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The Yellow Roses

(Eugenio Montale — Le Rose Gialle)

‘Pretend to be my secretary,’ said Gerda to Filippo, looking at him through her reading glasses. ‘Suppose that instead of having met by chance, two hours ago, in this boarding house, you had answered a classified advertisement I had placed and I needed to give you a trial. No, I’m not setting an examination; this is simply an experiment I want to conduct, having heard you speak. It’s four o’clock, or a bit later; by eight o’clock I must have dispatched by air mail a little story, exquisitely feminine, which will appear simultaneously in twenty-five American magazines. A maximum of nine hundred or a thousand words. Unfortunately, the feminine spirit is lacking in me,’ — having brushed her hair, she imperiously threw down a sage-green hairbrush — ‘and in these cases I always need recourse to a man. You seem to me ideally suited. What? You have no interest in literature, you’ve never attempted anything of this kind? So much the better; that’s just what we need. Look inside yourself for the material for a beautiful Italian story. Isn’t there, here in this room or in the landscape we see from the window, something which awakens in you an intense memory, recent or remote, unpleasant or agreeable? Don’t ponder, don’t think about it. If there’s something there, spout it at once.’

‘There is something,’ said Filippo, pointing at a beautiful bunch of roses in a vase. ‘But it’s a simple, personal thing. These red roses in bud have made me think of other roses, yellow ones, which I couldn’t take home with me, for fear of arousing suspicions or jealousies.’

‘Yellow roses,’ Gerda conceded, half-closing her eyes. ‘That’s it. An insignificant thing, you say? Then it wouldn’t have carried such weight with you. Who did you get them from?’

‘From a poor, crippled girl in the cathedral square in M… I’ll tell you everything.’

‘In no particular order, if you please. Just as it comes.’

‘We are (or I should say we were), that is my wife and I, in the main square of M… There is thick fog. We’re waiting for “milady”, as we called her, both put-upon victim and tyrant, who stayed with us until just before the worst of the bombings. We’ve come on purpose to see her, while seeking a pretext for being here, and having only just arrived we’ve arranged to meet her by telephoning from the station. Will she come? She has to wash the dishes and find a reason for leaving. She’s not officially employed, like waitresses in a municipal canteen — the sort who wear a cap. She never goes out. In these circumstances, was it a good idea to arrange to meet her at half past two in the afternoon, in a large foggy square? Teodora (let us suppose that that was my wife’s name) is getting tired of standing waiting. Needless to say, she suggests that we go and wait for the tram from San Clemente, the suburb where Palmina lives now, four kilometres from the centre. But is it sensible to move? There’s a discussion, a bit of an argument (I don’t know whether there really was an argument).’

‘We’re in Italy, arguments are always happening,’ said Gerda. ‘Go on.’

‘So we come to a compromise. I will go and look in the square behind the apse of the church; Teodora will stay and wait where she is. She promises she won’t move. It’s foggy, gloomy, there are hawkers and street sellers passing in the distance. I make a lateral sweep around by the church, under the arcades. There’s a brief moment in which I describe the anxiety which the prospect of seeing Palmina again causes me. And suppose she didn’t come? “In love’s battle, the victor is the one who flees…” and in this instance, given that it wasn’t a question of love, it could be that she’s cunning enough to adapt the poetical motto to herself. Perhaps she knows that we have greatly missed her during my illness. But it was no longer possible for us to live together; it was hellish with everyone, with Teodora, with the tradesmen, with the concierge. She created a permanent storm around her, but she wasn’t ill-mannered. When Teodora was away, she sang at the top of her voice, “Without a penny for my bed, not a penny for my food, all that’s left to me is…” What? What? Cursed memory! Only undoubted injustices or misfortunes can express themselves in a voice as fascinating as that. Then she was ill with bronchitis, she seemed cured, but the doctor didn’t think so, and she put the matter to us in a manner which left only two alternatives. There would be no convalescence at our expense: either she would leave the hospital and come back to us, or she would go home. The English were at the gates of the city, and there were endless bombings. She arrived at the house suddenly, exhausted under the weight of her luggage. Bickering burst out immediately, I didn’t know how to make peace, and I let her go. For us left behind, there began that dark period called the liberation. Hunger, sickness, disasters of all kinds. Perhaps it was fortunate for Palmina that she was saved in time, beyond the Gothic Line. A year later, her news arrived. She had indeed left two hours after the row, taking a place in a lorry which a bomb had shattered in the Apennines. She arrived home in nothing but her shift. And with this first news, there began between her and me, between her and Teodora, a semi-secret correspondence, both threatening and affectionate. Will she, won’t she come back to us? In any case, the threads are still unbroken; and here the preceding interlude can conclude.

