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The Man in Pyjamas

(Eugenio Montale — L’Uomo in Pigiama)

I was taking a stroll along the corridor, in slippers and pyjamas, from time to time scaling a heap of dirty laundry. Mine was a luxury hotel because it had two passenger lifts and a goods lift (all nearly always broken), but it wasn’t equipped with a lumber room for sheets, pillowcases and towels in temporary disuse, and the chamber maids had to pile them up here and there in dark corners. Late at night I would arrive at these dark corners, as a result of which the chambermaids didn’t like me very much. Nonetheless, having tipped them a few times, I had obtained tacit permission to wander where I wished. It was after midnight. A telephone was ringing softly. Could it be in my room? I padded off in that direction but I heard someone answering; it was in number 22, the room next to mine. I was just about to retire when the answering voice, a woman’s voice, said, ‘Don’t come yet, Attilio; there’s a man in pyjamas in the corridor. He’s walking up and down. And he might see you.’

I heard a vague croak from the other side of the door. ‘What?’ she answered, ‘I don’t know who it is. Some miserable loser. He’s always at it. Don’t come, I beg you. If anything happens I’ll tell you.’ She slammed the phone down; I heard footsteps in the room. I rapidly made myself scarce, slithering along as if on skates. At the end of the corridor there was a sofa, a second heap of laundry and a wall. I heard the door of room 22 open; through a crack the woman was looking at me. I could not remain down there; I made my way slowly back. It would take me about ten seconds to pass by number 22. In an instant I considered the various possible options: 1) return to my room and shut myself in there; 2) the same with a variation, namely informing the lady that I had heard everything and that I intended to do her the favour of retiring; 3) ask her if she really cared to receive Attilio or if I were a pretext she had chosen in order to extricate herself from an unwanted nocturnal bullfight; 4) ignore the telephone conversation and continue my stroll; 5) ask the lady if she intended eventually to substitute me for the man on the telephone, for the reasons set out in option 3; 6) demand explanations for the term ‘miserable loser’ by which she had presumed to designate me; 7) …the seventh struggled to form in my brain. But I was already in front of the crack. Two black eyes, a red bed jacket over a silk blouse, a head of short but rather curly hair. It took a second; the crack abruptly closed. My heart was beating fast. I went into my room and heard the telephone ringing again in number 22. The woman was speaking quietly; I didn’t hear the words. At a bound I was back in the corridor and then managed to make something out: ‘It’s impossible, Attilio, I tell you it’s impossible…’ Then the click of the replaced receiver and her steps towards the door. I leapt, hurling myself towards heap of uncleanness number two, turning over in my mind options 2, 3 and 5. The crack opened again. It was out of the question to remain stuck there. I said to myself, ‘I am a miserable loser, but how did she get to know that? And what if my walking up and down were to save her from Attilio? Or to save Attilio from her? I’m not made to be the judge of anything, let alone the lives of others.’ Back I went, dragging a pillowcase with a slipper. The crack opened wider; the curly head protruded a bit more. I was one metre from that head. I stood to attention, having liberated myself with a kick of the slipper. Then I said, in too loud a voice, which resounded down the corridor, ‘I’ve finished my stroll, signora. But how do you know that I’m a miserable loser?’

‘We all are,’ she said, and slammed the door shut. In her room, the telephone rang again.