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       Boredom, p.5

           Alberto Moravia
 

  “On the contrary, I’m not joking. What, in fact, does my return signify, if not the sacrifice of the prodigal son—that is to say, myself—for the advantage of the fatted calf, which is all this?”—and I gave a wave of my hand to indicate the expensive furniture all around me in the room.

  “I don’t understand you.” My mother was not lacking in a curious, rather gloomy, mechanical sense of humor; without smiling, she added: “Anyhow I think that after the macaroni there happens to be some veal coming—whether from a fatted calf or not, I don’t know.”

  I said nothing, but started devouring my helping of pie with a mixed feeling of joy and remorse, because I was really hungry and the pie was good and yet at the same time I felt angry at liking it. Then I looked up at my mother and saw that she was watching me with disapproval. “You ought to chew your food more thoroughly,” she said. “The first stage of digestion takes place in your mouth.”

  “How very disgusting! Who told you that?”

  “All doctors say so.”

  Her blue, glassy, utterly expressionless eyes brooded over me in an indefinable manner above the two crossed, ring-laden hands upon which she supported her chin. I finished clearing my plate in a mad hurry; then my mother, in her cold, toneless voice, said: “Offer Signor Dino some more,” and Rita, who all this time had remained standing with her back to the dresser behind my mother, took up the dish and came over and handed it to me. I helped myself with one hand only, leaving my mother hand where it was, resting on the edge of the table. Then I felt the hand with which Rita was supporting the dish press lightly upon mine, in a way that might or might not have been intentional. I did not stop more than an instant to consider this possibility, but resumed eating. Finally I asked my mother, in a tone of slight amusement: “What do you do all the time?”

  “What do you mean?”

  “I mean exactly what I say: what do you do all the time?”

  “Oh, my life is the same as ever, you know.”

  “Yes, but in all these years that I’ve been away from home I’ve never asked you what you did. Now, perhaps because I’m on the point of coming back, I’m curious to know about it. Why, it’s quite possible that everything’s changed.”

  “I don’t like changing anything. I like to think that I live now as I lived ten years ago, and as I shall be living in ten years’ time.”

  “But, all the same, I don’t know how you live; let’s see now, what time do you wake up in the morning?”

  “At eight o’clock.”

  “As early as that? But I’ve often telephoned at nine and been told the Signora’s still asleep.”

  “Yes, sometimes I sleep later because I’ve been up late the evening before.”

  “And when you wake up, what do you do? Do you have breakfast?”

  “Yes, of course.”

  “In your room or in the dining room?”

  “In my room.”

  “In bed or at a table?”

  “At a table.”

  “What do you have for breakfast?”

  “Tea and toast, as I always did, and orange juice.”

  “And after breakfast what do you do?”

  “I have a bath.” My mother answered my questions in a tone which was slightly resentful and at the same time both dignified and surprised, as though I had been seriously in doubt as to whether in fact she breakfasted or washed.

  “A bath or a shower?”

  “A bath.”

  “Do you wash yourself or do you get the maid to help you?”

  “The maid sees to the temperature of the water, puts in the bath salts, and then, when the bath is ready, helps me to wash the parts of myself that I can’t reach.”

  “And then?”

  “Then I get out of the water, dry myself and dress.”

  “Does the maid help you to dress too?”

  “She helps me to put on my stockings. But not my clothes; I prefer to dress myself.”

  “Do you talk to the maid while you’re having your bath and dressing?”

  My mother suddenly started laughing, unwillingly, it seemed, with a kind of nervous irritation. “Do you know, you’re very odd, with all your questions? After all, I might not wish to answer them. My private life has nothing to do with anyone but myself.”

  “I didn’t ask you what you think but what you do. Do try and understand me. I’m coming home after an absence of almost ten years. It’s quite right that I should want to reacclimatize myself. Well then, do you talk to the maid?”

  “Of course I talk to her; she’s not an automaton, she’s a human being.”

  “When do you put on your jewelry, before or after dressing?”

  “I put it on the last thing.”

  “In what order—that is, which pieces first and which afterwards?”

  “Do you know what you remind me of? A policeman in a detective story, investigating a crime.”

  “The fact of the matter is that I have to investigate something too.”

  “What?”

  “I don’t know, something or other. Well, in what order do you put on your jewelry?”

  “First my rings and bracelets, then my necklace and then my earrings. Now are you satisfied?”

  “After you’re dressed, what do you do?”

  “I go downstairs and give the cook her orders for the day.”

  “You mean you write down the menus for her—for lunch and dinner?”

  “Exactly.”

  “And then?”

  “Then I go into the garden, I pick flowers and bring them into the house and put them in vases. Or I walk about and talk to the gardeners. In fact, I busy myself in the garden.”

  “After the garden, what then?”

  I saw her look at me for a moment, and then she answered, almost solemnly: “I go into the study and attend to the management of our affairs.”

  “Every day?”

  “Yes, every day, there’s always something to be done.”

  “What do you do?”

  “Well, I write, or I see people.”

