The moment I glanced out of the window I knew something was wrong.
Men in uniform were closing the entrances to the paved paths that divided the piazza into four patches of green grass. The paths met in the centre creating a circular space usually occupied by plastic benches that were now being removed to allow room for scaffoldings. Whoever tried to leave our nine storey condominium on the south side of the piazza was forced to turn left and follow a marked loop around the whole block. In my five and a half years of life I had never seen soldiers, so I pushed my nose against the window glass to stare at their movements, mesmerised, clutching my new Barbie to the chest.
“What’s going on?” I asked my father.
“The Prime Minister is coming today. He will give a speech in the piazza.”
“Why are those men carrying guns?”
“To protect him.”
“From the Red Brigades?”
“Possibly. But don’t be scared, there won’t be any around today.”
I wasn’t convinced. First of all, a terrorist had been arrested in my grandmother’s estate – they had talked about it for weeks. Granny got so scared when the guns went off outside her door she almost fainted and dad had to leave work to go and check her blood pressure. Second, even though political events weren’t unusual in our part of the world, they usually involved food stands, red flags, a brass band and old people talking about the past. Never armed police. “Why does the Prime Minister have to speak here? Can’t he go somewhere else?” “Our town has the biggest factories in Italy, Anna. He wants to meet workers and become friends with them so they will vote for him.”“Are you voting for him?”“No.”“I won’t vote for him either then.”“Good girl.”After the terrorist’s capture, newsreaders on national TV had called our town “the Italian Stalingrad”, which I thought was weird, since grandmother claimed Stalingrad was in Russia – terribly far and very very cold. Nothing to do with us. However, a few months later, I heard the same definition popping up in a documentary on “industrial landscapes” broadcast just before “Happy Days”. A sad commentator told the history of our region, explaining how “the socialist movement there is rooted into people’s souls, in the name of streets celebrating labour and Carl Marx, in the mausoleum to the Martyrs of Resistance topping the artificial hill at the far end of the main piazza…” I didn’t understand most of the documentary but I thought the mausoleum was spooky and I tried not to look at it when passing by – the bleeding faces of dying partisans stared at us so sadly they made me think of death.The only part of the mausoleum I did like was the concrete statue of a tall woman standing on a high pedestal – her long concrete hair and skirt blowing in an imaginary wind. She held grey, concrete doves in her hands and looked as if about to take flight together with the birds. Her name was “Democracy”. I always wondered how the smallest dove could balance on the tip of the woman’s thumb without ever falling down.
The piazza had been built at the end of the sixties to create a pleasant enclosed space in front of the new multicoloured Town Hall, “whose yellow, orange and red tiles symbolise the furnaces in the steel factories,” the boring documentary went on. Small trees had been planted at the centre of every green patch, sparse hedges produced indefinite and scentless small yellow flowers once a year and the pink and blue plastic benches in the middle were object of constant fights between tired pensioners and children who reclaimed them to play astronauts on star ships.
Behind the piazza, at the bottom of a street leading to the industrial estates, hidden by the Town Hall and unnoticed by most people, lay what I considered the best sight in town: a castle, complete with towers like Snow White’s. The building, even though almost intact outside, was no more than a ruin inside and had been declared dangerous by the council, that in 1972 had evacuated the gipsies camping in its courtyard and deliberated to pull it down. But three years had passed and nobody seemed to have the heart to carry on the deed, therefore the castle survived like a crippled flower. Standing at the window, I imagined magical creatures living in the depth of that ancient building, a whole court of queens and princes, fairies and spirits invisible to the human eye but that from time to time I was almost sure to spot spying me from behind the battlements or giggling in the air like butterflies.
Three o’ clock.
The men in uniform had almost finished their job, under the vigilant eye of the steel factories, shut on that Saturday afternoon.
Behind the factories, behind everything at reach, lost in a deep, foggy horizon, the Alps nodded their benevolent heads capped in grey clouds – flying giants suspended in midair, far and beautiful.
“Oh no,” I said, “Look, they have removed all the benches! We need them to play Space 1999!”
“They wanted room for the stage.”
“Are they going to put them back?”
“I should hope so.”Father sighed and went to his study. He was a doctor and the only person I knew who didn’t work in the factories.
“A doctor who doesn’t make any money!” mum always said, “We could be living in a villa in the countryside, if he had opened a private practice, the socialist dreamer…”
I was too little to understand the meaning of “socialist”, that strange and funny word echoing everywhere around me, but I knew it had something to do with the smiley portrait of Salvador Allende hanging in dad’s study and possibly with a line by Kant, framed, solitary and black, on the opposite wall:“The starry sky above me, the moral law within me.”It sounded so beautiful I repeated it to myself from time to time.
By three thirty all the benches had disappeared and at their places a big wooden stage had been propped up, protected by crush barriers and wire.
