A hundred metres away, on the main road, there was also a van that made the famous Bomber sandwich, filled with char-grilled chicken, cheese, pickled aubergines and peppers.
But Italo wasn’t satisfied with the Bomber, and once a week he gave himself a treat, his evening de luxe.
First the Meat Market, then the Old Wagon. An unbeatable combination. Once he had tried inverting the order. First the Old Wagon and then the Meat Market.
A disaster. He had felt sick. While he was humping away the sea-and-mountain pappardelle had come up again and he had vomited all over the dashboard of his car.
About a year ago Italo had stopped switching prostitutes and become a regular client of Alima. He would arrive at seven on the dot and she would be waiting in her usual place. He’d let her into the 131 and they would park behind a billboard nearby. The whole thing lasted about ten minutes, so by eight o’clock they were already at their table.
Alima, it must be admitted, was no Miss Africa.
Rather plump, she had a bum the size of a mooring buoy, cellulite and two flat empty boobs. On her head she wore a stringy blond doll’s wig. Italo had seen more attractive whores, but Alima was, to use his own words, a human suction-pump. When she gave head, she really applied herself. He couldn’t swear to it, but he was pretty sure she enjoyed it.
Sometimes he had screwed her, but both of them being on the large side (and there was the problem of his lame leg too), they were a tight fit inside the 131 and it became more of an ordeal than a pleasure. Besides, she charged fifty thousand for that.
This way it was perfect.
Thirty thousand for the blow job and thirty thousand for dinner. Two hundred and forty thousand lire a month well spent.
You’ve got to taste the high life once a week, otherwise what’s the point of living?
Italo had also made a discovery. Alima was quite a gourmet. She loved Italian cooking. And she was really good company. He found her easier to talk to than his wife, whom he’d had nothing to say to for twenty years or more. So he took her to the Old Wagon, and to hell with the local gossip.
That evening, strangely, they were sitting at a different table than usual, by the window that overlooked the Aurelia. The headlights of the cars would flash for a moment in the restaurant and disappear, swallowed up by the darkness.
Italo had in front of him a dish piled high with pappardelle, Alima one of orecchiette with ragù.
‘What I’d like to know is why your Allah won’t let you eat pork and drink wine, but allows you to be a whore,’ said Italo, continuing to chew. ‘I think it’s stupid, myself. I don’t say you ought to stop being a whore but, since you don’t exactly live a saintly life, at least you could treat yourself to a nice pork chop and a couple of sausages. Eh?’
Alima no longer even bothered to answer.
He had asked her that question a million times. At first she had tried to explain to him that Allah understood everything and that she didn’t mind doing without wine and pork, but that she couldn’t not be a prostitute, because she sent the money to her children, in Africa. But Italo would just nod and the next time ask her exactly the same question again. Alima had realised that he didn’t really expect a reply and that the question had a purely ritual function, like saying enjoy your meal.
But that evening she was in for a shock.
‘How’s the ragù? Is it good?’ asked Italo contentedly. He had already practically finished a bottle of Morellino di Scansano.
‘Good, good!’ said Alima. She had a nice broad smile, which opened over regular white teeth.
‘Good, is it? You know that’s not beef ragù but sausage meat?’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘There’s … po … pork in that.’ Italo talked with his mouth full, pointing to Alima’s plate with his fork.
‘Pork?’ Alima didn’t understand.
‘Pork. Pig.’ Italo grunted to make his meaning clearer.
The penny dropped. ‘You’ve made me eat pork?’
Alima stood up. Her eyes were suddenly blazing. She started shouting. ‘You shit. All shit. I never want to see you again. You’re disgusting.’
The diners around them stopped eating and directed fish-like gazes at them.
‘Keep your voice down. Everyone’s looking at us. Sit down. It’s a joke, come on.’ Italo talked in a low voice, cowering low over the table.
Alima was shaking and stammering and fighting back tears. ‘I knew you were all shit and that you … but I thought … FUCK YOU!’ She spat in the plate, picked up her handbag and fur coat and waddled like an angry pachyderm towards the door.
