Book Extracts
Someone Else by Tonino Benacquista


That year, for the first time in ages, Thierry Blin

decided to play tennis again, with the sole purpose of

confronting the man he had once been: a competent

player who, without ever earning a place in any official

seeding, had given a few ambitious players a run for

their money. Since then the cogs had ground to a halt,

his shots had lost their edge, and the simple act of

running after a little yellow ball no longer seemed so

instinctive. Just to be clear in his own mind, he took

out his old medium-headed Snauweart racket, his Stan

Smiths and a few other relics, and made his entrance

cautiously at Les Feuillants, the club closest to him.

Having paid for his membership, he asked an attendant

whether he knew of anyone who was looking for an

opponent. The attendant pointed to a tall man who

was playing alone against a wall, returning the ball with

pleasing regularity.

Nicolas Gredzinski had been a member of the club

for two months now, but he still didn’t feel confident

enough to challenge a seasoned player, or sufficiently

patient to restrain his shots against a beginner.

Gredzinski was actually refusing to admit to himself that

his perennial fear of confrontation was being demonstrated

yet again, in these weekly two-hour tennis sessions;

he had a way of seeing hawkish tendencies in the

most peaceful situations. The fact that a stranger had

come and suggested knocking up for a while,

or evenplaying a set, was his one opportunity to get onto a

court for real. To gauge his opponent’s skill, he asked

a few questions to which Blin gave only guarded

replies, and both men headed for court number 4.

From the first few warm-up shots, Blin rediscovered

forgotten sensations: the felty smell of new balls, the

sprays of rust-coloured grit on his shoes from the clay

surface, the creaking sound of the strings as they

slackened with the impact of the first returns. It was

still too early to talk about the rest: the feel of the ball,

the gauging of distances, his position, the suppleness

of his leg movements. The priority was to return the

ball. To return it, come what may. He had to launch

into this dialogue and remember how to use the words,

even if his first sentences were not those of a great

speaker, let alone epigrammatic.

Gredzinski was reassured by the eloquence of his

forehand, but felt that his backhand was talking gibberish.

There had always been something forced about

it; he avoided using it as an attacking shot and preferred

taking his chances and lunging – at his own risk

– in order to end up playing a forehand. He had actually

succeeded in integrating this weakness into his

game, paradoxically creating a style. It only took a few

balls for him to make up for that slight delay in the

attack, and his backhand rediscovered that little flick

of the wrist which was far from a copybook move but

which usually proved to be successful. He surprised

himself by suggesting a match; however wary he was of

competition, he could already see himself emerging

from the trenches as a hero and striding towards the

enemy lines. “It was bound to come to this,” they both

thought, and it was actually the only way that Blin

could be absolutely sure, and that Gredzinski could

break free of his fatalism, which meant he didn’t see

tennis for what it really was: a game.

The first exchanges were courteous but unremarkable,

each of them wanting to review his argument

before the great debate. With his long straight shots

which kept Blin behind the baseline, Gredzinski was

trying to say something like: I could go on chatting like

this for hours. To which Blin replied with a succession of

precise, patient as you please s, alternating forehands and

backhands. When he lost his service, which put him

4–2 down in the first set, he decided to get to the point

by coming in unexpectedly for a volley, which clearly

meant: How about stopping this chitchat? Gredzinski was

forced to answer yes by serving an ace, taking him to

15–love. And the conversation became increasingly

heated. By systematically coming straight up to the

net after the return of serve, Blin threw all of his

opponent’s suggestions back in his face, flinging down

a Not a chance! or an Onto the next! or even a Hopeless! or

a Pathetic! with each definitive volley. It was a good tactic

and it saw him win the first set 6–3. Gredzinski never

seemed to think of things until it was too late; it was

while he was mopping his forehead as they changed

ends that he realized how he should have replied to

such peremptory attacks. He thought he might demonstrate

for the two or three onlookers who had come to

hang on to the wire mesh round the court. He now

started serving into the middle of the service box to

give his opponent as little angle as possible, then he

had fun sending his drives one way then the other,

playing Blin back and forth to the point of exhaustion

as if to say: You see . . . I too can . . . pick up the pace . . . you

madman . . . or you poor ignoramus . . . who wanted . . . to

make me look . . . like an idiot. The madman in question

fell into the trap and missed a fair few opportunities as

he ran out of breath and failed to follow his shots

through properly. Some of his net-skimming volleys

warranted a bit of attention and issued a strange

request, a sort of Let me get one in, at least. The second

set was beginning to look like a summary execution,

and the members of the Feuillants club, whether they

were players themselves or just there to watch, were

pretty sure which way it would go. There were now

almost a dozen spectators to applaud the risks

Gredzinski was taking and the rare replies from Blin,

who lost the set. Even so, Blin had a psychological

advantage that Gredzinski had always lacked, a profound

conviction of his own rights, a belief in his own

reasoning which forced him to play within the lines, as

if the principle was self-evident. Gredzinski couldn’t

help but be affected by this and it wasn’t long before

Blin was giving the questions and the answers, taking

the lead 5–2 in the third with victory in his sights. One

of the elementary laws of debating then came to poor

Gredzinski’s aid: a debater of limited skill can’t bear

having his own arguments thrown back in his face.

Accordingly he started using long shots with maximum

spin as if deciding to resume control of a conversation

with an inveterate talker. Strange though it may seem,

Blin lost a game at 5–3 and was quickly overwhelmed,

eventually letting Gredzinski re-enter the set at 5–5

with his service still to come. But Blin still had a few lines

of argument in his racket; he had a perverse way about

him, he was the sort who would never lie but just

wouldn’t tell the whole truth. Now for the first time

he played several magnificent backhands straight

down the line, and this saw him break the service of

Gredzinski, who turned to stone between the tramlines.

The latter had been prepared for anything except for

this show of bad faith from an opponent who, from the

very beginning of the match, had had the good grace

to proceed quite openly. Where had these backhands

straight down the line come from? It was dishonest! He

should have declared them at the outset, just as you

pronounce some profound truth to show exactly what

sort of man you are. The third set ended in a painful

tie-break which brought both men right back into the

match, and proved what each of them was capable of

when he felt threatened. Blin came up to the net to

volley three times in succession, and the last of these

was too much. Gredzinski replied with such a high lob

that you could clearly read the message in its parabola:

This sort of reasoning will always be way over your head.

That showed he had misjudged the other man, who

wasn’t afraid of sending drop shots from the baseline

just to see his opponent run: You have no idea how far

you are from the truth. Gredzinski ran as fast as he could,

sent the ball back onto the court and planted himself

in front of the net: I’m here and I’m staying! And he

stayed, towering, waiting for a reaction from the man

who’d just made him run flat out, the man who hated

using lobs, even in the direst straits – to him they were

a cheap trick, cowardly shots. He delved to the depths

of his racket to come up with a superb passing shot

which meant: I’m cutting you off at the knees. The beginnings

of a tear fogged over Gredzinski’s eye; not only

had he run several miles to get the drop shot in

extremis, but now he was floored by the most humiliating

rejoinder known to this demonic sport: the passing

shot down the line. The coup de grâce was dealt by a

handful of spectators who had become fascinated by

the quality of their game: they started clapping. One

of the longest standing members of Les Feuillants

climbed up onto the umpire’s chair to pronounce

coolly: “3–0, change ends.”

Gredzinski could see himself cracking his Dunlop

over the poor devil’s head; but all he did was change

ends, as he had just been reminded to do. Like any

other shy person who feels humiliated, he trawled

through his darkest feelings for some residual energy.

Blin, on the other hand, was celebrating the fact that

he had found himself again, the man he had been, the

man he might be again for some time, always agile,

mischievous and sure of himself when it really mattered.

He just managed to win the fourth point and

then lost the next with just as much effort. When one

of them said: I’ll be here to the end, the other would reply:

And I’ll be right there beside you, but neither of them had

managed to edge ahead. At five all, the two players

exchanged a last look before the final showdown. A

look which said the same thing, a feeling almost of

regret that they couldn’t find a gentleman’s agreement

or some way of pulling out, each with his honour

intact. The moment of truth had come, they were

going to have to go through with it. Gredzinski eased

the pressure and lost the next point, then the match,

delivering tired shots devoid of malice. As if to tell Blin

that victory comes to whoever hungers for it the most.


When they came out of the changing rooms they bypassed

the sodas and the club’s garden chairs to take

refuge in a bar near the Porte Brancion. They needed

somewhere worthy of their match, a reward for so

much effort.

“Thierry Blin.”

“Nicolas Gredzinski, pleased to meet you.”

They shook hands a second time, sitting on two tall

stools, facing hundreds of bottles of spirits lined up in

three rows. A barman asked what they would like to


“Vodka, ice cold,” Blin said without thinking.

“And for you, sir?”

The fact was that Gredzinski never knew what to

have in cafés, let alone in bars, where he hardly ever set

foot. Fuelled by a sort of complicity engendered by the

match, he looked at the barman with obvious delight

and said: “The same!”

Now that “the same” needs some consideration

because Gredzinski, despite distant Polish origins, had

never drunk vodka. He sometimes sipped at a glass of

wine with a meal, or a beer to freshen up when he left

work, but you could say he didn’t have a personal

relationship with alcohol. Only the enthusiasm and

the euphoria of the match could explain that “the

same” with which he surprised even himself.

Tennis was not truly a passion for either of them, but

no other sport had given them so much pleasure.

