Chapter Two - The Dance of the Hours
LA ROCCA, the tower which was the centre of the township and the seat of the Town Hall, was in a sad state of disrepair. When one day a squad of masons appeared upon the scene and began to throw up scaffolding round the tower, everybody said: "It's about time!"
It wasn't a question of looks, because in the Po River valley aesthetics matter very little, and a thing is beautiful when it is well made and serves its purpose. But everybody had occasion at one time or another to go to the Town Hall, and they didn't like the prospect of having a brick or a fragment of cornice fall upon their heads.
When the scaffolding was up, the masons swathed the facade with cloth so that no plaster would fall on the passers-by and then began the repairs. These went on for about a month, until one night everything was taken down, and the next morning the people of the village, along with a number of strangers who had come to the weekly market-day, found the tower completely restored. The masons knew their trade and had done a good job. Of course, they couldn't leave politics out of it and so they had hung up a big sign, near the top, which said: "This public work was NOT financed by the Marshall Plan."
Don Camillo was among the crowd that had gathered in the square and when Peppone saw him he edged up behind his back and sprang on him the question: "Well, what have you got to say?"
Don Camillo did not even turn round. "A good job," he said. "Too bad that the looks of it should be ruined by that sign."
Peppone turned to a group of his gang, who just happened to be standing by.
"Did you hear? He says that the looks of the thing are ruined by the sign. Do you know, I very nearly agree!"
"Where artistic matters are concerned, the priest's word carries a lot of weight," Smilzo put in. "I think he's right."
They discussed it further, and finally Peppone said:
"Someone go and tell them to take down that sign. That'll prove we're not like certain people who claim to be in¬fallible."
A couple of minutes later, someone loosened a rope, and the sign came down. And then appeared the real surprise: a magnificent new clock. For years and years the clock on the bell tower of the church had been the only public timepiece in the village, but now there was another on the Town Hall.
"You can't appreciate it fully in the daytime," Peppone explained. "But the dial is transparent and lighted from inside, so that by night you can read the time from a mile away."
Just then there was a vague noise from the top of La Rocca and Peppone shouted:
The square was full of people, but they all fell silent to hear the new clock strike ten. Hardly had the echoes died away, when the clock on the church tower began to ring out the same hour.
"Wonderful," said Don Camillo to Peppone. "Only your clock is nearly two minutes fast."
Peppone shrugged his shoulders.
"One might just as well say that your clock is nearly two minutes slow."
Don Camillo did not lose his aplomb.
"One might just as well say so, but it's inadvisable. My clock is exact to the second, just as it has been for the last thirty or forty years, and there was no use in squandering public funds for a new one on the Town Hall."
Peppone wanted to say any number of things, but there were so many he choked, and the veins of his neck stood out like ropes. Smilzo rushed into the breach raising one finger.
"You're angry because you wanted to have a monopoly on time! But time doesn't belong exclusively to the clergy! It belongs to the people!"
The new clock struck a quarter past the hour, and once more the square was silent. First one and then two minutes went by.
"It's more inaccurate than before!" exclaimed Don Camillo. "Now it's a full two minutes fast."
People took big silver watches out of their vest pockets and began to argue. It was all very strange, because before this none of them had ever cared about minutes at all. Minutes and seconds are strictly city preoccupations. In the city people hurry, hurry so as not to waste a single minute, and fail to realize that they are throwing a life-time away.
When the Town Hall clock struck half-past ten, and the bell tower followed, two minutes later, there were two schools of opinion. The conflict was not a violent one, be¬cause it remained within the circumference of the opposing parties' vest pockets. But Smilzo had warmed up to all the implications, and shouted:
"On the day when La Rocca clock strikes the hour of the people's revolution, some people are going to find out that they're not two minutes but two centuries behind!"
Smilzo always talked like that, but this time he made the mistake of shaking a threatening finger under Don Camillo's nose. And Don Camillo made an unequivocal answer. He stretched out his hand, pulled Smilzo's cap down over his eyes and then did the classical turn of the screw, leaving the visor at the back of his neck. Peppone stepped forward.
"What would you say if anyone played that trick on you?" he asked through his teeth.
"Try and see!" said Don Camillo. "No one's ever tried so far!"
Twenty hands dragged Peppone back.
"Don't do anything rash," they said. "The Mayor mustn't get into trouble."
The gang of Reds closed in on Don Camillo and began to shout. Don Camillo felt an urge to create some fresh air about him and a bench was the first fan that came into his hand. With his steam up and a bench in his grasp, Don Camillo was a cyclone. In a second there was an empty space around him, but since the square was packed with people and market-stands, an empty space at one point meant increased density at some other. A chicken cage was trampled, a horse reared, and there was a chorus of shouts, moos and whinnies. The Red gang was routed, but Peppone, who was squashed into the entrance of the Town Hall by people who didn't want him to get into trouble, managed to seize a bench in his turn. And Peppone, too, when his motor was running at high speed and he had a bench in his grasp, was a tornado that knew neither friend nor foe. The crowd stepped back, while Peppone slowly and fatefully advanced towards Don Camillo, who stood his ground, bench in hand. The crowd had retreated to the periphery of the square, and only Smilzo kept his head and threw himself in Peppone's way.
"Forget it, Chief! Don't behave like a donkey!"
But Peppone implacably advanced towards the centre of the square, and Smilzo had to back away as he delivered his warning. Suddenly he found himself between the two benches, but he stood firm and awaited the shock of the earthquake. The crowd was silent. The most desperate of the Reds had grouped themselves behind Peppone, and Don Camillo was backed up by a group of old peasants, who had a nostalgic longing for the blackjack, and now shook their stout cherry sticks at their opponents. There seemed to be a tacit agreement between both sides. As soon as Peppone and Don Camillo let go with their benches, there would be a free-for-all fight. There was a moment of deathly silence while the two protagonists brandished their weapons, and then something extraordinary happened. The old clock and the new both started to strike eleven, and their strokes were in perfect synchronization.
The benches fell, and the empty middle of the square filled up with people. As if they were coming out of a dream, Don Camillo and Peppone found themselves in a busy market-place, where vendors were crying their wares. Peppone went off to the Town Hall and Don Camillo to the presbytery. Smilzo was left alone in the middle of the square, trying to puzzle out what had happened. Finally he gave up his attempt to understand, and since all the Reds had melted away he went over to a nearby stand and drank a Coca-cola.
Go on to chapter three, Rhadames on the meaning of life website.