Authors: Natalia Ginzburg
Mammina came back on the very day that Germany invaded the Polish Corridor. England and France declared war on Germany and everybody believed that Italy would now enter the war too, no one in the town spoke of anything else. Mammina was seized with panic and made Emanuele telegraph to Giuma to come back home at once. She was so terrified that Emanuele did not dare say anything to her about Amalia and Franz. Mammina went down into the cellar to see if they could take refuge there in case of air raids. She sent for one of the Civil Engineer Corps whom she knew, to see if the cellar was safe. The Civil Engineer went round tapping all the walls with a small hammer and said the cellar was perfectly safe, the whole house might fall in but the cellar would not. Mammina had armchairs, blankets and a bottle of brandy taken down to the cellar. Meanwhile she was also trying to find out what could be done about gas-masks, where they could be bought, and she wanted Emanuele to go to Turin to get information. Everyone was talking about these masks but no one had ever seen them, and in any case it was not certain that they could be used against every type of gas. Mammina was always sniffing the air and thinking she smelt a strange smell, an asphyxiating smell. And still Giuma did not arrive, perhaps they had already closed the frontiers, perhaps Giuma had been overwhelmed in a horde of refugees.
Giuma, however, took it easy and did not arrive for a fortnight, and he said that at his school the rugby matches were going on and he had wanted to stay because he felt sure his side would win, and indeed it had won. He was very handsome, healthy and fresh and sunburnt, and Mammina was happy to see him because she had imagined him dead or overwhelmed, and then at last Emanuele told her that Amalia and Franz were married. Mammina said she knew already, she said this in a very faint, rather harsh voice, and then immediately went on talking about the cellar and about asphyxiating gases, and about all the stores that must be laid in, about sugar and oil, because in a short time everything would disappear. Signora Maria, also, was scouring the town in search of oil and sugar, but Ippolito would not give her the money and all she managed to buy was a few pounds of sugar ; in reality the shops were full of stuff, but everyone was buying and prices were going up. Signora Maria, too, was thinking about air raids and she hoped to be able to go and take shelter in the cellar of the house opposite, because the cellar of their own house did not seem to her at all safe. She had suddenly started being very nice to Emanuele, and she begged him to persuade his mother to allow them to come to that fine cellar of hers if air raids were suddenly to begin.
Emanuele left his radio only in order to run over and tell Ippolito the news. But the war was still a long way off, in Poland, Italy had made no move and Emanuele did not know what to think ; he said that if Italy did not enter the war there would never be an end of Fascism. But Ippolito said to him that it no longer mattered to know whether there would be an end of Fascism or not. Because in Poland people were dying, every day people were dying on one side or the other, while he and Emanuele were sitting talking on the terrace and Signora Maria was searching the town for sugar. Emanuele blushed and limped up and down. Cenzo Rena was right, said Ippolito, Fascism was nothing but flea's droppings. Emanuele went back home and explained to Mammina that the question of Italy was not important, because in Poland bombs were falling while she was sitting drinking tea, in Poland houses were falling down and when there were houses falling down it was of no importance whether they were falling in one place in the world or in another.
One day Emanuele had a letter from Franz, brought by hand by a girl friend of Amalia's who had seen them. They were living in a
in Rome. In the letter Franz told Emanuele that he was not a German, and he was not a baron, he had been lying all the time. He had grown up at Freiburg, where his father at one time sold waterproofs. But his father and mother were Polish, and now they lived in Warsaw. And his mother was of Jewish origin and the Germans would kill her. He himself was listening to the radio all day long and weeping. If Italy came into the war there was no knowing what would become of him, seeing that he had a Polish passport in his pocket. If Italy came into the war on the side of Germany, it was all up with him. Some people were saying that perhaps Italy might still ally herself with England and France. He begged Emanuele to let him know whether there was a possibility of this happening. But it would be too good, it could not happen. He asked forgiveness for having lied all the time, he had not lied out of malice, but only like a child telling a fairy story. He begged Emanuele to take care of Amalia if anything should happen to him. He begged him to send some money because they had almost nothing left. Emanuele shrugged his shoulders, he was vaguely moved but he could not also help laughing a little, owing to the waterproofs making their appearance like that all of a sudden. Goodness knows why anyone should be ashamed of being Polish and of having sold waterproofs, and should then confess to it all of a sudden amidst sobs. He sent a cheque made out to Amalia ; only afterwards did he realize that he had not made it out to Franz, and reflected that he must therefore still be mistrustful of him. He made Mammina read the letter, Mammina cast a glance at it and at once thrust it away from her, she said she had known all about these things for some time, and she spoke in that same very faint voice.
