ATTI INNOMINABILI BY MICHAEL DAVIDSON
Atti Innominabili, a short story by English journalist and boy-lover Michael Davidson, and his only published work of fiction, was published in 1970 in issue VII of the London magazine Jeremy, whose editor, Peter Burton, had commissioned it. At the time, Davidson had been living in southern Italy, where his story was set, for a dozen years.
The newspaper reported the affair in the phrases which Italian journalism keeps for the sexual involvement of the young. The two boys were mini-bruti — “mini” being the current adjective for anything exiguous or juvenile, and “bruto”, beast or animal, the invariable pejorative for a person sexually interested in the immature, even if immature himself. The girl, a sweet-faced but hardened whore of fourteen who got no worse than a slight stab wound, was in one paragraph the “dainty victim” and in another a “mini-Messalina”; and all three of them, in the headlines, were ragazzi terribili — almost any youngster before a judge is “terrible” from the word go. The catalogue of accusations which the Press found the boys guilty of long before they got to Court was so carefully comprehensive that while acquital was probable on most of the charges, conviction was certain on some. The charges included: atti innominabili in a public place; obscene behaviour in public; abetting prostitution; abetting prostitution by a minor; carnal violence; libidinous assault on a minor; corruption of minors of both sexes . . . since, in this affair, all three were minors, though in different grades of minority, the police could construct a triangle of cross-corruption. (The “unmentionable acts” of the first charge generally connote in police language some form of masturbation, solitary or in company.) Against the younger boy who unluckily flourished the knife, these charges were preferred in addition: attempted murder, malicious wounding, armed assault, possession of an unlawful weapon, carrying a blade more than so many centimetres long . . .
The bigger boy, seventeen years old, was sent to prison. The judge said that no young person of either sex in the town was safe from moral contamination so long as he was among them. The other, just under sixteen, was put away in an “institution for re-education”, the judge remarking that he was corrupt, violent and perverted and required a long period of re-education. The girl, “for her own good and that of boys in her neighbourhood”, was placed in the care of some nuns who specialised in the “re-education” of delinquent girls as well as in their spiritual salvation. The newspaper called the affair a mini-drama of juvenile jealousy over a girl. In fact, it was a story of a boy’s jealousy over a boy.
A small fishing town, hardly more than a village, called San Cataldo del Golfo stands just inside the south-eastern heel of Italy, in the Gulf of Taranto, where the Italian waters of the Ionian Sea quickly merge with the Greek. The houses, stacked like dominoes over a low rocky plateau and bright with balconies, are washed in pale tones of blue, lemon and pink and seem to hang twenty feet above the harbour. Two paved jetties of solid stone enclose the port; in the morning the fishing-smacks lie alongside and their catches of the night are auctioned there and then to the wholesalers waiting on the quay. Almost the whole town lives from fish, the catching or canning of it or the selling and packing and freezing and marketing of it, or from the culture of mussels for which, like Taranto further up the Gulf, San Cataldo is famous. At certain parts of the foreshore, where the sea-bed is suitable and the water shallow and sheltered, the mussels are strung from poles in festoons like flowers garlanded over a pergola, a kind of marine rose-growing which one might fancy some retired triton taking up as a hobby in his old age. With Taranto, too, San Cataldo shares as patron saint the adventurous and frequently miraculous Irish missionary after whom the place is named.
A high sea-wall screens the southern jetty from the south-east gales; and is reinforced on the weather side by a tremendous bulwark of concrete blocks piled along a foundation of natural rock. These rocks and huge cubes of concrete make a perfect scampering ground for certain boys of the neighbourhood and also, in the parched days of summer, provide innumerable couches of stone on which they can lie supine between swims. Throughout the three baking months, the same group of boys daily speckled these rocks with their bodies — like a club, they were, exclusive and clannish; they all lived in the palazzo, a modern block of flats clad in brutal ferro-concrete, which towered above the sea-wall; it wasn’t often that a “foreigner” to these flats came on to the rocks. By climbing on to the top of the wall, the boys could shout messages to their mothers and sisters hanging out the washing on the balconies.
