‘The Stone Bench’ was shortlisted for the 2022 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
Niccolo rolls 12 cigarettes, one at time, sitting astride the stone bench at the back of the garden. He lines them up in front of him like the palings of a picket fence. Next to the rolled cigarettes, half a dozen wooden matches. He has calculated that a dozen smokes will last the hour and a half the two men usually spend together in this most secluded part of the grounds. The other man shifts his weight on the cane webbing of his wheelchair, holding firmly to the wooden handrails that encircle the wheels. He watches with fascination the concentrated face of the younger man who has not looked up from his work.
The men are unseen from the hospital, largely hidden under the Roman pines that line the crest of a slope from which the city begins its slow descent; roofs that flow like a hillside of clay poppies down to the river and across to the great dome. Niccolo pushes the patient to this back part of the garden every Tuesday and Friday, the days of the week for which he is assigned to the patient’s watch at the hospital. Officials here have, by order of the state, given him the designation ‘companion’, meant to suggest a friend who has an interest in the patient’s well-being, a far cry from the more accurate role of guard and spy. Still, he is the only one of the companions to take the patient outdoors.
The Sanatorio has been built to serve the governing elite: ministers, deputies, generals—even cardinals seek out its handsome fittings for their convalescence. From the windows of the upper floors, they look across the city to their apostolic home. The man in the wheelchair is, however, permitted no view of the city. The straps that raise the metal shutters have been removed from the window in his room. The years in state prisons have achieved their goal, have broken his body, but the authorities still worry a view of the city and its streets will embolden his mind. The Leader fears no mind in Italy more than this one. Hence, the patient has seen a city street only once since arriving here more than a year ago.
It was a morning in November, when Niccolo was talking, as he often did, about his Benelli 220 Turismo—its power and balance, its polished leather saddle—that the patient wisely expressed a wish to one day see the motorcycle. That same afternoon, for the first time since he began here, Niccolo broke the list of rules. He slipped the wheelchair unnoticed out of the garden, passed the hospital mechanic’s shed and wheeled the chair onto the street where the Turismo was parked. The man in the wheelchair was generously approving. He commended his companion and reached out, with some effort, to place an admiring hand on the gleaming red gas tank. They both laughed and took comfort, Niccolo in his pride, the patient in this brief moment seeing the open doors of shops and children in the street. From that day on, Niccolo has called the man in the wheelchair Dottore.
Finally, on this Tuesday morning, Niccolo hands a cigarette to the patient, takes one himself, lights both with a wooden match scraped against the stone bench, draws the smoke deeply and begins their exchange. Notwithstanding their differences, he has taken up a challenge to make the patient laugh with jokes and amusing stories told in the first few minutes of their garden visits. The nursing sisters standing at open windows on these warm April days sometimes hear their laughter but not their words. The men go quiet after the jokes. They have eased into a kind of cautious regard, one for the other, and in their circle of shade around the bench they have begun to tell true stories, stories from their lives, some memorable, others mended by memory. The man in the wheelchair, his legs covered by a folded woolen blanket, asks for stories of Niccolo’s youth, wants to understand how he came to choose this path.
Niccolo tells stories of his boyhood walking the streets in the ‘city of violins’, streets where Stradivari and Guarneri once had their workshops; of his youthful days unloading barges on the Cremona quayside; of running with Farinacci’s Black Shirts, menacing farmers and villagers who lived at the edges of the river-port city on the Po. He tells the patient about a time his gang of thugs threw a man from the bell tower in Castelverde and pinned Il Duce’s manifesto to the broken body lying in the street. For all the celebrated music of Cremona, it was the fascists who had captured Niccolo’s ear with their contagious songs of nativism and war. The man in the wheelchair wants to understand, studies his companion’s face, convinced he has heard a barely hidden hint of what could have been regret.
They both go quiet for a moment. The older man knows well the skill of the fascist to find cracks through which their poison seeps, much like the skill of the church. And he has a belief about truth: that its telling is revolutionary and a curative; that it too finds openings, works its way into the ethos, into the body and does battle with the poison. So, he has asked for these stories, wants them spoken aloud. But Niccolo says, ‘Your turn, Dottore,’ as he picks up two more cigarettes. The patient smiles. He has, on previous days, told his companion tales of the 10 long years of his imprisonment, of the beatings in prison by fascists one day and Stalinists the next, of his wife and sons in Russia’s winter. He has recounted the days of his childhood in the Sardinian hills, of visiting the sea, of eating figs tasting of sea-salt spray. Today he says, perhaps too loudly, ‘I will tell you about meeting Vladimir Lenin.’ Niccolo turns quickly to the building, afraid now of being heard, wary of the Russian name. He sees a door swing open; a voice calls out,
A nursing sister stands at the building’s rear door. She wears the cornette of the Daughters of Charity, its starched white folds stretching out from her face like the wings of a swan in flight. Beside her is another woman wearing a sky-blue beret and a pale blouse the colour of cream. She waves at the men. The sister calls out again across the garden.
