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Mathilde wanted to know us, she thought that she could. She came to Florence with her hats, her ugly boxer dog, her ideas of art that she tried to spoon into our black mouths. At first she liked the best of us, the quiet ones with jobs who had showers in the same place every morning. But she was a thirsty girl and soon we were not enough. Our drugs, our cocks, the wall of our chatter and even what she saw of our majestic womenfolk and on Friday, our prayers. She finished with us. We would be ignored in bars and on wind-whipped street corners. We sat on benches and watched her walking that dog in the Boboli Gardens.
At the beginning of summer Mathilde crossed the park. We saw her coming our way, her eyes hunted us down and we were no longer invisible. One man remarked that all winter he had seen Mathilde driven around in a sports car, kissing an older Italian at the wheel. Another had seen them drunk in the street, his hands all over her. Today, Mathilde wore denim shorts and we saw the twisting muscles in her thighs.
‘Hi guys,’ she said.
She looked at Mamadou who had not yet changed from his courier’s uniform.
‘Hey, you’re a new face. Who are you?’
‘Je suis Mamadou.’
Her eyes glanced over us.
‘Look guys, I need a model. To sketch. And eventually paint. It’s for my course. How about you, Mamadou?’
Mamadou sat there rolling over his hands.
‘I’ll pay you good money. You just have to stand there. A couple of different positions while I sketch. Naked. Easy-peasy.’
One of us tried to explain to Mathilde that Mamadou was employed and also married. The man who spoke had several times been up to Mathilde’s apartment. He told us there had been sex and, afterwards, she had wanted to wash him. He said he had watched his cock and balls in her pale hands, and never felt more shrunken or embarrassed.
Mathilde ignored this man.
Another of us translated her wishes to Mamadou whose face turned away. Nu? Devant une blanche? Mais t’es fou? Mamadou crossed long hairless arms and Mathilde’s eyes examined him further and some of us already knew this would end with humiliation and crisis.
Mathilde walked away across the park, the dog bounding after her. We watched her drop down in the grass with a group of white friends lazing there.
Mamadou’s young wife developed problems in her pregnancy. The doctors found that there was a panel grown across her womb, a membrane entrapping one of the child’s arms. They were perplexed. Mamadou himself was certain that at home, our own doctors would have supplied a reasoning, and given a course to follow, but here the doctors prescribed endless checks and appointments. Mamadou’s wife clung to him and he lost his job. Moneyless, he asked us where Mathilde lived, said he had to work for her, or they would kick him out of the flat he had struggled so long to rent. He looked thwarted and showed us his electricity and water bills.
A few of us advised Mamadou not to approach Mathilde in the street. In the street Mathilde was a queen who moved like a crested wave in the sea. She walked with her head high and her fair hair on her shoulders, or pushing out from some hat. We told Mamadou that he should remove the worry from his face and wear a narrow shirt that showed his shapely chest. Mamadou scorned us. We asked him if his fine cock would thicken and rise before the white woman and he walked off.
Now that we were here, we could not go home to our country. Some of us had tried. But over there, inertia struck us down. Here we had not accomplished what it was believed that we had accomplished. Our families believed that we owned cars and our money was hidden in banks. That the Italian women left our beds in the morning, then begged to be admitted back at night. It was not so. In our faces, people saw thieves. Our hands were never touched and our change was fanned on the counter, our cigarette packets thrown there. Some of us, at the clubs, had met ladies who danced in an arousing fashion and made us hard. They gave us their phone numbers which we called. The calls were awkward, and soon they ceased. Some of us had been invited to bedrooms by loud drunken women, who had grown serious and asked us about diseases. We fucked these silly girls, who grew brusque and teary. One of us – Papa – had married a student girl to get his visa. He had given her a child. That child was now a seventeen-year-old beauty who ignored us. Papa had returned home and we had no further news of him.
