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Authors: Niccolo Ammaniti

Steal You Away

BOOK: Steal You Away
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Steal You Away

Niccolò Ammaniti

Translated from the Italian by Jonathan Hunt

To Nora

… and I remembered the days when I was innocent, and the red light of coral lit my hair, when starry-eyed and vain I would gaze into the moon and force her to tell me you’re beautiful …

Sei bellissima
, Loredana Berté

   

Why is the mandoline no more in fashion?

Why do we never hear the strummed guitar?

Guapparia
, Rodolfo Falvo

   

Alegría es cosa buena.

La macarena

1

I
t’s over.

Holidays. Holidays. Holidays.

For three months. An eternity.

The beach. Swimming. Bike rides with Gloria. And the little streams of warm brackish water among the reeds. Wading knee-deep, looking for minnows, tadpoles, newts and maggots.

Pietro Moroni leans his bike against the wall and looks around.

He’s twelve years old, but small for his age.

He’s thin. Suntanned. A mosquito bite on his forehead. Black hair cut short, in rough-and-ready fashion, by his mother. A snub nose and large hazel eyes. He’s wearing a white World Cup T-shirt, a pair of frayed denim shorts and translucent rubber sandals, the kind that make a black mush form between your toes.

Where’s Gloria? he wonders.

He threads his way through the crowded tables of the Bar Segafredo.

All his schoolmates are there.

All waiting, eating ice creams, trying to find a patch of shade.

It’s very warm.

For the past week the wind seems to have disappeared, moved off somewhere else taking all the clouds with it and leaving behind a huge incandescent sun that boils your brain inside your skull.

It’s eleven o’clock in the morning and the thermometer shows thirty-seven degrees Celsius.

The cicadas chirp away obsessively on the pines behind the
volleyball court. And somewhere, not far away, an animal must have died, because now and again you catch a sickly whiff of carrion.

The school gate is closed.

The results aren’t up yet.

A slight fear moves furtively in his belly, pushes against his diaphragm and restricts his breathing.

He goes out of the bar.

There she is!

Gloria is sitting on a low wall. On the other side of the street. He goes across. She pats him on the shoulder and asks: ‘Are you scared?’

‘A bit.’

‘So am I.’

‘Come off it,’ says Pietro. ‘You’ve passed. You know you have.’

‘What are you going to do afterwards?’

‘I don’t know. How about you?’

‘I don’t know. Shall we do something together?’

‘Okay.’

They sit there in silence on the wall, and while on the one hand Pietro thinks she looks even prettier than usual in that light-blue towelling T-shirt, on the other he feels his panic growing.

If he considers the matter rationally he knows there’s nothing to worry about, everything was sorted out in the end.

But his belly is not of the same opinion.

He wants to go to the bathroom.

   

There’s a bustle in front of the bar.

Everyone comes to life, crosses the road and throngs around the locked gate.

Italo, the school caretaker, comes across the yard, keys in hand, shouting: ‘Don’t push! Don’t shove! You’ll hurt yourselves.’

‘Come on.’ Gloria heads for the gate.

Pietro feels as if he has two ice cubes under his armpits. He can’t move.

Meanwhile they’re all pushing to get in.

You’ve failed!
says a little voice.

(
What?
)

You’ve failed!

It’s true. Not a presentiment. Not a suspicion. It’s true.

(
Why?
)

It just is
.

There are some things you just know and there’s no point in wondering why.

How could he have imagined he’d passed?

Go and look, what are you waiting for? Go on. Move
.

At last he breaks out of his paralysis and joins the crowd. His heart beats a frantic little march under his breastbone.

He uses his elbows. ‘Let me through … I want to get through, please.’

‘Take it easy! Are you crazy?’

‘Keep calm, you idiot. Where do you think you’re going?’

He receives a couple of shoves. He tries to get through the gate, but because he’s so small the bigger pupils just throw him back. He drops down on all fours and crawls between their legs, circumventing the blockage.

‘Calm down! Calm down! Don’t push … Keep back, for Chr …’ Italo is standing beside the gate and when he sees Pietro the words die in his mouth.