I make an unsuccessful circuit of the cathedral, I go back, I see Teodora’s fur coat next to a policeman (no doubt she’s asking about the tram from San Clemente); then a little figure emerges from the fog and the two shadows melt into a long embrace. It’s her, it’s Palmina, who offers me a big cardboard tube at whose end is a bunch of yellow roses. The two women move off, and I follow them, holding the mysterious tube in my hand. We need to look for a café. Palmina never comes into the city and doesn’t know anyone here, but eventually we manage to find somewhere, a big deserted place next to some billiard rooms. The women are talking, arguing, embracing, making up; I discover that the shaft of the tube containing the bunch of roses is a bottle intended for me; the roses are for Teodora. Sparkling red wine from Sorbara. I thank her, embarrassed. Teodora decides that she has one or two bits of shopping to do, the other woman offers to go with her, I can’t walk around in this gloom with a bottle and a bunch of flowers, and I decide to wait for them in the café. I stay waiting for an hour; I’m alone in a corner covered in sawdust, with the shadows of the billiard players. I think that Palmina must be cured: there is a healthy flush in her cheeks (face powder, says Teodora), and her cripple’s wheeling way of walking still seems to me one of her charms. Who knows what the two women are saying to each other? They did well to leave me here, after all. Women are particularly ill adapted to the search for lost time. Alone, I can better relish this plunge into a life which I had thought finished for ever. Will it start again? Nothing starts again. She was very cunning, Palmina, taking advantage of my natural inclination to feel that I’m always in the wrong. A maidservant who was “milady” to the point of absurdity, she always said, “Us poor servant girls,” which made me feel as if she really had been mistreated. In the end, she was just a slippery character, but alluring because of her extraordinary vitality. A lizard whose tail grows back after it’s been cut off. But she had such a gift that even people not at all devious, when next to her who was extremely devious, felt themselves to be worse than her. Only imbeciles, nouveaux riches and governesses with a French accent could be amazed that we kept her with us. Certainly, she was a scandal in the whole apartment block. I look at my watch; only twenty minutes before the train goes. We shall miss it and then I’ll have to stay here in M… until midnight, with a bottle and a bunch of flowers in my hand. No, it’s all right, here they are again, half angry with each other and half embracing. There’s still time, we leave in a hurry, Palmina makes us get into a jam-packed tram, she’s coming with us to the station. I look at my watch; it will be a miracle if we make it. (What the devil have the women plotted between them? I have a sense of longing and at the same time of threat that Palmina will soon come back to us. I’ll find out more in the train; now there’s no time.) We arrive at the station, I quickly buy a platform ticket for Palmina, and there we are under the station roof as the train arrives. Confusion, embraces, I embrace her myself for the first time, then we wave to her from the window as the train moves off. We’re standing up, and at a jolt the bottle of Sorbara flies out of my hand and rolls on the floor, decapitated. An acid, sour, sweetish smell fills the corridor, everyone looks at me witheringly, they try to remove their feet from the surge which rolls towards the luggage van. The train is going very fast; it’s night; it’s cold. Teodora has found places, and observes that bottles provided by that crazy woman have had a habit of breaking on previous occasions. An hour and a half passes in this way. The train is nearing our town. “Don’t you dare take those roses home,” says Teodora, “or our latest kitchen maid will clear off as fast as her legs can carry her if she thinks that we’ve seen the little viper in M… again. Say nothing. Offer the bunch to Professor Ceramelli who’s standing there at the end of the carriage; he’ll pass it on to his wife, who’ll welcome the present. Don’t do anything embarrassing; don’t tell him why we can’t take it home.”

The professor, an honourable person whom I haven’t seen for ten years, is amazed by this unexpected gift. He doesn’t know to what cause he should attribute it, he hesitates, I have to invent various motives of gratitude by which he doesn’t seem greatly persuaded; at last he decides to accept the flowers, the more willingly in that he’s not encumbered with luggage. The train arrives, the fog has lifted, the professor waves and goes off with the flowers. For a few seconds more, I follow the livid reflection of a neon sign on the pale flush of the yellow roses; one has snapped, its head is hanging over. Then, in the light mist… Perhaps that will be enough for you; with a bit of ordering, I’d say that…’

‘No, with a bit more disordering,’ said Gerda, looking at the clock. ‘It’s a shame I didn’t have my dictaphone here. But in two hours my first “Italian story” will be on its way. “The Yellow Flowers”: that’s a good title. Thank you.’