The Other End of the Line

Andrea Camilleri | 13 mins

ONE

They were sitting on Livia’s little balcony in Boccadasse in silence, enjoying the cool evening air.

Livia had been in a bad mood all day, as was always the case when Montalbano was about to return home to Vigàta.

Out of the blue Livia, who was barefoot, said:

‘Would you do me a favour and get my slippers? My feet are cold. I guess I’m just getting old.’

The inspector gawked at her.

‘Why are you looking at me like that?’

‘You’re starting to age from the feet up?’

‘Why, is there a law against that?’

‘No, but I thought it was some other body parts that started ageing first.’

‘Shut your filthy mouth,’ said Livia.

Montalbano was startled.

‘Why are you talking like that?’

‘I’ll talk however I feel like talking! Is that OK with you?’

‘Anyway, I said nothing filthy. The body parts I was referring to are, I don’t know, the eyes, the ears . . .’

‘Are you going to get me those slippers or not?’

‘Where are they?’

‘Where do you think they are? Right beside the bed. The ones that look like cats.’

Montalbano got up and headed for the bedroom. Those slippers no doubt kept her feet nice and warm, but he hated them, because they looked like two long-haired white cats with black tails. Naturally, they were nowhere to be seen.

Surely they must be under the bed.

The inspector crouched down, thinking:

The back! That’s another body part that gives you the first warning signs of ageing!

He reached out and started feeling around with one hand.

It came up against a furry slipper and was about to grab it when a sharp pain took him by surprise.

Jerking his hand back, he noticed he had a deep scratch on the back of it that was bleeding a little.

Could there possibly be a real cat under there?

But Livia didn’t own any cats.

So he turned on the lamp on the bedside table, picked it up, and shone its light under the bed, to see what it was that had scratched him.

He couldn’t believe his eyes.

One of the two slippers had remained a slipper, but the other one had turned into a cat, a cat cat, and was now glaring at him threateningly, ears pressed against its head and hackles raised.

How could this be?

He suddenly felt furious.

And he got up, put down the lamp, went into the bathroom, opened the medicine chest, and disinfected his scratch with a bit of antiseptic.

Moments later he was back out on the balcony and sat down without a word.

‘So where are my slippers?’ asked Livia.

‘You can go and get them yourself, if you have the courage.’

Glancing at him scornfully, Livia shook her head as if in commiseration, got up, and went indoors.

Montalbano contemplated the gash on his hand. The blood had clotted, but the scratch was deep.

Livia returned, sat down, and crossed her legs. On her feet were the slippers.

‘Wasn’t there a cat under the bed?’ asked Montalbano.

‘What are you saying?’ said Livia. ‘I’ve never had a cat in my apartment.’

‘Then how did I get this scratch?’ the inspector asked, showing her his wound.

The only problem was that, to his great surprise, there was nothing on the back of his hand. The skin was perfectly intact.

‘What scratch? I don’t see anything.’

Montalbano suddenly leaned down and took off one of her slippers.

‘My scratch, which your fake slipper gave me,’ he said angrily, throwing it off the balcony.

At this point, Livia yelled so loudly that . . .

. . . Montalbano woke up.

They weren’t in Boccadasse but in Vigàta, and Livia was sleeping like a baby beside him, the morning’s faint first light filtering in through the window.

Montalbano realized it was going to be a day of libeccio, the south-west wind.

The sea was making a lot of noise.

He got up and went into the bathroom.

*

An hour and a half later Livia joined him in the kitchen, where the inspector had made breakfast for her and a mug of coffee for himself.

‘So, what’s the plan?’ asked Livia. ‘I’ll be taking the three o’clock bus for Palermo airport.’

‘I’m sorry I can’t drive you there, but I can’t be away from the station for even an hour. You’ve seen for yourself the kind of situation we’re in. Let’s do this: when you’re ready, give me a ring, and I’ll come and give you a lift to the bus station.’

‘OK,’ said Livia. ‘But will you keep your promise to come to my place this time? I won’t accept any excuses.’

‘I said I would come, and I’ll come.’

‘With your new suit?’ asked Livia.

‘All right, with my new suit,’ Montalbano replied through clenched teeth.

*

They’d argued about this for at least two hours a day during Livia’s short stay in Vigàta.

When she first got there, Livia, the moment she was off the plane, before even embracing Montalbano, wanted to give him some good news.

‘Did you know that Giovanna is getting remarried in a few days?’

Montalbano opened his eyes wide.