One of the first to arrive on the rocks in the morning, once the school-holidays had started, was Dante: a solemn yet cherubic blond who by July had the skin off his nose and a fantasy of freckles over his white shoulders. Though hardly fourteen, Dante was already at a high school, a studious and insatiably lubricous scholar; he would bring an armful of books and pass the hours in studying either Latin syntax or his own genitals. His friends called him “Dand-day”, an inflexion puzzling to a stranger. Asked what this nickname stood for, he repeated “Dand-day”, himself using the local pronunciation, and added crushingly: “Alighieri you know.” Towards eleven o’clock, Alduccio (a double diminutive for Cataldo) would arrive. He was about fourteen, had left school and was working as a pesce-vendolo, a fish-hawker, a mousy, silent person whom everybody liked and nobody bothered about. Next Tonino and Tanino (Antonio and Gaetano); they almost always arrived together, but if one was there first, he would seem restless and distracted until joined by the other. Tonino, who was seventeen, was employed at night, watching over an uncle’s “mussels garden” a mile down the coast. Tanino, not quite sixteen, helped his father in the fruit-market in the early hours of the day.
Then half a dozen more, Mimino, Ninino, Pepino and the rest. The biggest was Mimino, who must have been eighteen, and the youngest his eleven year old brother. They were all friends; their few little quarrels but loud and short. Along this sequestered “lido” of concrete and polished brown rock, the boys disposed themselves over the most comfortable slabs they could grab — first come, first served; or in the niches between. Only Tonino and Tanino had a pitch tacitly reserved for them, a smooth slope of rock, ample and slightly concave and looking full into the southern sun.
At one point the foundation rocks of this rampart were indented to form a tiny creek, its sides just right for flopping into the water like a seal or leaping from it like a salmon. One overhanging boulder made a good diving platform. This was a perfect bathing-place, where few strangers intruded. Droves of large jelly-fish called “medusas”, fortunately without sting, swayed slowly by with the current and their own curious muscular impulsion, like obese and slightly tipsy dowagers. Under the lip of the little creek, sea slugs lay blindly, like disagreeable sausages; and a cuttlefish was sometimes dozing, ready to vomit ink if disturbed. Sea-urchins encrusted the rocks below the waterline, limpets and the like above; the boys would borrow Tanino’s knife for gouging these creatures free so as to eat them raw. On a still day the translucent sea was like glass through which every detail of the bottom could be seen and clouds of small fish flashed. Fifty yards offshore a small “mussels garden” stretched its garlands; and beyond that a reef of dark rock ran parallel with the coast, just topping the water so that in a breathless sea the lapping ripples were like fingers running through brown hair. In this channel, between shore and reef, an old grumbling boatman laid his crayfish pots, shaped like wicker lanterns and weighted with stones. He dropped his pots in the evening; and each midmorning, when the boys were on the rocks, sculled himself over the course, picking up each pot with a boathook and extracting his prey. This sour octogenarian daily accused the boys of interfering with his pots: they did often dive down like ducks to have a look, as any boy would; but never hauled one up nor touched a fish. Yet a continuing war was fought between this crusty old man and the young tritons of the rocks; he ranted at them and told them he would “tell their fathers” and they replied by shouting back obscenities and derisively wagging their cocks. This put him in a frenzy of exasperation; he would row in close and try to hit them with an oar; and he’d scream at them about the indecencies he had seen them performing: he knew what they got up to among the rocks and he’d tell their fathers about that too! Porkers, animals, that’s what they were! He must have forgotten the games he got up to some seventy years ago.
