Having myself lived for many years in Ticino, like the author of Späte Gäste/Late Guests, Gertrud Leutenegger, this extract, in which the innkeeper tells the story of his mother’s youthful infatuation to Serafina and the unnamed narrator, particularly resonates with me, evoking as it does the Sicilian origins of many of those working in the hospitality industry, who hail from just such small towns as Modica on that island, and who return, just like the innkeeper, to visit those places, spaces, and pasts in the summer. There is something particularly Marquezian about the ceremony of the toilet paper squares, about the young woman relentlessly unravelling clouds of toilet paper outside a small toilet outhouse at a saffron yellow coloured station in the middle of nowhere to express her feelings for the man with the bushy eyebrows and chequered jacket, who has captured the poetry of that space, and being captured in words surrounded by those billowing, snowy strips. The image is startlingly cinematic, as is that of those poetry papers waving, against the green wallpaper, above the cot of the child who would later become the innkeeper. I wanted to attempt to capture these word images of Leutenegger’s that had struck me so much on my first reading, and grow them on into another linguistic, and possibly comparative context.
Perhaps everything just goes back to the writing on the toilet paper, said the innkeeper, while Serafina and I were getting settled in our rattan armchairs in the loggia, breathing a sigh of relief over the occasional wave of cooler night wind. In the dark of the garden, between the gorse bushes, a floating glow-worm flashed here and there. My mother, the innkeeper continued, must have been in love with the young man who told her one day that he was born in Modica, the son of the former station master, who was transferred after the earthquake of Messina to that city of ruins. Apparently he never got over the fact that he had been ripped out of Modica as a child and replanted in rowdy Messina! Now he was studying at the technical school, he wanted to be an engineer, but from time to time he had to come to Modica station. Absorbed in thought, he used to stand for long hours in the blazing heat of the sun, he never set himself up under the protective veranda of the saffron-yellow station building; it was as if he wanted to become one with the shimmering heat over the tracks and the numbing scent of the wild thyme. The innkeeper’s mother, very young still, sat in the shade in front of the toilet outhouse on her folding chair, beside her the metal dish with its scanty coins on a small, rusty garden table, and observed his rare appearances. The man mostly wore a chequered jacket, which seemed very English to her, and a tie, always. When he came closer to the toilet outhouse, she noticed the reserve in his big dark eyes under those strikingly bushy eyebrows. Somehow under their spell, she didn’t move a finger to count off the squares of toilet paper. Perhaps there was something questioning in her expression, for the young man, as if he had to explain his standing there in silence in front of the train station building, began to recount why he always yearned to return to Modica. If he could just hold out long enough in the boiling heat by the tracks, he would see his father before him, the way he walked in front of the station building at the arrival or departure of a train, in full-dress uniform, he never even missed a train that was just driving straight through. Upright, dignified, unmoving, he would stand there in the air stream and raise his hand in greeting to his red peaked cap, its wings of Hermes shining. And his father seemed to him as if he were the God of Travel himself, of this bittersweet gift of earth that he would yet so often curse. Now the young girl carefully counted off the usual number of squares of toilet paper, and gave him three squares more. She thought she spied a smile in the corner of the young man’s eyes. He pulled a pen out of his jacket pocket, bent down to the wobbly garden table, scribbled a few lines on one of the squares, and gave it back to her. In the evening she took the square home and read it over and over. It spoke of a white dress, naked arms, wind, certain nights in March; it seemed to be a poem, though it didn’t rhyme. But, ah yes, she had worn a white summer dress that day!
Now, when she waited in front of her toilet outhouse, it was only in the hopes of the return of the man with the bushy black eyebrows. No sooner had the signal system set a station bell in motion, than the harsh clanging filled her with an excitement she had never felt before. The clear tone heralded the arrival of a train from Syracuse; with the darker tone, a train from Caltanissetta would arrive. Sometimes the trains almost crossed each other and then a frenetic bell-ringing concert sounded into the blazing heat of the small train station. In just such a moment, after many months had passed, the chequered jacket popped up again among the few travellers. The young woman immediately began to count off toilet paper squares, and when the man came up to the toilet outhouse, she must have glowed as if she had set off the multi-voiced ringing welcome from before for him alone. She unhesitatingly handed him the usual two squares and then, not without a tender ceremoniousness, six more besides. The man looked at her pensively. She felt how she was blushing, and stood up from her folding chair so that he could sit down. He paused frequently while he was writing, but in the end he left her three squares scribbled full. When the man had gone, she read the lines over, still standing in front of the toilet outhouse. A vague sadness ate its way out of the words into her: buried voices and dead angels came from them, marshes, dusty streets, betrayal. Nearly a year would elapse before she would see the young man with the bushy black eyebrows get off the train once more, into a warm twilight. The chequered jacket must have been quite shabby, but frankly she had no eyes for that. A sudden melancholy overcame her and she didn’t know how to fight it back. It seemed to her as if she were seeing the young man for the last time. And, without rising from her folding chair or counting off even one square of paper, she began, slowly and carefully, in perfect silence, to unwind the whole toilet roll. The broad white strips of paper fell relentlessly from her hand to the ground, billowed briefly, casting bizarre folds, and remained peacefully lying there. In the end, she sat motionless amidst her veneration, so extravagantly offered. Only after a long pause, said the innkeeper, did the son of the former station master begin to carefully roll up the toilet paper, and he took it with him. My mother never saw him again. Now and again an envelope arrived for her in the post and inside it lay a square of toilet-paper writings. The postmark was from Rome, then Genova, Milan, until the distance grew immeasurable for her. She married late; on her bedside table she continued to keep a bundle of fully scribbled squares of toilet paper: they described her world, her Modica, the heat, the shadows of the dead, the parched animals, the glistening stones and unquenchable sadness. Perhaps, said the innkeeper, my father let her feel his jealousy about these squares, squares which bound her forever with an inner voice unknown to him; in any case, she must have cleaned out the bedside table after my birth. With the help of thin pieces of adhesive tape, she stuck the toilet-paper writings to the green wallpaper above my cot. In my earliest memories, these squares are waving above me in the wind, or is it the sprays of the white-blooming tamarisk near the house wall that are leaning in?
Serafina was showing unmistakeable signs of sleepiness. The innkeeper said more quietly, just as the son of the station master searched for his father back then in the shimmering over the train tracks, in his red peaked cap with the shining Hermes wings, so too do I see my mother, every time I arrive in Modica, a young woman still, sitting in the twilight in front of the toilet outhouse, surrounded by the strips of toilet paper that have fallen in slow waves and settled quietly into billowy folds, lying around her like snow.
From Gertrud Leutenegger, Späte Gäste, Suhrkamp, 2020.