Leaning on the long wooden counter, they ran through

all the players who had made them dream. They very

quickly agreed: whether or not you were susceptible to

his game, Björn Borg had been the greatest ever.

“And his extraordinary list of wins is only the tip of

the iceberg,” said Blin. “You just had to watch him play.”

“That silence the minute he walked on the court,

do you remember? It hovered in the air, it didn’t

leave room for any doubt about the outcome of the

match. He knew it, you could see it in his face; but his

opponent would still try his luck.”

“Not one spectator ever asked themselves if he was

having a good day, if he’d recovered from the previous

match, if his shoulder was hurting or his knee. Borg

was just there, harbouring his secret, which – like any

real secret – shuts everyone else out.”

“Borg didn’t need luck. He even denied the whole

idea of chance.”

“The one unexplained mystery is his gloominess,

that little something in his features which was so

obviously sad.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say there was sadness but, quite the

contrary, serenity,” said Gredzinski. “Perfection can

only ever be serene. It shuts out emotion, drama

and, of course, humour. Or perhaps he had a sort of

humour, which involved robbing his opponents of the

last weapons they had left to defend themselves with.

When people tried to dismiss him as a machine returning

balls from the baseline, he’d retaliate by playing

extraordinarily cruel volleys.”

“Put Borg up against the biggest server in the world?

He’d start by inflicting a love game on him, all in aces!”

“Did Borg sniff out their weaknesses? Did he wear

them down? If he wanted to, he could step on the

accelerator and save more than an hour for an audience

keen to go and watch a less monotonous match.”

“As soon as he lost just one game, the journalists

started saying he was on the way down!”

“Whoever the other finalist confronting Borg was,

he could be a hell of a tournament winner. Being

number two to Borg meant being the best in the eyes

of the world.”

They stopped talking for a moment to bring the

small chilled glasses to their lips. Blin automatically

took a good swig of vodka.

Gredzinski, who was not prepared for it and had no

experience of the stuff, kept the drink in his mouth for

a long while to let it express itself completely, swirling it

round so as not to miss out a single taste bud, creating a

cataclysmic response all the way down his throat, and

closing his eyes until the burning passed.

“There’s only one shadow on the picture of Borg’s

career,” said Blin.

Gredzinski felt ready to take up a new challenge.

“Jimmy Connors?”

Blin was amazed. Gredzinski had responded with all

the confidence of someone who knows the answer.

And it wasn’t the answer but his answer, just his opinion,

a quirky idea intended simply to rock the so-called


“How did you guess? He’s exactly who I was thinking


And, as if it were still possible, the very mention of

Jimmy Connors inflamed them almost as much as the


“Are we allowed to love something and its exact


“Absolutely,” replied Gredzinski.

“Then you could say that Jimmy Connors was the

opposite of Björn Borg, don’t you think?”

“Connors was a destabilizing force, the energy of


“Borg was perfection, Connors was grace.”

“And perfection is often lacking in grace.”

“His constant willingness to pin everything on every

shot! His exuberance when he won and his eloquence

in defeat.”

“The sheer audacity of his despair, his elegance in

the face of failure!”

“How can you explain that he had every audience

in the world on his side? He was adored at Wimbledon,

adored at Roland-Garros, adored at Flushing

Meadow, adored everywhere. People didn’t like

Borg when he won, they liked Connors when he


“Do you remember the way he used to launch himself

into the air to strike a ball before it had even had

time to get there?”

“He made his return of service into a more deadly

weapon than the serve itself.”

“His game was counter-intuitive, it was even counter

to the rules of tennis. As if, ever since he was little, he’d

made a conscious effort to contradict his teachers in

every lesson.”

“We love you, Jimbo!”

They drank to Connors, and then drank again, this

time for Borg. Then they fell silent for a moment, each

lost in his own memories.

“We’re not champions, Thierry, but that doesn’t

mean we haven’t got a bit of style.”

“Sometimes even a bit of panache.”

“That backhand down the line, have you always been

able to do that?” Gredzinski asked.

“It’s not what it used to be.”

“I’d really like to have had a shot like that in me.”

“Your turns of speed are much more impressive than


“Perhaps, but there’s something arrogant about that

backhand that I’ve always liked. A thundering reply to

anyone with any pretensions, a trick which would

freeze the feet of the most insolent opponent.”

“I stole it straight from Adriano Panatta, Roland-

Garros, 1976.”

“How can you steal a shot?”

“By being pretty conceited,” replied Blin. “At fifteen,

you have a lot of nerve.”

“That’s not enough, unless you’re exceptionally


“I didn’t have that sort of luck, so I just had to sweat

blood and tears. I neglected all the other shots to

concentrate on that down-the-line backhand. I lost

most of my matches, but every time I managed to place

one of those shots I’d floor my opponent against all

expectations and, for those five seconds, I was a champion.

Now it’s disappeared from lack of use, but it’s

still quite a memory.”

“It can reappear, you know, and when your opponent

least expects, trust me!”

Gredzinski was surprised to find his glass empty just

as a strange feeling came over him, relaxing his whole

body. A sort of bright gap in the foggy sky that

hovered over him all the time. Without actually being

unhappy, Gredzinski had adopted a sort of restlessness

as his natural state. He had accepted a long time ago

now that every morning he would come across the cold

monster of his own anxiety, and nothing succeeded in

calming it except for feverish activity, which meant he

could never live in the present. All through the day

Nicolas struggled to stay one step ahead of it, right up

until those sweet few moments before he fell asleep.

This evening, though, he felt as if he was where he

wanted to be, the present was enough in itself, and the

little glass of vodka exhaling icy mist had something to

do with that. He surprised himself by ordering another,

and swore that he would make it last as long as possible.

The rest followed on from there; the words he was

uttering were certainly his own, his thoughts were freed

of any interference, and a peculiar memory came back

to him, like an echo of the one Blin had just described.

“There’s something beautiful and tragic about the

story of those five seconds; now I understand the

stealing. I had a similar experience when I was about

twenty-five. I shared an apartment with a piano teacher,

and most of the time – thank God! – she taught

while I was out. That piano was in the middle of everything,

our sitting room, our conversations, even our

timetables, given that we organized them around it.

Some evenings I actually hated it and, paradoxically,

I sometimes felt jealous of the pupils who laid their

hands on it. Even the worst of them managed to get

something out of it, but not me. I was useless.”

“What was the point in battling on with this piano if

it annoyed you so much?”

“Probably to insult it.”

“Meaning . . .?”

“Playing it myself was the worst revenge I could

find. Playing when I’d never learned how to, when I

couldn’t tell the difference between middle C and a B

flat. The perfect crime, really. I asked my flatmate to

teach me to play a piece by memorizing the keys and

the position of my fingers. It’s technically possible, it

just takes a lot of patience.”

“Which piece?”

“That’s where the trouble started! I aimed high and

my friend tried everything to stop me, but I stuck to my

guns: Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’.”

Thierry didn’t seem to know it so Nicolas hummed

the first few bars; they sang the rest together.

“In spite of everything, she was tickled by this impossible

task, and she set me to work on ‘Clair de Lune’

and, like a performing monkey, I eventually did it.

After a few months I could play Debussy’s ‘Clair de


“Like a real pianist?”

“No, obviously, she’d warned me about that. Yes, I

could create the illusion with a bit of mimicry, but

I’d always be lacking the essential ingredient: heart, a

feeling for the piano, an instinct which only comes

from a proper apprenticeship, a passion for music, an

intimacy with the instrument.”

“But, there you are, when you’re twenty you’ve got

nothing better to do than impress those around you.

And you must have done that a couple of times.”

“Only a couple, but each time it was an extraordinary

feeling. I’d play ‘Clair de Lune’ and adopt a brooding

expression. The piece was so beautiful that it kindled

its own magic, and Debussy would always turn up at

some point between two phrases. I was treated to

cheering, to smiles from a handful of young girls, and

– for a few minutes – I felt like someone else.”

Those last words hung in the air, just long enough

for their resonance to be felt. The bar was filling up,

people heading off for supper were being replaced by

new arrivals, and this melting movement brought a

new quality to the silence between Thierry and Nicolas.

“Well, at least you can say we’ve been young.”

Caught up in a surprising surge of nostalgia, Thierry

ordered a Jack Daniel’s, which reminded him of a trip

to New York. Nicolas was negotiating his vodka with

all the patience he’d promised himself but it was an

effort; several times he nearly downed it in one as he

had seen Blin doing, just to see how far this first inkling

of drunkenness might take him. Without knowing

it, he was experiencing the beginnings of a great love

story with his glass of alcohol, a story which was unfolding

in two classic movements: allowing oneself to be

overrun by the effects of that first thunderbolt, and

trying to make those effects last as long as possible.

“I’m thirty-nine,” said Thierry.

“I was forty a fortnight ago. Can we still think of

ourselves as sort of . . . young?”

“Probably, but the apprenticeship’s over. If you

think that life expectancy for a man is seventy-five,

we’ve still got the second half to go, perhaps the better

half, who knows? But it’s the first half that’s made us

into who we are.”

“What you’re saying is that most of our choices are


“We’ve always known we wouldn’t be Panatta or

Alfred Brendel. Over the years we’ve constructed ourselves,

and we may have thirty years ahead of us to

see whether we’ve got ourselves about right. But we’ll

never be someone else any more.”

It fell like a verdict, and they drank to the certainty

of it.

