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       Boredom, p.18

           Alberto Moravia
 
“Yes, certainly.”

  “Does he know he’s going to die?”

  “No, he doesn’t know.”

  “And do you never think about his dying?”

  “As long as he’s alive, even if he’s sick, I don’t think about his death. I’ll think about it on the day he dies. All I think about now is that he’s sick.”

  Abruptly I let go of her, saying: “Do you know, I want you?”

  “Yes, I realized that.”

  She finished touching up her eyebrows, put the pencil back on the shelf and pushed me toward the door. “Come on,” she said, “Mother must be back by now.”

  And in fact she had come back. As we came out into the passage, a shrill, discordant voice, like the tinkle of chimes let loose when you open the door of a shop, started shouting: “Cecilia! Cecilia!”

  Cecilia started off in the direction of this voice and I followed her. The kitchen door was open, and her mother, still wearing her coat and hat, was standing in front of the stove, spoon in hand, stirring a pot. The kitchen was dark and smoky and of an unusual, triangular shape: the stove stood on the longest side, underneath a hood; the sharp point of the triangle ended in a high, narrow window, a half-window, actually, and obscured by clothes hung up to dry. The room was dirty and extremely untidy, with peelings scattered on the floor, the marble table covered with parcels and paper bags, and piles of dirty plates heaped up in a jumble in the sink near the window. Without turning around, Cecilia’s mother said: “The dishes, the dishes have got to be washed.”

  “I’ll wash the whole lot this evening,” replied Cecilia, “today’s and yesterday’s as well.”

  “And the day before yesterday’s too,” said her mother. “That’s what you say every day and soon we won’t have any plates left. I washed the breakfast dishes this morning, but you’ll have to wash the dinner dishes because I have to go to the shop.”

  “Let me introduce Dino, Mother.”

  “Oh, Professor, excuse me, it’s a pleasure, a pleasure, excuse me, excuse me, it’s a pleasure.” The clanging sound of her voice went on for some time, chiming the words “pleasure” and “excuse me” while I was shaking her hand. I looked at her. She was a woman of small stature, with a minute, wasted face which seemed, however, to have blossomed belatedly into a kind of uproarious youthfulness. Her eyes, black, unsophisticated, and surrounded with fine wrinkles, shone with a reckless light; her cheeks were enlivened by a hectic coloring, whether natural or artificial I could not tell; her mouth, painted and very large, opened in a brilliant smile. She resembled Cecilia, I noticed, especially in the childish look of her brow which jutted out over her wide open eyes, and in the round shape of her face. In her loud, cracked voice she cried: “I didn’t know the Professor was here. Cecilia, take the Professor into the living room. I’ll see to the cooking.”

  In the passage I said to Cecilia: “You introduced me to your father as your drawing teacher, and to your mother as Dino. Couldn’t you remember my surname?”

  She replied, in an absent-minded sort of way: “You may not believe it, but I still don’t know it. I’ve known you as Dino, and I’ve never thought of asking you your other name. What is your other name, then?”

  “Well,” I said, “if you still don’t know it, you might as well go on not knowing it. I’ll tell you another time.” Suddenly I felt myself to be unnamable, perhaps simply because Cecilia seemed to prefer me without a name.

  “Just as you like.”

  We went into the living room, and I said to Cecilia: “Your mother is very like you, physically. But what sort of character has she?”

  “What d’you mean?”

  “What is she like—good or bad, calm or nervous, generous or mean?”

  “I really don’t know, I’ve never thought about it. She has an ordinary sort of character. To me, she’s my mother and that’s that.”

  “And he?” I asked, indicating her father sitting in the armchair beside the radio; “what sort of character has he, in your opinion?”

  This time she did not answer me at all; she merely shrugged her shoulders, in a strange way, as though I had asked an entirely senseless question. Seized by a sudden irritation, I took hold of her by the arm and, speaking right into her ear, asked her: “What’s that black hole up there in the ceiling?”

