‘Then she did something incredible, something she too found hard to believe: in spite of her fright and her trembling, she went back to the telephone and asked for Dale’s hotel.’
Extract taken from Fear in the World
By Corrado Alvaro
Pubished by Vagabond Voices
Barbara had a room in the city centre in an old apartment whose owner had fled to some other part of the world – Paris, Rome or London. Occasionally that man would remember the apartment, and if someone mentioned his native city, he would ask if they knew Y Street. And yet if he had ever returned, he would not have recognised the cause of this nostalgia. The caretaker and maintenance works were to be found in a low building in the courtyard, whose door was open all night and its lights were always on in its two rooms. The presence of this white addition was enough to change the entire look of the building, to the point that anyone returning there would not have recognised it. A dozen names written on pieces of paper and poorly printed visiting cards on each of the apartment doors demonstrated that they were occupied by several people who had nothing to do with each other. Separated by doors that led from one room to another, they must have heard each other talking, snoring, raving and dreaming. The sounds passed through ill-fitting doors sealed with scraps of paper or secured with pieces of string. The telephone in the corridor continued to work and if you wanted to use it, you had to go through the exchange; publication of the annual directory had recently been resumed. Barbara immediately thought of using the phone when she returned to her room that evening. She looked up the number of Dale’s hotel, and once she’d found it, she started to leaf through the directory in search of surnames of people she had heard mention of and she knew to have disappeared, as well as her friends who had disappeared and famous people who had fled or been killed. She often found surnames without the right forenames, as though the people were hiding in that manner and attempting to get by unobserved.
There was no one in the apartment, and she asked the telephone operator to ring Dale’s hotel, which she immediately got through to. She calmly asked for him in a low voice. Then she heard his voice and said quietly, ‘It’s Barbara. I’m home, and I’m fine.’
The voice on line started to reply, and she put down the receiver. That voice had said, ‘You forgot…’ Barbara threw herself on the sofa. A few minutes later the phone began to ring. ‘How can this be?’ thought Barbara. ‘How could he know… I can’t reply. He doesn’t understand.’ No sooner had she thought this than she heard footsteps in the corridor and the ringing stopped. Someone had replied, and it was a man’s voice. He went silent.
Suddenly someone was knocking at Barbara’s door. ‘Come in!’ she shouted, leaping to her feet. The door opened.
A man filled the doorway and said, ‘The telephone operator asks if you have finished speaking. It was you on the phone?’
‘Yes,’ said Barbara.
‘Good,’ replied the man in the doorway. ‘Excuse me.’
He started to turn, but stopped and instead took a step forward to speak further, ‘You’re wearing a new smock which I’m sure has been manufactured abroad. I don’t know where, but I’m certain that it wasn’t here. I can tell from the cloth and the cut without inspecting it closely. Would I be indiscrete to ask you whether I am deceived?’
‘No,’ she replied, ‘actually…’
‘I’m glad to hear that. I’m a retired inquisitor. This is merely professional curiosity.’
He seemed almost joyful. He rubbed his hand and added, ‘I’m keeping my hand in.’ He bowed. ‘Thank you.’ Then he closed the door behind him. She had seen that man in full light, high in stature, a clean-shaven face, a small flat nose, a sulky expression due to his buck teeth, and eyes that would have been attractive in youth but were now clouded by the passing years. But he couldn’t have been old. A thick head of grey hair framed a wide, stubborn and almost childlike forehead. Barbara had no idea where he could have come from. She started to shake violently and thought, ‘Years of living like this have had their effect; it takes nothing to upset me.’ She didn’t realise this until she was on her own, like an insect that climbs a wall summoned by some inexplicable instinct. And, like an insect, anyone could crush her without compunction.
Then she did something incredible, something she too found hard to believe: in spite of her fright and her trembling, she went back to the telephone and asked for Dale’s hotel. She feared that she wouldn’t be able to articulate a single word, but managed to speak in a strained and lifeless voice, as though reading her conscience out loud, ‘It’s Barbara. Let’s meet tomorrow evening in front of the park, main entrance. Yes? See you later.’
She threw herself on her rickety bed clasping her hand to her breast. She recalled the operator’s voice on the phone – a bored, monotone voice that displayed no surprise that she had requested that number which she had repeated with precision. When Barbara spoke to Dale, it had seemed that she was uttering those words against her will and that someone or something within her which never revealed itself was dictating them to her. The time between Dale’s ‘Hello’ said in an artificial voice and her first soft and suffocated words, ‘It’s Barbara’, seemed like an eternity to him. In that pause, there was time for some terrifying announcement to intervene; instead Barbara’s voice rose from a great depth until steadier words allowed her to finish what she had to say. That voice sounded anguished, tearful and in the dark, because he closed his eyes as she spoke and saw her appear almost wounded with a bright but sad and even hurt expression. The red of her wound was, as he realised later, the memory of having seen her as a girl with a red ribbon on her hat above her light brown hair.
The Secretary at the State Industrial Technical Office had to deliver some documents from the Director to Dale. She entered Dale’s room, and having placed the dossier on the table, she sat down with hands on her lap as though she wanted to rest. Her bag was on her knees, her hat tipped too far forward and her legs slightly apart. There was nothing elegant about her. Her speech was mild and world-weary. ‘It’s odd,’ she said, ‘that last night I dreamt that I would have to come and see you.’
