By Monica Sabolo
Translation sample by Molly Ashby
In those days, in Crans-Montana, we were all in love with them. The three at once, or one after another, or one alone. It was an obsession that would suddenly appear at the ice rink, the bakery, outside the télécabines. An obsession that would smile your way and break your heart, from afar, in a knitted sweater or a beaver fur coat.
We knew their wardrobes, their perfumes, their smiles, their dimples, their moles (on their shoulder, their forearm). The rounded contours of their behinds in close-fitting Levis belonging to their brothers. We knew their chalets, their parents, their accessories; hair slides, turquoise earrings, coral bracelets, multicolour socks reaching their upper thighs. We knew the dates of their birthdays, their addresses in Paris or Milan, their schools in the sixteenth arrondissement, their boarding schools in Lausanne.
We knew them like detectives know the suspects they observe, lying low in grey cars, key in ignition. We collected evidence of their lives: menthol cigarettes, lemon flavoured Hollywood chewing gum, violet flavoured sweets, and an onyx ring with a skull that was left on the edge of a restroom sink and slipped feverishly into a pocket. That evening, at the Sporting Club, it was passed from hand to hand, examined by each of us in silence: a shiny exhibit of feminine mystery.
They were the visions we dreamed of back in our bourgeois apartments, replaying our holiday memories like slides in which they would parade, bathed in light, whispering tender words in a secret language. They were our first loves. All the other women in our lives would be compared with them, and none could ever eradicate their ghosts. They seemed more real than our wives, our mistresses, the mothers of our children.
The three Cs. Chris, Charlie and Claudia. Two Parisians and an Italian. They were always together, arm in arm, or sitting nonchalantly on a bench, calf folded under thigh. They were so different and yet they formed a perfect entity, a sort of constellation. Claudia: blond hair, pale complexion, petite hips and a beguiling smile. Chris: dark curls, matte skin, provocative lips, nails long like claws. Charlie: black hair down to her behind, small breasts, long legs and an imperturbable face. They seemed to both enjoy and mock the world around them. They would drink Coca-Cola through a straw, or hold hands skating at the ice rink, their hair spread out over their shoulders. And each time we felt our pulses surge, our cheeks burn, and there was always someone to mime the throes of death, hand on chest, or with an imaginary gun to the temple.
Was it winter 1965? Summer 66? According to Roberto Alazraki, an Italian from Tripoli who had a nose job the year he turned eighteen, they appeared for the first time in pareos at the Polynesian themed New Year’s Eve in 1965, at the Quatre Cents Coups on the banks of lake Vermala. Serge Chubowska, a Parisian who wore a tie even to go bowling, claimed it was during the Easter holidays of 1966 at the Sporting Club, under the Rotisserie de la Reine restaurant, where: “They danced as if their backsides were on fire”, but nobody believed him.
We spent all our holidays (or nearly) in Crans-Montana, Switzerland. Or rather, Montana-Crans as it was called then. Winters but also summers. To their friends, our mothers represented the beauty of the mountains; fresh air and serenity, like the travel agencies. Everything we didn’t give a damn about and which reminded us how our parents would never understand us. Even before the three girls appeared, for us Crans-Montana was never a refuge. The light was intense, the sky cutting, the forests dark, disturbing. On the pistes or under our cotton covers we felt painfully alive, our hearts beating too hard. In Paris we led conventional lives, but there everything was wild. The freedom was terrifying. We would meet up again, boys from good families, mostly Jewish (even though that didn’t matter at all, we were all together), at the ski school or the crêperie, and later in the nightclubs, and each time we would breathe faster, our chests tight with elation and danger.
In truth, the three Cs were always there. They had been little girls pattering around the Grand-Place, the town’s modern supermarket where our parents would buy absurd quantities of chocolate and cheese. Hidden behind the overbearing figures of their brothers, they had sucked on Sugus, those Swiss sugar syrup sweets. They had become polite, quiet pre-teens, dressed in dark coats made from wool that looked like cardboard. Like us they had taken golf lessons, ski lessons, swam in the swimming pool. They had run on the terrace at the Sporting Club where, like us, they would steel the orange plastic sticks that stirred the cocktails. But we had not seen them. We lived in a parallel world, gentle and soft like the spring snow. It is a time without memories, a time of which all that remains is our mothers’ perfumes, as they kissed us in the evening, dressed, made up, leaving us vaguely worried; conscious of our perfect uselessness.
Then suddenly, one summer (or was it winter?), the three Cs had been through an incredible biological metamorphosis. All three appeared, with breasts, hair that had grown in one go, sturdy thighs under their kilts, charms around their necks and wrists.
