Short story: East of Eden
Francis thought it would be a good idea to have some ice cream. The moment he had pulled the restaurant’s front door behind him, a shuffling crowd had swallowed him up and pushed him forward. He had tried to escape from the suffocating alleys around the Trevi fountain, but in the high street he again had found himself stuck in a crowd. The Roman sun stood high. Its rays were attacking Francis’ fair Celtic hair and skin. He had to put one foot in front of the other. The meal had been very rich. Seated alone at his table, he had felt watched. It had made him gobble his “amatriciana”, gulp his Chianti –he really should have stuck to water– and skip dessert.
He joined the queue at the first gelateria. A young couple stood in front of him. Francis recognised their accent: fellow countrymen of his. He had always wanted to visit the Eternal City. Together. When they were still an item. He used to tease her with his basic Italian. But before he knew, it had been too late. He bought a small cornetto. Only lemon, “limone”, no “panna.”
The summer heat soon made the ice cream drip: his fingers and palm felt sticky. Francis walked back to the ice-cream parlour but all the tissues were gone. Because he did not want to smudge his smart linen suit, he looked for paper to wipe off his hands. A stack of papers was bulging out of a dustbin round the corner. He took the lot out and holding it under his arm and pretending it was his, walked away from the dustbin.
In a hidden square, he took a seat on a bench and wiped off his sticky hands with one of the pieces of paper. The bundle consisted of yellowed newspaper articles, folded bank receipts, and a thumbed notebook. He opened the notebook to the first page. It read like a diary: “Today, I tried to call again. Alas. She hung up on me. She has not let me see my son since the day I signed the papers. Why don’t I leave Rome and go back home, North? Yesterday, I got a parking ticket. I tried to explain the police officer that, since my divorce, I call the car home.”
Francis returned to the dustbin to get rid of the papers. Yet, just before he reached it, a couple of documents slipped from his fingers. He kneeled and discovered a black-and-white ID photograph of a middle-aged man, a faded polaroid of the same man –this time younger– along a woman, and a framed photograph of a boy wearing an AS Roma t-shirt and sitting on a bicycle with training wheels. There was even an ID card: Paolo Moretti. Did this man lose his belongings or have they been stolen and dumped?
All those couples and families, all their happy faces, all this shared pleasure. Francis could no longer face other people’s happiness. This city trip was a mistake. It was not when alone, but among people that he felt lonely. He should escape from the crowd and leave the tourist centre. Francis read the diary’s next entry: “Paradoxically, it is not among the poor I feel poor, but among the wealthy. I should leave the historical centre. Every day, I visit the food bank near Termini station.”
At Termini station a never-ending row of cars and taxis kept jamming the road. Drivers aggressively blew their horns. People hurried to the platforms to catch a train or a bus or disappeared in the Underground. In the entrance hall, an irritating tune played over and over. Termini was where Francis would take the bus back to the airport in a couple of days.
She had brought up a divorce barely a year after David had been born. Although he objected and promised to do everything to make their marriage work, even if it were only for the sake of their son, she remained resolute. Since the divorce, he saw David every other weekend –well, if she did not make up an excuse– and the mandatory week in July. Even after all those years he still called her every week, but she almost never answered the phone. And when she did, she barely spoke. She, for her part, only called him if alimony arrived late. This morning, although he knew she was not religious, the beauty and serenity of a church had persuaded him to light a candle for David and her. On the final day of his stay, he would send them a postcard.
Across Termini station, amid the capital’s hustle and bustle, Francis spotted a group of men. They stood waiting in front of a tall copper gate. Most of them, unshaven and shabbily dressed, were middle-aged but looked remarkably older than their age. Some of them carried a backpack and a sleeping bag. The more men arrived, the more the group became nervous. People were pushing each other to get as close as possible to the oversized doors. Francis joined the group at the back and waited for the doors to open.
A large wooden desk dominated the austere entrance hall. As soon as the men had entered the building, and without anyone having told them, they all became silent and formed a straight line which started at the desk. A young clergyman sat behind the desk and distributed luncheon vouchers. Though still boyish, his face was stern. The novice looked determined to be in control.
When it was his turn Francis asked: “Excuse me, I found this pack of papers. It belongs to someone who is a regular.”
“We don’t ask for names,” the clergyman answered, “but I work here every day. Who did you say is a regular?”