You’ve failed

It’s written in the caretaker’s eyes.

Pietro stares at him for a moment, then runs forward again, towards the steps.

He bounds up them three at a time and enters.

At the other end of the entrance hall, beside a bronze bust of Michelangelo, is the noticeboard with the results.

Something strange is happening.

There’s this boy, I think he’s in 2A, his name is … I can’t remember
his name, who was going out and he saw me and stopped, as if it
wasn’t me standing in front of him but some kind of Martian, and
now he’s looking at me and nudging another guy, called Giampaolo
Rana, his name I do remember, and he’s saying something to him and
Giampaolo has turned round too and is looking at me, but now he’s
looking at the noticeboards and now he’s looking at me again and
speaking to another boy who’s looking at me and another boy’s
looking at me and everyone’s looking at me and everything’s gone
quiet

Everything has gone quiet.

The crowd opens out, leaving him a clear path through to the class lists. His legs take him forward, between two wings of schoolmates. He goes on till he finds himself a few inches from the noticeboard, being pushed by the kids arriving after him.

Read it
.

He looks for his section.

B! Where is it? B? Section B? One B, Two B. There it is!

It’s the last sheet on the right.

Abate. Altieri. Bart …

He scans the list from the top downwards.

One name is written in red.

Somebody’s failed
.

About halfway down. Somewhere around M, N, O, P.

It’s Pierini
.

Moroni.

He shuts his eyes tight and when he opens them again everything around him is blurred and wavy.

He reads the name again.

MORONI PIETRO
FAILED

He reads it again.

MORONI PIETRO
FAILED

What’s the matter, can’t you read?

He reads it yet again.

M-O-R-O-N-I. MORONI. MORONI.
Mor … M …

A voice echoes in his brain.
What’s your name?

(
Sorry? What did you say?
)

What’s your name?

(
Who? Me … ? Er … Pietro. Moroni. Moroni Pietro
.) And up there it says Moroni Pietro. And right next to it, in red, in capitals, in big capital letters, failed.

So that feeling was right.

And there he was hoping it was just the usual sickening feeling he gets when he’s due to have a piece of classwork returned and he’s ninety-nine per cent sure he’s done really badly. A feeling which always turns out to be unjustified because, as he knows, that microscopic one per cent is worth far more than all the rest.

The others! Look at the others
.

    PIERINI FEDERICO
PASSED
BACCI ANDREA
PASSED
  RONCA STEFANO
PASSED

He looks for traces of red on any of the other sheets, but they’re all solid blue.

I can’t be the only one in the whole school who’s failed. Miss
Palmieri told me I’d pass. She said everything would be fine. She
prom

(
No
.)

He mustn’t think about it.

He must just leave.

Why did they pass Pierini, Ronca and Bacci and not me?

Here it comes.

The lump in the throat.

A spy in his brain tells him:
Pietro, old pal, you’d better get out
of here quick, you’re going to burst into tears. And you don’t want
to do that in front of everyone, do you?

‘Pietro! Pietro! What does it say?’

He turns round.

Gloria.

‘Have I passed?’

Her face bobs up at the back of the crowd.

Pietro looks for Celani.

Blue
.

Like all the others.

He tries to tell her, but can’t. He has a funny taste in his mouth. Copper. Acid. He takes a deep breath and swallows.

I’m going to throw up
.

‘Well? Have I passed?’

Pietro nods.

‘Yesss! I’ve passed! I’ve passed!’ Gloria shrieks and starts hugging the kids around her.

Why is she making such a fuss about it?

‘Hey, and what about you?’

Answer her, go on
.

He feels sick. Some hornets seem to be trying to get into his ears. His legs are limp and his cheeks are on fire.

‘Pietro! What’s the matter? Pietro!’

Nothing. I’ve only failed, that’s all
, he feels like answering. He leans back against the wall and slides slowly down to the floor.

‘Pietro, what’s the matter? Aren’t you well?’ she asks him and looks at the lists.

‘Didn’t you pa … ?’

‘No …’

‘What about the others?’

