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Numbers in the Dark

The evening dark slips into streets and avenues, shades the spaces between the leaves of the trees, dots the moving tram arms with sparks, opens up in soft cones beneath the punctual streetlamps, turns on festive displays in shop windows, throwing into relief the curtained domesticity of apartments above. But on first floors and mezzanines, broad rectangles of unshaded light reveal the mysteries of a thousand city offices. The working day is over. The last letters are wound out from the drums of a line of typewriters and separated from their carbons; files full of correspondence are laid for signing on managers' desks, the typists cover their machines and head for the cloakroom, or they are already in line in the coated bustle waiting to clock out. Soon all is deserted. The windows reveal a series of empty rooms, immersed in the chalky whiteness that reverberates from fluorescent tubes on walls divided by cheerful colours into different sections, on bare polished desks, on the data-processing machines, which, the urgent patter of their straining thought now over, sleep on their feet like horses. Until all at once this geometric scenario is filled with middle-aged women, wrapped in flowery scarlet-and-green gowns, their heads tied in scarves or with 'Empire' hairstyles or a fichu, wearing skirts too short for them from which swollen legs protrude in woolly stockings, cloth-slippered feet. Accountancy's night spawns witches. Brush and broom in hand they launch themselves across those smooth surfaces, tracing out their spells.

In a square of window, a boy's freckled face, thick wave of black hair above, appears and flits away, reappears at the next window, and the next, and the next again, like a moon-fish in an aquarium. There, he's stopped in the corner of a window, and with a sudden crash a shutter rolls down, the bright rectangle of the aquarium is gone. One two three four, darkness falls on all the windows and in each the last thing you see is the moon-fish grimace of that little face.

'Paolino! Got all the shutters down, have you?'

Although he has to be up early for school in the morning, Paolino's mother takes him with her every evening so that he can help a bit and learn how to work. By this time a soft cloud of sleep is beginning to weigh down on his eyelids. Coming in from the already dark streets, these deserted, brightly lit rooms put him in a sort of daze. Even the desklamps have been left on, their green shades on long adjustable necks leaning towards the shiny desktops. Passing by, Paolino presses buttons to turn them off and ease the glare.

'What are you doing? You can't play now. Come and give us a hand! Have you got the shutters down yet?'

With a sharp tug Paolino lets the shutters fall all at once. The night outside, the haloes of the streetlamps, the softened glow of distant windows across the street, disappear; now there is nowhere but this box of light. With every rattle of a shutter, it's as if Paolino were gradually waking from his torpor: but as though in sleep when you dream of waking only to go into another and deeper dream.

'Can I do the waste-bins, Mum?'

'Good boy, yes, take the bag, off you go!'

Paolino takes the bag and goes off round the offices to empty the wastepaper bins. The bag is bigger than he is and Paolino drags it after him so that it slides across the floor. He walks slowly to make the job last as long as possible: of the whole evening this is the moment he likes best. Big rooms with lines of identical calculators and filing cabinets open before him, rooms with authoritative desks crammed with touch-button telephones and intercoms. He likes going round the offices alone, to immerse himself in those metallic ornaments, those sharp right-angles, forgetting everything else. Above all he likes getting away from the sound of his mother and Signora Dirce's chatter.

The difference between Signora Dirce and Paolino's mother is that Signora Dirce is very conscious of the fact that she is cleaning SBAV's offices, whereas it's all the same to Paolino's mother whether she is cleaning an office, a kitchen or the back of a shop.

Signora Dirce knows the names of all the departments. 'Now we'll go into Accounts, Signora Pensotti,' she says to Paolino's mother.

'Come again?' says Signora Pensotti, a small fat little woman, only recently arrived from the provinces.

Signora Dirce on the other hand is long and thin, very haughty, and wears a kind of kimono. She knows all the company's secrets, and Paolino's mother listens agape. 'You see how untidy Dr Bertolenghi is, it's incredible,' she says, 'I bet exports are bad with all this mess.'

Paolino's mother tugs her sleeve: 'Who's he when he's at home . . . ? Oh give it a rest . . . What do you care, Signora Dirce? Don't you know that if the desks aren't cleared we don't have to clean them. Just give the phone a quick wipe, to take off the worst . . .'

Signora Dirce even sticks her nose in the papers, picks up a letter, holds it close to her nose because she's short-sighted, says: 'Hey, listen to this, three hundred thousand dollars, it says here . . . You know how much three hundred thousand dollars is, Signora Pensotti?'