“Anyway, what’s the point in wanting to be someone

else, to live someone else’s life?” Gredzinski went on.

“Or to feel someone else’s joy and pain? If we’ve

become who we are, then the choices can’t have been

that bad. Who else would you have liked to be?”

Thierry turned round and swept his arm over the


“Why not that man over there, with the gorgeous girl

drinking margaritas?”

“Something tells me the guy must have a complicated


“Wouldn’t it appeal to you to be the barman?”

“I’ve always avoided work which involved contact

with the public.”

“Or the Pope himself?”

“Not the public, I’ve already said.”

“A painter whose work gets exhibited at the

Pompidou Centre?”

“That’s worth thinking about.”

“What would you say to being a hired killer?”

Nicolas raised an eyebrow in silence.

“Or just the man in the apartment next door?”

“None of the above, but why not me?” said Nicolas.

“The other me that I dream of being, the one I’ve

never had the courage to become.”

He suddenly had a sense almost of nostalgia.

For the pleasure of it and out of curiosity, they

each described this other me who was both so close and

hopelessly inaccessible. Thierry could see him wearing

particular clothes, doing a particular job; Nicolas

exposed his great principles of life and some of his

failings. Each of them had fun describing a typical day

for his other self, hour by hour, in such abundant detail

that they found it worrying. They were so thorough

that, two hours later, there really were four of them

there, leaning on the bar. The glasses had proliferated

to the damning point where the very idea of counting

them was almost indecent.

“This conversation’s becoming absurd,” said Nicolas.

“A Borg can’t become a Connors or vice versa.”

“I don’t like myself enough to want to stay as me at

all costs,” said Blin. “I’d like to spend the thirty years

I’ve got left as this other me!”

“I’m not used to this,” said Gredzinski waving his

glass, “but do you think we might be a bit drunk?”

“It’s up to us to go and find this someone else. What

is there to lose?”

Gredzinski, captivated, had buried his anxiety somewhere

in a desert and was now dancing on its grave. He

fished about for the only answer that made any sense

to him: “We might lose ourselves along the way.”

“That’s a good start.”

They clinked their glasses together under the jaded

eye of the barman who, given the time, was not going to

serve them anything else. Blin, who was far more lucid

than Gredzinski, suddenly affected a conspiratorial

expression; without even realizing it, he had steered the

conversation to arrive exactly here, as if in Gredzinski

he had found something he had spent a long time

looking for. His victory in the match now egged him on

to play another kind of match in which he would be

both his own opponent and his only partner, a competition

so far-reaching that he would have to gather

all his forces together, to reawaken his free will,

remember his dreams, believe once again and push

back the limits he was beginning to sense around him.

“I’ll need time – say two or three years to fine-tune

the tiniest details – but I’ll wager you that I will be that

someone else.”

This was a challenge Thierry was putting to himself,

as if Gredzinski was reduced to a pretext, at best a


“. . . It’s June 23rd,” he went on. “Let’s meet in three

years’ time, three years to the day, in this same bar,

at the same time.”

Far, far away, intoxicated by the momentum of what

was happening, Gredzinski let the drink guide him, a

form of autopilot which left him free to concentrate

on what mattered.

“If we meet . . . will it be the two of us or the other


“That’s what gives the challenge its spice.”

“And what’s at stake? If by some extraordinary

chance one of us manages it, he’d deserve some

incredible reward!”

For Blin, that was not the question at all. Conquering

this other him was the greatest stake in itself. He

wriggled out of it with a flourish. “On that evening,

June 23rd at 9 o’clock in exactly three years, whichever

one of us has won can ask absolutely anything of the


“. . . Absolutely anything?”

“Are there higher stakes in the world?”

From where Gredzinski was right then, nothing

seemed eccentric any more; everything and nothing

vied for attention. He was discovering his own capacity

for elation, a rare sensation pervading both his head

and his heart.

It was time for them to part, something indicated

the moment when they should leave. Neither would

have been able to say what.

“This may be the last time we ever see each other,


“That would be the best thing that could happen to

us, don’t you think?”

