The Safety Net

Andrea Camilleri | 14 mins


The alarm clock started ringing wildly.

Eyes still closed, Montalbano reached out towards the bedside table with one hand and, feeling around, tried to turn it off, worried that the noise would wake Livia, who was sleeping beside him.

But his fingers knocked into a glass that tipped over and then fell to the floor.

He cursed the saints. Then he immediately heard Livia giggle. He turned towards her.

‘Did the alarm—?’

‘No, I’d been awake for a while.’

‘Really? What were you doing?’

‘What do you mean what was I doing? I was waiting for dawn and watching you.’

Montalbano thought that the back of his head must constitute a rather boring landscape.

‘Did you know that lately you sometimes whistle in your sleep?’ asked Livia.

Upon hearing this revelation, Montalbano, for some reason, got irritated.

‘How could I know that if I’m asleep? Anyway, be more specific. What do I whistle, pop songs, opera, or what?’

‘Calm down! Are you offended or something? All right, to be more precise, you sometimes emit a kind of whistling sound.’

‘Through my nose?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Next time, pay attention to whether I whistle through my nose or my mouth, and let me know.’

‘Why, does it make a difference?’

‘Yes, it makes a huge difference. I remember reading something once about a man whose nose made a whistling sound and it later turned out to be a symptom of a deadly disease.’

‘Oh, come on! And, by the way, I had a bad dream.’

‘Want to tell me about it?’

‘I’m sitting and reading on a veranda exactly like ours, except that it gives onto the quay in the harbour. At some point I hear this big commotion of voices, and I see a man crying for help and being chased by another man ordering him to stop. The man running away has a scarf around his head, a bandana, something tied under his chin. The man giving chase is wearing a large belt with a lot of sharp knives tucked into it. After a while the man being chased finds himself up against the side of a scow. He has a moment of hesitation, and the pursuer takes advantage of this to throw one of his knives, which strikes the man in the nape of the neck, plunges all the way through, and comes out the front of his throat, nailing him to the wood of the scow. Just horrible. So the pursuer stops and starts throwing more knives at the victim, tracing the outline of his body against the boat. Then he suddenly turns and takes a step towards me. But luckily at that point I woke up.’

‘We sort of overdid it last night with the baby octopus!’ was Montalbano’s comment.

‘And did you dream anything?’ Livia asked.

At that moment the alarm went off. But how was that possible? It had rung just five minutes earlier!

Head still numb with sleep, the inspector opened his eyes and immediately realized he was in bed. There was no Livia. She was at home, in Boccadasse. He’d dreamt the whole thing, including Livia’s dream.

He got up, went into the kitchen, prepared his customary mug of coffee, then showered. Moments later, he was sitting on the veranda, smoking a cigarette while drinking his coffee. The day promised to be a fine one. Everything looked freshly painted, so bright were the colours.

He had no desire whatsoever to go into Vigàta, or into what at least had been Vigàta until a few days ago. Because in fact the town had put on a completely different face. It had been, well, thrown back in time, turned into the Vigàta of the 1950s.

This irked Montalbano no end, because it all seemed so fake, as if he was attending a masked ball at the carnival.

The whole business had begun some four or five months earlier, when TeleVigàta invited its viewers to search their homes for old Super 8 movies, which had been so popular around the middle of the previous century, and to send whatever they found to the studio offices. The television station would later integrate them into a programme, a kind of ‘The Way We Were’, about what the town was like in the 1950s.

For whatever reason, the initiative was a resounding success. Perhaps because the whole thing had become a kind of game for the townsfolk, who were having a ball seeing how time had transformed them or their children from toddlers who looked like beautiful little angels just descended from heaven into toothless, hairless, sickly OAPs, and women who’d once been the light of the town into grannies good mostly for knitting socks.

Then they discovered that all this to-do actually had a specific purpose: all the material gathered was to serve as a visual aid for a production crew that was coming to town to film what is commonly known as a TV movie.

Without fail, a short while later the crew’s technicians arrived, half of them Swedish, half of them Italian.

Now the strange thing about all this was that the group of Swedish technicians included some breathtaking stunners, who did a variety of jobs: as assistant set designers, sound technicians, stagehands, and so on . . . Which left the townsfolk a bit flabbergasted to see such beautiful women having to work, and wondering what the actresses would look like when they finally arrived.

And indeed, when they actually did arrive, work in Vigàta came to a standstill.

With the flimsiest of excuses, people dropped whatever they were doing and ran to the movie set. Things got so bad that law enforcement was asked to keep the rubberneckers away. And law enforcement, in this case, naturally took the form of one Mimì Augello, who had been put in charge of the officers protecting the film crew, with special attention given to the actresses.

