The policeman had waited in the heat outside the chemist’s until there was no one else in the shop. He was used to games of cat-and-mouse, but this assignment was beginning to wear him down. Particularly since all the passers-by were wondering what he was doing there. When he saw through the shop-window that the pharmacist was at last alone at the counter, he went in, taking off his peaked cap as he did so. He couldn’t see anywhere to hang it, so he put it back on his head. He went up to the counter, rummaging through one of the pockets of his uniform as he did so.
‘Good morning, officer’.
‘How can I help you?’
‘It’s about this business with Tonio and Anita …’ Even though the place was air-conditioned, he’d started to feel even hotter. Sweat was breaking out on his stomach, his back, his forehead, even his nose.
‘Have you found them?’ asked the woman without looking up from the papers she was filling out. The policeman coughed. It was always like that when he was hot. He coughed and sweated. The more his shirt became stained with sweat, the hotter he’d become and the more he’d cough. There was nothing he could do about it.
‘No, no. Nothing yet. They’re still dragging the river. But we found this in the hut’.
He pulled a small box of ear-plugs out of his pocket and laid it on the counter. One side bore the chemist’s label. On the other were the words ‘morning-after pill’, written in green marker pen. The pharmacist picked up the packet and turned it over. She took the container out of the outer wrapping and emptied the contents on to the marble, counting out thirty green pills. Then she looked up at the policeman and said, almost jubilantly:
‘They’re all there. He never took one! That means he wanted to be fully aware of everything that was happening to him …’
She paused thoughtfully; she seemed almost elated. Gazing out of the window , she bit her lip. Meanwhile the policeman had taken his peaked cap off again, but he hesitated to lay it on the counter. He looked round for somewhere convenient, considered putting it on a nearby shelf where the sanitary towels were kept but thought better of it and put it back on his head.
‘I’m sorry, this calls for a bit of explanation …’ he said at last, and sighed.
Absent-mindedly, the pharmacist fingered the pills that now lay scattered over the counter.
‘Very well, officer. Do give me your cap, though,’ she added, taking it by the peak and hanging it on a nearby weighing machine.
‘Ever since his mother died last summer, Tonio has been coming here on his own to get his medication. It was something the social worker had trained him to do. It was a way of giving him a sense of responsibility. So that he’d keep on taking them. Tonio can’t live without anti-depressants. He has panic attacks, he starts to hear those awful voices again. As long as his mother was alive, she saw to it that he took them, and he’d never have dared to disobey. But when he was left on his own, the people from social services got worried. They thought of putting him into sheltered housing, but his psychologist talked them out of it. Tonio was perfectly capable of living an independent life in that place of his under the embankment – that way, he’d be psychologically more stable. Away from his own things, he might easily have gone downhill. But he needed supervision; he needed encouragement to manage on his own. He had to have things to do, he needed engagements and appointments. So coming to me to get his medication became a sort of ritual. He’d come every Tuesday at eleven on the dot. Until a month ago, that is, the first of June to be precise. That day, after collecting his package, he stopped at the door and turned round to look at me.
‘There’s something I need to ask you’, he said, after a moment of hesitation.
‘Go ahead, Tonio’.
‘You’ve got so many medicines here, do you have the pill, by any chance …’
‘The… the morning-after pill?’
‘Tonio, the morning-after pill is something very special. What would you want with that? Do you know what it’s for?’
‘It’s for when you make love, isn’t it?’
‘Tonio, it’s for women. So that they don’t get pregnant after they’ve had sexual intercourse. It’s hard to explain …’
‘But that’s just what I need!’ By now he’d walked away from the door and come right back into the middle of the shop. He looked thin and slightly bent, outlined against the light. Still slightly doubtfully, he went on: ‘Well, that’s it. I think I’m pregnant …’
I didn’t know what to say, and some extremely unpleasant thoughts now came into my mind. The sort of nasty, obvious thoughts that come into the minds of us normal people. Had Tonio been raped? He was living alone now, and he was a fragile soul. Someone might have forced him to do something against his will. But what sort of a pervert would have had designs on a mentally ill old man? I tried to remain clear-headed.
‘Tonio, only women can get pregnant. It’s only women who make babies. Men can’t’.
‘Oh, I know that! That’s not the point. I’m not expecting a baby. But I have made love. And now I can feel something inside myself, something that won’t go away, that’s somehow stuck between my stomach and my heart. And it’s as though it’s pushing, and it makes me breathless. That’s why I thought I might have been pregnant, and that I might need the morning-after pill’.
I felt calmer now, and even slightly ashamed of the over-anxious way I’d reacted to his words. At last Tonio was feeling experiencing something like an emotion. It had taken his mother’s death to set him free. So I wanted to reassure him.
‘I know what it is, Tonio. I know what’s up with you. You’re not pregnant, you’re just filled with something good, something you’ve never felt before. That’s why you feel strange. But it’s not an illness. It’ll pass of its own accord, you’ll see. You just need to give it time, or rather you need to give yourself time to enjoy the lovely things it makes you feel. Now, for example, when you see the sun setting over the river in the evening, or you see the clouds bowling along in the wind in the afternoon, and they put you in mind of animals, and you’re suddenly aware of scents you never smelt before – well, now all this gives you a great deal of pleasure … I bet you’ve started chasing prostitutes?’
