One day I got myself lost in what was a very small town. It was an afternoon in late spring, and the sun was beginning to bake. I was walking through a labyrinthine part of the town, having followed a twisting road that was taking me nowhere. There was not a living soul in sight. Just then, as I stood in the middle of the roughly cobbled road wiping my forehead with a handkerchief, I saw the door of a house opening.
A well-dressed middle-aged man emerged into the sunlight, turned on his heels, extracted a bunch of keys from his pocket, and proceeded to lock the door. Click, turned the bolt, click, click, three times in the noonday stillness. It sounded like he was making quite a job of it. He then took hold of the door handle and shook it – whoever has owned a house will recognize the gesture – to check how thoroughly the door had locked. Then he crossed the front garden and eased himself out of the gate, which again he set himself to locking. Again it was three turns for a well-oiled bolt, and at the sound of the last I approached him.
“I was looking for…” I said in polite Italian, naming the street I had been trying to find. The man looked at me with what I thought was a flicker of interest, but was in no hurry to reply. When he finally did, his reply was this:
“I'm not from round here.”
Some years later I found myself in the same town, this time in the high heat of late July. Not a leaf stirred; the dogs lay sleeping; the morning sun blinded the passerby like a blazing strip of magnesium. I noticed some workmen, maybe five or six, on the scaffolding attached to a large brick house, painting and plastering away under the direction of a man who was evidently the foreman on the site. I wished him good morning.
“Good morning,” the foreman replied.
Then I turned my back on him and his building site, but as I had to wait for a friend who said he would be meeting me there, I remained within earshot, strolling up and down the narrow lane's shady side to pass the time. At length I saw an elderly man, of average height, with a reddish face and a protruding stomach, wearing the clothes of a prosperous farmer, who approached the building site and wished the foreman good morning same as I had.
“Good morning,” replied the foreman.
“Hard at work, are you?” said the farmer in dialect. Though visibly peeved at the mention of work, the foreman hesitated. Yet to make no reply would have been an unwarranted breach of courtesy, and he chose a middle road: “If God be willing,” he said in dialect.
“Why, of course,” said the farmer, with a nod at the cloudless sky. “In this kind of weather!” He had taken the foreman's hint, it seemed, and this time avoided a direct and possibly tactless reference to work; yet, equally, he wished for the conversation to continue, and thought he was well within his rights to press on in this roundabout way.
The foreman glanced at the sky. The workmen, meanwhile, had become aware of the ongoing exchange, moving their brushes and trowels ever more slowly as one by one their faces turned to the visitor. The discussion was on the verge of becoming collective. “Eh!” said the foreman, trying once more to put an end to it without offending the stranger.
But the stranger would not relent. “The weather's fine just now,” he said after a short pause. Then, philosophically, with another sharp nod at the brilliant vault above: “Though it could always change.” And then, as if after another moment's thought: “Which would do quite a bit of damage, I reckon.”
He really ought not to have said that, I reflected, because once again his interlocutor had been made to regard the travel agency brochure Sicilian azure of late July. Without a word to the stranger, and turning to the gang that had been transfixed, standing in various attitudes of astonishment all round him, the foreman commanded: “Pack it in, fellows. Looks like rain. Who knows what a lot of damage that might do.”
The stranger watched them pack up. Evident as it was that their work for the day had been scuttled, I decided to pass by the site once more, although this time I figured I had better say nothing. Not so the apparently idle farmer, who, now visibly satisfied with the diplomatic coup he had made, let fly of a common salutation in dialect: “Godspeed, then.” “Godspeed to you,” muttered the foreman, without turning his head to look at him.
A few minutes later the site was empty. I did not stay long enough to see why the stranger had wanted it that way.
Andrei Navrozov, born in Moscow, lives in Palermo and is European editor for Chronicles. The former publisher of the Yale Lit, he is a widely published author and translator. His Italian Carousel: Scenes of Internal Exile was published by Peter Owen Publishers.