For Bragonzi, the only beautiful thing in the sad life of the boarding school in Quarto dei Mille was the soccer matches. And yet even that beauty was anguished. He realized it as early as the first match, when he saw that, once the moment came to shoot, even the best, even the oldest players suffered a kind of muscular contraction, as if forcing themselves to hold back; and, in fact, what emerged was a weak, uncertain shot, which the goalie blocked with ease. And to think that a second earlier that same forward had seemed full of confident vigor, impetuously swooping down onto the ball, defending it, rushing with long strides toward the goal area—but then . . . but then that feeble shot.
Only at the third match did he make up his mind to ask, after he’d happened to give a hard kick and the ball, flying upward, just barely missed going over to the other side, beyond the wall that constituted the end of the schoolyard: “Aaaah . . .” all the little boys groaned in chorus, covering their eyes with their hands, and when the ball fell back down into the schoolyard, rather than rejoicing, they rebuked Bragonzi bitterly. “But why? What did I do wrong?” he asked Paltonieri as they went back inside for snack time. “And even if the ball did go over, why make such a big deal about it?”
And so Paltonieri explained. He said that on the other side of the wall lived a Mr. Kurz, whom no one had ever seen but who must have hated all the boarding-school children, because whenever the ball ended up on his side he never gave it back (as is civil and urbane custom: you’ve sent it hurtling over there and now you anxiously wait, speculating by the wall, and, lo, by silent miracle it returns, tracing its trajectory in the sky, returning, returning—and with your heart overflowing with gratitude you give resounding thanks: “Thank you!” you say, you don’t know to whom, but you say it. Or else the miracle is delayed, and you walk away uncertainly, saddened by the game’s forced end; but when you come back the following morning the ball is there in the yard, for how long you don’t know, and so your “thank you” is all the more heartfelt, because you only think it, addressing it to the past). Not only that, but vain would have been any attempt to get the ball back; at least this was what was claimed by the young Instructresses, who, a long time ago, caving to universal insistence, had gone over to speak to Mr. Kurz. “Mr. Kurz is well within his rights,” they apparently relayed with an air of annoyance, “and can keep whatever makes its way into his yard.” Such a response, noted Paltonieri, who had heard the story from Morchiolini, sent the message that the Instructresses hadn’t put much of an effort into their mission: if only the boys could have gone themselves, just once, to speak to that man, maybe they would have convinced him, maybe he would have yelled at them a little, sure, but in the end he would have given back all the balls confiscated that year and, who knows, even in previous years. But nothing could be done, the rules barred the boys from leaving the school, and, besides, what would be the point? Mr. Kurz had said no to them, and they were schoolmistresses—never mind a bunch of snot-nosed kids! For that matter, the Instructresses had added, from that day forward they would not be going back to see that man. They had a sense of dignity, they did, and they weren’t interested in being humiliated by someone who—they stressed with a hint of sadism—happened to be correct!
Of course, Paltonieri continued, if the school had been endowed with an ample supply of soccer balls, there would be nothing to get upset about in all this; if they lost one they could requisition another, and Mr. Kurz could do as he pleased. But the reality was that an endowment of balls not only wasn’t ample but wasn’t even provided for, and the boys had to make do with the odd privately owned ball. “Do you understand what this means?” Paltonieri pressed Bragonzi, now thoroughly worked up. “It means having to keep tabs on the new kids, the ones who’ve just arrived with a suitcase full of toys, and hope that they have a ball, and, if they do, persuade them to lend it to us, giving them gifts, which is already enough to make them suspicious, maybe the ball is new and so they guard it jealously, and if you try to take it away from them they squeal and then the Instructresses come running, understand? And when you’ve finally convinced them—you’ve given them heaps of trading cards and comics, promised them they’ll also get to play, even if they’re so little they don’t have a clue what a soccer match is—when finally it’s all worked out and the game begins, pow!, some idiot kicks the ball over the wall, and we’re ruined. And it’s not even possible to get our parents to buy balls when they come to see us and take us to Genoa, because visiting days are on Sunday and everything’s closed . . . You know today’s ball, the one you almost sent over to the other side? It’s Randazzo’s, and to get it he had to write to his dad a month ago, telling him to bring it last Friday, and his dad lives in Messina and only comes twice a year, understand?”
Bragonzi understood, and he understood, too, that theirs would never be real matches but monstrosities, unnerving endeavors in which, more than the struggle between the two teams, what counted was the unspoken battle being played between all of them and that cruel man lying in wait. As months passed, this image grew and grew in Bragonzi’s mind, and he became accustomed to thinking of Mr. Kurz as an enormous black spider, motionless in the middle of his yard but lightning fast when pouncing on the balls that fell like fat insects into his web: then, seizing them with his foul legs, horrifically he sucked till there was naught left but the floppy remains . . . This rapacity was the scariest thing of all, because it enveloped the soccer ball even before it went over the wall, beckoning it and infecting it with a bluish leprosy, so that playing with it was a bit like contracting that disease, or like conversing with a man condemned to death; at other times, it seemed to him that the ball was a beautiful woman promised in marriage to a jealous tyrant, and that terrible torments awaited the reckless fool who dared so much as to graze her.
