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On the Beach

(Eugenio Montale — Sulla Spiaggia)

The yellow card I’ve found this morning on the sand where I usually lie in the sun, next to the newspapers and the deckchair, a few steps from the Hunger boarding house, advises me that a parcel has arrived for me in town, coming from the USA. If not claimed by the 28th of the month, the card informs me, the valuable package will be donated to the Red Cross. A parcel from whom? And really addressed to me? To satisfy my understandable curiosity, a note redirected from Florence, though arrived from overseas, is there to dispel any doubt. It’s from a certain Miss Bronzetti, who remembers me and has thought to send me cocoa, sugar and other delicacies; she hopes that I am well; she greets me, and remembers the patience I had for that cat of hers who stole meat from the butcher on the ground floor of my house. There follow various compliments and a signature: A.B. ‘A.B…’ I rack my brains. ‘Of course, yes, yes. Her name must have been Annalena or Annagilda or Annalia.’

I appeal to Antonio, who’s returning to his deckchair, leaving the prints of his bare feet on the sand. He must have heard the whistle of the postman on his bike, gone away to meet someone, and left my share of correspondence in my spot. And perhaps he, who has been in the company of all my acquaintances, more or less, in recent years, will know more about her than I.

‘Anactoria or Annabella,’ he says firmly. ‘I remember her very well. She lived somewhere near San Gervasio. She came from Vercelli or thereabouts. She taught in a college in Wisconsin or Vermont, but when we knew her she had taken her sabbatical leave and was wintering in Florence.’

A light comes on in my mind, a bright light in the darkness. Once more I see a modest little flat in Le Cure, the neatest, tidiest spinster’s studio apartment, full of cheap prints and reproductions — Botticelli’s Venus, Masaccio’s frescoes in Santa Maria del Carmine, Gozzoli’s angels — and books, lots of books in cheap editions, books from the circulating library, characterless books which intimidated me even by their titles: Misunderstood, Kidnapped, Upstarts… And beside them our own florid classics, the Renaissance for the benefit of foreigners: the canti carnascialeschi, even a little English Dante, with the original on opposite pages, and a collection of laudi dugentesche. And in this refuge there she was: Annabella or Anactoria, the slim, small, utterly determined woman from Piedmont, whom twenty or thirty years of teaching a couple of generations of girls to worship or be wary of our language had rooted ever more firmly in Italy, in the land which remained hers always, in any circumstance, at every swing of the historical and political barometer.

‘Anactoria… of course, I remember perfectly,’ I say to Antonio, trying to seem sure of myself. ‘She was very nice. I must write to her straight away, before collecting her gift. But it’s a nuisance that we’re here. I need a proxy to pick it up. I’ll have to send him an identity card, or something…’

To tell the truth, I’m mortified. I think about the tricks of memory, the Saint Patrick’s Well of recollection. Until now, I have believed that I can draw memories from the brain like water from the well, and I have supposed that, in the case of others, countless things fading from their minds still lived in me, still found in my breast their ultimate raison d’être; I thought myself rich, but in fact I was poor. Someone whom I had forgotten had taken me by surprise; it’s I who still exist in the mind of Anactoria or Annalena, I who survive in her, not her in me. All right; and how can a recollection vanish until this nudge? I was conscious of keeping a crowd of virtual, potential phantoms in memory’s strongbox; I didn’t call them up, not wishing to awaken unwelcome ghosts, but sometimes they came to the surface of consciousness and in some way shaped its richness. Reminiscences like this — unexploded spores, delayed action petards — can easily be explained and justified. But what to say about something that swarms up from the steep depths of our inert grey matter; what to think about the phenomenon of a complete disappearance which all of a sudden makes its presence felt? I believed, I suppose, in partial, almost deliberate forgetfulness, in — how shall I put this? — a Tayloristic process of the mind, which puts into retirement a memory for which it has no further use, while holding onto its thread and end tag. But there’s no question of that here: Anactoria or Annabella had been completely suppressed from my mind for four, five, six years, and now she has come back because she wanted to come back; it’s she who of her own volition does me this favour, not I who condescend to awaken her, going dilettantishly à la recherche du temps perdu. She is the loving one, the noble intruder who, digging around in the past, has come across my ghost and has wished to reinstate, in the best sense of the word, a ‘correspondence’.

‘The cat episode,’ I say to Antonio. ‘That’s left me seriously confused. For a start, there never was a butcher’s shop on the ground floor of my house. And then, I would have given the creature a name; I always remember the names of animals.’

