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Dancers at the Diavolo Rosso

(Eugenio Montale — Ballerini al “Diavolo Rosso”)

During the last days of August, when the city was hotter than an oven, it seemed to the young Cavallucci, who aspired to literary glory but was for the time being a humble book-keeper in a shorthand-typing school in Via dell’Anguillara, that he had been promoted to, or at least was benevolently tolerated in, the post of ‘listener-in’ at the distinguished clique who gathered around the tables at the Caffè… (We withhold its name for reasons of discretion.)

That the clique was distinguished was, we agree, a generally accepted opinion, perhaps in recognition of its recent past, but this remained a hypothesis supported by scant evidence. It’s true that at the hour of the aperitif men of various ages could be seen there, mostly young, sitting at the corner tables and exchanging a few weary words; but it would be a little difficult to assert that amongst these habitués there ran some kind of intellectual commerce, an exchange of ideas, or even merely a current of sympathies. However, Cavallucci, proud of having taken the first step, was not a man to dwell on such subtleties. ‘The Group’ existed and it was within his reach. It consisted of the ‘Big Five’ (or perhaps more than five) men in town, and he had been allowed to sit at those tables, slightly on the periphery, and to stay there listening, all ears, to the few phrases exchanged between one chair and another. He hadn’t been properly and formally introduced (that wasn’t the custom), but Cavallucci knew one member of the circle, one of the lesser ones, his appearance had been greeted with glances more indifferent than distrustful, and everything had gone smoothly, once, twice, three times… better and better. At about eight in the evening, as the group dispersed, Cavallucci, a young man poorly dressed but with long, dandruffed hair, fired by an enthusiasm which shone in his ferret’s eyes, rose too without leaving a coin on the marble (members of The Group weren’t obliged to consume drinks) and hurried towards his little room in Via delle Stinche, which he shared with another tenant, more of a greenhorn than he but no less ravenous for literary experiences, a certain Pigni who’d turned up from Borgo San Lorenzo without a farthing in his pocket, but nominally a university student and for several months now employed as a tester of wind instruments in an accordion factory in Via de’ Neri.

And the two friends’ conversation, as they busied themselves carefully filleting a couple of flattened herrings on a bit of food wrapping (as in Funai’s still lifes), turned naturally to The Group and to Cavallucci’s stroke of good fortune. He let drop the results of his initiation in the mildly blasé style of the arrived man who wasn’t ready, not quite ready, to begin tutoring the novice, the ‘recruit’. Something had to be said, at any rate, and Cavallucci wanted nothing more than to spill the beans; but with a certain refined slowness, the way some owners do with the cat, he held out a few little slices of offal or tripe to the prehensile clutches of his emaciated fellow lodger. The two most famous poets in the café, Mondelli and Guzzi, the older rather flabby and the younger with a sharp chin? No, those two hadn’t said anything to him, to be perfectly honest; they yawned dreadfully, perhaps exhausted by excessive mental concentration. But Lunardi from Modena had promised, with a pat on his shoulder, to get him to write something for La Cavalcata, his own journal, independent of The Group; the refined Lampugnani, while continuously correcting proofs, didn’t refuse his greeting; and the painter Funai, a master, had dashed off his profile on the marble of the table. There were others there too, naturally not all of them important, indeed some rather ‘empty-headed’, but overall the atmosphere was lively, one thing leads to another, and a day would come (there was no hurry) when Pigni himself might also make an appearance there. Not immediately, it was understood; Pigni left work too late, coughing, half out of breath from continuous blowing, and in the evenings after dinner the company wasn’t the same, or was reserved for intimates, and on Sundays — with that crowd! — it wasn’t to be thought of. But the right moment would come, one needed patience if one was to cut one’s literary teeth… and work (Cavallucci pointed to a pile of his little exercise books). And Pigni swallowed bread and herring and said yes, caught between dread and incredulity.