This, in short, reduced the staff at the station basically to three people: the inspector, Fazio, and Catarella. Luckily it was a period of calm and nothing was happening. The Vigàta townscape had changed. Gone were the TV antennas, the rubbish bins, the neon signs. And there was nothing remaining of the shops Montalbano knew so well.

The inspector had had someone tell him the plot of the TV movie. The story was set, naturally, in the 1950s and involved a Swedish girl working as a boatswain on a steamship from Kalmar who falls seriously ill during the voyage and is admitted to the hospital in Montelusa.

Once she recovers her health she goes to Vigàta, to be near the harbour, and is taken in by a fisherman while she waits for her ship to return.

Due to a series of setbacks her ship is delayed, and in the meantime the Swedish girl falls in love with a youth from Vigàta and creates a life for herself in town, while nevertheless maintaining, deep in her heart, a secret hope that her ship will come back for her one day.

And she keeps nourishing this hope even after she marries and has a child.

Finally the day comes when the ship returns to harbour, and the young woman decides to board in secret, unbeknownst to her family. She arranges for a sailor to take her to the ship in his boat, but at the last moment changes her mind and turns back, to her home in Vigàta.

When Montalbano heard this story, it sounded to him like a plagiarism of a beautiful story by Pirandello entitled ‘Far Away’, in which the main character is not a girl boatswain but a Swedish sailor named Lars.

But he didn’t say anything to anyone.

As he was drinking his second coffee on the veranda, the phone rang. He went to answer. It was Ingrid.

His Swedish friend had, for the occasion, become the official translator for the film crew.

‘Hello, Salvo.’

‘What is it?’

Ingrid didn’t appreciate the inspector’s blunt greeting. ‘Are you angry?’

‘I think the proper word would be “irritated”.’

‘I’m sorry for you. Don’t forget that you have to come to the town-twinning ceremony between Vigàta and Kalmar tonight. It’s at eight o’clock sharp at the town hall.’

‘Thanks for the reminder. I’m well aware that my presence is required.’

‘All right, then. See you later.’

Well, wouldn’t you know that they would take advantage of the ongoing circus to make the two towns twins!

He heard his front door open and then close again. ‘Adelina! I’m still here!’

Matre santissima! Wha’ss wrong, Isspector? You no feeling so good?’ asked Adelina, who’d come running.

‘No, no, I feel fine. Not a trace of fever, unfortunately. I wanted to ask you if my good suit has been ironed.’

‘Which one, sir? The rilly dark one that looks like a black seagull?’

‘Yeah, that’s the one.’

‘Iss ready.’

‘OK, thanks. And you needn’t cook anything for me this evening. I’ll be eating out.’


He pulled up outside the station but couldn’t go in because a truck was stopped right in front of the entrance. He could see Catarella waving his arms to get the driver to move it. But the driver, who was Swedish, pretended not to understand, all that vaunted Nordic civility be damned.

Montalbano likewise pretended nothing was happening, got out of his car, and headed straight for the Caffè Castiglione, which hadn’t changed a bit since its foundation in 1890, where he ate a cannolo just to sweeten his morning. By the time he got back to the station, the truck was gone.


‘Any news?’ he asked Catarella upon entering.

‘Da nooz is cummin ’ard an’ fass, Chief! ’Ere was a truck parked ousside ’ere till jess a coupla minnits ago, an’ ’ey wannit a change the sign ’at says Vigàta Police t’ say Dance Hall.’

Montalbano said nothing and headed for his office, with Catarella following behind.

‘Chief, ya know I tink I know why ’ere’s no more fights or killin’s or rabberies in town.’

‘And why’s that?’

‘Cuz in my ’pinion e’en the crooks’ve stopped crookin’ cuz ’ey’re all busy watchin’ the crew shootin’ the film in town. E’en a big-time dealer like Totò Savatteri, I seen ’im all slicked up an’ fancy, drivin’ a carritch onna set.’

The carriage was probably stuffed full of drugs, thought Montalbano, but he didn’t want to burst Catarella’s bubble.


After lounging around the office for three hours, the inspector decided it was time to eat.

The film crew had naturally also invaded Enzo’s trattoria, and what irked Montalbano most was the tremendous, deafening chaos the combination of Swedes and Italians managed to make while eating. Which was intolerable to him, as silence was normally the condiment to his meals.

And so he made a deal with Enzo that his table should always be set in the little room adjacent to the main room. There were few other tables there, and Montalbano made him promise that nobody from the crews, either Italian or Swedish, would be allowed, for any reason, to set foot in that room.

Despite all the bother, his appetite luckily wasn’t lacking, and he ate very well: antipasti, spaghetti with fresh tuna sauce, and a platter of mullet. After which he went back outside.

