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The taxi drops me in front of the gate in the Via Santa Cecilia. But why do I have such a feeling of suspense? I am back home again, I say to myself, I have come back. But how is it that I can hardly recognise this gate, this courtyard, this apartment building with its array of open windows? It feels as if I have a thorn in the roof of my mouth, like the premonition of some disaster. What is waiting for me on this mild morning that brings with it all the familiar smells of returning home? What is it that weighs down my thoughts as if it wanted to twist them and obliterate them?
My eyes search for Stefana, the doorkeeper. At this time of day she is usually in the porter's lodge sorting out the mail but I do not see either her or her tall, lanky husband Giovanni. I cross the courtyard pulling my suitcase behind me; its wheels drag reluctantly across the gravel. I stop for a moment in the middle of the courtyard with its surface of crushed stones and look around me. As always the oleanders and the pink geraniums are still there in the flowerbeds even though they are veiled by a film of summer dust; the little fountain of mossy stone still drips with a noise like the trickle of a broken tap; the two big lime trees are laden with flowers. They seem the only things that are not drooping in the heat and which are impervious to the heavy atmosphere that today hangs oppressively. They stand there with their bundles of downy scented flowers tossing gently in the light summer wind.
The windows overlook the courtyard as if they were watching eyes but today they all seem blind; the stairs too are deserted and strangely silent. With a weary sigh the lift deposits me on the top floor, my floor.
While I am looking for the keys in my handbag, I become aware of a strong smell of hospital disinfectant. I turn round and see that the door of the opposite apartment is half- open. I take a step forward and push it with my finger. I watch it swing back very gently, revealing a passage bathed in sunlight, the fringed edge of a rolled-up carpet and a pair of blue canvas tennis shoes placed neatly beside the door.
My glance lingers. I am puzzled; my eyes are held by those blue shoes so clean and bright in the sunshine, bringing to mind the memory of happy walks, skipping on tiptoe, chasing balls as they fly across tennis courts. Why are they lying there, paired together, motionless, unlaced and undamaged, beside the open door? They are too carefully placed for anyone to have thrown them off impatiently as they came into the apartment. There is something so neat and precise about the way they are exposed to public gaze with the laces wound round the upper part of the shoe.
I can hear voices coming from the other end of the apartment, and then suddenly I see Stefana's face in front of me with her sad, plaintive eyes.
"Didn't you know?"
"She died five days ago, she was murdered."
"Yes, twenty stab wounds from a frenzied attack ... and they still haven't found him ... poor us!"
A soft, expressive voice, the pupils of her eyes sliding up to show the white of the cornea. I am reminded of a painting by Delacroix; a look of alarm as if someone has seen catastrophe hanging above them in their mind's eye and has been unable to find words to describe it; an indoor pallor that "feeds off the lives of others", as Marco says. Yet Stefana Mario is an intelligent, well-informed woman. I look at her large capable hands. Can it have been those hands that laid out the body of the dead woman?
"But why on earth was she murdered?"
"No one knows, it seems nothing was stolen ... it was just terrible, you should have seen it. Then when the police arrived, along with the examining magistrate, forensic scientists, journalists, photographers, the lot; their dirty shoes went trailing up and down the stairs ... The funeral was the day before yesterday ... Now we've cleaned up everything but there'll still be police in there measuring ... they say that today they're going to put seals on the doors."
I am aware how I am clutching hold of my keys with such force that they are hurting my fingers.
"Stefana, would you like to come in and I'll make you a cup of coffee?"
"No, I've got to go back downstairs. There's no one in the porter's lodge."
I hear her quick footsteps as she goes downstairs in her patched shoes that give out a light muffled thud at each step.
I open the door to my apartment and pull my suitcase inside. I sniff the air, which smells shut in and fusty. I throw open the shutters, I bend down to look at the plants. They are flagging, all pale and dusty yet not short of water. Stefana has been watering them every day as we agreed. But being shut away in the silence of an empty apartment makes them lose heart; my plants don't like being left on their own and they are telling me this very clearly, whispering behind my back in husky voices.
I sit down at my desk in front of a pile of letters which have come while I was away. I open one but realise that I am reading the words without taking in their meaning. I go back to the first sentence two, three times, then I give up. My thoughts, like the yellow donkey I once saw in a painting by Chagall, are flying mysteriously out of the picture frame. I ask myself what I know about this neighbour of mine who was stabbed to death. Nothing. A woman living behind the door opposite to mine and I do not even know her name.
