In the following weeks Cecilia tried to show a detached attitude toward Mariella, especially after this last had overturned a box of sawdust soaked in piss of cat on the doormat of Mrs Sanna, the neighbor whose door was practically stuck to hers which meant to have done that silly prank to both of them.
Mrs Sanna, on a fury, told her that her husband, going up the stairs because of a lift failure, had complained for the terrible stench coming out of Mariella’s door and had advised her to simply clean her apartment more often. Knowing that ugly mug of her husband Cecilia didn’t believe that things had gone that way and remembered when he had kicked her car just for having left it double parked for a couple of minutes beside his. But she didn’t say anything. Nevertheless she was scandalized for Mariella’s reprisal.
That very day, late in the evening, she received a delirious phone call from Mariella who couldn’t refrain from laughing for the joke done to that self- important tramp of Mrs Sanna. When Cecilia asked her how she had got her phone number she replied “Well, it’s the same of the former tenant isn’t it? It hasn’t been changed has it? And… I guess you don’t even know we two share a party line, do you?”
Cecilia was thunderstruck. Not only she didn’t know to have a party line but she wasn’t neither sure to know what a party line was. “How funny you are – said Mariella laughing and coughing – It’s difficult to imagine another thickheaded and slow subject like you. Ha ha ha ha!”
When Mariella found that dog on the street the solidarity toward the animals and the contempt for the bastards who abandon them had been the opportunity for a reconciliation.
In the end Mariella was a lonely woman running to the old age, thought Cecilia to justify her new availability. Mariella’s life hadn’t been a very easy one, year after year trying to stick the multiplication tables in the head of thousands of children to be forgotten in the end like an old slipper.
But people don’t forget so easily those tables, do they? Cecilia said to herself. Just look around and see how people love numbers. Money was the only value in that society and the way to multiply it. Herself too, for example, how many times had she remembered her school teacher in her life? Very few indeed. But if she had to make a multiplication she could still do it, couldn’t she? Poor Mariella, so lonely and forsaken to build an armor of aggressivity to protect herself from the world.
Yes, she would have forgiven all those insignificant faults and those little extravagances.
The dog was called Cocò and frequently Cecilia offered to take him out for a walk. Some evenings when she met Mariella overloaded with bags, going to feed the stray cats down the street, Cecilia accompanied her holding Cocò’s lead.
In the following months, during a particularly cold winter, Mariella involved Cecilia in some protest demonstrations against the use of furs. They had to distribute some creepy flyers to the ladies wearing furs with the aim to make them feel guilty of slaughter, which unfortunately never happened. “They are stock bred animals” said the few who thought to say something in their own defence.
“You too are a stock bred animal, you are not a wild one, are you? – Answered in this cases Mariella with a certain effectiveness – How would you like to hang from someone’s shoulders?”
Cecilia started to appreciate some sides of that woman’s personality even though there was in her something that kept generating in Cecilia a state of anxiety. She wondered if it was for that past of schoolteacher that made her always been in alarm expecting some abrupt questions, or a negative judgment, or a bad mark.
There was an authoritarian side in Mariella that those stinking rugs she wore could not hide. Rugs apart, her mother too had been like that.
But maybe Cecilia was the only one who perceived Mariella that way, because more than once, she had assisted to some episodes in which Mariella had to give in. For example with that lady of the third floor, that Mrs Paulin. An old lady herself, maybe older than Mariella, but clean, polite and full of class. Always elegant and perfectly combed, that lady seemed to make Mariella feel very uneasy.
Mariella was aggressive with her as she was with everybody but it showed very well that she didn’t have any chance with her.
Sometimes Cecilia accepted to go with Mariella to visit Nadia and her sixty cats and to show her she had forgotten that earful she had given her during that first visit, she every time left to the fat woman a fifty thousand note.
In the end she wasn’t displeased to have found that strange friendship, because if it depended on her, she wouldn’t become friend of anybody. Her exaggerated shyness and her secret fears were keeping her isolated from the rest of the world. Of course it would have been better to find friends of her age but, as Mrs Sanna had said when she had found that sawdust on her doormat at her suggestion that it could have been the joke of some kids, in that building they two were the youngest residents. All the others were old.
In march Mariella fell ill. One night she called her while she was having dinner with her sister. She had a high temperature and couldn’t go, the next day, to feed the stray cats.Could Cecilia do that for her?
“Of course Mariella, with pleasure.” Was her answer.
“Okay than. I’ll wait for you at twenty past seven. Be punctual, okay? Because those cats must punctually have their food at seven thirty otherwise they go God knows where, understand?”
