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Authors: Marco Missiroli

The Sense of an Elephant

BOOK: The Sense of an Elephant
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The Sense of an Elephant

Marco Missiroli

The Sense of an Elephant

Translated from the Italian by Stephen Twilley

PICADOR

First published in the United Kingdom 2015 by Picador an imprint of Pan Macmillan Ltd, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited
Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR
Basingstoke and Oxford
Associated companies throughout the world
www.panmacmillan.com

ISBN 978-1-4472-4194-2

Copyright © 2012 by Marco Missiroli
English translation © 2015 by Stephen Twilley

Originally published in Italy 2012 as
Il Senso dell'Elefante
by Ugo Guanda Editore, Parma

The right of Marco Missiroli to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the publisher.

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, organizations and incidents are either products of the author's imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, places, organizations or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

1 3 5 7 9 8 6 4 2

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Printed and bound by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon, CR0 4YY

This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

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To Sauro Missiroli and Fiorella Vandi

Thank You

If someone is to be born, that person will not be
blank
, but a
moral
being, a subject of
value
– not of integration.

Roland Barthes

Only now is the child finally divested of all that he has been.

Cormac McCarthy

There was a man, things for this man were going so-so, the Flood came and he was on the roof of his house so he wouldn't drown, he asks God with all his faith to be saved and in his heart he knows that God will save him.

A boat comes, the man refuses it because he's certain that the Lord will come to save him, so he says No, thank you. Meanwhile the water is rising, another boat comes but he's waiting for God. Meanwhile the water has reached his throat, a third boat passes, No, thanks. So then he drowns.

When he arrives in Heaven and finally sees the Lord, he says to him, You promised to save me! God looks at him, says, Hold on now, I sent you three boats, what else do you want from me?

1

The concierge's lodge was a clean, orderly space, furnished with a fake wood table and two wicker chairs. Beside the lodge window were pigeonholes for the post and a shelf with a battered radio and a telephone. On another wall hung a pen-and-ink rendering of Milan Cathedral above an empty nail. The table's single drawer contained a square of cardboard with a suction cap and the message ‘Back soon'. A folding door led behind to a tiny flat composed of a bedroom and a combined living area and kitchen. In addition to polishing every square inch of the floor, its previous occupant had left behind a packet of coffee and a virtually new stovetop percolator, a half-full bottle of olive oil and a bottle of body wash for sensitive skin. Also remaining were ten hooks in the bedroom wall, on each a copy of a set of keys to a flat above.

Pietro had not so much as touched the keys since be coming the new concierge a month earlier. He did so that afternoon, approaching one of the hooks and lifting off the keys to the Martini family's flat. Luca Martini, a doctor, and his wife, Viola, had gone to pick up their daughter from nursery school. He slipped the keys into a pocket and returned to the windowless bathroom to rinse out the cleaning cloth, then tossed it in a plastic bucket, poured in two capfuls of detergent and filled the bucket with water. Staggered with the weight as far as the entrance hall, where the stairs began. He wrung out the cloth, wiped down a step and scrambled up to the next, climbing
backwards like a half-dismembered spider. He would wipe with one hand and support himself with the other, then lean on the cloth hand and pull the bucket up. Upon reaching the first floor he picked up the doormats of the three flats and continued immediately on to the second, where he stopped. Starting from the lawyer Poppi's door he lifted the doormat with ‘Abandon all hope' in Gothic script, cleaned and moved on to the Martinis' mat. Rolled it aside and diligently wiped a grease stain from the marble. He stood. The door handle was covered with fingermarks. He used a handkerchief to remove them, returned it to his pocket and felt the metal scratch his palm. Pulled out the keys, inserted them in their respective keyholes and opened the door.

He entered with his eyes closed and took half a step further. Took another step and looked: out of the gloom appeared a hall stand with three dark overcoats and Sara's ladybird umbrella. The parquet squeaked. The entryway's single shelf held two framed photographs and a basket of old , knick-knacks. One of the pictures was of Dr Martini as a little boy pretending to drive a parked Vespa. He looked straight over the handlebars, his mouth serious. The concierge picked up the picture, caressed the child's head and the hand gripping the accelerator. Brought the image closer, caressed it again, squeezed the frame till he trembled. Put it back and stared at the basket of knick-knacks. On top were an inkwell, a frog paperweight, a bicycle bell. He took the bell in his hand and wiped the top with a shirtsleeve. It was rusty and its lever worn. He turned it over. It didn't weigh much. He backed
up with the bell in his palm and withdrew from the Martinis' flat.

‘Pietro.'

He spun round.

‘Mr Poppi.'

The concierge picked up the cloth and hid the bell inside it. Water dripped onto his shoes.

‘I've nearly finished cleaning.'

‘Inside and out, I see.' The lawyer abruptly doffed his hat. His shiny head shone. ‘
Kibitzer
, as the Jews say: busybody.' He swung his walking stick in a small arc, raised an eyebrow.