People began to gather, little family groups, students with “Christian Democracy” banners, the Mayor in one of his very few good jackets, curious passer-bys.
The policemen now wore helmets and plastic shields that made them look like oversized toys. Sitting on the balcony facing the piazza, my parents drank lemonade from tall glasses while pointing at people they knew in the crowd as if they were celebrities. They didn’t seem to care about the vanished benches but I was seriously worried the police would put them back in the wrong order – adult were never good at such important details.
When the bell tower struck four a blue car pulled over and stopped a few meters from the crush barriers. At the sign of a big man in black, two officers opened the car’s rear door to let off a tiny figure in a striped suit, who walked at steady pace among the parted crowd and decidedly stepped on the stage.
A sound engineer covered in sweat run backstage and switched on the microphone.
“Is it him?” I asked.
“Yes, it’s the Prime Minister.”
“He looks like Mister Magoo.”
The Christian Democratic posse clapped, the crowd froze, the Mayor forced a smile on his communist face and went to shake the little man’s hand. The microphone hissed, the Prime Minister began…
“Dear citizens -”
But a voice raised from the crowd: “Fascist!”
The Prime Minister stopped. The policemen turned their heads at once to locate the voice, but the crowd was still and silent, like a mocking classroom. Only the concrete statue seemed to smirk, her hands dying to release the doves trapped on the tip of her fingers.
“Who was it? Did you hear?”
“Shhh,” was mother’s only answer. She had a bemused expression, a sort of childish expectation on her face. The Prime Minister cleared his throat, smiled as if nothing had happened and started his speech again.
Shouted the voice again. But this time it wasn’t alone.
Joined in someone else.“Fascist!” “Fascist! Fascist!”
A commotion began. The man in black hurriedly led the Prime Minister off stage and back onto the car while the chant grew louder and louder, filling the piazza.
“Fascist, fascist, fascist!” The whole place was in turmoil. I leaned over the balcony, overexcited.
“Fascist!” I started shouting, in my high pitched voice, “Fascist, fascist!”
My parents looked at me and at each other, paused for a second and then burst into laughter. I screamed even louder.
“Fascist!” I was having a great time, it was fabulous.
Then, I saw something happening. More soldiers in helmets had stepped out of anonymous vans parked in the castle’s courtyard and were now marching along the main street and into the piazza, like an alien invasion. A man fell on the pavement, followed by another. Sirens went off. The crowd shook like a snake, twisting. People pushed, screamed, run.
I wanted to see more but dad dragged me inside.
“Fascist!” I managed to yell one more time but the fun was over; mum shushed me and closed the window.
“What’s going on?”
But I knew. The police were after the people who had shouted. They hit them with their alien weapons, forcing them into the vans. I had shouted. So they were coming for me. Or, worse, they would arrest my parents and send me to an orphanage. I hid into father’s lap, sobbing. We were all going to die like Allende and have our pictures on somebody’s wall.
“I don’t want to be killed! I don’t want to go to prison!”
“Nobody’s going to kill you, shouting is not a crime.”
“Why are the police hurting people then?”
“It isn’t… it isn’t for real, they don’t really hurt them, it was… a game… an accident… They overreacted. It shouldn’t have happened but… Don’t worry. It’s fine. We’re safe. We’re a democracy, Anna. Look, it’s all quiet again.”
After I calmed down I trotted to my room to play with Barbies – I had 13 of them, including a Ken with real hair and a camper van for holidays.
I pretended they all had to run away on the camper van to flee the police but the vehicle couldn’t fit 13 dolls so Ken decided the four ugliest ones had to be left behind. The poor things protested, of course…
“No, no, don’t leave me!”
“There’s nothing we can do, I’m sorry…”
“Please, Ken, please!”
“Farewell!!!” It was a hard moment for old Ken but he had to be a man.
For the rest of the afternoon my father sat absolutely still in his studio reading medicine books while mother baked pizza listening to South American records, melancholic and slow, singing of butterflies and united people who never will be won.
Outside, a pouring rain washed away the remains of the failed conference.
Just before dinner, I went back to the window and tentatively looked out: the castle was there, a crooked Troy horse still hosting the vans that had vomited out the police. In the piazza men in blue overalls were dismantling the stage and a small crane unloaded the plastic benches from a truck, transferring them back at random
“I knew it.” I sighed.I look at the statue of the woman with the doves and for a second I was sure that the little bird nesting on her thumb had flown away in my direction. But she must have stopped halfway and rested on one of the trees in the piazza, as it never reached my window. Or perhaps the seventh floor was too high a place to fly to for a small concrete dove who had been sitting on the Democracy’s fingers for so long.
I waited a few moments. Then I left the window, washed my hands and silently joined my parents in the kitchen for our traditional Saturday pizza.