Italo rushed after her and grabbed her by the arm. ‘Come on now, come back. I’ll give you thirty thousand lire.’
‘Let me go. Shit.’
‘It was a joke …’
‘LET ME GO!’ Alima broke free.
Now the whole restaurant had gone quiet.
‘All right, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Okay. You’re right. I’ll eat the sausage. You take my pappardelle. It’s got mussels and wild boa … which is not a pi …’
‘Fuck off.’ Alima went out and Italo looked round and, seeing that everyone was looking at him, tried to regain his self-possession, puffed out his chest, stretched out his hand and yelled in the direction of the door. ‘Well you know what I say to you, then? Fuck off yourself!’ He turned round and went back to the table to finish his meal.
‘Here you are.’ Pietro held out the keys.
The three of them were sitting on swings.
‘I’ve done it. Here you are.’ But nobody got up.
‘Didn’t Italo see you?’ asked Bacci.
‘No. He’s not there.’ Pietro felt an intense, satisfying pleasure as he said it, like having a pee that you’ve been holding back for a long time.
What a bunch of cowards you are. All that fuss and he’s not even at home. Aren’t you great. How he would have loved to be able to say that to them.
‘What do you mean he’s not there? Bullshit!’ Pierini accused him.
‘He’s not there, I swear he’s not! The 131’s not there. I looked … Now can I go ho … ?
He hadn’t even finished the sentence when he flew backwards and crashed violently on the ground.
He couldn’t breathe. He lay there in the mud and squirmed. The blow on his back. That was what had done it. He opened his mouth wide, eyes goggling, tried to breathe but it was useless. As if he were suddenly on Mars.
It had happened in a flash.
Pietro hadn’t even had time to react when he’d seen him there in front of him.
Pierini had jumped off the swing and hurled his full weight against him, pushing him back like a door that had to be opened.
‘Can you go where? Home? You’re going nowhere.’
Pietro was dying, or at least that was what it felt like. If he didn’t start breathing again in three seconds, he would die. He made a big effort. He sucked. Sucked. Wheezing faintly. And at last he began to breathe again. Just a little. Enough to stop him dying. His chest muscles had finally decided to collaborate and he took in and threw out air. Bacci and Ronca were laughing.
Pietro wondered if he too would one day be able to become like Pierini. Knock someone over with such malice.
He often dreamed that he was punching the waiter of the Station Bar. But although he put all his strength and rage into it and dealt him the most violent blows in the face, he didn’t even hurt him.
Will I ever have the courage? Because it takes a lot of courage to knock someone down and punch them in the face.
‘Are you sure, Dickhead?’ Pierini was sitting on the swing again. He seemed not even to have noticed that Pietro had been on the point of choking.
‘Are you sure?’ repeated Pierini.
‘Are you sure the 131’s not there?’
‘Yes. I swear it’s not.’
Pietro tried to get up
, but Bacci jumped on him. He sat on his stomach, all sixty kilos of him.
‘Hey, it’s really comfortable here …’ Bacci pretended to be in an armchair. He crossed his legs, leant back, used Pietro’s legs as the arms of the chair. And Ronca jumped around him happily. ‘Fart on him! Go on, Bacci, fart on him!’
‘I’m try-ing! I’m try-ing!’ moaned Bacci. That fat, moonlike face went purple with the effort.
‘Stink him out! Gas him!’
Pietro struggled to get free, but only succeeded in tiring himself. He couldn’t move Bacci one millimetre, he could hardly breathe and the acrid smell of that barrel’s sweat sickened him.
Keep calm. The more you struggle the worse it is. Keep calm.
What kind of situation had he got himself into?
He should have been home by now. In bed. Warm and snug. Reading the book about dinosaurs that Gloria had lent him.
‘In that case, in we go.’ Pierini got off the swing.
‘In where?’ asked Bacci.
‘Into the school.’