As Paolino sees it, the two women strike a false note, they're an affront to the composure of the office. They get on his nerves, both of them: Signora Dirce is arrogant, ridiculous when, to dust intercom keyboards or drawer handles, she sits in the manager's big chair and, wiping things with her rag, assumes the managerial expression of someone doing something important; and his mother is still the country woman she always was, dusting calculators as if she were pushing cows round the farm.

The further Paolino gets away from them, adventuring into the deserted offices, so the further his eyes, droopy with sleep, push back that bare, linear horizon, and he likes to think of himself as an ant, an almost invisible creature crossing a smooth desert of linoleum, amid shiny mountains that fall sheer to the ground beneath a flat white sky. Then he's overawed; and to pull himself together he looks around for signs of human life, always varied and disordered. Under the glass top of a desk -- a woman's it must be -- there's a photograph of Marlon Brando; someone else is keeping a pot of daffodil bulbs on a windowsill; there's a magazine in a waste bin; in another a sheet of block-notes has been filled with pencil sketches of little figures; a typist's stool smells of violets; in an ashtray there are some of those small foil cups that chocolate liqueurs come in. There, he only has to latch on to these details and his awe at that geometric desert subsides, but Paolino feels almost humiliated, as if he were being a coward, because it's precisely what most strikes awe in him that he wants to and must make his own.

One room is full of machines. They're motionless now, but Paolino saw them working once, with a constant hum and thick sheets of perforated paper jerking up and down like insect wings; and a man in a white doctor's coat who was operating the machines stopped to talk to Paolino. 'There'll come the day when machines like this do all the work,' he said, 'with no need for anybody, not even me.'

Paolino had immediately run to Signora Dirce. 'Do you know what those machines make?' he had asked her, hoping to catch her out; the man in the white coat had just explained that the machines didn't produce anything, but managed all the company's business, they looked after the accounts, they knew everything that happened and that was going to happen.

'Those?' Signora Dirce had said, 'you can't even catch mice with those, I'm telling you. You want to know something? The company that markets those machines is owned by the brother-in-law of Dr Pistagna, so he got SBAV to buy them. That's what happened.'

Paolino had shrugged his shoulders: once again it was clear that Signora Dirce didn't understand anything: she didn't even realize that those machines knew the past and the future, that they would operate offices on their own one day, and the offices would be deserted and empty like now at night. Dragging the bag with the wastepaper after him, Paolino tries to imagine how it will be then, to concentrate on that idea, as far as possible from his mother and Signora Dirce, but there is always something that prevents him, a sort of jarring presence. What is it?

He is going into an office to get the wastebin when someone shouts 'Oh!' in fright. A man and a woman staying late for overtime have seen a shock of hair bristling like a porcupine peep round the door, then the little boy with his green and red striped jersey coming in dragging a big bag behind him. Unhappily Paolino realizes that that intruding presence is no other than his own.

The office workers on the other hand seem to be in tune with the room. She is a redhead, with glasses, while the man's hair is shiny with brilliantine. He is dictating numbers to her and she is typing them out. Paolino stops to watch them. The man dictating feels the need to walk about, but the way he moves amongst the tables, always turning at right-angles, it's as if he were in a maze. He approaches the girl again, then goes away again; the numbers pour down like dry hail, the keys raise and lower the typewriter's little hammers, the man's nervous hands touch the desk calendar, the papertrays, the backs of the seats, and everything they meet is metal. At one point the girl makes a mistake, stops to rub it out against the drum, and for a moment everything takes on a softer almost caressing feel; the man repeats the number in a quieter voice, places his hand on the back of her seat, and she arches her back so it just brushes his hand, and their eyes lose that fixed glaze of concentration as they meet for a moment. But the rubbing out is over now; she begins to drum on the keys again, he to fire off the figures; they separate, all is as before.

Paolino has to go and get the wastebin; to strike an attitude he starts whistling. The two stop, raise their eyes. Paolino points at the bin. 'Go ahead, please.' Paolino goes over to it, his lips pursed as though to whistle, but without making any sound. As he goes towards the bin the two take a moment's involuntary break, and during this break they come together again, their hands brush against each other, and their eyes stop darting about and turn to meet each other. Slowly Paolino opens the mouth of his bag, lifts the bin; the young man and the girl are about to smile at each other. With a brusque twist of the hand, Paolino turns the bin upside down, then bangs on the bottom to have the paper fall in the sack; the office worker and the typist are already furiously at work again, he dictating numbers one right after the other, she bent over her typewriter, her red hair covering her face.

