Authors: Natalia Ginzburg
They left, as usual, at the end of September : however Giustino and Signora Maria left earlier, because Giustino had to sit again for his examination in Greek. In the town the old man began to be ill again, growing thin and coughing, and a. doctor came to see him, a doctor who was entirely different from the little doctor with hair like chickens' feathers, a doctor who did not sit and chat with him, who did not listen to him and who treated him badly. He had forbidden him to smoke : and the old man gave Ippolito his tobacco-pouch and told him to lock it up in a drawer and keep the key ; but after a short time he wanted the tobacco, he wanted just a little of it, and Ippolito paid no attention to him and stood there with his hands in his pockets, and so then the old man said how ridiculous Ippolito was, who took everything literally and was lacking in commonsense, lacking a touch of commonsense and imagination, and the world was ruined by people like that, by people who took everything literally, and he couldn't get over having produced such a ridiculous, stupid son, who stood there with a stony face and kept tight hold of the key : and it was a great grief to him to have a stupid son, a grief which did him more harm than a little tobacco. Until finally Ippolito gave a sigh and threw down the key on the desk : and the old man opened the drawer and took the tobacco, and started to smoke and to cough.
Then one day, while they were all at table, they saw the old man come into the room, in pyjamas and slippers, with a bundle of papers in his arms. It was the book of memoirs : and he asked whether the stove had been lit, and it
been lit because it was already cold : then all at once he started stuffing the sheets of paper into it, and they all looked at him open-mouthed, only Ippolito did not appear surprised. Big flames came up from the open stove, and the book of memoirs was blazing, and no one understood anything : but Ippolito did not appear surprised, he had got up and was looking at the flames, smoothing back his hair very slowly, and with the poker he pushed into the stove a few sheets that were not yet burned : and then the old man rubbed his hands together and said, “I feel happier now. It will have to be written all over again. It wasn't going right.” But all that day he was very jumpy, and would not hear of going back to bed nor of dressing himself either, and he walked up and down the room and bullied Ippolito with the usual story about his tobacco : he was very angry with Ippolito and finished by sending him out of the room, and insisted upon Concettina reading aloud to him : while she was reading he held her hand and stroked it and told her that she had beautiful hands and a beautiful profile, a really beautiful profile : but then he began saying that she read badly and in a singsong kind of voice, and made her stop.
He went to bed and was now unable to get up again. He grew slowly, steadily worse, and was dying, and everyone knew it, and certainly he himself knew it too but he pretended there was nothing wrongâhe who used always to talk of death before he fell really ill; he spoke less and less as the days went by, gradually he came only to ask for what he needed ; Giustino and Anna were forbidden to enter his room and saw him from the door as he lay flat in the bed with his thin, hairy arms lying on top of the coverlet, his nose getting whiter and whiter and sharper and sharper; sometimes he would make a sign to the boy and girl to come in, but then he would say nothing that was intelligible, only confused words, and would rumple up his pyjamas on his chest with his arms, and tremble and sweat. There was a smell of ether in the room, and a red rag tied round the lamp, and the old man's long, pointed shoes stuck out from under the wardrobe, and you knew he would never walk again, because soon he would be dead. Anna and Concettina had not started their piano-lessons again since the summer, but the music-master still came in order to ask for news, only he did not dare to ring the bell and would stand in front of the gate and wait for Signora Maria to come out into the garden and tell him if the old man had been able to get a little rest. And Danilo, too, would almost always be at the gate, leaning against the wall with a book, and Signora Maria said it was really shameless of him not to leave Concettina in peace now that her father was so very ill; and when Concettina went out for a moment to do some shopping, he would put his book under his arm and walk behind her, and Concettina would throw fierce glances at him every now and then, and would come home very red in the face, with her fringe all untidy.
