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The House with the Two Palm Trees

(Eugenio Montale — La Casa delle Due Palme)

The train was nearly there. Between one tunnel and the next, in a short gap — the blink of an eye in the case of a through train and an eternity if it was a stopping train or a workmen’s local train — the villa appeared and disappeared, a yellowish pagoda, its paint a little faded, glimpsed from side on, with two palm trees in front, symmetrical but not quite of equal size. They had been twins in the year of grace 1900, when they had been planted; then one of them took a notion to grow more than the other, and no means was ever found to retard the first and accelerate the second. That day it was a workmen’s train, and the villa, although half hidden by more recent constructions, could be viewed at leisure. On the westerly side, at the top of a stairway disguised by a hedge of pittosporum, the usual thing was for someone (mother or aunt or cousin or niece) to wave a towel to greet the ‘nearly there’, and — most important, if from the train someone responded by waving a handkerchief — to hurry up and put the gnocchi in the pot. The arrival of the homecoming relative, tired out and famished, was expected six or seven minutes later. Five hours in the train and the smoke!

That day no one waved a white towel from the top of the stairway. Federigo had a feeling of emptiness, and pulled his head back inside, before the train entered the last tunnel. Then he took his case down from the rack and readied himself, his fingers on the handle. The engine slowed with a long whistle, the dark gave way to light, and the train came to a stop with a jolt. Federigo climbed down and lowered his little case to the ground with a certain effort. It was a small station, situated in the split between two tunnels, opposite a precipice of vineyards and rocks. Anyone continuing his journey would soon re-enter the dark.

‘Porter?’ asked a barefoot, tanned man approaching the only traveller wearing a collar and tie.

‘Here,’ said Federigo, handing him the case while asking himself, ‘Who is this?’, because the face wasn’t new to him; until a light went on in his brain and he added a friendly ‘Oh, Gresta, how are you?’, hastening to shake the hand of the man bearing his burden.

This was one of his friends from childhood, a hunting and fishing companion he hadn’t seen for thirty years and had forgotten for at least twenty. A local boy, child of peasants, allowed to associate with the sons of the only proper gentleman in the place, when Federigo was or was thought to be the son of gentlefolk. They descended the steps and immediately found themselves next to the sea, separated from the waves by a low wall and a thin row of tamarisk trees. To their left another downward-sloping tunnel led to the village, out of sight; in a line to the right were the few houses of former emigrants, backing into gaps in the rock and encircled by barren orchards. They had to follow this road, veering to the right along a dried-up streambed to get to the pagoda from which no one — no one at all — had shaken a white towel in the wind. They set off, talking. Federigo rediscovered the dialect which he thought he had forgotten; and since Gresta — so called because of a plume of hair of which no trace was now in evidence — had stayed the same in every other respect, and the path and the houses to be seen around there were no less equally the same, that plunge out of his by now habitual world, that recovery of a time which seemed to him almost imaginary, really had something of the miraculous about it. Federigo thought for a second that he was going crazy, and realised what would happen if the life he had lived could be ‘played again’ from the top, in a version which must not be varied until final completion, like a recording made once for always.

On better reflection, there were variations (the failed greeting with the handkerchief, for example), and Federigo’s disorientation was of short duration. Gresta, meanwhile, seemed not to have noticed it. He spoke of anchovy fishing, of the harvest, of the year’s first passage of wild pigeons — incidentally also of the passage of the Germans and their oppression — and here too the mixture of the old and the new did nothing to confirm Federigo in his first impression of the reversibility of the temporal order.

A house the colour of saltpetre, with a sort of veranda on the second floor, seemed however to reinforce that first illusion, because every stone, every patch in the walls, and even the stench of rotten fish and tar which surrounded it, pulled him dangerously down into the well of memories; but here too the helpful Gresta hastened to relieve his confusion, telling him that Signor Grazzini, the overweight barefoot owner who had made his money gobbling diamonds in the South African mines, had died a while ago and the property had passed to other hands. Two steps further on it was the turn of a rented house, the colour of red chalk, and Federigo was afraid that he might see, emerging from it, the no less pot-bellied Signor Cardelli, greatly esteemed in the village despite having killed his first wife with a kick to the belly: a baseless fear, since no trace remained of Cardelli anywhere in the district.

