground, removing them from letterbox mouths, and even fishing them out with wire, began to make a collection of Blancasol vouchers.

‘I’ve got the most!’

‘No, count them! I bet you I’ve got the most!’

Blancasol’s publicity campaign had covered the whole district, door to door. And door to door the brothers busied themselves in covering the district, accumulating the vouchers. From some doorways people chased them away, shouting, ‘Rascals! What have you come to steal? I’m phoning the police!’ Other people were glad that the boys were helping to clear all the paperwork dumped there every day.

In the evening, Marcovaldo’s two modest rooms were full of blue and yellow Blancasol leaflets; the children counted and recounted them and stacked them in bundles, like bank tellers with banknotes.

‘Daddy, since we’ve got so many, could we open a laundry?’ asked Filippetto.

At that time, the world of detergent production was in a state of great agitation. Blancasol’s publicity campaign had spread alarm amongst rival firms. For the launch of their products, these firms were posting in all the city’s letterboxes coupons offering ever larger free samples.

In the following days Marcovaldo’s children were worked off their feet. Every morning, the letterboxes were blossoming like peach trees in spring: leaflets with green, pink, sky-blue or orange designs promised shining white washing to whoever used Spumador or Lavolux or Saponalba or Limpialin. For the children, the collection of coupons broadened with ever new categories. At the same time, the collection area broadened too, extending to the doorways of other streets.

Naturally, such manoeuvres could not pass unnoticed. The boys in the neighbourhood were not slow to work out what Michelino and his brothers were hunting for all day, and those leaflets, to which up until then none of them had paid any attention, became coveted booty. There was a period of rivalry between the various groups of urchins, in which collection in one area rather than another was the cause of disputes and skirmishes. Then, after a series of swaps and negotiations, an agreement was arrived at: an organised system of collection was more profitable than chaotic plunder. And the gathering of leaflets became so methodical that as soon as the little chap from Candofior or Risciaquick did the rounds of the doorways, his route was spied on and stalked, step by step, and the material just distributed was immediately requisitioned by the kids.

Of course, Filippetto, Pietruccio and Michelino were still in charge of the operation, because it had been their idea in the first place. They even managed to convince the other lads that the coupons were common property, and had to be kept all together. ‘Like in a bank!’ explained Pietruccio.

‘Are we the bosses of a laundry or a bank?’ asked Michelino.

‘Whichever, we’re millionaires!’

The boys could no longer sleep for excitement, and they made plans for the future.

‘Once we’ve claimed all these samples we’ll make a huge pile of detergent.’

‘Where will we put it?’

‘We’ll have to rent a warehouse!’

‘Why not a ship?’

Advertising, like flowers and fruit, is seasonal. After a few weeks, the detergent season stopped; the only things in letterboxes were notices about corn removers.

‘Shall we start collecting these too?’ someone suggested. But the idea of concentrating on redeeming the riches accumulated in detergents prevailed. They had to go to particular shops to be given one sample for each coupon; but this new stage of their plan, apparently so very straightforward, turned out to be much longer and more complicated than the first.

Operations were to be conducted in open order: one boy at a time in one shop at a time. They could present as many as three or four coupons together, as long as they were of different brands, and if the shop assistants wanted to give a sample of one brand only and not of another, the boy had to say, ‘My mum wants to try them all to see which is the best.’

Things became complicated when, as happened in many shops, the free sample was only provided to those making purchases; mothers had never seen their children so keen to run errands to the grocer.

In brief, the transformation of vouchers into stock became a lengthy process and involved additional costs, because purchases made with coins from mothers’ purses were small, and there were many grocers’ shops to be reconnoitred. To get hold of funds, there was nothing for it but to embark immediately on the third stage of the plan, which was the sale of the detergent already collected.

They decided to go selling it from house to house, ringing the doorbells. ‘Signora! May I interest you in this? Perfect washing powder!’ And they proffered the box of Risciaquick or the sachet of Blancasol.

‘Yes, yes, I’ll take it, thank you,’ a person said, and as soon as she had taken the sample she closed the door in the boys’ faces.

‘What? What about paying?’ And they hammered on the door with their fists.

‘Paying? Isn’t it free? Be off, you rascals!’

As a matter of fact, representatives of the various brands were going from house to house just at this time, giving away samples free; this was a new publicity drive undertaken by the whole detergent industry, since the gift-voucher campaign had had such scant success.

Marcovaldo’s home seemed like a grocer’s warehouse, filled as it was with products from Candofior, Lampialin and Lavolux; but from all that quantity of goods there wasn’t the means to earn even a penny; it was stuff to be given away, like water from drinking fountains.