‘Y …’

And Pietro Moroni realises that everyone is staring at him and crowding around him, that he, sitting there in the middle, is the jester, the black sheep (red sheep) and that Gloria is on the other side too, now, with all the others, and it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter at all, that she’s looking at him with those Bambi-like eyes.

2

On 9th December, at six twenty in the morning, while a storm of rain and wind lashed the countryside, a black Fiat Uno Turbo GTI (a relic of an age when, for a few lire more than the basic model, you could buy a motorised coffin that ran like a Porsche, guzzled like a Cadillac and crumpled like a can of Coca-Cola) turned off the Via Aurelia at the exit for Ischiano Scalo and went along a two-lane road that cut across the muddy fields. It passed the sports centre and the big farmers’ club building and entered the village.

The short main street, Corso Italia, was covered with earth washed down by the rainwater. The poster of the Ivana Zampetti Beauty Farm had been torn off by the wind and dumped in the middle of the road.

There wasn’t a soul around, except for a mangy mutt with more breeds in its bloodline than teeth in its head, which was rooting among the rubbish spilled from an overturned bin.

The Uno evaded the mongrel, cruised past the lowered blinds of Marconi the butcher’s, the tobacconist’s-cum-parfumerie and the bank, and entered Piazza XXV Aprile, the heart of the village.

Waste paper, plastic bags, newspapers and rain scudded across the station square. The yellowing leaves of the old palm, in the middle of the little garden, were all folded over to one side. The door of the little station, a squat grey building, was closed, but the red sign of the Station Bar was lit up, indicating that it was already open.

The car stopped by the war memorial and stood there with its engine running. Its exhaust pipe belched out dense black fumes. Its darkened windows made it impossible to see inside.

Then, at last, the driver’s door opened with a metallic creak.

Out came a blast of
Volare
in the flamenco version by the Gipsy Kings, and closely followed by a big, burly man with long blond hair, bug-eye sunglasses and a brown leather jacket with an Apache eagle embroidered in pearls on the back.

His name was Graziano Biglia.

He stretched his arms, yawned, loosened up his legs, took out a packet of Camels and lit one.

Home again.

The Albatross and the Go-Go Girl
 

To understand why Graziano Biglia decided to return on precisely 9th December, after an absence of two years, to Ischiano Scalo, the place of his birth, we’ll have to go back a bit in time.

Not all that far. Seven months. And we’ll have to hop over to the other side of Italy, onto the eastern coast. The part of it known as the Romagna Riviera.

   

The summer is just beginning.

It’s Friday evening and we are at the Carillon del Mare, a cheap little restaurant on the beach, a few kilometres from Riccione, specializing in seafood and bacterial gastroenteritis.

The weather is very warm, but a light sea breeze makes everything more bearable.

The restaurant is crowded. Mainly foreigners, German and Dutch couples, people from the North.

And there stands Graziano Biglia. Leaning against the bar, drinking his third margarita.

Pablo Gutierrez, a dark lad with a fringe and a carp tattoo on his back, enters the restaurant and comes over to him.

‘Shall we start?’ the Spaniard asks.

‘Okay.’ Graziano casts a knowing look at the barman, who
reaches down under the bar, pulls out a guitar and hands it to him.

This evening, for the first time in a long while, he’s in the mood for playing. He feels inspired.

Maybe it’s the two margaritas he’s just drunk, maybe it’s the breeze, maybe it’s the intimate, friendly atmosphere in that rotunda by the sea, who knows?

He sits down on a stool in the middle of the small dance floor, which is lit by warm red lights. He opens the leather case and draws out his guitar like a samurai unsheathing his katana.

A Spanish guitar made by the famous Barcelona luthier Xavier Martinez specially for Graziano. He tunes it and has the impression that a magic fluid flows between him and his instrument, fusing them into a single entity, capable of producing wondrous chords. He glances at Pablo. He is standing behind two conga drums.

A spark of mutual understanding ignites in their eyes.

And without more ado they strike up with a piece by Paco de Lucia, then move on to Santana, a couple of John McLaughlin pieces and, to end with, the immortal Gipsy Kings.