Holy Smoke by Tonino Benacquista

“Are you coming over to eat on Sunday?”
“Can’t . . . I’ve got work to do.”
“Even on a Sunday . . .? Porca miseria!”
I don’t like it when he gets riled, the old patriarch.
But I like going there on a Sunday even less. It’s the
day when the suburbs pretend to come to life, when
everyone’s coming out of church and the bookmakers.
The two places I try to avoid, even if it means making a
detour, so that I don’t have to shake hands awkwardly
with people who knew me when I was little and who
want to know how I’m getting on now. The wops want
to know what’s become of everyone.
“I’ll try to come on Sunday . . .”
My father shakes his head to show that he couldn’t
care less. He’s due to head off on his cure soon; he’ll
be gone a good month, like every summer, to heal his
leg. He’d like me to come by before he leaves. Any
father would.
My mother says nothing, as usual. But I know I’ll
hardly get my foot through the door and she won’t be
able to stop herself, she’ll be telling me loudly, out in
the street:
“You must put the heating on if you get cold at
“Yes, Mama.”
“And don’t go out to restaurants too much in Paris.
And if you’ve got any dirty washing you must bring it
with you next time.”
“Yes, Mama.”
“And be careful in the Métro in the evenings.”
“Yes . . .”
“And, and . . .”
And, and I stop listening, I’m out of earshot. The
Pianetas’ dog is barking at me. I set off down the little
slope which heads towards the bus stop, the bus
towards the Métro, and the Métro towards home.
In Paris.
Further up, by the first bungalow in the street, I
hear a shrill sound which brings memories flooding
back more acutely than a smell washing over you
“Walking past like a stranger, are you, Antonio . . .”
I wouldn’t have been able to recognize him by smell,
he now gives off the delicate perfume of some classy
aftershave. It feels odd seeing him there, stiffer than
the lamppost he’s leaning against, the one we used to
try and knock down by throwing stones at it on Thursdays,
after catechism.
“Dario . . .?” I ask, as if hoping it’s someone else.
Despite the years he’s still got his angel-in-love good
looks. He’s even grown better looking. I would guess
he’s had those teeth replaced, the ones that were missing
by the time he was eighteen.
“Your mother said you came over to eat sometimes.”
We don’t shake hands. I can’t remember whether
his mother’s dead or not. Who could I ask him for
news of? Himself, I suppose. So, Dario? Still such a . . .
such a . . . wop? What else could I ask him . . .?
Out of the whole gang of kids that we were back
then, he – Dario Trengoni – was the only one who’d
seen the light of day back there, between Rome and
Naples. You couldn’t say as much for the Franchini
brothers, or the Cuzzo boy or even me. My parents had
conceived me as an Italian but in a different South –
the South of Paris. And thirty years later they still can’t
speak the language. Neither can Dario Trengoni, but
he wanted it that way. We tried to integrate him, our
Dario, into the community at Vitry-sur-Seine: school,
benefits, residence permit, social security, the lot. But
he refused to be properly integrated into France. He
chose to cultivate everything I wanted to get away
from, he managed to turn himself into this caricature
of a wop, this export-model vitellone that you can’t even
find back there any more. His old mother who’d
uprooted herself had acclimatized to our country of
asylum much better than him.
“In Paris, is that where you live?”
I don’t know what to say. I live in Paris, or in Paris I
live. Both are true.
Silence. I’m making so little effort that it’s almost
embarrassing. He’s behaving as if we’re sharing something
special, a special reunion.
“Do you remember Osvaldo?”
“Yeah . . . is he . . . is he married?”
“He went all American, over there in California, you
know . . . He came back here, I saw him, and he’s
poorer than you or me! He’s building himself a house,
here . . . He never did have big ideas . . .”
I’m beginning to wish I’d got away sooner. I can’t
leave just like that, he’s been waiting here a long time,
for sure. Us meeting on a street-corner like this isn’t
really a coincidence. In the old days he would sometimes
wait a whole morning for one of us to go out and
buy the bread, and we knew where we could find him if
we were more than usually bored. We used him as a
sort of spare friend if the others were busy or being
punished. Osvaldo, for example, the one who was
ashamed that his name was Osvaldo. And Dario likes
that, the fact that one of his old friends from the
ghetto can’t make his way out. As for me, I find it really
irritating that these old friends from the ghetto keep
such a close eye on one another.
Dario, it’s cold, I’m fed up with standing here, in the
wind, going over memories that I forgot as soon as I
could, so close to my bus, and that’s at least the sixth
one that’s gone past. Are you any better than Osvaldo
yourself? Do you still make people laugh with your
shirt unbuttoned to show your crucifix and your red
good luck charm? Have you found a way of paying for
the Cerruti threads and the Gucci shoes you always
dreamed of? Do you still get down on your knees so
readily when a girl goes past in the street? Do you still
sing the whole time? Do you still believe in your great
god Travolta?
Dario Trengoni gave up on his dreams of singing, I
gave up on the area where we all grew up, and then we
have to meet here, near the lamppost on which we
used to scratch out hearts with the initials of the girls
next door. French girls. Through the black paint you
could see the rust-resistant undercoat. A dirty red.
Dirty red hearts.
He serves up another anecdote, but I think he’s
inventing this one. Dario may not speak French well,
but you couldn’t say that he masters Italian any better.
At the time he used to talk in a strange sort of language
that only the local kids understood. The bulk of
the sentence was in Roman dialect, with a couple of
slang adjectives from the Communist suburbs of Paris,
Portuguese apostrophes and Arab commas nicked
from the inner city, a sprinkling of back-slang and a
few words of our own which we’d invented or poached
from the TV or comic strips. At the time I thought it
was like a secret code with overtones of mystery and
the occult. And I liked the fact that we could cut ourselves
off from everyone else right in the middle of the
school playground. Now all he has is the pure dialect
from home, hybridized with increasingly basic French.
The dialect he speaks is called Ciociaro, after a big
suburb of Rome. The one they speak in De Sica’s films.
I’ve forgotten all of it, I don’t speak the language any
more. I don’t like languages which lean so heavily on
When I think that our fathers travelled 900 miles,
from one suburb to another . . .
“Well, it’s nice to see you again, Dario . . . must get
back . . .”
“Ashpet’o! You can ashpetta a bit, why I have to speak
to you . . .”
In Italian they use the same word for why and
because. If Dario ever gets his grammar right, it’s
always in the wrong language.
“Why you, Anto’, you’ve done gli studi, and I haven’t
done gli studi, and you’ve been to university in Paris.
You’re intelligento . . .”
Not a good sign for me. If Dario Trengoni is keen to
tell me I’m intelligent, then he must think I’m thick.
What he calls university was in fact two painful years at
poly which snuck me onto the job market a bit sooner
than expected. But my mother boasted about it all
round the neighbourhood.
“Anto’, I need you to write me a nice letter, really
“Who to?”
“To Italy.”
“Do you still know someone there?”
“A paio d’amici.”
“You speak Italian better than I do, I’ve forgotten it,
and anyway, your mates speak in dialect, and you just
try writing in dialect, I tell you . . . Ask my father, he
could do it, and it’ll keep him busy. He’s bored, my old
man, he’d think it was fun.”
“Not possible. I respect lo Cesare, he’s happy. I
don’t want to give him something to think about, and
anyway . . . I’ve been waiting nine days for you to go
past here. Nine days. You’re the only person I can ask.
The irresistible ring of truth. It doesn’t fill me with
joy. I’m delighted to be the only person for someone,
but not for some bloke I never see any more. If he’s
been waiting nine days it could mean that I am this
rare creature. It could also mean that there’s no big
“What’s this letter got to say then?”
“I’ve got the paper and the envelope, we can buy a
stamp at the tabac. I can pay you by the hour if you
“What’s the letter got to say?”
“In mezzo alla strada?”
In the middle of the road? Yes, it’s true, we are actually
in the middle of the road, the road that goes to the
bus stop, but which does go past the tabac, and I will
never set foot in that tabac again in my life. I know that
Dario still goes there.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
“Not to my place, not al tabaccho, too many people.
I’ll take the bus with you, to Paris.”
“I’ll be back on Sunday.”
“Too late. We’re doing this letter right now – your
mother says sometimes she makes the tagliatelle and
you don’t come. So I know what we’ll do, we’ll go to
the casa ’l diavolo.”
A long time since I’ve heard that. To the house of
the devil. It’s the expression our mothers use when
they mean: to the devil, to the ends of the earth . . . But
the Italians have to put houses everywhere, even in
hell. A proper bit of wasteland, like you get round
here, a muddy, fallow field behind the boat factory. A
good little plot of jungle which acted, and still does, as
a cemetery for speedboat hulls. A delight for every
aspiring Tarzan and Captain Flint. Two cherry trees. A
lilac. A smell of resin lingering over the rubbish and
“I’ll get dirty,” I say, slipping under the fence.
Dario doesn’t hear, he’s making sure no one sees us
go in, but not like earlier, he’s no longer got a face like
a spy that you could spot a mile off.
I can’t make out whether anything’s changed. I’m
sure wastelands can’t be what they used to be. Dario
climbs into a twenty-six-foot hull and I follow him.
“You can lean on here.”
He takes out a pad of paper and a blue ballpoint pen.
Dario isn’t thinking how much resin went into
making this twenty-six-foot shell. He’s forgotten that
his father died after fifteen years of inhaling the fumes
from this shit, which trashes your lungs. My father
refused straight away, he was happier wrapping the
boats in straw casings. Maybe it reminded him of harvesting.
The unions have now made gas masks compulsory.
At the time they used to make the workers drink a
carton of milk a day. Old man Trengoni must have
drunk whole swimming pools of the stuff to ward off
the toxic fumes.
I’d forgotten about that.
Dario settles himself into a recess where we used to
imagine the helm and the radio. And I go to the side
that’s least overrun by moss. To starboard.
“Is it long, what you’ve got to say?”
“Quite, yes . . . Are you comfortable? At the top on
the left-hand side put . . . no . . . higher than that . . .
you’re leaving too much space, a bit less . . . there . . .
do it nicely . . . Dear Madame Raphaëlle, at the top,
with a nice big R.”
“In French?”
“But you said it was for a friend back there.”
“Nah, it’s for a woman, a woman who’s a friend,”
he said, looking like an embarrassed child, a real
For the time being I give up trying to understand.
Why bother, anyway? How could I refuse to write a
love letter for an illiterate? My father definitely
wouldn’t have been able to help him. If it really is a
love letter, then nine days must be too long. And it
even seems possible that I might be the one and only
person Dario knows who has some idea of where to
put those subtle dot, dot, dots in a love letter to a
French woman.
“Now, we’ve got to tell her that I don’t always tell la
bucia . . . la bucia . . .?”
“That’s it . . . Tell her that sometimes I tell the truth,
especially at the end. In the beginning, we didn’t meet
by chance. I knew that she sometimes went to the club
on her own. Go on, write . . . .
“You don’t realize what you’re asking me to do,
Dario. To write something without understanding,
without knowing what’s going on, none of it.”
“Go on, write . . . but write nicely, with a bit of . . . un
poco di cuore, andiamo, go on . . .”
I start scratching. The blue ink only just moistens
the tip of the pen.
“‘Dear Madame Raphaëlle, I have not always been a
liar. When we first met it was not by chance.’ Is that all
He scrutinizes every last upstroke as if afraid he’s
being betrayed. Traduttore traditore.
“Bene, bene, andiamo, don’t bother about the club.
Tell her thank you for the ticket and the money for
America, and for everything else.”
“Have you been to the States, then?”
He lowers his eyes towards the wheel on a trailer.
“Once, that’s all.”
“Did you work there?”
“Write it down!”
I recreate his sentence almost word for word, including
the vague bits, but my version seems to satisfy
“After that say that I’m going to pay back as much as
I can, if I have the time, that is.”
“Do you mean if you ‘find’ the time or if you’re
‘given’ the time?”
“Isn’t it the same?”
“Not really.”
“Well, say I’ll do it as quickly as possible, but maybe
the others’ll be quicker than me, put that . . . She’ll
understand a menta sua, in her own mind . . .”
A few crossings out.
“Don’t worry, I’ll copy it out afterwards . . .”
He can tell that I’m struggling. I’m really beginning
to see why I was the only one.
“Tell her that it’s not over. You have to believe in
miracoli and that lo miracolo . . . si svolgéra . . .”
The miracle will come to pass . . .
A song lyric. Ridiculous. He’s poached that from a
Gianni Morandi song, or something like that. I can
even remember the tune.
“It’s nearly finished, Anto’. Now you’ve got to do the
most important bit. Make it so she understands that la
mia strada è lunga, proprio lunga . . . and that she and I will
meet up a qualche parte della strada.”
Now there I had to think for a bit. And I put the lid
back on the pen. My road is long and we will find each
other somewhere along it . . . I refuse to write stuff like
that. There are limits. He’s come up with this metaphor
and he’s going to squeeze it out of the poor ballpoint
pen, but it’s like some terrible dirge from
“What do you mean exactly? Your ‘road’ is long . . .
Do you mean, I don’t know . . . the path of life or
something like that . . .?”
He stares at me warily.
“Ma sei pazzo . . .? You’re mad, Antonio! I’m talking
about the road, our road, the road you were born in,
the one back there, where your parents and my
mother live, the Rue Anselme-Rondenay in Vitry-sur-
Seine. That’s the one you’ve got to put in the letter!”
“Don’t get annoyed or I’ll stop. And why do you
want to say that it’s long, it’s clear you’ve never got
away from the place. Are you sure you’ve been to the
“Write what I said, our road, it’s practically the longest
road in the world . . . You’re the only one in the
neighbourhood who hasn’t grasped that, Anto’, that’s
why you left for Parigi. Go on, write it down . . .”
Mute, muddled, bewildered, I go ahead. The pen
can’t make up its mind to write the simplest sentence
ever to alight on a white page. What’s this Madame
Raphaëlle going to read into all this? Four little words I
don’t know how to go about saying.
And I try to convince myself that the message that all
the poets in the world have tried to convey in thou-
1sands of pages, over the centuries, that ultimate, despairing
wisdom . . . Well, it would take a moronic,
uneducated little wop to try and capture it in four
pathetic words.
My road is long.