How had they met? No one would ever know. The fervour we devoted to them was probably equal to the stupefaction we felt when they appeared, transformed. The world changed; their confident smiles announced a revolution. Life would from then on be frightening, spectacular, made up of loneliness and nocturnal emotion that poured through us like an underground lake.
We had not seen them, and yet they were there. It was Franco Rossetti, whose parents ran the Montana grocery store, who told us their beginnings, that blurry time when we were blind.
He was barely two years older than us, but Franco Rossetti was a man. We were small and puny, but his muscles (they seemed alive) flexed under his faded tee shirts and work jeans, hinting at a fascinating anatomy. We made giggled allusions to “Franco’s marmot”. We wore velvet trousers in winter, Bermuda shorts in summer. We were terrified.
Our parents spoke to Franco like one of their own. They showed him respect. Our fathers forbade us from speaking at the table and shut themselves away in their offices, as if our presence implied an unpleasant reality, but they enjoyed talking to Franco. They adopted a complicit tone that they did not use with us. They ordered meat from Grisons, champagne and raclette cheese, which Franco would delicately pack into cardboard boxes.
Daniel Vidal, whose father liked to bang on the table with a hammer inscribed Il capo sono io, often recounted a scene he remembered, eyes shining with anger. “There was a photo of Marilyn Monroe on a magazine, lying there on the grocery store counter, and all of a sudden, my father said to Franco: ‘They’re too big for her, no?’ You know what he was talking about? Her breasts! He was talking about her tits!” Each time Daniel Vidal recalled the scene he would stare off into space, and then chuckle morosely.
In his presence our mothers were no longer entirely themselves. They reapplied their lipstick in the street leading to the grocery store, ran their hands through their hair and spoke in a suave voice to Franco’s father, a small stocky man whose soft cheeks and lack of lustre fascinated us. How could such an individual have produced such splendid offspring? We sensed they were not speaking to the small man who energetically tapped on the cash register. Underneath powdered eyelids, they made furtive sideways glances. Their elegant birdsong was to attract the attention of this boy barely older than their sons, packing their orders into paper bags. Edouard de Montaigne, who always needed his Ovaltine paying for because he was not given any pocket money, told us how he saw his mother slide a twenty Swiss franc note into the back pocket of Franco’s jeans with a brazen laugh. “Shit! Twenty francs,” he mumbled, shaking his head.
Franco Rossetti did not seem to realise that he was different. That we slept like little girls, nestled under feather duvets, while he woke up at five o’clock in the morning for the deliveries. He had driven his father’s little van since he was thirteen and nobody cared, as if he were an exceptional being to whom the laws of men did not apply. He had a sort of nonchalant grace, a wild elegance, and we all loved him. In truth, we wanted to be Franco Rossetti. As we stared with anxious fascination at the rings of sweat on his torso, he would smile at us, or wink. We were grateful to him for pretending we were of his species.
Years later, when part of his brain had been eaten up by hallucinatory mushrooms, when he wore turquoise bracelets and fringed shirts, we still looked at him with a mix of admiration and envy. He gave off an animal scent, and spoke with a Valais accent that strangely did not detract from his charm. Despite our tailored suits, unfiltered cigars and bundles of banknotes that swelled our coat pockets, his presence revealed the cruel reality: we were forever little boys.
Franco Rossetti remembered the three Cs before they were a gang. In the stockroom, where we visited him after our ski lessons, he would recount his memories of their lives before.
He had known Charlie (who was still called Charlotte) and Chris (who was only called Christine by her mother) forever. He found it hard to narrate the details, to remember dates, which made us nervous. Especially Serge Chubowska, who went on to study engineering at the Ponts et Chaussées university, and who listed Chris’ appearances with monomaniac care in a big black book. Franco made deliveries to Chris Breitman’s family at the Palma, a luxurious residence in the heights of Crans backing onto the forest. The majority of the apartments, modern and identical, belonged to Parisians: privileged, chic and Jewish. Boris Tbilissi, Charlie’s father, a Vladivostok Jew, had built a chalet in Bluche (a less popular village), on a sloped plot a few kilometres from the health centre where he had stayed in 1942, after crossing the border, his hands and toes frozen.