‘Your friend has come to visit.’
The woman walks into the garden while the sister returns to the hospital. Niccolo rises quickly, waves, says to his companion, ‘It’s Tatiana,’ and goes to meet her. The two have met twice before on her many visits to the patient, and Niccolo has been struck by her attractiveness and humour and by her devotion to her brother-in-law.
‘Hello Niccolo,’ she says. ‘I’m happy to see Nino has your company today.’ She takes his arm as they walk back to the stone bench and to the man in the wheelchair, whom she kisses on the top of his head. She pulls a dove cake from her bag, hands it to him and sits on Niccolo’s bench.
‘Thank you, Tania,’ he says. ‘Shall we eat it now?’
‘Yes please. It’s very soft. How are you, Nino?’
‘Fine. Niccolo has been good to me today. He didn’t let the chair roll down the hill.’
Niccolo leans against the trunk of a Roman pine. ‘I was going to do that when we walk back, Dottore,’ he says.
Tatiana lets loose her throaty laugh. She takes a cigarette from the bench and looks to Niccolo. He reaches for the matches beside her and lights the cigarette. She says to her brother-in-law, ‘Shall I open the cake, Nino?’ He smiles and tries himself to remove the brown paper wrapping. She takes it from him, opens it, and places it on his lap. He asks, ‘What is the news of the world today, Tania?’
‘Mussolini has committed more soldiers and armoured lorries to the war in Spain. They say he was humiliated by Guadalajara. The British and French make jokes about it.’
Niccolo steps forward to break off a piece from the cake and catches the patient’s eye. He coughs a gentle warning, then moves back against the tree. The patient turns the conversation, asks Tatiana news of her family, but there has been nothing new in recent days. She continues to worry about the last letter which told of artists and writers in Moscow now caught up in the purges. She is afraid for some friends—for Meyerhold and Nikolai Erdman—is confused by their harassment, calls them both good communists. She asks her brother-in-law how it is possible that the same injustices he has suffered in fascist Rome can be perpetrated in communist Moscow. ‘Mirror images?’ he suggests. He sees Niccolo stiffen. He adds, ‘Mussolini and Stalin are surrounded by running dogs, and most of them bite.’
‘Be careful Dottore; both of you,’ says Niccolo. The patient moves on to the subject of hospital food and flowering plants in the garden. Tatiana talks about the growing number of motor cars on the streets of Rome. The patient continues to trace Niccolo’s face. He draws Niccolo in, asks if the automobiles are a problem for him and his Benelli?
‘I go around them, Dottore, and between them. When something blocks the way, I squeeze by, and the lorry drivers call out “Lucky bastard”.’
The patient turns to his sister-in-law. ‘Niccolo has been telling me about his youth in Lombardy.’ He looks back to Niccolo, who makes an uncomfortable shift against the tree. ‘In Cremona on the Po. The city of Stradivari and Amati.’ Tatiana says, ‘I hope you didn’t stop on my account Niccolo. I would very much like to hear those stories.’ There is a silence before the patient speaks again: ‘Why don’t you tell her about the students in Piacenza?’ The younger man looks away awkwardly, then turns toward the sound of a motor car in the street beyond the wall. ‘I know that engine,’ he says with the excitement of a child. ‘A Topolino. No other motor car sounds like it.’ He hurries to the wall, lifts himself to the top of it and watches the Fiat disappear down the street.
Voices can be heard across the garden. Tatiana turns to the hospital. Two men in well-tailored suits have begun to walk toward them. The nursing sister has pointed these visitors to the corner of the garden where the two men and the woman are gathered. The patient tries to turn his head to see better but finds it difficult. Tatiana calls out to Niccolo, still on the wall. He bounds up the rise in four or five steps, sees that one of the two men is the hospital director. The other man makes a slight gesture of the head to Niccolo as they approach him, a clear signal to retreat. Without hesitation, Niccolo steps back several paces. The two men stop in front of the wheelchair.
‘Yes,’ answers the patient.
‘Shall we speak in private?’
‘We are in private,’ he says. Tatiana smiles behind a hand held to her face.
‘I have come from the office of the Ministry of Grace and Justice.’