At the end of September they began to think that Italy would not now do anything, that she would allow the others to destroy themselves while she herself sat looking on, so as to throw herself in at the last moment on the winning side. Only Mammina continued to be frightened, she would not allow Giuma to go back to Switzerland, because she would never be able to sleep if she knew he was far away, with the danger of war hanging over them. Giuma was now going to the local high school and was in Giustino's class, and Giustino described how he gave himself all sorts of airs with his rugby and his Switzerland, and everyone in the class had begun to hate him. Emanuele started work at the soap factory. He had a room all to himself, with a big armchair and a long desk and a quantity of magazines, and on the walls he had hung reproductions of pictures he liked, Piero della Francesca and Botticelli. And when he could he went downstairs and talked with the workmen. He had all sorts of reforms in mind, a big nursery and crÃ¨che for the workers' children and a canteen where you could eat for a mere song ; the workmen now had to bring their food with them from home. He sat at his desk writing out long menus of unusual and excellent meals for each day of the week, and thinking of these meals made him so hungry that he had to ring the bell and send out an office-boy to fetch him sandwiches from the bar on the other side of the street. But when he spoke of these plans to the managing director, the managing director shook his head and told him he was too young. Ippolito also was working now, he had been taken on at a lawyer's office, and he and Emanuele could no longer spend their days together, but in the evening after dinner Emanuele would run straight over to Ippolito and relieve his feelings about the managing director, he hated him and he said what he would like to do to him, shake him hard from head to foot, take his two cheeks between his fingers and pinch them hard, take down his hat from the peg and trample it on the floor. And so he would do as soon as he had managed to get a little authority in the factory, he was nothing now, he was just the boss's son who had come to learn the job. He would not sack the managing director, he would not do anything to him, he would just throw his hat on the floor and trample on it a bit.
One day, at two in the afternoon, when they were all together in the dining-room eating a creamy cake that Emanuele had brought from his own home, suddenly Danilo appeared in the doorway. Concettina had opened the gate to him, and was now beside Danilo in the doorway, pale, rather breathless, with frightened, sparkling eyes. Emanuele ran to embrace Danilo, and gave him two smacking kisses on the cheeks. Danilo looked surprised, and raised his eyebrows a little. Emanuele was immediately ashamed of the two kisses, he went red and threw open the door of the sideboard to look for a knife and a plate ; Danilo must at once have some of the cake, Giustino must go and buy a bottle of champagne and have it put down to his account, Signora Maria must wash the glasses. But Signora Maria told him that she was not his servant and was not taking any orders, and she wanted to rest now because she had a headache. You could see she was in a state of fury and of terror too because of Danilo, she looked and looked at him with an expression of horror, and finally left the room muttering to herself. It was Concettina who went to wash the glasses. But Danilo did not turn to look at Concettina as she went out with the tray. Danilo was much changed, indeed he was hardly recognizable. He was dressed in new clothes, with a bowler hat and an overcoat of a heavy kind of cloth, and in his hand he actually held an umbrella because it was raining that day. He had a precise, prudent look about him, almost like a policeman. He sat on the edge of his chair with his umbrella, his hat on his knee, and a crumb of cake fell on his sleeve and he flicked it away with his finger-nail and looked very carefully to see whether it had left a mark. Emanuele told him how smart he had become, exclaiming at great length about his overcoat and his hat, with deep, echoing bursts of laughter. Danilo explained that he had stopped a few days in Turin to furbish up his wardrobe, his mother was now making good money, and he gravely thanked Emanuele for having taken her on at the soap factory. Emanuele began to relate how he had quarrelled and intrigued in order to convince the managing director, he began to talk about the managing director and about all the things he intended to do some time or other. But Danilo did not laugh. They noticed that his face was yellow and as though slightly