‘Giovanna? Which Giovanna? Your friend? Who’s she marrying? What about the kids?’

Livia started laughing and gestured to him to go and get the car.

‘I’ll tell you the whole story on the drive home.’

As soon as he’d put the car in gear, Montalbano asked his first question.

‘What about Stefano? How did Stefano take the news?’

‘How do you expect? He was delighted. They’ve been married for over twenty years.’

Montalbano sank into complete incomprehension. ‘But how can a man who’s been married for over twenty years and has two kids be delighted that his wife is marrying another man?’

Livia broke into a laughing fit so extreme that, through her tears, she had to undo her safety belt to hold her stomach. ‘What on earth are you imagining? Where do you get these ideas? Giovanna’s getting remarried to Stefano.’

‘Why, did they get divorced? You never said anything to me about it.’

‘No, they did not get divorced.’

‘So why are they getting married all over again?’

‘They’re not “getting married all over again”. Quite the contrary. They want to reconfirm their marriage.’

‘Reconfirm . . .?’

Montalbano was so confused by this point that he was afraid to keep on driving, so he pulled over and stopped.

‘Listen,’ he snapped, ‘I haven’t understood a fucking thing in all this!’

‘Don’t start spouting obscenities or I won’t explain anything to you!’

They resumed driving, and Livia began to fill him in on the story of Giovanna and Stefano.

Happily married for twenty-five years, the couple were about to celebrate the renewal of their vows.

At the sound of the word ‘renewal’, Montalbano couldn’t restrain himself.

‘Renewal?’ he said. ‘You mean like renewing a lease on a car? Or renewing your membership in a club?’

Bewailing Salvo’s lack of romantic sentiment, Livia proceeded to explain the whole ceremony of matrimonial renewal.

‘When a couple has been married for twenty-five years, they celebrate their silver anniversary, which in fact means renewing their vows. They go to a church, with their relatives, and their children if there are any, and whoever else they want to invite, and they re-enact the service. They reconfirm their vows: Do you take, as your lawfully wedded husband . . . and so on. It’s all very romantic. The wedding rings are blessed again, and I’m told the couple take two candles and light a third, which symbolizes their union. Then there’s a proper wedding feast afterwards, with all the usual celebrations as well as silver confetti. And you have to come, because I promised Giovanna and Stefano you would be there. You can come first to Boccadasse to get me, and then we’ll go to Udine together.’

*

This had been the first blow.

The second came that same evening, as they were eating, and it was enough to extinguish Montalbano’s appetite in an instant.

‘I had a look in your wardrobe,’ Livia said, all serious.

‘And did you find any skeletons?’

‘Worse. I found the corpses of your old suits. You haven’t got a single decent one. For this occasion I want you to have one tailor-made.’

Montalbano broke out in a cold sweat. In all his life he had never been to a tailor. He felt so discouraged he didn’t even have the strength to open his mouth.

Only after recovering from the shock did he manage to speak, and he tried to change the subject.

‘Livia, I want you to come to the police station with me tomorrow. I’ve already informed Beba.’

‘What for?’

‘You know, it’s possible that living in Boccadasse you don’t have a clear sense of just how dramatic things are down here. Lately the migrant landings on our coasts are more punctual than the bus from Montelusa. They come by the hundreds every single night. No matter the weather. Men, women, children, old people. Freezing, starving, thirsty, and frightened. And in need of everything. Every single one of us at the station is busy twenty-four hours a day trying to manage these arrivals. And in town people have formed committees of volunteers who collect living necessities, cook warm meals, provide clothing, shoes, and blankets. Beba directs one of these committees. Do you feel up to lending her a hand?’

‘Of course,’ said Livia.

The inspector was hoping, and feeling like less than a worm in so doing, that Livia, in helping those poor wretches, might forget about the ‘marriage renewal’ and the concomitant need for a new suit.

*

The following day, Montalbano took Livia to Beba’s and didn’t see her or hear back from her for the rest of the day.

They met that evening at his place in Marinella, and before telling him what she’d been doing, Livia saw fit to deal the third and decisive blow, once again at dinnertime, as if she’d decided to impose a crash diet on him.

‘In spite of everything else I had to do today, I managed to drop in at the tailor’s. Unfortunately they’re really busy tomorrow and can’t see you. But they were very nice and promised me that they’ll manage to make you a suit in time for the celebration. They’ll be expecting you the day after tomorrow – in other words, the day I leave – at three in the afternoon. I’m sorry I won’t be able to come with you, but will you promise me you’ll go?’