‘It’s true, I have! And sometimes I even catch one! And now I always want to be with Anita!’
While she was talking, the pharmacist had lined all the pills up on the counter. Now she picked up the end one and put it in front of the first one, causing a greenish snake to move forward slowly over the marble. As though stupefied, the policeman kept his eyes fixed on her varnished finger nails.
‘So you see what had happened. The simplest thing in the world. Tonio had fallen in love. With Anita, his next-door neighbour’, she said after a pause, breaking up the row of pills and putting them back into the box.
‘Are we talking about Anita Poletti, the old woman who makes brooms?’
‘That’s right. They grew up together, one either side of the chicken-wire fence. Both on their own – she was rejected by society because of her physical abnormalities, and he because of his mental ones’.
‘But how do these pills come into it?’ The policeman wanted to get to the crux of the matter. Talking about love with an attractive woman made him feel ill at ease. And the idea of a madman sleeping with an old hunchback turned his stomach. He imagined the pair of them naked on the grass, outside the reed hut they’d gone to live in. The image was more than he could take.
‘I’m just about to tell you, officer. A bit of patience, please. Some things can’t just be stated, they have to be described, like in a story. That morning I felt I should go and discuss matters with the social worker, tell him what had happened. I thought he should take over. But then I thought better of that idea: it wasn’t right. It was me Tonio had confided in. I couldn’t betray his trust’.
The policeman began to scratch himself. First his forehead, then his neck. Such itching meant that this outburst of overheating was about to end. Soon it would all be over.
‘Tonio’, I said, ‘don’t worry. I’m going to give you something which will make you feel better. The morning-after pill, in fact. Each time you feel that something’s pressing on your chest and lodging there, each time you have the urgent feeling that you have to see Anita, and time seems to stand still the moment you kiss her – if you feel that you can’t bear it all, well, just take one of my pills and everything will be all right. If on the other hand you enjoy this feeling of dizziness, if the joy it gives you means more to you than that strange crawling/prickling sensation it leaves in your heart, then don’t take the pill. Just hold out against it and gradually you’ll find that even making love no longer hurts, in fact that it’s beautiful, and perhaps one day you’ll be able to do without any of your medicines. Come back at mid-day and your morning-after pill will be waiting for you!’
‘Excuse me, but are you telling me that you gave RU486 without a prescription to someone who is mentally ill?’ interrupted the policeman, trying hard not to scratch himself in order to retain some shred of dignity.
‘You may be a policeman, but you’re certainly not a good listener! Please let me finish!’ she said, emptying the pills out on to the counter once again. She looked at them as they rolled to a halt, like so many pick-a-sticks. Then, without apparent rhyme or reason, she started collecting up the ones which had rolled furthest away and placing them in the centre of the little heap. The policeman stared at them, trying to see whether she was making any sort of pattern.
‘You see, officer, if Anita went to live with Tonio in that reed hut under the embankment, it’s not because madness is infectious, and she’d caught it. Those two have suffered all their lives, and witnessed each other’s suffering. Tonio started to have strange turns when he was still quite small. Perhaps it was all his mother’s fault, we’ll never know. He was a real waif and stray, or rather, to put it another way, he was the son of a bitch. As you probably know, whoring was what his mother did to make ends meet. She did some charring, but that was never going to bring home the bacon. Her husband had been killed by the partisans, and no one knew whether that son of hers was the son of a Fascist, or of one of the men who’d spend the night there in that hut, taking advantage of a woman who had no other means of making a livelihood. In the end it was Tonio who took the rap. His mother would never have let him go out of that courtyard, into a town where the women despised her and the men fucked her!’
The policeman ran a hand around the collar of his shirt. Now the itching was beginning to go to his chest, and the coughing to his nose.
‘So the only person who was in any way close to Tonio was that hunchback, who was his own age, and who was kept indoors by her parents out of very shame. My mother used to tell me that when she was cycling along the embankment she’d see them playing, one each side of the chicken-wire. He’d pass her the food he’d been given to feed to the hens, and she’d give him snail shells and necklaces of feathers. One night in winter Anita’s parents had died from inhaling smoke from the kitchen stove. She had been saved, because they made her sleep outside, in the stable. With the animals. They hoped that she’d die, or perhaps that she too would turn into an animal, a sow or a turkey or a rabbit. Tonio had to wait until his mother died before he get close to Anita. But they would never have been able to stay on in either of their parents’ houses, those places had been contaminated, they were too full of the pain and poverty the two of them themselves had suffered. So they’d gone off to the hut under the embankment. Now, wherever they are, they’re free’.
The policeman wasn’t sure what to say. He swallowed slowly, until he felt that his throat was no longer tickling. The coughing fit had passed, the itching was subsiding. At last he could breathe.
‘I’m sorry, but I’ll have report the business about the pills …’ he insisted.
The pharmacist had arranged them in the form of a flower: five green petals made of five pills apiece, and five more in the centre. She picked one up with her thumb and forefinger and put in her mouth.
‘Liquorice extract, magnesium, peppermint oil. Would you like one? They stop you getting pregnant …’