Excerpt

Can You Hear Me?

Elena Varvello, Translated by Alex Valente

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Can You Hear Me?, the latest from Italian crime writer Elena Varvello, and her first to be translated into English. Can You Hear Me? was the winner of the 2017 English Pen Award. In the following passage, we learn of a troubled family, living in an economically depressed town, and closely guarding their secrets.

In August of 1978, the summer I met Anna Trabuio, my father took a girl into the woods.

He stopped the van at the side of the road, just before sunset, asked her where she was going, and told her to get in.

She accepted the lift because she knew him.

They saw him drive toward town with his lights off, then he left the road, took a steep and difficult path and made her get out, he dragged her along with him.

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My mother and I waited for him, worried he might’ve had an accident. While I stared into the darkness from the living room window, she made a few phone calls.

“He’s still not back.”

I found her leaning against the wall, in the hallway, the receiver clutched against her chest.

“Everything’s fine, you’ll see,” she said, trying to smile, as if she’d just heard his van, his footsteps in the yard.

She phoned the nearest hospital: she sighed with relief when they told her he wasn’t there.

She put some coffee on and we sat down at the kitchen table. She was wearing a blue dress, with long sleeves, dotted with small green palm trees that looked on the verge of being violently uprooted by an unstoppable wind.

“Don’t worry,” she said.

I went back to the living room, lay down on the sofa, and dozed off, a confused sleep that didn’t last long.

My mother was in the yard. “Why don’t you go to bed?” she asked.

“Not tired anymore.”

She reached over to hug my shoulders and looked up to the sky: “Look how clear it is.”

“Are you cold?” I asked.

It was a summer night, and she was shaking.

She went to lie down and I tried reading a comic.

Half an hour later she left her room. She was wearing a blanket over her shoulders. She shook her head: “It’s pointless, I can’t rest.” She went to the bathroom, then went back into the kitchen and called me. “Do you want to stay with me for a bit?” She pulled the blanket up to her chin.

Before dawn, through the silence, we heard his van.

She turned toward the door, straightened her back, shook off the blanket, and ran her hand through her hair. “Oh, thank goodness. Thank God.” I watched as she got up, straightened her dress on her hips, and headed outside: “Darling, what happened to you?”

In August of 1978, the summer I met Anna Trabuio, my father took a girl into the woods.

I followed right behind her. I stayed on the porch, under the light, trying to make him out in the darkness. I was angry and relieved: I wanted to slap him and tell him I didn’t care—you could’ve just stayed there; I wanted to run over to him and make sure he wasn’t hurt.

They stepped into the light, slowly, and I watched them go inside.

I was sixteen.

He had been gone a long time already, but that was it—not even a year after he lost his job and that boy disappeared—that was when everything broke.

***

Can you hear me?

I remember his voice, at night.

Waking up all of a sudden, that summer, I’d hear the water going in the bathroom, my father’s steps in the corridor, him coughing. My mother kept calling him: “Come to bed.” He’d reply: “No time.”

He’d head down to the garage, or sit at the kitchen table.

I’d fall asleep again.

On one of those nights I heard my father’s breathing from the other side of my bedroom door.

I stayed as still as possible, listening. He came inside.

“Elia?”

The light was on behind him.

“Elia, can you hear me?”

I opened my eyes very slightly. I wanted to ask him: What is it, Dad? What’s going on with you? Instead, I turned the other way, pretending to sleep, pulling the covers over my head.

My father’s name, the low and gravelly voice with which he said it: “My name is Ettore Furenti.”

My mother adored him. I’d often catch her admiring him, her chin on her hand, a smile across her lips.

“Your father is so beautiful. And he always makes me laugh.”

And he was fun: his laughter was contagious, and he had a whole collection of stories he liked to tell.

“Elia? Come here a second.”

“What is it?”

“You need to hear this one.”

