Read Voices In The Evening Online

Authors: Natalia Ginzburg

Voices In The Evening (4 page)

She would say,

‘Are we going to the mountains on Sunday?'

‘Of course.'

They used to go alone sometimes and sometimes with her brothers and sister or with Purillo or other employees at the works. She had taken lessons in rock-climbing one summer in the Dolomites. She was proud of being courageous, of never having known fear, of never being left behind or of suffering from mountain sickness.

‘You have got the wind of a horse,' Nebbia told her.

So they used to go sometimes by themselves, and on one occasion they were caught by a storm and had to take shelter behind a rock and spend the night there.

They put on all the woollies they had. He had a waterproof rug in a bag and they wrapped it round their legs. They drank a little brandy and Nebbia went off in a deep sleep.

She, on the other hand, could not close an eye. She could hear the peals of thunder and the wind whistling across the glacier and every now and then a fall of stones. She gazed at Nebbia, fast asleep, with his long face, and his big mouth shut. looking so serious. His lips were cracked with the cold and greasy with vaseline.

In the morning the sun came out and Nebbia began to collect theremains of their provisions, the cups and things and the iron crampons.

‘Down at the double,'he said,' Your people will be wondering.'

She felt quite done, frozen, and longed to cry. But she said nothing and puled on her woollen gauntlets, blowing into them to warm them.

He made fast the rope to her waist, and then to himself, took up his rucksack and they began the descent.

Once below the rocks they plunged down over the pastures at the double. Their packs danced on their shoulders.

They met the rescue party sent out for them by Balotta. It included Vincenzino, Mario and Purillo At La Casetta, Signora Cecilia was in tears, convinced that they were dead.

Gemmina plunged into a hot bath. She heard her mother in the next room saying,

 'I don't let Gemmina go again, not alone with Nebbia. He runs her into too much danger, and then they talk in the village—always on expeditions alone, she and Nebbia.'

Old Balotta said,

That's the way nowadays, and there is nothing odd about it. Nowadays people go off alone on trips, or climbing, everywhere, a girl and a man. It is the fashion of the times. You can never go against the times.'

He added,

‘Both, of them have a passion for mountains. I expect he is going to marry her. If he does, I shall be very glad of it.'

But Gemmina in her bathwrap on a stool in the bathroom was in tears. For they had spent the night side by side, she and Nebbia, on a hand's breadth of rock and he had not even given her a kiss.

Her people saw her come to the table, her eyes all swollen with weeping, and believed that she was suffering from shock through fright and weariness.

Nebbia sometimes came to supper with them. He would discuss affairs at the works with Old Balotta and was always contradicting him; for Nebbia never took advice from anyone in the world. Soon after, Balotta would go to bed, being accustomed to turning in early; and Nebbia remained with Gemmina and Signora Cecilia while they worked at their knitting. But he too, little by little, fell asleep with his long red face on the back of the arm-chair and his big mouth occasionally smiling in his slumbers.

He was famous, Nebbia was, for falling asleep after supper.

‘Forgive me if I have been asleep,' he would say, smoothing his curly hair, and picking up his hat and raincoat.

Gemmina would go with him to the garden gate, and he jumped on his bicycle and went off in the direction of the Hotel Concordia, where he lodged.

One evening they were left by themselves, Gemmina and Nebbia, because Balotta had gone to bed and Signora Cecilia and Rafaella were spending the night in the town. Gemmina laid aside her knitting, pushed her hair off her forehead and said,

‘I believe, Nebbia, I am in love with you.'

Then she hid her face in her hands and began to cry.

Nebbia was bewildered. His ears were burning, and he swallowed. His big curved mouth was still a bit cracked with the cold.

‘I am sorry,' he said.

Then there was a long silence, and Gemmina cried all the time. He got out his handkerchief, a big crumpled thing, rather dirty, and dried her tears.

He said in a very low voice, hoarsely,

‘I have a great affection for you. But I don't feel that I love you.'

