But none of this is what I want to talk about, except in the oblique sense, I suppose, of how people are treated, how we're organised and accept infringements of our liberty for some presumed greater good. It would be more to the point to say that this was the day after the European elections, in which the Northern League dramatically increased its vote here in Italy and the BNP won two seats for Shit (see below) and his shifty chum. A day in which the idea that empathy and awareness of the other's needs might play a useful role in the way we conceive society and politics was rejected by a sizeable number of voters; in which civil society was more of a chimera than it had been the week before in whole swathes of united Europe. Because while I was sitting on my plywood chair, not actually reading my book but with it open in my hand, distracted by the blip that indicated the number had changed and my turn was approaching, with my imagination half absorbed by a genteeler world in which I would have been illegal, with a TV screen advertising post office products and reporting the results, an old man went up to the counter. Small, neatly dressed, someone who'd spent much of his life outside and was now retired. I didn't hear the initial exchange. The first thing I heard was the old man say, 'Thirteen euros.' He'd come for his weekly, or monthly, pension, more probably the latter. The woman behind the counter said, 'Thirteen euros,' impatient for him to go. He paused, then asked her, 'Why? Why only thirteen euros?' She shrugged, tapped at her keyboard. 'Conguaglio,' she said. A conguaglio is the term used to describe what happens when the final reckoning shows that something has been over- or underpaid and is adjusted accordingly. In this case, his pension. He repeated the word. She counted the money out, pushed it across to him, then spread her hands. 'Un conguaglio,' she said again, as though he hadn't heard, or understood. He picked up the thirteen euros and looked at them for a moment before folding them carefully and sliding them into a small purse he'd taken from his breast pocket. 'What shall I do now?' he said, to no one, to everyone. And he didn't expect an answer because he'd already turned and was walking away from the counter towards the door as the woman pressed her little button, and a blip summoned the number after his.
Numbers are wonderful things.