The day after was a frantic one for Cecilia. She had to go back home to take the agenda in which she had written the appointments of the day. She was late at the second appointment having broken a heel between two of those stabs of stone of the old Rome pavement . She had it repaired by a near shoemaker who made a fuss pretending to be too busy at the moment, which was evidently not true. She paid the newspaper with a hundred thousand note retiring only the change of ten thousand, realizing it immediately but being incapable to protest because of the bloody shyness that was the biggest problem of her life.
In the end she was very angry with herself and she thought, depressed, that the whole world was against her and took advantage of her ingenuousness and weakness.
She often fell in those states of self commiseration, and that evening too, in the taxi going slowly on the riverside paralyzed by the traffic, she felt that way. And moreover she started to feel anxious because it was already seven. “Shit! Four drops and these assholes of Romans take the fucking car!” grumbled the driver out of patience. In fact the weather had suddenly changed and it had started raining, which had always that paralyzing effect on the traffic. Cecilia had another look at the watch: would she have been punctual at Mariella’s appointment? Normally she would. But not at that speed…
Impatient horns were sounding all around. At twelve past seven she thought to get off and go on walking but the idea of the loud protests that would accompany the stop and the payment made her change her mind immediately.
A bus carrying the advertisement of a cat food increased her anxiety.
But why had she to feel like that? She asked furiously to herself. After all she was making a favor to Mariella, wasn’t she? It will mean that the stray gentlecats will have their dinner a bit later and that was all. But the anxiety didn’t go and quite the opposite it increased. It was like a sort of ball in the middle of her chest. She finally got used to it. It always started with a vague sense of guilt and inadequacy that materialized in the shape of small clouds in her chest cavity, one after the other until the realization of that intolerable, enormous ball, that she would like to prick and make explode in thousands of pieces.
When finally the taxi arrived it was seven thirty three. Cecilia was exhausted for the tension and felt as if she had to give herself up to the enemy.
She went to the fourth floor and rang Mariella’s bell. Three times as she wanted, otherwise she didn’t open to anybody. After a time that seemed endless to Cecilia she heard Mariella’s slow shuffle, slower than usual, she thought.
Mariella opened with a long noise of chains and bolts and appeared on the door invading the walkway with a stench more intolerable than ever. She wore an old black satin gown over a nightdress of an indefinite color. In the half light her eyes looked deepset and dark like two Renaissance windows and as much severe. She didn’t say a word and so didn’t Cecilia.
Mariella lifted from the floor two bags containing tins of cat food and stinking entrails and hanged them around Cecilia’s wrist. Then she took Coco’s lead and gave it to Cecilia ordering her with a simple nod to put it around the dog’s neck.
Disabled by the bags and sulky like a schoolgirl unfairly punished, Cecilia obeyed.
In the absolute silence she left the apartment and entered the lift that was still open.
When she closed the gate Mariella finally spoke: “There must be fourteen cats, okay? But I’m sure that for your fault tonight some of them will be missing. Because they are like Swiss watches: at half past seven they must eat , no way! Otherwise they go God knows where…”
Cecilia counted and recounted. There were only eleven. She uselessly kissed the air all around. At the end she decided to simply lie to Mariella. She did everything to perfection and went back after Coco too had done what he had to do.
Mariella’s mood and attitude had changed. She observed attentively her face with an inquisitive look but when Cecilia lied about the cats being all there, she didn’t say anything.
Instead she handed to Cecilia a bag: “I know you are very fond of tea…” she said.
How did she know? She had never told her for the fear of Mariella proposing to have a cup of tea with her in that filthy kitchen.
“Y… yes, in fact I am…” She answered alarmed.
“Can I give you this? I bought it in India some months ago but I don’t use it and it’s a shame to keep it here uselessly, don’t you think so?”
“Oh thank you… thank you Mariella.” Cecilia, visibly relieved, took the plastic bag containing many tea bags of different colors.
“Well, I go back to bed – said Mariella – See you tomorrow, then.” She didn’t mention the punctuality as if she knew that there was not need any more.
The following day the cats were all there. They seemed to enjoy their meal while more than one passer by stopped to look at that strange and elegant cat-lady busy with plastic plates and bleeding entrails . The stench of that stuff was disgusting and she put it in the plates with the head turned on the other side to avoid it.
Coco supervised the dinner of the cats and only when Cecilia had thrown all the dirty plates in the dustbin he started to pull the lead in search of a nice piss of dog to relieve his bladder with the due voluptuousness.
Cecilia’s anxiety had significantly diminished and she projected to spend the night relaxing in front of the television watching a good film. Before going home she bought Cape Fear with Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck a film that had been recently remade with Robert De Niro and Nick Nolte. She was very curious to compare the two films so distant in the time.
That night was going to be a pleasant one.