'Paolino! Paolino! Come and hold the steps for me!'

Paolino's mother is cleaning windows on a step-ladder. Paolino goes to hold it for her. Pushing her mop back and forth across the floor, Signora Dirce has words to say about the lack of doormats: 'What would it cost a company like this to buy a few doormats, so they don't tread mud into the offices . . . But no, who cares when it's always us has to slave, and woe betide if there isn't a shine on the floor . . .'

'Doesn't matter, we'll be waxing it Saturday, Signora Dirce, you'll see how nice it'll come up . . .' says Signora Pensotti.

'Oh, I've nothing against Dr Uggero, you know, Signora Pensotti, between you and me it's Dr Pistagna, that . . .'

Paolino doesn't listen. He's thinking of the young man and the typist in the other room. When men and women do overtime together after dinner, there's an atmosphere as if they were undergoing some kind of special trial together. They're working hard, you might say, but they put something tense, something secret into it. Paolino wouldn't know how to put it into words, but it's something he saw in their eyes, and he'd like to go back and see them.

'Hey, hold on to the steps, sleepyhead! You want me to fall off, or what?'

Paolino starts to look at the graphs hanging on the walls. Up, down, up, up, down a bit, up again. What do they represent? Perhaps you could read them by whistling: a note that goes up, and up, then a low note, then a longer high note. He tries whistling the line of a graph: 'Whee, wheeeeee . . .' then another, then another. A nice tune comes out. 'Stop whistling, are you stupid?' his mother shouts. 'Do you want a spanking?'

Now Paolino goes round with the bin to empty all the ashtrays. He goes back to the office with the two working overtime. He can't hear the tippety-tap of the typewriter. Have they gone? Paolino pokes his head round. The girl is standing, stretching out a hand bent at the knuckles and with brightly varnished nails towards the brylcreamed young man; he lifts an arm as if to take her by the throat. Paolino begins to whistle: what comes to his lips is the tune he invented a few moments ago. The two compose themselves. 'Oh, it's you again?' They've already got their coats on and are standing together looking at some papers for tomorrow's work. 'The ashtray!' Paolino says. But they're not interested, they put the papers down and go. At the bottom of the corridor he takes her arm.

Paolino's sorry they've gone. Now there really is nobody left: all he can hear is the hum of the polisher and his mother's voice. Paolino crosses the Board of Directors' conference room with its mahogany table, so shiny you can see your face in it, and the big leather chairs all round. He'd like to take a run up and do a fish dive on the table top, slide from one end to the other, then collapse in a chair and fall asleep. But all he does is rub a finger across, look at the damp mark it makes like the wake of a ship, then rub it off with the elbow of his sweater.

The big accounts department is divided into lots of cubicles. There's a tippety-tap coming from the bottom. There must be somebody there still, working overtime. Paolino goes from one cubicle to another, but it's like a maze where every passage is the same and the tippety-tapping always seems to be coming from a different place. In the end, in the very last cubicle, bent over an old adding machine, he finds a skinny accountant in a pullover, with a green plastic eyeshade halfway down a bald, oblong skull. To tap the keys the accountant lifts his elbows with the movement birds make when they beat their wings: he looks just like a big bird perched there, his visor like a beak. Paolino goes to empty the ashtray, but the accountant is smoking and at that very moment puts his cigarette down on the rim.

'Hi,' the accountant says.

'Good evening,' says Paolino.

'What are you doing up and about at this time?' The accountant has a long white face and dry skin, as if he never saw the sun.

'I'm emptying the ashtrays.'

'Little boys should be in bed at night.'

'I'm with my mother. We do the cleaning. We start now.'

'How late do you stay?'

'Till half-past ten, eleven. Then sometimes we do overtime, in the morning.'

'The opposite of what we do, overtime in the morning.'

'Yes, but only once or twice a week, when we do the waxing.'

'I do overtime every day. I never finish.'

'Finish what?'

'Getting the accounts right.'

'They won't come out right?'

'They never do.'

Motionless, the handle of the adding machine in his fist, his eyes on the thin strip of paper dangling almost to the ground, the accountant seems to be expecting something of the line of numbers that rises from the drum, as the smoke from the cigarette held tight between his lips likewise rises, first in a straight line in front of his right eye, till it meets his visor, takes a turn, then floats up again as far as the light bulb where it gathers in a cloud beneath the shade.

