LA VITA E BELLA
Beast Fiction: Alexander McCall Smith’s ‘My Italian Bulldozer’
“He was becoming accustomed to the bulldozer and its ways by now.”
He was becoming accustomed to the bulldozer and its ways by now—so much so that he did not mind its slow pace or the throaty noise made by its diesel engine. The edge was off the afternoon sun, and a pleasantly cool breeze had blown up from the west. He was in no hurry to get back to Montalcino, and when he came to an unmarked turn-off, an unpaved road that dropped down to a small valley, he decided that he would make a brief detour. He suspected that this side-road made a loop and then rejoined the main road back into the village—he had looked at a map and thought he had seen it. He had not explored in this direction before, and he had the time; he might even park the bulldozer and go for a walk if he found a suitable path.
Heavy rain earlier on in the summer had created corrugations in the surface of the road to the extent that in places the verge had been eroded. In a car it would have been an uncomfortable ride, in parts requiring some caution, but on the bulldozer he felt complete confidence. Untidy woodland bordered the road on either side, with patches of scrub bush and, here and there, small, stony fields that had been cleared a long time ago and ignored for years. Many of the trees were young oaks, but a number of trees were far older and provided pools of shade. He passed a farmyard set back from the edge of the road—a rambling house with dark windows like watching eyes, a barn in the entrance to which a cart appeared to have been abandoned, a shed with a door hanging at an angle. Beside the shed, immobile in the shade of a spreading oak, a pair of white Chianina oxen were tethered to a feeding trough. The heads of the oxen drooped, their unnaturally large ears flopping across their brows, only the slow twitching of their tails showing that they were awake, or even alive.
He slowed down as he passed the farmyard, and wondered what it would be like to live in such a place, well out of the village, with no neighbours, and with only olive trees and vines to worry about, and perhaps the oxen and the few sheep that might graze the stony fields. People had lived in that spot, he imagined—in that very house—for centuries. They had survived the conflict of warring principalities, invasion, the heartlessness of landlords, Fascism; they would have been as indifferent to all of these as the countrymen, the contadini, always were to the perturbations of the outside world. What would have counted were things far more elemental: the spring rain, the winter frost, fire, the failure of crops. That is what mattered.
For some reason he did not quite understand, he was suddenly gloriously, almost deliriously, happy. It was a physical sensation as much as an emotional one, and he felt as if he were suddenly lighter—able, if he wished, to float upwards and look down on the track, the trees, the farmhouse, the cluttered yard. It was a form of intoxication, a relief from self, a feeling of a sort to accompany being picked up by the wind and effortlessly borne away to a place that it alone decided.
He closed his eyes momentarily, and the wave of elation died away. Opening them in time to prevent the bulldozer wandering off onto the verge, it occurred to him that he felt so happy simply because it was right for him to be here, under this sky, embraced by this warm and scented air, with this hillside slowly rising before him. There was no traffic, no bustle of commerce, nothing in any way redolent of the sleepless hive that cities have become; there was no sense that if human activity suddenly ceased, then everything would clog up and collapse.
He steered the bulldozer round an approaching corner. As he did so, he saw that not far ahead of him a car had left the road and landed in the ditch alongside it. The small red car was nose down, its rear in the air, its back wheels clear of the ground and undergrowth. The front door on the driver’s side was open, and he was at once certain that there was a person still inside who, as he approached, stepped out onto the road ahead of him. It was a woman, and she was waving at him.
He brought the bulldozer to a halt, switched off the engine, and climbed out of the cab.
“Are you all right?”
The woman took a few steps towards him. She seemed unharmed, and soon confirmed this.
“Yes, I’m perfectly all right. This all happened in …”
Her Italian was correct, but hesitant, and Paul finished her sentence for her in English: “… in slow motion?”
She smiled. “Exactly. May we carry on in English?”
He took in the details of her appearance: the casual but expensive clothes; the shoes, with their neat leather tassels; the overall good taste. She was about his age, he thought— perhaps slightly less—and judging from her accent she was American, or, of course, Canadian. She was typical, he thought, of the sort of North American visitor who ventured away from the usual haunts of Florence or Siena, out into Tuscany—there for a reason. He noticed the high cheek-bones and the delicate features—an intelligent face.
“I think I might have dropped off,” she said. “I don’t know otherwise why I should go off the road like that. It just… just suddenly happened.”