It was possible to grow used to the winter, to the wet chill of the Arno and the tourists who asked directions. Sometimes a large white man in a checked shirt, waiting for his wife in a jewellery shop on Ponte Vecchio, would ask us where we came from. Why were there black people here in Italy? We would say that we were Senegalese, we were from Senegal.
Is that in Africa?
One of us saw Mamadou pushing the buzzer below Mathilde’s apartment behind Santo Spirito. It was four in the afternoon. This man reported that Mamadou wore a neck choker, ironed black trousers, and a striped business shirt whose tail flicked over his round ass. He said that Mamadou was scented, but how could he have known? This man waited at the bar, selling books of African poetry until he was told to leave. Mamadou came down into the street three hours later, looking neither satisfied or outraged. He had walked to the bus stop.
The first year that Mamadou was here – before he moved to this neighbourhood – he had been very lucky. An older Italian man drove his car into central Florence and parked. He then walked into the market place where some of us were selling handbags on white sheets spread on the flagstones. This man pulled a gun out of his pocket and shot two of us, one in the chest and the other in the neck. These men dropped silently to the ground, one of them over the handbags he had just arranged according to size, and died. The older man shot at two more of us. One was hit in the arm and ran amongst the covered stalls where people had just begun to halt. The other young man stood there, looking at this angry killer in the face, wanting to charge him and wrestle him to the ground. That man was Mamadou. The two men stood staring as sirens grew nearer.
The carabinieri arrived and people knelt to the two dead men, so that the killer was able to escape. Mamadou’s eyes distinguished him in the crowd, but the police had held him there, trying to enclose the confusion, which they had believed was at an end. The old man drove to another quartiere and parked. He walked past a rowdy group of us in the street, already chanting and heading to the site. He shot another man in the belly. And a tall black youth in the neck although this merely grazed his skin. The man shot in the belly died in a writhing pool and we sensed warfare around us.
In the afternoon the killer was cornered in an underground car park where he put his gun in his mouth and shot through his own skull.
Many of us wanted to leave after these alarming and mournful days. But Mamadou did not. He said he would stay here. He said he had been spared and he would stay here.
Mamadou no longer wore his courier uniform that we had grown used to. He no longer drove the red van which we would often see parked on a gutter, lights flashing, while he rang an old woman’s buzzer downstairs. Before, he would race across the park and eat a panino or dribbling piece of pizza, glad of our company after his rude customers who were so often displeased with his accent and the sight of his black hands. Now Mamadou ambled across the park to sit with us. He looked more relaxed in his dark trousers or his unhemmed jeans and collared shirts. His hands dropped between his legs and he sat in silence. We asked him about his young wife. He said that their son would soon be born. We asked him had he been able to pay his bills and he nodded, rubbing the side of his thumb. When we were brave enough we asked him about Mathilde, and whether he had begun to work for her. Mathilde had once again ceased to register us on her walks through the town centre, where we stood on corners selling bracelets and statuettes. She ignored us as she had in the winter. When she strayed our way in the park with her ugly boxer dog, we were invisible.
Mamadou replied that yes, he had begun working for Mathilde.
We asked him had he removed his clothing for her. Had she drawn him as she had wanted?
Mamadou nodded. Some of us who had seen the pale woman naked felt envy and this made us grow large and warm. We remembered the stone floor of her apartment where we had been told to lie with our irresistible hard-ons, or the wooden boards of the platform built above, where the young woman slept surrounded by her paintings, where she had asked us to touch her in exquisite places. We were aroused and asked Mamadou how it had been, where he had fucked her, by which window over the violet street at night, by which window over the dark garden?
Mamadou said that he and Mathilde had never slept together. And never would. Mathilde had asked him and he had refused. He worked for Mathilde, he told us. He modelled for her. Yes, he was without clothing before her but it was cool in her apartment. It was better than driving a van through Florence’s crowded streets. The money was good.
We said that soon enough he would want her, she was small-figured but he would soon want her.