Tatiana’s barely hidden laughter irritates the officer. Again, he suggests that this meeting would be better held in private, but Gramsci waves off the suggestion. ‘What is it you want?’ he asks. The man gestures to the hospital administrator who steps forward and informs the patient of the news they are here to give: his doctors have decided he is not well enough to be released. His planned convalescence in Sardinia must be postponed. Tatiana stands before he finishes speaking. ‘My brother-in-law is no longer a prisoner of the state. We are grateful for his treatment here at the Sanatorio, but he will leave for Sardinia in two days. You cannot prevent it.’
The Grace and Justice official steps between them. ‘On the contrary Madonna, it has been ordered at the highest levels. You must understand; it is in the patient’s best interest that this decision has been made.’
Tatiana moves in closer. ‘This is not a medical decision made in his interest, and you know so. Like every decision involving my brother-in-law, it is a political decision.’
The officer steps back, affronted by the woman whose face is inches from his own. He gestures for Niccolo to remove her. Gramsci intervenes. ‘It’s alright Niccolo; everything is fine.’ Niccolo is rattled, walks the few steps to the stone bench and stands beside Tatiana.
‘Why the Justice Ministry?’ Gramsci asks.
‘The Grace and Justice Ministry.’
‘Yes, of course. I keep forgetting. I’ve always admired the fascist mastery of hiding its true intent behind language.’
‘The Government has proven masterful at many things Signore Gramsci, including governing. In answer to your question, the Minister has taken an interest. He will speak publicly tomorrow to explain the health conditions that make your planned release ill-timed.’ He pauses and smiles at his own unintended pun. ‘Your advocates will see that this decision is prompted by our concern for your well-being.’
‘No. They will see the true face of fasci…’ Niccolo places a warning hand on Tatiana’s shoulder as she stands to speak. She stops, turns to him. The ministry official’s eyes move from the hand on the woman’s shoulder to the guard’s face. Niccolo returns neither his look nor Tatiana’s, focused instead on the ground. His attention is captured by a green and bronze beetle crawling across a paving stone at his feet before it disappears into the grass. He thinks in this awkward moment that but for the interruption by the visitors, he would have picked it up and held it in his hand where Gramsci and Tatiana could examine it. But not on this day. Still, before he can check himself, his hand still on Tatiana’s shoulder, he has said, ‘Did you see the beetle, Dottore?’
Gramsci looks down in search of it. The hospital director also scans the ground. A child begins to cry in the street. Gramsci says he is chilly and asks his sister-in-law to place around his shoulders the blanket that covers his lap. Niccolo says, ‘I’ll do it,’ but the Grace and Justice official interrupts him. ‘A word, Corporal, privately,’ and the two walk back along the path.
Far enough out of earshot, the official asks Niccolo quietly, ‘Dottore? You call this criminal Dottore?’ Niccolo explains that he is to be a companion to the man. ‘In name only, you idiot. Dottore? He is a prisoner of the state and an enemy of Fascism, not a fucking professor teaching Il Duce’s children.’
‘You have grown friendly with these people, Corporal. You should be relieved of your duties here.’
The official hears a raised voice from among the three back at the stone bench. The hospital director had begun to shuffle his feet as soon as Niccolo and the colonel walked away. While Tatiana draped the blanket around her brother-in-law, the director asked if they had questions. ‘I am no fool, Director. I am dying, I know. Tomorrow is the day I am to be released. The twenty-first of April, 1937. I have said those words a hundred times, have waited 10 years to be free. I wish to leave Rome to spend the dying days of my life in the place where it began. Tell me why…’ He stops, exhausted, struggles to take a deep breath. The director leans in before the patient can speak again. In a rushed whisper, he says, ‘I’m sorry Don Antonio; these are the orders I have been given. There is nothing to be done.’
Tatiana pushes the director away from Gramsci. ‘Stand away from him, you cowardly little man. You’ve known from the beginning they won’t let him go.’ Gramsci tries to reach out to stop her but is too weak. ‘Tania’, he says. She turns back to him. ‘No, Nino, I won’t let them do this.’
‘It has nothing to do with you, Madonna.’ The colonel has stepped in beside the director. ‘You may send your telegrams abroad. It will mean nothing. We have no interest in the opinions of foreigners. We ourselves decide the fate of our traitors.’