She spoke calmly in a colourless voice, and attributed no great importance to the business of the dream. This must have been her way of doing things.
‘Ah! Do you often dream,’ asked Dale, ‘about what you’ll have to do the following day?’
‘Sometimes I do. I feel connected to many people, and occasionally I guess their thoughts. Even people I don’t know who are very important. And how does this come about? Well, I couldn’t say. But often when I read a news item in the paper, I think that I was the one who caused it by dictating it in my thoughts.’
She spoke slowly in a sleepy voice, and what she said didn’t have any particular meaning.
‘Consequently,’ she concluded, ‘one has to be careful about what one thinks. We can influence others. We need to get into the habit of thinking the right thoughts. It’s dangerous, very dangerous.’
As she spoke in this manner with her legs apart and her feet diverging gracelessly, she appeared to become increasingly animated, and the complexion of her cheeks took on a slight rosiness.
‘What do you mean by thinking the right thoughts?’ Dale asked. ‘How do I know whether my thoughts are right or wrong?’
‘Wrong is all that is done secretly,’ the woman stated matter- of-factly. ‘After all, everything is revealed eventually.
Dale felt that she wanted to suggest something more. He wondered if this was a warning. But her demeanour did not express this, rather that her conversation was casual, and if anything her words expressed a disciplined opinion that conformed to all the rules. Her eyes responded to Dale’s question by wavering like two snails emerging from their shells slowly and full of suspicion.
‘Everything is revealed because one takes on a suspicious attitude,’ said Dale.
‘Not at all. Do I have a suspicious attitude? Here I am, a woman like any other. And yet…’
She leaned over towards Dale and smiled. In this posture she seemed to be a completely different woman, and her afflicted expression gave way to a lively, malicious and feminine gracefulness: ‘And yet,’ she continued, ‘every so often I discover my thoughts written in the newspapers. Not only. If you read the speeches made in the Presidium of the Partisans…’
Dale listened to her. Her eyes became watery, her cheeks red and she grabbed his wrist, squeezing it between her fingers: ‘Those speeches were my words. They were all things that I had thought up.’
‘What do you mean?’
She sat back in the armchair.
‘How did I manage to survive so long? It was the general in command of the Partisans who saved me. He did as I wanted.’
‘You had a relationship with him?’
She shook her head, but let him suppose all sorts of mysterious bonds and intrigues: ‘I didn’t have a relationship with him. I was about to say that I didn’t know him… almost. But he saved me. We often thought of each other, and he was grateful to me. I sincerely admired him. He was truly very kind.’
‘And the Director?’ Dale asked.
‘Oh, the Director. Things will end badly for him, of course.’
‘But who? How can…’
‘Oh some day, somebody – an inquisitor – says, “Arrest that person over there, what’s his name?” That person is arrested and eventually confesses his guilt. That he has done or thought something criminal, which should not be done.’
‘But what if it wasn’t true?’
‘It’s always true. We all have criminal thoughts.’
‘Hence it could happen to any one of us…’
‘To any one of us.’
‘Ultimately the most grievous thing would be waiting for the inquisitor to say…’
‘Exactly, the waiting. That’s it.’
The woman who spoke as in a dream, as do very simple or sickly creatures, had become the focus of Dale’s thoughts.
‘Exactly, exactly,’ she repeated turning her shining eyes towards him as though in approval. ‘This is why I can never wait to hear the news or open a letter without trembling. There are days this happens when I’m opening the newspaper. Or waiting for someone to speak on the phone. And what about the theatre? The theatre is the same, just the same. At the theatre you have to wait for the catastrophe. I always tell myself that they’re doing it for fun, that they’re pretending, but you can’t pretend all the time…’
‘No, you can’t pretend all the time,’ Dale repeated. ‘There comes a time when you want to scream.’
She smiled like a doctor whose patient has just revealed the symptoms of an illness the doctor had already diagnosed. For a few minutes she didn’t say a word, but looked around and examined the bronze knight on the marble clock. “We’ve exchanged a few words,” she said as she made to leave, “but I tire very easily, and yet it’s very nice in here.” Off she went, clarifying that she was expected at home, she was tired and she tired very easily. She needed a great deal of rest. All these words provided her with important lessons, which acquired substance the moment she said them aloud. On her feet and walking towards the door, she was once more the timid and insignificant young woman with a heart problem.
‘What should I take her?’ Dale wondered as he thought about his meeting with Barbara the following day. ‘Something that would please her or make her laugh.’ A pencil with a gold cap. A fountain pen. Something that he was keeping in reserve. Souvenirs of his previous life for which he strangely felt no nostalgia, and yet he kept the objects as evidence of a recent past that felt more like a distant childhood. He decided to give her all of them, a little at a time, and he thought about how such objects enter into a person’s life: we wake up in the morning and remember a little happiness encountered on the threshold of sleep, and we realise that happiness often consists of such things. Barbara would experience the same feeling.
Fear in the World by Corrado Alvaro is pubished by Vagabond Voices, priced £12.50.