I would meet her sometimes in the lift. I would look at her much as one looks at someone on the next seat in a train or a bus, with a feeling of guilt for my ill-mannered curiosity. But why on earth should it be ill-mannered to be interested in the person who lives in the apartment opposite mine?
My neighbour was tall and elegant; her light chestnut hair cut short in the shape of a helmet, a small delicate nose, a well-defined upper lip that when it wrinkled into a smile, revealed slightly protruding infant teeth. The smile of a rabbit I thought when I saw her for the first time, shy and timid like someone who is accustomed to nibbling at secret thoughts. Big grey eyes, a broad forehead, a soft white skin strewn with freckles. Her voice, on the rare occasions I heard it, seemed muffled as if she were afraid of exposing herself or being a bother, a colourless voice lacking expression and surrendering to shyness, yet with unexpected flickers of light-heartedness and daring.
Like me she lived alone while Stefana and her less visible husband watched over us like two indulgent, elderly parents, although in reality they are more or less our own age.
But why did my neighbour often come back so late at night? Sometimes when I was half-asleep, I would hear her door close with a thud and the key being forced to turn in the lock. Even the shutters were bolted with a loud, energetic clatter. Every morning and every evening I'd hear them being slammed open or shut. Why did she go out in the morning so silently, looking tired and dazed? And why did she sometimes leave looking so furtive and carrying with her nothing but a yellow rucksack?
According to our neighbours, both of us were in need of protection because we lived alone, because we had tiring jobs that often kept us away from home, me with my work for radio and she ... but here I am brought to a standstill because I do not know any more.
I pick up the letter again and start reading it. It is a bill from my accountant. Then there is the electricity bill already overdue and the telephone bill only a few days before it has to be settled. Lastly a chain letter telling me to "copy this and send it off to ten friends. If you do this you will have good luck in the future; if you do not you will have trouble for seven years."
Just like when one breaks a mirror ... I throw it into the wastepaper basket.
My glance falls on the answering machine, the red eye is flashing imperiously. I press the message button.
"Hullo Michela, it's Tirinnanzi. Are you still not back from your refresher course? Ring me as soon as you get back. 'Bye."
A click, a rustling, a metallic voice that accentuates the syllables. "Thursday June twenty-third twelve-twenty p.m." And then a female voice I do not recognise. "Dear Michela Canova I am ..." but the message is interrupted by a mysterious click. The voice reminds me of my neighbour but why should she have wanted to ring me?
Another click, the metallic voice intoning "Friday June twenty-fourth eight-thirty a.m. Excuse me if ... I'd like to talk to you about ..." But once again the sentence is abruptly interrupted. It really does sound like my neighbour's voice. But when did she die? Stefana said it was five days ago. But five days would be precisely the 24th of June.
I go on to listen to other messages but I do not hear any more of that hesitant voice with the sudden interruptions. I must find out the exact time of her death, I tell myself. I remove the cassette from the answering machine and put it away inside an envelope.CHAPTER 2
It is hot, my jacket weighs heavily on my shoulders, the water dribbles out of the tap.
I look at the suitcase lying on the floor asking to be opened and unpacked. The glass from which I've hardly drunk any water asks to be put back with the other objects on the shelf above the sink; this morning they are all talking as if they are impelled by an urgent need to be sociable.
Even the soap seems to have a voice, raucous and breathless like someone who has had a throat operation. How the objects are chattering! As a child I used to read again and again a Hans Andersen story about how one night all the toys in a house began to talk among themselves. I had always guessed that toys were endowed with thoughts. Then when I read how eggs can faint when a hand approaches them too roughly, or how trees can feel lonely, or how at night walls are able to talk, I said to myself that I knew it all already. Am I being somewhat animistic?
But what am I doing standing barefoot in front of the closed front door? My eyes are alongside the peep-hole, my gaze explores the empty passage. Now I know what I am looking for; those blue tennis shoes, small, delicate, and so methodically placed side by side on the bare floor. They too are saying something, but what is it?
"In the conduct of daily life in urban areas it is usual to know nothing of the person who lives next door ... we live in a society of islands rigorously separated by a network of discreet hypocrisy which results in each family remaining cocooned inside its own cultural and linguistic bunker."
