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Breathe, Hold

Translated by Tim Cummins

Your eyes get bluer when you look at the water.

It was soon after they’d met. They hadn’t yet married, and Laura came to a Sunday match, sitting on the bleachers all afternoon at the outdoor pool. She’d waited outside the dressing rooms and he’d come out with wet hair, drops running down his neck, endorphins still pulsing from the win. She just came out with it, giving him a glancing kiss on the lips.

It didn’t come across as some odd kind of compliment, more like an insight into what made him happy. He’d never told her that, often, in the seconds before sleep, he saw an indistinct blue rippling, a stretching out of colour that sank or dilated, and he didn’t know if it was the last image of the pool that his retina had registered or just a colour hallucination, like others he sometimes had when he pressed his eyelids against the pillow, lying on his stomach.

A year after meeting, they married and settled down: she got a post at the middle school, he was taken on at the bank. When the contract arrived on official letterhead, with the logo of the three boulders enclosed in an oval and his name printed all over it, Nicola Cordelli reflected that stone is more solid than water, that it had been a great pleasure to play two seasons for Italy but that on the cusp of thirty it was better to build something lasting. Passion could be transferred, into a bank job, into a marriage.

The years that followed seemed to bear him out.

They sent him to the Padua office. He was away from home Monday to Friday and at first there were problems. Laura complained of loneliness during the week and Nicola also often found his dinners in the bedsit on Via Beato Pellegrino sad, although his hunger after two hours in the pool—he hadn’t stopped training—gave him a physiological drive that kept the melancholy at bay and, as soon as he had cleared the table, tiredness did the rest.

Laura started coming to Padua, taking advantage of her day off. She’d take the train the night before; that way they could sleep together then have lunch the next day, in a restaurant near the office overlooking the Brenta. Sometimes they managed to get in a quick stroll before he walked her back to her train.

Marco must have been conceived in the compressed and therefore more concentrated passion of that one night a week they spent together in the bedsit in Padua, or during a weekend, when Nicola would return to the terraced house and garden they’d bought with a twenty-year mortgage, and there were dinners with friends and music awaiting him, then the empty potential of free time on Saturday morning, as he packed his bag with trunks, goggles and robe to go swimming. He hadn’t completely fallen out of the team’s orbit. After the pool, he went shopping at the supermarket, with the list for the week that he and Laura had made. There then followed the gentle slide towards the moment on Sunday evening when he got back on the train. At that point he went under, holding his breath for the next five long days.

At the bank he dealt with insurance policies tied to mortgages. Since Marco was born, the mortgage business had constantly evolved. It was a sector that called for coordination. There were those who got hold of the customer and checked the solidity of their financial position, those who prepared the paperwork for the loan, and those, like himself, who insured the house for life, to better reinforce a tangle of arrangements that had to be worth all the hours of work, the sacrifices, the self-denial, and maybe something more.

When he was at the bank Nicola felt a sort of stiffness, extending from his pelvis to the nape of his neck. It got stronger when the other employees came near him, when there were the inevitable tensions of any workplace. A tingling below the head that ran down his spine. Even at dinner with colleagues, with neckties loosened and talk turning to sport and hobbies, Nicola could never let himself go.

The world of the bank remained that of the opposing team in a water polo match, except that he didn’t have his own teammates around him anymore; he had no one to cover his back or carve up the water. He found it hard to believe that he and the others in their blue and grey suits shared a goal, rather than being one against the other as he felt them to be. And yet their so-called motivational meetings were riddled with talk of ‘teamwork’.

The thirty-three metres of chlorinated water—to churn with his legs, cut through with his arms, smash with the ball—always floated under his eyelids as he drifted off at night, along with the tiles that fragmented in the glare of the pool’s filtered light, the foul-mouthed calm of the dressing rooms, the oxygen stolen from the air, from the water.

All that oxygen filling his lungs, his brain, his veins, his loins.


When Marco was three, Nicola was transferred to the head office in Siena.

A promotion, but in practice a complication: he couldn’t take the train anymore, it took too long. Now he went by car, completely tax-deductible, and that was just one of the countless financial benefits; they would soon be able to pay off their mortgage and maybe buy a bigger house with what he was earning now.

Again in Siena, Nicola took a small flat, in a building outside the city walls: the Acquacalda neighbourhood, near the public pool. Again, it was the bank that paid. He didn’t put down roots; he didn’t have time. The only person outside the bank that he got to know was the newsagent across from his flat complex, Giuseppe.

Giuseppe was also mad about water polo. He knew the make-up of the national side for the last thirty years, along with coaches and scores. Nicola arranged to source his office newspapers from him: every manager in Siena had his particular newsagent, his pastry guy, his barista, his cobbler.

He began taking Marco to the pool with him around that time, on Saturday mornings, and then he signed him up for classes. At five, Marco could already swim and had perfect freestyle breathing technique. At seven, he brought him with him when he swam across the bay at Spiaggia dei Conigli on Lampedusa, despite Laura’s protests. The swimming coach said he had what it took to compete and had already selected him for the regional under-8s.