In these circumstances of titillating indolence some display of sensuality was to be expected (they’d have been odd boys if there hadn’t been); the luxury of nakedness; the feel of burning sunshine on the body and the dazzle of a white-hot sky; the warm submission of the velvet waters; the sensuous roughness of hot concrete (whose pitted surface would leave patterns like pokerwork on the boys’ flesh); the voluptuousness of physical liberty: these were pressures of delight few adolescents could be tempted to subdue. But mainly it was a mild boyish sensuality that hardly merited the word sexuality; and basically it was a manifestation of one of mankind’s earliest mystic preoccupations. When boys find themselves free of the prohibitions of convention, they instinctively reveal that same fascinated curiosity about their own and their friends’ phallic attribute which is identical with the age-old obsession with the eternal phallic mystery. It isn’t “sex”; it’s an involuntary probing of the vast quandary of sex. Of course there was sexual performance too: ’na bella pugnetta (“a nice little fistful”) was a recurrent matter for merriment and often for action. Occasionally a general, almost competitive, session would spontaneously be held; or one of the boys, perhaps two together, would slide their thin bodies through the slit loop-holes of the “pill-box” that stood above the junction of the seawall and shore, a forlorn relic of the war. Tonino and Tanino would clamber up to this chamber now and again: their friends tactfully let them go without comment, as if they were a pair of fidanzati going off hand-in-hand for a cuddle. But most people who felt the need of una pugnetta did it in front of their mates as unashamedly as blowing their noses. And yet, although such things were pretty frequent and though one could almost smell the suffusion of sensuality that seemed to rise like a heat-haze from the very stones of this languorous sea wall, frankly sexual exercises took a back place: the boys usually were too absorbed by their exertions or delicious inactivities: in and out of the water or simply lying luxuriously doing nothing; absorbed too in their endless gossipping about schools, work, themselves, their friends and the doings in the palazzo. Their conversation sometimes soared towards the metaphysical, but it seldom condescended to women and never slumped to politics: probably none of them could have given the name of the ruling prime minister.
“I wonder . . .” began Alduccio one morning, in that tone of his which indicated that he’d thought a lot before opening his mouth. “I wonder if there really are women with fishes’ tails living on the rocks near Punta Grossa ?”
“Sirens, you mean,” said Mimino with authority. “Of course there aren’t. That’s all legend, just stories they tell you.”
“But after all,” Alduccio pursued, “there’s San Cataldo, and the Madonna, and God — they’re real . . .”
“Oh God,” said Mimino contemptuously. “I grant you San Cataldo and Maria, yes . . . we know they’re real. But the rest’s all legend.”
“Well,” said Alduccio with something like Catholic logic, “if we know San Cataldo and the Madonna are real, why shouldn’t the fish women be real too ?”
Here Dante lifted his head from a close scrutiny of his scrotum and observed: “Our maestro says the sirens weren’t fish-women. In Homer, he says, they were half-women, half-bird.”
"E cazzo ’l tu’ maestro,” said Mimino flatly. “Your maestro’s a prick. Of course they were fishwomen, the mermaids were, everybody knows that.”
“But you said just now they weren’t real, Mimino,” Alduccio complained.
“Of course they aren’t real. They were fishwomen in the legend. Dand-day’s maestro is a prick . . .”
At that moment Tonino and Tanino hoisted themselves like jack-in-the-boxes out of the sea, so that water gushed off their bodies.
“Well anyway,” said one of the others, “Tonino’s got his tame mermaid . . . look how the water’s running off Tanino’s arse like off a fish’s scales . . .”
And indeed Tanino’s purple-brown skin (so deeply had its natural swarthiness deepened under the sun) was darkly glistening like a dolphin’s, while water ran in runnels from his buttocks to his ankles.
At this remark; the corners of Tonino’s mouth turned down in a small amused pout; but the perfect line of Tanino’s dogged jaw seemed for a second to harden, as if tightening its grip.