Franco would describe the orders with scientific precision: the Tbilissi's vodka, hummus and cubes of Maggi consommé, the Breitman’s Bollinger (at least ten bottles a week!), fondue cheese, pain au lait, dried meat and Cacolac (it appeared that Gilles, Charlie’s brother, drank a worrying amount throughout the day). When it was not a matter of consumer products his memory seemed to fade, as if his cerebral activity were limited to the workings of a cash register. For him Charlie and Chris were just shy little girls with brown hair; blurry silhouettes, unlike their brothers, who kneaded his shoulder or shook his hand in fancy tweed suits. But we sensed that his real interlocutors, those to whom he spoke with the naturalness and assurance that had characterised him since discovering the world of commerce (that is, before he knew how to write) were the parents. Boria and Salomé Tbilissi, Maurice and Mara Breitman, who would greet him warmly, slip five Swiss franc coins into his anorak pocket, and look at him with the respect they reserved for free men.
He would allude (this caused us some excitement) to the Vania sanitary towels whose quantities increased significantly in the Tbilissi household around 1962 (or 63? or 65?). It was an article never mentioned on any list by the Breitmans - but perhaps the orders made exclusively by Maurice Breitman over the telephone could account for this anomaly. There was also the bitter varnish he had to have sent from Geneva for Charlie, who bit her nails, to the distain of Salomé Tbilissi; an Egyptian with shiny hair. “Like otter fur,” Franco said in a husky voice, as if it were an erotic particularity, resulting in uncomfortable discharges in our Bermudas.
“People will say this child is going hungry, she has to eat her fingers,” Salomé Tbilissi repeated in an irritated tone. It was astounding to imagine that Charlie could have the slightest compulsion. We pictured her light pink painted nails, her impenetrable smile and eyes that never blinked, as if her heart were beating to a slower passing of time.
Was it possible that she had a nervous system? Dark torments?
Patrick Saincère, who was the toughest and most hot-headed among us (often fighting at the Club against Italians who were tempted to smile or buy a drink for his girlfriend), confessed to us years later (the evening his divorce was granted) to having secretly ordered (as well as the erotic magazines he spent all his savings on) the famous varnish from Geneva. Franco had placed it in a paper bag for him, adding a box of pralines with the discretion that was like his code of honour. Back at home Patrick Saincère (who weighed sixty kilos at eleven years old and played second row centre for the Neuilly Rugby Club) caressed the minuscule flask with his mighty hands. He delicately unscrewed the cap and, overpowered by the odour that smelt like the pharmacy, or the morgue, he felt his head spin, propelled into a clandestine world.
That evening in Paris, after ordering magnums of champagne, clumsily holding out five hundred franc notes to empty-eyed waitresses, he revealed (his tailor-made shirt damp with sweat) that for all those years he had not been able not rid himself of the memories. “That taste of metal, or sickness, it never leaves you. It’s there! It’s there!” he said, banging his forehead with the palm of his hand, “I don’t remember anything; meeting my wife, our marriage, our holidays, our weekends: there’s nothing left. But that smell! It’s like a fucking ghost.”
Franco Rossetti didn’t care about Chris and Charlie. More precisely, they roused in him that tenderness mixed with indifference that one feels for little sisters, those beings so familiar they become, if not insignificant, at least devoid of mystery. Later, when they became stunning beauties and threw themselves around his neck, innocently pressing their breasts against his torso, he would smile at them, magnanimous. But we, petrified spectators of the scene, felt the softness of the delicate wool on our skin, and we would have to close our eyes as a blazing ocean poured into our lungs.
But there was Claudia. Franco viewed life with calm pragmatism, he was always in a good mood and looked at us blankly when we interrogated him like mad policemen about Chris and Charlie, but Franco had a secret weakness, a cold point in his heart: Claudia. He was probably never conscious of it, but his body sent out distress signals in her presence: he started shivering, or shrinking in on himself as if hit by a snowball.
Franco remembered the dark green Maserati that parked just outside the grocery store in December 62 with a careful purr. It was overcast that day, and in the muddy snow it looked as incongruous as a peacock in a swamp. Alberta and Paolo Maggiore slipped out of the car. He was wearing a light suit; she wore heeled shoes and emeralds that were hardly suitable for the mountains. Behind them stood an impressive adolescent: tall, with shiny brown hair brushed to the side. His sister, younger, was surprisingly colourless, like a shadow in a photograph. She had a bowl haircut, a Peter Pan collar coat and was biting her mouth. She looked like she might have a stomach ache or be about to cry. It was Claudia. He remembered feeling a rush of sadness on noticing the dark rings of tiredness blighting her pale skin and her dull eyes under a white blonde fringe. Alberta Maggiore was blonde too, but honey blonde. She had a film star’s hairstyle; perfect curls, with bangs. The work of a professional. Her sensual mouth (the same as her son’s) painted bright red made her look as if her life been unseemly, as if she had posed for sexy photographs, or worked in a casino.