They remained sitting there for a while longer without saying anything further Gemmina was biting her thumbnail, and every now and again sobbed. Then suddenly Balotta appeared, in his pyjamas, to look for his newspaper, and Nebbia quickly thrust his handkerchief back in his pocket and Gemmina took up her knitting needles.

After that Nebbia put his raincoat on, pulled his worn fur cap over his head and went away.

He became engaged a little while after that to the chemist's daughter at Castello. A girl they nicknamed Pupazzina, Little Dolly. She was only nineteen, and was a little plump thing with a headful of curls. She always wore rather full dainty blouses with her waist gripped in a broad belt of black patent leather, and tottered about on very high heels. She wanted a motor-car at once, being anxious to play the lady, and a home with ultra-modem furniture and large plants on the window sills. She could not bear the mountains, either in winter or summer, and felt the cold badly. She was no good on a bicycle. What she liked was dancing, and she married Nebbia who could not dance.

Old Balotta always had a grudge against Nebbia because he had married that goose, and would not have either of his daughters, neither Gemmina nor Raffaella.

Gemmina decided to go away to Switzerland. She had a woman friend there, and obtained work in a travel agency.

She only returned after the war, Pupazzina and the two children she had had by Nebbia had gone away to live at Saluzzo.

Gemmina would never go and see the spot where they had murdered Nebbia on the rocky slope behind Le Pietre.

Sometimes while she was going alone on her motor-scooter she would sing a song which went like this:

Linda, Linda, my only true love

You're cosy indoors, I've the heavens above!

You're cosy indoors with a beefsteak before you

I'm stamping outside in the frost! I adore you

Linda, Linda, my only true love

You're cosy indoors, I've the heavens above!

This was one they used to sing in chorus, she and Nebbia and Vincenzino and Purillo in the motor-bus on their return from the mountains.

Nebbia used to sing out of tune. She seemed to hear him still. When she sang this song she recalled all her youth, the cheerful evenings when they were coming back from the mountains their fatigue, the smell of wool and leather, the melted snow under thek boots, her shoulders chafed by the straps of the rucksack, the chocolate half finished in the metal container, the oranges, and the wine.

She has never gone back to the mountains. She still keeps in a box a battered tin cup. It is the one out of which they had both drunk, she and Nebbia, the night of the storm.

After Gemmina came Vincenzino. Then Mario, Raffaella, and last Tommasino. Such, you see, were Balotta's children.

Vincenzino was a plump little fair boy, curly as a lamb. He was always dirty and untidy, always had long ringlets over his neck, the pockets of his raincoat were full of small books and newspapers, his shoes undone, because he was no good at tying knots, and the bottoms of his trousers were caked with mud as the result of his rambles in the country.

Old Balotta used to say,

‘He looks to me like a little rabbi.'

He would roam the country on his own. At times he would come to a standstill in front of a wall or a gate where one could only see clumps of nettles or tufts of maidenhair; he would stare and stare, and one could not understand what he was staring at.

He used to walk slowly, occasionally pulling a book or a paper out of his pocket which he set about reading as he walked, rather bent, and frowning. Whenever he opened a book it seemed as if he plunged into it nose first.

He was fond of music and had countless wind instruments in his room. At nightfall he would begin to play an oboe, clarinet or flute.

There issued from this a most lamentable wailing, weak and plaintive, like the bleating of sheep. Old Balotta would say,

‘Have I always got to hear him bleating like this?'

Vincenzino did not get on very well at school. He had extra coaching all the year round, yet they always ploughed him. Purillo and Mario, younger than he, went ahead, and he was always left behind.

One could never really understand how that could be, seeing that he read so many books, and knew a world of things.

He always spoke in a low voice, with an indistinct burr. He would answer the simplest questions with confused and rambling explanations which faded away slowly on the sad wave of that burr.

His father would say,

‘I cannot put up with him.'

And when he listened at dusk to the wailing of the flute he would add,

‘If he goes on bleating like that, I send him to Le Pietre.'

And he did send him to Le Pietre for a while. Later he had him back again because he wanted to see for himself what he was made of.

