Two Old Friends by Luca Sartori
That afternoon would be like many others, I predicted to myself, boring and inconclusive, one of those common and senseless afternoons in which I loved to sink. I was thinking about it with all my might, for I could not make out my thoughts clearly. I was looking for some ideas for a new novel and was trying to fix these ideas before they vanished into thin air, as well as I was endeavouring to create connexions among these ideas to make them useful, enjoyable and tangible. But I did not succeed in doing so. The more I longed to succeed, the more I failed to succeed.
I was walking swiftly in the winter greyness and had not a precise destination. I would keep on walking until I would get tired of walking. Everybody was bustling around to buy Christmas presents. Maybe it was because of the cold, or maybe it was because of boredom, that I found myself in a small cafe in the city centre and ordered a cup of rich hot chocolate.
I saw him almost at once. I could not have missed him and had the feeling that he also had recognized me immediately. He was sitting down off to the side in a half-dark corner of the cafe, at a table partly shielded by a colour-panelled alcove. He looked somewhat melancholic. He was staring at his drink with his dull eyes and appeared to be absorbed in his own boredom. He looked extremely sad, the same way someone looks when he is ignored and lingers on his being ignored. He looked like a lonely man. I approached him.
He did not move. He just glanced at me, squeezing his lips slightly.
“Gabriele,” I said in a polite voice. “We haven’t seen each other for a long time.”
“I know,” he answered, his right hand holding his glass tightly. “At least one and a half years.”
“What are you doing around here?”
“The same as you. I am showing off my loneliness. I let everybody see my torment. I am trying to draw attention to myself so that I can divert attention to myself.”
“How can people see your torment if they don’t notice you?”
“They see it just by not noticing me.”
Shortly afterwards, I was sitting down at his table and kept him good company, the healthy and truthful company of two lonely men. Gabriele Belladonna had been one of my most intimate friends, one of those friendships that rise in youth and last up to manhood. Furthermore, we shared a special condition: we both were writers, or at least we tried to be writers. We both were united in our literary passion, united in our failure, united in one love for the same woman, and lastly divided bluntly by that one love.
Dalia had been the apple of discord, the precious diamond knife that had pierced the strongbox of our friendship. We both longed for her, and she purred at the both of us like a cunning and spoilt pussycat. A third man conquered her at last, a winner between two competitors. He was a wealthy and successful winner, or the opposite of what Gabriele and I were. When I saw Gabriele again and talked to him, I felt a strange bittersweet sensation: I did not know if I was supposed to hate him or admire him or simply sympathize with him. He was like me, my damned mirror image.
“How do you do?” he asked me on draining the last sip of cognac.
“Not very well, I daresay. I am stranded on the shore of oblivion. And what about you? I see that…”
“You see that I am still a drinker. Yes, it’s true; I am still a drinker and am not going to give up drinking. Everyone has his own rights, and mine is to benumb my sorrow as I like.”
“Drinking is a slow suicide. I’d rather shoot myself.”
“Then, why don’t you do it?”
“Because I haven’t written my masterpiece yet. I don’t want to be remembered as the good-for-nothing novelist who blew his brains out of desperation arising from his worthlessness. Hemingway killed himself, but he did it after churning out some good stuff. Furthermore, if I achieved success, I think I’d try to enjoy it.”
“I think, on the contrary, that I’m going to die like Edgar Allan Poe. My glory will be posthumous. True glory is always posthumous; therefore, it is not enjoyable, as my homonymous wrote in a novel of his, Pleasure.”
“Yes, that’s right; but what a pity D’Annunzio enjoyed his glory when he was still alive; for sure he had it all.”
Gabriele burst out laughing sarcastically, as if he wanted to hide his disappointment and bitterness behind false good humour. I observed him carefully: he was about thirty-five, some years older than me, and betrayed all the clues of premature ageing due to the prolonged consumption of spirits. His hair was stringy and prematurely grey, his cheeks were hollow, and his mouth looked like a thin slit embedded in his chubby and flabby chin that sloped down to his neck without the slightest trace of muscle tone. His unkempt beard helped in completing a picture of neglect, but it was his eyes what really impressed me most, or better what was left of his eyes: an opaque dull light deprived of vital strength. The very image of the gloomiest desperation. Everything about him whispered decline, decay and impotence. In my selfishness for survival I could not grieve sincerely for him. On the contrary, I felt a sort of self-inflicted pain, being frightened at the idea that I could end up in his state: the worn-out writer, or the writer who is done for long before he starts. His unhappy end hiding in the same words:
“Waiter, one more Martini.”