‘There was a cat,’ Antonio insists. ‘A female. It liked to be picked up by the neck, cuddled and stroked, and it maiowed miserably if you didn’t satisfy it. It must have fallen from the window or run off after a few days. Its mistress had already gone away. I think she left with the girls: Patricia… and the others.’

‘Oh, Patricia; I’ve often thought about her. And yet never Annalena…’

The light is blazing on the Apuans, brilliantly clear between one storm and another at the end of August. The bathers are thinning out, but lots of yellow, green and orange umbrellas are still open on the damp sand. I’m not managing to tan as I would like, and through my sunglasses I follow the last food vendors walking past the deserted cabins. Their monotonous and already discouraged cries drift across to me: ‘Morecci mushrooms, iced drinks, ra… ra… raspberries!’ Then the blind man passes, led by his poodle — a figure in black, out of Velasquez — and the endless wail of ‘Bésame mucho’ streams from the heartfelt crescendos and diminuendos of his mouth organ. Time must be getting on.

‘Yes, yes, I remember very well, I’ve got a long memory. It was during the winter holidays that Anastasia — I mean Anactoria — had the job of chaperoning the girls from Miss Clay’s college when they came down from their villa at Giramontino. Six or seven little millionairesses arrived in pursuit of culture. They studied art history, music, dancing, the history of fascism and other curiosities. In the spring there was a prize-giving at the villa; even the prefect — His Excellency — attended, along with three or four ringleaders of the political gang in the city. The girls were keen to get to know them; Miss Clay was a firm enthusiast. Some of the mob were noblemen, and even had American wives. It must have been at one of those parties that I met Signor Stapps for the first time. Patricia, the most viperish of the group, said she had a “penchant” for him. When she left Giramontino to be the guest of certain nobles in the city, Anactoria was required to keep her under close surveillance. She accompanied her to museums, to concerts, to the theatre and to Boboli, and she assured herself that on other evenings the girl went to bed when the hens went to roost. But at around midnight Patricia was already out on the town with Signor Stapps. Poor Anactoria; if she had known… Or perhaps she knew and didn’t criticise. Her fate was to let others sow their wild oats, but as for her… Too old, in any case, to learn to dance the java. She must have lived alone for thirty or forty years, in a two-room flat, in the garden city of a vast hornets’ nest of women, eating in the refectory with her group of girls, and sometimes by herself, frying two eggs in lard on the electric stove in her kitchen. Every six or seven years she would come home, to Italy, though now a little detached, giving herself an American woman’s airs (“This sort of thing doesn’t happen back in the States,”) only later to die of nostalgia in a dead-end hole vainly cheered up by student performances of Shakespeare, concerts by German singing stars in decline, and conferences of French academics on tour. Oh, I get it, I get it now. We haven’t been very nice to her, Antonio; we should have written to her first, we should have looked after her when she was here…’

‘Are you mad?’ Antonio asks, surprised, raising his eyes from his newspaper. ‘Are you still thinking about that poor devil? Send her a postcard and have done with it. After all, which of us thought any more about her? And we don’t even remember her name!’

‘We don’t know her name, Antonio,’ I say, indignant. ‘I remember everything, inexorably, I assure you. Only the business of the cat bothers me. But as for the rest, it all makes sense to me, even the things that Anactoria-Anastasia didn’t tell me either today or then. Think about the news she must have received when we were enslaved to a gang of thieves after the first war. Think about her clear judgement of a situation, which must have been difficult, viewed from thousands of miles away and with all that propaganda tosh coming at her. Anactoria couldn’t care less about being respectful to His Excellency; I remember that very well. And she didn’t share the political grievances of any lover, unlike some of her companions who were guarding the sheepfold lost in the forest. She was purity and justice in person, Antonio, and we’ve realised it too late. She thought for herself, like me… and more clearly than you did.’

Antonio stands up, yawning and stretching. A few big drops of rain fall on the sand, and the wind gets up, darkening the mignonette in the pinewoods. The last holidaymakers hurry towards the terrace of the Hunger boarding house, where we can see waiters bustling back and forth. The beach attendant swiftly closes and pulls out the few umbrellas which are still open. I haven’t heard the gong, but it must be a bit after one o’clock.

‘Everything’s always too late for you,’ says Antonio. ‘But you can still make amends to your Attanasia. Shall we get going, and see if the cooking in the boarding house continues to live up to its name?’