For the third time he passed her outside the doctor’s front door. It was on a Monday, at the same hour as usual. But he was certain he had seen her somewhere even before these encounters, although he had no idea where or when.
Maybe she was also a patient and had an appointment at four, he said to himself as he climbed the stairs to the doctor’s office.
He rang the bell. After a moment or two the door opened, and the doctor let him in. As usual, they walked in silence down the corridor, between shelves filled with books, came to the office and sat down, Roberto in front of the desk, the doctor behind it.
“So, how are things today? Last time you were in a bad mood.”
“I’m better today. I don’t know why, but as I was coming up the stairs, I remembered an old story from my first years in the Carabinieri.”
“After finishing the officers’ training academy, I was posted as a sergeant to a station in a small town in Milan province.”
“Was that normal for a first posting?”
“Oh, yes, perfectly normal. It was a quiet place. Too quiet in fact; nothing ever happened. The commanding officer – an elderly marshal – was a peaceable character who always liked to sort things out in a good-natured way. I don’t think he even liked arresting people. Not that there were many arrests anyway. A few petty crooks, a few small-time drug dealers at most.”
“How about you?”
“Did you like arresting people?” Roberto hesitated for a moment.
“Put like that, it doesn’t sound very good, I guess, but yes, I did. A real law-enforcement officer – and not all carabinieri, not all policeman are – lives for arrests. From a professional point of view, I mean. If you do your work well, in the end you want to see the result, and there’s no point in denying that the result you’re looking for is someone ending up behind bars.”
Roberto thought a moment longer about what he had just said. It was something he’d always taken for granted but, formulated as a coherent thought and uttered out loud, it acquired an unexpected, even unpleasant significance. He shook his head, and made an effort to get back to his story.
“One day I’m at the barber’s when I hear shouts from the street, and I look out and see a woman running, dragging a child after her. I stand up and remove my towel. The barber’s really alarmed and tells me not to do anything stupid. But we’re in the North, I think to myself, why’s he telling me that? Things like this happen in the South. I tell him I’m a carabiniere, though he already knows that, and then I run out and catch up with the woman.”
“What had happened?”
“There was a bank robbery in progress, about a hundred yards away.”
“I remember everything very well. I took out my pistol, slid the rack back to load it, lowered the hammer to avoid a shot going off accidentally, and moved. When I got to the corner, just before the entrance to the bank, I noticed a Volvo with its engine on, but nobody inside.”
“It was outside the bank?”
“No, it was round the corner. About thirty yards from the entrance, but in a side street. The bank was on the high street. I got in, switched off the engine and took the keys.”
“But why had they left the car unattended?”
“The two who had gone into the bank were taking their time, and the driver had gone in to tell them to hurry up. Obviously, we only found that out later. I’d just turned the corner when I saw them all come out. I tried to remember what they’d told us in training about what to do in such a situation.”
“What had they told you?”
“Not to do anything stupid. If there was a robbery, we had to call for back-up and keep an eye on the situation, but avoid going in on our own.”
“So the barber wasn’t wrong.”
“At that particular moment, I forgot all about what I’d been taught.”
“They were armed, obviously?”
“Two guns. When I saw them come out I shouted ‘Halt! Carabinieri!’ I remembered that because I’d repeated it so many times to myself, waiting for the first opportunity to arise.”
It struck Roberto that he had almost never told this story before, and he had the feeling that behind this one memory were a whole heap of others. For a few moments he felt overwhelmed, and couldn’t continue. He didn’t think he could tell any story at all, because he’d be unable to choose which one to tell.
“So you said, ‘Halt! Carabinieri!’ And then what happened?” The doctor’s voice set the stalled mechanism back in motion.
“In their report, my superiors wrote that the robbers opened fire and Sergeant Roberto Marías responded with his service pistol. But I don’t really know who fired first. All I know is that a few seconds later, one of them was on the ground, in front of the entrance to the bank, and the other two were running away. What happened immediately after that is the part I remember best. I knelt down, took aim and fired off a full magazine of bullets.”
Roberto told the rest of the story. A second robber went down, hit in the leg. The third was stopped later. The one shot in front of the bank was seriously wounded but pulled through. A few days after the shoot-out Roberto was summoned by the commander of the criminal investigations unit, who congratulated him, told him he would certainly be decorated, and asked him if he would like to be transferred to Milan. Roberto accepted, and that was how, at not even twenty-three, he found himself doing the job for which he had joined the Carabinieri: detective.
“So that’s how it all started?” the doctor said.
“That’s how it all started.”
“And you say this story came back into your mind as you were climbing the stairs to come here?”
“And before that you’d been thinking of something else to tell me about?”
“Yes. I wanted to tell you about a dream I had last night.”
“What did you dream about?”
“Surfing. I dreamed I was on the waves.”
“Surfing? Is that a sport you’ve ever practised?”
Roberto was silent for a while, seeing remote, silent waves and thinking about how pungent the ocean smelled, although he couldn’t bring the smell back.
“I surfed when I was a boy, before I came to Italy with my mother.”
He was about to continue but then either couldn’t find the words or the memories, or else couldn’t summon up the courage. So he remained silent and avoided looking at the doctor, who waited a couple of minutes and then said that would be enough for this afternoon.
“See you next Thursday.”
Roberto looked at him, waiting for him to add something. It always seemed as if he had something to add, but he never did. See you next Monday. See you next Thursday. And that was it. Roberto would leave the office with a vague sense of frustration, although lately that had been combined with a touch of relief.
* * *
Life had started to take on a semblance of order after so many months of drifting.
He was even managing to sleep. With the help of drops, of course, but nothing in comparison with a few months earlier, when he’d had to take really powerful pills that would plunge him into a deep, leaden sleep.
He’d also started to do a bit of exercise, every now and again he tried to read the newspaper, he had almost stopped drinking, and he’d cut his cigarette consumption down to less than ten a day.
And then there were the walks.
The doctor had suggested he go for long walks. So long that he got back home tired, or rather, exhausted. He had been quite sceptical at first, but he’d gone along with it, the way you go along with a medical prescription – what else was this, after all? – and almost immediately had realized, to his surprise, that for one reason or another the walks worked.
He would concentrate on his steps, mentally repeating the sequence. Heel, sole, push, move. And again heel, sole, push, move. Ad infinitum, like a mantra.
This new-found awareness had a hypnotic effect and helped to drain away his bad moods. Sometimes Roberto would walk up to three or four hours non-stop, and it seemed quite healthy to feel tired at the end. It was nothing like the exhaustion and confusion of the previous few months.
It wasn’t that he didn’t think about anything during these walks. That, of course, would have been the best thing. But the speed and the concentration on movement stopped the thoughts from lingering too long in his head. All kinds of things would come into his mind, but they would immediately slip away to be replaced by others.
The days and weeks had taken on a rhythm. The week gravitated around his two appointments with the doctor, on Monday and Thursday. The day revolved around his endless, hypnotic walking.
Occasionally, one of his colleagues would phone him and ask him if he’d like to go out for a coffee or maybe a pizza. At first he’d always refused politely, but they would insist and after a while he’d realized that it was less of a bother to accept the invitation. He would humour his colleague’s attentive if guarded attitude towards him and wait for the moment when he would be able to say goodbye and leave. Sometimes he would feel as if he were hanging over an abyss. But then he would return home and listen to the stereo or watch TV until it was time to take his drugs and fall into a chemical sleep.