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Little Angelo

(Eugenio Montale — L’Angiolino)

In the dark of the room, unexpectedly, an almost unworldly sound is heard, the lightest possible vibration of a sistrum emanating from the depths of a pigskin case. To hear it, one has to be wide awake and to pay close attention; a sigh, a yawn, a creak of the bed, a padded step in the corridor are enough to stifle that voice, so that it dies unheard. But this almost never happens. At half past eight in the morning, even in the darkest days of winter, even when every voice in the hotel is still asleep, he and she are awake, waiting to be aroused by the little alarm clock — the make is Angelo — which they keep hidden in the case. It’s a square alarm clock, enclosed in a beautiful red box, and if it were kept on the bedside table it would shine even at night because it has luminous hands, painted with phosphorus. But he can’t bear the faintest tick-tock from that adorable piece of machinery, and she doesn’t like that crawling luminous snail-trail two hand’s breadths from her. It brings a certain something into the room, a suspicion of ghostliness, she says, which she’s never got used to. And then it’s better to let time elapse, without checking it every second. The only solution is to bury the Angelo at the bottom of the suitcase and to keep their eyes open, waiting for it to wake them up. It rarely happens that it rings without being heard, finding both people asleep. He suffers from insomnia and she sleeps little. How can such an unlikely situation occur? The conversations it provokes are very far from peaceable.

‘Naughty little Angelo,’ says the man, shaking the small red leather box and putting it to his ear. ‘Did you do it on purpose? Have you lost your voice? Or,’ (and he turns angrily to his wife) ‘is it you who has forgotten to wind it up?’

‘I’ve been winding it for twenty years, every evening at the same time. Sometimes I get up, twice even, to check that I’ve wound it. It must have rung while you were snoring. You know it hasn’t got much of a voice, and as it gets older it has less and less. But as long as we pay close attention we can hear it perfectly well.’

‘Me, snoring?’ he says, detaching the pine-cone-shaped electric razor from his chin. ‘Don’t you know that at four in the morning I’m always awake? It must have rung when those three black women in the room next door made that infernal row. Didn’t you hear them, The Paprika Sisters, eh? They get back in the small hours, and then look out! Even the walls shake.’

‘Last night they got back at four,’ she says, cleaning little Angelo’s glass with the hem of her blouse. ‘And the baby must have rung at about nine. That excuse won’t work.’

A knock at the door. A waiter comes in, carrying two coffees and a newspaper which seems to be full of news. There is a moment of silence. The two are alone again, and the man runs the razor over the nape of his neck. It makes an irritating cicada-like buzz. Then he pulls the cord out of the terminal, lies down on the bed and opens the newspaper. And after a while, almost with a jerk, he says, ‘The baby? That’s an idiotic name to give this poor exhausted alarm clock. The Angelo is not a baby. It’s a clock.’

‘You’ve said yourself that it’s almost like our child. For more than twenty years it’s been travelling with us. I forbid you to upset it.’ (She takes little Angelo, she kisses it, she places it gently in a small bag made of Scottish linen, and replaces the bag at the bottom of the case.)

‘That’s enough,’ he says, exasperated. ‘We’ve got to stop these infantilisms. No more substitute children, no more lovey-dovey talk in unspeakable taste, no more twilit emotions. Life is getting harder and harder. We really must focus on concrete things, get down to brass tacks. Shall we try it? Let’s begin this morning; let’s begin now.’

‘Let’s try,’ she says, with a sigh of resignation. But already the man, who’s scanning the day’s news, bursts out laughing.

‘Have you seen this?’ he says, stirring his espresso cup. ‘Blackie Halligan, the hero of the Pacific, is dead; he had been wounded and was covered in decorations for valour. And you know who he was? A carrier pigeon who has saved the lives of three hundred men.’

‘Our agreement has started well,’ she says. ‘You don’t tell me if war is going to break out, if Cardinal Mindszenty was drugged or not, you refuse to explain to me what the Atlantic consciousness is; and then a pigeon is enough to set you in uproar.’

‘Our agreement might as well start in half an hour. What the hell! For thirty years we’ve been talking these little nonsenses, and we can’t just stop doing it from one moment to the next. Look, even that lot, who after all have won the war, don’t take things particularly seriously. Unfortunately, Italy has become a land of bureaucrats and pedants. How did the myth of our incurable anarchic spirit come about? We are formalists, conservatives and pettifogging lawyers even in the most innocuous of matters. To ascribe a human personality to a pigeon or, even more, to an alarm clock is an innocent animism, and animism is the most worthy spiritual stance for humans to take, and also the most logical. Because humans can’t escape from themselves and can’t judge things by a standard other than their own.’

He isn’t satisfied with his shave against the grain and has re-attached the cicada to the terminal. She is absorbed in reading a foreign magazine, and raises her head, asking, ‘What does “high-brow” mean? In America there are millions of people who read books, but only twenty-five thousand “high-brows”. It’s written here.’

‘Let me think about it. It means “supercilious”, readers with a discriminating palate, “discerning”. And what do they propose to do with them? Shoot them?’

‘On the contrary, they’re looking at ways to increase their number. They would like them to form at least one per cent of the population. Then even rare books, abstruse books, books without twists and turns, without stories of police corruption or crime would have a million and a half readers. And the ninety-nine per cent of Americans would carry on reading the usual books. It would be a paradise for all.’

‘And suppose we…’ he says, stroking his cheeks, ‘… suppose we were amongst the “high-brows” of life, rather than of art? You only read stupid magazines, and nowadays I only read detective novels. We have a vulgar palate, vulgar in the extreme. But in life… in life everything is different. Angels in the suitcase and miraculous pigeons in the sky; that’s what suits us.’

‘Us?’ she says bitterly. ‘Speak for yourself. I’ve done everything I can to make you toughen up in life. We have wonderful days ahead of us. Angelo… has been a personal thing for me, my own private flirtation. I should have got you used to a Roskoff alarm clock, one of those that looks like a squashed car. Be careful: if you want to be taken seriously, you have to become a hard man, a really hard man.’

From the bottom of the suitcase a barely perceptible noise is heard, almost a puff of sound which lasts a few seconds, and stops. He leaps off the bed and the two of them, greatly agitated, fight over the little bag of Scottish linen. Then they lift out the clock, shake it, stroke it and look for a long time at the face.

‘No damage done,’ he says, ashamed of hearing his altered voice. ‘It was set for a quarter past nine, not for nine o’clock. The little hand has slipped forward. From this evening, if you don’t mind, I’ll wind it up.’ Then he turns to the mirror, and looks at himself to check that he really has a “one-per-cent” face, and turning back he stammers, ‘Suppose our agreement… were to begin tomorrow?’

Without speaking, she lowers her head slightly to say yes. She is putting little Angelo back in its box.