  She looked up at the hole as though she were seeing it for the first time. “It’s a hole; it’s been there for some time.”

  “Ah then, you can see the hole.”

  “Why shouldn’t I be able to see it?”

  “Then how is it that you can’t see your father’s and mother’s characters?”

  “You can see a hole, you can’t see a character. My father and mother are people just like lots of other people, that’s all there is to it.”

  We were now close to her father, who was listening, motionless, to the radio. I sat down on a chair opposite him and shouted: “How do you feel today?”

  He jumped in his armchair and looked at me in dismay. Then he said something I did not understand. “He says there’s no need to shout, he’s not deaf,” explained Cecilia who, it appeared, understood her father’s whispering sounds perfectly.

  She was right, and goodness knows why I had thought that, because he was almost dumb, he was also deaf. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I was asking you how you felt.” He pointed to the windows and said something which Cecilia interpreted: “There’s a scirocco blowing, and on scirocco days he never feels very well.”

  “Why don’t you go to your shop?” I asked. “It would be a distraction for you, don’t you think?”

  He made a gesture of humble denial and then answered in a more detailed way, pointing to his throat and face. Cecilia said: “He says he can’t go there because customers would be discouraged at seeing him so changed, and sales would suffer. He says he’ll go as soon as he’s better.”

  “Are you having treatment?”

  Again he spoke and again his daughter interpreted: “He’s having X-ray treatment. He hopes to be well again in a year’s time.” I looked at Cecilia now to see what was the effect upon her of these pathetic illusions on the part of her father; as usual, nothing was perceptible on her round face, in her expressionless eyes. I reflected that not merely did she not realize that her father was dying, but not even—contrary to what she had affirmed—that he was ill. Or rather, she did realize it, she was conscious of it, but in the same way that she was conscious of the black hole in the sitting-room ceiling: the hole was a hole, her father’s illness was an illness. Behind us, her mother’s voice clanged: “It’s ready, please come and sit down.”

  We took our seats at the table, and Cecilia’s mother, apologizing for not having a servant, carried around a tureen full of pasta. As I looked at the tangle of red, greasy spaghetti in the china tureen, it occurred to me that even the food had something about it that resembled the flat; something old, something neglected. I ate this bad pasta with repugnance, using a fork with an unsteady, yellow bone handle and envying the other three, especially Cecilia, who were all devouring their food with appetite. Cecilia’s mother poured me some wine which I judged, at the first sip, to have gone sour, and then, when I asked for some cold water, she filled my other glass with mineral water which was also stale; warm and without sparkle. The unpleasantness of the food was, however, surpassed by the unpleasantness of the conversation which Cecilia’s mother, the only one who spoke, stubbornly persisted in carrying on with me. Quite logically she had come to the conclusion that, apart from the usual remarks about the weather, the theaters and other things of the kind, the only subject that she and I had in common was Balestrieri, since he was my predecessor in giving drawing lessons to Cecilia. Halfway through lunch, when following the bad pasta I was eating a piece of tough, overcooked meat with vegetables cooked in poor quality oil, she attacked me in her shrill voice: “Professor, you knew Professor Balestrieri, didn’t you?”

  I glanced at Cecilia before replying. She glanced back at me, but seemed not to s
ee me, so absent-minded and vague was her look. I said dryly: “Yes, I knew him slightly.”

  “Such a good man, so charming and so intelligent. A real artist. You can’t imagine how upset I was at his death.”

  “Yes, yes,” I said casually, “and he wasn’t so very old.”

  “Barely sixty-five, and he looked fifty. We had known him for only two years, and yet I seemed to have known him always. He was part of the family, so to speak. And he had such a great affection for Cecilia! He said he looked upon her almost as a daughter.”

  “He ought to have said,” I corrected without smiling, “he ought to have said as a granddaughter.”

  “Yes indeed, a granddaughter,” she approved mechanically. “And just imagine, he wouldn’t even be paid for his lessons. ‘Art cannot be paid for,’ he used to say. How true that is!”