Montalbano bristled.

‘That’s all I’ve been doing for the past two days, is making promises. I promise I’ll go. Just give me this tailor’s address.’

‘Via Roma, 32. It’s next door to the stationer’s, but there’s no sign outside. They’re on the ground floor. You’ll see, I think you’ll find Elena quite charming.’

‘Elena?!’

‘Yes, Elena. Why do you ask?’

‘Sorry, but I’m not going,’ the inspector said decisively.

‘What do you mean, you’re not going? You just promised me you would.’

‘I promised I would go and see a tailor, not a seamstress.’

‘Oh, come on, she’s a woman tailor who makes men’s clothes, too. What’s the difference?’

‘Oh, there’s a difference all right.’

‘And what is it?’

‘I’m not going to get undressed in front of a woman. And I don’t want a woman measuring my crotch and circling around me with her measuring tape telling me how broad my shoulders and waist are. I would rather be embraced by a woman for other reasons . . .’

‘I don’t know whether to call you a disgusting sexist or a cheap whoremonger!’

At that point, Livia slammed the kitchen door behind her and locked herself in the bedroom.

Just to make a point, Montalbano went into the dining room, turned on the television, and spent a good hour watching a detective drama of which he managed to understand not a thing. After turning it off, he made up the sofa bed and, to avoid going into the bedroom to get some blankets, he kept his clothes on and lay down, covering himself only with his bathrobe.

He tossed and turned for a good while, unable to fall asleep. Then he heard the bedroom door open and Livia’s voice calling to him.

‘Stop acting like an idiot and come to bed.’

Without answering, he got up and, hollow-eyed, went into the bedroom and lay down, right at the edge of the bed, like someone just passing through.

A short while later, he felt Livia’s warm hand caressing his hip. Followed by his total surrender, when he promised he would go and see the woman tailor.

*

On the evening of the third day, when Livia came home she luckily made no mention of the new suit, and so Montalbano was able to make up for the lost meals of the two previous evenings.

Livia, on the other hand, had been unable to bring so much as a spoonful of fish soup to her lips, so keen was she to find out from the inspector about a person she’d met while working with Beba who’d impressed her quite a bit.

‘I met a gentleman of about sixty, tall, slender, and very elegant, with glasses. Apparently he’s friends with everyone here in Vigàta. He spoke perfect Italian and Arabic – also perfectly, I assume – with all the immigrants he encountered. They all call him “Doctor” – Dr Osman. Do you know him?’

Montalbano laughed.

‘Of course I know him; he’s my dentist. He’s a very special person, aside from being an excellent doctor. You know those old-time doctors with a clinical eye who could take one look at you and make an accurate diagnosis?’

‘Sure,’ replied Livia. ‘But where’s he from?’

‘He’s Tunisian. Just imagine, aside from being a dentist, he’s also quite the art expert. He works as a consultant for the Museo del Bardo. And that’s not all. For the past few summers – and not only the summers, unfortunately – Dr Osman gets up in the middle of the night and goes to the harbour to help with the immigrant arrivals, both as an interpreter and as a doctor.’

‘I’d like to get to know him a little better.’

‘The next time you’re here we can invite him to dinner.’

‘And where did he do his studies?’

‘He got his degree in London.’

‘So how did he end up in Vigàta?’

‘Dr Osman is very discreet, and he’s never told me his life story, but apparently he got engaged to a woman from Vigàta when he was a student. The engagement eventually went by the boards, but he’d fallen in love with Sicily, and especially with the sea here, which is the same sea that washes his own country’s coast.’

‘I’ve been to Tunisia. And in fact, aside from the language, it’s not that different from here.’

‘I agree, Livia, but I don’t think there are that many people who feel that way. And there isn’t even any difference in the fact that in order to survive, they’re forced, even now, in 2016, to leave their homes, their land, and their families, in order to find a job, just like our own young people.’

‘You know, Salvo,’ Livia continued in a melancholy tone, ‘I’m really sorry I have to leave tomorrow. I wish I could stay just to be with you, but also to keep helping Beba.’

They embraced. And their embrace, over the course of the evening, grew longer and more passionate.

*

They finished breakfast. Montalbano got up, went over to Livia, bent down, and kissed her. But Livia held on to his hand.

‘I don’t feel like leaving you just now. Couldn’t you stay a little longer with me, just a little bit longer?’

