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On the Threshold

(Eugenio Montale — Sul Limite)

The journey whose beginning I can report was preceded by an unpleasant incident. I had left the house of friends, in Via delle Carra, and after a few steps I had managed to find a taxi in which I hoped to get to Piazza Beccaria. The vehicle was crossing Il Prato when I saw a green Chevrolet coming towards us from a side road. There was plenty of time to brake, if the drivers had had a bit of sense. But neither of the two decided to do so, both obstinate in their presumed right of ‘priority’. The distance between the two cars was shortening. ‘The usual stupid accident,’ I said to myself, closing my eyes. After an instant which seemed an eternity there followed the most violent collision, and I was shaken like a die in a dice box inside the car’s dark cabin. Then I felt myself lying on the ceiling of the vehicle, which had obviously overturned. Light filtered through a broken window, and I heard the voices of the crowd which had rushed to the scene. The two charioteers were arguing, the bystanders were taking the part of one or the other, and no one seemed to be paying attention to me. ‘But there’s a man inside here,’ a merciful person said at last, and someone struggled to open the door against which I was leaning, from which I immediately rolled out onto the street and as quickly stood up. At this point the altercation between the drivers attained the level of oaths at full volume, and I had the time to dust down my coat as best I could, pat myself to check that I was alive, and jump on a tram which was passing not far away. The tram was half empty; everyone got off at La Porta, the ticket collector as well, he for a smoke; despite which the vehicle started off again pretty quickly, without him, and after a few minutes I realised that I had arrived at the edge of the city, in precisely the opposite direction to the destination I was hoping to reach. We stopped next to a wooden shed. ‘This is the end of the line,’ said the driver, suggesting that I get off. A moment later the tram departed empty, leaving me alone in the shed. It was spring, but already warm. It must have been six in the afternoon, to judge from the light. Strange; I had imagined that it was much later. I frisked myself, searching for my watch. Then I saw a little gig emerge from a narrow alley, drawn by a Sardinian donkey and driven by a young man in pyjamas, wearing on his head an Alpine cap, but without a feather. Seated prettily next to the young man was a ginger puppy, of a distinctly uncertain breed, which barked at length at me.

A pull on the brake, a tightening of the reins, and the carriage stopped. The little dog was all over me in merriment, upright on its paws, in a frenzy, totally out of breath, and the young man in pyjamas came towards me with hands extended and a faint smile. ‘Don’t you remember me?’ he said. ‘I might have guessed it, after all this time. I’m Nicola.’

‘Nicola?’ I said, perplexed. ‘Nicola… who?’

‘Nicola’s my surname, old chap: the Alpine cadet who left the infantry battalion, with you, at Negrar, and volunteered to cross the Apennines — the Loner and the Corno. Don’t you recall? Oh, I know, it was an acquaintance of a few days; but it was the last one I had. Perhaps that’s why it’s stayed in my mind. I arrived here soon after, hit by a shrapnel fuse. Over there at Leno, all sorts of ironmongery rained on us. Remember? But you were in another battalion and perhaps you never knew…’

‘Goodness, Nicola… yes… I remember perfectly,’ I said, astounded. ‘How very kind of you to have stopped. A fuse, of course… I read it in the division’s daily orders. Nicola… fancy seeing you again!’

‘And I didn’t come alone, you see? I came with Galiffa, the little dog you petted when you were a baby, and with Pinocchietto, the donkey from Vittoria Apuana. You always gave her sugar. I’m in good company, eh?’ And he gave a laugh which made me jump.

‘Galiffa… Pinocchietto…’ I said, reeling. ‘But, forgive me, how did you know about this? You didn’t… just turn up here… on your own account?’

The donkey and the little dog were licking my hands, giving lively signs of recognition. I didn’t have any sugar, and felt totally unprepared for this unexpected meeting. Nicola laughed with an air of superiority and signalled to me to get up on the carriage.

‘I’m at the sorting office at Threshold,’ he continued, ‘and when I heard your name, I had them show me the film of your life at once. I had already reviewed it several times, because it’s been shot and was finished up until today, so I could have met you on time. But what can you do? There’s a lot of work on, and staff are in short supply. As it is, you’ve caught me on the hop. I could have come with all the animals in your private ark: Fufi and Gastoncino, Passepoil and Bubú, Buck and Valentina… Don’t worry, you’ll be able to see them all again.’

‘Ah, Valentina as well,’ I said to myself. (That must be the tortoise who came into the kitchen to flirt with Buck, the Alsatian… how many years ago?)

‘I should really have brought you Mimí, in the bottle, the way the conjuror held her; but it was getting late and I wanted to meet you as soon as you arrived. You’ll see her too. Giovanna’s looking after her.’

‘Mimí in the bottle… of course…’ (Perhaps the guinea pig I had known an age before, at Maloja; but who was Giovanna? Animal or human? My heart stopped. Giovanna! Could it possibly be… her?)