A big, bulky man, wide forehead, black hair, and eyes of a watery blue—she was small, tiny, and always cold, chestnut hair and eyes. I can still see how he’d hold her against him, just back from work, with his coat still on, both so young: they turn and smile as they catch me watching them. I see them walking into the bedroom, my mother’s head only just up to his shoulder, and he winks at me, closing the door.

In summer, on Sundays, he’d take me to the river for a swim, or to the cinema—his profile against clouds of smoke, in the dimmed lights, and the way he’d start whistling as we left, and say: “Let’s play a trick on her when we get home.” He’d make the turn into our driveway, roll down to the garage, and carefully close the car doors, chuckling, and she’d know what we had in mind, but still exclaim: “I wonder when they’ll be back.” He’d grab her by the waist and kiss her neck and she’d shriek, then burst into laughter.

“You scared me.”

“His fault”—he’d point at me—“it was his idea.”

But there were moments when he’d change, and he’d lock himself in the garage and we were not to disturb him. He’d sit under the porch canopy on the swing for hours, wringing his hands, biting his lips. I caught him sobbing one afternoon—everything was still fine then—sitting in the bathtub, pale and shivering, with his knees clutched to his chest.

When he was particularly tired or worried, he’d stutter: he’d pause, shake his head, hit his thigh with his closed fist.

He could freeze in a second—she never was able to do the same—and become cold and sarcastic; he’d stare at us as if we were wrong somehow, his lips curled in a sneer; then everything would go back to normal and I’d hear them muttering, I’d hear my father’s laugh.

I knew very little about his past.

He could freeze in a second—she never was able to do the same—and become cold and sarcastic…

He had lost his parents at eighteen, within three months of each other. No other relatives, just like her. One summer, before they died, he’d worked as a mechanic at the gas station, and after that he was employed at the plant.

“I don’t remember much,” he’d answer, whenever I tried asking him about it.

He often went out with my mother—into town for a stroll, or a coffee, or for a meal at Il cacciatore, along the road that zigzagged through the woods, leading to our house and that of Ida Belli—but he had no friends and never showed signs of missing anyone.

“I need no one.”

I’d ask her, sometimes, what he’d been like when he was younger.

“Pretty much the same as now.”

A funny man, I’d tell myself, armed with quick comebacks. It was always an odd sight to find him on the porch, staring at the garden and the woods in silence, or locked up in the garage.

My mother, on the other hand, had Ida, and she loved her.

“She’s like a sister.”

She was a tall woman, short hair, sharp jaw, quite brusque and with a horsey laugh; she could suddenly strangle you with a hug, or slap a hand on your shoulder.

She had divorced her husband, he had moved to Rome and married again. She lived with her daughter, whom we still treated as a child, despite her being my age—some people thought she had some type of disability, with her slumped back, her big dangling head, her damp, puckered lips.

Ida would always say: “We get along perfectly just the two of us, Simona and me.”

I always remember the girl standing behind her mother’s shoulders, mumbling and chewing on my name. It was practically impossible to touch her without her screaming or moaning, and she didn’t attend school: she spent her time drawing, kneeling on the ground, smearing colors all over her face whenever something worried her.

Ida, an accountant for the local furniture factory, had employed a girl full-time to look after her daughter.

The girl came up every morning on the bus and left late afternoon, shuffling quickly to the bus stop, cigarette in hand, as the light disappeared behind the trees.

Until she met my father.

We lived at the top of a hill—the house where he grew up—where the road died into a path, three kilometers from Ponte, a small provincial town we used to call “the city” because of the mill. A narrow valley, an abandoned pyrite mine, a twisting river, an old stone bridge in the gorge, another with two lanes over the river and woods all around. But there were also schools, the Futura cinema, the public library—my mother’s realm, as the sole librarian—a café with a video-game arcade. There was the furniture factory, including a kitchen-and-wardrobe showroom, in the area we called “industrial.” And the mill, with the brick wall around it, the chimney smoke.

It was a cotton mill, which had been founded in 1939, and had flourished since then. Two hundred employees at the end of the 1960s. My father was a repairman, he loved his job and wouldn’t have changed it for anything.