And the lawyer Camponi, who had driven his younger brother to suicide in order to claim his life assurance? (A chalet with a pointed roof, in bottle green.) And the Honourable Signor Frissi, who had several times set fire to his empty shop in Montevideo so as to fill his pockets with loot? (A monstrosity of towers, of little columns, of snake-like decorations and tendrils which brought a swarm of insects and mice into the house. And from inside, pandemonium out of a gramophone horn — Ridi pagliaccio; Niun mi tema; Chi mi frena in tal momento — and the raging shouts of ‘Caramba!’ of an angry, alcoholic old man.)

For a moment Federigo was afraid he might be seen meeting the two gentlemen of quality in the neighbourhood: the first in knee-breeches, his belly wobbling above his exposed calves and a gold chain on his hairy chest; the other sombre, under a stiff straw sombrero, surrounded by a dense, tangible cohort of women in elegant dark dress, testament to the ‘position’ he had gained and of charity distributed from full hands. But there was no danger. Gresta mentioned other names, spoke of other notables, and only the shapes of the peeling houses and the sails of a wind pump carried Federigo back to the days of his youth.

At last they were in the final strait: the dry ditch, with the little path raised above it, the red bridge, the rusty gate and the upward track leading to the pagoda protected by the two old palm trees. The gravel crunched under Federigo’s shod feet; on the branch of a fig tree a tom-tit swung, filling the air with its chirping; and from the washing place a woman with white hair, not old, came forward to greet him.

‘Oh Maria,’ Federigo said simply, and again it was as if thirty years had retreated at a stroke and he, Federigo, had gone back to being the man of yesteryear, while remaining in possession of the wealth he had acquired later. But what wealth? No diamonds, no burnt shops, no relative sent to the realm of the ancestors, no material, functional contact with the stuff of the place. A diligent and involuntary effort of uprooting, a long circumnavigation amongst ideas and ways of life unknown here, immersion in a time not marked on Signor Frissi’s sundial. Was this Federigo’s wealth? It was this, yes, or little more, despite the weight of his suitcase.

At the bottom of the steps Gresta was discharged with a tip and a handshake, and Federigo followed the girl who had aged while spending all her life with those close to her. They spoke familiarly, without admitting to themselves that they had found each other so much older. They spoke of the living, and more of the dead. They arrived at the pagoda. Federigo turned round, recognised the huge amphitheatre of land invaded by the sea, saw again the bent poplar by the greenhouse, where with his air gun he had shot his first little bird, raised his eyes to the windows on the third floor, where the portraits of the ancestors were located, then entered the dining room on the ground floor and glanced at the rough walls. The array of spears and arrows, the gift of a traffic officer who had spent years in Eritrea, had gone; but the wooden engraving depicting a young and severe Verdi was still there. Federigo hurried to his living quarters and felt his heart stop, as if he had met a family ghost, when at the bottom of a certain item of chinaware he re-read the maker’s mark, ‘The Preferable, Sanitary Closet’, the first English phrase he could remember. In the toilet, nothing at all had changed. Elsewhere he found alterations: beds added, empty cradles, new sacred images on the mirrors; signs of other existences which had replaced his. Then he went down to the kitchen where Maria was blowing on the coal, pulled a mosquito net across what would have to be his bed, took a deckchair, and stretched out in front of the house, a fifteenth part of which he was still the owner.

He said to himself, ‘A few days in the country with my dead relatives; they’ll pass quickly.’ But then he thought anxiously about the smell of the food which would be served to him. It wasn’t a bad smell, but it was that smell, it was the family smell passed down from generation to generation, which no one working in that kitchen would ever be able to remove. A continuity which failed elsewhere hangs on in the frying of the cooking oil, in the bitter flavour of garlic, of onions, of basil, in the herbs and spices beaten in a marble mortar. And for that continuity too, his dead relatives, condemned to a lighter diet, must sometimes have been turning in their graves.

‘But you’ve got your own house by the sea,’ his friends had often said to him, surprised to meet him on certain popular beaches where even the sea seems to be served up on a plate. Yes, he had (at least, a fifteenth part) and he had come back to look at it.

From inside the house the discreet chinking of a glass told him that dinner was served. No longer the seashell which his brother put to his mouth and blew like a trumpet to muster the family. What had become of that seashell? He must look for it.

Federigo got up, aimed his finger at the tom-tit which had risked following him as far as the poplar near the greenhouse, and mentally fired a shot.

Then he muttered, ‘I’m being ridiculous. This will be a delightful stay.’