“You went to sleep?”
There was no note of reproach in his tone, but when she replied it was apologetically. “I’m afraid so. I remember feeling tired—I’ve just arrived, you see, and I’ve driven up from Rome. I was on the wrong road for ages. All my fault.”
He sought to reassure her. “No damage done—that’s the important thing.”
She gestured to the car. “Except for this.”
He glanced at the car. “Rented?”
She bit her lip. “Borrowed.”
Paul wanted to smile, not from Schadenfreude but out of sympathy, because he could imagine the embarrassment.
That car you lent me—well, there was a ditch, you see, and …
She nodded. “Yes.” She looked at him helplessly. “What do I do now?”
He moved over to her car and peered through the rear window. Luggage and personal effects were strewn across the seat—a suitcase, an airport bag, a couple of bottles of water, books. He turned to her. “I could try to pull you out.”
She glanced at the bulldozer. “With your… with that?”
“With my bulldozer—yes. There’s a rope. I even seem to have a chain in the back of that thing.”
Her relief was evident. “It would be very kind of you.” She paused. “I must be holding you back from your work.”
Paul shook his head. “No, I was just driving back to Montalcino. I opted for the scenic route—this road doesn’t really go anywhere very much.”
She explained that she had been making for Montalcino too, but had taken the wrong turning. At the end of her explanation she asked him why he was driving a bulldozer. Did he live nearby? Was he building something?
He met her gaze. “Actually, if I tell you—will you laugh?”
She seemed surprised. “Of course I won’t laugh. Why should I?”
“Because people don’t drive around on hired bulldozers— or not normally.”
She conceded this. “Maybe not.” She added, “And I suppose they normally don’t go to sleep at the wheel and drive a borrowed car into a ditch.”
She grinned, and he was struck by the way her face lit up. He liked her. “But rather than standing round talking about bulldozers,” he said, “I’m going to get that rope out and see what I can do.”
It did not take him long to tie the rope round the blade of the bulldozer and then fix it to the upended rear of her car. Then, while she stood nervously to the side, he started the bulldozer, engaged the reverse gear, and disengaged the clutch. He had intended to move slowly, but his unfamiliarity with reverse meant that he moved faster than he had anticipated. This led to the car being dragged out of the ditch with some suddenness. There was dust and a wrenching, and what sounded to him like the groaning of metal. He stopped, wincing at the violence with which the car had been plucked from its resting place.
Getting out of the cab, he strode over to the car to inspect the damage. The bumper to which he had attached the rope had been bent, but otherwise the car looked unharmed. He turned to her apologetically. “I didn’t mean to force it,” he said.
She showed no sign of reproach. “But you had to,” she said. “And you’ve done it. You’ve got me out of the ditch.”
She was already getting into the driver’s seat. “I’ll see if it starts.”
The car’s engine sprang into life, and, leaving it running, she leapt out, took the few steps to where he was standing, and kissed him on the cheek.
“You hero,” she said.
He blushed, and she drew back. “I haven’t even given you my name,” she said. “And yet I’m showering you with kisses. I’m Anna.”
“And I’m Paul.” He pointed to the car. “Just give it a try. Drive over to the other side of the road. See if everything works.”
She got back in and took control. The car moved forward, but with a screeching sound. Applying the brakes, she opened the door and looked anxiously at Paul. He came over, took her place at the wheel, and engaged the gears once more. As the car inched forward, he realised that there was something wrong with the steering, which was stiff and unresponsive. And then the engine stopped.
He tried the ignition again, but with no result. He looked at her and shrugged. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It must have taken more of a hammering than we thought. The steering’s not working and the engine too… It looks like you’re going to have to be towed.”
She had buried her head in her hands. “This is ghastly,” she said. “The car belongs to a friend who’s been staying in Rome. She’s in Paris for a few months, and she said I could borrow it when I came over. Now I’ve wrecked it …”
“It can be fixed. They can fix these things.”
She seemed to take no comfort in his words. “I don’t know what to do.” Her voice was unsteady. Paul thought she was about to cry; he saw that characteristic moistening of the eyes, the subtle changes that came with the motility of the face.
“Look,” he said. “I’ll move the car to the side of the road. We can leave it there quite safely. Then you can ride with me into Montalcino—I know where the garage is. We can get them to bring their tow truck out here and pick it up.”
Her voice became steadier. “You make it sound so simple.”