“Go easy on the drinking,” I told him. “I’m not worried about your health, I just want you to be lucid for the conversation.”
“I am able to converse lucidly even when I am blind drunk,” he answered. “And you know so very well.”
The waiter placed the Martini on the table. At first Gabriele sipped it slowly, then more and more greedily until the glass was empty again. Then we continued our chat.
“What a beautiful Christmas,” he said bitterly upon staring at the empty glass. “What a beautiful Christmas…”
“Are you writing anything ?” I asked him before he could ask me.
“Only when I am drunk.”
“Then you must be writing a lot.”
“Make a joke of it, asshole. I have something wonderful in my hands, something that will make me immortal. A masterpiece.”
“Complete. Do you doubt my word?”
“I doubt you. You really don’t look like a satisfied writer.”
“To be satisfied, I should die to let my novel live eternally. Anyway, the text exists for real. Ninety sheets, typewritten and revised. It’s on my desk. It’s the frog-prince waiting for the kiss of princess luck. I regard it as my will.”
“Then, in the name of our well-established fellowship, could I have a look at it?” To have a look at it, in my jargon, meant to read it carefully.
“Ah, you’re still interested in me, I see!”
“Not in you. In your novel. I know you’re dying to have it read by someone. A writer must have an audience, be it made up of a single reader.”
“Why should I let you read it?” answered Gabriele in a rather aggressive tone, his aggressiveness being kindled by alcohol. “Who the hell are you?”
“Me? I am Riccardo Pergolesi, your former bosom friend, if we’ve ever had a bosom friendship. I am the only one who knows you well enough to take you seriously. If you don’t want me to read your novel, never mind. We can talk about something else, or we also can break off this unpleasant conversation right now.”
These words had on him the effect I wished: he felt moved in his state of half-drunkenness; he felt as if politely put up against a wall and could not help searching for someone else’s sympathy, and I was the only someone else in this case.
“As you please,” he said upon rising up on unsteady feet. “Do you want to read my novel? Come in, then, the book is open.”
“Do you still live in the countryside?”
“Yes I do, in the family house. Where else could I live, otherwise?”
“Well, let’s go.”
“Not before having one more drink.”
In my poverty, I could hardly afford a decent car. The old Volkswagen Beetle plodded along the country road wrapped in the dark which resembled a silent landscape of bends, leafy branches, and telephone poles. It was striving hard the same way I was striving hard in my life, whereas Gabriele was on the verge of stopping once and for all. We talked a great deal on the way, which I knew by heart. Countess Blanchard was one of the first topics, which made us talk spitefully. Mrs Blanchard was the typical high-life lady, one of those flaxen-haired ladies who managed to be well-bedecked three hundred and sixty-five days a year, an icon in the style of Sylva Koscina, eternally amber-coloured with her suntan, a lover of jewels, furs and Jaguars whose only commitments were light-hearted parties and fake-charity suppers. She had never worked a day in her life and had made her only efforts in her youth to find a wealthy husband. The pages of the gossip magazines belonged to her honoris causa. Her guests were filthy and fashionable hypocrites, and among them the stars of contemporary literature camped out like backboneless writers who had achieved success by prostituting their own art. Nevertheless, they churned out best-sellers and earned lots of money, and the madding crowd regarded them as real geniuses. Among them was Edmondo Vaccari, a forty-five-year-old pansy, a ladylike guy without femininity, author of meaningless novels whose plots did not exist and whose characters were just a mirage. I wished I could have violently kicked his chubby butt, and then I would have rammed his head into a bog and rinsed it very well. Gabriele agreed with me. It was envy that kindled our hatred. It was legitimate envy, that is to say the envy of two men who could not get over being ousted by the mediocre. Then our conversation switched to the several literary contests. We could do nothing but regret the fact that the winners were the worst writers who, on the other hand, had good connections with the members of the jury. From this point, our discourse was mostly focused on the winner-loser dichotomy, on the contrast between success and failure, on the Hamlet-like doubtfulness between to be or not to be. We wondered why success made people haughty and why failure made people pathetic. We wondered how we could win without betraying ourselves. We wondered if someday, being at the top of the writers’ Olympus and regularly frequenting circles from which we had always been barred, we ourselves would change remarkably, if we would still be able to look at ourselves in the mirror without spitting at our reflections. We actually talked about many other things, except about what we had been doing in the eighteen months we had not seen each other, maybe because we had nothing worthy of telling each other. Our lives were too void, certainly not what we had imagined; our dreams were in chains, our frustration was holding sway on us. We were two souls on a highway to failure, two drifting souls to which a sole, cold comfort was left: raging invective.
