About fifteen years ago I participated with this tale in a literary competition, conceived by Antonio Fiore. The article is autobiographical, and refers to true events. It was called “On the Edge of the Blade” and it was a good idea, which unfortunately was not replicated.
Don Enrico is no longer with us, but thanks to him I learned an important lesson on the management of the measure: you can find the fencing everywhere!
My train always arrived a little earlier on the starting time of the lessons.
Recently graduated master, I went every day from Naples to Salerno, to teach in the fencing school of Nedo Nadi. There he was waiting for me, Don Enrico, the caretaker: I owe him one, even if he never knew.
Today I pay tribute to his memory.
Retired and of an indefinable age, rather short of stature, few and wobbly the surviving teeth, exhaled unfortunately a shocking breath: for me, above all, that I had to keep him company for that very long quarter of an hour that separated me from the arrival of the first students of the day. According to him, he had invented everything, the helicopter, the machine gun, the most beautiful Neapolitan songs but, cruel fate, someone else had always blown his ideas. His amazing stories made him a sympathetic grandfather to the boys, who listened to him willingly, but up to a point. He also said he had some magic power: once, before the absolute championships, he blessed the sabre of Michele Maffei, who the next day, with that blade, he won the title.
Well, maybe he’d still win, but some doubts remained.
Don Enrico suffered from loneliness, and had a great need to tell himself: as great as the ability of others to dribble him, to defile, frustrated him. Then I came along to the fact that I could not escape him. I had to go through there, and I was resigned. Almost…
The scene: I arrived, he hung me up, he started talking to me about something, but up close, too close.
I felt it on me, I don’t know if I understand and I went back, I reached the wall, I slipped sideways; meanwhile, I was breathing slowly, doing yes with my head, touching my nose as if to reflect better on the deep concepts, but in reality to put a small barrier between his breath and my sense of smell. While I was hoping for salvation, represented by the arrival of my new students, this never happened: they were always on time, unfortunately. Never that they anticipated a few minutes!
It is known that it is in difficult times that one brings out the best of himself.
So I resisted, hoped and brooded. How to do? Fencing, I still think after 30 years, is a metaphor for life. Sword, sabre or foil. If you like, stick, katana, fists; and even arguments, arguments, any kind of contrast. If you’re married, you will certainly understand.
Fencing is one, the ancient masters said: time, speed and, more important than anything, measurement, distance.
So I tried to understand it, to penetrate its secrets. And Don Enrico, in our daily duels, ridiculed me every time.
I had read, that day, a book on prossemics: the meaning of distance between people.
The author explained why the Arabs, who speak closely and the English, who prefer a greater distance, do not love each other too much: intrusive, or distant. A matter of culture.
With these thoughts in my head, I got off the train and headed towards my daily purgatory.
I entered the atrium of the Nedo Nadi’s school, where Don Enrico was waiting for me, relentless. I saluted, as always, and stoically placed myself at the center of the large room, ready to duel, resigned to defeat but, I hoped, with dignity.
He made a determined move on me, and he started telling me… I don’t remember what. After all, I held back almost nothing of that river of words. I watched to survive and to keep the distance, as a good fencer: but the wall of my shame was getting closer and closer. That day, however, that beautiful day, I was destined to receive a little enlightenment. A discovery, call it what you want: but of those that, when they happen to you, they fill you, they give you the impression of having found a world.
I went back, therefore, and inside I worked, in the darkness, the words of Hall’s book.
Don Enrico needed, to communicate, the short distance. I felt comfortable with a longer one. The Arabic, and the English. How do we get out? How?
The wall was now very close when, all of a sudden, a question appeared to the conscience: what if Don Enrico found an Arab more Arab than him? What would you do? I imagined the scene, and suddenly I realized I had found the solution. Perfect, clear, irresistible. An enlightenment, in fact.
I had taken one more step back towards the wall, and Don Enrico advanced, as he had planned.
This time, though, you won’t back down. I, on the other hand, immediately stepped forward, and for a moment we were very close: too much, even for him. We stared at each other. As he continued to speak, I caught a perplexity in his gaze. He didn’t stop, he was demanding too much. But he stopped, and… he took a step back! Very ready, I took a step back in my turn, and waited, confident. Don Enrico hesitated, saw me too far away, and advanced again. I’ll be right back. I’ll be right back.
And so we continued, until salvation, which I no longer invoked.
I was having the time of my life, and I was already thinking about how to bring that extraordinary discovery to the piste. Dear Don Enrico, thank you: I owe you one!
by Giancarlo Toràn
Translated by Lara Ortolani
The cover image is by Isabella Panzera