“Paolo. Paolo Moretti.”
“That doesn’t ring a bell.”
Francis showed the ID photograph.
“Hard to tell,” said the clergyman. “Do you see anyone here who is in that condition?”
People had started murmuring. Francis felt someone pushing him in the back.
“He was divorced. He sleeps in his car. He–”
“–Hurry up, will you?” someone shouted from the back of the queue.
The clergyman jumped up. “Can we have some quiet in here?” The crowd immediately became silent and reassembled the straight line. The clergyman let a long pause fall over the queue. He examined the famished like a seasoned pastor scans his parishioners for the effect of his sermon. “Sorry. I’m afraid I can’t help you,” he said and shifted his look to the man behind Francis.
Back outside, on Via Marsala, Francis looked for clues to find the diarist. What becomes of a man who finds himself in such a situation? He walked back to the station. A narrow strip of pavement along the outer wall separated elated tourists who were queueing for the airport shuttle from homeless refugees who were dozing on hardboards.
Francis paged through the diary. “The police issued a “foglio di via”. I now roam the Centocelle area. Like many other people do: orphans, divorcees, retirees,…We are the displaced. Though the majority of us has been brought up in an ordinary family, the nucleus of society, we have become outsiders.”On the next page: “Before, I could never have imagined this reality. Once you have lost everything -your job, your partner, your home-, you discover a hidden Rome within Rome.”Centocelle did not figure in the travel guide; Francis had to consult a map. He crossed the tunnel behind the railway station and walked to Porta Maggiore. At the tram stop, he bought a ticket and jumped on tram 14 towards Centocelle.
The tram headed towards the outskirts of town. While hot air permeated the vehicle through the open upper-window panes, sunrays were hitting its metal frame. On each crossroad the vehicle stumbled over the switches and shrieked. The tram rolled in between two parallel walls of apartment buildings. None of the passengers said a word; they all stared through the window at an endlessly repeating series of boutiques and shoe stores, bank offices and real estate agencies, gelaterias and cafeterias. The parallel walls resembled a double rampart.
“I had to sell the car. I now sleep in the corridors of a vast council estate in the fields. Even if I don’t have a place of my own, electricity or running water, I have a roof above my head. Only those who have had to sleep in the streets or in a vehicle understand.”
The rampart gradually descended into detached buildings and a series of service stations. Francis alighted on a square which bordered a prairie. Beyond a hill, a massive apartment building arose out of the yellowed grasses and cut the hinterland in parts. Every window of a tower right in the middle of the complex was covered with hardboard. Laundry was drying on the balconies. In the corridors improvised wires fled from electricity cabinets and plastic buckets collected dripping water. Families with young children had converted former offices and shops into their homes. The open floors had been compartmented with blankets. Some of the living spaces were smaller than the bedroom of the flat Francis had moved into after the divorce was settled –she and David stayed in the fully renovated terraced house.
“Excuse me,” Francis asked a paunchy man half his age. “Do you know Paolo? He sleeps here, in the corridors.”
The man, whose short-sleeved shirt revealed tattoos on his forearms, looked tired. Children were running around him and rattled in Spanish. “In the corridors? You mean one of those tramps? We’ve chased them away.”
“No. Paolo isn’t a tramp. He was unlucky: a divorce. He lost all. Do you know where I can find him?”
The man examined Francis’s suit and hand-made shoes. “Try the builders on Palmiro Togliatti Avenue.”
After a long walk on the busy avenue, Francis looked for refuge from the burning sun. He paused on a bench below the cypresses. He had walked under the arcades of an monumental aqueduct which crossed the avenue. Though he had thoroughly prepared the trip, she had not allowed him to take David with him to Rome. Even a thousand miles from home, Francis was spending Saturday afternoon on his own. After the divorce, he had not returned home, in the North, but remained in Sussex, close to them. And close to the office: his job was the only thing he had left. He often worked late, afraid as he was to face his empty flat. He had no friends; during the divorce, he realised all their friends had been hers. He flipped through the notebook. Strange, the diary did not mention any builders. One of the next entries read:“Each of us has suffered from injustice, state injustice. We endure our situation as a means of protest.”
Francis spotted groups of men further down the avenue. They seemed to be waiting for something or someone. From time to time a van pulled over. The driver would call on one of the men. They then would talk and gesticulate until the man turned to his peers and pointed at a couple of them. They would get in the van which then rushed off.
