Where were we? Oh yes, on that afternoon in summer 1990 in the attic room where dust swam upwards in the beam of sun, we had reached the point where Magliaro invoked the image of Papa’s sperm stumbling across Mamma’s fecund egg and collapsing across its threshold in a pathetic burst of grappa fumes and tall tales of marches across the desert. Or so I have subsequently imagined it in the aftermath of the act: Mamma with her chin cupped in her hands, listening politely as she always does when she watches the TV news. Never mind that. Imagine if you will, the intricate machinery of Magliaro’s brain, a classical model of a type: the creative bully on the cusp of adolescence. Even with all the techniques of modern science it is impossible to pinpoint the mechanism of a specific notion entering the head. We say ‘Eureka’, from the Greek ‘I see.’ What Magliaro saw was an image of me dressed in Mamma’s underwear. Where it came from, I don’t know. Perhaps it was due to having passed, at the foot of the ladder to the attic, the open door of her and Papa’s bedroom, and perhaps also, the topmost drawer of the chest had been left open. Then again, maybe he had concocted the plan a while ago and been storing it for this moment. As I said, I don’t know. While I was guarded by the Marchettis, Magliaro and Minchia went to fetch the drawer. Back in the attic they threw it down onto the rug and began sifting through the contents. There were cheap white knickers and bras which Mamma had bought in the musty shop on Via Roma that was run by a pale, blonde woman who wore sunglasses all year round. Later, in one of my first experiments, I visited that shop, but ran away when the woman asked if she could help me. Soon after, a new supermarket put her out of business, but in 1990 she was still riding the crest of a local lingerie duopoly, and it is a safe bet that of my four tormentors, at least two of them recognized the same range of skimpy garments worn by their own mothers or older sisters. That didn’t stop them whooping and cackling, examining the inside of the material in close-up for signs of shame and ridicule. They found a box of hygienic towels and started flinging them out the window one by one. What was I doing during this time? In truth I can’t remember clearly. I think I was sitting with my back to the wall, sobbing quietly. At least one of the twins was standing over me, as they had been instructed not to let me escape. But all I was thinking about was getting the ordeal over with – they would become bored eventually, surely – and then I could clear up so that Mamma wouldn’t know what had happened. Magliaro pulled my trousers down while the others prevented my struggling. He tossed each of my shoes out the window, and then worked the material off each leg. My tee shirt was easily dispatched. When I was in only underpants, the Marchettis looked at him for confirmation that the operation was complete. He shook his head. Only when I was completely naked did he select a pair of knickers and a bra from the pile and lob them through the air at me.
‘Let’s see you look like your Mamma, Vantozzi.’
A friend who became an elementary school teacher told me recently that teachers worry more about the perpetrators than the victims of bullying.
‘Sure, it’s hell at the time if you’re on the receiving end, but most kids come out the other side. The tragedies you hear about in the press are a tiny minority.’
‘Bullies don’t top usually top themselves either,’ I countered.
‘Yes, but the reason they act aggressively is most often due to an abusive or emotionally neglected home life. That fucks them up for good, while kids who are bullied often go on to be successful creators and innovators.’
Was Magliaro’s father, the genial, camera-friendly sindaco, a secret tyrant and sodomiser of his sons? Did the mother, aside from running her salon, ritually humiliate him in some unimaginable way? All things are possible. Yet if Magliaro was simply born with compassion absent, then that is truly a terrible thing, and genome researchers should start the search for a cruelty gene which could be spliced out of every newborn to make the world a better place.
They tore a map off the wall and scrawled ‘sucks for fifty lire’ across it in ugly capitals with one of the pens that I had for drawing cartoons. Then they took me outside.
Why didn’t I call to Mamma as the gang took me downstairs and out the back door into the alley at the side of the house?
When she shouted from the kitchen I told her I was going out and I would be back for dinner. I wanted to protect her from the shame of seeing her intimate garments mocked by the so-called friends of her son. Our house was on the town’s extreme periphery, just one stubbly field away from the great concrete tentacle of the autostrada. The gang combined to shove me scrambling up its embankment. At the top we climbed the barrier and passed into the shadow of a gigantic sign telling lorry drivers to take a break every three hours to refresh themselves. How does a camionista refresh himself? Chain-smoke in a service station forecourt? Chat up the bored serving girl behind her selection of panini? Stick a few coins in the fruit machine then wish he’d saved them for more cigarettes? The only incentive here was a dusty layby. Nothing but a view across the stubble to our miserable town: the roof of the school just visible next to the spire of the church where I’d been baptized. We didn’t even have our own motorway exit sign; we were just an offshoot on the road to Campobasso.
‘Ten minutes’, Magliaro said. ‘If you stay on the roadside for ten minutes we’ll not beat you to a pulp… and we’ll not tell what happened at school.’
I dusted the grains of dirt from my bare legs and adjusted the bra where the central clasp was digging into my sternum. The rigid cups were more padded against me than I’d expected, even though there was nothing to fill them. As a final act before propelling me out under the sign, Magliaro jerked the knickers up my ass and smacked my buttocks with the thin stick he’d been carrying. I heard the jackal sniggers behind me until they were drowned out by the roar of the first lorry that thundered by on the road to Rome.