Several weeks went by, with intermittent appearances by Cavallucci at the café, and then one evening at the end of September the two friends decided to treat themselves to a new kind of amusement; or rather, they didn’t decide, it was chance that caused them to meet a pair of strapping serving girls from Monghidoro whom they had got to know at a drugstore, two stocky maidens in their Sunday best, two ‘hot numbers’, as the expert Cavallucci remarked, all bouffants and lace that day, with their long hair American fashion and short skirts above their prominent knees; and they had taken them to dinner at I’ Llàcheri (Pigni had been paid cash for some casual work) and then for a stroll by the Arno in the semi-darkness and still suffocating heat.

After an ice cream from a cart and two orange sodas shared between the four of them in a little bar, they crossed the iron bridge. An illuminated sign, ‘Al Diavolo Rosso’, had attracted them: the entrance to a dance spot which was being talked about in town. There was a little garden with lanterns in the Venetian style, a long narrow café and, further in, a triangular dance floor, suspended above which, roosting in a kind of cage, a jazz orchestra composed of fake Turkish spahees rained down on the dancing couples a steady stream of caterwauling and syncopation. The entrance fee was an arm and a leg, but Cavallucci realised that he knew one of the ushers, and in they all went without paying, like Portuguese at the theatre. And a moment later the two couples were already whirling round on the overheated dance floor, in the midst of ten, twenty others, whipped up by the sudden burst of boogie-woogie, when Pigni, who was careering beside his friend, pressing to himself the less meaty of the hot numbers, nudged Cavallucci and, pointing at someone in the melee, whispered to him, ‘Look at them… good God! What do we do now?’ Who was it? Cavallucci twisted his neck without letting go of his prize and saw… something unexpected yet not unpredictable, which could only be avoided if a trapdoor were provided for the dancers. And there wasn’t one. He saw the two hoped-for brokers of his future advancement, the two lions of The Group, Piero Lampugnani and the sturdy, thickset, bespectacled Gamba, moving towards them, enfolding in their arms two lithe reeds, one in silver lamé and the other in red satin, in full-length gowns, their backs bare and with a crown of flowers on their heads. There was a murmur of admiration. ‘They’re the Rizzolini girls, from the Social Republic,’ ran from mouth to mouth amid the pandemonium.

In a split second, Cavallucci pretended to stumble and looked down at the floor. But already Lampugnani, tall, with a girlish flush on his face, a hand raised to smooth his blue-fox-coloured hair, brushed past him, glued tight to his blonde partner, then noticed him in spite of his short-sightedness, stared at him with ill-concealed wonderment and said in a low voice, perhaps with a touch of irony, ‘Well, I say… good evening,’ and slipped away sideways, twisting like an eel, while Gamba was gliding on the other side, almost bumping into Pigni as he pirouetted with his brunette, who wore earrings shaped like bunches of grapes, and not omitting to turn round with a hint of incredulity on his face. Worse, at that moment the orchestra suddenly stopped, everyone turned towards the cage of fake spahees, applauding so that they then settled down to play again, and gazing out of breath at the fresco of the red devil painted on the surround of the entrance to the dance floor. When the music started up, new couples entered the lists, along with the existing dancers, but Cavallucci and Pigni persisted no longer in their efforts, and hidden behind a hedge of observers in evening dress they followed with their eyes the swirls and shuffles of the two young lions, while the orchestra, in a change of mood, gave vent to the trilling of a telephone and to the off-beat cantering rhythm of ‘Miss Otis Regrets’. One of the two girls from Monghidoro was powdering her face, sitting on a stool, while the other had found a chap to her liking and had hurled herself into the fray with him. Gamba and Lampugnani came back within range but their glance didn’t penetrate the first row of heads; they were upright, still tanned from the sun at the beach, and completely absorbed in the blonde and the brunette whom they manoeuvred like walking sticks. The well-known discophile Gamba explained the words of ‘Miss Otis’, while the other, engrossed like Baudelaire’s Don Juan, ‘ne daignait rien voir’. At least, that was little Pigni’s impression, who with the French books in his workshop was beginning to view life through those eyes. Cavallucci bent over him and, benefitting from the hubbub, threw him a parting shot. ‘I’m clearing out, but if you want to stay… Since they don’t know you, you’ve got nothing to lose…’ He departed, exiting in a hurry in the direction of the iron bridge. After only about fifty paces he turned round under the glow of a street lamp, and saw that Pigni and one of the two abandoned girls were plodding bad-temperedly after him.