* * *

I handed him the letter, and he copied it out, concentrating
like a little kid, really neatly, just the way he
wanted, having taken it from my hand without a thank
you. Then he sealed it in an envelope and wrote an
address on it, turning as far away from me as possible.
Right over to port.
“Go on, Anto’, go and get your bus. And don’t tell
anyone about this – swear on your mother’s head.”
I jumped, feet together, into the imaginary sea with
its flotsam of breeze blocks smothered in couch grass.
Dario waited till I was some way away before abandoning
“Have you done something stupid, Dario?”
From down below I could only see his hand, hanging
on to the rail.
“Tell me, have you done something stupid?”
I walked out of the jungle without waiting for the
answer he would never give me, and I made my way
back onto the Rue Anselme-Rondenay.
From the top of the rise I looked back down on it, I
got it in perspective. Seven hundred, maybe eight
hundred feet, top whack. About thirty neat little bungalows
made the Italian way, with endless patience and
bricks laid late into the night. I was born down that
road. Whether I like it or not, I can’t help being a part
of it.
I won’t come back on Sunday.
Dario Trengoni had better not ask me for anything
I’m going home.
To Paris. And the road is long.

Framed by Tonino Benacquista

Thirty-five paintings, practically all the same: indescribable
black scribblings on a black background.
Obsessive, sick.
The day they arrived at the gallery I unpacked them
one by one, going faster and faster, wanting to see
the surprise and the splash of colour. At first glance
everyone thought they were sinister. Even Jacques, my
colleague. He’s the master picture-hanger, I’m just his
“We’re pushed for time, young ’un. Doors open in
twenty five minutes!”
The director of the gallery only gave us four days
to set up the exhibition, all the paintings and three
monumental sculptures which nearly did Jacques’s
back in. Strips of torn steel soldered together, piled up
to twelve feet high. Two whole days getting them in
position, with two of us at it. I can remember the look
on the movers’ faces when they delivered them. “Can’t
they do stuff which fits in a lorry, these useless artists?”
Removal men often have trouble, with contemporary
works of art. Jacques and I do too, even though we’re
used to it. We don’t always know how to take them,
these pieces. Literally and figuratively. We may think
we’re ready for anything, but we never know quite
what’s going to appear from the back of the articulated
Twenty to six, and the private view officially starts
at six o’clock. The champagne is chilling, the waiters
are all done up in their ties, and the cleaner has just
finished vacuuming the five thousand square feet of
carpeting. And we always have a last-minute problem;
it never fails. But it takes more than that to panic my
“Where are we putting it?” I ask.
That’s the problem. Hanging thirty-five homogenous
paintings all in the same family is easy. But there’s one
little lost orphan amongst them. When I unwrapped it
I thought at first that it had got in there by mistake,
and that I’d already seen it somewhere else, in another
collection. Unlike the others, this one is very colourful
with lots of bright yellow and something dazzling about
it, an academic portrayal of a church spire emerging
from surrounding colour. It’s lighter, more cheerful,
you could say. Joyful even . . . but I don’t think that’s
a term approved by the upper echelons of the art
We kept it till last. The gallery director, the eminent
Madame Coste who specializes in the 1960s, has
breezed through without helping us out.
“That painting’s a problem, I know, it doesn’t sit well
with the others. Find it a discreet corner where it can
breathe a bit. Go on, I trust to you, see you later.”
A discreet corner . . . How would this little yellow
thing show up amongst all these big black ones? They
were quite nice, actually, but terribly aggressive.
Jean-Yves, the restorer, can’t stop laughing at the
sight of us going round in circles. He’s lying on the
ground with his white gloves on, touching up the corner
of a painting that was damaged during the setting
up. He’s almost finished.
“Only a quarter of an hour left!” he yells to wind us
up a bit more.
Visitors are pressing their foreheads against the glass
door, invitation in hand, and already drooling at the
thought of the canapés.
“Try over by the window,” Jacques says.
I hold the painting up at arm’s length. He stands
back a bit to see if it works.
“Hmph . . .”
“We’ve only got ten minutes,” I tell him.
“It’s still hmph.”
He’s right. There’s an unfortunate contrast between
the spotlights and the daylight. The Minister may be
coming to the private view, and if we’re found here like
a couple of idiots with a painting still in our hands
Mother Coste will have a fit. It reminds me of the time
we got a piece from Australia two hours before the
opening. It was in a wooden trunk, fifteen bottles filled
with varying amounts of water; it was called “Shark”.
No photo, no instructions, and the artist was at the
Biennale in Sao Paulo. The visitors were starting to
scratch at the door. In a terrible effort of concentration,
Jacques tried to get inside the artist’s head. Click:
if they were arranged in a particular order, the water
level in the bottles created the outline of a shark, jaw,
dorsal fin and tail. We finished just in time. Everyone
admired that particular piece – and I admired Jacques.
He’s walking in circles, furious and calm at the same
time. Jean-Yves has finished his touching up and is
sniggering again.
“Hey, you’re quite a double act, you could entertain
the gallery . . .”
“Shut it,” Jacques says serenely.
He draws a hammer from his tool belt and takes a
hook from the pocket of his overalls.
“I’ve got it, young ’un.”
He hares off and, carrying the painting, I follow him
as best I can into a room where there are already four
paintings. He takes two down, puts one back up, paces
round, takes the others off . . . they’re all on the floor,
I can tell this is heading for disaster, he swaps two
over then feverishly reverses the decision. Liliane, the
attendant, comes by, key in hand, and warns us that
she can’t delay the opening. Jacques doesn’t listen to
her; he carries on waltzing to a rhythm even he doesn’t
understand. An expanse of wall has just appeared, he
plants the nail without even measuring the height.
“Go on, hang it there,” he tells me.
I hang the painting and look all round the room.
Everything is on the wall; the black ones are lined up at
the top end and the yellow one is on a “reverse” wall,
you don’t see it as you come in, but only as you leave.
Isolated, but there all the same. I don’t even have to
check it with the spirit level.
Coste comes in, all fidgety and dolled up in her
evening dress.
“That’s great, boys, you deserve a glass of champagne.
But go and get changed first.”
With our overalls and our hammers, we look pretty
untidy. Jean-Yves comes over to the yellow painting and
looks at it very closely.
“It’s a real problem, this picture,” he says.
“We’re well aware of that.”
“No, no, there’s something else . . . I don’t know
what it is . . . A mixture of oils and acrylics . . . it’ll never
last. And there’s something weird about the spire,
don’t know what but . . .”
“People can paint with whatever they like, can’t
The first visitors are coming slowly into the room.
“Does this picture have a title?” Jean-Yves asked me.
“I have no idea.”
“Odd . . .”
With her firm smile, Coste asks us if we could leave.
We do as we’re told.
Ten minutes later, all fresh and clean, we meet up
again – Jean-Yves, Jacques and myself – by the reception
desk where Liliane is frenetically handing out catalogues
to journalists. The words “Etienne Morand Retrospective”
are written in white on a black background.
A waiter offers us a glass each. I decline.
“Why do you never drink?” Jacques asks.
The hall is filling with the usual hubbub, and people
are gathering round the enormous sculpture in the
“I don’t like champagne.”
And that’s not true: I love it, but after six o’clock I
have to have an absolutely clear head. It’s going to be a
long evening, not here but not far away, just up the
road. It would be too complicated to explain all that
to them.
Jean-Yves looks up from the catalogue and closes it.
“The yellow painting’s called Attempt 30, and it was
Morand’s last piece of work.”
“Why his last?”
“He died not long afterwards, of cancer. And there
are no others called Attempt. It’s odd to paint nothing
but black and then to finish with yellow.”
“Oh, that’s all part of the impenetrable mystery of
the creative process,” I say. “God knows what goes on
in a painter’s mind. Especially if he knew he had cancer.
It didn’t stop him making sculptures with a blowtorch,
so why not use a bit of yellow . . .?”
But Jean-Yves is right: the painting is odd. What
intrigues me more than the colour is the image. All
the rest of Morand’s output is completely abstract,
and then there’s this extraordinarily precise church
spire . . . I really feel I’ve seen that combination of
colour and subject before. It’s funny, it’s as if the
painter wanted to conclude his work with a denial of
everything he had done before, with a hint of . . . a
hint of life. . . But I don’t have time to ponder this:
it’s time.
“Aren’t you going to stay?” asks Jacques.
“I can’t.”
“You never stay. After six o’clock you whisk out of
here like a whippet! We don’t see you for dust! One
day will you tell me what you do after six o’clock? Are
you in love?”
“What is it, then?”
I start my life, that’s all. My life happens somewhere
else: it starts after six pm and ends late into the night.
I take my coat and give a general wave. I’m always
bored at private views, anyway. Liliane asks me to come
by tomorrow to fill in a form with my hours and get my
pay. A fond wave to the whole team and a long goodbye
to contemporary art. Now I’m concentrating on
my own art.
Monsieur Perez, the concierge, sees me leave.
“So, youngster, off to find your friends!”
“Yup! See you tomorrow!” I say to cut any conversation
short, as usual.
And it’s over . . .
I come out of the gallery and head quickly towards
the Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré. The days are getting
longer, the streetlights are not yet lit. Good old
February, especially the end of the month. A bus passes
and I cross the street on a green light. I cut across the
Avenue Hoche and pull up the collar of my coat; it’s a
stubbornly cold winter. In the Place des Ternes the
flower market is getting prettier by the day, and the
staff at the brasserie throw out binfuls of oyster shells,
it’s still the season. I’m in a good mood this evening,
and I’m going to bring the house down.
On the Avenue Mac-Mahon a Renault 5 beeps at me;
I never use the crossings – never mind.
I’m there.
I look up before going in, just to see the huge sign to
the temple. My temple.
I take the stairs up to the second floor to get to the
room. I take a deep breath, wipe my hands on the front
of my coat and go in.
The lights, the sound, the smell, the coming and
going. . . I’m at home. Benoît and Angelo give me a
welcoming squeal, the players perched on the mezzanine
look down at me, and I raise my hand high. René,
the manager, pats me on the back, and the waitress
Mathilde takes my coat. People are playing, smoking,
having a good time. I need this, all this explosive life,
after hours of concentrating on nails and picture
hooks. The audience are not the same brand of people
you get at private views. Here, they don’t think about
anything, they even forget the game, they cheer and
heckle or they can even stay silent for hours. And I’m
like an addict who becomes himself again after the first
fix, at nightfall. And happy with it too. The neon lights
are on over every billiards table except for No. 2: it’s
reserved. I spot a boy getting up from his chair shyly
and coming over towards me. I don’t know why I
think of him as a boy when he’s at least my age – early
thirties. He barely opens his mouth, but I cut him
short straightaway, still staying as polite as possible,
“We were meant to meet at six, weren’t we? Listen. . .
I’m really sorry but this evening there’s a game with
the second-ranked French player. I’m not playing, but
I really don’t want to miss it. I’ve got you here for
nothing . . .”
“Uh . . . it doesn’t matter, we can put the lesson off
till tomorrow,” he says.
“Tomorrow . . . ? Yes, tomorrow, and, in return, I
won’t charge you for it. At about six, like today.”
“That’s fine . . . but this evening, can I stay? I mean
. . . can I watch?”
“Of course! You should really make the most of the
opportunity and book a table to get some practice, to
do a series of ‘breaks’.”
To make this clearer, I starting positioning the balls
that René has just brought over.
“No more than eight inches between the whites, and
– with the red one – vary the distance: start off with it a
hand’s width from the one you want to strike. Don’t
worry about playing for position for now.”
“What is ‘playing for position’? You’ve already told
me but I’ve . . .”
“It’s when you play a point and try to get all the
balls as close to each other as possible, to prepare
for the next point. But we can do that a bit later,
can’t we?”
I play the stroke as slowly as I can and hold my
position so that he can memorize the movement.
“The most important thing is to stay absolutely
parallel to the baize, I can’t stress that enough: the
slightest angle, and you’ve had it, okay? You strike
the upper part of the ball with a tiny bit of sidespin to
the left and you’re rolling.”
I don’t feel like going back over all the different
phenomena hiding behind that one word “rolling”.
Not again, it took me a good hour in the last lesson.
And you can get to the point where the expression
doesn’t mean anything any more, they either feel it or
they don’t, and it comes to them gradually. The boy
doesn’t look very sure of himself as he picks up his
brand new cue, runs a line of blue chalk over the tip
and puts the balls back in position. I turn away so as
not to put him off.
Everything looks ready at No. 2. René has just taken
the cover off and is brushing the baize. Langloff, the
champion, is screwing his mahogany cue together over
in a corner. He lives in a far-flung suburb and hardly
every comes to Paris, just for the national championships
or exhibition matches, and sometimes, like this
evening, to visit his old friends. His game is a bit austere
with no flourishes, but his technique won him the title
three times. He was thirty-six back then. Every time I
see him play I steal something from him: a mannerism,
a gesture, a shot. It will take me years’ more work to get
to that level, that’s what René tells me. But he can tell
it’s coming.
In fact, I haven’t come just to watch: I know that
Langloff likes playing three-way games, and René has
promised to suggest me for this evening’s match. I’ve
