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‘Move alongside. I’ll give him a kick and bring him down.’
Flora was so cold. Like a different person. She must have swallowed a block of ice for breakfast. Graziano had the distinct impression that she didn’t want him around. That the affair was over.
I made too much of a mess of things last night.
So he would have to leave.
But he continued to wander round the living room.
Hell, I’m going to ask her. The worst she can do is say no. I’ve got nothing to lose.
He sat down next to Flora, leaving a little space between them, looked at her and brushed her lips with a kiss. ‘Okay, I’m off, then.’
But instead of going to the door and leaving, he nervously lit another cigarette and started pacing up and down like an expectant father. Suddenly he stopped, in the middle of the room, plucked up courage and said: ‘I don’t suppose I could see you this evening?’
I can’t go on.
Pietro saw them coming out of the corner of his eye. They were ten metres away.
Now I’m going to stop, turn round and set off again.
It was a daft idea. But he couldn’t think of a better one.
Shreds of heart kept contracting in his chest. The fire in his lungs had spread to his throat and was tearing at his pharynx.
I can’t go on, I can’t go on.
‘Dickhead, pull over!’ Pierini shouted.
Here they come.
On the left. Three metres behind.
What if I cut across the fields?
There was a deep ditch on either side of the road and even if he’d had ET’s bike he couldn’t have jumped over them. He would have crashed down into the ditch.
Pietro saw Fausto Coppi pedalling along beside him and shaking his head disapprovingly.
What’s the matter?
(You’re not thinking right. It works like this: you’re faster than that clapped-out Ciao. They can only catch up with you if you slow down. But if you accelerate, if you gain ten metres and don’t slow down again, they’ll never catch you.)
‘Dickhead, I only want to talk to you. I won’t hurt you, I swear to God I won’t. I want to explain something to you.’
(But if you accelerate, if you gain ten metres and don’t slow down again, they’ll never catch you.)
He saw Flame’s face. A horrible sight. He was twisting his mouth into a smirk that was meant to be a smile.
I’m going to brake.
(If you brake, you’ve had it.)
Flame stuck out a long leg which terminated in an army boot.
They want to knock me off my bike.
Coppi continued to shake his head in exasperation. (You’re thinking like a loser. If I’d thought the way you do I’d never have become the greatest and I’d probably have been killed. When I was your age I was the butcher’s boy and all the villagers used to make fun of me and call me a hunchback and say I looked ridiculous on that bike which was so big my feet didn’t touch the ground, but one day, it was wartime and I was taking some steaks to the hungry partisans who were hiding in a farmhouse in the country …)
Pietro was knocked violently to the left by a kick from Flame. He threw all his weight to the right and managed to straighten up again. He started pedalling again as fast as he could.
(… and two Nazis with their motorbike and sidecar, which is much faster than a Ciao, came after me and I started pedalling as hard as I could and the Germans behind were just about to catch me but suddenly I started pedalling faster and faster and the Germans were left behind and Fausto Coppi and Fausto Coppi and Fausto Coppi …)
Pierini was incredulous. ‘He’s pulling away … Look, he’s pulling away … Look at that! Shit! You and your crappy little Ciao.’
Dickhead had become as one with his bike and, as if a ghost had stuck a rocket up his arse, had begun to accelerate.
Pierini started thumping Flame in the ribs and shouting in his ear: ‘Stop! Stop, damn it! Let me get off.’
The scooter slowed down, swerving with a squeal of brakes and tyres. When it was stationary, Pierini dismounted. ‘Get off.’
Flame looked at him, puzzled.
‘Don’t you see? The two of us will never catch him. Get off, quick!’
‘But what …’ Flame tried to object, but then he saw his friend’s face distorted with rage and understood that it was better to obey.
Pierini jumped on the scooter, twisted the throttle and zoomed off with his head down, shouting: ‘Wait for me here. I’ll get him and then come back for you.’
The Aurelia was a continuous stream of cars and trucks streaking along in both directions. And it was two hundred metres away.
Pietro kept pedalling and looked back, gasping and inhaling the fiery air.
He had pulled away from them, but only a little. They must have stopped.
Here they come again.
He was done for.
Do something then, think of something …
But what? What the hell could he do?
Then he had an idea. An idea which was in some ways great and heroic. An idea which wasn’t exactly the most brilliant idea that anyone has ever had, and which Gloria and Mimmo and Fausto Coppi (by the way, where had Fausto Coppi got to? Didn’t he have any more advice to dispense?) and any other person with a modicum of sense would have strongly advised him against, but which at that moment seemed the only chance of salvation or maybe of …
Don’t think about it.
This is what Pietro did.
Quite simply, he didn’t slow down, on the contrary, using what little strength he had left, he trod even harder on the pedals and hurled himself like a blind fury towards the Aurelia, with the insane intention of crossing it.
Dickhead had flipped. He was going to kill himself.
Good thinking. Federico Pierini had no objections.
Moroni must have come to the conclusion that for a pillock like him the only sensible course of action was to end it all.