‘Giovanna,’ Nicola repeated, guiding the little donkey between fertile fields of what looked like castor-oil plants. ‘She’s at Threshold too, and she’s even found a way of looking after the zoo.’

‘Is she dead?’ I ventured, lowering my eyes and lurching on the narrow seat. And I took a drag on the dog-end of a cigarette; it seemed strangely tasteless. ‘And… she’s doing OK?’

‘She’s alive,’ he corrected me drily. ‘Or rather, the glove has been turned inside out for her too; as for me, as for you. But let’s say she’s dead, if you like.’

‘Ah,’ I stammered. And the certainty of it caused my head to drop onto my chest. Then I opened my eyes and saw that the gig was passing a few shelters where long lines of women were waiting in queues. The countryside was colourless, and in the distance a group of shining white houses was visible.

‘That made quite an impression on you, eh?’ chortled Nicola, with a gaiety which seemed forced. ‘I know; the first time, people are still attached to the stories from before. It was like that for me when I was amongst the living — but what am I saying? — amongst the dead who are pre-Threshold. That’s where you’re coming from now. I used to dream, and on waking I would still remember the dream; but then even that memory faded. The same thing is happening to you now; there’s still a fringe of earthly memory to put to sleep in your mind, but that won’t take long. Later, when Giovanna shows you the “recording” of what you have called your life, you’ll struggle to recognise it. That’s the way it seems to be as far as Zone I, the staging post where Jack and Fred often hang out. (You’ll remember Fred, the painter who did that portrait of you at Spoleto.) Then, so they say, this memory is lost and people gain another one. To tell you the truth, Giovanna and I could already have moved on to the next stage; I think they’ve agreed at the Centre that we have sufficient qualifications. But what can you do? We can make ourselves very useful at Threshold, and Giovanna is invaluable as a translator. She’s always had an amazing flair for languages, and there’s a lot of call for it, I can tell you. There’ll be plenty for her to do at Zone II, no doubt. That’s the institute of higher actualities, where the process of dematerialisation begins. But the news we’re getting from there isn’t very encouraging; it seems that their registration system is stricter and it’s difficult to find lodgings. Your father had promised to make an appearance there, but for the moment… So we’ve preferred to extend our wait at Threshold.’

As he spoke, Nicola continued mechanically to whip the donkey, and the compact hill village, with steep streets and flights of steps, came more closely into view. The trees in the fields were squat and uniform, and the sun seemed to have stopped above the horizon. I threw the spent cigarette butt to the ground.

‘And,’ I said, sweating, ‘will I have to stay with you as well?’

‘Of course, at least for a while. But it will depend on Fred. Poor Fred: you know, he was very jealous of you. Basically, he’s not a bad lad, but he’s not much use in this life. You must know how he came here from the other, after a brawl with a few drunks. But how well he remembered Giovanna! When we saw her in the film, inside the shot-up railway carriage, her and Jack, he howled like a madman. He wanted to be the only one to welcome them here. It was knowing you that gained me their friendship. They’ll be sorry not to have come to greet you. What can you do? For those of us at the arrivals office, these are the perks of the job; we can check thousands of films. This evening, if you like, we can show a bit of yours. We’ll choose a few harmless scenes, which won’t… put Fred in the shade. Speaking for myself, I can put up with anything; I was the last to join your group, even if I am the longest-standing here. And Jack is such a good guy… so tolerant.’

I was hunched on my seat. Galiffa was affectionately licking my hands, and the donkey shook its long ears under the cuts of the whip. Then, ‘Nicola…’ I managed to enunciate. The gig swerved and entered an avenue of trees which looked to me like horse chestnuts, at the end of which a few immaculately white houses obscured the view of the countryside.

‘What is it?’ said Nicola, and gaily cracked the whip in the air.

‘Couldn’t we postpone this business? This meeting, I mean? Perhaps you understand: for me that game was over. I’ve laboured for so many years to turn my thoughts away from those… friends; I thought the effort was driving me mad; and fate had even spared me the news of the shot-up railway carriage. And now you… No, no, it’s too much, too much… I wanted there to be something in my life that was finished, you understand? Something that would be eternal by virtue of being finished. I can’t start all over again, Nicola; take me to see my mother… if she’s there.’

‘You’ll be able to communicate with Zone III later. The most recent news from there was good. But memory is greatly reduced there, I have to tell you. Stop with us for a few decades; you’ll get used to it. See how young I’ve stayed?’

Pinocchietto halted in front of a building where the sound from an open window on the ground floor suggested the tapping of a ‘Noiseless’ portable typewriter. Nicola jumped down and reached out his hand to me. Galiffa was happily sleeping in my arms.

‘That’s her. She’s working overtime,’ he whispered to me. ‘Come, be brave; she hasn’t changed. It was too comfortable to forget. Start your life again, like those of us… who arrived before you.’