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The empty canvas, p.5
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       The Empty Canvas, p.5

           Alberto Moravia

  '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 eyes 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, instead of money, affairs.'

  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, amongst little piles of various kinds of vegetables then in season, were arranged a number of slices of the veal which 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 positively 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 towards me her well-formed bosom and her sly, freckled face with its pretty mouth the colour 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 one hand, taking the fork to go round 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. Finally she went away; and I, catching—or anyhow so I thought—a fugitive glance of understanding behind her glasses, could not help reflecting that now already, even before coming back to live in my mother's house, I found myself in a situation worse than that of ten years before: then, whatever might have been my reason 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 d'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 d'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.'


  '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 sleep, I give myself up to my thoughts.'

  'What d'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. D'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 only for the site. 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 re-acclimatize myself.'

  She spoke unwillingly. 'There are plenty of things I do; for example I go and see friends.'

  'Who d'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 suddenly thoughtful air; 'after that, I don't know why, I never made any more friends.'

  'What do you do with your friends?'

  'What d'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 game d'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 a joke in very good taste.'

  'Never mind. And d'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 theatre or the cinema with friends, always the same on
es. But more often I watch television.'

  'Ah, you've bought a television, 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 neighbours of mine come in and we watch it together. And often I watch it alone. I like the television: it's better than the cinema: 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 such a thing for years and years. I'm making a cardigan.'

  'And after the television, what d'you do then?'

  'I go to bed. What d'you expect me to do?'

  'Oh well, you might read a book, for instance.'

  'Yes, I do read, in order to send myself to sleep. At the moment, for example, I'm reading a quite 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?'

  'That's right, on the bedside table.'

  All at once I fell silent, with a sense of satiety, of futility. I might, I reflected, go on questioning my mother for hours and still I should not come to a conclusion about anything: her life, and she herself, had by now attained a degree of utter meaninglessness which amounted, in the long run, to a sort of mystery at the same time both dull and impenetrable. Then my mother asked: 'Is the cross-examination over, then? Or do you want to know what dreams I have while I am asleep?'

  'I'm satisfied.'

  There was silence again. Then my mother quite unexpectedly said: 'Your mother is a woman who lives alone and who has no one but you and is happy that you are coming back to live with her.'

  I realized, from the fact that she spoke of herself in the third person, that she was moved. I thought of saying something affectionate on my side, but I couldn't find anything to say. Luckily Rita, at that moment, handed me a dish containing a very elaborate pudding which I pretended to admire. 'What a wonderful pudding!' I said.

  'It used to be your favourite.'

  I helped myself; and was aware that Rita held back at some little distance from the table. I did not quite understand whether she was doing this from aversion or from that special kind of coquettishness which simulates aversion. My mother, who had not touched the pudding, gazed at me fixedly and implacably the whole time I was eating it. Finally she made a sign to Rita which I did not understand. The girl went out and a moment later reappeared with a bucket in which was plunged a bottle of champagne.

  'Now let us drink a glass of champagne to your health.'

  I watched Rita as, with movements which bore witness to a long-established habit, she drew the bottle from its bucket, undid the silver paper and, almost without any sound or gush of foam, pulled out the big cork. She poured champagne into our two glasses, and then hurried out of the room, as though she did not wish to disturb the festive rite with her presence.

  There was I, then, champagne-glass in hand, standing opposite my mother, who had also risen to her feet and was holding out her glass towards me. 'Many happy returns of the day!' I exclaimed, not knowing what to say.

  My mother started laughing. 'It's I who ought to say that to you,' she said, 'You're forgetting that it's your birthday, not mine.'

  I could not help replying: 'The real celebration is yours. I've given up painting, I'm coming back to live with you, and so—many happy returns of the day!' And I bent forward and clinked glasses with my mother, who, this time, pretended not to have heard what I said. Then, after drinking, she placed her glass on the table and said: 'It's not cold enough.'

  'Why? It seems to me very good.'

  'Yes, but it hasn't been long enough on the ice.'

  She took up her glass again and emptied it completely. Then she pressed a bell on the table. Rita reappeared. My mother made the same remark to her about the champagne not being cold enough, without receiving or, apparently, expecting any reply. Then she added that we would have our coffee in the study. Luncheon was over.