Tatiana lifts her arm to slap the official, but he is expecting it, grabs her wrist, smiles and lightly pushes her into the wheelchair. Tatiana falls into her brother-in-law’s shoulder and scrambles to stay on her feet while Niccolo rushes to keep the chair from tipping. ‘Dottore!’ he calls out, grabbing at an arm of the chair before it falls. Everyone’s movements stop as one. Tatiana is on her feet. Niccolo has kept the chair upright, though the dove cake has fallen to the ground. The hospital director holds his hands in front of himself to ward off any blows as in a farce. The colonel stands taller, amused and self-satisfied but for a glance of cold rage at Niccolo. ‘Best keep your dogs on a leash, Signor Gramsci. They could be hurt. Good afternoon.’ He walks toward the hospital, the director pulled along in his wake. The nun steps from the hospital’s back door where she has been watching, holds the door open and in a flutter, they are gone.
Across the garden, no one speaks. Campanile bells can be heard in the distance. A lone kestrel screeches high in the sky above them. Niccolo watches it for a moment as it flies toward the sea. He asks, ‘You’re all right, Dottore?’
Niccolo strikes a match and lights cigarettes for each of them. A deep tiredness settles on Gramsci. Tatiana puts her hand over his. Niccolo walks a few steps onto the grass, stops, then turns back to them. ‘I was 17 then. Almost. We were called Cremona’s Black Shirt Boys. Recruited from the mills and the docks by Farinacci. He had information about a socialist rally in Piacenza. He gave us a lorry and sent us across the river. We found them in a small piazza in the town and waited for the meeting to end. Some students from the lyceum stayed sitting on the steps after the crowd had left. We grabbed their leaflets and pamphlets, slapped them around their heads, but one of the girls tried to take the leaflets back. Someone hit her, and she fell into us. We grabbed at her, then everyone started to tear off her clothes. When her friend tried to help her, we hit him with a brick. His head burst open, and blood ran down his face. We held down the others, and some of our boys raped the girl. Some of them.’
Niccolo stops his story abruptly as though he has forgotten something. Or remembered something. Tatiana still has her hand resting on Gramsci’s. She waits for Niccolo to go on, but he says nothing more. Finally, Gramsci says. ‘I’m tired now, Tania. I want to sleep for a while.’ She stands up from the bench. Niccolo says, ‘I’m sorry, Tatiana. I am.’ Tatiana says, ‘Yes.’ She leaves a silence before adding, ‘Take Nino to his room.’
It is three days later when they learn of Niccolo’s accident. On Friday morning, the hospital director informs Gramsci while he waits in his room to be taken to the garden. The nursing sister offers to push the wheelchair outdoors, though she warns it may rain. Gramsci asks to be taken to the stone bench. Shortly afterwards, Tatiana finds him alone there. ‘Where is Niccolo?’ she asks. ‘It’s Friday.’
He gestures toward the street beyond the wall. ‘Niccolo once claimed that he knew the narrow streets leading down to the Via Flaminia well enough to navigate the curves wearing a blindfold.’
‘His motorcycle collided with a carbinieri lorry on his way home on Tuesday. He was killed.’
She raises her hand to her face ‘Oh Nino, I’m sorry.’
‘He was a fascist, Tania.’
‘But you had grown fond of him.’
‘Fond? I don’t know. Perhaps. Yes. Something was shifting in him. I think his model of the world was beginning to come apart.’
‘Do you think they killed him?’
‘I do.’ He rubs his fingers across his forehead. ‘They are afraid of minds shifting, men changing. If a man can change, so can a country; so can the world.’
She puts her arms around him. ‘You were changing him,’ she says. Gramsci says, ‘The truth was changing him.’
The rain begins as a light, comforting mist, and they stay in the corner of the garden by the stone bench until darker clouds settle over the city in the afternoon. Tatiana visits again the next day and the next, pushing the wheelchair to the back corner of the garden in the light rain that continues to fall. She stays with him both days until the evening meal is carried to his bedside. Not long after she arrives back at her lodgings on Sunday night, she is called to return to the hospital. The director offers to send a car.
‘Don Antonio has taken a turn.’
When she arrives, she is ushered to his room. He is in and out of consciousness, may not be aware that she is there. She sleeps in a chair that night, spends Monday reading to him, though his eyes never open. She had found a small, new book of poems for the journey to Sardinia. Lavorare Stanca. ‘The mornings pass, clear and deserted along the banks of the river,’ she reads. She is sure he is able to hear the words of this poet, Pavese. ‘And comes a moment when everything is still, and ripening.’ When the lights are turned out that night, she slides the chair close to the bed and rests her head on the mattress next to him. She is asleep there in the early dark hours of Tuesday morning when Gramsci dies.
In her dream, snow falls on an old and broken city, its turrets and towers dark against the white of deepening snow that covers the fields where children play outside the city walls, making men and angels.
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