‘Piece of cake. We climb over the gate and get in through the girls’ toilets, by the volleyball court. The window doesn’t close properly. You only have to push it,’ explained Pierini.
‘It’s true,’ confirmed Ronca. ‘Once I looked through it and saw Alberti crapping. Pooh, what a stink … Yeah, let’s go in. It’ll be cool.’
‘But what if we get caught? What if Italo comes back? I …’ said Bacci worriedly.
‘You nothing. He won’t. Stop bleating.’
‘And what are we going to do with Dickhead? Beat him up?’
‘He’s coming with us.’ They pulled him to his feet.
His chest and ribs hurt and he was covered in mud.
He didn’t try to escape. It would have been useless anyway.
Pierini had decided.
Better to follow them and keep quiet.
Graziano Biglia had abandoned De Crescenzo’s history of philosophy and was trying to watch a video of the Italy–Brazil match from 1982. But he couldn’t work up any enthusiasm, he kept wondering where Erica could have got to.
He tried calling her for the umpteenth time.
Still that odious recorded voice.
A faint anxiety was tickling, like a goose-feather, the half-digested remains of the fettuccine in hare sauce, the triple helping of cold cuts and the crème caramel which were lying in his stomach and which, in response, had begun to churn around.
It’s a nasty thing, anxiety.
Everyone, sooner or later, has experienced this disagreeable emotional state. Usually it’s only transitory and is caused by external factors, but sometimes it generates itself spontaneously, for no apparent reason. In some individuals it even becomes chronic. There are people who live with it all their lives. Some manage to work, sleep, have social relationships, with this feeling of oppression inside them. Others are overwhelmed by it, can’t even get out of bed and need drugs to alleviate it.
Anxiety depresses you, it drains and disturbs you, makes you feel as if an invisible pump were sucking out of you the air you are desperately trying to swallow. The word ‘anxiety’ derives from the Latin verb angere, ‘to squeeze’, and that is exactly what it does: it squeezes your bowels and paralyses your diaphragm, it’s an unpleasant massage of your lower belly and is often accompanied by a sense of foreboding.
Graziano had a tough hide, impervious to many of the common anxieties of modern life, and he had an intestine capable of digesting a stone, but now, with every passing minute, his apprehension grew and turned into panic.
That silence seemed to him a very bad sign.
He tried watching a Lee Marvin film. It was even worse than the soccer match.
He rang her again. No reply.
He must calm down. What was that fear now?
She hasn’t phoned you yet. So what? Are you afraid that …
He banished that odious little voice.
Erica’s always got her head in the clouds. She’s a scatterbrain. She’s probably gone shopping with her mobile uncharged.
As soon as she got home she was bound to call him.
‘“You bastard, you make me sick.” How dare you speak to me like that? And what a fool you made me look. Everyone staring at me like that … What are you all gawping at? Why don’t you mind your own business? People are so damn nosy around here. And anyway, come on, I only played a little practical joke on her. Where’s the harm in that? Even if the priest put a bit of white nougat in my mouth instead of the Host, I wouldn’t care. She’s a real cow. And she’s too sensitive. Okay, okay, I was wrong. I said, I WAS WRONG. I didn’t mean it. I’m sorry, for Christ’s sake!’ Italo Miele was driving and talking to himself.
That bitch had ruined his dinner. After she’d gone he’d lost his appetite. He’d left his second course of sea bass all’acqua pazza unfinished. To make things worse, he’d downed another litre of Morellino and was now thoroughly pissed. He was driving along with his nose against the windscreen and had to keep wiping away the condensation with his hand.
Everything about him felt heavy: his head, his eyelids, his breath.
‘Where can she have got to? The pigheaded bitch …’
He was looking for her, but he didn’t know exactly what he wanted to tell her. On the one hand he wanted to apologise and on the other he wanted to put her in her place.
He had gone back to the Meat Market. He had asked the other whores, but none of them had seen her.