We came to our destination. It was a cosy villa dating back to the twenties, adorned with bow-windows, oval alcoves and winding stuccos, and surrounded by a great variety of trees whose leafy branches jutted over the walls and the railing’s thin spires. We drove through the completely open entrance gate and I parked my Beetle right in front of the main entrance.
“Do you always leave that gate totally open?” I asked my passenger. “Aren’t you afraid of thieves? Aren’t you afraid of being robbed?”
“Oh, they can steal whatever they want,” answered Gabriele in a feeble voice, which was a symptom of his hardly contained drunkenness. “By the truth, everything is mortgaged. I cannot be robbed of anything. I only have debts.”
I helped him to climb the four steps that divided the untidy lawn from the heavy walnut door. A fan of light filtered through the frosted glass set at its top.
“Well, do you leave the light on to make people believe you are at home?”
“Oh, I think I forgot to switch it off.”
“Give me the keys to open the door.”
“No! Let me open it. It’s my house, and it’s me who must open the door…”
“Are you sure you can find the keyhole?”
“Of course I am sure, here it is,” he said while drawing a bunch of keys out of his coat’s inner pocket, “now I’m opening…”. He handled the bunch of keys for a few seconds but did not succeeded in inserting the right key in the lock. He tried and tried again until the whole bunch slipped out of his fingers and fell down on the stony threshold. I nervously picked it up and gave him a withering glance.
“Now I’m going to open this door, and that’s all.” He lapsed into a drowsy silence. He looked benumbed and was swaying on the borderline that separates drunkenness from consciousness.
The small lobby appeared before us in a bad state: faded tapestry, faded floor, a bare chandelier with too many bare bulbs, and very poor furniture. We climbed up the curvilinear staircase that led to the upper floor, and I once more had to hold Gabriele, who was in a sound ethylic state. A faint blue gleam crept beneath the door at the bottom of the passageway. I guessed it could come from a bedroom and was right. I left my heavy load on the double bed at last, and then went to the bathroom without turning the main light on. The soft blue shade coming from the two table lamps was enough for me. I rinsed my face and hands, came back to the bedroom, took off my leather jacket and rested it on a curious, tiny velvet-upholstered stool. There was no trace of the manuscript in the bedroom; therefore, I began exploring the rest of the villa. Just a moment before I had stepped out of the room, not without difficulty I had heard Gabriele mutter something in his half-sleep: “The club…the novel…suicide…my life”; nevertheless, I did not attach any importance to his words. On wandering from room to room, I realized that the state of decay was not restricted to the lobby but affected the entire villa: cracked mirrors, worn-out curtains, broken lamps, worm-eaten furniture covered with sheets, mouldy and empty frames revealing the absence of pictures which had been sold out of necessity. And then dust, a lot of dust. Finally I stopped myself in the study furnished with a wide pumice fireplace. I was sure I could find the novel in that room, packed with books heaped untidily on the shelves. I could make out the objects in the fascinating semi-darkness generated by the lamplight in the corridor and aimed at the desk. I came along and switched on the table lamp. A greenish light hit my pupils and blinded me for a moment. Once I had recovered my sight, I started searching the desk. An old typewriter was on top: it was Gabriele’s favourite work tool, since he rejected technology and did not want to hear anything about PCs. A sheet of paper was still inserted in the platen, fastened with the proper small bar, and apparently was ready to be used, although it was completely blank. I also noticed that a drawer was not perfectly closed: I threw it open and found what I was looking for.
A couple of hours had elapsed without my being aware of it, and now a light drizzle was falling silently. My watch said a quarter past eleven. My stomach pressed for food. As I had totally been absorbed in reading, I had forgotten that I also owned a body. The cold benumbing my limbs was getting worse. Since it was impossible to light a fire in the fireplace – no firewood at all – I decided to take my leather jacket with me. I stepped out of the study and walked down the whole hallway, going past three doors, until I got back to the bedroom. Gabriele was precisely as I had left him, that is to say lying on one hip with his clothes on and seemingly sunk into a deep drunken sleep. I put on my jacket and went downstairs to reach the kitchen, paying attention to turn on only the lights I really needed. I stuffed a sandwich with what I could find – bresaola and tomatoes – and ate it in the faint light of the open refrigerator.
