Read The Crossroads Online

Authors: Niccoló Ammaniti

Tags: #General Fiction

The Crossroads

1

‘Wake up! Wake up, for fuck's sake!'

Cristiano Zena gasped, and clutched at the mattress as if the ground had opened up under his feet.

A hand clamped round his throat. ‘Wake up! You know you should always sleep lightly. It's when you're asleep that the buggers will get you!'

‘It's not my fault. The alarm clock didn't …' the boy murmured. He twisted free of that vice-like grip and lifted his head off the pillow.

But it's still night time
, he thought.

Outside the window everything was pitch-black, except where the streetlamp shed a yellow cone of light, into which snowflakes as big as balls of cotton wool were falling.

‘It's snowing' he said to his father, who was standing in the middle of the room.

A shaft of light crept in from the hall, picking out Rino Zena's shaven head, his beaky nose, his moustache and goatee beard, his neck and one muscular shoulder. Instead of eyes he had two black holes. His chest was bare. Below, his army trousers and paint-splashed boots.

How can he stand this cold
?
thought Cristiano, stretching out his fingers towards the bedside lamp.

‘Don't turn it on,' said Rino. ‘My eyes are sore.'

Cristiano curled up under the warm tangle of blankets and sheets. His heart was still pounding. ‘Why did you wake me?'

Then he noticed that his father was holding the pistol. When he was drunk he often got it out and wandered round the house pointing it at the television, the furniture, the lights.

‘How can you sleep?' Rino turned towards his son.

His voice was hoarse and dry, as if he had swallowed a handful of chalk.

Cristiano shrugged. ‘I just do …'

‘You're lucky.' His father took a beer can out of his trouser pocket, opened it, drained it in one draught and wiped his beard with his arm, then crushed it and threw it on the floor. ‘Can't you hear him, the fucker?'

There wasn't a sound. Not even the cars which flashed past the house day and night so close that if you closed your eyes they seemed to be going right through the room.

It's the snow. Snow deadens noise.

His father went over to the window and rested his head against the pane, which was wet with condensation. Now the light from the hall caught his deltoids and the cobra tattoo on his shoulder. ‘You sleep too deeply. In wartime you'd be the first to get it.'

Cristiano concentrated and heard in the distance the hoarse bark of Castardin's dog.

It was a sound so familiar his ears no longer registered it. Like the buzz of the neon light in the hall and the broken flush in the toilet.

‘The dog?'

‘At last … I was beginning to get worried.' His father turned back towards him. ‘He hasn't stopped barking all night. Not even in the snow.'

Cristiano remembered what he had been dreaming about when his father had woken him up.

Downstairs in the sitting room, next to the television, there was a large phosphorescent fish tank containing a squishy green jellyfish which spoke a strange language, all Cs, Zs and Rs. And the amazing thing was that he could understand every word.

What time is it
?
he wondered, with a yawn.

The luminous dial of the radio alarm on the floor showed three twenty-three.

His father lit a cigarette and snorted: ‘I'm pissed off with it.'

‘It's punch drunk, that dog,' said Christiano. ‘With all the beatings it's taken …'

Now that his heart had stopped pounding, Cristiano felt sleep pressing down on his eyelids. His mouth was dry and full of the taste of garlic from the takeaway chicken. A drink of water might
have washed that foul taste away, but it was too cold to go down to the kitchen.

He felt like resuming the dream about the jellyfish from where he had left off. He rubbed his eyes.

Why don't you go to bed
?
The question was on the tip of his tongue, but he checked it. From the way his father was pacing around the room there wasn't much chance of him calming down.

Three stars
.

Cristiano ranked his father's rages on a five-star scale.

No, three to four
. Already in the ‘approach with caution' area, where the only strategy was to agree with everything he said and keep out of his way as much as possible.

His father turned round and kicked a white plastic chair, which hurtled across the room and fetched up against the pile of boxes where Cristiano kept his clothes. No, he had been wrong. This was five stars. Red alert. Here the only thing to do was to keep shtum and blend in with your surroundings.