  We left the dining-room and went into the study, a not very large room occupying a whole corner of the ground floor. Into this study I did not willingly go, in fact I avoided entering it because, I often reflected, it was a kind of temple of a religion which certainly was not mine. Indeed in this room my mother, seated in a big leather, gilt-studded chair, in front of a large baroque table of carved oak, against a background of bookshelves in which there were few books but many rows of files, devoted herself, either alone or in company with her men of business, to the ritual, so deeply moving to her, of the management of her affairs. That day, too, I followed her unwillingly; and, once we were in the study, I could not help asking her: 'Why here, couldn't we go into the drawing-room?'

  My mother appeared not to hear me. She installed herself behind the table, beckoning to me to sit down opposite her in the armchair usually reserved for those who came to talk to her on business. Then she fumbled in her bag, pulled out a key, drew back slightly, opened a drawer and took out a long, narrow ledger which struck me as looking like a book to be used in church, or anyhow connected in some way with religion. However, as I suddenly recollected, it was the ledger in which a list of all our property was kept, tidily and in order. My mother closed the drawer, put down the ledger on the table in front of her, looked intently at me for a moment with eyes glassier than ever, and then said: 'A few minutes ago you asked me if we were rich, and I preferred not to answer because the maid was present. All the same, I'm glad you asked me that question. And now I'll give you all the information you wish — partly because,' she added at this point in a reasonable tone of voice, 'partly because I should very much like you to help me in the management of our affairs and to gain experience and take my place in a number of ways. As you've given up painting, you'll have plenty of time to do this.'

  I could not repress a shudder at these last words. How serenely, how complacently my mother had pronounced the phrase, 'as you've given up painting'—without the least idea that, for me, it was equivalent to hearing someone say, 'as you've given up living.' With an effort, but this time without any spiteful intent, I asked: 'Well then, are we rich or are we not?'

  For a moment she sat silent, looking at me with a strange solemnity. Then, leaning towards me and lowering her voice, she said: 'We are not rich, Dino, we are very rich. Thanks to your mother, you are today a very rich man.'

  'What does "very rich" mean?'

  '"Very rich" means something more than merely "rich".'

  'But less than "extremely rich"?'

  'Yes, less than "extremely rich".'

  My mother this time answered me a little absent-mindedly. She had put on a pair of nun-like spectacles, rimless and with gold arms, and was turning over the pages of her black ledger: 'Anyhow,' she said, 'there's nothing better than figures to make you understand, and so ... and so ... where is it? ... ah, here we are ... to make you understand, as I was saying, what being very rich means.'

  I realized that she was on the point of providing me with the statement she had promised me, and all at once I was filled with an uncontrollable repugnance. 'No, no, please,' I exclaimed eagerly, 'I don't
in the least want to know what being very rich means. I'll take your word for it.'

  My mother raised her eyes from the ledger, took off her spectacles and looked at me. 'But you've got to know,' she said, 'if only, as I said before, so that you can help me with the management of our property.'

  I was on the point of crying out violently: 'But I don't want to help you with the management,' when fortunately Rita came in with the coffee-tray. My mother, at the sight of her, seemed to retreat into herself, like a priest at the approach of an unbeliever. She closed the ledger with a sharp snap and said: 'You pour out the coffee, Rita.' Then, while Rita, standing beside me, was pouring out the coffee into the little cups, I wondered how I could possibly escape this intolerable thing: the explanation of what it meant to be very rich. Rita was close to me again now and—whether on purpose or not, I did not understand—was lightly touching my knees with her leg. Then she turned towards me and held out my cup. Almost instinctively I gave a jerk with my arm. The cup upset in the saucer and the coffee went on to my light-coloured trousers so that I felt it warm and wet on my skin. Pretending to be alarmed, I exclaimed: 'Oh hell, my trousers!'

  'Rita, why can't you be more careful?' said my mother reprovingly, having neither seen nor understood anything of what had happened.

  'Rita had nothing to do with it,' I hastened to say; 'it was my fault. But now my trousers are in a mess.'

  'It's nothing,' said Rita: 'there wasn't even sugar in it. I'll bring some water and wash out the stain.'

  This solution did not please my mother, who at once protested authoritatively, in her most unpleasant voice: 'Not at all, stains can't be washed out of clothes when people are wearing them. Signor Dino must take off his trousers, then you can wash out the stain and iron the trousers.'

  I looked at Rita as she stood beside the table, her face set in an expression of obsequious patience. Then, in a serious voice, she asked: 'Is Signor Dino going to take off his trousers at once, or am I to wait?'

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