I came back to the study and resumed my reading. I only had fifteen sheets left to the end of the novel, and what a novel! An amazing story set in late Victorian London, an hallucinated world with an extraordinary emotional intensity. The disclosures were rationed so skilfully, the characters were outlined so incisively, and the plot was like tangled wires of changing colours. The title was The Suicide Club, and that gave a meaning to the words Gabriele had muttered unconsciously. The main characters were two friends, foreigners on a trip: after some highs and lows they had joined the club, whose members wanted to die and wanted to kill themselves, but did not have the heart to commit such an extreme act. The club solved their problems: they would be granted a safe and worthy death whose causes would officially be ascribed to an accident or to a mysterious homicide. The method of selection was as simple as terrible: a pack of fifty-two cards, an ace of spades and an ace of clubs. The one who drew the ace of spades had to be the victim, the one who drew the ace of clubs had to be the executioner. A game of pure folly, such a fascinating game on account of that, indeed. The club imposed very strict rules: nobody was allowed to refuse the role that destiny had chosen for him and nobody was allowed to resign from the club once he had joined it. The penalty for transgressors was death, of course. Such a gang, which was totally unlawful, could not allow anyone to reveal its secrets. All of its mystery seemed to be perfectly embodied in the figure of the president, an old man who never showed himself because he was sick with an unknown eye disease and therefore could not expose himself to the light, even if it was artificial. Nevertheless, apart from the plot, the novel had that special something, that is a very particular way of studying the various disguises under which desperation may be hiding. I devoured the last fifteen pages and was filled with wonder when I realized that the novel was unfinished. The end was missing. The story was written up to the scene when one of the two friends had chosen the ace of spades and had sentenced himself to death. Gabriele had lied to me. The end was missing, and that was of paramount importance. The Suicide Club was a brilliant novel and very likely might be tempting for many publishers, but without the ending…
I could not precisely tell what happened inside me, but I felt a kind of inner turmoil. I felt I was no longer able to behave honestly and choked my morals mercilessly. I could not think of anything else but taking possession of that manuscript and passing it off as mine. I was quick in my decision and my deeds too. I had noticed that the sheets were unsigned; therefore, they officially did not belong to anyone. I seized a ream of paper from the shelf and sat down at the desk. I would copy the novel, rewriting it sheet by sheet, and then I would sign the new manuscript. It would be a hard task, of course, but it would pay off at length.
I lavished much energy to the extent that I could not completely relish the conclusion of my illicit effort. The light of the table lamp was the only contradictory thing in the room, by then illuminated by the gentle glimmer of dawn that penetrated through the bow-window. I stood up, seized with the irresistible impulse of taking a breath of fresh air. I threw the window open and let the scent of dew, leaves and damp grass penetrate into my lungs. Then I shut the window again and stepped back to the desk, whereon two identical copies of the same typescript (or manuscript if you like ) were lying side by side. I put the original one back, leaving it as I had found it in the half-closed drawer. Then I reinserted a blank sheet in the typewriter’s platen, took my copy away and set it down beneath the seat of my Beetle. As I got back inside, I glanced at the bedroom. Gabriele was sleeping soundly and made me suddenly feel the way I actually felt: tired. I decided to collapse on the sofa that was in the passageway to have rest. “No more than an hour”, I told myself.
I woke up with an unpleasant sensation of bewilderment. For some instants I could not remember where I was; then I sat up and rubbed my eyes and did some habitual stretching for my benumbed limbs. I looked at my watch: it was past noon. I returned to the bedroom but did not find Gabriele. He must have had woken up before me. Maybe he was having breakfast. In the bathroom I rinsed my face abundantly and put on my jacket. I went downstairs with the intent of cleaning out the refrigerator, but when I passed by the living room doorway, I saw Gabriele. He was a silent creature, sitting down with his back turned to me and his face aimed at the wide windows flooded with a cold autumn sunlight.
“Ah, you’re here…” I told him. “Have you sobered up?”
