With a mixture of concern and dismay, Riccardo gazed at the marble and red brick entrance to the cemetery, framed by four slightly crooked cypress trees. The village graveyard was not at all solemn: if it weren’t for the horrible neon cross towering above the facade, the latest brainwave of a priest given to modernity, in daytime it could have been mistaken for one of those sleepy parks built over an old landfill site, away from the busy town centre.
However, at this time of night there was no mistaking what it was: a multitude of little red and white lights flickered on the other side of the wrought iron gate.
Riccardo thought of his grandmother: for three years now she had been resting there, under a flourishing boxwood hedge that, in spring and autumn, he trimmed meticulously.
He wondered whether his mother had paid the electricity bill for the tomb light or whether that was one more worry the Xanax had erased from her mind; he made a mental note to check the bill receipts.
He looked at his phone: it was half past two. What had happened to the others?
He shook his head and cursed in a whisper, then walked briskly toward the back of the cemetery, while casting furtive glances at the deserted road. Although it was spring, the night was cold: Riccardo put up the hood of his sweatshirt and wrapped his scarf around his face, leaving only his eyes uncovered. He felt comforted by the heat of his own breath that warmed his nose and his numb cheeks.
On the back there was a gap, closed off with a makeshift orange plastic fence, where a sign announced that work was in progress for expanding and restructuring the cemetery: in actual fact, the local elections were coming up and the city council had to redeem its five years of ineptitude.
Riccardo looked at his phone again: two thirty-five. Maybe they had stood him up; he decided that he would wait another ten minutes, and not one minute more.
Finally, a vehicle appeared around the bend; he recognized the headlights of Michelangelo’s van, the only guy in the group old enough to have a driving license.
It was he, a few weeks before, who had launched the idea of this job. Not surprising, since cemeteries were his daily bread, his father being a stonemason and gravestones and memorial stones had been his first toys. Riccardo smiled behind his scarf, thinking of his friend whose father had lumbered him with such an onerous name to which, among the minor offenses which had already made him known to the police, he did justice by favouring the theft of artefacts, preferably in bronze.
«So, are we ready?» said Buonarroti’s namesake, emerging from the driver’s seat. Two other boys came out of the van: Dritan and Michele. Riccardo had met them at middle school: both were repeating students and not a day passed without them being called to the head’s office. To him, they were idols. At that time, he had worked hard to get their attention and, at the end of third class, the three of them had become the terror of the children in the first year, who paid them homage with considerable portions of their snacks and with acts of servility, from standing back to let them pass to carrying their rucksacks. Those gestures went undetected by adults but, among the kids, represented an unequivocal sign of submission. Unfortunately, the golden age of middle school had long since waned and, after failing exams for several years at the professional institute, the three of them found themselves without an occupation: still too young for a job, if they might have had any aspirations towards one, and too lazy to study. They spent their days hanging out either in the parks in the village or in the mall, and squandered in the games arcade the few euros that they managed to scrape together from their mothers’ purses
«Listen to me, my father said that if we get caught, he knows nothing about all of this ». Michelangelo appeared cocky, feeling that the responsibility for the venture was on his shoulders, but it was just an act for the benefit of the other three, younger than him. «Don’t worry, everything will be fine, in a couple of hours we’ll be lying in our beds». It was the first time he’d tried a job with these losers, and he wasn’t sure they would keep their nerve. His father was sceptical about this improvised gang, although he knew only Riccardo. He had come across him a few times going to see his mother, a faded and doped up floozy. He didn’t at all like the fury that he had noticed in the boy’s eyes. Of course, he didn’t mention that to Michelangelo, but tonight he had told him to be careful. «Every man for himself and God for all: don’t forget» he said, as he helped him to stow the tools in the truck.
Riccardo took pliers, picks and a crowbar out of the van and silently handed them round to his companions. None of the others spoke. Anyway, there was little to say; they had calculated the specifics of the mission several days before and had dissected in detail every particular, every unexpected contingency as only amateurs can do.
However, all the euphoria of the plan had suddenly disappeared, giving way to a vague apprehension that Riccardo perceived keenly and that he could clearly see in Dritan’s and Michele’s shifty looks.
Meanwhile, Michelangelo had cut the net that closed off the way into the cemetery and was beckoning to them to hurry up. The three boys moved off and were swallowed up by the orange plastic, while the head of the gang went to park the truck in a side street.
«Guys, this is cool! I’ve never been in a cemetery at night!» Michele seemed excited by the new experience and Riccardo wondered whether it had been a good idea to involve him. He was the most daring of the three, and the most reckless too: he suffered from a kind of epilepsy, but didn’t want to talk about it. They still remembered with a shudder when, full of Montenegro liqueur, because of a stupid bet, he had climbed onto the roof of the gym and they had had a hard time getting him off. But excluding him from that night at the cemetery was not an option: he would never have forgiven them. And, in the end, having him with them was a guarantee: if they got caught, good old Luigino, his father and an upright policeman, would get them out of trouble, as he had in the past.
«I’m Casper the friendly ghost…oooooh!”». Michele kept on behaving like a clown.