When only a handful of men –the elder ones– had remained on the avenue, Francis approached one of them. The man, a forty-something, his hands in his pockets, a bag around his shoulder and wearing a baseball hat, looked like the quiet type.
“Hey, do you know Paolo?” Francis asked.
“Paolo? The Italian? Of course I do.”
“Does he come here?”
“Here? At the smorzo?” the man said with a heavy accent. “Once he did.”
“But no more?”
“My friend, everybody returns to the smorzo. When they need money. You need money?”
“No. I just want to return his belongings.”
The man gauged Francis. He smiled. “You’re not Italian, are you?” he asked. “Nor am I. Cosmin,” he said and held out his hand.
Meanwhile, all the other men had left.
“Aren’t you hungry, my friend?” the builder asked.
“Yes, I am,” lied Francis.
“My friend, if you have a couple of euros then I’ll prepare us a meal. Actually, where I live you may find Paolo.”
In the supermarket, Cosmin and Francis bought canned tomatoes and dog food. “That’s how we make Balkan goulash,” Cosmin said. He smiled. “We’ll need beer. Could you spare another couple of euros?”
Meanwhile on the avenue, young women had arrived. The women waited in the cooler evening breeze for cars on the very same spots where by day the builders waited for vans. “Tutol e bine?” Cosmin shouted and waved at the women. He explained: “They’re Romanian, like us.” Both the men and the women support their families in the homeland. Cosmin and his compatriots denied themselves all pleasures in order to send remittances. Provided that they manage to put aside enough money for the trip home and a week without work, they once a year see their beloved.
Cosmin pointed at the entrance of a large brick stone tunnel. “This place is much better than the garden sheds and garage boxes natives let to people like us.”
A man with a fishing rod left the tunnel. Francis recognised the man from the smorzo. “Hey Mirko. Going to the river?” Cosmin greeted. And then, to Francis: “We’re a community. We share all we have. Here, people help each other.”
As Cosmin and Francis advanced through the tunnel, Francis’s eyes had to adapt to the progressing darkness. The floor was covered with debris, smudged mattresses, ripped clothes and leftovers of homemade meals. A foundry iron sink and bathtub stood upside down. Francis’ summer suit felt colder the farther they ventured in the tunnel.
A fire illuminated a man in pitch blackness. The man sat in front of an iron pot which was being heated by the fire. The man’s head was nodding: he almost fell asleep over the pot. Cosmin patted him on the back. “Time for dinner, mate.” The man had been lucky today: an Italian in a Range Rover had hired him for the day. The man had to tear down the old barn of a large country house. For ten hours he had been working with a sledgehammer in the heath and dust.
While Cosmin was preparing dinner he explained that Mussolini started building this tunnel in the Forties. It was to become Rome’s first Underground. The tunnel ran below the nearby airport and people asserted that the structure reached up to Porta Maggiore, in the heart of Rome.
The goulash tasted surprisingly good; slow cooking had made the particular smell of dog food disappear. Cosmin kept smiling. “Good, isn’t it? Balkan food!”
Francis offered the men beer. Cosmin’s colleague said that Paolo had been in the tunnel earlier the day and that, tomorrow, he would be at the smorzo. Francis enjoyed the camaraderie among the builders. This was real life! Their problems, their lives were concrete. Despite their hardship, these man and women have each other. Francis no longer envied the people he knew: their lives were too much alike the one he had before. He did not even envy those of them who had made it: a cosy lifestyle now seemed so hollow.
After a couple of beers, Cosmin gave Francis a thick blanket. “It’s best for you to sleep beside the extinguished fire: the ashes will keep you warm a good deal of the night. We get up before dawn. At the smorzo first come, first serve. I’ll wake you.”
When Francis woke up the following morning, he felt a terrible headache. There was no sign of Cosmin or his comrades. Francis stumbled towards the tunnel’s entry. The bright morning light hurt his eyes and head. Only a dozen of children and a handful of elder women were left at the spot. None of them knew Cosmin.
Neither at the “smorzo” there was a trace of Cosmin or his mate. Francis asked for Cosmin, but nobody seemed to know him. “But he’s one of yours!” Francis tried. “Where is Paolo?” He showed them the bundle of papers. The men, however, did not even bother to look.
