Piera Mattei, THE CLUB

"Not all who write are writers".
"Many are who never write, or write no more".
I had these two paradoxes inscribed on a slab of pink marble and put it up beside the gate of my villa. Next to it I've hung a sign with a red arrow. Just a red arrow, nothing more, pointing to the gate.
My villa lies in the heart of the country, far enough away from the crowds. However the marble plate and the arrow can't help attracting some sort of interest, of a few people anyway.
I believe in fate. I don't believe in statistics. If a hundred or a thousand people were to walk past my gate every day I don't think I'd stand a better chance of meeting the sort of people I'm looking for than the ones I know now, in my seclusion. I might well be disturbed by idlers with nothing better to do. And yet probably not one in a thousand of the faceless crowd would read the words I inscribed, plus the arrow, as a invitation.
Behind the wall that isolates me from the outside world is my garden. I call it a garden but it is really an unkempt lawn. Still, it is green and dotted with tufts of mallow and a few other plants I can't put a name to. This enclosing wall is shaded with small oaks and fruit trees. The house itself - I only call it a villa on account of the "garden" - is what might be described as essential. No more than one large room with a bed and a desk where I seat myself every morning till about 1 p.m. to stare at a blank page.
Later on I walk down to the village, eat at the bar, play cards. Then in the evening I walk home to a frugal supper and watch television. And so on, from one day to the next.
The people who live there all know about the marble inscription. They don't have a lot to say about it, probably because they wouldn't want to appear nosey. But somehow they're rather pleased it's there. An eccentricity lending a dash of interest to this god-forsaken place.
"Sooner or later we're going to get a big influx of tourists here. You wait and see". The bar- keeper, who never in his entire life felt like taking a step outside his village, is a believer in progress. The fact that I chose to come and live here from somewhere a long way away feeds his hopes. He looks upon me as part of the avant-garde intelligentsia with an eye to the future. And because I dismiss this prospect with wave of the hand to imply that I'm simply not interested in having hordes of inquisitive tourists turn up on my doorstep, whatever interest it may hold for him, it only confirms his opinion of me as an eccentric, which no doubt gives him a buzz of satisfaction.

The thing is I didn't have to wait very long for the sort of touristic fame, posthumous or no, the bar- keeper fantasizes for me. Already we have formed a little club, all of them interesting members.
After selecting a handful for a try out, four of them have come to live with me, assuming the status of foundation members. Each is different in age and temperament. No women.
We never talk about writing when we meet. Leo and Giorgio (the youngest and the oldest) spend most of their time heads bent over the chess board. Lorenzo reads to me while I sprawl in a deck chair. I sit there thinking up, formulating and developing my stories.

Today Anna arrived. In her tennis things she was hot and smiling. Leo and Giorgio glanced up from the chess board. The conversation I was having with Lorenzo came to an immediate halt.
"I just happened to be passing and I read your invitation there by the gate".
She walked briskly down the drive, head high, and paused beside the chess table.
"Mind if I sit down?" She dragged a chair over to the table.

"I read your inscription so in I came", she repeated.
Now that she was seated and her footsteps, her voice and the crunch of the chair across the gravel had ceased there was an interval of total silence. A raven began to croak. We all burst out laughing.
"Is this club for men only ?" she asked. She clearly wasn't teasing as she glanced from face to face.
"Not that I think it makes a scrap of difference. This sort of thing has nothing to do with sex. Or do you find that being a writer..." and here she opened her intensely blue eyes very wide, "What I mean is you'd need to be a writer to feel really alive, wouldn't you ? Or if you don't feel it then you're not. That's what it boils down to, doesn't it? Now we, I mean those of you, us, who feel we are writers, keep on being alive. There's no way we can die. Because first we have to..."
She left the sentence hanging, then looked around at us as though she expected us to finish it for her. But we simply sat there dumbly confronted by this outburst of rhetoric and feeling it wasn't rhetorical at all. If it was true for her then it was just as true for us.
"Oh, don't mind me", she went on, "I've never written anything I could recognize myself in. But at heart"... Here she gently touched the neck of her blouse with her slim right hand. "At heart", she repeated, "I feel I'm a writer. There's a voice that goes talking on and on inside me wherever I happen to be. Even if I'm not saying anything myself. I mean especially when I'm perfectly quiet. It tells all my experiences, then reports and interprets them. The thing is it confabulates them. And this still inner voice of mine", she wound up as her enthusiasm toned down, "keeps on telling me endless stories".
It wasn't so much what she said that so impressed us, it was her intonation. And also her courage in saying all this without the slightest embarrassment. For us, a sense of modesty would have intervened and left it to guesswork. Was it only modesty that prevented us from pushing ourselves forward, or a languor of the heart and mind? When she was through saying what she had to say, we steered the conversation over to the formalities of her admission to our club. She certainly possessed the qualifications. Her right to membership was accepted without question.

