The Regatta

(Eugenio Montale — La Regata)

Il Verdaccio — a little natural harbour defended by high cliffs, at the heart of a semicircle of old houses clinging to one another and divided only by narrow covered alleyways and tangled lanes — could be glimpsed from Zebrino’s room, on the third floor of the villa at Montecorvo where the family spent the summer months. But it was on the opposite bank of the bay, three miles or more away as the crow flies, and you would have needed a telescope to see that grimy lair of pirates and falcons, where the Saracens had never dared to land, stirring into life in its raggedy and picturesque bustle. No trains stopped there, and no passable road had reached it; it had neither hotels nor boarding houses. If any ‘outsiders’ disembarked, they risked, walking down the alleys, having the contents of brimful chamber pots overturned on their heads from the highest storeys of the houses, without the ritual warning ‘Vitta ch’er beuttu!’ (‘Gardyloo!’), which was reserved for passers-by of quality.

Up to now, the myth which had reached Zebrino’s attentive ears was that Il Verdaccio, on the contrary, was nothing but a gap in the distant cliffs, a big leafy tree, a walnut perhaps, visible despite the distance from him and growing almost on top of the port, and the white spot of a turreted house, a little removed, hanging above a rock to the east. That was the house of the Ravecca family, the landowners and almost unchallenged lords of the village. These were people who had sent their sons to technical school in the chief town of the province, and who could afford to wear good leather shoes even on working days; people who read the newspaper and showed their faces in town in the winter. Very different from the other inhabitants of Il Verdaccio: women who wore silk but always went barefoot, elusive, hairy men, sailors of little coasters, vine-dressers without vines, and smugglers.

But did these Raveccas really exist? Zebrino had never met them. Montecorvo and Il Verdaccio were not good neighbours, and the two dialects had little similarity. The expression used by the folk of Montecorvo when tipping their waste products out of the window was different from Il Verdaccio’s, as was its inhabitants’ dress. One thing, however, seemed clear to Zebrino: that his father, thirty years previously, had been on the point of betrothal to a Ravecca, the last girl in the family, now a widow burdened with children, living in a lonely house at Fivizzano. She was supposedly a poor, homely, put-upon soul, without a penny to her name and in no regard better than Zebrino’s mother; but the information in itself, which the boy had had to glean from his parents’ constant game of allusions, implications and petty bickerings, could not fail to make a distinct impression on him. If things had turned out differently, he, Zebrino, could have been born there, in that white tower, and Il Verdaccio would not have held any secrets for him. If his father had married another woman, he, Zebrino, would have been another Zebrino, indeed perhaps wouldn’t have had that nickname… In which case, would he have lost or gained?

His family’s regular flatterers, who came to the house every Saturday to borrow money, vagabonds from Pontremoli who had even been known to stop over at Il Verdaccio, and Battibirba, the mendicant monk who arrived from Sarzana to knock at doors for farthings, were sure that Zebrino’s father was a hundred cubits richer and more generous than any of the Raveccas, who’d been impoverished for years now and were racked with debts; but Zebrino senior esquire didn’t like hints being dropped about the Raveccas’ possible decline; it gave him no pleasure to place in a less than favourable light the ‘arrangement’ which his family had proposed for him in youth. Above all, he did not want to be denied a weapon, the weapon of if, with which he methodically blackmailed the faithful companion of his days. He got on well with his wife, it’s true; but if the noodles with pesto didn’t turn out well oiled and flavoured with pecorino from Sardinia, or if he thought the meatloaf was stuffed with boiled bread rather than pine seeds and sweetbreads, Zebrino senior esquire always had an ace up his sleeve, and pointing at the white house on the opposite shore he might let it be understood that there, most definitely there, he would have been spared such atrocities.

With the passage of time the myth of the Raveccas faded in the boy’s mind, taken up with other discoveries and concerns. But not before bursting out in an episode of which he alone, amongst the protagonists, grasped the secret meaning.