The old man died in the morning. Anna and Giustino were at school and Signora Maria came to fetch them, a tiny little black handkerchief tied round her neck ; she kissed them gravely on the forehead and led them away. To kiss them she had had to rise on tiptoe, because they were both much taller than herself; it had been in the corridor at the school and the headmaster was there watching ; usually he was rude but he was very kind that morning. They went up to their father's room : Concettina was kneeling there sobbing, Ippolito on the other hand was standing still and silent, his face thin and white as usual. Their father was lying fully dressed on the bed, with his tie on, and shoes on his feet, and his face now was very beautiful, no longer trembling and sweaty, but composed and gentle.
Then Signora Maria took Anna to the house opposite, for the lady there had sent over to suggest that she might be left with them for the whole day. Anna was frightened because there was a dog there. Not a dog like Ippolito's, curly-haired and stupid, but an Alsatian tied up with a chain ; and hung on a tree in the garden was a notice :
And she was also frightened because there was a ping-pong table. Through the hedge she had seen a boy playing ping-pong with an old gentleman. And so she was frightened that the boy might ask her to play and she didn't know how to. She thought of saying that she knew how to play but didn't want to because at their house at Le Visciole there was a ping-pong table and they did nothing but play at it all the summer. But if later all of a sudden she and the boy made great friends, it might perhaps be necessary to invite him to come one summer to Le Visciole and then he would realize that there wasn't a ping-pong table there at all.
She had never been in the house opposite. Through the hedge she had looked at the boy and the old gentleman and the dog. The lady with the fringe who appeared on the balcony in her dressing-gown, and who looked so young, was the old gentleman's wife. Then there was a red-haired girl, who was the daughter of the old gentleman and of another wife whom he had had before. On the other hand the boy, and also another bigger boy who must be about Ippolito's age, were the sons of this present wife, the one with the fringe. Signora Maria said they were very rich people, for the old gentleman was the owner of the soap factory, the long red-brick building on the river, with chimneys that were always smoking. They were very, very rich people. They never boiled up their coffee-grounds a second time, but gave them to certain monks who came to ask for them. The red-haired girl, daughter of the old gentleman's other wife, came out in the evenings with a broom and swept the whole garden, muttering all the time and working herself up into a rage. Signora Maria, too, had very often looked through the hedge, for she was inquisitive and much interested in rich people.
Signora Maria left Anna with the maid who came to open the door, recommending that they should make her put a scarf round her neck if she went out in the garden, and then she went home again. The maid led Anna to a room on the floor above and told her to wait there, and in a moment Signor Giuma would come and keep her company. Anna did not know who Signor Giuma was. From the windows she saw her own homeâquite different when seen thus from this side, low, small and old, with the dried-up wistaria on the balcony and, on one corner of the roof, Giustino's ball, torn and rain-soaked. The shutters were closed in her father's room : and she remembered suddenly how he used to throw open the shutters with a clatter and lean out to look at the morning, soaping his chin with the shaving-brush and stretching out his thin neck, and would say to her, “Go and buy me some tobacco. Make yourself useful, seeing that you're not ornamental.” And she seemed to see him going out into the garden, with his eyeglass, in his white flannel trousers, with his long legs that were slightly crooked because he had done so much riding as a young man. And she wondered where her father was now. She believed in hell, in purgatory and in paradise, and thought that her father must now be in purgatory, repenting of the unkind things he had so often said to them, particularly when he bullied Ippolito about the tobacco and about the dog ; and how surprised he must have been to find that purgatory existed, when he had so often said that almost certainly there is nothing for the dead, and it is better so because at least you can sleep at lastâhe himself being such a bad sleeper.
