Home > The Children's Train

The Children's Train
Author: Viola Ardone


Part One


1946

 

 

1


MAMMA IN FRONT; ME BEHIND. MAMMA STRIDES through the narrow streets in the Spanish Quarter: it takes two steps of mine to keep up with every one of hers. I look at people’s shoes. Shoes with no holes in them equal one point; shoes with holes in them, minus one point. No shoes: zero points. New shoes: I get a star-studded prize. I’ve never had a pair of shoes of my own; I wear other people’s shoes and they always hurt. Mamma says I don’t walk straight but it’s not my fault; it’s other people’s shoes that are the problem. They are the shape of the feet that wore them before me. They’ve taken on their habits, walked on other streets, played other games. By the time they get to me, what do they know about the way I walk, or where I want to go? They need to get used to me little by little; but then my feet grow, the shoes get too small for me, and we’re back to square one.

Mamma in front; me behind. I have no idea where we’re going, she says it’s for my own good. There must be a catch, like when I had head lice. It’s for your own good, she said, and then she shaved my head so I looked like a melon. Luckily, my friend Tommasino got the melon treatment, too, for his own good, of course. The kids in our street teased us, saying we looked like skulls that had escaped from the ossuary at Fontanelle Cemetery. In the beginning, Tommasino wasn’t my friend. One day, I saw him steal an apple from Capajanca, the vegetable man with the barrow at Piazza del Mercato, and I thought we could never be friends because Mamma Antonietta always says we may be poor, but we are certainly not thieves. Better beggars than thieves. But Tommasino had seen me and had taken an apple for me, too. Since the apple had been given to me, and it wasn’t me who stole it, I finished it off. I was so hungry he could see it in my eyes. We’ve been friends since then. Apple friends.

Mamma walks right in the middle of the street and never looks down. I drag my feet and count points so I don’t get scared. I count up to ten on my fingers and then I start again. When I get to ten times ten, something nice will happen. That’s how the game goes. Until now nothing nice has ever happened to me, though. Maybe I count the points wrong. I like numbers quite a lot. Letters not so much. One by one, I can recognize them, but when they’re all mixed up into words, I get confused. Mamma says she doesn’t want me to grow up like she did, and that’s why she sent me to school. I went, but I didn’t like it one bit. For one thing, the kids were yelling all day and I used to come home with a headache. The classroom was tiny and smelled like sweaty feet. And then I had to sit still all day at my desk in silence and draw rows and rows of straight lines. Our teacher had a pointy chin and spoke with a lisp. If anyone copied her, she would whack them on the head. I had ten whacks in five days. I counted them like my shoe points, and I didn’t get a prize that time either. After a while, I decided I didn’t want to go to school anymore.

Mamma wasn’t happy about it, but she said at least I had to learn a trade and so she sent me to collect rags. At first, I liked it. My job was to go from house to house, or down to the garbage dump, pick up old rags, and then take them to Capa ’e Fierro’s market stall. After a few days, I was so tired from my rounds that I even missed the whacks the pointy-chinned teacher had given me.

Mamma stops in front of a gray-and-red building with big windows.

“It’s here,” she says.

This school looks nicer than the last one. It’s quiet inside and there’s no stench of feet. We go up to the second floor, and they make us sit on a wooden bench in a corridor, until a voice calls out: “Next.” Since nobody else moves, Mamma thinks we must be next and we go in.

Mamma’s name is Antonietta Speranza. The signorina waiting for us writes her name on a sheet of paper and says, “This is your last option.” That’s when I think: Okay, Mamma’s going to turn around and go home now. But she doesn’t move.

“Do you whack your students?” I ask the signorina, covering my head with my arms just in case. She laughs and pinches my cheek gently, without squeezing.

“Sit down,” she says, and we sit down facing her.

The signorina doesn’t look a bit like my last teacher. She doesn’t stick her chin out, her smile is full of straight white teeth, her hair is cut short, and she wears pants like a man. We sit in silence. She says her name is Maddalena Criscuolo and that maybe Mamma remembers her, because she fought to liberate us from the oppression of the Nazi-Fascists. Mamma nods her head, but I can tell that she has never heard the name Maddalena Criscuolo before today. Maddalena tells us that during the “Four Days of Naples” she had saved the bridge at Rione Sanità, because the Germans wanted to blow it up with dynamite; in the end, she says, she was given a bronze medal and a certificate. I think she would have done better with a pair of new shoes, because she has one good shoe and one with a hole in it (zero points). She says we have done the right thing coming to see her, that most people are too ashamed, that she and her comrades knocked on every single door in the neighborhood to convince mothers that this was a good thing, for them and for their children. She also says that they had a lot of doors slammed in their faces, and a few curses too. I can believe it because when I go and knock on doors looking for old rags, people often cuss at me. The signorina says that a lot of good families have trusted them, that Mamma Antonietta is a brave woman, and that she is giving an important gift to her son. I’ve never had a gift, except for an old tin sewing box I keep my precious things in.

Mamma Antonietta waits for Maddalena to stop talking, because talking is not her strong point. The woman says kids should be given a chance but, to tell the truth, I would be much happier with a slice of bread with ricotta cheese and sugar on top. I tried it once at a party I crashed with Tommasino, held by some Americans (old shoes: minus one point).

Mamma doesn’t say a word, that’s why Maddalena keeps talking: they’ve organized some special trains to take children up north. My mother finally says something.

“Are you sure you want him? Look at this kid. He was sent by God to punish us!”

Maddalena says they’ll put a whole bunch of us on the train, not just me.

So it’s not a school, I finally realize, smiling.

Mamma isn’t smiling.

“If I had a choice, I wouldn’t be here. This is my only choice, so see what you can do.”

When we leave, Mamma walks one step ahead of me, but more slowly than before. We walk by the pizza stall, where normally I would be pulling on her skirt and wailing until she walloped me. This time, though, she stops.

“Pork rind and ricotta cheese, please,” she asks the boy behind the counter. “Just one.”

I hadn’t asked her for anything, and I realize that if Mamma, of her own accord, decides to buy me fried pizza for a mid-morning snack, there must be a catch somewhere.

The man wraps a piece of pizza as yellow as the sun and as wide as my face. I’m so scared I’ll drop it that I grab on to it using both hands. It’s warm and smells delicious; I blow on it and the aroma of olive oil fills my nose and mouth. Mamma bends down and looks me in the eye.

“You heard what she said, right? You’re a big boy now; you’ll be eight soon. You know the situation we’re in, don’t you?”

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