His father had been in a filthy mood for the past week. A few days earlier he had lost his temper with the bathroom door because it wouldn't open. The lock was broken. For a couple of minutes he had fiddled with a screwdriver. He had knelt there, swearing and heaping curses on Fratini, the ironmonger who had sold it to him, the Chinese manufacturers who had made it out of tin, and the politicians who allowed such crap to be imported, as if they all were standing there in front of him. But it was no good, the door just wouldn't budge.

One punch. Another one, harder. Another. The door had leaped on its hinges, but hadn't come open. Rino had gone to his bedroom, got the gun and fired at the lock. But it still hadn't yielded. The only result had been a deafening bang which had left Cristiano dazed for half an hour.

There had been one good thing about this: it had taught Cristiano that, contrary to what the movies would have us believe, you can't open a door by shooting at its lock.

In the end his father had started kicking the door. He had smashed it in, shouting and tearing out strips of wood with his bare hands. When he had got inside the bathroom he had punched the mirror, and shards of glass had gone everywhere and he had cut his hand
and had sat for a long time dripping with blood on the edge of the bath, smoking a cigarette.

‘What the fuck do I care if it's punch drunk?' replied Rino, after thinking it over for a while. ‘I'm pissed off with it. I've got to go to work tomorrow.'

He came towards his son and sat down on the edge of his bed. ‘Do you know something that really gets up my nose? Stepping out of the shower in the morning, soaking wet, and putting my feet on the freezing cold tiles, and at the risk of breaking my neck.' He smirked, loaded the pistol and held it out to him by the barrel: ‘I was thinking that what we need is a nice new dogskin mat.'

2

At three thirty-five in the morning Cristiano Zena left the house wearing green rubber boots, his checked pyjama trousers and his father's windproof jacket. In one hand he held the pistol, in the other a torch.

Cristiano was a slim boy, tall for his thirteen years, with slender wrists and ankles, long, bony hands and a size forty-four foot. On his head grew a towselled mop of fair hair which couldn't conceal his protruding ears, and which continued down onto his cheeks in the form of two bushy sideburns. He had two big blue eyes separated by a small snub nose, and a mouth too wide for his thin face.

The snow was falling more thickly. The air was still. And the temperature several degrees below zero.

Cristiano crammed a black woolly hat on his head, puffed out a cloud of vapour and shone the torch round the yard.

A layer of snow covered the gravel, the rusty old rocking chair, the rubbish bins, a pile of bricks and the van. The highway, which ran right past the front of the house, was a long, immaculate strip of white. The dog continued to bark in the distance.

He shut the front door and tucked his pyjamas more tightly into his rubber boots.

“Go on. It's a piece of cake. All you have to do is shoot him in
the head – make sure you hit the head, or he'll start whining and
you'll have to shoot him again – then come home. You'll be back
in bed in ten minutes. Go, soldier.”
The little speech his father had delivered as he turfed him out of bed still echoed in his brain.

He looked up. The dark shape of his father stood behind the window, waving at him to get a move on. He stuck the pistol into his underpants. The cold steel shrivelled his scrotum.

He waved to his father and stumbled unsteadily round to the back of the house, as his heart began to beat faster.

3

Rino Zena watched from the window as his son went out into the snow.

He had finished all the beer and grappa. And that's bad enough in itself, but if, on top of that, you have a piercing whistle boring into your eardrums, it becomes a real problem.

The whistle had begun when Rino had fired at the bathroom door, and although a week had passed since then, it wasn't decreasing.

Maybe I've burst an eardrum. I should see a doctor
, he said to himself, as he lit a cigarette.

But Rino Zena had sworn that the only way he would ever enter an ambulance was feet first.

He wasn't going to get caught in the trap.

The bastards start by telling you you need some tests done, that
way you enter the tunnel and you're a goner. If the illness doesn't
do for you, the medical bills will
.

Rino Zena had spent the evening slumped on a folding chair in front of the television, pissed out of his mind. With two slits instead of eyes, his jaw sagging and a beer can in his hand, he had tried to follow some crappy show which kept blurring over in front of him.