Every twentieth of September a regatta was held at Montecorvo, at which Lampo, the fishing smack belonging to Zebrino’s family, had been without exception victorious for years. The vessel was swifter than others in getting under way, because of its tapered shape and high prow, which kept it on top of the water; at the first stroke of the rowers’ oars it gained a metre or a metre and a half, and after that there was nothing to be done; it seemed impossible to catch it up. But that year — Zebrino was growing up; he was twelve years old by now — a new danger appeared on the horizon: the Raveccas’ drag-net boat, Grongo, not this year crewed by the distinguished heads of the family but by three muscular fishermen from Il Verdaccio who had come to the regatta for the first time; and the danger seemed grave. Once the usual entertainments were over (the greasy pole, the sack race and the anticlerical speech by the anarchist Papirio Triglia), six prows lined up in the distance, waiting for the starting gun. The course was perhaps a kilometre and a half, and the winning post was visible a hundred metres from the beach, where the first reefs jutted out from the water. A crowd had gathered on the shore, and Zebrino, his brothers and his parents followed the event from above, appearing at the balustrade of their balcony. Lampo or Grongo? Lampo had been entrusted to four local veterans — three oarsmen and a cox — and it wasn’t even as if the family honour were directly in play here; but Zebrino’s feelings were in turmoil, and nor did his family seem relaxed. Far away, the matched prows could be seen: Lampo’s high, white and red one; Grongo’s low, dark green, inauspicious one. They were the first and the third of the six, counting from the left. The pistol shot was suddenly heard, followed by the swift regular movements of the first strokes. For a while the boats appeared to be neck and neck. Binoculars were passed from hand to hand, but no one managed to focus the lenses. The boats seemed steady in the water, their oars almost silent. Little skiffs, sculls and swimmers thronged the rock which was the winning post, on which, in shirtsleeves, sat Papirio Triglia, the local bigwigs, and the jury.

The clock struck five. The sun was still blazing down on the wide bay between Il Mesco and the point at Monasteroli. The smoke from a goods train rose through a deep chimney in the rocks. And the curses uttered and the rhythmical movement of the oars enhanced the silence around the seashore.

Lampo,’ said Zebrino’s mother confidently, taking the binoculars from her nose. ‘She’s gained half a metre.’ And she seemed to breathe a sigh of relief.

‘She’ll do it,’ admitted the eldest brother, curling his fingers into a tube to make a telescope. ‘But this time it’s tough.’

‘Let’s hope those ruffians are giving it everything,’ muttered the other brother, shading his eyes from the sun.

‘Hmm,’ said Restin, a local farmer’s son, staring at Lampo with his yellow lynx eyes. ‘She’s too low in the bow today. Even she is feeling her age.’

The boats were neck and neck, as if fixed there, the oarsmen and coxes blaspheming as they bent rhythmically to their work. Half of the course must have been completed.

‘The Il Verdaccio men are pulling like mad dogs,’ said Zebrino’s father, struggling to focus the binoculars. ‘I’m afraid we’re going to lose this one.’ And, apparently casually, he looked at the white spot above the distant village.

‘We’re stuffed,’ agreed Restin, screwing up his eyes and biting his nails. ‘Grongo is holding course better. She’s got a lighter crew.’

‘It’s not over yet,’ retorted Zebrino’s mother, without looking any more.

‘I’m telling you it is,’ insisted his father, who now seemed annoyed. ‘No,’ he then admitted, ‘it’s not over yet, but it’s a matter of millimetres.’

Shouting could be heard loud and clear from the shore; Lampo and Grongo, one prow visible and one hidden, were pitching through the surf, well ahead of the other boats; the yells of the coxes overwhelmed the splash of the oars. Fifty, perhaps thirty metres to go. For an endless moment, Zebrino’s heart was on the point of bursting. Then they heard a piercing shriek:

Lampo!’ And Restin did a pirouette like a squirrel as the red prow twisted under the finishing line with a flick of the rudder and the three oarsmen threw themselves into the sea, as was the tradition for victorious crews. Half-drowned amid the breakers, Grongo also passed the line, and the crew from Il Verdaccio, beaten but not convinced by the decision, hurled gross insults at the jury and the spectators’ boats.

Lampo,’ said Zebrino’s mother proudly. ‘They couldn’t beat Lampo!

‘By the skin of their teeth,’ his father goaded her, wiping the sweat from his brow. ‘It’s the last time I’m going to trust it to those drunks. And now we’re going to buy them drinks? Are you happy, Zebrino?’

With his hand on his heart, and white as a sheet, the boy didn’t answer. Turning towards the east, his eyes were fixed on the white spot overlooking Il Verdaccio.