The maid came to tell her that Signor Giuma had now arrived. It was the boy, the one who played ping-pong. He came running in, whistling, his hair over his eyes ; he threw down his books, which were tied together by a leather strap, on the desk. He seemed surprised to see her ; he gave a little cold, shy bow, stooping his shoulders slightly. He started looking round the room for something, whistling as he looked. From a drawer he took an exercise-book and a pot of glue, and stuck some things into the book : they were big faces of film actors, cut out of a magazine. It appeared to be very important to stick them in, and very tiresome too, for the boy panted and snorted, throwing back his hair from over his eyes. Beside the desk was a big revolving globe and from time to time he looked on it for some country or other and then wrote hastily in the exercise-book underneath the film-actors' faces. The red-haired girl came in. Her hair was short and clipped in a fashion which was popular that year and which was called
But only her hair was fashionable ; her dress, on the contrary, was wide and ungraceful, with a round neck to it, and was of an ugly sort of lemon yellow. The girl held her usual broom in her hand and she swept the carpet violently and then said, “Giuma, it's not very amusing for this little girl. Leave the film-actors and show her
The Child's Treasure-House,
or take her into the garden and play ping-pong with her.”
They looked at
The Child's Treasure-House.
There were several volumes of it and all sorts of things were to be seen in itâflowers and birds and machines and cities. In front of each picture, Giuma stopped for a moment and they both looked : then he said, “Finished ? ” and she said, “Yes”. “Finished” and “yes” were the only words they spoke. Giuma's thin, brown hand turned the pages. Anna was ashamed of having thought they would become great friends. Then all of a sudden a great clamour was heard all through the house, and she jumped and Giuma laughed : he had white, sharp teeth like a wolf's. He said, “It's the gong. We must go to lunch.”
The old gentleman sat at the head of the table. He was deaf, and had a little black box on his chest, with an electric wire which he kept hooked on to his ear. He had a white beard which he placed on top of his table-napkin when he started to eat; he had a gastric ulcer and could eat only cooked vegetables and pieces of soaked bread with oil. Beside him sat the red-haired girl, who was called Amalia, and it was she who helped him to food and seasoned it with oil and poured mineral-water into his glass. At the other end of the table sat his wife, wearing a very hairy blue woollen jumper and a little pearl necklace ; then there was a person that you couldn't be quite sure who he was, he wasn't a guest because he was wearing slippers ; he had Giuma beside him and Giuma poured water into his wine out of spite and then laughed with his fist over his mouth ; the man took no notice of him and talked stocks and shares with the old gentleman, but he had to yell because the little box was slightly broken. Then they all started talking about Amalia's new way of doing her hair,Â
and the Signora said she wanted to do hers like that too, because she was a bit tired of her fringe. Amalia shouted the conversation into the old gentleman's ear. The little box was called “Papa's apparatus” ; and even the old gentleman alluded to himself as “Papa He said, Papa wants to take a long nap after lunch to-day. Papa is very old ”. Then the Signora began to get angry and to look out of the window because of Emanuele failing to arrive. Emanuele was the one who was about the same age as Ippolito, and he arrived almost at the end of lunch. He was lame, and he arrived all red and sweating from the fatigue of limping. He looked like Giuma, except that he hadn't teeth like a wolf; he had broad, square teeth that stuck out over his lips. After lunch they wrapped the old gentleman up in a rug on the sofa and put a scarf over his eyes because otherwise he could not sleep, and then left him there.
Anna and Giuma played ping-pong. She had told him that she did not know how to play, so certain was she now that they would not become friends, so that it did not matter to her what he might think. He said he would teach her how to play, it was easy. While they were playing the man in the slippers came and watched. He was called Franz. He was small, with light eyes and a face which was sunburnt and all furrowed. He and Giuma began punching each other and chasing each other round the garden. Anna sat and looked at them, playing idly with the ping-pong ball. The dog was not there because it had been sent to some friends of theirs in order to be mated. When it grew dark, Signora Maria called to Anna from the window and she went home.
Her father's funeral took place soon afterwards. Anna had imagined a real funeral with priests and white lilies and a cross. But she had forgotten that her father disliked priests. So there were no priests and no lilies. There were some of Concettina's
in fact the most important of them : Danilo and two or three others. Then there was the music-master who still wanted to know in what way he had offended the old man, and he asked Concettina's
and Signora Maria's nephew if they knew. While the old man was ill he had written him letters in which he said he was consumed with regret at having offended him without knowing why, and he asked for his forgiveness whatever the reason might be. But the old man had not read any of the letters, because he was too ill.