As far as he could make out it was about two husbands who had agreed to swap wives for a week, God only knew why …

They had no respect for anything these days on the fucking TV. Just to be original they had chosen a piss-poor family from Cosenza and a filthy rich one from Rome.

The poor husband was a panel-beater. The rich one, who anyone
could see was a complete tosser, worked in advertising. And of course the panel-beater's wife was as ugly as sin and the other woman was a curvy blonde with long shapely legs who taught people how to breathe in a gym.

In the end, however, the story had caught Rino's attention and he had finished a whole bottle of grappa watching it.

At the advertising agent's home the hag from Cosenza made herself unpopular by going around with a can of Windolene, and you couldn't sit down without her scolding you for spoiling the cushions. But before the first day was out they were ordering her about like a chambermaid and she was as happy as a sandboy.

Rino was more interested in the situation in Cosenza. The repair man treated the sex-bomb as if she was Lady Diana. Rino had been hoping that, in a surge of lust, he would grab the blonde – who for all her airs and graces was clearly gagging for it – and fuck her.

‘Come round here, you slag! I'll show you the way we do it in the Zena household!' he had bellowed, hurling a beer can at the TV.

He knew it was all a sham, that those shows were about as genuine as the African handbags the niggers sold outside the shopping malls.

Then he had dozed off. He had woken up again some time later feeling as if he had a dead toad in his mouth and with a vice crushing his temples.

He had wandered round the house searching for something alcoholic to alleviate the pain.

Eventually, at the back of one of the kitchen units, he had found a dust-covered bottle of Poire William. God knows how long it had been there. The grappa was finished, but the pear still seemed pretty well steeped in alcohol. He had smashed the bottle on the sink and, bending over the table, sucked the pear. It had been then that he had noticed the dog. It went on and on barking. After a while he had figured out that it was the mongrel in Castardin's furniture factory. It would lie in its kennel all day as quiet as a mouse, then when night fell it would start barking and never let up till dawn.

Old Castardin probably didn't even know about it. At closing time he would come out, drive to the club in his great hearse of a BMW and fritter his money away on poker. In the village he was
known as a great gambler, one of the old-fashioned kind who showed dignity in defeat.

In other words he gritted his teeth and kept his mouth shut.

So he showed all his great dignity in losing the money he stole with his trashy furniture, and his bloody dog barked all night.

And if anyone had pointed this out to him, he would have replied, with his old-fashioned dignity, that there was nothing but factories in the area. Who could possibly object to a dog that was only doing its duty? Rino was sure it had never crossed that old-fashioned man's mind that only half a kilometre away there was a house in which a young boy slept.

A boy who had to go to school.

Okay then
, Rino Zena had said to himself, taking the pistol out of the drawer,
tomorrow you'll have a chance to show the world
just how dignified you can be, when you find your dog stone-dead
.

4

Cristiano decided to approach the furniture factory via the fields. Even though the highway was covered with snow, there was still a chance that someone would come along it.

The light from the lamp-post didn't reach the back yard, and the darkness was total. He shone his torch on the twisted bonnet of a Renault 5, a cement mixer, the tattered remains of an inflatable swimming pool, a plastic chair, the skeleton of a dead apple tree and a two-metre-high fence.

Cristiano had left the house in a hurry, without having a pee. He considered doing it there, but decided not to, it was too cold and he wanted to get this thing over with.

He put the chair against the wire netting of the fence, stood on the chair, put the torch between his teeth, gripped the mesh with his fingers and pulled himself up. He swung one leg over to the other side, but the seat of his trousers got caught on a piece of wire. He tried to break free, but couldn't, and in the end he threw the torch down on the ground and jumped. He heard a ripping sound and felt a pain in his leg.

He found himself lying on his back among the wet weeds, with snow melting on his face. He got to his feet and slipped his hand through the tear that ran halfway down his pyjamas. A long scratch, not deep enough to bleed, scored the inside of his thigh. The pistol was still in his underpants.

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