Pierini pulled up and started applauding enthusiastically. ‘Great! Attaboy! Go for it!’
They’d scoop him off the asphalt with a coffee spoon.
One piece here, another piece there. What about the head? Where’s that head got to? Anyone seen the right foot?
‘Get yourself killed! That’s the way! Bravo!’ he shouted, continuing to clap his hands happily.
It’s always nice to watch a guy killing himself because he’s scared of you.
Pietro didn’t slow down. He just narrowed his eyes and bit his lip.
If he was killed it would mean his number was up, and if he was destined to live he would pass unscathed between the cars.
Life or death.
White or black.
Neck or nothing.
Like a kamikaze.
Pietro didn’t consider the various shades of grey that lay between the two extremes: paralysis, coma, suffering, wheelchairs, endless pain and regrets (always assuming that he was still capable of regretting) for the rest of his life.
He was too busy being scared to think about the consequences. Not even when he was only a few dozen metres from the crossing and he saw that big sign with the flashing yellow light saying slow, dangerous crossing did it occur to him to squeeze the brakes, stop pedalling, look right and left. He just sailed across the Aurelia as if it wasn’t there.
And Fabio Pasquali, codenamed Rambo 26, the poor trucker who saw him materialise in front of him like a nightmare, pressed his horn and slammed on his brakes and realised in a flash that from that moment on his life was going to change for the worse and that in years to come he would have to struggle against the feelings of guilt (the speedometer showed a hundred and ten and on that part of the road the limit was ninety), a
gainst the law and the lawyers and his wife who had been going on at him for ages to give up that exhausting job and he thought wistfully of the job in a pastry-shop that his son-in-law had offered him and heaved a sigh of relief when that little boy on the bike disappeared just as he had appeared, with no sounds of crushed bones and metal, and realised that he’d been lucky and hadn’t killed him and whooped with joy and anger combined.
Pietro, having eluded the truck, found himself on the centre partition and in the other direction there was a red Rover hurtling towards him, horn blaring. If he’d braked it would have hit him, and if he’d accelerated it would have hit him, but the Rover swerved sharply and passed behind him, two centimetres away, and the slipstream pulled him first right and then left and when he reached the other side, on the exit to Ischiano Scalo, he was completely off balance, he braked on the gravel but the front wheel lost its purchase and Pietro skidded along, scraping his leg and hand.
He was alive.
Graziano emerged from Flora Palmieri’s house, walked a few steps across the yard and then stopped, entranced by the beauty of the day.
The sky was the palest of blues and the air so clear that beyond the roadside cypresses and the hills you could even see the jagged peaks of the Apenines.
He closed his eyes and like an old iguana turned his face towards the warm sun. He breathed in deeply, and his olfactory terminals were assailed by the smell of the horse droppings scattered on the road.
‘Now that’s what I call perfume,’ he murmured contentedly. An aroma that took him back in time. To when, at the age of sixteen, he had worked in Persichetti’s riding school.
‘That’s what I must do …’
Why hadn’t he thought of it before?
He would buy himself a horse. A beautiful bay horse. So that, when he finally settled down in Ischiano (soon, very soon), on fine days like this he could go out riding. Take long rides through the Acquasparta woods. With his horse he would be able to go boar-hunting. Not with a gun, though. He didn’t like firearms, they weren’t sporting. He’d use a crossbow. A crossbow made of carbon fibre and titanium alloy, the kind they use in Canada for hunting grizzlies. How much would a weapon like that cost? A lot, but it was a necessary expense.
He did three knee bends and a couple of neck twists to loosen up. The involuntary rafting through the rapids, the cracking of his head against the rocks and the sleep on the sofa had shattered him. He felt as if someone had removed his vertebrae one by one, shaken them up in a box and put them back in random order.
But if his body was in bad shape, the same could not be said of his mood. His mood was as radiant as that sun.
And all thanks to Flora Palmieri. To this wonderful woman he had met and who had erased Erica from his heart.
Flora had saved his life. After all, if it hadn’t been for her he would certainly have been swept over the waterfall and dashed onto the rocks and it would have been curtains.
He would be indebted to her for the rest of his life. And as the Chinese monks say, if someone saves your life they will have to look after you for the rest of their days. Now the two of them were linked together for all time.
It was true, he’d been an incredible fool to try to bugger her. What the hell had got into him? Why such sexual voracity?
(Mind you, with a bum like that you can hardly help it …)
Shut up. A girl tells you she’s a virgin and asks you to be gentle and before five minutes are up you’re trying to sodomise her. Shame on you.
He felt the feelings of guilt paralyse his diaphragm.
Pierini was waiting for the road to clear when Flame caught up with him. ‘Where are you going?’ his friend asked him, out of breath from the long run.
‘Get on, quick. He’s on the other side. He’s fallen off.’
Flame didn’t need to be told twice. He jumped onto the saddle.
Pierini waited till there was a lull in the traffic and crossed.
Dickhead was sitting at the side of the road rubbing his thigh. The fork of his bike was twisted.
