Read Voices In The Evening Online

Authors: Natalia Ginzburg

Voices In The Evening (2 page)

The factory produces cloth.

It emits a smell which permeates the streets of the town and when the scirocco blows it comes pretty well up to our house, which is, however, in the country. At times the smell is like rotten eggs, at others like curdled milk. There is nothing to be done about it, as it is caused by the chemicals which they use, my father says.

The owners of the factory are the De Francisi.

Old Balotta

De Francisci was known as old Balotta or Little Ball. He was short and stout with a big paunch, as round as round as much overflowed above the waist of his trousers, and he had large drooping moustaches discoloured by the cigars which he chewed and sucked. He began with a workshop hardly as big as ‘from here to there', my father relates. He went about on his bicycle with an old haversack in which he put his lunch, and he used to eat it leaning against a wall of the yard, covering his jacket with crumbs and draining the wine from the bottle's neck. That wall is still there, and it is known as old Balotta's wall because in the evening after the day's work he used to stand there with his cap on the back of his head smoking a cigar and chatting with his workmen.

My father says, ‘When old Balotta was here certain things did not happen.'

Old Balotta was a Socialist. He always remained one, although after the coming of Fascism he dropped his habit of uttering his thoughts aloud. He became in the end melancholy and sullen. When he got up in the morning he would say to his wife Cecila,

‘What a stink, anyway.'

And would add,

‘I cannot endure it.'

Signora Cecilia would say,

‘You cannot endure the smell from your factory any more?' And he said,

‘No, I cannot endure it any more,'And again,

‘I cannot go on with this life.'

‘It is enough that you are healthy,' said Signora Cecilia,

‘You,' said old Balotta to his wife, ‘are always saying something fresh and original.'

Later he had trouble with his gall-bladder and said to his wife,

‘Now I haven't even got my health, I cannot go on.'

‘One goes on until God gives the word,' Signora Cecilia told him.

‘Pah! God! We
have to bring God into it!'

He still took up his place against the wall in the yard. The wall and that comer of the yard is all that remains of the old workshop. The rest now is a building of reinforced concrete, almost as big as the whole village. But he no longer ate those hunks of bread. The doctor had ordered him a thet of boiled vegetables which be was obliged to eat at home, sitting up to a table; and he had also forbidden him his wine his cigar and the bicycle. They used to take him to the works in a motor-car.

Old Balotta brought up a boy, a distant relation, who had been left an orphan as a small child. and he had him educated with his own sons. His name is Fausto, but everyone calls him Purillo; because he always wears a beret of the kind called
, drawn down over his ears. When Fascism came Purillo became a Fascist, and old Balotta said,

‘Naturally, because Purillo is like a gold-fly which when it settles settles on dung.'

Old Balotta would be walking up and down the yard of the factory, his hands behind his back his beret thrust down on the nape of his neck, his greasy worn scarf about his throat, like a piece of rope, and he would stop in front of Furillo, who was now working in the factory and say,

‘You, Purillo, are distasteful to me. I cannot bear you.'

Purillo would grin, curling his small mouth and showing his fine white teeth; he would spread out his arms and say,

‘I cannot possibly be to everyone's taste.'

‘True,' said old Balotta, and he would walk away with his hands behind his back, with his shambling gait, shuffling his shoes as though they were slippers.

However, when he began to be ill, he named Purillo as manager of the factory.

Signora Cecilia gave herself no peace over this affront to her sons.

‘Why Purillo?' she asked. ‘Why not Mario? Why not Vincenzo?'

But old Balotta said,

‘Don' t you push yourself in here. Push yourself into your sauces. Purillo has a good brain. Your sons are not worth a fig. Purillo has a fine brain even if I cannot bear him.' And he added,

‘Only, everything will go to the dogs with this war.'

