THE man at the pink street corner turns away from us every time I pass with my mother. He doesn’t do that on my account, I suspect, because I don’t know who he is. I assume he does it on account of my mother. But when I ask her about him (Do you know who that man is, mummy?) she hisses at me and I have to keep my mouth shut and not tell father. What could I tell dad? That a man I don’t know so emphatically ignores both me and mother, at that famous pink street corner? Is this the extent of the story my father is not supposed to know about?
“Gianni,” she assures me, “some things only concern adults.” So this excludes me, but I’m nine and I’m curious, and I know only this: adults hide too many things from children. I don’t understand why they do that. Is it out of embarrassment? Do they want to avoid hurting or frightening children?
Silently, we retreat to our flat.
It feels like the stroll was interrupted by the appearance of the man, otherwise we would have taken more time and seen more things. There’s no explanation from my mother, and I’m not asking any further questions.
“Don’t tell father,” is all she tells me. Later, after dark, the nanny puts me to bed. As if I did something wrong and I am being punished. As usual, the nanny doesn’t know anything. She was raised in Piedmonte, and this is Rome. She is permanently impressed with the lifestyle of the people here in the big city. Hardly anybody understands her dialect. Except for me.
Three days later the man is there again, and again he turns away from us, from mother and me, while we pass him by on the other side of the street. I wonder why mother is so emphatically following this route, which is a sort of detour. Maybe she wants to be ignored by that man. There is a game going on between them both, the rules of which I do not understand. I get annoyed when I don’t understand the rules and people just do things without explaining anything to me.
A few days later I catch a few words when she is on the phone with someone. She doesn’t know that I’m hanging around her boudoir, eavesdropping. I hear her say: “He is not there for me.” I cannot hear the rest of the conversation. There is only that one sentence, coming at me through the gap between the door and the door sill. I avoid hanging around, so I miss the rest. That sentence was not meant for my ears anyway.
Who did she talk to?
She has plenty of friends. Most of them are like cackling chickens. There is not enough breathing room for all them, here in the heart of Rome. Hence they occasionally swarm out to Rimini, Nice, Verona or even to Paris. Their children, and especially their daughters, generally belong to the same species as the mothers. I rarely get to see the fathers. Just like my father, they are always elsewhere, occupying themselves with their business, their bank or ministry, on a trip or to a conference — everywhere, but rarely at home.
The man loitering at the pink street corner is of a completely different species than these fathers. Perhaps he is an explorer or an inventor, but in that case he would not hang around that street corner all day. He is therefore some sort of artist.
But what exactly does he do? And is he there all the time, on that precise spot, or only by chance when mother and I pass by? That would be too much to ask of chance. I’m only nine, but I know everything about coincidence. Things happen just because. Isn’t that weird?
Is he some sort of painter or sculptor, and should he not be at work in his studio? Some of mother’s colourful friends call themselves artists and have a studio in which they often flee (as they themselves say) from the world. Is he a writer, should he then not write? What kind of artist is he anyway?
I want to ask mother, but she says she doesn’t know whom I’m talking about. That’s what she says. I know she’s lying, or at least not quite telling the truth. She knows a lot more about this man that she’s willing to share with me.
He does not wear the same sort of clothing as the other men I know. As the men in my family, or the very rarely seen spouses of mom’s friends. He is not even dressed like our servants. No — he belongs to what mama calls the working class. I ask her who that is, but she declines to comment.
I don’t know anyone who belongs to the working class. Yet Rome is full of those people. Everywhere there are people who are more or less dressed like that man. Some occasionally work in our house or in the garden. They speak a strange dialect, most of them anyway. They clearly belong to this working class. I wonder if the man on the pink street corner worked for mother. Whether he did odd jobs in or around our house. And whether he might not have been paid and is therefore angry with her. With mother it’s all about money. It is the central hub of her existence.
“There are a few things you need to know about your mother,” Aunt Isabelle tells me, “and maybe there are some things about your father that you need to know.” I am arranging my toy soldiers into four platoons, so that they will be ready to depart on an expedition in the garden. This sort of undertaking has always been a tricky business: the garden is wild and overgrown, a place to get lost in, especially if you’re the size of a toy soldier.
The strange thing is that our cat got lost just this same day. It is mother’s cat. She is always around when mother is there. Now she is no longer there, nor does she show up, even though Mother calls her for an hour. There’s always a problem with the cat. With cats in general. Children are said to love cats, but I certainly do not. They are quirky creatures. They have a mind of their own, and no human seems able to teach them manners. Sometimes they cultivate habits, but only when it suits them. So I don’t like cats.
I don’t actually listen to what Aunt Isabelle has to tell me about mother. And about father. My thoughts are with the upcoming expedition of my army in the unknown jungle of the garden. For a moment I think about the cat, who may come to disturb my military plans, but I assume she’s gone, far away, maybe dead.
That evening we eat rabbit with plums by the way of Piemonte, always a feast. Our kitchen maid hails from that region as well. She works part-time in the kitchen, a plump woman who seems old but probably isn’t.
“We often have men in here, in the house,” Aunt Isabelle says, “whom I don’t trust. Quite rough men. They carry out repairs, but seem to hang around for far too long.” I have no idea what that means. These men, and Aunt Isabelle, inhabit a wonderful but totally weird world. It means something, at least for Aunt Isabelle, but not for me. I intend to ask her for more information, but a little later I am involved with other things.
That afternoon an advance party from my army discovers the dead cat, partially hidden under a thick bush. Because the cadaver is too big and too heavy for them to carry back to the house, they decide to just leave it, and let nature do its work. They mark the spot on their maps so that future passing units can avoid it, and they move on.
An hour later, three scouts encounter a new obstacle: a wall that runs across the path they are following. The wall is four soldiers high, and the scouts have no ladders or ropes. They contact the main force. The major, who is in command, lets the scouts continue in a western direction along the wall and heads the rest of the troop — all of four platoons — to meet up with them.
Eventually the scouts find an opening in the wall, large enough for a passage. The major, however, is cautious and lets the three men take a position on this side of the wall. He directs one platoon in front, under the leadership of a lieutenant, to explore the area around the passage. There may be a trap. An enemy army can hide behind the wall. Nothing is unthinkable in this jungle.
Finally, half an hour later, the entire army comes together at the passage. One platoon advances through the gap and occupies positions on higher ground at the other side of the wall. No enemy troops are sighted as yet. The evenings falls, and camp is set up.
The next day, scouts pass by some abandoned houses. A little further on there is a town. The lieutenant of the first platoon informs the major. He lets the scouts wait on the spot for the main force. Then the soldiers carefully move into the town. They expect opposition, they expect snipers, or armed civilians. But nothing happens. The town seems peaceful. The residents ignore the soldiers, as if they are used to seeing foreign military.
The major wants to buy supplies here, now that the population does not seem hostile. The civilians direct him to a crossroads, where a man can provide for all his needs. A man of some importance in this town. The major walks over to the crossroads, along with some soldiers. There, leaning against a wall, on a pink street corner, a man is waiting for them.