swollen, and he no longer seemed capable of laughing, he did not laugh at all. The only time he laughed a little was when he got up to shut the door, he said it pleased him so much to be able to open and shut doors again, oh how lovely it was. Emanuele wanted to know a thousand things all at the same time, whether there were bugs in prison, whether they let you read novels, whether he had learned German. Giustino came back with the champagne and Concettina came back with the glasses. Concettina was looking very pretty, with her fringe thrown back so as to leave her forehead uncovered, a look of astonishment in her eyes and her lips pale and trembling. Emanuele asked Danilo if he knew that Concettina was now going to his sister for lessons in shorthand. Danilo answered yes, he knew, and he took his glass from Concettina's hands but his face did not light up as he looked at her, the old sly expression seemed to have vanished from his face. They drank the champagne without any gaiety, Ippolito refused to drink and said that champagne gave him a burning in the stomach, so Emanuele got angry with him, was it possible he should think so much about his stomach, he seemed like a real old lady. It was by no means an everyday happening that a friend should come out of prison. Danilo announced all at once that he was getting married in a short time. At Turin, during the days before they arrested him, he had met a girl, a girl of the working class, and when he came out of prison he had seen her again and they had decided to get married. In prison he had thought about many and various things, he said, and it had seemed to him that he had always lived like a fool, that he had lost a great deal of time. In prison you grow up, he said, and you get so that you can't stand any kind of affectation or pose. In prison he had made a critical examination of the whole of his past life, he said, and had realized that there had been nothing good about it, it was only the hours he had spent with this girl that had not seemed to him so wasted and. useless. She was a very simple, serious girl, and he could marry her with confidence because she would not be frightened on the day when they put him in prison again, she would just go on with her work and she was prepared for this idea, she was a very “prepared ” kind of girl. Emanuele asked if she was pretty and Danilo answered that he did not know, he had never asked himself that question, in any case he did not need a great beauty, he needed a quiet girl who was prepared for anything. For the present they expected to live with Danilo's mother, all that was needed was one more bed, and Marisaâthe girl was called Marisaâwould look for a job here in the town, possibly even Emanuele would manage to get her taken on at the soap factory, as well. Ippolito got up and said he ought to have been back at his office long before this, and Danilo said he was going out too because he had to go to the joiner to order the bed for his wife. So Emanuele and Concettina were left alone in front of the table covered with plates and glasses. Emanuele said he had no desire to go to the factory that day, he was sleepy and he felt sad, that champagne was not very good, it had been a mistake to send Giustino out because champagne unless it is very good does you harm. Concettina all at once laid her head down on the table and began to sob. Emanuele jumped up in a fright and started to comfort her, he asked if it had really been such a serious thing, if she was really rather in love. Concettina shook her head violently, she was not in love, she herself did not know why she was crying like that. Emanuele said that he felt very sad too and did not quite know why. He too had been distressed at seeing Danilo so changed, with his bowler hat and his prudent look, it had been much better when he wore a beret and spent hours outside the gate. But there was no reason for crying, Concettina would find plenty more men to fall in love with her, she would forget Danilo, she had got ideas into her head and dreamed about Danilo in prison, suddenly she had seen him as a hero, a very natural thing and not in the least tragic. Poor Concettina, who had even gone so far as to start taking lessons in shorthand. At the mention of shorthand Concettina sobbed more violently, she had come to hate shorthand and didn't want anything more to do with it, she didn't want to go on going to Danilo's sister in the evenings, and now what was she to do about Danilo's sister who would expect her ? But surely she could sent a note, said Emanuele, laughing, any excuse would do, it wasn't a problem. Emanuele stayed till the evening comforting Concettina, caressing her and holding her hands in his.