‘He can't be absolutely stupid,' he said to his wife.

He took him to the factory and confronted him with the machinery. Vincenzino stared gloomily, his eyes starting out of his head, bending a little and knitting his brows.

He stared hard and his nostrils curled, exactly as sometimes when out of doors he stared at a wall, a tree or a clump of nettles.

He went to school at Salice, to the college. When he had finally obtained his leaving-certificate he went to the university in the town.

His father wanted him to enroll in the Faculty of Economics as Mario had done, who was already in his second year. Instead he enrolled himself like Purillo in Engineering.

He had been determined on this point. Balotta shrugged his shoulders and said to his wife,

‘He will never manage to finish the Polytechnic course. Too difficult. But it is his look-out. I really cannot argue with him. He is mad, and you cannot argue with madmen.'

He, Purillo and Mario lived in furnished rooms with a woman to look after them.

Purillo slept with this woman.

She was a fat heavy creature, no longer young. Shut up in his own room, Vincenzino could hear through the wall Purillo's clear laughter and the woman scolding him in a lazy motherly manner,

Vincenzino hated Purillo.

He came to know Nebbia at the Polytechnic. They always saw each other at lectures. They got talking one evening on the train which was taking them home for the week-end. Nebbia's family also lived outside the town.

Vincenzino spoke firsts in his low voice. He mentioned that he had a cousin Purillo with whom he lived and whom he hated. He related what Purillo was like, how he washed and ate and made love with the servant, and how he did his exercises in the morning in shorts of black webbing.

Nebbia strained his ear to listen to that long melancholy murmur. He laughed, really because he was amused by such hatred which had no real motive but ostensibly at Purillo's way of eating and of scratching his armpits, and the physical jerks up and down in a rowing vest and shorts.

He knew Purillo by sight When he came to know him personally he thought him quite harmless. Nebbia was in any case sociable and simple-minded. He was quiet and reserved and got on well with everybody.

Vincenzino struck up a friendship with Nebbia; he was his first and last and only friend.

Nebbia took him to his home, in Borgo Martino, and introduced him to his parents, his father a panel doctor, his mother a schoolmistress, and to his brothers and sisters.

Vincenzino in turn brought him to La Casetta.

Nebbia appealed to old Balotta—who even promised him a place in the factory when he should have finished at the Polytechnic.

They went climbing on Sundays all together: Nebbia, Vincenzino, Nebbia's sisters, Gemmina and Purillo. Vincenzino walked slowly and lagged behind; the others got impatient through having to wait for him. So he usually stopped at a rest hut by the fire, to bleat on his flute and stare at the flames.

One summer at San Remo he got to know a girl from Brazil who was studying music. He was at the seaside there on his doctor's advice after tonsilitis; but he did not swim, or sunbathe on the beach, because his skin was so white and delicate that the sun gave him a temperature, and in any case he hated the sun and the sand and the beach umbrellas and the crowd. Consequently he stayed reading under the trees in the hotel garden and so got into conversation with the girl from Brazil, who did not bathe either and wore dark glasses and a big sun hat. She had her mother with her,
La Mamita
a little old lady rather like a monkey with red-dyed hair.

Vincenzino returned to La Casetta from the sea quite restored to health. He placed a portrait on the table in his room. It showed a girl standing up, in profile, wearing evening dress with a rope of pearls. She had a long neck, a huge black chignon and a feather boa.

‘My fiancée,' he said.

Balotta said to his wife, ‘Is he engaged, that clown there?'

He went to look at the portrait when Vincenzino was out.

‘What a long neck,' he said.

And in the morning when he was hardly awake he said to his wife,

‘That young woman will cover him with horns from his head to his feet and from his feet to his head.'

Vincenzino wrote long letters to Sao Paolo in Brazil, and received correspondingly long ones, closely written in a big pointed hand. They were difficult to read being written on the back of the sheet as well.

Towards Christmas the girl arrived in the town with
Mamita Papito
her twelve-year-old brother. They meant to be taken up to La Casetta and to get to know Vincenzino's family.

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