  “You mean that lawyers, tax collectors, stockbrokers, trustees and people like that come to see you?”

  Suddenly she started laughing again, but this time in a self-satisfied, almost sensual way, showing that I had touched a sensitive spot. “Perhaps you imagine,” she said, “that what I do is an easy job? It’s not like painting, I admit, but all the same it’s a most exhausting job and it keeps me busy the whole morning and sometimes the afternoon as well.”

  “Oh well, it’s a good thing to be busy, isn’t it?”

  “Some days I get a steady pain, here, at the back of the neck.”

  “You ought to try and spare yourself.”

  My mother considered me for a moment—with affection, it may have been—and then said, in her ugly, croaking voice: “It’s for you I do it, so that your property may be safeguarded and increased.”

  “My property? No, no, yours.”

  “When I die it will be yours.”

  “You’re quite young still; I shall certainly die first. Of boredom. Anyhow, let us say, our property. How’s it getting on, then, our property? How’s it getting on?”

  “You know, you really are very strange. It’s getting on well, thanks to my efforts. Certainly, if it hadn’t been for me, we shouldn’t have a penny left by now.”

  “We’re very rich, then, aren’t we?”

  To this question my mother made no answer at all; all she did was to look at me with a wooden face and glassy eyes. Then she said: “Rita, what are you doing standing there like that? Why don’t you go and see if the second course is ready?” Rita shook herself as though she had been dreaming and went out. My mother immediately went on: “I do beg of you, as I’ve always told you, not to speak of money affairs in front of the servants.”

  “Why not? I could understand, if I had spoken of something obscene. But money affairs? Perhaps money affairs are obscene, are they?”

  My mother shook her head, her eye
s lowered, as though rejecting my argument without discussion. Then she said: “They are poor, and it’s not fair to flaunt riches in front of poor people.”

  “But you never want to talk about money affairs even when we’re alone. You put on a certain face and anyone would think you were shocked, just as if I had started talking about sexual affairs, instead of money.”

  Another shake of the head. “No,” she said. “I like to talk about them at the right time and place; in fact, since you’re coming back to live here, we must talk about them. After lunch we’ll go into the study and I’ll provide you with all the information you want.”

  At that moment Rita came in again, carrying a long oval dish upon which, among small mounds of various kinds of vegetables in season, were arranged slices of the veal that my mother had announced. Urged on by some kind of spiteful demon, I said lightly: “Well, you haven’t yet answered my question: are we very rich, or are we not?”

  This time she did not merely answer me with silence: I was suddenly aware of her foot seeking mine under the table and then pressing it strongly. Then she said to Rita: “Serve Signor Dino, I don’t want any meat.”

  The feeling of my mother’s foot on mine filled me with despair. She was pressing my foot under the table in the way that lovers do; except that we were mother and son and the bond that united us was not love but money. Moreover I could not repudiate this bond, because to repudiate it would mean also repudiating the bond of blood which was implicit in it. So there was nothing to be done: willy-nilly, I was rich; to refuse to be rich was equivalent to accepting the fact of it.

  My despair, however, took an unexpected direction. Rita was handing me the oval dish of veal, bending toward me her well-formed bosom and her sly, freckled face with its pretty mouth the color of a pale geranium: under cover of the dish, I turned back my hand as it lay on the edge of the table and took hold of her wrist, then ran my fingers up to her forearm. I finished helping myself with the other hand and, putting the fork back on the dish, once more persisted in asking my mother, coldly: “Well then, are we rich or are we not?” For the second time I felt my mother’s foot trampling upon mine. Then I said: “One moment, Rita.”

  Rita obediently turned back and held out the dish to me once again. Again I used only one hand, taking the fork to go around the dish picking up some meat and vegetables. Meanwhile I ran my other hand, which I had left dangling beside my chair, up Rita’s leg, right up to her thigh. Through her ample dress I could feel the muscles of her leg quiver beneath my hand, like those of a horse when its master strokes it. Nothing, however, was visible in the expression of her face, which now not merely looked, but certainly was, hypocritical. She turned away and I, catching—or anyhow so I thought—a fugitive glance of understanding behind her glasses, could not help reflecting that now, even before coming back to live in my mother’s house, I found myself in a situation worse than that of ten years before. At that time, whatever might have been my reasons for doing so, I would never have thought of laying my hands on a servant girl. My mother, in the meantime, had stopped treading on my shoe, just at the exact moment when I removed my hand from Rita’s leg and with an odd sort of synchronization, as though she had been acting in agreement with me. Resuming our interrupted conversation, I said: “So you work until one o’clock or later, every day?”

  “Every day except Sunday.”

  “On Sunday what do you do?”

  “I go to Mass.”

  “In which church?”

  “San Sebastiano.”

  “What do you do in church?”

  “I do what everybody else does, I hear Mass.”

  “And do you go to confession sometimes?”

  “Certainly I do, of course. And I receive the Sacrament, too.”

  “And when you’ve made your confession, does the priest give you absolution?”