“Well, it is.” He gestured to the back of the car. “Shall I help you with your things? There’s plenty of room for your stu in the cab up there.”
After they had cleared the car of her possessions, Paul used the bulldozer to push the car gently to the side of the road. Once it was positioned safely, and with Anna beside him in the cab, he resumed the journey back to Montalcino. On the way, she told him why she was there. “I’ve come to spend a month here,” she said. “It’s a complicated story, but I’m writing a book.”
“Me too,” he exclaimed, and then laughed. “It’s a great place to write a book. What’s yours about?”
It seemed that she thought he was laughing at her—that he thought her pretentious. She looked away, embarrassed. “Some paintings.”
Paul frowned. “I’m sorry—I wasn’t being flippant. I’m doing exactly the same thing. I’m writing a book. So when I asked you about yours …”
She looked back at him. “It’s just that it sounds a bit boastful to tell somebody you’re writing a book.”
“Books have to be written by somebody. And anyway, tell me about these paintings. I don’t think there are many in Montalcino.”
“No, I know that. I need to use a library in Siena. But I couldn’t face the prospect of a whole month down there. You know how hot it gets. And crowded too.”
“So you decided to stay in the hills?”
“And go down there from time to time to the library?” She smiled. “Yes, that’s the plan. Siena for a few days, then back here.”
“A good plan, if you ask me.”
She became more expansive. “There’s an institute in Siena. It’s part of the university. They have a collection of materials I’m interested in.” She looked at him inquisitively. “But what about you?”
“I’m finishing off some work. It’s a book too.”
“I really only need a week or so to get through my work,” she confessed. “But I’m taking a whole month.” She paused. “You haven’t told me what you do.”
What do I do? thought Paul. He found that he wanted to describe himself in such a way as to impress her, but calling himself a cookery writer made him feel… well, less impressive than somebody who wrote on art history.
“I write about food and wine,” he said. It sounded so prosaic.
She turned and looked at him with admiration. “Really?”
Paul felt his confidence return. “Yes. I’m writing a book about Tuscan wine and cuisine.”
“Oh my God!”
He looked at her in alarm. “What? Something wrong?”
“I know who you are,” she said. “I’ve seen one of your books. Tables in Bordeaux, right?”
He felt a flush of pride as he gave the title. “Paul Stuart’s Bordeaux Table.”
“Yes, that’s it. I was in Oxford, you see, for two summers. I saw your books in Blackwell’s—you know that place. You were there on the tables. I used to see them. I saw your photograph and I thought …” She broke off. She had said too much. “You’re famous.”
Paul smiled. “Hardly.”
“But you are.”
“No, I’m not. You only get really famous doing the sort of thing I do when you have a television series. I’ve never had that.” He wanted to change the subject, to steer the conversation away from himself.
“What were you doing in Oxford?” he asked.
“I had a visiting fellowship at a college.” She seemed embarrassed to be telling him this. Privilege, he thought; it was just too privileged. He had noticed that academics often apologised for their life, for its freedom, for the tenure they enjoyed. And what could be more suggestive of all that than a fellowship of an Oxford college?
“It was a modern one,” she said. “It wasn’t All Souls, or anything like that. I had a very ordinary office.”
He smiled. “I wasn’t imagining otherwise.”
“It’s just that sometimes people think… well, they think that if you work in a university you have a better deal than everybody else.”
Her dismay, written on her face, made him regret his remark. “I’m sorry… I didn’t mean that to sound the way it did.”
She hesitated, but then went on: “My job, you see, is in Massachusetts. I teach at a college there. But they like us to participate in the college’s study-abroad scheme. We teach our students during the summer when they’re over in places like Oxford and Cambridge. We’ve also run a summer school in Rome, and Vienna, although I’ve never been there. I go to the other places regularly because all the students want to do my subject—history of art.”
“Yes. Florentine and Sienese art are my specialties.”
“Nice job.” He knew, as soon as he said this, that his remark sounded trite, but she appeared not to notice, or at least to mind. She was gazing out of the window. Montalcino could be seen quite clearly now.
“That’s it?” she asked.
He felt an almost proprietary satisfaction; the pride of one who, though every bit as much an outsider as those who come later, was there first. “That’s the place.”
“I love it already.”