Tonino was a big, loose boy of seventeen, with dark straw hair and the blue eyes of a northern heritage: a thousand years ago this Apulian south was overrun by Teutonic and Norman brigand-soldiers. Good-nature, indolence and a lazy delight in physical pleasure were written into his rather florid good looks; his body was still slim, but had the lushness of flesh that suggested he would grow over-plump too early. His affection for Tanino was evident; yet one could guess that, like the bee, he would take his sweets where he found them without a backward thought. Tanino’s temperament was as different as his appearance. The darkness of his skin was matched by an almost eastern beauty and by a perfection of profile that one sees in some Indian dancers. The grace and subtlety of his body was almost serpentine. His devotion to Tonino seemed more emotional than physical: as if his desire lay rather in Tonino’s gratification than in his own. It was he who lit their cigarettes, first Tonino’s, then his own, between his lips; he who fetched bread from a pocket when Tonino was hungry, or, with his pen-knife, sliced off a piece of the watermelon they’d brought with them; he whose fondling fingers ran over Tonino’s skin, giving him an ecstasy of luxurious sensation: and he never asked for similar attentions for himself. It was Tonino, not he, who gave the word for a move up to the “pillbox”. This wasn’t because he was younger and smaller and therefore the underling. It was his role to serve the person he wanted: he needed a soft and self-indulgent friend who would be made happy by his services. Tonino had become necessary to him, and so had Tonino’s character. He wasn’t quite sixteen: a stolid-minded boy, simple in most things and with few desires, but stubbornly tenacious of anything he wanted to keep. In the expression of his classic face there was something dogged and clenched, as if once he’d got a hold he wouldn’t let go. He knew nothing of his own beauty; the only beauty he knew was what he saw in Tonino. These two, though members of the palazzo “club” and friends of all the others, seemed somehow isolated within the circle of their own affections. They would shout and play and swim with the other boys, and yet always as a pair, never singly; and then they’d lie down to dry in the sun and slowly snuggle closer to each other in the warm concavity of the slab they’d appropriated. Then the other boys left them to themselves.
The long parched summer moved slowly round, apparently as endlessly as a chain of cogs, each fresh day a duplicate of its forerunner, yesterday forgotten and tomorrow never thought of. To the boys on the rocks the summer seemed to pass in a brazen haze of enjoyment, pass and yet never finish.
But for Tonino and Tanino, by the time the first heavy drops of thunder-rain were falling in August like shaken almonds, the end was abrupt. One morning they didn’t come to the rocks; and they never came again. What had happened came out bit by bit in the boys’ talk afterwards; and, later, from the stories of people who had been in Court. In one thing the boys were lucky: the case was heard within only a few weeks, instead of the months or even the year so many are kept in prison “awaiting trial”. A block of flats, in southern Italy, becomes a kind of hamlet on its own, a self-contained colony where people use the same shops and run in and out of each others’ homes and where the boys find their friends within the flats and don’t look elsewhere. A palazzo generally, therefore, has its ragazza perduta, its “lost girl”: one of its daughters who, having had the ill luck to lose her socially indispensable maidenhood, with it loses all reason for not making the best of the loss and turning it to advantage. She becomes, that is, the resident tart. The palazzo above the seawall too had its ragazza perduta: a sweet-faced child of fourteen unfortunately Fortunata; parents in these parts seldom realise until too late what perils may lie dormant in the choice of a name. She looked like a child-madonna but had a dangerous temper and kept her finger nails long. There had often been, on the rocks, a bit of banter about poor Fortunata, from crudely guessed-at details of her anatomy to gossip over which boy had been seen whispering to her and which returning conspiratorially from the bomb site behind the palazzo. Sometimes the others twitted Tonino: “Why don’t you have a go at Fortunata ?” they’d ask. “Tanino wouldn’t mind, would you Tanino?” But Tanino would grin, with that little turned-down pout: he seemed to say: “I’m all right as I am—I’ve got plenty of time ahead ...” And Tanino would pick up a stone and throw it, whether in joke or spite it was hard to tell from his set face.
