“A professor of engineering I knew, a specialist in reinforced concrete, was a man who showed me a great deal of kindness at what was obviously a difficult stage of my life. Construction is a prime mover of our region’s economy and the focus of all sorts of interests, not all of them benign, but N—’s firm used me as a consultant in geology, which is legitimately my field, remunerating me modestly for the modest services I rendered. The office, in addition to several partners N— had at that time, was always full of students and visitors of every stripe, a lively place I enjoyed dropping in on. It occupied an entire floor of a portered office block in a busy part of town.
“The porter, who occupied a large desk in the lobby with pigeonholes for the post behind him, is by no means a secondary character in this reminiscence. Porters are important anyway, of course, but N—’s man is scarcely less deserving of description than the tactful waiter in G. B. Shaw’s You Never Can Tell. Everybody knew that in the back of his small head, crowned with black wavy hair, were another pair of eyes. His front ones were tiny pinholes, bringing to mind the well-known childhood experiment in which a simple piece of cardboard boosts eyesight. The rear pair was what he used when persons unknown to him passed him in the hall or rode with him in the lift. He hailed from a village, incidentally, renowned for rabbit shoots and perspicacity.
“All the building’s tenants had keys to the front door, while only N— and his partners had keys to their second-floor office, but the porter had been given a set because, by arrangement with N—, he went to clean there several nights a week. At some point the porter noted that the office was being used by N—’s partners for late-night business meetings. People he did not know seemed to come and go, animated or muffled voices were heard inside, and lights were left on after N—’s partners and their visitors had gone for the night. One evening he recognized one of the visitors from a picture in the newspaper.
“Now he faced the task of breaking this news to N—, and to this end he waylaid his employer as he was leaving the office one afternoon. He had a tale to tell, but could not behave as a tattletale; he knew what he had seen, but could not appear to have been spying; and then there was the presumed innocence of N— himself to consider, as well as the implicit venality of his business partners. He was, in short, understandably anxious about a matter that clearly required a great deal of delicacy in handling.
“‘Professor,’ the porter opened up, in the tone of mock severity that a loyal servant in Goldoni might use if his master’s happiness were at stake, ‘I’m going to reprimand you for leaving your lights on.’ Ever the gentleman, N— said he was sorry to hear this, apologized to the porter, and promised to be good about switching off lights in the future. Then he walked straight into the porter’s delicate snare.
“‘But wait a minute,’ he said. ‘You’ve got a set of keys to the office, haven’t you? Why couldn’t you turn off the lights?’ The porter went through a little pantomime, twisting his body this way and that, as though to impress on the simpleminded that the answers to simple questions aren’t always simple. ‘Those lights,’ he finally said, with a fierce shake of his tiny head to signal the switch from Italian to dialect, ‘are not the lights for me to put out, Professor!’
“A few weeks later N— got rid of his partners and, fortunately for my finances, everything was again just the way it had been.”
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.