Luckily there was no sign of any filming activity on the jetty. And so he was able to have a pleasant stroll, tranquil and undisturbed. And quiet, above all. Sitting down on the flat rock, he realized that, if things continued along their present course, the best solution might be to take a few days’ holiday and see Livia in Boccadasse.

The idea that he would have to meet strangers that evening, and even put on a good face and make conversation with people he found utterly insufferable, made him feel so agitated that he made a sudden decision.

When he got back to the station, he summoned Fazio. ‘Listen, I’m going home. If you should need me for anything, just call.’

Once he got home he decided that the best thing to do would be to lie down for a bit, and so he undressed and lay in bed, hoping to doze for half an hour or so.

When he woke up, to his great surprise it was gone seven. And so he dashed into the bathroom, changed his shirt, took the good suit out of the wardrobe, put it on, added a tie, and looked at himself in the mirror.

Adelina was absolutely right. He looked just like a black seagull.


The town hall was a sea of lights. A number of burning torches had been placed across the facade, and two floodlights lit up the entire building. The Italian and Swedish flags were flying side by side on the balcony. The assembly celebrating the twinning of Vigàta with Kalmar would be held in the council chamber. Meanwhile, the guests waited in the great hall, where the tables that would serve the buffet after the ceremony were already laid out with white tablecloths.

Montalbano got there a little late, and by that time the hall was already full of people. As soon as she saw him come in, Ingrid rushed up to him and, taking his arm, led him to a giant about six foot six, a sort of blond bear – if any had ever existed – who was introduced to him as the director of the TV movie.

Ingrid then immediately presented him to two of the three Swedish actresses, adding that the third had suffered a slight indisposition and would therefore not be attending the ceremony.

It took him one look round to ascertain that Mimì Augello wasn’t present, either. Which was very odd. Might he be suffering from the same indisposition as the Swedish actress?


Then some people started saying that the guests should move into the council chamber and take their assigned places. And that was how Montalbano found himself sitting in the front row between the parish priest and the commander of the port authorities. Also in the front row was a carabinieri lieutenant, but he’d been diplomatically seated four places down from the inspector.

The wall behind the high-backed chairs of the mayor and his council was entirely covered with a large nineteenth-century tapestry depicting Vigàta and its harbour.

After a while, from the hall came the sound of a sort of light waltz that nobody had ever heard before. The mayor of Vigàta, Mr Pillitteri, gestured for everyone to stand, and they all obeyed. After the waltz ended, they were all about to sit back down when the national anthem began, and everyone rose again. As they were finally settling in, however, everyone noticed that the four Swedes present were still standing.

‘Why are they still on their feet?’ Pillitteri asked Ingrid.

Ingrid asked one of the men in her native language, the man answered, and she translated:

‘He says they’re waiting for the Swedish national anthem.’

‘But that’s what we played first!’ exclaimed Pillitteri.

Apparently the Vigàta municipal band had given such a personal interpretation to the anthem that the Swedes hadn’t recognized it.

After the misunderstanding was cleared up, Pillitteri had his Swedish counterpart from Kalmar, a sixtyish man with glasses and sandy hair, sit down beside him. The other three Swedish representatives were sitting in places off to the side normally reserved for councillors.

The audience, however, was in its proper place. Pillitteri quickly ceded the floor to his Swedish counterpart, who was translated by Ingrid and immediately launched into the complete history of his town. Which everyone, moreover, already knew, since for the past week the two local TV stations had been doing nothing but telling the story of their new twin town, which looked out on the Baltic Sea.

The mere mention of the Baltic Sea got Montalbano’s brain whirring. Were there mullet in the Baltic Sea? Were there purpiteddri, baby octopuses like the kind Enzo fed him, in the Baltic Sea? And, if so, what did they taste like? Surely they must have a different flavour, since he’d already noticed, for example, that the fish from the Adriatic Sea tasted slightly different from the fish in the Tyrrhenian. So one could only imagine the difference of flavour in a fish from so far north as Kalmar.

The peal of applause brought him back to reality. Luckily for everyone, the mayor of Vigàta spoke little, but in fact his speech was cut even shorter by an unexpected incident. Namely, the large tapestry hanging behind him suddenly came detached from the wall and folded over itself halfway, exposing the upper part of a fresco depicting Benito Mussolini astride a white horse, sabre drawn. The mayor trailed off, a few people started laughing, a few others applauded, and a few more got angry, because Pillitteri wrapped things up in a hurry and then invited everyone to go over to the buffet, which, he pointed out with a certain pride, consisted entirely of what he called, in heavily accented English, finghirfud.