Francis backed off. He wondered where Paolo could have gone to. Towards the end of the diary, the handwriting became ever more shaky and blurred. “In the end, it is everyone for himself. Each of us is on his own. We barely talk to each other. Nobody shares anything. Our solidarity is calculated. I will try to join the Casilino community. I have to: I now have TB.”
White cumulonimbus clouds gently slid by against the azure sky. Today would be another muggy day. He walked along a wall of compressed car wrecks. At the crossing with Via Casilina a pair of shoes and laundry were drying beside the building of an abandoned service station. A hardboard panel covered its former entrance. When he lifted the panel, a male voice asked “Chi è?”
An old man sat on a carpet in the middle of a clean and tidy room as if he was expecting someone. “Hey, I’m Arif. Welcome to my humble place. Would you like some tea?” The man said he was squatting the building. Many years ago –“another life”– he had migrated from Morocco. He informed Francis that the plot of land once hosted “Casilino 900”: Europe’s largest gypsy camp. Over time, the camp sheltered not only gypsies, but also North-Africans and even Italians. After four decades, however, the authorities evicted the community and bulldozers levelled the terrain.
Francis showed Arif the diary and detailed his quest to find its author. After Arif had listened with interest, he said the authorities had moved the Casilino 900 dwellers to a settlement in nearby Via Salviati. When Francis got up and wanted to leave, Arif said with his soft voice: “I hope you’ll find Paolo. I’m sure he will be pleased. It must feel good when someone wants to meet you, wants to get to know you.”
On the next crossroad, beside a waste container, teenage girls were going through a pile of used clothes and shoes. They all had a dark complexion and wore a long, colourful skirt. One of them pushed a pram which was bulging with pieces the group had picked out. Francis followed the girls at a distance. Perhaps they live in Via Salviati and could lead him to Paolo. The girls inspected every waste container along the avenue. They then took a dusty path between sparse pine trees and patches of scorched grass.
The group headed towards a railway bridge below which a sewage pipe was spurting dirty water. After a car had arrived, slowed down and, like an amphibian, waded through a pool of water, the girls lifted their skirts and tiptoed under the dark bridge.
A greyish slum appeared across the bridge. Childrens voices sounded in between sharp and heavy blows on metal objects. As Francis walked along a fence, chained dogs got up and barked at him. Dismissed electrical appliances, rusting ironware and broken furniture stood amid the shacks. Naked toddlers were running barefoot in the mud. From a hill behind the slum, black swirls of smoke rose up in the sky, flattened out and then spread over the adjacent quarter like the mushroom cloud of a nuclear fallout. Is this the place where Paolo wrote that single last line:“Here, no one hopes for a better future”?
The road ended in a T-junction on which police officers monitored both the slum at the left and an asylum office at the right. The girls somehow had disappeared. At the asylum office, people were queuing in front of a barrier. The applicants, who had come here for the residence permit which would allow them to live in “il Bel Paese”, tried hard to ignore the miserable shacks.
Suddenly, a woman appeared from the slum. Francis was struck by her fair skin and wavy blond hair. She was holding a baby in her arms. Sliding in her long skirt, the woman proudly walked straight past Francis. She took an old cobblestone road which ran up the plain. Heaps of rubbish were smouldering on both sides of the road. Iron bars protected all windows and doors of the spare houses. They passed an ancient, dried out fountain shaped in the face of Zeus. A heavy silence was looming over the plain. There was not a living soul; not a single car passed by.
Then the woman reached a field which stretched out behind a line of concrete blocks. As the she crossed the field, tight against her she was holding her baby, her only joy in life. Only here, escaped from the overcrowded camp and protected by the sheltering sky, the couple could enjoy a moment of privacy. Francis hesitated. He had never witnessed the intimacy of a mother alone with her child. Once the couple had disappeared behind the bushes, Francis stepped over the concrete blocks. All over the field, amid the green weeds and purple and yellow flowers, used and smudged tissues were sticking to branches and human excrements covered the soil.
A light breeze ruffled the field. Its air smelled of turpentine. Francis had to cough; his eyelids started itching. At the foot of the hill, adult men were burning tyres. From atop, teenage boys started shouting at him. A stone flew right next to Francis’s head. Another stone followed. Francis ran as fast as he could. He felt his heart beating up until his throat. Away from the hill! One document after another fell out of his hands. As he was running, behind him a trail of documents whirled down over the field.