On the January morning when the Guardia di Finanza arrive, Nicola has just entered Palazzo Salimbeni a few minutes ago, it’s eight o’clock, he hasn’t even made it to his office: he was stopped on the stairs by an officer, with the strict order not to turn on his computer, not to do anything, to wait. It’s already happened once before since he started working there, although he feels like the number of gunmetal-uniformed officers he saw as he came in is much greater than last time. He thinks he’ll read the paper while he waits; Giuseppe always makes sure they’re delivered before he gets in.

At the top of the landing he runs into a colleague, who looks at him like you look at a partner in crime, his head trembling slightly, not saying anything. He’s holding a plastic cup from the coffee machine.

Nicola goes into his office and sits on the swivel chair. As expected, the newspapers are on the desk. Through the still-open door he sees more police go by. He pulls a paper over and looks at the headlines on the front page but can’t really read it. A number scrolls in front of him, like the departure time on a display at a station or airport, those 10 billion or so that MPS paid for Antonveneta, almost double what the bank was really worth. They all know it, but it’s one of those things you don’t talk about because saying it would mean asking yourself what they’re all doing there day after day, with their handsome salaries, benefits and five bonuses a year.

But now it’s all police, seized computers and co-workers arriving and getting the same orders: don’t touch anything, everyone stay where you are. And that number will blow them apart, Nicola knows it.

At a certain point he gets up and goes out into the hall. The Number One’s office is being searched, followed by the offices of Numbers Two and Three, the latter being his immediate superior. At 10:30 they are told that some of them can go home. Others can’t—they’ll have to stay. Nicola is one of the ones who have to stay. They order panini for everyone at lunchtime; they can’t even leave the bank. Nicola would like to know what they’re looking for, specifically, but he can’t talk to his boss, for the simple reason that he’s now been holed up in his suite for several hours with three officers. Only his PA has appeared, with a worried look and a halo of sweat under each armpit, and whispered from the doorway, It’s looking very bad, for everyone.

Awaiting his turn, Nicola feels like he’s suffocating. His body aches, the muscles in his legs are tight. He goes up the stairs towards the third floor, to stretch a bit. On the landing he stops: a few years ago they put in a French window that leads out onto the fire escape. He leans his whole body against the glass; it could open but the alarm would go off.

Outside, the sky is clear and calm. Even the clouds have that perfect low-temperature stillness. It’s cold; there are no radiators up there and the chill seeps through the window. Nicola lets it invade every part of him. First he feels it on his hands and face, with his nose pressed against the glass, then down his neck to his chest, covered only by a shirt, until it reaches his hips, where first it swells, then contracts to a single point. Like the air in your lungs when you come up from under water. Nicola flattens his pelvis even more until he feels, incredible and strong, his erection against the glass. And, like that, everything is uprooted. With one hand he feels in his pocket for the keys to his flat and his pass for Palazzo Salimbeni; he squeezes them until his fingers hurt.

The PA comes up behind him and says that he’s next. Nicola turns and pauses a moment, waiting on the PA who looks at him and says, as if she’s just noticed and as if it were a relevant observation, Your eyes are so blue.

Then Nicola goes down to his office. He undergoes a sort of interrogation that plays out without too many surprises, all very polite. The police make copies of everything on his computer. They seal his drawers and ask that he please remain available for further questioning.

When he leaves Palazzo Salimbeni, it’s 4:30 in the afternoon and already getting dark. He goes into a tobacconist’s, picks up a padded envelope and some stamps, then moves on to a café, takes a seat at a table and orders a tomato juice. He writes out a quick resignation note, puts the keys and pass in the envelope and drops the lot off in the first letterbox he sees outside the café.

Then he swings by the flat, where he collects a couple of books, a change of underwear, his swimming bag. He stops by to say goodbye to Giuseppe then heads home.

He will never go back to Siena again.


Marco is twelve and in all the competitions; his backstroke times are excellent. Nicola has taken him to see the national water polo team play, he’s taught him the main passes, he can manage a good sweep shot. They’ve often played together at the beach but Marco has never shown any interest in joining a team. Nicola goes with him to his races and observes him on the diving board before he takes off: the nostrils that vibrate; the tensed brow before the dive; then he knows that his breathing synchronises with every fibre to suck down fifty metres, then another fifty, four times. That is his measure. Not the agonising attention to the slightest movements of the others, to the empty water to cut into, to the palms to be avoided, to the centre forward to help out, to the seven-man ellipse to keep balanced: that miraculous thing that is a team game.

No. A clean fifty metres and then another fifty, four times, simply going harder than the others, alone.



Alessandra Sarchi is the author of the novels Violazione (2012 Stefano Tassinari Prize for a First Work), L’amore normale (19th Scrivere per Amore Prize) and La notte ha la mia voce (2017 Mondello Prize, 2017 Campiello Prize finalist and 2018 Wondy Prize) and the short story collection Segni sottili e clandestini. She lives in Bologna, Italy. (www.alessandrasarchi.it)

Tim Cummins is a translator based in Melbourne, Australia. He is the winner of the 2017 Italian Institute of Culture (Melbourne) Prize for Italian Literary Translation.