Monday, 9 August 2010

Gelato ethics, part 3

This post follows Part 1 and Part 2

Here is Angelo Papini, padding lightly across the room at dawn so as not to wake his sleeping wife. Here he is shaving over the little chipped sink and bending to wash his face. His clothes are neatly pressed and hanging on the old brass hook on the bathroom door. He dries his hands on the towel and walks down the hall to the kitchen and puts the coffee on the stove. Still in his slippers, he goes outside to get the morning paper from the porch. He stands a moment while the frosty Melbourne air stings his face and he breathes deep and looks at the sky. Clusters of damp pistachio-grey clouds crowd around the edges of the day. It will be damp again and sunless, Angelo Papini sees: not a good day for selling gelato.

In the life of Angelo Papini there are three great loves: his daughter Julia, his gelato shop, and an old red faded delta kite. Seven days he works the little shop, rising at dawn to make his gelato and closing the doors long after dark. Sometimes after closing on Sunday afternoons, if the weather is right he drives two miles to Royal Park and stands on the grassy hill with his kite glancing from side to side in the sunlight and the long white tails fluttering breathlessly in the wind.

Angelo Papini returns to the kitchen with his paper. He pours the coffee and makes a thick slice of toast. He spreads the toast with his wife’s grapefruit jam and sits at the little round table with his breakfast and his paper. He notices the dirty plates and coffee cups on the kitchen bench. Julia must have been up late last night. Sometimes she stays up reading and writing. He wishes she would not work so late.

Julia is the cleverest person Angelo Papini has ever known. She is doing a PhD. She will be a doctor, a professor, she will give lectures and write books and have her own office in the university. Her name will be on the door, just think of it! Angelo Papini never finished high school, nor did any of his brothers. He never so much as dreamt that he would ever meet a person with a PhD. But Julia is startling, bright, inexplicable. She is writing a thesis, hundreds of pages, about a famous English philosopher named Isaiah Berlin.

After breakfast he reads the paper a little longer and shines his shoes. You can tell a lot about a man by his shoes, Angelo Papini has always thought so, and in twenty-six years he has never worked a day at the gelateria with dirty shoes. When they came here in 1966 his father did not have two pennies to rub together. He went out every day to look for work and came back every night looking stooped and sad. But he was never seen on the streets of Melbourne with scuffed shoes, he shined them every morning after breakfast; young Angelo Papini, the oldest son, saw all this.

Julia is finding it hard to write her thesis. At first when she talked about Isaiah Berlin her eyes would shine, big and bright like the high white windows in St Francis’ Church during a summer morning Mass. The talking made her light and beautiful, a kite dancing in sunlight: this is why Angelo Papini loves his daughter’s studies. Lately though she has stopped talking about Isaiah Berlin. She broods and locks herself away in her room. She has started smoking, though it made her mother cry. Angelo Papini used to ask about the writing – How is the writing? – and she always said it is going good, really good. One day he saw that this was a lie, so now he never asks her, never says a word about Isaiah Berlin. It must be hard to write, he can see that.

Angelo Papini pads back to the bathroom in his slippers. He dresses in his pressed clothes and combs back his hair. In the bedroom it is still dark. He takes the keys and wallet from his bedside drawer. At the back of the drawer, tucked down and safely hidden from sight, is a grey library book. The book is Four Essays on Liberty by Isaiah Berlin. Apart from the morning paper, Angelo Papini has never been much of a reader.

With his wallet and keys, he walks back to the kitchen and pours a glass of orange juice. When Julia was young, she would come with him on Sundays and they would eat gelato in the park and fly the kite together. He drinks the orange juice standing in the kitchen.

A year ago, one Thursday afternoon on his way back from the markets, he drove to the library and asked to borrow a book by Isaiah Berlin. Late at night when everyone was sleeping, he propped his pillow up and read The Hedgehog and the Fox by the dim glow of the bedside lamp. He read a page or two at a time; he had to borrow the book six times in a row. He could not comprehend The Hedgehog and the Fox, and when he had finished it he borrowed Four Essays on Liberty. As long as he lives, Angelo Papini will never tell another person that he has read Isaiah Berlin.

Early yesterday morning, as he prepared the day's gelati, he found himself thinking about Isaiah Berlin. He added the sugar and thought: Does this mean we are free to go it alone, to make whatever we want of our lives? He mixed in the cream and thought: Does a person have such power over his life? He added the coffee and thought: Can a kite be free if no one holds the line? With a groan of dismay, Angelo Papini saw that he had ruined the whole batch of caffè gelato. He had not been concentrating. He chided himself. Isaiah Berlin can be left to brighter people, people like Julia: his job is to make gelato.

He sits at the small round table and pulls on his socks and shoes. He looks at his watch. There are still ten minutes before he has to leave. He takes the dishes to the sink and rinses them. Glancing towards Julia’s room, he is surprised to see her bedroom light on. She is not usually up early. He puts the coffee on again and walks to her room.

When Julia graduated from her Honours year, Angelo Papini was the proudest of all the fathers at Melbourne University. He took the whole family to dinner – all Julia’s uncles and aunts and cousins – and boasted loudly, bellowing happiness, the praises of his genius daughter. And they have invited her to do a PhD! What a life she will have! She will be a doctor, a professor! My daughter! Silently later that night, lying beside his sleeping wife, Angelo Papini wept – with pride, yes, but also something else, shapeless and big and desolate. He did not know how to name this feeling even to himself. He would think about it only one other time in his life, on that clean bright summer morning four years from now when, like a kite string in strong wind, the secret knot inside his chest pulled suddenly tight, and the steel gelato container clattered across the floor and he lay for several seconds staring at the ceiling in the stark unblinking light. During those last seconds, Angelo Papini would think about three things: the morning many years before when his wife’s neck smelled of fresh baked bread as they made love in their little kitchen; the day Julia had flown her first kite, ribbons of chestnut hair streaming behind her as she skipped and laughed and ran beneath the sun; and the way she had looked at him, seeing him stranded there amidst so great a crowd, the night she graduated.

He knocks gently at Julia’s door. She opens the door. She is still in her clothes from the night before. Her eyes are shot and tired, the colour of blood orange. The wild knot of her hair has collapsed and straggles down around her face. The bedroom floor is strewn with the wreckage of her studies, books and notes and papers and unknown crumpled things. The air is thick and stale with cigarette smoke. For a moment when she sees him she looks distant, confused. Then she rubs her eyes and says, I've been writing.

He kisses his daughter and asks if she wants coffee. She follows him out to the kitchen. Angelo Papini pours two cups of strong black coffee. They sit and drink at the little kitchen table. She tells him about Isaiah Berlin.


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