Indeed the mayor’s wife, Ersilia Pillitteri, a smart woman with progressive ideas, had decided to send for some Palermo caterers specializing in finghirfud: naturally, little titbits one could only eat with one’s fingers. In fact, one saw neither hide nor hair of spoons or forks or knives on any of the serving tables. What there were instead were a great many little tubs and glasses full of coloured stuff not easily identified, and for this reason the puzzled Vigatese were loath to reach out and grab any finghirfud. The mayor’s wife decided to set the example. Picking up a transparent glass, she explained that it contained a mousse of baccalà topped with myrtle berries and a bay leaf; and, using the leaf as a spoon, she started eating it. A few brave souls followed her example. Montalbano took one of the little tubs and studied it carefully. At first glance it seemed to contain a meatball with something white beside it, which could have passed for purée. Unconvinced, he picked up the little meatball with two fingers and bit into it. It wasn’t meat, as he’d thought, but a sort of mishmash of raw broccoli and overcooked green beans pressed around a core of salmon, in an apparent tribute to the Swedish. He felt like spitting it back out, but this seemed unbecoming to him, and so he closed his eyes and swallowed. To get rid of the nasty taste in his mouth, he stuck two fingers into the whitish goo, but this proved even worse, as the goo turned out to be a sort of stracchino cheese gone bad, with a sickly sweet flavour of coconut.

Putting the little tub down, he realized there weren’t any more paper napkins to clean his hands with. Cursing the saints, he pulled his handkerchief out of his pocket, staining his jacket, naturally, in the process, and, deciding he’d done his duty, he turned his back on the distinguished guests and headed for the door, determined to eat at Enzo’s.

‘Inspector Montalbano!’

He stopped, turned around, and saw coming towards him a man a few years over sixty, tall and well dressed. It was the town council’s chief engineer, Ernesto Sabatello.

‘Were you about to leave?’


‘If you don’t mind, I’ll come with you.’

As they started down the stairs, Sabatello opened the conversation.

‘You know, I had promised myself I would pay a call on you at the station one of these days, but then . . .’

‘Did you change your mind?’

‘Not at all. It just didn’t seem appropriate to me. Bothering you over an entirely personal matter, and a rather silly one at that . . .’

They were now outside the town hall.

‘You could give me a few hints right now, if you like . . .’ the inspector invited him.

Sabatello didn’t wait to be asked twice.

‘I’ll steal just a few minutes of your time, and then, if you find the matter of interest to you . . . Anyway, I have to confess that, like everyone else, I let myself get caught up in the search for old Super 8 movies for TeleVigàta. I remembered that we had a big chest in the attic full of home movies, all filmed by my father, who must have been a maniac . . . Luckily the projector was also in the chest, and it still works. Anyway, in short, I looked at all of them and sent the best ones to TeleVigàta. On the other hand . . .’

‘On the other hand?’

‘As I said, I’m sure it’s just something silly and of no importance whatsoever, but I still can’t explain it, because it seems so crazy, so illogical . . .’

‘Want to tell me what you’re talking about?’ asked Montalbano, who was beginning to lose patience.

‘Well, among all those reels, which showed all the usual family doings – birthday parties, vacations by the sea, a variety of different landscapes – there were six that were . . . I don’t quite know how to put it . . . that were entirely anomalous.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, they all showed the same scene.’

Montalbano didn’t find anything so unusual about this, and he said so to Sabatello.

‘If the same scene is shot repeatedly from different angles, I really don’t see what—’

‘Wait,’ Sabatello cut him off. ‘The image is still, and is always shot from the same angle. On top of that – and this is perhaps the strangest part of it all – the six home movies were shot over the course of six years, from 1958 to 1963.’

‘How do you know that?’

‘Every reel is wrapped in paper with the date in my father’s handwriting. For six years in a row he made those films in the same month of the year, the same day, and at the same hour: on the twenty-seventh of March, at ten twenty-five in the morning.’

‘But what’s on the screen? What did he film?’

Sabatello took a breath before answering. ‘Part of a wall. Always the same one.’

Montalbano looked puzzled.

‘Part of a wall?’

‘That’s right.’

‘But is there anything on that wall?’

‘No, nothing. No writing, drawing, or anything else.’

‘And does the appearance of the wall change over the years?’

‘Well, I suppose a few more cracks begin to appear in the plaster, but nothing more . . . at least as far as I can tell. Perhaps a fresh look with your eyes, which are trained to grasp every tiny detail . . .’

The inspector realized what the engineer was getting at. ‘If you like, you can lend me the films and the projector.’

‘I’ll get everything to you by tomorrow morning,’ the engineer said, smiling.

They shook hands, and Montalbano dashed off to Enzo’s, hoping that the film crew hadn’t gobbled up the whole trattoria.