Naturally, before long word began to spread amongst the firms’ representatives that certain boys were making their own identical tour from door to door, selling the same products that the reps were offering gratis. Waves of pessimism are frequent in the world of commerce; it began to be said that while people responded to their gifts by saying that they didn’t know what to do with all these detergents, they did on the other hand buy from the people selling them. The research departments of the various firms got together, and specialists in ‘market research’ were consulted; the conclusion arrived at was that such unfair competition could only be maintained by receivers of stolen goods. The police, after regular denunciations against unknown persons, began to comb the district in search of the thieves and the stolen goods’ hiding place.

From one moment to another, detergent became as dangerous as dynamite. Marcovaldo was scared: ‘I don't want even a gram of that powder in my house!’ But no one knew where to put it; they just didn’t want it in the house. It was decided that the children would throw the whole lot into the river.

It was first light; a cart arrived on the bridge, pulled by Pietruccio and pushed by his two brothers, loaded with boxes of Saponalba and Lavolux, followed by another little cart pulled by Uguccione, the concierge’s son, followed by several others too. Halfway across the bridge they stopped, let a cyclist pass who turned round out of curiosity, then, ‘Let’s go!’ Michelino began throwing the boxes into the river.

‘Idiot! Can’t you see they’re floating?’ shouted Filippetto. ‘We’ve got to dump the powder in the river, not the boxes!’

And from the boxes opened one by one, there softly fell a white cloud, settling on the current which seemed to absorb it, to reappear in a swarm of tiny little bubbles, and then seemed to sink to the bottom. ‘This is how to do it!’ And the boys continued to unload tons and tons.

‘Look, down there!’ shouted Michelino, and pointed downstream.

Below the bridge there were rapids. Where the current opened onto the drop, the little bubbles were no longer to be seen; they popped up again further down, but now they had become big swelling bubbles, one pushing the other up from below, a wave of soap suds rising, growing to enormous size, already as high as the rapids, a whitish froth like the contents of a barber’s bowl stirred with a shaving brush. It seemed that all those competitive brands’ powders were pointedly giving proof of their effervescence; the river was overflowing its banks with lather, and the fishermen, who at first light were already there in their waders, pulled in their lines and fled.

A breath of wind blew through the morning air. A cluster of bubbles broke off from the surface of the water and flew away, ever so gently. It was dawn, and the bubbles were coloured pink. The boys saw them passing high above their heads and cried, ‘Oooh…’

The bubbles flew, following the invisible tracks of currents of air over the city, turning down streets at the height of the roofs, always avoiding ledges and gutters. By now the compactness of the cluster had dissipated; one after another, the bubbles had flown away separately, each one holding a different course as regards height, speed and direction, and drifting in mid-air. It was as if they were multiplying; indeed, they really were, because the river continued to overflow with froth like a pan of milk on the fire. And the wind… The wind lifted high the slobber and ruffles and heaps which lengthened into iridescent garlands (the rays of the low sun, slanted across the roofs, had now taken possession of the city and the river) and invaded the sky above the wires and the aerials.

Dark shadows of workers were rushing to factories on sputtering mopeds, and the greeny-blue swarm hovering above them followed them as if each were dragging behind him a cluster of balloons tied to the handlebars with a long string.

It was from a tram that people noticed it. ‘Quick, take a look! Do take a look! What is that up there?’ The tram driver stopped and got out; all the passengers got out and looked up at the sky; bicycles and mopeds and cars and news vendors and bakers and all the morning passers-by stopped, amongst them Marcovaldo who was on his way to work, and everyone put their noses in the air, following the flight of the soap bubbles.

‘It’s not some atomic thing, is it?’ asked an old lady, and fear spread amongst the people, and anyone who saw a bubble descending on top of them ran away shouting, ‘It’s radioactive!’

But the bubbles continued their fluttering progress, iridescent and fragile and light, so that a breath was all that was needed, and — puff! — they were no more; and soon the people’s alarm subsided as quickly as it had arisen. ‘Ridiculous, radioactive! It’s soap. Soap bubbles, like children have.’ And a frenzied merriment took hold of them. ‘Look at that one! And that one! And that one!’ — because they saw some enormous ones flying, of unbelievable dimensions, and when the bubbles touched each other they popped, they doubled and tripled, and through these transparent domes the sky, the roofs, the skyscrapers took on shapes and colours that had never before been seen.

The factories began to belch black smoke from their chimneys, as on every morning. And the swarms of bubbles met the plumes of smoke, and the sky was divided between currents of black smoke and currents of iridescent froth, and they seemed to be struggling against each other in eddies of wind, and for a moment, just a moment, it seemed that the tops of the smokestacks might be surmounted by the bubbles, but soon there was such an intermingling — of smoke capturing the rainbow of froth and orbs of soap suds capturing a veil of specks of soot — that nothing was clear any more. Until at a certain point Marcovaldo looked and looked at the sky and couldn’t see bubbles any more, but only smoke, smoke, smoke.