Friday, July 13, 2012

            My mother was in a black mood as she came away from Scilla's flat. It was three o'clock in the afternoon and beginning to get hot, she had no idea what to do with herself and the day stretched emptily before her. She had the impression that Scilla had been in a great hurry to see the back of her and that she had been bodily pushed out of the door. She had the feeling, too, that there had been someone else in the flat apart from herself and Scilla, though she could not have explained why she had this feeling.
            After wandering aimlessly for a while, she went into the cinema. They were showing a film in colour about African safaris, and she sat in the half-empty auditorium watching endless herds of buffalo seen against a boundless, fiery-red horizon; there was no plot, nothing actually happened and one saw nothing except buffalo, bison and elephants. With no plot to engage her interest, she was soon bored; and her thoughts kept returning to the darkened flat and to Scilla wandering around tying up her dressing-gown girdle; and there was no doubt that she had pushed her out of the door, and locked it behind her with a vicious snap. And she had hardly listened to what she had been saying about Barbara's letter, almost as if she wanted to wash her hands of the whole business of her daughter and not worry any more about her. On her way out of the cinema my mother passed a poster advertising next week's programme, a film with Ava Gardner, and she looked at Ava Gardner's behind that had the same measurements as Barbara's and sniffed scornfully.
            She then came to my flat; I was in the middle of a lesson, so she waited, sitting in an armchair and reading the afternoon paper. Every now and then she commented aloud on the political articles; and she kept asking my pupil, a college student with an alarmingly white face and an air of constant perplexity, if she did not agree with her. When the girl had gone, my mother suggested that we go together to the coffee-bar; but I had too much studying to do and refused. She was very put out, and asked me where I thought all this studying would get me: when I graduated I would end up teaching in some drab school facing a whole pack of girls with white, pasty faces and puzzled expressions like this one who had just left. It had not been a good idea at all for me to study literature, she said as she put on her gloves; I should have studied chemistry or law instead. As a child, I had seemed to have a real gift for writing, but I had written nothing at all since then. Or I could have studied medicine: many women nowadays became doctors, and were even more sought-after than the men because so many women refused to be examined by men; and all doctors, besides, made a lot of money - apart from Chaim, of course, who was a disaster. But I was feeling cross too, and to annoy her I asked why she had not set Chaim up in his own practice yet; she retorted that she had not the slightest intention of doing so and, on the contrary, was planning something quite different. And she swept out, slamming the door behind her. But seconds later she came back again, on the pretext that she had left her scarf behind; it was on the chair, and as I handed it to her I said, to pacify her, how pretty it was; and she immediately made me a present of it, saying that she had plenty of scarves, enough and to spare for the parish poor, and she put it round my neck. She embraced me and asked me to forgive her for being cross and said I was her only comfort: she could at least hold a conversation with me, whereas Giulia never opened her mouth; Giulia was capable of going for days without uttering a word, and made no effort even to be pleasant to her husband; she never looked at him or spoke to him and moved away if he so much as touched her knee. Theirs was not a happy marriage. How often, said my mother, it would be better for a woman to stay single rather than marry the wrong man; and she told me to think well before I married and talk it over thoroughly with her, something Giulia had never done. Did I have a boyfriend? I shook my head furiously and turned away with a frown; and she changed the subject at once, fearing to annoy me again. Perhaps, she said, the solution for a woman was to have an occupation. She enquired after my friend, who was now married and on her honeymoon; she wanted to know if my friend was happy with that engineer with the ears; and she wanted to know if I was still determined to stay on alone in the little flat.
            I had put some water on to boil in the kitchen with a stock cube dissolve in it to make some soup; was this all the supper I would have, my mother asked; no egg, no meat? I assured her that I also had some stewed fruit and cheese, but she was not satisfied, she thought this insufficient, that I was stinting myself and said that food was the one thing one should never try to economize on. I assured her that I had all I needed, but she insisted on giving me ten thousand lire so that I could get some little luxury. Then she scrutinized my clothes. I had at last stopped wearing the Russian workman's sweater and had on a check dress: not too bad, said my mother, though it reminded her of an orphanage. She told me about the film she had just seen, with the bison and the buffalo; rather dreary, but the views were beautiful; and she said that maybe sometime in the future, if a certain project was successful, the two of us would be able to travel a bit, maybe even venturing as far as Africa on a summer cruise. If, she said with a little smirk, a certain project turned out successfully. She would love to go abroad. For this cruise, she said, we would get the dressmaker to make us each a white suit. A little man she knew had offered her, at five hundred lire the metre, an absolute bargain, a certain white stuff with a slightly rough finish like fine towelling. She left then, and as I watched her from the window, crossing the square with her confident step and her handbag swinging at her hip, I knew that she was imagining herself lounging on the deck of a cruise-liner in sunglasses and a suit made from a stuff with a slightly rough finish, leafing through magazines and talking to the captain.

-Natalia Ginzburg

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