been thinking about it all week, that’s why I was in such
a hurry when I left the gallery.
René is talking to Langloff. I can see what he’s up
to; he’s talking to him about me. I cross my arms and
stay sitting on my seat, looking up at the ceiling. It
isn’t easy playing with a much younger player. I would
completely understand if he refused.
“Hey, Antoine! Come over here . . .”
I jump to my feet. René does the introductions, and
Langloff shakes my hand.
“So, are you the child prodigy? René tells me you’re
pretty tough for a youngster.”
“He’s exaggerating.”
“We’ll see about that. How would you like a three-way
How would I like it? How do you think!
This evening I really mustn’t let my friends down. I
shake hands with an old boy who spends all his time
holed up in here but hasn’t played for two years. “My
arthritis!” he says when I suggest a little warm-up. He
is sixty-nine, and I am sure he would still hold his
ground pretty well. And when I think how long he has
been playing I reckon that, at thirty, I have another
forty years ahead of me. Forty years of learning. Forty
years of pleasure, of jubilation every time a point is
made. Sooner or later I will put in for the Championship.
All I want is to score the points, I want prizes for
beautiful shots, I want to be able to do things which
defy the laws of physics, I want the mahogany cue to be
an extension of my index finger, I want the balls to
take up impossible angles, to obey the most absurd
orders, for them to be propelled by remote control
by my hand and my will. Billiards is a pure universe:
everything becomes possible . . . and simple. You never
play the same shot twice in your whole life. Three
spheres in a rectangle – and everything is contained
within it.
My life is here, around this rectangle.
Forty years to go.
Angelo is playing with us. He has just positioned the
balls to determine which of us will play first. He has a
thick wop accent, and he always says “when it rolls on
velvet, you know it’s billiards.” I take off my watch and
ask for a minute to warm up, just to see how the cue is
responding. My hands are fine; they know what to do
all by themselves. My eyes are getting used to the light
that shimmers over the baize and stays within the
confines of the table. We can start.
My mind flashes back to my old uncle Basil. I would
have liked him to see me this evening, he taught me to
play in the first place, in Biarritz. I was eighteen, I
could run fast, hit hard and see far. He was on the
brink of senility, it took him ten minutes to cross the
room at the café, and he wore bifocals. But he only
had to pick up his billiard cue and he would show
me how you could flirt with geometric perfection:
those beautiful spheres knocking together, spinning,
dancing balls.
I really was hooked for forty years’ worth then.
In the last six games I have only got to my feet eleven
times. Angelo has left us together, Langloff and myself,
for the last two hours. My best break earned me twentyfour
points in succession. Langloff watched me with
a strange look in his eye: not really worried, more
intrigued. We all knew he would put us in our place,
but I kept on at him with the determination of a terrier.
At one point I even played a variation of a shot he
played last year. I thought it was so beautiful that I
spent hours practising to get it right. He remembered
it, and it made him laugh. I barely heard the cues
being drummed on the ground to acknowledge the
shot (our form of applause); I was hypnotized. Everything
has worked for me this evening, specially the
“screw” shots. When I opened my eyes again, the fluorescent
lights were all out except for ours, and there
were a dozen or so aficionados watching us in silence.
Angelo was there, chalk in hand, keeping note of my
score with undisguised joy. René had lowered the
blinds, as he usually does after eleven o’clock. Langloff
concluded the match magnificently on a point off
no less than five cushions – well, you have to end on
a high.
We all cheered. René switched off the lights over
No. 2, and Langloff took my arm to take me to one side.
“You had me going there, young man.”
“You must be joking! You were three sets up on
me . . .”
“No, no, I know what I’m talking about. René tells
me you don’t have a coach.”
“Well . . . Yes and no . . . I’ve got René, Angelo and
“You need to step up a gear. I’ve got my last Championship
this year, and after that I want a youngster to
bring on. You’ve got what it takes. Trust me.”
René comes over to join us and pats my cheek; I
don’t know what to say. He agrees with Langloff: I’m
their great hope in this place.
“Think about it, young man,” says the champion,
putting on his mottled grey fur cloak. “We could meet
up again towards the end of the year. Think about
it . . .”
As soon as he leaves the room, René and Angelo
thump me on the neck.
“If you say no, you’re a loser. With him as a coach
you’d be ready for the Championship in a couple of
I feel a bit lost: this has come from nowhere. I need
to get out to think it all over, in peace, in my bed.
I put my wooden cue away in its case and said
goodbye to everyone.
“See you tomorrow.”
Once outside, I took a taxi.
As I lay in bed with my eyes closed, the waltzing balls
carried on spinning in my mind for some time.
I’m not recovering from these late nights very well
at the moment; maybe it’s because of my bedding.
With the pay I get today I can afford to buy a new
mattress. The gallery has just opened, and Liliane is all
bright and fresh. Mind you, it is eleven o’clock already.
“Jacques has dropped by already, at nine o’clock. He
says hi.”
Still half-asleep, I sit down near the reception desk,
which still has an empty champagne glass on it.
“Did it go on late?”
“Till midnight,” she says. “You wouldn’t believe how
many people there were. How about you, what time
did you go on till? Given the state you’re in, you must
have had a wild time.”
The only answer I can manage is a yawn.
“I’ve drawn up your payslip, all you have to do is
check the hours, and I’ll go and get Coste to sign it.
And that’s Antoine off out of here with his money in
his pocket, vanished from the face of the earth until we
dismantle the exhibition, am I right?”
It’s true that I never set foot in this place between
setting up and dismantling an exhibition. Jacques is
the one who takes care of maintenance, once a week.
“Who do these works belong to?” I ask.
“To the nation. Morand gave them to the country.”
To the nation . . . to everyone, in fact. Partly mine
too, then. Coste told us she had met Morand when he
came back from the United States and that she had
very much liked his work. She really wanted to put this
retrospective together.
“The Ministry of Culture has loaned us the pieces
for a month,” says Liliane. “When they’re dismantled,
they’ll all go back to the depot. You’re pretty keen on
the depot aren’t you, Antoine?”
Sure, I like it. It’s a huge reservoir of works of art, a
stockroom for part of our heritage. I work there in the
summer when the gallery is closed, in leaner times. It
was Coste who pulled some strings to get me the job.
“When is the next exhibition, actually?”
“March 22, you’ll have four days to set it up. And,
given the type of pieces, it’ll be quite a workout.”
“What sort of stuff is it?”
“They’re installations, objects mounted on plinths.”
Bad news . . . I fear the worst. I hate that sort of
thing, weird objects, African statuettes with personal
stereos, toothbrushes mounted on breezeblocks, basketballs
in aquariums and all sorts of other stuff.
It’s the post-Oxfam effect. For three years now, contemporary
art has been competing with a bric-a-brac
shop. It’s the cult of the practico-inert: you look at a
tin-opener on a plinth and you ask yourself all those
questions you would never ask in your own kitchen.
Fine but . . . Jacques and I just can’t help laughing. I
can’t count the number of times I’ve had to tell visitors
that the ashtray and umbrella stand were not part of
the exhibition.
“Can you keep an eye on things for me for quarter of
an hour? I’ll go and get your cheque.”
This is the usual procedure. I quite like playing the
part of the museum attendant, and it means I can
wake up slowly. But it actually involves the work of a
Titan; you really need an extensive knowledge of inertia.
People often find museum attendants funny, they
wonder what they’re thinking about, or people say that
they are in love with one particular piece of work, that
they spend their days daydreaming, sitting there for
thirty years with their eyes locked vaguely but doggedly
onto the same still-life. Usually it’s a plucked pheasant
and two rather ripe apples on a willow basket. But here
it’s more likely to be a willow pheasant and a rather
ripe basket on two plucked apples.
Out of curiosity, I glance at the visitors’ book to
read the praise, insults and graffiti left by the guests
yesterday evening. By looking through this, even the
very day after the private view, you can tell whether an
exhibition will do well or not. And it’s not looking
good for the Morand retrospective. “Rubbish, and it’s
the taxpayer who’s footing the bill ” or there’s “A beautiful
exhibition. Congratulations” or “I can do just as well,
and here’s my address” or even “Thirty years too late.
Contemporary art doesn’t stop in the 1960s!”
I really like this big white book, it’s the only way the
general public can express their opinion, anonymously
or openly, about what they have seen. The Morand
Exhibition won’t get ten visitors a day. But people do
realize they are taking a risk when they go into a modern
art gallery, they don’t necessarily expect to see
anything beautiful or decent. Otherwise they would go
to the Louvre. And those who, like me, don’t know
much about it, and who manage three shy little steps
over towards something impossible to approach . . .
well, they deserve the right to scribble a little something
in the visitors’ book.
A man comes in and smiles.
“Is it open to look round?”
“Is it free?”
“Yes. Come on in.”
He doesn’t even glance at the sculpture in the foyer
and goes straight into one of the other rooms. Not
hanging about, then. He is wearing the complete
panoply of the gentleman farmer. If I had some money
I would dress like that: a herringbone suit, almost
certainly Harris tweed, a beige shirt, a glossy brown tie,
big English shoes and a crumpled Burberry over his
shoulder. Let’s see when I get my next pay packet . . .
And if Liliane thinks of bringing back a cup of coffee
. . . I could leave here on top of the world with a
cheque in my hand and a long, lazy afternoon ahead
of me. To relieve the boredom, I pick up a catalogue
and leaf through it, trying to find the painter’s
Etienne Morand was born at Paray-le-Manial (Burgundy)
in 1940. After studying at the School of Fine Art he left
for New York in 1964, drawn by the Abstract Expressionist
movement. He took a close interest in the techniques used . . .
I stop reading abruptly.
A sound . . .
Something crackled.
Liliane still isn’t back.
It may not be very important, a spotlight that has
fizzled out or the wire stretching under the weight of a
painting, but I have to get up. Unless it’s that visitor
who has decided, as so many of them do, to try and
straighten a picture with a little nudge of his thumb. If
that’s what it is, I will have to follow him up with the
spirit level.
I’ll have to do a quick round of the room at the
end – softly, softly – even though I hate acting suspicious.
As I make my way over, the crackling gets louder.
I arrive in the room and the man turns round. I
scream . . .
“But . . . !! You’re . . . you’re . . .”
I’m trying to find a word, an insult perhaps, but I
don’t know what people say in this sort of situation.
He gives one final jerk with the Stanley knife to
free the canvas from the gaping frame. The yellow
I stammer, whispering various words that stay stuck
in my throat.
He calmly finishes the job.
I want to reduce the distance between us, but I can’t
take a single step forward, pacing ineffectually in front
of an invisible, insurmountable wall.
Terror . . .
I lean forwards, twice, without succeeding in moving
my legs. I need to break through the bricks, but the
soles of my shoes stay rooted to the spot. He is getting
flustered too, crumpling the canvas and only managing
to screw it into a ball under his Burberry. In
order to get out he has to get past me, to walk round
me or plough right through me; he hesitates, the
same wall is stopping him from taking any initiative,
then he shakes his head and brandishes the Stanley
“Get out of the way . . . this is nothing to do with
you!” he shouts.
I don’t know anything about fighting, I ought to
jump at his throat or maybe . . . or maybe I should run
to the exit and block the doorway . . . shut him in . . .
I really should step towards him, not let him see that
I’m at a complete loss, empty . . . my arms are hollow, I
can’t get them over this wall of terror.
“Get out of my way . . . for God’s sake, get out of my
I clenched my fists before taking off and launched
myself at him. I clung to his collar with both hands and
dragged down on them furiously to try and get him to
the floor. He struggled, and I fell with him. Kneeling
on the ground, my fist crashed into his jaw, I struck
again, then turned my head, and the blade of the
Stanley knife came and planted itself in my cheek. I
screamed and released my grip, he drove the blade
deeper into my flesh, and I could feel my cheek ripping
right down to the jaw.
I stayed motionless for a second. A sheet of blood
glided down over my neck.
I cried out.
Sputters of blood spurted from between my lips.
Then a great gush of it meant I couldn’t utter a sound.
Out of the corner of my eye I could see him getting
to his feet and picking up his raincoat.
I forgot how much it hurt, a surge of anger heaved
me to my feet. He started to run. I lurched after him
with one hand on my cheek, trying to hold back goodness
knows what – the blood streaming down my
sleeve, scraps of flesh, I don’t know, all I could see was
him, his back. I ran a little faster and threw myself
forwards to bring him down. He spun round and fell to
the floor in front of the sculpture in the foyer. He
drummed his heels into my face, something cracked
not far from the gap in my cheek, and my right eye
closed of its own accord.
With the other eye I saw him regain his balance
on his knees and pull himself up on the sculpture’s
plinth. With one hand he gripped one of the metallic
branches and pulled on it to bring the whole
lump of metalwork down on its side. He gave me
one last kick in the face, I howled like an animal and
brought my arms up over my eyes: everything went
I forced myself to look up.
I could feel myself slowly receding. I felt the blackout
rising in me like a hiccup. Just the one.
But before that there was a brief second in slow
I registered everything at the same time: the silence,
the heat, the flow of blood over my body.
And that silvery avalanche which started oscillating