Our mothers’ feelings for Alberta Maggiore were ambivalent. When they saw her in the grand-rue or Montana’s shopping street, sculptural in her alpaca coats made in Milan, they greeted her with honeyed politeness. They would stop to speak to her - which they never did for anyone but their Parisian friends, women who would stand before them like unsettling copies of themselves, with chignons, mid-high heels and powdered, pale complexions. They complimented her radiance, her hair, while their eye would take in the slightest details like a camera capturing reality and putting it in an album in the back of their minds. Her tan, her glittering emeralds that matched her eyes (“snake green eyes,” said the mother of Edouard de Montaigne), her hats, her leather gloves, her fleshy lips, the striking contrast between the strict elegance of her clothes and the wantonness of her body.
Fascinating and contradictory information circulated about Alberta Maggiore. We heard our mothers (never our fathers) speak about her on the telephone or over a cup of hot chocolate, sitting with their legs crossed delicately in the drawing room underneath chamois heads that hung on the wall like petrified fauns. They smoked and whispered, necks taut.
During the war she had worked as a translator for the Germans in Colorno, northern Italy, in a castle requisitioned by the Wehrmacht. She had belonged to a patriotic antifascist Action Group and taken part in guerrilla operations in Milan, rifle in hand. She was heard speaking German with Mr Baumgartner, the mechanic in Sierre. She had worked as a hostess in Mar del Plata, Buenos Aires, where she had emigrated in 1945. She sold diamonds, cut by her husband, that came from no one knew where. The partisans had burnt her parents’ farm after the war. She had been Mussolini’s mistress. She had acted in a film in Hollywood. She had worked for the American secret service.
Hearing these conversations was astounding. Our mothers’ voices vibrated with excitement, those polished beings who were ordinarily deprived of the slightest emotion. But above all it was about a time no one ever alluded to, as if it were covered by a thick layer of snow.
We knew that Domino Sontag, a handsome blond with slim legs like a bird’s, who hung out at the Club, had been adopted because his parents died during deportation. We knew that Solomon Weber kept a revolver against his heart, day and night. We knew that our parents had lived through things. There were uncles, aunts, grandparents and family friends who we had never known and about whom no one ever spoke. There were photographs on our bookshelves or kept in wallets of smiling young people, women with crimped hair and newlywed couples about whom we knew nothing without even realising it - they were there, familiar images displayed in intricate frames, decorative, like the porcelain services or the collections of wooden sculpted ducks. Sometimes in our parents’ gaze we sensed a veil, like a latent image on the screen of a dream. But none of us would have dared speak of it. We didn’t think about it. We knew the majority of us were Jewish, but that did not mean anything, or else it was a vague folkloric reality. We did not eat kosher, we did not go to the synagogue, and we viewed the lot of Ariel Kattan (who observed the Sabbath and was not allowed to ski on Saturdays) with despair, as if it were an unfathomable punishment.
Franco did not like Alberta; her breasts like rubber balls, her snobbish manners, her “cruel” eyes. None of us had ever seen the slightest cruelty in her eyes, but it is true that we rarely looked her in the eye. He, so gentle, so understanding, who was familiar with women’s weaknesses: Mrs Lambert, who greeted him with her blouse unbuttoned to the navel; Jacky Barras who smelt of gin before midday; Miss Haas, a long-necked octogenarian whom he had caught with a hand down her cleaner’s trousers. All these memories he revealed to us years later, with a pained tenderness in his voice. But perhaps he was just high, as he almost constantly was then, which gave him a strange sort of melancholic wisdom.
Franco looked at Claudia and his heart shrank, like a bird in a fist. Was it her badly cut hair, her face constellated with pale freckles, almost grey, her woollen gloves that she pulled nervously? She was then, it would seem, extremely shy, which was almost impossible to imagine: for us she was the Italian girl who wore the shortest shorts we had ever seen (Anna Saincère claimed she shortened them herself with nail scissors).
At that time, they were both an anomaly in their respective families. Franco, with his chestnut curls, sinewy body and natural ease, seemed made to lead an idle existence somewhere in Brazil or California; his skin gleaming with sun cream beside a curved swimming pool. Claudia, meanwhile, looked like a ghost, with translucent skin that revealed her beating heart and immaculate coats and dresses as if she were endlessly dressed for her first communion. The physical embodiment of the faults of a family that was too flashy to be honest. “She was suffering, it was obvious,” Franco told us, his eyes shining with emotion, or rage, “And they; they did nothing. Nothing at all. I felt like killing them. I could have killed them.”
When we went back to our homes that evening, our steps squeaking on the spongy snow, the frost-covered pine trees and the cold numbing our fingers suddenly seemed menacing. As if we were walking in a gentle, treacherous land, where the winter envelops you and freezes your heart.