Graziano’s hands run deftly up and down the neck of the guitar as if possessed by the spirit of the great Andrès Segovia.

The audience love it. Applause. Cheers. Whistles of approval.

He holds them in the palm of his hand. Especially the female department. He can hear them squealing like rabbits on heat.

This has something to do with the magic of Spanish music and a lot to do with his looks.

It’s difficult not to fall for a guy like Graziano.

The blond mane of shoulder-length hair. The massive chest covered by a soft brown carpet. The dark, Omar Sharif-like eyes. The jeans, faded and torn at the knees. The necklace of turquoise. The tribal tattoo on his bulging biceps. The bare feet. The whole conspires to shatter the hearts of his female listeners.

When the set is over, after the umpteenth encore of
Samba pa
ti
, after the umpteenth kiss blown at the sunburnt German girl, Graziano takes his leave of Pablo and heads for the toilets to empty
his bladder and recharge his batteries with a nice lungful of Bolivian snow.

He is about re-emerge when a tall brunette tanned as brown as a chocolate biscuit, a bit long in the tooth but with tits the size of balloons, enters the bathroom.

‘It’s the men’s …’ Graziano says, pointing at the door.

She stops him with one hand. ‘I’d like to give you a blow job, do you mind?’

Has anyone ever refused a blow job?

‘Be my guest,’ says Graziano, indicating the toilet.

‘But first I want to show you something,’ says the brunette. ‘Look over there, in the middle of the room. You see that guy in the Hawaiian shirt? He’s my husband. We’re from Milan …’

Her husband, a slightly built man with slicked-back hair, is stuffing himself with peppered mussels.

‘Wave to him.’

Graziano does so. The man raises his champagne glass, then claps his hands.

‘He thinks you’re great. Says you play divinely. That you have the gift.’

She pushes him into the toilet. Shuts the door. Sits on the seat. Unbuttons his jeans and says: ‘But now we’re going to cheat on him.’

Graziano leans back against the wall, closes his eyes.

And time vanishes.

   

Such was Graziano Biglia’s life in those days.

Life in the fast lane, as a song title might put it. A life of encounters, pleasant surprises, positive energies and flows. A life to the tune of a merengue.

What could be better than the bitter taste of the drug numbing your mouth and a billion molecules whirling in your brain like a wind that rages yet does no harm? Of a strange tongue caressing your pecker?

What?

* * *

The brunette invites him to join them for dinner.

Champagne. Fried calamari. Mussels.

The husband has a pet-food factory in Cinisello Balsamo and a Ferrari Testarossa in the restaurant car park.

I wonder if they take drugs?
Graziano thinks to himself.

If he can sell them a few grams and make a few lire, this already promising evening could become magical.

‘You must have an amazing life: all sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, eh?’ asks the brunette, a lobster pincer between her teeth.

It depresses Graziano when people say things like that.

Why do they open their mouths and spew out words, useless words?

Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll … The same old line
.

But over dinner he continues to muse on it.

Actually, it’s true in a way.

His life is sex, drugs and … no, you can’t really call it rock’ n’roll … and flamenco.

But what’s wrong with that?

Sure, many people would hate a life like mine. Drifting.
Rootless. But I like it, and I don’t give a damn what anyone else
thinks
.

Once a Belgian guy, sitting in meditation on a flight of steps in Benares, had told him: ‘I feel like an albatross borne on the currents of air. On positive currents which I control with a gentle flap of my wings.’

Graziano, too, felt like an albatross.

An albatross with one great commitment: not to harm others or himself.

According to some people pushing drugs is harmful.

According to Graziano it depends how you do it.

If you do it to make ends meet and you’re not trying to get rich, it’s okay. If you sell to friends, it’s okay. If you sell quality drugs and not crap, it’s okay.

If he could make a living just from playing the guitar, he’d give up pushing on the spot.

According to some people taking drugs is harmful. According
to Graziano it depends how you do it. If you overdo it, if you let the drugs freak you out, it’s not okay. He doesn’t need doctors and priests to tell him that the white stuff has unpleasant side-effects. But if you only take the occasional toot, there’s nothing wrong with it at all.

