I was still quite a small girl when I decided to kidnap Enzo Ponza.
I remember clearly deciding it would be him. He was standing in one of the sloping streets of shabby residential buildings that lead down to the harbour off the main road. Who knows if he lived there? He was speaking to someone who got into a car with a small child, perhaps his. When they drove away, he came quietly, and at once, almost as though expecting it.
I had never seen him before.
I led him to our block and up the fire escape. When we got to our floor we sat at the table on the balcony that is accessed from the walkway. I did not yet want to take him inside the flat. He sat facing in, I facing out, so I could see if anyone was coming to rescue him. He was wearing a long black coat, and had long black moustaches. He looked sad, not angry, or maybe just the kind of sad some adults have on their faces all the time. I guess they call it melancholy. He did not look me in the eye. He said nothing.
I brought food out to him and he ate, uncomplaining. My parents saw him through the kitchen window but made no comment. That night they suffered him to lie down on the settee, fully clothed. They asked no questions. Nor did he. He made no attempt to leave.
I can’t say exactly when he began permanently to live in our flat. He was accommodating, waiting until everyone had gone to bed to unfold a mattress in the living room, which he stowed away before breakfast. I think sometimes he even slept in the hall. My mother fed him without protest. My father shared his newspaper in silence. Enzo Ponza spent most of his time sitting: at the table, where he played patience; on the settee, where he watched television. He seemed to enjoy the football most, but never demanded a change of channel. No one liked to sit next to Enzo Ponza, but no one asked him to move. No one grumbled about his use of the bathroom early in the morning while we all got ready for school or work. No one complained that he left squeezed teabags bleeding by the sink. His disposition was taciturn. Though my parents occasionally exchanged sentences with him on practical matters: ‘Pass the salt,’ or ‘Move your feet so I can hoover,’ my younger siblings never mentioned him at all. Perhaps they thought he always had been there.
In the early days, he never removed his coat. I have no idea what he did while I was at school, while my parents were at work. I did not ask him as he seemed preoccupied, as preoccupied with the mysteries of his own adulthood as my mother and father were with theirs. When we returned, there he was, sitting on the settee, sometimes smoking – something neither of my parents did – sometimes reading the newspaper, his feet up, one sock off to rub between his toes. While I did my homework, he sat opposite me at the table, reading the western novels that had belonged to my grandfather. He never once asked when I would let him go.
For the first few years, he never went out. He cut his hair and his moustache himself with our nail scissors. We would sometimes find the trimmings in the sink. He must have washed his single set of clothes while we were at school, at work, sitting naked while they dried. We never discovered his underwear dripping on the lines strung over the bath.
If we came home to find him, say, frying eggs in the kitchen, he became particularly reserved, would act like he had been discovered at something illegal, which, I suppose, they being technically our eggs, he had. The situation was complex, as, ostensibly, he was here against his will, so we had no avenue for complaint. During that time, these abruptly finished activities were all we could discover of his inner life.
It was not until some years later that I began to encourage him to go outside. I had reached my teens and, with expanded horizons, felt a new sense of responsibility. Enzo Ponza was mine, after all; my parents didn’t interfere any more than they had with the goldfish, or the guinea pig. They had been hands-off in these matters: if I did something wrong, the consequences, and the lesson, would be mine. I became concerned for Enzo Ponza’s health, and began, each day, to lead him into the green area between the flats, and encourage him to walk about, to do stretching exercises and pull-ups on the children’s climbing frame.
Over the years, my parents began occasionally to acknowledge his presence. My mother, catching Enzo Ponza reflected behind her in the hall mirror casting evaluating glances, began to seek his approval on her choice of clothing. If he nodded, she would go out to work, satisfied with her appearance; if not, she would go back to her room to change. She started to invite her friends in more often, perhaps with the idea of matchmaking, though this subject was never mentioned. They would sit round the small collapsible card table and play canasta, in which Enzo Ponza did not join. He said little. He was a good listener and the women liked him, though none of them seemed to want to take things further. Sometimes he walked with one of them in the green bit between the flats, but I don’t think these walks were ever romantic. I think the women confided in him – and some, perhaps in return, contributed to his supply of cigarettes, whose sources remained mysterious – but he never relayed what they said.