“Of course,” he answered without turning to me. “I guess you’ve been sleeping here, haven’t you ?”
“Yes, I have. I stayed up late. I took the liberty of reading your novel. I found it in the study while you were kayoed.”
“And what do you think of it ?”
“Hum, it’s rather good. But the end is missing. You had told me that…”
“I lied to you. I hope you will forgive me.”
I stepped across the large room and approached him. His right hand was holding a snifter in which a topaz-coloured liquid was swaying gently. It was the same liquid that was contained in the crystal bottle resting on the floor. Gabriele’s breakfast.
“You start drinking early,” I remarked sarcastically. “Wasn’t last night enough?”
“I took a cold shower,” he replied with a half-smile impressed on his lips.
“Well, I had better go now.”
“Do as you please. Come and pay me a visit whenever you feel like it.”
“Let me know about the ending. I can’t bear reading a novel without an ending.”
“I’ll let you know. Maybe I’ll finish it today, or maybe tomorrow.”
“Or maybe the day after tomorrow, or the day after that.”
“You sound like a fucking publisher,” he grumbled before gulping down a couple of mouthful sips. “We could say we once were friends.”
“We once were…maybe, but now I don’t know what we are to each other.”
“Do you still think of her ?”
“Yes, I do. Yet I bear you no grudge. It was my fault. I should have been a brilliant and successful writer, and not a frustrated, moody man. Women don’t love insecure men. But I am…I am and will be until the moment when… Well, let’s not talk about it.”
“You should find a way to relieve to your pain.”
“I’ve just found it, but it’s not alcohol.”
“That’s right,” he nodded, “we once were friends, and now…well, I could not say who is more depressed between me and you. Is there a depressed man who can nourish friendship ? How can an unhappy soul bring comfort to another unhappy soul ? Well, this is one of the mysteries of life.”
At that very moment I realized I would please the both of us if I went away at once. I left my fellow going limp in an armchair and busy on setting his stomach’s inner walls on fire. I’ve never been so simple a soul, but I was almost ashamed to admit that I did not feel anything for him, not a single feeling of pity nor human tenderness.
As soon as I got home, the telephone rang. I quickly took my coat off and threw it onto the bed – such was the comfort of living in a studio apartment – and then I laid my personal papers down on the chest of drawers. I did all that just before answering the phone.
“Hello ? Hi Rebecca…yes, I’ve just come back home…what ? See each other in an hour ? At my house, yes…well, I’ll wait for you. Then we’ll have a little talk. See you later…”
Rebecca was whom I would call my girlfriend. I say whom I would call because I did not strain myself too much to love her the way she would have deserved to be loved and was not at all convinced about the two of us. Our relationship was a very feeble fire that hardly warmed. I enjoyed that little warmth which I could get but did nothing to kindle the fire. The day when it would go out…
Rebecca worked as a proofreader in a small publishing house. She was not a knockout and was in need of a man. I guess she was involved with me on account of that, as I guess I was involved with her to use her as an editorial go-between. That afternoon we unavoidably talked about Gabriele and his economic and human decay, as well as his miserable lot of impoverished nobleman. Then we made love, or better, we had sex just tinted with love. It was in the bed, of course, where the truest and most intimate speech blossoms, that she decided to try out my moodiness.
“Now tell me…” she whispered not very spontaneously, “what do I mean to you?”
“Well, I can’t say precisely. Maybe a hook.”
“A hook…for publishing?”
“This is a leading question.”
“But I wish I could know if you really like me, or if you are keeping me by your side to reach the desk of some big publisher…”
“You know that I don’t like talking about that. However, I can tell you that I like you for what you are and for what you could do for me. Are you pleased now?”
“You take advantage just because you’re good at making love.”
“I don’t think I’m the only one.”
“The last boyfriends I had seemed to be distant and cold. They had sex with me so unwillingly…but you, I don’t know how to explain it, there’s something in your way of screwing me that…oh, good heavens, it’s so hard to explain. You could explain it, perhaps. You’re a writer, after all.”
“I couldn’t explain it, on the contrary. I’m not able to explain what I’m able to do.”
“What kind of writer are you, then ?”
“Me ? I am a person who blindly believes in the willing suspension of disbelief. All the rest is of lesser importance. The events I describe almost never happen to me. If it were so, I wouldn’t be able to describe them properly. In my opinion, literature feeds on the emptiness of life.”
