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The Storm Fly

(Eugenio Montale — La Tempestosa)

The news that Giampaolo had married Signora Dirce F., twice widowed and a good deal older than him, had not aroused unfavourable comment in town. Life had been difficult for Giampaolo, and to know that he was settled at last (even if at the cost of certain inevitable relinquishments) was a relief to his innumerable friends, none of whom dared to express the malign thought that he had, in the vulgar phrase, ‘hung up his hat’. The marriage ceremony was followed by strikingly sumptuous celebrations and banquets; after which the life of the married pair rather passed into the shadows. People still spoke about them, but in more or less evasive terms. It was said that Giampaolo ‘was working’ — at what and towards what it wasn’t possible to verify — and that his beloved Dirce had provided him with a paradise on earth. But it became clear that the couple were living somewhat aloof. Those who spoke about them admitted that they were referring to meetings and invitations of some time earlier, and while praising the exquisite quality of the dishes prepared by the lady, and the exceptional manifestations of her hospitality, they quickly betrayed a wish to undergo the experience again at not too soon a date, or indeed to defer it sine die. There were no explicit criticisms or open hints in people’s cautious words; and yet it often happened that when someone said, ‘Signora Dirce… Giampaolo… a lovely couple..,’ one could read in their face a certain anxiety, and almost the resolve not to speak more frankly.

Federigo hadn’t been fully aware of these hints and reticences before the morning on which, absent-mindedly walking out of his way along Via del Forno, and arriving in front of the villa bearing the number 15, he remembered that his old friend Giampaolo, who had disappeared from the circle of his intimates as a result of an advantageous marriage, lived there. Federigo was poor and shy, and couldn’t compete with Giampaolo in his new existence, collecting the crumbs from the rich man’s table. He had the heart of a friend, not the spirit of a toady or a postulant. A mixture of reserve and pride had for this reason kept him away from his more fortunate friend; but then the ice broke of its own accord and Federigo was moved, almost without knowing it, to ring Giampaolo’s bell, hoping to be able to spend one of those confidential half hours with him which in former times had made the town of A… so dear to Federigo.

He was greeted by the snarling of a guard dog, and shown into a room — which he soon learned to call, in English, ‘the living room’ — full of pictures, statues, tapestries, pewter vases and silver eagles. No sooner had a badly shaved servant asked for his visiting card and taken it to its most appropriate destination than he was assailed by a squall of shrieks.

Federigo Bezzica? What an unexpected honour. For years, for two or three years, at the beginning of her fancy for Giampaolo, when her late husband, her second late husband, was still alive (a finger was raised to point to a bald man in a big oil painting), she, Signora Dirce, had wanted to know everything about him, she had thrilled with intense admiration for his life and character. Federigo Bezzica! If only she had got to know him earlier… Who knows… The dearest, the most noble, the most reserved of Giampaolo’s friends. Naturally she reproached him for having taken so long to visit. Shyness? Desire for a quiet life? She understood — how well — his taste for ‘blessed solitude’, and on the basis of this affinity she hoped to form a close, firm friendship with him. Giampaolo? Yes, Giampaolo was working, but he would soon appear. Meanwhile they could take advantage of the wait and exchange a few words to get to know each other better. Would he like a port, a dry Martini, a Negroni? Fabrizio! Where has that lazy Fabrizio hidden himself? Quick, a port for the gentleman.

Federigo hadn’t looked at her yet. The living room was in semi-darkness and the lady was sitting too close for him to dare to turn his head. But a large mirror — she called it un trumeau — reflected to him the image of a strange coiled-up bird of prey, the flanks of its nose (its beak) a-quiver, its hair between blue and mahogany, and its eyes bistred and burning with purely outward light. She made her eyes light up the way the flame of a lighter shoots out for guests’ cigarettes; then she doused them and put them back in her tortoise-shell case, close at hand.