  “Perhaps,” I remarked, with an attempt at archness, “perhaps you mean to suggest that I ought to give Cecilia lessons for nothing, too.”

  “No, I only meant that Balestrieri was very fond of Cecilia. For you, it’s different. But Balestrieri—really you might almost say he was dying of love for Cecilia!”

  It was on the tip of my tongue to say: “In fact he did die of it.” But instead I asked: “Did you see him often?”

  “Often? Why, almost every day. He was like one of the family. There was always a place for him at table. But you mustn’t think he was inconsiderate—quite the contrary.”

  “How do you mean?”

  “Oh well, he always tried to pay us back. He helped with the shopping, he used to buy this or that. And then he would send cakes, wine, flowers. ‘I’ve no family of my own,’ he used to say, ‘this is my family now. You must look upon me as a relation.’ Poor man, he was separated from his wife and lived alone.”

  Cecilia at this point said: “Professor, give me your plate. Give me yours, Mother, and yours, Dad.” She put the four plates and the four bowls one on top of the other and left the room. As soon as Cecilia had disappeared, her father, who, during the funeral oration upon Balestrieri delivered by his wife, had merely looked from one to the other of us with his frightened, imploring eyes, made as though to speak in my direction. I leaned forward a little and the invalid opened his mouth and made a vigorous attempt to say something, which I did not understand. His wife got up, went to the sideboard without saying a word and fetched a notebook and pencil which she placed on the table beside her husband, saying: “Write it down, the Professor doesn’t understand you.”

  But, with a violent gesture, he swept the notebook and pencil to the floor. His wife said: “We understand him, but strangers hardly ever do. We’ve told him so many times to write things down, but he won’t. He says he’s not dumb. He’s not, but if other people don’t understand him it would be better for him to write things down, don’t you think?”

  Her husband shot a furious glance at her and then started speaking to me again. In a sad, resigned voice, his wife said: “He says he didn’t like Balestrieri.” She shook her head in genuine pity and distress, and then added: “Goodness knows what poor Balestrieri did to him!”

  Her husband again said something, in a forcible manner. His wife interpreted: “He says that Balestrieri bossed him in his own house.”

  Her husband was now staring at her with a positively anguished look in his eyes. Then, in the desperately emphatic way of a dumb man who cannot make himself understood, he opened his mouth wide and once more blew his incomprehensible noises into my face. Cecilia had now come into the room again, and I saw her raise her eyes and look at me. Her mother went on: “My husband says ridiculous things. Did you understand what he was saying?”

  “No,” I said.

  I had the impression that she hesitated for a moment; then she explained: “He says Balestrieri tried to make love to me.” She uttered these words with an air of anxiety, looking not at me but at her husband, eyeing him with an intensity in which sadness, entreaty and reproof appeared to be mingled. I turned toward him and saw that, in a way, his wife’s glance had had its effect. He now appeared crushed and mortified like a dog that has been kicked. Looking already more relieved, his wife said: “Balestrieri liked to pay me compliments—oh yes, indeed, and to have a joke with me too, to flirt a little, in fact. But that was all. That was really all. No, Professor,” she went on, speaking of her husband as if he had not been present or had been an inanimate object, rather as Cecilia had done a little earlier, “my husband is a very good, fine man, but his brain goes on working and working all the time—you’ve only to look at his eyes. It’s the thoughts that he turns round and round in his head all day. His brain goes on working and working and working, and then he comes out with something ridiculous.”

  I glanced at her husband, who was sitting quietly now, hurt and crestfallen, rolling his frightened eyes hither and thither and gathering breadcrumbs together with his fingers; and suddenly a plausible interpretation of his quickly cooled anger flashed across my mind. This was that he had got wind of there being something between Balestrieri and Cecilia; or at any rate that Balestrieri’s feelings toward Cecilia were not quite as fatherly as he had wished her parents to believe. This was the accusation which he had shouted in his wife’s face; she, however, had hastily substituted herself for her daughter, explaining that her husband was jealous because he had imagined that Balestrieri was trying to make love to her.