Rebecca rubbed on my body and for some moments her vocal pitch was deadened to faint moans. I contained myself not to get too excited. I acted aloof but did not act too coldly.
“Phew !” she grumbled, “you’re so resentful today. Meeting that drunkard Gabriele has not been good for you.”
“I only know one thing that might be good for me, and you know what it is very well.”
“A fine novel in every window of every bookshop. One hundred thousand copies. I know that might be good for you…by the way, what are you writing?”
“A psychodrama set in Victorian London. I only have to write the ending. Well, is there a chance for me?”
“Maybe or for sure ?”
“Maybe, as you say you love me. Maybe. Meanwhile, try to finish your novel, then we’ll see.”
“I didn’t think you were so touchy.”
“On the contrary, I thought you were very conceited.”
Like the sky laden with clouds that do not pour down rain, my conscience felt the load of imprisoned energies and unexpressed rage. That vile action I had committed against Gabriele, cruel to such extent that I could not even tell Rebecca about it, had not taken me where I hoped it would take me: I believed I could draw up an ending worthy of the story, but I was wrong. I was in the same position as a nail driven into a board: motionless, repressed, with no chance of getting out. I never would have thought that it would be so hard to finish a novel written by another writer. Furthermore, I had resolved to resign from my job, which I really did not like, and that was turning up harmful to the oxygenation of my cyanotic finances. I was in balance on the hedge of a chasm waiting to soar up or to fall down. Gabriele’s desperation and his crazy talent were the only immediate chance for me. I prayed – a lay and visceral prayer– that The Suicide Club would be completed and I could get hold of it.
One afternoon I really believed that God had lent his ear to my silent entreaties. Gabriele phoned me. He was unusually lucid:
“I’ve just finished my novel. The end is a whirl, you must absolutely read it.”
I pushed the gas pedal of my Beetle to make it run fast up to my unaware benefactor’s abode and dusk was falling by the time I reached my destination. I quivered with frenzy and rushed to the living-room in the twinkling of an eye. Gabriele was sitting at a majestic piano, a romantic grand piano lacquered in black.
“Here you are,” he welcomed me, “the trip took you a very short time, I see.”
“Your call has made me restless.”
“Oh, you’ve always been restless.”
“Listen to who’s talking! Well, let’s say that I am more restless than usual.”
“Well, you’ll be even more restless in a few minutes.”
“Because of your novel? I don’t think so. If I had been the one to write it…”
“Well, my friend, let me tell you that it’s as if it were you to have written it.”
My heart skipped a beat, slightly, then it recovered its pace. The strange hint by Gabriele had aroused within me the fear that he might be acquainted with my ignoble deed. I tried to mask my uneasiness and completed my speech in the best way possible, turning his statement into a question.
“As if it were me to have written it?”
“Yes,” he answered on skimming over some keys at random. “I decided to present you with it…Ah ! If only I could play the piano…”
“To present me with it?” I started. “You’re joking, aren’t you?”
“I’m not joking at all. The Suicide Club is yours. You can submit it to any publisher as a creation of your own.”
“I don’t understand the reason why you should give away a novel that cost you a great deal of trouble ? I am a writer too and know perfectly that to give away a novel means to people like us what it means to a father to give away one of his children. Now, I’d like to know…”
“There’s nothing to know,” replied Gabriele cutting me short. “I don’t need it. I don’t need anything that is future…by now my life is senseless.” Then he struck a heavy blow on the keys with both hands, stressing the instrument’s strings seriously.
At this point I wondered whether Gabriele was in possession of all his faculties or whether he was trying to muddle my ideas as I was trying to di muddle his. When I got a little bit nearer him everything turned out to be less complicated than I had thought. His breath gave off an unpleasant smell which was unmistakeably alcohol, and the usual bottle containing the topaz-coloured liquid towered in its lowness under the stool.
“Whisky?” I asked him mockingly.
“No, brandy,” he answered me keeping his eyes low.
“You’re not willing to give up hurting yourself. If you go on like that…”
“If I go on like that I will come to a bad end, I know. But it’s what I want, after all. My life is alive only when it longs for death.”
“This is a typical oxymoron, and you’re typically drunk.”
“It doesn’t matter that I am drunk, what really matters is that I am desperate. That’s why the novel is so brilliant and exciting. You must be desperate to describe desperation, don’t you think so?”
“Well, I don’t think so.”