After a while Giampaolo, in shirtsleeves, joined them and kissed his wife’s hand. He didn’t venture to say much. In their turn, Antenore and Gontrano came forward, yellow, thin and diffident, the sons of the first late husband (the finger was raised again to indicate the portrait of a moustachioed officer); and Rosemarie, the daughter of the second. It was already one o’clock. Signora Dirce decided that Federigo must stay and do his penance with them. They went into a dining room where a cloth of fine embroidery had been spread over a glass table above which a bronze statue plunged towards the guests, and the servant Fabrizio, having waited for the gentleman to put his jacket on, served soup in a cup, a cheese soufflé, a friture of prawns and courgettes, and a little basket of dried fruit. For coffee they returned to the living room; the operation of the filter machine was lengthy, and the choice of liqueur to accompany it equally meticulous.

When Antenore, Gontrano and Rosemarie asked if they might be excused, Federigo tried to take his leave, but having unwisely expressed a desire to rest (a post-prandial habit which Signora Dirce fully approved and participated in), he was propelled by main force onto a sofa in the living room and asked to take a nap with no further ceremony. He stayed there in the dark for two hours, deeply worried. No sound was heard; perhaps everyone was asleep.

What to do? The two hours were an eternity. The clock gave him courage when it struck four. Federigo got up, opened a shutter, tidied the divan on which he had napped, and went out on tiptoe, trying to find the entrance hall. Except that the alert Fabrizio did not fail in his duty to raise the alarm, and the result was that a new gale of proposals reached him from the depths of the living room.

It was nearly tea time. Why leave so soon? Did he have urgent business to attend to? Seriously now… did he not feel too well? A tonic would be advisable. One or two intramuscular shots of Bescapè lecithin, for example. The same as she gave Giampaolo. Had they already been prescribed for him? So much the better. No, we shouldn’t delay. The chemists were closed at the moment. She had everything there; she was an excellent qualified nurse. Please, please, amongst dear friends no thanks were needed. Just a moment; she would be back in a second.

She returned fully armed. Federigo had to lie down on a pile of cushions and expose a part of himself, a few centimetres square, to his hostess’s sting. Exhausted, he felt he had to stay there for a few minutes, and in the meantime Fabrizio returned, dragging the tea trolley. Giampaolo came to life again and was admitted to the ceremony. He remarked that the weather was deteriorating. It was raining. And Federigo had no umbrella.

Signora Dirce took her decisions quickly. Federigo must stay for supper too. No inconvenience; it would be a great pleasure for everyone. He was refusing? Unbelievable. Perhaps this was a declaration of war? (A threatening light shone in her eyes. And Federigo attempted a faint gesture of protest.)

But no, good heavens, he could not refuse, he would stay. The rain was pelting down. Antenore and Gontrano came back in with the dog. Federigo was served a vermouth and then treated to another hour of pleasant conversation. Fabrizio appeared, in white cloth gloves, to say that supper was served. Federigo was taken by the underarms and led to his place, where a minestra del Paradiso was waiting for him, with its floating accoutrements, followed by a gelatine of rabbit and some peaches in syrup. Fabrizio supervised proceedings with the parmesan grater, sprinkling the soup dishes. The conversation turned to love, and became more intimate when the children retired. At ten o’clock some claps of thunder made the house resound.

It wasn’t possible for him to leave in such appalling weather. Fabrizio would have been able to take him in the car, but unfortunately there hadn’t been time to repair some nasty damage to the differential. Nothing to worry about; the guest room was there, done up in exquisite taste, a joy. She had furnished it herself. Would he like a camomile, a mint tisane, a bromide cube? They would meet again in the morning, for caffelatte. But before that, at about eight, Fabrizio had been given notice to bring him a cup of black coffee in his room. Did he need anything else? The bathroom was on the right, the light switch on the left. And thank you for this delightful visit; surely the first of many. Thank you, thank you again; goodbye, bye bye.

The rain had stopped. Looking out of the window of his room, Federigo calculated that to get out by jumping would be too dangerous. And then there was the garden gate to scale, the risk of being bitten by Tombolo the dog, and other possible inconveniences. Suppose he were taken for a thief?

Vacillating, he closed the window, and saw the pyjamas of the second late husband (perhaps of the first) laid out for him on the bed. He picked them up with two fingers, then let them drop when he heard a knock at the door. It was Giampaolo, who had brought him a pair of old slippers.

‘See you tomorrow,’ he said. ‘We’ll meet later on in the morning, because I have to work. And you: when are you getting married?’