Pietro, his face reddening, lightly tossed the cloth back into the bucket.

‘Accept my invitation, friend,' said the lawyer. ‘Stop cleaning so thoroughly and come with me to the cafe on the corner – now. I'll treat you to a cappuccino you won't forget.'

‘I still have two floors to do.'

‘Trust me.' The lawyer opened his front door and stepped in, picked up a raincoat from the arm of a sofa and shook it out before putting it on. Pointed to the flat next to the Martinis'. ‘Our Fernando is about to declare himself. To miss it would be a big mistake.'

The concierge indicated his bucket.

‘It's your loss, kibitzer.' He turned on his heel and started down the stairs.

Pietro waited until the lawyer reached the entrance hall then went to the last door on the floor, behind which lived the strange boy Fernando. Lifted the mat, cleaned and returned downstairs without stopping. Slipped into the lodge and
headed straight for the tiny flat, still in disarray since his arrival. He had bought a bed and placed it below the living area's small window. A projecting wall divided the area from the kitchenette, three wall cupboards and a table with a plastic flower-pattern tablecloth, a buzzing refrigerator. A row of plants stood in the only sliver of space here struck by natural light. Beside them he had piled bags of clothes and his bicycle, a nearly forty-year-old Bianchi with flat handlebars, which salty air had stripped of much of its paint.

He went into the bathroom and retrieved the rag from the bucket, unrolled it one edge at a time over the sink. Cradled the bell in his fist, dried it carefully as he went into the bedroom, a mostly empty chamber with a porthole window that looked out onto the courtyard. Hung up the Martinis' keys on their hook. Below the hooks, indistinct in the half-light, were a lamp and an open suitcase with boxes inside. Long and thin boxes, boxes with worn corners. From a cylinder-shaped box he drew out an envelope bearing a stamp dedicated to Emilio Salgari and containing a photograph and a letter on rice paper. Though he knew the contents of the letter by heart, he read it as if for the first time, and like the first time he did not breathe until he reached the end. The concierge put everything back, added the bell, and before leaving for the cafe gazed for a moment on his past.

The young priest saw her on a September morning that year as well, and that year as well the girl gazed up at his window as she rode by on her bicycle with the straw basket. She wore a sailor suit and rang her bell,
brring-brring
, not a bit embarrassed
that it caused people in front of the church to turn round. From between the shutters he returned her gaze and closed his eyes. When he reopened them she was on the ground and the bicycle on top of her, screaming I killed it, I didn't see it, I killed the cat.

The young priest ran down into the street, slipped through the crowd around the girl. Went to her. She was holding her stomach but would not take her eyes off the cat.

‘It's the priest's, it's dead,' someone said.

‘The only ones who kill cats are witches and the scourges of God,' someone else said, in dialect.

The witch continued to say, ‘I killed it, I didn't see it, I killed it.' Stopped only when she noticed him, his black habit standing out against the other people gathered around.

‘Father, I killed it.'

The young priest leaned toward the cat and caressed its head. Then he grasped the bicycle and pulled it upright, without speaking. Rang the rusty bell, once.

2

The cafe was located on a corner opposite the condominium, across a cobbled street furrowed with the rails of two tram lines. There was little room inside, a few 1930s tables surrounded by assorted chairs and a whiff of cream, the walls covered with old film posters. Velvet lamps hung from the ceiling. The lawyer was seated in a blue armchair and reading a newspaper. He raised his eyes and saw the concierge. On the wall behind him was a black-and-white Anita Ekberg in the Trevi Fountain. Across the table sat Fernando and his mother, a petite woman smelling of hairspray. Her slim legs sprouted from a puff skirt. When Pietro entered she spun round in her seat.

‘What a pleasant surprise!' She came forward to meet him, her wrinkled face framed by a perm. ‘Please have a seat.' She pointed to the chair next to her.

The lawyer folded his newspaper and cleared his throat.

‘So then, Pietro, in the end I convinced you! Welcome. In my capacity as condominium administrator, please allow me to introduce you to our Fernando and his mother, the charming Paola. Second floor, cherrywood door, next to the Martinis.'

Fernando kept his back turned, a felt beret pulled low on his head, his elbows planted either side of an empty cup. Stared at the black-haired barista behind the counter. Pietro greeted the boy, who grunted in reply. The first time he ever
saw him, the day of his arrival at the condominium, he had been clinging to his mother's skirts as he repeated, ‘I don't want to go to work, I want to stay with you.' He wore small round spectacles. He was twenty years old but also eighty.

‘Fernando, say hello to Pietro.' His mother shook his shoulder and he brushed her hand away.

‘He's in love and can't make up his mind to come out with it,' said the lawyer Poppi, rubbing his hands together. ‘Dear Pietro, can I offer you a cappuccino with a sprinkle of cinnamon?'

BOOK: The Sense of an Elephant
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