We remained in silence for a few moments and I let myself be enticed by the arabesques that the soft sunset light, entangled in the leafy branches, cast on the sandy-marble floor. Then Gabriele stood up and went to an old Burma vetyver writing desk and beckoned me to get closer to him. He took a clipping out of a drawer and put it into my right hand. “Read it”, he told me.
I went near the window to have more light and glanced through the short article:
CRASH ON THE LAKE, ART GALLERY MANAGER DIES
VERBANIA – Yesterday night, a short time after 9.30, a motorboat collided into a mass of rocks near Pallanza. The people who live in the area, alarmed by the terrible crash, called 113 and 115 immediately. By the time the Carabinieri and first aid arrived, the motorboat, a Caribe T300, was just a heap of burning wreckage. The identification of the driver was carried out by the victim’s young girlfriend, Dalia Gigli. He was a manager from Milan, Franco Cecchi, 39 years old, owner of a famous art gallery in via Brera. According to testimonies, it seems that Mr Cecchi, for causes which are still to be ascertained, lost control of his motorboat and crashed into the rocks at high speed. The autopsy on the remains of the burnt body is scheduled for today.
I could not utter a word for a few seconds. Franco Cecchi was dead. Franco Cecchi, the man who had taken Dalia away from me was no longer on this earth. I had hated him intensely, and at that very moment that same man stirred a sort of pity in me which was ashamed of itself. “When did it happen?” I asked Gabriele.
“More than five months ago, at the beginning of July.”
“I hadn’t heard anything about it.”
“It’s because you never read newspapers.”
“Well, I cannot say I’m going to weep over him.”
“Nor can I,” he answered me a moment before putting the clipping back in the drawer. “That man has hurt the both of us.”
“How come you keep that clipping?”
“For her, for Dalia. I grieved for her, for her sorrow.”
“I guess I would have grieved for her as well, maybe because I’ve never given up loving her.”
“In that case you surely will be pleased to see her again,” said Gabriele. And what he said left me dumbfounded.
I went upstairs quivering with excitement, with no thoughts in my mind but her. I had completely forgotten the novel’s ending. “You’d better go to the bedroom,” Gabriele had told me, “there’s a surprise for you”. I opened the door very slowly, as though I wanted to avert a possible disappearance of the surprise, and I saw her. She was standing opposite the closed window. She was shrouded in a soft evening backlight which hardly allowed me to guess whether she was staring at me or not.
“Hi, Riccardo”. Her voice was low and gentle as I remembered it. “Hi,” I answered as I got closer to her. “So much time has gone by.”
“Yes, but recollections never fade .”
I was by her side. Her features, her amber-coloured eyes, her long and silky hair which had the same hue of ripe wheat, her finely wrought body wrapped in the dark grey dress. She was still beautiful and attractive, she was seduction, a dream I could never tell. “That’s true,” I answered, “time rolls by fast, but memories roll by slowly.”
“Especially the unpleasant ones.”
“That’s right…I know what happened…I’m sorry.”
“I’m trying to get over it, but I cannot reconcile myself. That night we had had an argument and he looked very nervous. His heart…a heart attack, I feel terribly guilty about that.”
“You must not, a heart attack cannot be provoked. It’s something predestined and congenital.”
“But I had not been straightforward with him. I had lied to him about several things. If only I could have begged him for forgiveness…forgiveness…”
What I did a moment after neither belongs to the sphere of instinct nor to that of reason exclusively, yet is shared by the two. I embraced her most tenderly. I held her, neither too tight nor too lightly, and made her understand that I sympathized with her. At that moment I felt all the ardour of our past of lovers and had to restrain myself not to give in to my desire of kissing her voraciously.
Then we parted. After smiling, she said: “This place is so nice…the air is good around here. Gabriele is a lucky man.”
“Well, not that lucky,” I remarked. “He hasn’t been having a good time of it lately, and he drinks like a fish. I didn’t imagine he could think of contacting you again.”
“Oh, nor did I. When I saw him appear among those journalists…I thought he must be crazy.”
“He is, indeed. As I am, of course. We novelists are all a bit crazy, in our own way…”
“So, how’s your writing career ?”
“Very bad, I daresay. Success is a mirage in the desert, and what’s more I am going through a creative crisis. You must know that I had to…ah ! It’s despicable.”