Mamadou’s phone beeped and he said it was time for him to go to his work. He smelt clean but we could sense his underarms wetting as he strode across the grass. We said how different he had been to us when he wore his courier’s uniform. One man added that he had preferred him that way.
A few of us moved around the city on bicycles. Many times, even from us, these bicycles were stolen by thieves. We were powerless against these men who came from countries we did not know. They were fewer than us and they were short and furious, raised without fear. They carried knives and there were fights between us at night, fights that we lost. We were made to obey these men.
Far off, on the other side of the river where he was selling housewares, one of us had his bicycle stolen by these men. He had seen the thieves, called out to them, but he had watched them wheel the bicycle off.
This man began to walk back to the city. As he walked he witnessed Mathilde driving down a street in a car it was not known that she possessed. At the end of the road wide gates opened in a stone wall, revealing a tall palazzo in a shadowed garden. An Italian man with crossed arms stood on the steps. Mathilde stepped down from the car and they embraced.
Mamadou’s son was born in a suburban hospital outside Florence where his wife caught an infection that gave her fever and made her lose blood. His son was flawless. But the wife wanted her people, more than she wanted the savvy cousin who had caught the train down from Milan. She wanted her mother and her grandmother and her sisters to make her strong again and help her raise this child. Mamadou came to us in a state of panic, saying he had just taken his young wife by train to Fiumicino airport, that she was now on a plane flying back to Dakar, that he had touched his son’s sweet-smelling forehead for the last time, he was certain of it.
The boy and his mother would be back, we told Mamadou, telling him to think of the nights he would go out, the silence in the small apartment where before there had been wails.
Mamadou said that no, he wanted to watch the baby sleeping, watch his wife’s breasts empty fine sprays of milk into his mouth, watch his child’s eyes learn recognition and follow the light. He said that he wanted this son close to him, that as soon as he had money again he would fly over and bring the boy back, with or without the mother.
We listened to Mamadou talk on, until he became silent. We asked him did he not have to go to his work? He replied that today he was not needed.
A few of us sat back thinking of the children we had left at home, long-legged young men or girls we were ashamed to say reminded us of their horny mothers in youth. Sometimes, these children when they were grown travelled over to see us, and remained to learn the language, or work in the factories as we had done in the past. Over here we were not their fathers. They looked at our woollen sweaters over our printed shirts, our unshaven faces and stolen beanies with patterns of snowflakes. They scorned us and selected Italian coats at the market stalls.
There was a stubborn man among us who spoke constantly of Mathilde. This man was certain the fair girl had cast a spell over Mamadou. All through the hot summer this man said that Mamadou stayed for many hours at the young woman’s apartment. This occurred night after night, when all of us had left the park and returned to the rooms where our mattresses lay on dusty floors. The man said he often walked in the streets as he suffered from sleeplessness, and though the shutters were closed the main light would be on, there would be distant music, and the smell of hashish.
This man made it his business to question Mamadou the next time he was with us. Had he slept with Mathilde yet? Did he expect us to believe that he had not? What did he do at the woman’s house until dawn each night?
Mamadou answered that he stood there, and Mathilde drew him.
One man asked if the woman had touched him.
Mamadou said yes, she had touched his chest once. He had removed her hand.
Another man asked if he had seen the woman naked. He replied that he had. It was hot in the apartment and she wore her panties alone, and a lilac-coloured brassiere. She said that in the summertime, this was how she worked.
We wanted to know whether he had seen the sketches and he said that he had not. He was not interested in seeing his own body painted by a woman.
And did they smoke hash together, we asked him, saying that the scent had drifted down to the street.
They did, Mamadou said. They often did. It was good hash too.
And the painting Mathilde said she wanted to do, we wondered. Who would buy a painting of a naked black man?
He said a friend of hers – he was a homosexual man – had paid for the painting already.
We were intrigued and disgusted by this thought. We too had been approached by these men in the clubs, even in the streets. Their hands would expand on our forearms, they would tell us their addresses and look down between our legs, they would smile into our eyes and we would see they were ridden with filth.