The Family by Tonino Benacquista

Badfellas by Tonino Benacquista


They took possession of the house in the middle of the night.

Any other family would have seen it as a new start. The first morning of a new life – a new life in a new town. A rare moment that shouldn’t take place in the dark.

For the Blakes, however, it was a moonlight flit in reverse: they were moving in as discreetly as possible. Maggie, the mother, went in first, tapping her heels on the steps to scare away any lurking rats. She went through all the rooms, ending up in the cellar, which appeared to be clean and to have the perfect level of humidity for maturing wheels of Parmesan, or storing cases of Chianti. The father, Frederick, who had never felt at ease around rodents, allowed his wife to go ahead. He went round the outside of the house holding a flashlight, and ended up on a veranda piled high with old and rusty garden furniture, a warped ping­pong table and several shapes that were almost invisible in the darkness.

The daughter – Belle, aged seventeen – went upstairs into what would be her bedroom, a square, south­facing room looking out onto a maple tree and a bed of miraculously persistent white carnations – they looked like a constellation of stars in the night. She turned the bedhead to the north wall, moved the bedside table and began to visualize the walls covered with all the posters that had travelled with her over so many years and across so many borders. Belle’s mere presence made the place come alive. This was where she would henceforth sleep, do her revision, work on her movement and posture, sulk, dream, laugh and sometimes cry – all the things she had done every day of her adolescence. Warren, who was three years younger than her, checked out the next­door room without any real curiosity; he had no interest in views and harmonious layouts. All that mattered to him was having a supply of electricity and his own telephone line. Then, in less than a week, his complete mastery of the Internet would enable him to forget the French countryside, and even Europe, and provide him with the illusion of being back home, on the other side of the Atlantic, where he came from, and where he would one day return.

The villa had been built in 1900, of Norman brick and stone, decorated with a checked frieze across the façade, and festoons of blue­painted wood along the roof, which also had a sort of minaret overhanging the east–west angle of the house. The wrought­iron curlicues on the entrance gate made one want to visit what looked from a distance like a small baroque palace. However, at this time of night, the Blakes couldn’t have cared less about the aesthetics of the place, and were only concerned with its comfort. Despite its evident charm, the old building couldn’t conceal its shabbiness, and was certainly no substitute for the little jewel of modernity that had been their home long ago in Newark, New Jersey, USA.