“The way I’ve done him. I stole a novel from him with the intent of passing it off as mine and would have already done so if it had not been finished. Just today he told me that he’s going to present me with it…”
“And does he know what you have done?”
“I don’t think he does.”
“In my opinion, you ought to tell him,” she answered a moment before sitting down on the bed. “It would be fair of you.”
“Hum, you’re right. I believe that…”
I could not complete my sentence, for a loud and shrill voice interrupted me: “I think you shall not tell it to me, because I already know.”
Gabriele was standing on the threshold. His chest was thrust out, his jaw was clasped, and his eyes were bloodshot. “Your will is no longer meaningful to me. You have betrayed me. I thought you were a friend, but now I have to acknowledge that you have a cold heart. You’re a despicable person, and I…”
He was holding the usual bottle in his left hand. Then, in a moment, he put his right hand in a pocket and drew out a polished, chromed revolver. “I might kill you, you know, I might kill you…”
Gabriele looked beside himself and I saw death staring me in the face. I saw the legendary beheaded coachman waiting just for me, but I was wrong. Dalia was screaming and I could not utter a single word for fear but, to my great astonishment, Gabriele turned the revolver to himself and pointed it at his temple. I closed my eyes and waited for the gloomy detonation, but I only heard a dull metallic click. Then I heard him laugh out loud sarcastically.
“You fell for it completely,” he giggled under our bewildered gaze. “This revolver is empty. I’ve made a fool of you since the first time we met in that bar. All of a sudden I decided to make you believe that I was an alcoholic, maybe because I was bored…and then I decided to test your honesty. This bottle contains peach tea, and for alcohol-flavoured breathe I just needed a sip of real whisky. As to my appearance, well…I’ve never been a handsome man. I happen to drink, at times, but for sure I am not an alcoholic. You must admit it, I’ve been reciting very well, I have been a great actor, haven’t I?”
“Great and toxic,” I remarked bitterly.
“Yes, my surname is Belladonna, after all. Atropa Belladonna, a well-known toxic plant. Ah, one more thing: my novel has been completed for some time and is now being printed by a big publisher. Those sheets you have in your hands are not worth a bean. We always believe what we want to believe.”
“You bastard, you…you…you have made use of me, of us…”
“Yes I have, as you wanted to make use of me and as you, my dear Dalia, made use of me in the past.”
“Go to hell, Gabriele !” she burst out rising to her feet.
“Yes, of course I will. Maybe in fifty years…yes, my dear Riccardo, I made you believe that I was prone to suicide, when I’ve never thought of committing suicide. But I had to know. I suspected you and your tricks. You must know that, to be precise and to ward off ill-luck, I am used to counting carefully all the reams of paper which I keep in my study. Moreover, when I place a sheet in the typewriter’s platen, I always leave a blank line, but you couldn’t know that and replaced the sheet in a normal position. Suspicions must be proved, of course, and Dalia has disclosed you as I hoped she would.”
“Fuck you! You damned asshole!” Dalia cried out before hurling herself on him. Gabriele grabbed her and flung her to the ground with a harsh wrench. The vehemence of his deed caused the bottle to slip out of his hand and shatter after falling down on the walnut flooring.
“Ah ! Damn’ it !” he exclaimed. “Some tasty tea has been wasted.”
“And so,” I went on, “all those stories about debts and creditors…”
“Nothing really serious, by the truth. And I will make money with my novel. Ah, if you want to read the ending, you shall wait to read it in the published book. Don’t worry anyway: I will send a free copy to you. An autographed copy, of course.”
As he finished his speech, he rested the revolver on the tiny stool and began to collect the fragments of the bottle, while Dalia was slowly rising to her feet again. At that very moment I grabbed the revolver and pointed it at him. “You’re a damned bastard,” I spitted at him.
“So what?” he asked, “What are you doing? You relieve your feelings by pointing an unloaded gun at me? You’re pathetic.”
Even now, I don’t know the reason why I pulled the trigger. Maybe I did it because of his deceit, or maybe out of my repressed rage of anonymous writer, or maybe simply because I wanted to feel the pleasure of killing him at least in a symbolic way, in my imagination. But nothing of all that happened.
I killed him for real.
The revolver was not totally unloaded. One bullet was left in the cylinder, unbeknownst to Gabriele. Destiny could have chosen the first self-inflicted shot to his temple, yet it chose my shot, or the last dazzle in a dazzling game of folly with an unhappy ending.