Montalbano didn’t feel up to saying no. He moved his chair and sat down beside Livia, who held her hand out to him. He took it, and they sat there for a few minutes, just like that, in silence, each looking the other in the eyes the way they used to do, sometimes for an entire morning, just feeling the warmth of each other’s hands and diving deep into each other’s gaze.

The telephone rang.

Neither of the two had the courage to unclasp their hands, but the temperature suddenly dropped just the same. Then Livia, resigned, said:

‘Go and answer.’

Montalbano was expecting to hear Catarella’s voice, but it was Fazio calling instead.

‘Sorry to bother you, Chief, but could you come to the office as soon as possible?’

‘Why, what’s happened?’

‘What’s happened is that early this morning a patrol boat came in packed with a hundred and thirty migrants, including three pregnant women and four corpses, two of which were small children.’

‘And so?’ said Montalbano.

‘Well, the fact is that the registration centre counted only one hundred and twenty-nine. One is missing.’

‘Were you able to find out whether the missing person is male or female, old or—’

‘Yeah, Chief, apparently it was a fifteen-year-old kid travelling by himself.’

At that moment, out of the corner of his eye Montalbano saw Livia opening the French windows onto the veranda. The wan light of before had become the shadowy light of a grey day. The sea boomed more loudly.

‘But now,’ Fazio continued, ‘the problem is that the commissioner is having conniptions and demanding that this person be found at once. So we’ve all been busy looking for him for the last three hours, and there’s nobody at the station.’

‘I’ll be right there,’ said Montalbano, thinking that by this hour the lad had no doubt already reached, only God knew how, the German border.

No sooner had he hung up than the phone rang again.

‘Montalbano!’

He immediately recognized the imperious voice of Commissioner Bonetti-Alderighi.

He felt like hanging up. Then he thought better of it, realizing that he would have to answer sooner or later anyway. Sighing deeply, he said:

‘I’m sorry, who am I speaking to?’

‘It’s me, for the love of God!’

‘Me who?’

The commissioner’s voice exploded in rage: ‘The commissioner! Wake up, Montalbano!’

‘Sorry, sir. Good morning.’

Bonetti-Alderighi returned the greeting.

‘Good morning, my arse! There you are, lolling about your house instead of going to the station and taking control of this very delicate situation.’

‘What delicate situation?’

‘Do you not consider the escape of a terrorist a deli—’

‘Sorry to interrupt, Mr Commissioner, but we’re only talking about a poor migr—’

Bonetti-Alderighi, furious, interrupted him in turn. ‘Poor migrant, my arse. I’ve received a confidential memo from the antiterrorism bureau. Apparently an extremely dangerous ISIS militant was hiding among that boatload of refugees.’

‘Apparently, or do they know for certain?’

‘Montalbano, don’t start splitting hairs with me, for the love of God. It is quite simply our duty, and responsibility, to track him down and take him to the proper processing centre, where he will be detained.’

‘I beg to differ, Mr Commissioner. In this instance, it is absolutely essential to split hairs with you, as you put it. These boats are full of poor migrants, most of whom are Muslim, and if we don’t distinguish between regular Muslims and ISIS militants, we’re only adding to the general ignorance and creating more panic and hostility by playing right into the terrorists’ hands.’

Bonetti-Alderighi fell silent. But for only a few seconds.

‘Find me that terrorist, damn it!’ said the commissioner, hanging up without saying goodbye.

Two ‘arses’, two ‘for the love of Gods’, and one ‘damn it’ in four minutes. Bonetti-Alderighi must really be in a state.

Montalbano got up slowly.

He went over to Livia, who was looking out at the rough sea. Putting his arm around her shoulders, he pulled her towards him.

‘I’m sorry, Livia, but I really have to go.’

Livia didn’t move.

Montalbano went into the bedroom to get his jacket and the car keys.

Then he returned to Livia’s side.

‘All right, then, I’ll wait for your phone call.’

Only then did Livia turn to look at him, and with her forefinger pointing out at the sea, she asked:

‘What’s that bundle out there?’

‘What bundle?’

‘That black thing floating there off to the left, near the far end of the harbour.’

Montalbano took two steps forward on the veranda and started carefully looking where Livia was pointing.

They stayed that way for a few moments in silence. Then the inspector went down onto the beach.

‘You stay here,’ he said.

The inspector got as close as he could, given that the libeccio had eaten up a good part of the beach, and then he leaned against an overturned boat that the usual early morning fisherman had pulled up to safety.

He stood there briefly looking out at the sea, then made his way very slowly back to the veranda.

His eyes were spooked.

‘That’s no bundle,’ he said.