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‘Would you Change Places with…?’

(Eugenio Montale — “Ti Cambieresti con…?”)

From the early hours of the morning (that is, bathers’ early hours — ten, eleven o’clock), they head for the pinewoods and the beach. They observe, investigate, listen, and every so often they put a mark in a little pocket book. But the most fruitful hours are those of the late afternoon, when people gather in groups, talk, unbosom themselves, and generally let slip their secrets (if they have any).

‘Would you change places with him?’ Frika asks Alberico, pointing out a hirsute lawyer, in shorts, bent over playing cards. His strong, confident voice, which the breeze fails to smother, has attracted her (‘Bloody canasta… Sacrifice the joker…’).

‘Me? Straight away,’ says Alberico, and puts a mark in the notebook.

A lady passes, in the briefest of panties, brassiere and gold sandals. She’s beautiful, statuesque, in shades of blonde and red; she comes every year from Busto in a big car, with a baby and a governess.

‘Would you change places with her?’ asks Alberico. And Frika replies, ‘What a question! Like a shot.’ And she puts a mark in the notebook.

An old lady with peroxide hair comes down onto the sand, dragging behind her a white poodle with full fur from the belly upwards and shaved bare from the belly downwards: a half-bald, half-shaggy bundle, sporting patches of flea-ridden pink, and looking around with confused little black eyes. ‘Here, Cheap; here, my treasure,’ says the old lady, and she tells people over and over that her Cheap is like a son, that she wouldn’t take him now, he gives her so much trouble, but what can you do? As long as he’s here, she won’t let him lack for anything, he cries and despairs without her, poor Cheap, he’s better than a human companion, he suffers from a liver complaint but he could live another ten years, poor Cheap, ‘Here, sweetheart, come to your mummy.’

‘Would you change places…?’ says Frika.

‘With her?’ says Alberico, aghast.

‘No, with Cheap.’

‘Straight away,’ says Alberico, and puts a mark in the notebook.

‘Even with her, I would,’ says Frika. ‘Even with her, who at least has her Cheap.’ And she puts down her most favourable mark. Two, in fact.

They have come to the cobbler who works at the corner of the street in the shade of a cluster of dusty holm oaks. She hands him a sandal and he, bent over his bench, works with twine and paring knife. From above, a lengthy song falls on their ears: sweet, poignant, sad and utterly joyous. A flicker of light in the darkness.

‘It’s a tit,’ says the shoemaker. ‘It’s been singing for years but I’ve never managed to see it. It’s the last lovely thing left in the world.’

They listen, ecstatic. Alberico puts a mark in the notebook.

‘…with the shoemaker?’ she asks, softly.

‘No, with the tit,’ he says, ‘but now that I come to think of it, why not?’ and he adds another mark.

She agrees, and puts down a single mark on her own tally: for the tit.

So many years of their marriage have passed; perhaps it’s only their Wagnerian names which have kept them together, but there’s nothing to be done about it now. And on they go, for hours and hours, come rain or shine, while eating or walking in the street, in bed or lying on deckchairs; and late in the evening they tot up, to see who has accumulated more points, which is the more unhappy of the two, who is the one who would most willingly change places with another…