He turned onto the coast road, which ran along a ridge parallel to the railway line. With the darkness a cold north wind had risen. In the sky the clouds had shredded and were chasing each other with a rolling motion and the waves on the beach had white plumes of foam.
He turned on the heater.
‘…Oh well, I give up. I’ve done my best. Now what? Back to school, or home to the farm?’
He suddenly remembered that he’d promised his wife that he’d change the lock on the door but hadn’t done it. He had to replace it every six months, otherwise the old bat couldn’t sleep.
‘Now I’ll never hear the end of it. She’ll go on about it all night … Tomorrow. I’ll change the lock tomorrow. I’m going back to school.’
For the past two years Ida Miele had lived in constant fear of burglars.
One night, when Italo was at the school, a van had stopped in front of the farmhouse. Three men had emerged, smashed the kitchen window and climbed into the house. They had started collecting all the electrical appliances and furniture and putting it in the van. Ida, who slept upstairs, had been awoken by the noise.
Who could it be?
There was nobody at home. Her son was in Brindisi doing his military service, her daughter was at Forte dei Marmi working as a waitress. It must be Italo, he must have decided to come home for the night.
But what on earth was he doing?
Had he decided to rearrange the kitchen furniture at three o’clock in the morning? Was he out of his mind?
In nightdress and slippers, without her false teeth and trembling like a leaf, she had gone downstairs. ‘Italo? Italo, is that you? What are you do … ?’ She had entered the kitchen and …
All at once, a man with a balaclava on his head had popped out from behind the door like a jack-in-a-box and shouted in her ear: ‘Wah!’
Poor Ida had collapsed with a heart attack. Italo had found her next morning still lying there, next to the door, more dead than alive and freezing cold.
Since that night she had never entirely recovered her wits.
The experience had aged her twenty years. She had lost her hair. She hated being alone in the house. She saw black men everywhere. And she refused to go out after sunset. But that was the least of it, the worst thing was that now she talked obsessively of ultrasonic and infrared burglar alarms, of the Beghelli Lifesaver, of telephonic devices that automatically called the carabinieri and o
f armoured doors (‘For goodness’ sake, why don’t you go and ask Antonio Ritucci for a job, he’d hire you on the spot,’ Italo had said to her once in exasperation. Antonio Ritucci was the burglar-alarm specialist in Orbano).
Italo knew perfectly well who they were, those three men who had addled his wife’s brain and destroyed his peace of mind.
Only the Sardinians would break into your house like that, not giving a damn about who’s inside, and steal everything. Not even the gipsies would have stolen a broken cooker. Yes, I’d bet my daughter’s life it was them.
If the people of Ischiano Scalo now lived in fear, with bars on their windows, afraid to go out at night and terrified of being kidnapped or raped, in Italo Miele’s modest opinion it was all down to the Sardinians.
‘They came here without permission. They got their filthy hands on our land. Their sickly sheep graze our meadows and produce that foul pecorino cheese. Heathen savages. Robbers, bandits, drug dealers. They steal. They think this is their land. And they’ve filled the schools with their little brats. They’ve got to go.’ How often he had said this to the people in the bar!
And those feeble old codgers who sat round the tables would agree with him, they’d let him talk and swell up like a turkey, they’d say that they ought to organise patrols and catch them but then, in the end, would do nothing. And he’d seen how as he was leaving they would nudge each other and laugh.
And he’d discussed it with his son, too.
The great policeman!
All he did was talk, polish his pistol and stroll round the village like Christ come down from heaven. He’d never caught a single Sardinian.
Italo didn’t know who was worse: those gutless old fools, that idiot of a son of his, his wife or the Sardinians.
He couldn’t take any more of Ida.
He hoped she would go completely off her head, so that he could bundle her into the car and take her off to the loony bin, then this whole business would be over and he’d be able to start living a normal life again. He felt no remorse for his extramarital activities. That old bag was only good for sausage meat now, and he, though well over sixty and lame in one leg, had more energy in his body than many a man half his age.