Tanino happened to be passing the alley leading to the bomb site just as they were coming out of it. The back of Fortunata’s dark red frock was flecked with the dust of rubble and old whitewash. Some boys who were watching said Tanino looked as if he suddenly flew right off his head. His face seemed to go white under its dark skin and his eyes looked “like a madman’s”. For a moment he stood without moving; then, moaning and blubbering, he turned and ran. Nobody saw him again till the next evening when the carbineers brought him home . . . they’d found him on the road between Lecce and Brindisi. Some boys who went to his house that evening said he wouldn’t utter a word, and looked more dogged than ever. He refused to eat; and left the flat almost at once, after getting some cigarette money from his mother.
He’d been waiting outside the palazzo half an hour before she came up the hill from the cinema. Fortunata had long made a point of knowing her neighbours’ secrets; she kept, in reserve, a mental file on everybody in the flats, and there wasn’t much she didn’t know about Tanino. At that moment it was misery he was feeling more than anger; but when he began to plead with her, begging her not to take his friend, his mate, his compagno, she burst out laughing at him, perhaps out of pique because this beautiful male creature hadn’t ever looked twice at her. She shouted at him a dozen brutal names in dialect meaning catamite and queer; and told him spitefully she’d even peeped through the loophole slits and seen what was going on. This turned his wretchedness to rage and he hit her; in a second her fingernails were out and then his knife. They were separated before she got worse than a nick in the arm and he a bleeding cheek. The families would have smoothed the affair over and hushed it up if left to themselves; but suddenly it was too late: the screaming had brought a couple of police whom chance had placed in the nearest coffee bar, and once the police have come into an affair there’s no stopping it, and the handcuffs are on.
The police came down to the rocks and questioned the boys, from whom they learned little. They also interviewed the old fisherman, from whom they learned a lot. The old man thought they’d caught one of the boys interfering with his crayfish pots, and he was anxious to help all he could with any evidence required.
People in Court said that Tonino, before and after he was sentenced, appeared totally bewildered; he couldn’t understand how he’d done any harm to anybody, nor why he was being locked up. Fortunata kept repeating ma perchè? ma perchè? —“but why, why?” She wanted to deny their right to take away the liberty she’d gained by the great sacrifice of her virginity. As for Tanino . . they said he simply looked dazed, as if he’d been left with a lasting concussion; he didn’t listen to anything being said about him and wouldn’t answer questions. He wasn’t interested. That was how three young people started their re-education.
Down on the rocks the boys were talking. “A pity”, said one, “Tonino had to have Fortunata. Or a pity Tanino had to mind when he did. Doesn’t seem right in the palazzo now, without them . . .”
“Tanino was silly not to know he wasn’t interested in her beyond the quick poke—like eating a bit of bread between meals . . .”
“They were saving up to buy a motoretta between them, cheaper than a scooter. They used to pool all the money they had . . .”
“Tonino used to say what he lost on cigarettes he made up on ices . . .”
“Don’t suppose they’re getting many ices where they are now . . .”
Then Mimino said: “It’s kids’ stuff really, two boys together like that. A man wants a woman, that’s how it’s meant to be. It’s all right for kids . . .”
“It isn’t only kids’ stuff,” said another. “Look at those men who come to the Ariston cinema and sit amongst us boys. And look at Signor Bevilacqua who pays for Vito’s clothes and has bought him a motoretta. Vito’s parents know all about it and don’t mind.”
Here Dante interposed: “It wasn’t kids’ stuff in the old days. Our maestro says it was the Spartan custom for a man to take a boy and teach him and all that, and we’re all Spartans here, did you know ? Our maestro says the Spartans landed at San Cataldo ages ago, and so all of us and our families are really from Sparta.” And he added magisterially: “In 708 B.C., if you’re interested.”
“My mother didn’t come from Sparta,” said Mimino, “she’s from Milan.”
A wind had got up from the north-east, blowing across the peninsula from beyond the Adriatic. There was already a chilly bite in it, and the sea was slapping heavily against the rocks. It was time to go; the boys began lazily putting on their clothes. They were into September: the days of the rocks were almost over.
“It all just shows,” Alduccio observed meditatively, “how even an ordinary bella pugnetta can lead on from one thing to another and another and another . . .”
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