Where have I heard this voice? It is obviously from a verbose sociologist, but where have I heard him? Probably on the radio, perhaps even in a programme of mine. My memory is a meeting place for so many voices, pretentious, mannered, speculative, obsessive. I would be glad to forget them all but my ear is endowed with an animal voracity and rummages like a pig, pushing its nose into all the detritus of left-over sounds, casually absorbing manufactured sentences, commonplace statements and erudite quotations exactly as they reach me from the microphone waiting for my stomach to make its drastic selection. How long is it since my neighbour came to live in this apartment building? Six months, a year? Perhaps even longer, yet I never even asked her name. The brass door-plate still bears the name of the previous tenant, Professor Guido Festoni, inscribed in flowing script, black on gold. A big tall man with hair cut in a brush and a voice like thunder.
He had a wife who came from Milan who, according to Stefana, was a stockbroker. No children, only an elderly mother (I never knew if she was his or hers) whom I used to see sometimes in the passage, a grim looking person festooned with rings and bracelets. Then Professor Festoni was transferred to Milan and in a few days all his furniture and papers were taken out. The apartment stayed empty for months. Every so often someone would come to look at it and I would hear voices through the walls.
I thought it was still empty when one evening, coming back from the broadcasting studio, I met a woman in the lift. She said, "I'm going to the top floor. And you?"
"Me too. Have you come to see the empty apartment?"
"No, I've just rented it."
I was on the point of giving her my name and saying that if she wanted anything to ring my door bell, when the lift stopped with a faint hiss and she got out in a hurry.
I opened my door and she opened hers. As I went into the kitchen I heard her noisily turning the inside door key several times as if to say, "you're nice and friendly but keep your distance!" Clack, clack, clack ... the key went on grinding in the lock. But how long can it be, this bolt that fastens the door to the ceiling and the floor? After that day I rarely saw her. In the morning when I went out around eight o'clock to go to the studio there was absolute silence from her apartment. When I came back at lunch-time I would sometimes hear music playing. On my way out at half-past three, there was again a total silence. Occasionally when I came back dead tired at about seven in the evening, I would meet her on her way out all scented and wearing a skimpy white coat that made her look like a little girl, and a black beret slanted sideways on her soft hair.
"What was her name?" I ask Stefana as soon as I meet her in the courtyard. She looks at me with an ironic smile. Like the sociologist on the radio she too appears to think that "the alienation of the contemporary world shuts us away unified and non-communicative within our own particular family environment, and in this situation we find a perverse satisfaction."
"Angela Bari," she answers absent-mindedly.
"Did she have a job?"
"A bit of acting, I think ... but her family was well-to-do ... a mother in Fiesole with money. But she wasn't at the funeral. Her father died when she was little."
"And she didn't have any other relations?"
"She has a sister but we didn't see much of her. It's just as well you were away, Signora Michela. It would have been horrible for you, she could have been screaming, who knows, and no one heard the poor thing ... And you could have met the murderer in the passage."
"Did you hear her screaming?"
"No, I was busy down in the basement."
"Did they take anything?"
"No, nothing ... the money was rolled up inside a biscuit tin in the kitchen. She kept it all piled up with the notes all crumpled, I bet she didn't know how much it added up to ... two million lire all told. And they didn't take it."
"Did it happen in the morning or at night?"
"Late, around eleven or even midnight. And the entrance door was shut, we didn't see anyone go out. She came home about seven, and up to the time I closed the door I hadn't seen anyone come down. Afterwards someone must have gone upstairs. But who could it have been? Giovanni found her the next morning when he went to collect the rubbish bags ... the door was open ... and she was there ... dead!"
I am aware of something strange in Stefana's calm pallid face, a hidden thought, a word left unspoken or simply the unconscious act of witnessing the horror of a crime in which she has been involved purely through the demon of chance.
I tell her about the voice on my answering machine but she doesn't seem to find it important. She does not think it is the voice of Angela Bari, then she says, "Did you know each other?"
"No, we didn't."
"Well, in that case ..."
I watch her move away, crossing the sunny courtyard on her way to meet the postman.
Yet, as I remember it, the voice of my neighbour was oddly reminiscent of that voice recorded on the tape of the answering machine. And it was on the same day as her death.
I too go across the courtyard where I am overcome by the strong fragrance of the lime trees. The fountain, covered in fern, dribbles its tranquil sound of trickling water. I look round for my little Fiat. I can't remember where I parked it. Luckily its unusual colour stands out among other cars even at a distance. I think of it as a ripe cherry colour, as a friend of mine once described it to me, in spite of it being called "dark red" in the handbook.
Excerpted from Voices by Dacia Maraini, Dick Kitto, Elspeth Spottiswood. Copyright © 2013 RCS Libri S.p.A. Milan. Excerpted by permission of RCS Libri/Rizzoli.
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