Francis ran along a tall fence. It protected the high-speed railway. CCTV cameras were monitoring the railway tracks. Francis had to pause after a while: his legs were hurting him and he was struggling for breath. Fortunately, nobody had followed him. His suit was wrinkled. Dust covered his shoes. His greasy hair stuck to his forehead. A sharp whistle sounded from behind him. A split second later a train flashed by at full speed. An elevated motorway crossed the railroad him above him. Francis trudged forward until he reached a bus stop.
An elder man in a suit and a young woman with her son stood at the bus stop. Francis joined them. He searched his wallet for a couple of coins. But the wallet was empty! Everything was missing: his identity card, the banknotes, the hotel card. Francis remembered his headache and dry mouth in the morning. Could it have been Cosmin and his compatriot? He had to leave this area as soon as possible. What should he say? Never in his life he had had to beg for money. Couldn’t he just walk back to the centre? Yet, he was not sure about the direction nor the distance.
Bus 451 arrived: “Ponte Mammolo”. Francis sneaked in the bus with the man, the woman and her child. The bus was packed: many passengers had to stand straight. He pushed himself through to the middle of the vehicle. The bus bathed in an odour of sweat. Or was it just he who smelled? He touched his chin and felt a stubble. Francis longed for a bath and clean clothes. He turned his head. The boy stood staring at him half amazed, half afraid. He was about David’s age. Francis tried to avoid the boy’s eyes. “As if this layer of dirt is becoming a cocoon. It protects my world of refuge: a world made of memories, of illusions, of thoughts spoken aloud.” This quest was useless. One day, David would be old enough to choose which parent he wants to live with. He then would have the age when it really matters to have a father. Francis would put up with the blackmail just as long as needed.
The bus passed through several neighbourhoods: Torre Angela, Tor Vergata, Tor Bella Monaca, Torre Spaccata... Then it took the highway. Electricity masts were towering in the hinterland, as if to protect the city. Newly-built ghost towns, mainly composites of anonymous buildings and ditto streets, had haphazardly hit the countryside like meteorites. Billboards yelled: “Stop. Il tuo appartamento è qui.”
The distinguished man as well as the mother and her son had already alighted from the bus. The bus now carried only Africans, Latin Americans and Indo-Asians on their lengthy daily commute to and fro the hotels and restaurants in the tourist centre.
He had to return to the hotel, pack his bags, check out and fly back home. He would refrain from sending a postcard. He promised himself he would try hard to not call her, to not tell her about his trip to Rome.
Finally, the bus arrived at a vast square with multiple platforms: Ponte Mammolo. As soon as the doors opened, most passengers rushed straight towards the Underground station. Francis followed them: the Underground would get him straight back to the city centre. Yet, inside the building, beside each gate there was a security officer –no chance of tailgating. Francis left the station. Two police officers were observing an improvised market in which African vendors sold cheap textiles and corn cobs.
“Excuse me,” he asked the police officers. “The content of my wallet has been stolen.”
“Cosa?” asked one of the police officers.
“Io ho... io ho perso tutto,” he stuttered. “Nel campo.”
“Nel campo?” The police officer eyed Francis’s burnt skin, ragged clothes, dusty shoes and greasy hair which had darkened. He looked at his colleague. “Uno zingaro,” he said between his teeth.
“No!” Francis objected. “I have been robbed. Please, help me return to the centre. I am staying at the Mercurio hotel. Please call them. I’m in room 314.”
The police officer raised his eyebrows. He waved his hand. “Ovest,” he said. “Va’ ovest.”
West. All he had to do was to head West. Francis crossed the square and mounted the stairs of a footbridge over the highway. As he was rushing over the steps he almost stumbled over a motionless body. A gaunt figure, with short frizzy hair, wrapped in ragged clothes and barefoot. A man was lying in foetal position, as if hiding for the piercing, painful sunrays. He did not even look up with Francis looming over him. Would this man’s journey begin or end here?
Francis reached the top of the staircase. Below him cars flashed by over the hot asphalt. Litter laid strewn along the roadside. The sun stood at its zenith. At the horizon, out of a clear-blue sky, amid an oasis of rooftop gardens, appeared the sparkling dome of Saint-Peter’s.
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