We thought of Mamadou’s young wife in a compound on the outskirts of Dakar, laughing with her sisters, Mamadou’s son lying on a cloth on the tiles, kicking bare feet in sunlight. We were repulsed by Mamadou then, as though he had slept with the man himself.
The summer passed and the weeks of autumn were limpid and short. One man said he saw Mathilde lock her apartment and put her dog in a cage in the back of her car. We heard that she drove to the edge of the city and onto the freeway north. We heard that Mathilde drove to Paris. Her family had travelled across from America and she was staying with them.
Over the weeks we saw that Mathilde’s shutters above the street stayed closed and we wondered what would become of Mamadou, now that he was not needed by the young painter. The rains came and left us, and it was now too cold to sit in the park. Some of us met in the piazza outside Santo Spirito. The bones within our shoulders and legs felt like joints of marble, our feet burnt with cold in our shoes.
Mamadou came to us one day when the sun was a glowing oracle and the low clouds a partition between this heavy world and the lightness above. We asked him what he would do now that Mathilde was gone and Mamadou replied that he did not know, but he no longer cared to model for her. He said he would reapply for his courier job after the Christmas holiday. He’d heard that the driver who had taken his place had caused an accident in the city centre, and came to work without Mamadou’s clean smile and zest. Mamadou was certain his employers would reinstate him.
But after the Christmas holiday Mamadou told us his former employers had refused to give him work. His job had been given to a young Italian man with tattooed arms. We watched Mamadou’s misery as the young Italian courier carelessly drove the red van around the piazza. He told us that he would never see his wife and son again.
We rubbed our hands, waiting for the end of this harsh season that left us feeling more brittle and worn than the sum of our misfortunes. One of us saw Mamadou take a man’s thrown-away sandwich from a rubbish bin, sit down on the church steps, and eat it.
The man who suffered from sleeplessness reported that he had seen Mamadou enter Mathilde’s apartment and that he was staying there. We had not known that Mamadou had her keys. Those of us who knew her apartment imagined Mamadou slumbering on the wooden platform where her mattress lay, surrounded by her work which now included sketches of himself. We saw him lying there smoking at night. We supposed he had lost the apartment he had struggled so hard to rent. We wished to tell him that the woman would come back and there would be trouble. But Mamadou never showed among us, never answered his phone, never walked in the street. It was as though he had never lived.
On the edge of piazza Santo Spirito we debated whether or not to ring the buzzer of the flat where we knew Mamadou now lodged. There were those of us who said we should go there at night, and throw stones at the shutters. Others said there would be a time when he would descend to buy food, or that we should simply ring the buzzer in the light of day. The man who suffered from sleeplessness said that at night music could be heard, and sometimes lamps were switched on. This man said that one day Mathilde and her ugly dog would come back from Paris and we would see Mamadou in handcuffs in the street.
So we waited through those cold weeks. We called our wives in Dakar and told them life was good, we watched the careless Italian courier circling the piazza in Mamadou’s old van.
At the end of winter Mathilde returned. One of us noticed her parking the car down the road from her apartment. She walked past shop owners who called out her name and she waved. The dog nosed the ground behind her. Mathilde wore a red beanie and pulled a suitcase on wheels.
Just one day after this we silently watched Mathilde’s ugly boxer dog in the Boboli Gardens, walked by one of her local friends. For us, the dog possessed powers. The dog had seen what happened when Mathilde pushed open her front door that afternoon. It had heard her angry shouting and seen Mamadou taunted (we were certain) and told he had made her apartment stink. It had seen Mathilde stride through to the kitchen where she showered him with cups and cans and forks.
That dog had seen Mamadou brawl with her as she began to laugh, then crack her head against the stone floor.
One of us, standing outside the bar having been told to leave after staying too long, saw Mathilde’s body wheeled into an ambulance. And then Mamadou shoved onto the footpath with his hands tied. The man who told us this had then retreated, saying that he was a black man and there was strife everywhere.