After that first day when she had, well, overwhelmed us with her eloquence Anna never again spoke of her affinities and differences in regard to the members of our household. But her activities were tireless. The large central room, heaped in wild disorder with our belongings, she portioned off into four distinct sections. For herself she took a little room outside the house in what we, not without a sense of importance, called the dépendence. And now this was the direction we constantly turned to look, the direction of our sighs.
Anna was an angel we'd had sent to us. All four of us. I believe that. We filled up whole exercise books centred on her, as well as fantastic guesses at her true identity.

Now none of us would ever have wanted to send her away. But one day, allowing us no time to prepare, she came to say good-bye. I couldn't remember how long she had been with us, but it was much too short as far as I, and any of the others, were concerned. All she said was that she had to go away and that she'd be back. She said this as though, out of the blue, she'd suddenly remembered an appointment which she shouldn't have forgotten.
She mentioned a tournament left unfinished at the tennis courts, as though it were of the greatest importance.
When ? Where? None of us had ever heard of any tennis courts nearby. They weren't all that far, she explained. And so she left us, promising to come back. A vague promise. She didn't set a date. All we could do in the days that followed was hang about waiting for her.
Leo and Giorgio did go back to their chess board, their heads bent over it for hours. But you could see they weren't giving it serious attention. They'd start and look round at every crackle of a leaf.
Lorenzo and I didn't talk for whole afternoons. Our conversation was reduced to an occasional exchange of sad smiles.
So when a week had gone by in this gloom-laden atmosphere we decided to go and look for her at the tennis club.
We arrived in the most fearsomely hot hours of the day. The sun scorched on the unshaded courts. We looked everywhere. We shouted. She wasn't there. It seemed to us the shrilling of the cicadas went on and on repeating "She isn't here, she isn't here, she isn't here". We'd been duped.

By the next morning my blank page was almost completely covered with the story of Anna's disappearance. And since I believe in fate, not chance, I wondered what our experience might mean.
In the afternoon Leo and Giorgio did not sit down at the chess board. We set our chairs in a circle to talk it over, but the discussion was punctuated with sighs.
Leo broke the silence.
"Anna's made us all look like a bunch of twits".
"No" said Giorgio, "she‘s always been perfectly honest. She enjoyed being here with us. I'd venture to suggest she never had any intention of offending us... but with all that innocence and tremendous sincerity of hers, there's a chance she might be suffering from amnesia".
A psychopath? Lorenzo leaped to his feet. Anna was a real writer. You could see she was a Whole Person. She didn't need to go chasing inspiration. Inspiration chased her, wherever she went. If you want to know the truth about her identity, that's what it is. Having all of us fall in love with her. That's what makes her so attractive.
Here Lorenzo proposed an image of Anna very like my own. But barely a week after she disappeared the other two launched upon niggling criticisms that reduced her image to mere banality. She was a flirt, she was superficial, frivolous. The truth was she was rather a goose.
This made me feel like excluding them. It offended me, it outraged me.

One evening following yet another bitter conflict on the subject we were once again sitting in our circle, our heads down. In this position I couldn't help wondering whether some of us had silently given way to tears. Then came the crunch of a seat pushed back. Giorgio had risen to his feet. He stood looking up the drive as though he had seen a vision. Without another word he walked to the gate and stopped. We heard his footsteps growing fainter and fainter on the gravel path, and then he turned and trudged on up the hill. Once he was out of sight Leo, Lorenzo and I went to see. The pink marble slab at the gate had black paint sloshed across it. The sign with the arrow was still in place but Giorgio had pinned on a slip of paper with a few desperate words:
"Anna, won't you please come back!"
Was Anna ever likely to read it?
Would Giorgio ever return?

Meanwhile Leo had been left without a chess companion for the evening. Lorenzo tried to take his place, which left me without a partner to talk to.
But sitting there on my own my thoughts went racing ahead. I was plotting a new chapter for the novel I'd already begun work on.

[Translated from Italian by Adrian Cook and Piera Mattei]