It was but little consolation that he now played on a permanent basis for the Weenies. Dividing all the boys into Champs and Weenies had been thought up by Saniosi, whose intellect, faced with the impossibility of resolving the problem of Mr. Kurz, had at least conceived of a way to transform that nightmarish presence from a paralyzing element into an active part of the game. What he proposed was simple, and founded on the eradication of switching sides at halftime: the Weenies would always shoot at the goal chalked on the dormitory wall, the Champs at the one on the wall separating the schoolyard from Mr. Kurz; that way, Saniosi thought, the fear of losing the ball would hinder the Champs, weakening their abilities and thus levelling the playing field. And so it was—but for the fact that they all wanted to be welcomed into the ranks of the Weenies, and to this end deliberately tripped themselves up, displayed profound shortcomings in technique never previously revealed, spread their legs wide open so as to garner the supreme humiliation of the nutmeg. It became necessary to form a tribunal of memory keepers, who by punctiliously citing past dribbling and counterattacks, crosses and headed goals, forced the Champs to face, with no chance of appeal, their own talent.
So Bragonzi was a Weenie, but this didn’t prevent him from noticing during the games—almost absorbing it from the uncertain looks in the eyes of the Champs—a general sense of distress. This feeling only worsened after the episode with Lamorchia.
It happened as follows: For an agonizingly long week, the boys were left without a ball, to rave, bored, in the emptiness. Then, on Sunday, Tabidini’s dad took his son to Genoa. Seeing him heave a sigh in front of the lowered shutter of a toy store, he questioned the boy and, finding out the truth, gave a good long laugh; then, without another word, he took his son by the hand and pulled him along until they reached the nearest park, where several gangs of children were playing ball. “Which would you like?” he asked, encompassing in a single wave of his hand that entire swarm.
“What do you mean, ‘which’?” gulped Tabidini, who had understood perfectly.
“Don’t you worry about it. There must be a ball here that tickles your fancy more than the others, no?”
Tabidini observed: over here, the children were gratifying themselves with an unsizable rubber sphere, colorful and flabby, the kind for little kids; another group, right behind them, was scrambling around a ball that was more serious but also deflated—you could tell from the noise it made and from its pitiful bounce. Tabidini looked beyond the drinking fountain: over there was the biggest showdown, with at least ten players per side, and the ball was sound, but lightweight, too, made of taut plastic, one of those balls which shoot up bizarrely, almost taking flight of their own volition, no, no, too dangerous, a real shame, though; to their left, in a completely grassless area, enshrouded in an earthy cloud, six desperately lanky dawdlers were playing with a dirt-colored ball of an indecipherable nature; he looked at them more closely—they didn’t have “the goods” and were playing in loafers, their long socks pulled up to their knees, a scraping of soles, a slip-sliding amid expletives. Tabidini waited for the ball to emerge for an instant from the dust cloud to observe it more carefully: huh, it was leather, one of those prehistoric hand-stitched balls, with a wide valve like a ten-lira coin and that nutty color which had been vanquished long ago by black-and-white, weighty and lumpy and somewhat pear-shaped, of a mineral substance that had been chemically enriched over the years with mud and emotions . . . Headaches and blackened nails lay in store for the imprudent soul who opted for that ball, no thank you, better take a look at that other group in the field all the way at the far end; he asked his father for permission to go, then walked through the park until he was close enough to taste this new match—a match into which fathers and sisters had been frivolously mixed, a match that was revolving, alas, around an exceedingly light beach ball, literally lighter than a feather, a complimentary item included with the purchase of sunscreen for the sportily benighted. Disheartened, Tabidini went back to his dad, with one last glance at some other pilgrims who were blissfully delighting—poor fools!—in a felt tennis ball.
Tabidini was about to reply that he wasn’t exactly spoiled for choice when he was distracted by the simultaneous arrival of four cars, then of two more right after. Out of them came twenty or so older adolescents in tracksuits, loaded with gym bags and duffelbags. It was enough for one of them to tweak his hamstring muscles, tenderizing them a bit, for Tabidini, melting with emotion, to understand: yes, he didn’t need to see over it to know what was behind the park’s high gray wall, the group’s clear destination. A real soccer field! A real match! he thought, now liquefied, just as one of the last adolescents, having rested his duffel on the ground, pulled out a plastic bag, which he opened and then put back down, laying bare its contents: shimmering in the morning light of the sun, so new and untouched as to appear enamelled, flawlessly round, soft and taut at once, planet of glory, the most beautiful soccer ball Tabidini had ever seen. Propelled by an irrepressible impulse, he slipped his chubby hand out of his father’s and started to run toward the player, who had remained behind his companions and was now meticulously closing his duffelbag. As soon as he was close enough to make out the words, Tabidini stopped, and he read, “World Cup.” Oh! His heart skipped a beat. And then, right below, in a different pentagon, “Official Soccer Ball—Patented—Licensed—Tested,” and slightly lower still, “No. 3.” But what made Tabidini’s eyes bulge out of his head was the signature, the fluttering signature stamped along the length of two other pentagons (at first glance he didn’t want to believe it, looked more closely at the squiggle—but, yes, it was true, beyond a shadow of a doubt): “George Best.” Best! Best’s soccer ball! The greatest player of them all! The legend who was invoked after every intoxicating mazy run! At school, they’d only ever had one ball with a name on it: “Totonno Juliano,” it was called, it even bore Juliano’s picture, though the product was made of plastic, brought back from Naples by Fiorillo—a good ball, but nothing more, and, in any event, after just a few days it became the prey of Mr. Kurz. But this one! And Best’s, to boot! Desperately he turned toward his father, who started to walk over. Meanwhile, the adolescent, giving a shout to his companions, sent the ball their way, essentially inviting them to have a taste. Tabidini was no stranger to that weakness, that yielding to the temptation to try out a new ball while still off the field and out in the street, despite knowing full well that the rough concrete would leave a mark on its lustre—as if the owner, unable to bear so much perfection, wanted to artificially dirty and age the ball in order to finally recognize it as his own.