All four of them now gathered in the drawing room, where, without a word, they removed the dust sheets which covered the armchairs, sofa, coffee table and as­yet­empty cupboards and shelves. Inside the red­and­black brick fireplace, which was big enough to roast a sheep, there was a plaque depicting two noblemen wrestling with a wild boar. Fred grabbed a whole lot of wooden knick­knacks from the cross­beam and threw them into the hearth. He always wanted to smash useless objects.

“Those fuck­ups forgot the TV again,” Warren said.

“They said they’d bring it tomorrow,” said his mother.

“Really tomorrow, or tomorrow like last time?” asked Fred, just as worried as his son.

“Look, you two, I hope you’re not going to attack me every time there’s some object missing in this house.

Why don’t you just ask them.”

“The TV isn’t just some object, Mom, it’s our con­nection to the outside world, the real world, outside this crumbling shack in this rat hole full of peasants we’re going to be lumbered with for years maybe. The TV is life, it’s my life, it’s us, it’s my country.”

Maggie and Frank suddenly felt guilty and couldn’t answer. They didn’t even challenge his bad language. They realized Warren had a right to be homesick. He had been just eight years old when events had forced them to leave America; of the four of them, he was the one who had suffered the most. Changing the subject, Belle asked what the town was called.

“Cholong­sur­Avre, Normandy!” Fred replied, making no attempt at a French accent. “Think of all the Americans who’ve heard of Normandy without knowing where the fuck it is in the world.”

“Apart from our boys landing here in ’44, what’s Normandy famous for?” asked Warren.

“Camembert,” the father ventured.

“We used to get that at Cagnes­sur­Mer, but we had the sun and the sea as well,” said Belle.

“We used to get it in Paris too, and that was Paris,” said Warren.

They all had happy memories of their arrival in the capital, six years earlier. Then circumstances had forced them to move down to the Côte d’Azur, where they had stayed for four years, until Fate had struck again, and they had ended up here in Cholong­sur­Avre in the Eure.

They then split up to explore the rooms they had not yet seen. Fred stopped in the kitchen, inspected the empty fridge, opened a few cupboards, put his hand on the ceramic ring. He was satisfied with the layout – he needed a huge amount of space for when he fancied making a tomato sauce – he stroked the wood of the butcher’s block, the tiling by the sink, the rush seats on the stools, and picked up a few knives, testing the blades with his fingernail. He always began by touching things, treating new places as if they were women.

In the bathroom, Belle struck poses in front of a splendid, slightly spotted mirror in an ancient mahog­any frame surmounted by a little matt­glass rose­shaped lamp holding a naked light bulb. She loved her reflection there. Maggie, for her part, opened her bedroom windows wide, pulled the sheets out of their bags, pulled the blankets down from the top of the cupboard, sniffed them, decided they were clean, and unrolled them onto the bed. Only Warren went on wandering from room to room, asking:

“Has anyone seen the dog?”

The ash­grey Australian Cattle Dog, christened Malavita by Fred, had joined the Blake family as soon as it had arrived in France. Maggie had had three reasons for adopting this little hairy animal with sticking­up ears: she would be a popular welcome present to entertain the children, as well as a cheap way to buy their for­giveness and make them forget their exile. Thanks to her astonishing tact and discretion, she had easily made herself popular. She never barked, ate neatly, mostly at night, and spent most of her time asleep, usually in a cellar or laundry room. Once a day they thought she was dead, and the rest of the time just lost. Malavita led the life of a cat and no one could argue with that. Warren finally found her, as expected, in the cellar, between a boiler on pilot and a brand­new washing machine. Like the others, the animal had found her corner, and had been the first to go to sleep.


Life in France had not put an end to the breakfast ritual. Fred got up early in order to see his children go off with a full stomach, giving them his blessing, sometimes parting with some extra pocket money or an invaluable piece of advice about life, before going back to bed with a clear conscience the minute they were out of the door. At almost fifty, Frederick Blake had almost never had to start his day before twelve o’clock, and he could count on one hand the days when he had failed to achieve this. The worst of those particular days had been the funeral of his friend Jimmy, his companion­at­arms from the earliest days of his career – nobody had dared show Jimmy disrespect, even when he was dead. The bastard had chosen to have himself buried two hours away from Newark, and at ten in the morning. It had been a tiresome day, from beginning to end.

“No cereal, no toast, no peanut butter,” said Maggie. “You’ll have to make do with what I’ve got from the local baker – apple beignets. I’ll do the shopping this afternoon, so spare me the complaints for now.” “That’s perfect, Mom,” said Belle.

Warren looked peeved and grabbed a beignet.

“Could somebody explain to me why the French, who are famous for their patisserie, have failed to invent the doughnut? It’s not hard, it’s just a beignet with a hole in the middle.”

Half­asleep and already exasperated by the thought of the day ahead, Fred asked if the hole added to the flavour.

“They’ve learned about cookies,” said Belle. “I’ve had some good ones.”

“Call those cookies?”

“I’ll make some doughnuts on Sunday, and cookies too,” said Maggie, to keep the peace.

“Do we know where the school is?” asked Fred, trying to take an interest in a daily routine that had hitherto passed him by.

“I’ve given them a map.”

“Go with them.”

“We’ll manage, Mom,” said Warren. “We’ll even go faster without a map. We’ve got a sort of radar in our heads – you find yourself in any street in the world with a satchel on your back, and a little inner voice warns you: ‘Not there, it’s that way’, and you meet more and more shapes with satchels going the same way, until you all plunge into a sort of black hole. It’s a law of physics.”

“If you could only be so motivated in the classroom,” said Maggie.

That was the signal to go. They all kissed each other, said they’d see each other at the end of the afternoon, and the first day began. Each one, for various reasons, held back the thousands of questions on the tips of their tongues, and accepted the situation as if it made some sense.

Maggie and Fred found themselves alone in a suddenly silent kitchen.

“What about your day?” he asked first.

“The usual. I’ll look around the town, see what there is to see, find the shops. I’ll be back about six with the

shopping. What about you?”

“Oh, me…”

Behind that “oh, me” she could hear a silent litany, sentences she knew by heart even though they were never actually spoken: oh me, I’ll just spend the day wondering what we’re doing here, and then I’ll pretend to do something, as usual, but what?… That’s the problem.

“Try not to hang around all day in your dressing gown.”

“Because of the neighbours?”

“No, because of your morale.”

“My morale’s fine, Maggie, I’m just a bit disorientated,

I always take longer to adapt than you.”

“What will we say if we run into any neighbours?”

“Don’t know yet, just smile for the time being, we’ve got a couple of days to come up with an idea.”

“Quintiliani says we mustn’t mention Cagnes, we must say we came from Menton; I’ve told the kids.”

“As if that creep had to spell it out.”

To avoid a painful conversation, Maggie went upstairs while Fred made himself feel good by clearing the table. He could now see the garden in daylight through the window: it had a well­kept lawn apart from a few maple leaves, a green metal bench, a gravel path and a lean­to sheltering an abandoned barbecue. He suddenly remembered his nocturnal visit to the veranda and its strange, rather pleasant atmosphere. He suddenly had to see it again in daylight, before doing anything else. As if there was anything else to do.

It was March, and the weather was mild and bright. Maggie hesitated for a moment over a suitable outfit for her first visit to the town. She was very dark, with a matt complexion and black eyes, and normally wore brown and ochre colours. Today she chose beige jodhpur­style trousers, a grey long­sleeved T­shirt and a cotton cable­stitch sweater. She went downstairs, with a little knapsack over her shoulder, glanced around briefly, looking for her husband, shouted, “See you this evening!” and left the house, unanswered.

Fred went onto the already sunny veranda, where he detected a soft smell of moss and dry wood – a pile of logs left behind by the previous tenants. The blinds over the bay window made stripes of sunshine along the length of the room. Fred pretended these were rays from heaven, and entertained himself by exposing his body to them. The room gave onto the garden, but was protected from the elements and covered pretty well forty square yards. He went over to the dump in the corner and started clearing out all the old stuff cluttering it up and blocking off space and light. He opened the French windows and started throwing all the forgotten possessions of the unknown family out onto the gravel: a television set from another era, some plates and copper pans, grubby telephone directories, a wheel­less bike and a pile of other objects, quite understandably abandoned. Fred took great pleasure in chucking it all out, muttering “Trash!” and “Junk!” each time he hurled a piece out of his sight. Finally he picked up a small grey­green bakelite case, and was about to hurl it out with the gesture of a discus­thrower. But then he suddenly felt curious about its contents and, placing it on the ping­pong table, prised open the two rusty fasteners and opened the lid. Black metal. Mother­of­pearl keys. European keyboard. Automatic return. The machine had a name too: Brother 900, 1964 model.

Fred now held a typewriter in his hands for the first time in his life. He weighed it as he had done his children when they were born. He turned it around, examining its contours and angles, and its visible machinery, which was both splendidly obsolete and strangely complicated, full of pistons, sprockets and clever ironmongery. With the tips of his fingers he stroked the surface of the keys – r t y u – tried to recognize them just by feel, and then with his whole hand he caressed the metal frame. He held the spool and tried to unwind the ribbon, sniffing it to see if he could smell the ink, which he couldn’t. He hit the n key and then several others, faster and faster until they tangled together. He excitedly untangled them, then placed all his fingers haphazardly on the keys, and there, standing in the pink light of the veranda, with his dressing gown half open and his eyes shut, he felt overcome by a strange and unknown feeling.