  “I never have very serious sins to confess,” said my mother with a touch of coquettishness. “You know, Don Luigi sometimes says to me: ‘Signora, you finish where other people only begin.’ Anyhow, what sins do you imagine I can commit, at my age?” And she looked at me, as much as to say, it’s a long time since I gave up the only thing that could make me commit sins.

  I was silent for a moment, then I went on: “Let’s go back to your day. On weekdays, then, you work in the mornings, and then what do you do?”

  “I have lunch.”

  “Alone?”

  “Yes, I always lunch alone. Sometimes, but rarely, I keep the lawyer to lunch; but that is only when we haven’t finished and have to go on working in the afternoon.”

  “What lawyer is that? De Santis?”

  “Yes, he’s still my lawyer.”

  “And after lunch?”

  “After lunch I go for a walk in the garden.”

  “And then?”

  “I go and rest.”

  “You mean you go to sleep?”

  “No, I don’t sleep, I take off my shoes and lie down on the bed fully dressed. But I don’t go to sleep, I give myself up to my thoughts.”

  “What do you think about?”

  She started laughing again, in a nervous, diffident way, like a young girl who is tempted to speak about a love affair. “That depends. Do you know what I think about at the present time?”

  “No, what d’you think about?”

  “I think about a house that is for sale on the Lungotevere Flaminio. A very good business proposition, if it was for the location alone. Alas, at the moment I can’t afford it, but I think about it all the same. At times I think about things that I can afford—this, for instance,” and she held out her hand and showed me a ring with a big emerald surrounded with diamonds; “I thought about it for a long time, weighing the pros and cons, and in the end I made up my mind and bought it.”

  “And after your rest, what do you do?”

  “Well really, why this cross-examination?”

  “I’ve already told you, I want to reacclimatize myself.”

  She spoke unwillingly. “There are plenty of things I do. For example I go and see friends.”

  “Who do you go and see?”

  “Oh, that depends. There’s always some reception or other, or a cocktail party, and besides, I have various women friends.”

  “Have you many women friends?”

  “I’ve kept nearly all the friends I had when I was at school,” said my mother, with a thoughtful air. “After that, I don’t know why, I never made any more friends.”

  “What do you do with your friends?”

  “What do you suppose we do? We do what married women always do when they’re together. We chatter, we have tea or a martini, we play cards.”

  “What games do you play?”

  “How tiresome you are! Why, bridge, or canasta, or even poker. Sometimes I organize bridge or canasta tournaments here, in the evening.”

  “Ah, yes, I remember; charity tournaments, aren’t they? And for whose benefit?”

  “The last one I had was for men blinded in the war.”

  “Blinded in the war. We were all, in a way, blinded in the war, weren’t we?”

  “Frankly, I don’t understand you. But if this is some sort of joke, it’s not in very good taste.”

  “Never mind. And do you go and visit dressmakers?”

  “Seeing that I don’t go about naked, of course I do. In fact I’m glad you reminded me, otherwise I should have forgotten; there’s Fanti’s dress show tomorrow.”

  “Ah, Signora Fanti! The same as ever. Will she never die?”

  “Poor thing, why should you want her to die? Not merely is she not dead, but she remembers you, from the time when you were a little boy and used to go with me to see her. She always asks me what you’re doing and how you are, and she hopes you’ll get married and send your wife to her.”

  “Well, what do you do in the evening?”

  “I have dinner. Often someone comes to dine with me. Sometimes I give a dinner party of six or eight people, and others come in
after dinner. Or I go to the theater or the pictures with friends, always the same ones. But more often I watch television.”

  “You’ve bought a television set, have you? I didn’t know.”

  “Oh, hadn’t I told you? Yes, and I’ve had it arranged in a little sitting room upstairs. Some neighbors of mine come in and we watch it together. And often I watch it alone. I like television; it’s better than the films; there’s no need to leave the house, you can see it sitting in a comfortable armchair and you can do something else at the same time. Just imagine, I’ve taken to knitting again, after not doing any for years and years. I’m making a cardigan.”

  “And after television, what then?”

  “I go to bed. What do you expect me to do?”

  “Oh well, you might read a book, for instance.”

  “Yes, I do read, in order to put myself to sleep. At the moment I’m reading quite an interesting novel.”

  “Who’s the author?”

  “I don’t remember who the author is, it’s an American novel. About life in a small provincial town.”

  “What’s its title?” I saw an expression of uncertainty come over her face, and hastily added: “I was forgetting, never in your life have you remembered either the name of the author or the title of the books you read. Isn’t that so?”

  I had spoken in a tone of voice which was perhaps almost affectionate; anyhow, the fact of my having remembered something connected with her seemed to give her pleasure. She gave a modest laugh. “That’s not true,” she said. “But really, how can one be expected to remember some of these names? Besides, what matters to me is to pass the time, more than anything else. One author or another, it’s all the same to me.”

  “Exactly. Do you still take camomile before you go to sleep?”

  “How did you come to remember that? Yes, I do.”

  “Do they bring it up to your room? Do they put it on the bedside table?”

 
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