And what about sex?

Sex? Sure, I get a lot of it, but how can I help it if women
like me and I like them? (I’m not into men, let’s get that quite
clear.) It takes two to have sex. Sex is the most beautiful thing
in the world if you do it in the right way, without any complications
. (Graziano has never reflected much on the obviousness of this statement)

And what else does Graziano like?

Latino music, playing the guitar in restaurants (
as long as I get
paid!
), sunbathing on the beach, fooling about with his friends in front of a huge orange sun as it sinks into the sea and …


and that’s about it
.

Don’t believe those people who say that if you want to appreciate
the good things of life you have to work your butt off. It’s
not true. They’re trying to con you. Pleasure is a religion and the
body is its temple
.

And Graziano had organised his life accordingly.

He lived in a studio flat in the centre of Riccione from June to August, in September he moved to Ibiza and in November he went to Jamaica for the winter.

At forty-four years of age, Graziano Biglia felt like a professional gipsy, a vagabond of the dharma, a migrant soul in search of its karma.

That’s how he described himself, at least until that evening, that fateful June evening when his life intertwined with that of Erica Trettel, the go-go dancer.

   

And here is the professional gipsy two hours after the feast at the Carillon del Mare.

He is sitting in the gallery of the Hangover, slumped over a table, as if some thief had stolen his backbone. Eyes reduced to
slits. Mouth half-open. In his hand he holds a Cuba libre which he can’t drink.

‘God, am I wasted,’ he keeps repeating.

The mix of coke, ecstasy, wine and fried seafood has done for him.

The pet-food manufacturer and his wife are sitting beside him.

The discotheque is crammed fuller than a supermarket shelf.

He has the impression that he’s on a cruise ship because the discotheque keeps rolling from side to side. The place where they’re sitting is lousy, though it’s supposed to be the VIP area. A huge speaker, hanging above his head, is shattering his nervous system. But he’d rather have his right foot amputated than get up and look for another place.

The pet-food manufacturer keeps yelling things in his ear. Things Graziano doesn’t understand.

He looks down.

The dance floor is swarming like an anthill.

All that’s left in his head is simple truths.

It’s a madhouse. It’s Friday. And Friday’s always a madhouse
.

He turns his head slowly, like a Fresian bull grazing in Swiss mountain pastures.

And he sees her.

She’s dancing.

Dancing naked on a cube in the middle of the anthill.

He knows the usual dancers of the Hangover. But he’s never seen her before.

She must be new. Wow, she’s a real fox. And can she dance
.

The speakers vomit out drum’n’bass over a carpet of bodies and heads and arms and she is up there, as remote and unattainable as the goddess Kali.

The strobe lights freeze her in an infinite sequence of plastic sensual poses.

He observes her with the fixed gaze typical of substance abuse.

She’s the sexiest woman he’s ever seen.

Imagine being her man … Having a girl like that beside you
.
Imagine how they’d envy you. But who is she?

He’d like to ask someone. The barman, perhaps. But he can’t get up. His legs are paralysed. Besides, he can’t take his eyes off her.

She must be something really special because normally the young heifers (that’s what he calls them … ) don’t interest Graziano.

A communication problem.

He usually hunts more seasoned game. He prefers the mature, voluptuous woman, who can appreciate a sunset or a moonlight serenade, who isn’t full of hang-ups like a twenty-year-old and who can have a good fuck without burdening it with paranoia and expectations.

But in this case every distinction, every category goes down the can.

A girl like that would make a poof turn straight.

Imagine screwing her
.

A faded image of making love on a white beach on a desert island goes through his mind. And as if by magic his cock begins to stiffen.

Who is she? Who is she? Where did she come from?

God, Buddha, Krishna, First Principle, whoever you are, you’ve materialised her on that cube to give me a sign of your existence.

She’s perfect
.

Not that the other go-go girls, around the sides of the dance floor, aren’t perfect too. They all have firm buttocks and shapely legs, full rounded breasts and flat muscular stomachs. But none of them is like her, she has something special, something Graziano can’t put into words, something animal, something he’s only ever seen in the black girls of Cuba.

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