Purillo had always lived with them at La Casetta, as old Balotta's villa was called. He had bought it for a small sum, at the time of the first war. When he bought it, it had been a peasant's house with a kitchen garden, orchard and vineyard. Later he enlarged and embellished it with a veranda and balconies, preserving at the same time something of its rustic appearance. So Purillo had always lived with them, until one fine day old Balotta turned him out, Purillo went to live at Le Pietre on the other side of the hill, which old Balotta had bought for his brother and sister, Barba Tommaso and Magna Maria, a house which old Balotta regarded in a way as a place of exile to which he banished his sons at various times when there was too much quarrelling. But when he sent Purillo there it was clear that it was final. The evening that he had gone away Signora Cecilia burst into tears at table, not that she had any special affection for Purillo, but she felt not having him any more in the house where she had always had him from a baby. Old Balotta said,

‘You won't waste your tears over Purillo, will you? I am eating my supper better without that ugly snout.'

Neither Barba Tommaso nor Magna Maria was asked if they were ready to have Purillo with them. But in any case old Balotta never asked either of them for their consent or opinion on any matter.

He used to say,

‘My brother Barba Tommaso, speaking with all respect, is a ninny.

‘My sister Magna Maria, speaking with all respect, is a half wit.'

Nor, of course, was Purillo asked either if he liked being with Barba Tommaso and Magna Maria.

However, Purillo spent very little time with these two old people. He took his meals with them and after dinner brought out a snakeskin case with his initials in gold on it

‘Cigarette, Barba Tommaso?'

‘Cigarette, Magna Maria?'

He never troubled himself to say anything else.

He pulled his beret over his head and went off to the works.

Barba Tommaso and Magna Maria feared and respected him. They did not dare say a word when he hung up a large photograph of himself in the dining-room wearing a black shirt and raising his arm to the salute among some Party officers who had come to visit the works.

Barba Tommaso and Magna Maria had never had any definite political opinions. Still they would whisper to one another,

‘If Balotta comes here one day what will happen then?'

That was in any case an improbable eventuality. Old Balotta never came to Le Pietre.

Then the war came. Balotta's sons went on service, but Purillo was not called up because he had some constriction of the throat or chest—and he had had pleurisy as a child and a murmur could still be heard on one side.

After the Eighth of September Purillo came one night to wake up Balotta and Signora Cecilia. He told them to dress at once and come away, because the Fascists were intending to come and get them Balotta protested and said he would not move. He said that everyone in the neighbourhood liked him and no one would venture to do anything to him. But Purillo with a face like marble had seized a suitcase and stood there with his hands on his belt saying,

‘We mustn't lose time. Put some things in this and let us go.'

Thereupon old Balotta got up and began to dress. He fumbled over his braces and buttons with his freckled hands that were covered with white wrinkled skin.

‘Where are we going?' he said.

‘To Cignano.'

‘To Cignano, to Cignano! And to whose house?

‘I am thinking.'

Signora Cecilia, in her alarm, wandered round the roohis picking up at random what she found there, some flower vases which she put in a bag, silver spoons and old camisoles.

Purillo got them into a motor-car. He drove without saying a word, with his long beaky nose curving over his black bristling moustache his little mouth tight shut, his cap drawn over his ears.

‘You, Purillo,'said old Balotta, ‘are probably saving my life. All the same, you are distasteful to me, and I cannot bear you.'

And Purillo this time said

‘I am not bound to be to your taste.'

‘That is true,' said old Balotta.

Purillo always spoke formally to old Balotta, because Balotta had never told him to say

At Cignano, Purillo had rented a small apartment for them. They passed the days in the kitchen, where the stove was. Purillo came to see them almost every evening.

The Fascists did actually come to La Casetta and they broke the windows and ripped up the chairs with bayonets.

Signora Cecilia died at Cignano. She had struck up a friendship with the landlady, and passed away holding her hand. Old Balotta had gone to find a doctor. When he returned with one his wife was dead.

He just could not believe it, and went on speaking to her and shaking her. He thought she had merely fainted.

Only he and Purillo were at the funeral, and the lady who owned the house. Barba Tommaso and Magna Maria were ill, with fever.