My parents asked him to contribute neither to the housework nor expenses, but treated him as a perpetual guest. However, they found some uses for him. They occasionally asked him to babysit so they could go out, which they, nevertheless, did infrequently, having no real wish to. Poverty was enough to save us from our desires. We did not drink or love casually, knowing we’d have to get up early the morning after, and that any consequences could be long-term. Be careful what you take on, my father said. I knew what he was talking about. The threat of tomorrow made me timid as they were. I think this is why my parents began to send Enzo Ponza along when I went on dates with boys from school. My social life was restricted, and my romantic activities constrained, it’s true, but I understood my responsibilities. I passed my exams with good marks but didn’t go on to college, not wanting to incur a loan. Instead I took a shorthand class, and began to work in the office of the local newspaper, in its library, which was, then, still microfiche and clippings held in sliding shelves of brown hanging files.
I married a man I met at work (the only place I was free from my parents, and Mr P). He was employed in the production department and, during the early years of our relationship, his fingers were always inky. We had three children, a boy, then boy-and-girl twins, before our marriage dissolved and I returned with my children, and Enzo Ponza, to my parents’ flat. My siblings were long gone, and, as my father – always a non-smoker – had died from lung cancer several years previously, my mother was, perhaps, glad enough to have us, though at her advanced age she was so self-absorbed it was difficult to tell. We kept the flat clean and in good repair, cooked for her, and I was able to shoulder the household expenses. Because of my special knowledge of the newspaper archive I had been able to get my old job back, overseeing its digitisation, the completion of which, I suspected, might make me finally redundant. Enzo Ponza, as always, seldom left the flat but busied himself unobtrusively about household tasks. We did not discuss this arrangement, but found it worked to everyone’s satisfaction. I thought that my mother recognised him from the old days, though neither of them said a word.
It was some time after my return to the library that I was asked to investigate press clippings regarding Enzo Ponza. A member of the public called, anonymously enquiring about material relating to an ‘Enzo Ponza’s fear of snakes’. I found nothing in the recently digitised archive, and was reluctant to go back to the older hanging files, whose metal frames bit my fingers each time my hands ventured between them. Nevertheless I searched under both E, P and S, finally finding a crumpled clipping with a blurry picture and an article beneath. Could that be my Enzo? Who could tell. The man had been photographed from above, his face in shadow. It was not a willing photo. He did not have the current Ponza’s bald patch, but that could have been no more than a matter of time.
Beneath the photo, the caption: notorious ponza: i hit out because i feared i would be stabbed.
Mr Ponza stood accused of something I will not relate here.
When I returned home that night, Enzo Ponza had put my children to bed. They were sleeping calmly. He had eaten the salad I had prepared for him before I left for work, and was sitting at the card table, smoking and looking at the newspaper, sometimes reading, sometimes staring out of the window. Was he this same Enzo Ponza, who was surely still in prison, though the piece said he had been ‘charged’ but not ‘convicted’? I thought about asking him, but the time did not seem right.
His moustache is white now, as is his hair, which he wears longer than he used to, its wings – circling the bald patch that has become a dome – scraped back into a ponytail. His teeth are yellow with nicotine, and nibbed round the edges with brown. His shoulders are rounded and there is a single crease of fat across the back of his neck. He is now relaxed enough in the flat to take off his shirt in hot weather, and to sit at the card table wearing nothing but a singlet and pants. How intimately I know him, and yet how little. His demands, like those of my children, are small, inarticulate, made only through expectation. I am happy to meet them.
I sometimes wonder about our meeting. Why should a small girl have chosen, of all people, a middle-aged man – all open pores, sweat stains and tobacco filaments, such a distasteful ruin of the masculine – and someone of whose circumstances she knew nothing? The evenings of this last summer we sat at the balcony table, him opposite me, facing toward the flat, as always, caring nothing for the view.
‘Why do you stay?’ I asked him once.
He waved a cigarette, which he had brought from his breast pocket, and, lighting it, said, ‘You know how it is . . .’
Of course I didn’t. I never asked him again.
What has he spared me, this Enzo Ponza? What, with his constant presence, has he prevented happening in my life, and what, if anything, has he caused to happen? Does he care for me, my mother, my children? Is he escaping something, or is he just biding his time? Why has he never once asked to leave? And why did I never investigate whether he had any living relatives to whom I could send a ransom note?
Perhaps only I understood his value. How many people offer themselves so simply? At our age? At any age? Not many.
Kidnapping Enzo Ponza was my one act of love, and maybe it was his too.
Image courtesy of Mario Klingemann