Once orders started to fall and prices to rise, the company was sold. My father used to tell us: “The wind is changing.” The new owners meddled with the books, stole some money, tricked people. In 1977, they declared bankruptcy. I saw him cry that day—it was September—as my mother sat next to him, consoling him.

All that was left was the brick wall with the broken-bottle glass on top. The cold chimneys. The whistling between the empty buildings.

All that was left was the brick wall with the broken-bottle glass on top. The cold chimneys. The whistling between the empty buildings.

In the months that followed we had fun climbing over the wall—me and a group of kids I used to hang out with back then. We broke in through the doors. We threw stones at the windows and turned over filing cabinets. We peed against walls and wrote lewd graffiti on them. We sat on the floor next to the machines, in the dusty shadows, sharing a cigarette. We spent time in that wide, silent space, as if it were ours.

Then suddenly we got bored of it—in December, after that boy disappeared.

Back then my father used to go out every day, but I had no idea where.

The fall of the mill was the beginning of the end.

It had been a disaster for Ponte. Many left, looking for work. Several others started drinking, or just loitering.

My father locked himself in his bedroom for weeks, only getting up to go to the bathroom or join us in the kitchen, in his pajamas, when my mother called him for food. He’d stare at the plate with a cigarette between his lips, and my mother would remove it, softly.

“We’ll survive this, you’ll see.”

“How?”

“Later. Eat first.”

My mother asked around—the factory, a construction company—but no one had any openings. Then she found out about a piece of land, bought by some company, about twenty kilometers from Ponte, where a small housing complex was supposed to go up.

“Maybe something’ll come of it.”

She would lie down next to him whenever she got back from the library, and that’s how I remember them, one next to the other, almost indistinguishable, despite their stark differences.

Holed up in his room, he came up with an idea, he fixated on it.

He came to the table one day, filled his glass with water, drank some, and said: “I’ve had time to think.”

My mother looked at him and her eyes lit up. “About what?”

How could she know?

“They found a way to get rid of me,” he replied. “That’s what they wanted. And now they’re mocking me.”

“It’s happened to everyone, sweetheart.”

My father’s lips curled into a bitter smile. “That’s what they’re telling us. But it’s not the truth.” He moved his chair and went back to the bedroom.

I turned toward her. “What did he mean?”

“Nothing, it’s nothing.”

My father said the same thing the following evening, and the one after that, and for weeks afterward. He called it a “conspiracy” once, stabbing his index finger hard onto the table: “a full-on plan, all just a show.”

“I should’ve listened,” he said.

“To whom?” asked my mother.

“I can’t tell you.”

“You’re just a little confused. I know this is hard.”

“No. No, you don’t.”

One morning, he woke up before dawn and headed to the garage—a countertop, a metal cabinet, a sink, a small, dirty, broken couch, an electric heater.

That was where I found him when I got home: barefoot, in his gray pajamas, scribbling busily on some paper.

Did he really believe the other employees were still working, that the mill was still running?

“What are you doing?”

“Nothing. Where have you been?”

“School,” I said. He knew that.

He folded the paper in half, fished out a cigarette from its pack, and started smoking.

“What are you writing?”

My father didn’t reply: he stared at a point somewhere behind my shoulders, beyond the open door, to the white autumn sky.

“It’s cold,” I said. “At least turn on the heater.”

“I’m okay.”

“Have you been here since this morning?”

“I don’t want to sleep anymore.”

“Do you want me to bring you a sweater?”

“I said I’m okay.”

“Okay.”

“I’ll sort things out,” he said, finally. “Don’t you worry.”

I should’ve insisted. What had gotten into him? Did he really believe the other employees were still working, that the mill was still running? But instead I just let him be, left him to his ghosts, believing he was safe.

__________________________________

From Can You Hear Me?. Used with the permission of the publisher, Quercus. Copyright © 2018 by Elena Varvello. Translation copyright © by Alex Valente.




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