He stopped the bulldozer so that they could take in the view. From where they were, they could see the Rocca, the pentagonal castle, with its protruding towers. It was too squat to be beautiful, but it acted nonetheless as a fitting backdrop to a stand of Italian stone pines, old and hence large enough to be like great green lollipops planted in the ground. And then, in the curve of the town, there was the wall, describing a lazy parabola around the cluster of buildings that made up the old Montalcino.
“That tower?” she asked.
“The bell tower of the Palazzo dei Priori. It’s right in the middle of town. It’s a narrow building, as if it were sandwiched between two sets of broader shoulders.”
“With bells. And a clock.”
He pointed out the roofs. “You mostly see roofs. The streets are very narrow—so the houses are hidden away. It’s a place you only discover once you get into it.”
He noticed her expression of delight.
“Happy?” he asked. “The right place?”
“Ecstatic.” She looked up at the sky. “It’s the same sky as ours, isn’t it?”
“In what sense?”
“In the sense that there are no boundaries in the sky. Only air lies between one place in the sky and another place—no matter how far away. Just air.”
“I suppose you’re right.” He wondered what that meant. That we were joined in more ways than we imagined?
“And yet it’s so different,” she continued. “Our sky where I live is criss-crossed by vapour trails. It has these great white lines drawn across it—as if somebody were parcelling it out. Here… well, I don’t see a single vapour trail. Just blue.”
He looked up. He had heard a plane earlier that day—a distant but insistent droning—but it must have been something smaller, too insignificant to leave a trail.
“Poussin,” she said. “You know his skies?”
He tried to remember what Poussins he knew. There was Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake; there was A Dance to the Music of Time. That one was full of the cloud on which Time’s Chariot was borne. He vaguely remembered the skies; the blue dotted with puffed white cumulus. “I think I can see them,” he said.
“These skies are like that. It’s the same blue.”
“Yes, I suppose it is.”
She looked back at him. “And those trees over there, in front of the castle; they look as if they’ve been placed there by an artist. An artist must have looked at the scene and said, Trees are needed to complete the picture: here, here and here.”
He told her that he knew what she meant. The Italian landscape had been inspired by the artistic imagination—not just inspired it.
He asked her where she was staying.
“I’ve rented a flat for the four weeks I’m here. It’s part of somebody’s house, I think, but it has a separate kitchen and so on. Just a few rooms. It’s not cheap.”
He nodded. “It wouldn’t be. Brunello has made this place fashionable.”
“Such a pity.”
He thought about this. “I suppose we have to be careful not to want the places we like to be… well, to stay as they were.”
He could see that she was expecting him to say more.
“Prosperity changes places—and people too. We can’t expect them to stay unspoiled.”
“Can’t we? Even if they’re going to be no happier when they have money?”
“Even then.” He had not articulated his ideas on this subject before, but he was sure that he was right. “You can’t expect people to choose poverty because it’s picturesque.” Before Brunello, the people of Montalcino had scratched a living; had they been happier? No. Until recently land had been held at the whim of landlords who kept their tenantry in poverty. That had gone, and the contadini no longer had to work for the benefit of rapacious landowners.
She looked chastened. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have said what I said. People who have enough to eat shouldn’t say that other people looked better when they were thinner.”
“That’s a neat way of putting it,” he said. And as he said this, he thought, Why did Becky never say anything half as interesting as that? The thought made him feel guilty: you should not disparage the intellectual ability of your former girlfriends, even if they went off with their personal trainers.
She gave him an enquiring glance. “What are you smiling at?”
“Something I was thinking.”
“Something I said?”
He shook his head. “No, I was thinking of one of those odd rules of life—you know, things you shouldn’t do.”
“And did you ever do it—this thing you shouldn’t do?”
“I did it just then,” he said. “But then I realised I shouldn’t and I thought of something else.” He changed the subject. “See that church?” he said. “It’s called the Chiesa della Madonna del Soccorso.”
She looked up. “Do you believe in her?” she asked.
“The Virgin Mary?”
“No,” he said. “Not at all. She’s a Mediterranean goddess, don’t you think? Absorbed lock, stock, and barrel into Christianity.”
“Maybe. But aren’t you being a bit harsh? Shouldn’t people be allowed their scraps of comfort?”
“Am I being harsh? Yes, perhaps I am.” He paused. “Do you believe in her?”
“I like the thought of her. She’s Mother, isn’t she? And I quite like the idea of Mother.”
“Your scrap of comfort?” “Perhaps.”