‘Funk fever,' said old Balotta.

Purillo did not appear there any more. So Balotta was alone, though he seemed to want Purillo. Every minute he was asking the landlady,

‘But where has Purillo run off to?'

It became known that Purillo had escaped to Switzerland, having been threatened with death either by the Fascists or by the Partisans. The factory remained entirely on the shoulders of an old surveyor one Borzaghi. But the factory meant nothing any more to old Balotta.

His memory began to fail somewhat. He often fell asleep on a chair in the kitchen with his head bowed. He would wake up with a start and ask the landlady,

‘Where are my children?'

He asked her this with a threatening air as though she had got them hidden from him in the store-room cupboard.

‘The boys, the grown-up ones, are at the war,' said the landlady. ‘Don't you remember that they are at the war? Little Tommasino is at school; and the girls, Gemmina is in Switzerland and Raffaella is in the mountains with the Partisans.'

‘What a life!' said old Balotta.

And then he went to sleep again, bending forward, and starting up from time to time and looking round with his lack-lustre eyes like one who did not know where he was.

After the Liberation, Magna Maria came to take him away in a car, with the chauffeur. He recognized him, as he was the son of one of his workmen, and embraced him. He held out two flabby fingers to Magna Maria, looking askance at her.

He said,

‘You didn't come to Cecilia's funeral.'

‘I was in quarantine,' said Magna Maria.

They took him to La Casetta. Magna Maria had cleared away the broken glass and tidied up the rooms a little with the peasant woman's help. But there were no mattresses or sheets, no plate or china. Complete devastation existed in the garden, just where once upon a time one saw Signora Cecilia moving about in the midst of her roses, with her blue apron, her scissors attached to her belt, and her watering pot in her hand.

Old Balotta went away with Magna Maria to Le Pietre. Barba Tommaso was there just the same as ever, rosy faced in his clean shirt and white flannel trousers.

Old Balotta came and sat down and suddenly began sobbing into his handkerchief, like a little child.

Magna Maria stroked his head and kept on repeating,

‘Splendid, splendid. You are splendid. How splendid you are!'

Barba Tommaso said,

‘I was the first to see the Partisans come. I was at the window with my telescope; General Sartorio was there, too. I saw them approaching up the road. I went to meet them with two bottles of wine, because I guessed they were thirsty.'

And he said,

‘At the factory, the Germans have carried off all the machinery. But it does not matter, because now the Americans will give us new machinery.'

Old Balotta said,

‘You just keep quiet. What a ninny you always are!'

‘Borghazi was very brave,' said Magna Maria ‘The Germans arrested him, but he threw hihiself out of the train as it was going, and fractured his shoulder.'

And she said,

‘You know that they killed Nebbia?'


‘Why yes. The Fascists took him and killed him, just there at the back, on those rocks there. It was at night and we heard him cry out And in the morning our woman found his scarf, and his spectacles all broken, and his cap, that fur one which he always wore.'

Old Balotta was looking at the setting sun above the sloping rocks behind the house which is for that reason called Le Pietre, and at the clumps of pine trees which cover that side of the hill, and beyond the hills at the mountains with their sharp snowy peaks, and the long blue shadows of the glaciers and a white sugar-loaf suhimit, known as Lo Scivolo, ‘the Slide', where his children used to go on Sundays with their friends.

The following day the mayor came to invite him to make a speech in honour of the Liberation. They brought him out on the balcony of the town hall and below was a large crowd, the whole piazza was full. There were people also right down the street, they had climbed up the trees and telegraph poles. He recognized faces, some of his workmen, but he felt shy about speaking. He leaned with his hands on the balustrade and said,

‘Viva il Socialismo!'

Then he remembered Nebbia He took off his beret and said,

‘Viva il Nebbia!'

Loud applause broke out like the roll of thunder; and he was rather frightened and then suddenly felt very happy.

Then he wanted to speak again, but he did not know what else to say. He gasped and fumbled with his coat collar. They led him from the balcony, because now the mayor was to speak.

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