First published in the June 1970 edition of The London Magazine (Vol. 10, No. 3)
Like a statue too finely carved, too finished and perfected, the boy looked fragile, ever in danger of being injured. The exquisitely pointed nose, the cupid’s bow drawn almost to the point of snapping, the slender chin were assets in a girl, not in a boy. He smiled with a look of joyful wonder, and he approached you trustingly as if he didn’t even know about getting hurt. So, it is said, the penguins approached the first explorers — with complete trust, no fear, no thought man might be any less innocent than they.
The headmaster had led him into our classroom late one morning in the middle of the second term, told us his name—Silvio Guidi—and left. The teacher asked him his age. He was twelve, two years younger than nearly everybody else, and a full four years younger than one boy—Matteo, a lanky old repeater who already spoke in a man’s, low and throaty, voice. The teacher, perhaps to get a laugh out of the class, sat the new boy next to him saying, ‘Four years younger than you are Matteo, and a lot smarter, I’m sure’. Matteo took the words good humouredly. He was the clown of the class, and seemed to enjoy it. The boys laughed at the mere mention of his name. He had an incredibly long reach. If you laughed too loud, sometimes for no apparent reason, you might get your head cuffed by him even if you were on the other side of the room. No one in the class room felt quite safe.
At break, the boys milled round Silvio to ask him all sorts of questions. Matteo wanted to know if he had any sisters. No, he was an only child. He certainly looked it. He seemed so intact, so whole, and new, as if he had been privately educated, at home, by a tutor. But it wasn’t so at all. He came from a nearby town, Poggibonsi, a name that sounded sufficiently funny to the boys to start teasing him about it. ‘Poggibonsi, bonsi, bum,’ they chanted around him, and pushed him at the sound of ‘bum’.
‘But are you sure you haven’t any sisters?’ Matteo kept asking him.
Silvio seemed more amused than annoyed. ‘No,’ he said.
‘What does your father do?’ someone asked him.
‘I don’t have a father,’ he replied.
‘Why?’ Matteo asked, open-mouthed, as if he had come on something that he could exploit.
‘He died,’ Silvio said. ‘In the war.’
There was a moment of silence. Matteo got some reproachful glances.
‘But you do have a mother?’ a boy broke in.
‘Oh, yes,’ Silvio said. ‘My mother is alive.’
She came for him at half past twelve. We saw her outside the school’s columned entrance, a pretty blonde, not much taller than her son, and with a smile that she lavished, as he did, on everyone, but which was not quite as pure as his, being flavoured with a touch of coquetry.
She took him by the hand, and swinging his arm, they went off together. As they left the school yard and reached the street through one of those archways that in Siena again and again repeat the motif of the town gate, they looked the same age, or just about.
The prettiness of the woman hadn’t passed unnoticed by the boys. Matteo especially, seemed struck. The next morning, no one teased Silvio, and Matteo kept saying in Silvio’s presence, ‘Have you seen his mother? Have you seen what a mother this guy’s got?’ Silvio smiled his amused smile, and laughed when Matteo asked him to introduce him to her.
‘I’m serious,’ Matteo said.
The young boy laughed more, and looked at the others. Oh, this Matteo was certainly a curious fellow. What was the matter with him?
‘When are you going to introduce me to her?’
‘Well,’ Matteo said, giving him a shove, ‘what’s there to laugh about?’
Silvio looked away, unable to dissemble.
Matteo followed him, and gave him another push. ‘So what’s there to laugh about, I’d like to know. If you won’t introduce me, I’ll introduce myself.’
But he didn’t dare. Day after day, she came regularly at 12.30 to fetch her boy. Each time, Matteo looked at her wistfully, and slunk away. In her absence his boldness returned. He protested about Silvio not introducing him. He insisted that he do so. And yet from the way he withdrew when she appeared, one wondered if, should Silvio introduce him, he had the courage to look at her, to shake hands or to say a word.
As the days passed some of the boys made friends with Silvio. Two or three of them would walk with him and his mother a little way. Not Matteo. Matteo seemed awed by her and kept his distance. She seemed like a schoolgirl among the boys. Absolutely happy. Always holding Silvio by the hand, she talked and joked with them as they walked. Soon, she knew and called a few by name. One wondered if, being new in town, these children were her only friends. Then, one day, she noticed Matteo looking at her from a distance.
‘That one there,’ she said, ‘what’s his name?’
‘That’s Matteo,’ the boys said in a chorus.
She beckoned to him without hesitation. ‘Come here, Matteo,’ she said, and Matteo sidled over looking at the ground. On his way he kicked the gravel, and raised a little dust.
‘You are Matteo.’
‘But you’re not a child.’
‘He’s sixteen,’ two boys said at once.
‘Oh,’ she said with what sounded like appreciation, and looked up at him.
He came nearer and put an arm over Silvio’s shoulder.
‘Eh, Silvio and I,’ he said, and made a gesture with his other arm.
‘You are friends?’
‘We sure are.’
‘Good,’ she said. ‘That’s what I like.’
Silvio looked around him. Everyone was friendly. But he didn’t seem surprised, it was probably something he was used to. His mother could accomplish this and more.
Matteo, having been introduced, now never failed to join Silvio and his mother after classes. The escort of three or four boys accompanied them down the main street. They dropped out one at a time as they came to some side street, but not Matteo. He couldn’t bring himself to leave them and went right to their doorstep, on the street that led to where I lived, at the other end of town, though it was quite out of the way for him. And he carried Silvio’s big Latin dictionary for him and any parcels for her. One day, I saw them approaching the house. As they got to the doorway and Matteo was about to turn back and say goodbye as he always did, she said something to him, and they all went inside the house. From that time on, Matteo’s work improved considerably, and toward Silvio he became as protective as a father.