«Come on, Michi, stop acting the idiot and move your ass», Dritan urged him and ended his friend’s performance. He was a Muslim but his family, who had immigrated from Albania fifteen years before, was not observant; in any case, he didn’t care about the cemetery. He wanted to hurry up, do the job and pocket the hundred euro promised by Michelangelo’s father. The next day, he was going to rush to the mall, where an Iphone 5 was waiting for him. He was obsessed with designer clothes, expensive perfumes and the latest generation mobile phones. As he had understood it for some time, they were fundamental to achieving success in Italy, this opinion being shared by his family who invested most of their unemployment benefit at the Outlet.
The three boys made their way to the Fasoli Colosio chapel; the bronze bust of Enea, gold medal for military valour, stood in a narrow niche, surrounded by the grim expressions of ancestors and descendants.
«Come on, guys, let’s get to work». In the Michelangelo’s absence, Dritan had taken the lead.
«Dear Enea, from now on the Fasoli have finished being so high and mighty! Can you imagine what a stink tomorrow, when they find out what we have done? I can already hear that asshole of my father». Michele stood to attention and imitated the voice of the policeman: «What kind of a world are we living in, there’s no respect any more, not even for the dead».
«Come on Michi, stop talking bullshit and come and help us». Even Riccardo was nervous and looking forward to the night being over. Enea Fasoli’s bust, now unhinged, toppled onto the marble slab with a thud that startled them: a sad epilogue to the fervent follower of the fascist Salò Republic who, interpreting the signs of the times, had switched sides to become a partisan in early 1945.
Michelangelo’s voice reached them from the darkness: «What the fuck, can’t you do it more quietly?»
The big bronze hero’s head was laboriously dragged towards the exit.
«If I knew that being a thief was so hard, I would have gone with my uncle as a labourer». Michele just couldn’t keep silent, but this time Riccardo was thankful to him: for a moment, he forgot where he was and it seemed to him that he was back at middle school, when the three of them, trusting in the janitor’s silence, he being likely as not a paedophile, plundered abandoned rucksacks in the gym locker room.
The boys worked purposefully ; every headstone passed under their meticulous hands. Frames, letters, numbers, crosses, angels and cherubs: everything was quietly piled near the cut fence.
One hour went by and they were going to honour the most modern part of the cemetery with their presence. Riccardo was moving the ladder to begin looting the higher tombs, when the light from the headlights of a car glared through the orange plastic net and dazzled him.
«Fuck, the police!». Michelangelo’s voice was a whisper.
The boys, hearing the sound of two doors opening, flattened themselves against the columbarium wall.
«Please, please, please, don’t let them find us. Granny, help me: I promise I won’t do it anymore». Riccardo prayed so intensely that his thoughts seemed to him to be echoing from grave to grave.
Two dark shapes loomed in front of the lights: the policemen peered into the cemetery. The four teenagers didn’t even breathe, their eyes staring with terror at the cut in the fence, hoping that the darkness might hide it.
A beam of light hit the gravestones, focused on the yellow excavator that sat in the cemetery amphitheatre, lit up its seat folded forward and its arm sunk into a hole, then continued its exploration. It came dangerously close to the four boys and swept the lacquered tuft that rose on Michelangelo’s head. The gang leader didn’t even move a muscle, revealing unexpected sangfroid. Or maybe he was just paralyzed with fear.
Then the torch was turned off.
«It’s cold tonight! As soon as I get to the barracks I’m going to take an aspirin: I feel like I’m already getting sick» complained one of the two gendarmes.
«Come on dolly, get in the car again. Everything is quiet here», urged the other.
«Yeah … dead quiet!».
A wild laugh accompanied the noise of the doors being closed. The car backed out and drove away along the deserted road.
«We’re lucky bastards! That was close». Michelangelo’s face was gradually regaining colour.
«I could already see myself in the barracks calling my old man!». Michele, on the contrary, seemed more disappointed than relieved: his father and his ill health had always protected him from gaining the fame of bad boy, but a night in the police station would have raised him to the level of his companions and would have freed him from a sense of inferiority that had accompanied him for as long as he could remember.
«Gather up the tools, I’m going to get the van». They welcomed their leader’s words as a liberation: they were not going to stay a minute longer in that place, but none of them would have had the courage to confess as much.
With astonishing rapidity the stolen stuff was stacked in the van and then, as agreed, they went off in four different directions. The next morning they would meet in the shop of the stonemason who, as agreed, would pay them for their hard work.
On his way to his house through the vineyards, Riccardo swore to himself that he would never again get involved in such dangerous ventures: his knees still felt like water from the fear. He would go back to dealing weed at the parish community centre: it was always the safest job.
In the following days the shameful outrage at the village cemetery, carried out by the usual unknown perpetrators, caused a sensation. The image of the Fasoli Colosio chapel, orphaned of Enea’s bust, was displayed on the front pages of the major local newspapers.
Some tourists, fans of curious news stories, and not being able to get to the most famous scenes of bloody crimes, were happy enough to capture pictures of the violated niches on their digital screens. Wandering along the footpaths, maybe someone noticed, in an older area spared by the criminals, a perfectly clean tombstone, framed by a flourishing boxwood hedge that had been artistically trimmed. He couldn’t have ignored the huge bouquet of red carnations that overflowed from an old bronze vase. And among the flowers, a note with three words penned in blue ink: Thank you, Riccardo.
Translation by Anna Anzani (edited by Roma O’Flaherty)