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The Pleasure Comes Later

(Eugenio Montale — Il Bello Viene Dopo)

They had hardly sat down when her brisk and decisive choice drew a nod of assent from the young waiter who had arrived with the menu in his hand.

‘A large consommé, veal paillard, baked apple and a manzanillo.’

Manzanillo? What’s that?’ asked the gentleman with her. ‘The manzanillo tree kills you if you sleep underneath it. Its shade is deadly.’

‘It’s all the rage as a drink; some people say it’s a carob infusion. It gives you a very pleasant slight sensation of nausea. But one isn’t enough; you need three or four a day.’

She lifted her hand, pointing at the figures on an advertising poster: men and women with egg-yolk-coloured hair, in evening dress, relaxing in the shade of a great tree, and armed, as if with hand grenades, with lots of little bottles of lemonade; everyone smiling and happy.

The gentleman continued to browse the menu, unsure. To assist him, an older and more carefully shaven waiter approached, bringing the wine list.

‘Chiaretto, Bardolino, Chianti? Tokai from Friuli? Clastidio? Paradiso di Valtellina? Or Inferno?’

‘Let’s go for the Paradiso. But that’s all for the moment. I need to think about it. Serve the lady.’

The waiters withdrew and the gentleman stayed hunched over the choice of dishes.

‘Trout au bleu,’ he said quietly. ‘Sole à la meunière. Yellow eel alla Livornese. Ah ha! No, it doesn’t tempt me. It reminds me of the muddy ditch which used to run beside my house. Who knows if it’s still there? It twisted and turned. Maybe it still worms its way between rocks and reeds. You can only follow it for short sections. Well, yes and no: if it’s rained a lot, there’s some stagnant water, which the washerwomen flock to. But there are eels there, the best in the world. Rare little yellowish eels that it’s difficult to see under the greasy film of soap suds clouding the water. To catch one you had to enclose and dam one of those puddles with pieces of slate well jammed into the mud, then bail out the water with your hands, and finally, before the water trickled back in, clamber into the ditch in your bare feet and rummage around the pebbles and the rotted greenery at the bottom. If the eel appeared and we had a table fork, success was almost assured: a stab, and the pierced and bleeding creature was lifted out and thrown onto the bank, where it wriggled for a bit longer. Without a fork it was a more difficult job. The eel slipped between your fingers, showed up again under a soap bubble, and vanished. You needed half an hour’s effort to catch one twenty centimetres long, slimy, filthy, half disembowelled, uneatable.’

‘But did you eat it?’ she asked, spreading yellow mustard on the veal, which was cooked pink but with black stripes from the griddle.

‘Three or four of us ate it burnt to a crisp on a fire of straw and paper. It tasted of smoke and mud. It was delicious. But it was only the entrée to our lunch. Usually by then we had already prepared the pièce de résistance: an ortolan, for instance. For two or three hours we stayed stationed under a twisted poplar, well hidden from the narrow passageway which ran between the greenhouse, with its succulent plants, and a hedge of pittosporum. My friends had elastic catapults (commonly known as cacciafrusti) but I had the use of a Flobert which I’d managed to load with three or four tiny bits of grapeshot.

We saw the little bird hopping on the fig tree; it was honey-coloured, feeding off those fruits, opening them with quick pecks of its thin, delicate beak. It rarely moved from the fig to the poplar; and we couldn’t hide under the fig. But two or three times each season the ortolan (to us it was always him, the same one) flew over the narrow passageway and came to land in the poplar. If it was too high or too well hidden in the branches there was nothing we could do; but sometimes it perched lower, exposed, two paces from us; and then we fired all together, with the air pistol and the catapults.

It fell crookedly, or rather it landed on the ground. It was still alive. A bead of blood dripped from its beak, and its clear black eye was still shining. Then a veil closed it. The ortolan was dead. We plucked it quickly, warm as it was. The air was filled with the lightest of feathers; a breath of wind was enough to blow them away. There it lay: naked, yellow, its rear end a cushion of fat. Awkward as a mannequin, it still had a bit of plumage on its dead little head. But a minute later a good fire of pinecones in the orchard burnt that too. Skewered on a stick, it crackled and dribbled, basting itself, while the eel was blackening separately in the embers. And our delicious lunch could begin. These were great occasions; we ate like this twice a year…’

‘And to drink?’ she asked, fearlessly raising to her mouth a large glass of manzanillo.

‘A bucketful of water drawn from the well, mixed with maidenhair fern and brick dust, with ten or twelve lemons squeezed in it: semi-bitter lemons, the size of a walnut.’

The gentleman was silent for a long time, lost in his thoughts. He raised a full glass of Paradiso to his lips and took a sip, wincing. ‘No, no,’ he said. ‘It’s not the same.’

‘You should get used to manzanillo,’ said the young woman, looking for an eyebrow pencil in her tortoiseshell make-up bag. ‘It doesn’t kill you. It takes all the memories away. Then you’d be like a woman who’s jumped over the ditch, and who’s no longer afraid of anything. But you want to stay in it, in the ditch, fishing out for us the eels of your past.’

The waiter came back. He seemed discouraged.

‘A chateaubriand?’ he asked ‘A bowl of scampi velouté? Twelve or twenty-four snails in burgundy sauce? A slice of Rhine salmon? Or would you prefer to begin with woodcock on toast?’

‘I should like,’ said the gentleman gloomily, ‘an ortolan’s leg cooked on a fire of butcher’s broom and an eel bone marinaded in soap. I know that’s not possible. A shame. The bill, please.’

He took a big blue note from his wallet, put it on the plate, and said to the young woman, ‘Shall we go? Next time, I promise you, I’ll start with a manzanillo too.’

‘But don’t stop,’ she said. ‘Once is not enough. The pleasure comes later.’