  What I still wished to know was why Cecilia’s mother had wanted to conceal the true significance of her husband’s words from me. In order not to pass on an accusation which seemed to her false and unseemly? Or because she had always suspected something, and had taken full advantage of Balestrieri’s self-interested generosity, even perhaps without realizing that he and Cecilia were lovers? Or, finally, because she had known all the time of the relationship between her daughter and the old painter and had accepted presents and favors in full consciousness of it? These three hypotheses were all equally plausible, although quite different and of varying importance. As I turned these thoughts over in my mind I looked at Cecilia and realized once more that, fundamentally, nothing that I was discovering during my visit concerned her; in other words, even in the worst case—that is, even if her mother had known of the relationship and had derived material advantages from it in agreement with her daughter, I would not be able to say I had learned anything decisive about Cecilia. And this for the good reason that Cecilia, with her family, was like a sleepwalker among pieces of furniture in his own home: she excluded them from her own consciousness.

  Lunch ended in an unexpected way. After we had each eaten a small red and green apple, Cecilia’s father suddenly rose to his feet and, working his unsteady legs in trousers so wide and loose that they appeared to have nothing inside them, went out of the room, to reappear a moment later wearing an overcoat too big for him, and with his face half hidden by the brim of a hat which looked as if it did not belong to him. He waved his hand to me from a distance, then added some remark or other, pointing to the windows which were now brightened by a feeble round ball of a sun. “He says he’s going for a walk,” explained his wife, rising in her turn, “and I must go with him. We’ll take a little turn and then I’ll go with him to the pictures and leave him there, because the shop opens at four. Ah, it’s a heavy cross to bear, Professor, a man reduced to such a state.” She added a few more remarks of the same kind on the subject of her husband, who meanwhile was waiting for her in the doorway at the far end of the room, looking like a scarecrow. She said good-bye to me, told Cecilia to be careful and shut the door properly when we left, and went out with her husband. After a moment I heard her voice in the hall saying something I could not catch, then the door closed and there was silence.

  Cecilia and I had remained in our places, some distance from one another, at the untidy table. After a moment I said: “So these are the parents who, according to you, complained because we saw each other every day?”

  She got up and started clearing the table without saying a wor
d. It was her way of answering embarrassing questions. I persisted. “How can you expect me to believe that a father and mother like yours really made trouble?”

  “Why, what is there special about my father and mother?”

  “Nothing special. If anything, it’s something very ordinary.”

  “What d’you mean?”

  “I mean that they’re parents who don’t seem to me to be too severe.”

  “And yet it’s true, they did complain because we saw each other too often.”

  “Perhaps your father did, but not your mother.”

  “Why not my mother?”

  “Because your mother knew about Balestrieri. And if she didn’t complain on his account, why should she on mine?”

  “I’ve already told you she knew nothing.”

  “Well then, if she knew nothing, why did she change the words your father said today?”

  “Why, when?”

  “Do you think I didn’t notice? What your father actually said was that he didn’t like Balestrieri because he made love to you, but your mother tried to make me believe that Balestrieri was making love to her. Isn’t that so?”

  She hesitated, then admitted reluctantly: “Yes, it is.”

  “Then let me ask you again: if your mother really knew nothing of your relations with Balestrieri, what need was there for her to make me think that Balestrieri was making love to her?”

  “Because it was true,” she answered simply.

  “What was true?”

  “I myself told Balestrieri to make love to Mother. In that way she wouldn’t notice that he was in love with me.”

  “Very correct, and very ingenious too. And did your mother believe in Balestrieri’s lovemaking?”

  “She certainly did.”

  “But your father—he didn’t believe in it, did he?”

  “No, he didn’t.”

  “Why?”

  “One day he saw us, Balestrieri and me.”

  “What did he see?”

  “He saw him kissing me.”

  “And he didn’t tell your mother?”

 
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