'Now, I'll say it,' thinks Paolino, and he asks: 'Excuse me, but aren't there electronic machines that do all the sums on their own?'

Irritated by the smoke, the accountant closes one eye. 'All wrong,' he says.

Putting down the cloth and the bin, Paolino leans on the accountant's desk. 'Those machines make mistakes?'

The man with the visor shakes his head. 'No, from the start. It was wrong from the start.' He gets up, his pullover is too short and his shirt puffs out all round his belt. He picks up his jacket from the back of his seat and puts it on. 'Come with me.'

Paolino and the accountant walk past the cubicles. The accountant takes big steps and Paolino has to trot to keep up. They go the whole length of the corridor; at the bottom the accountant lifts a curtain: there is a spiral staircase going down. It's dark, but the accountant knows where there's a switch and turns on a dim bulb down below. Now they go down the spiral staircase, down into the company vaults. In the vaults there's a little door closed with a chain: the accountant has the key and he opens the door. There can't be any electricity because the accountant strikes a match and immediately finds a candle and lights it. Paolino can't see very much, but he realizes he's in a tight space in a sort of little cell, and piled right up to the ceiling are stacks of notebooks, registers, dusty papers, and clearly this is where the mouldy smell is coming from.

'They're all the company's old ledgers,' says the accountant, 'in the hundred years of its existence.' Pulling himself up on to a stool, he opens a long, narrow ledger on a high bench that's angled for reading. 'See? This is the handwriting of Annibale De Canis, the company's first accountant, the most conscientious accountant there's ever been: look how he kept the registers.'

Paolino's eye runs down columns of numbers written in a fine oblong hand with little flourishes.

'You're the only person I've shown this to: the others wouldn't understand. And somebody has to see: I'm old.'

'Yes, sir,' says Paolino in a whisper.

'There never was another like Annibale De Canis,' and the man with the green visor moves the candle, to show, above a pile of registers and beside an old abacus with rickety rods, the photograph of a man with a moustache and goatee beard posing with a Pomeranian dog. 'Yet this infallible man, this genius, see here, 16 November 1884' -- and the accountant turns the pages of the ledger to open it where a dried up goose-feather has been left as a bookmark -- 'yes, here, a mistake, a stupid mistake of four hundred and ten lire in an addition.' At the bottom of the page the total is ringed in red pen. 'And nobody realized, only I know about it, and you're the first person I've told: keep it to yourself and don't forget! And then, even if you did go round telling people, you're only a boy and no one would believe you. . . But now you know that everything's wrong. Over all these years, you know what that mistake of four hundred and ten lire has become? Billions! Billions! The calculating machines and electronic brains and whatnot can grind out numbers all they like. The mistake is right at the core, beneath all their numbers, and it's growing bigger and bigger and bigger!' They had shut up the little room now and were climbing the spiral staircase, walking back down the corridor. 'The company has grown big, huge, with thousands of shareholders, hundreds of subsidiaries, endless overseas agencies, and all of them grinding out nothing but wrong figures, there's not a grain of truth in any of their accounts. Half the city is built on these mistakes! No, not half the city, what am I saying? Half the country! And the exports and imports? All wrong, the whole world is distorted by this mistake, the only mistake in the life of Annibale De Canis, that master of book-keeping, that giant of accountancy, that genius!'

The man goes over to get his coat from a peg and puts it on. Without his green visor, his face seems even sadder and paler for a moment, then it's in the shadow again as he pulls his hat brim down over his eyes. 'And you know what I think?' he says, leaning down, voice hushed, 'I'm sure he did it on purpose!'

He stands up, thrusts his hands in his pockets. 'We two have never met, never known each other,' he mutters to Paolino.

He turns and heads for the door with a gait that wants to be upright but comes out crooked, and he's humming: 'La donna è mobile . . .'

A telephone rings. 'Hello! Hello!' It's Signora Dirce's voice. Paolino runs over to her.

'Yes, yes, SBAV here. What's that? What's that? Where, Brazil? Fancy: they're calling from Brazil. Yes, but what do you want? I don't understand . . . Know what, Signora Pensotti? They're speaking Brazilian, do you want to hear a bit too?'

Calling at this hour, it must have been a customer from the other side of the world who'd muddled up the time difference.

Paolino's mother grabs the receiver from Signora Dirce's hand: 'There's no one here, no one, understand?' she starts shouting. 'You can call to-o-mor-ro-ow! There's only u-us here no-ow! The cleaners, understand? The cleaners!'