Pierini rode over and leaned his elbows on the handlebars of the Ciao. ‘You’ve just come within a hair’s breadth of killing yourself and causing a fatal accident. Now your bike’s broken and you’re about to get the crap beaten out of you. Just not your day, is it, my friend?’
Graziano, in his Uno Turbo, was driving along the Aurelia thinking hard.
He absolutely must apologise to Flora. Prove to her that he wasn’t a sex maniac, just a guy with no inhibitions who was crazy about her.
‘What I must do is give her a present. Something really special that will knock her sideways.’ He often talked to himself in the car. ‘But what? A ring? No. Too early. A Hermann Hesse novel? No. Too small. What if … what if I gave her a horse? Yes, why not … ?’
It was a great idea. A present that was original, not at all predictable, yet important at the same time. It would be a way of showing her that that night hadn’t just been any old night, a matter of going through the motions, but that he was serious.
‘Yes. A beautiful thoroughbred colt,’ he concluded, thumping his fist on the dashboard.
I think I’m in love with her.
It was premature to say it. But if a guy feels something in his heart, how can he help it?
Flora had everything. She was beautiful, intelligent, refined. With a wide range of interests. She could paint. She liked reading. A grown woman, who could appreciate a ride on horseback, a gipsy flamenco or a quiet evening by the fireside reading a good book.
What a contrast to that air-headed bimbo Erica Trettel. If Erica was a self-centred, capricious, vain little girl, Flora was a sensitive, generous, discreet woman.
There was no doubt about it, all things considered Miss Palmieri was the ideal companion for the new Graziano Biglia.
Maybe she can even cook …
With a woman like that at his side he would be able to carry out all his plans. Open the jeans shop and a bookshop too and find a farmhouse near the woods to convert into a ranch with stables and she would care for him with a smile on her lips and they would …
… have children.
He felt ready for kids. A girl (she’ll be as pretty as a picture!), then a boy. A perfect family.
How on earth could he have thought a girl like Erica Trettel, a hysterical, spoiled bitch, the last of the showgirls, could accompany him through the years of his old age? Flora Palmieri was the soul mate he needed.
The only thing he didn’t understand was why such a beautiful woman had remained a virgin for so long. What was it that had kept her away from males? She must have some problems with sex. He would have to find out what sort of problems they were, make some discreet inquiries. But actually even this idea was something he didn’t at all dislike. He would be her instructor, teaching her everything there was to know. She had talent. He would make her the best of lovers.
He felt that his seven chakras had finally balanced out, redressing the equilibrium of his aura and putting him at peace with the universal soul. His anxieties and fears had flown away and he felt as light as a balloon and eager to do a whole lot of things.
Isn’t it amazing what that strange feeling called love can do to a sensitive soul?
I must go and see Mama at once.
He must break it to her that he’d split up with Erica and then tell her about his new love. Then at least she’d put an end to this farce of the vow, though he felt a tinge of regret about that. This non-talking version of her wasn’t at all bad.
Then he would go and look for a stud farm, and while he was about it he could drop in at a hunting and fishing shop and find out how much a crossbow would cost.
‘And tonight a romantic tête-à-tête at the teacher’s flat,’ he concluded happily, and switched on the stereo.
Ottmart Liebart and the Black Moons struck up with a gipsy version of Umberto Tozzi’s Gloria.
Graziano flicked the indicator and turned onto the exit for Ischiano Scalo. ‘What the… ?’
At the side of the road two boys, one about fourteen, the other older and bigger and with an oafish face, were beating up a little boy. And they were not kidding. The small boy was on the ground, curled up in a ball, and the other two were kicking him.
On another occasion Graziano Biglia probably wouldn’t have taken any notice, he would simply have looked away and driven straight on, obeying the law, always mind your own damn business. But that morning, as has already been mentioned, he felt as light as a balloon and eager to do a whole lot of things, which included defending the weak against the strong, so he braked, pulled over, lowered the window and shouted, ‘Hey! You two! You two!’
The two boys turned and looked at him in bemusement.
What did this jerk want?
‘Leave him alone!’
The bigger one glanced at his companion and then replied, ‘Fuck off!’
Graziano gaped for a moment and then reacted angrily: ‘What do you mean, fuck off?’
How dare that stupid great lout insult him? ‘Listen, scumbag, you don’t say fuck off to me, okay?’ he barked, thrusting his hand out of the window, fingers spread.
The other, a thin, mean-faced kid with a white streak in his fringe, smirked derisively and, cool as a cucumber, retorted: ‘Well, if he can’t say it, I will: Fuck off!’
Graziano shook his head sadly.
They didn’t understand.
They didn’t understand what life was all about.
They didn’t understand who they were dealing with.
They didn’t understand that Graziano Biglia had for three years been the best friend of Tony the Snake Ceccherini, the Italian champion of capoiera, the Brazilian martial art. And the Snake had taught him a couple of killer moves.
And if they didn’t stop laying into that poor kid and humbly apologise at once, they were going to feel the full effect of those moves on their frail little bodies. ‘Apologise, both of you, right now!’