Affairs of the chest

Interior, Little girl by the chest of drawers

AMONG the many questions inspired by the case of the 99-year-old Italian man who’s divorcing his 96-year-old wife because she had an affair 70 years ago – the many high-minded questions of a moral and philosophical and indeed of a social nature and so forth – there’s one that keeps troubling me, and it has to do with the chest of drawers.

According to the divorce papers lodged in court in Rome, Antonio discovered the affair when he searched a chest of drawers and found letters exchanged between his wife, Rosa, and her former lover dating back to the 1940s.

You see the question towards which this information tends, don’t you? It seems not unreasonable to assume the letters had been there all along, which means that Antonio must not have opened that particular drawer since some time during or soon after World War II.

Imagine having a drawer you haven’t opened in 70 years. What can it possibly mean? Was it a “private” drawer, and therefore indicative of a habit of secrecy in Rosa that ought to have aroused her husband’s suspicions long since?

Or does it show an unpardonable lack of curiosity on Antonio’s part? Because if so, it would be no surprise if Rosa were a bit careless about where she left incriminating evidence. And who knows what else is going on that he doesn’t know about? Every drawer in their house could be groaning under the weight of adulterous love letters. Bouquets of flowers may be arriving every hour on the hour. The doors of their kitchen cupboards may refuse to close against the stacks and stacks of padded Valentine’s hearts from other men. There may even be other men in the spare bedrooms. Antonio won’t have noticed.

Of course, there is an innocent explanation, which is that Rosa and Antonio’s house is vast and enviably organised and wants for nothing in the way of storage, and Antonio has simply never been at a loss for someplace to put something. Still, though.

Personally, I open every single drawer in my house at least six times a day to look for the car keys, so it would take a very crafty man to conceal his faithlessness from me. There, you see: being chronically absent-minded reduces your chances of being cuckolded (or cuckqueaned, which you may be interested to learn is the female equivalent. You’re welcome). Unfortunately it also increases the chances that your better half will chuck you into a home some day on the grounds of dementia.

There is one final possible explanation. It is conceivable that Rosa, unable to contain her guilt a moment longer, placed the letter in the drawer recently, especially so that Antonio would find it. And really, if she’s the kind of person who goes around leaving subtle, manipulative messages for him like that, instead of coming right out and saying “Anto, il mio tesoro, there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you,” then he really is better off without her.

The story has proved quite divisive. About half of the people who read it cannot believe that Antonio is unable to forgive an indiscretion from so long ago. The other half sympathise with him, saying that Rosa’s breach of trust has continued for each day of the 70 years she didn’t confess to him.

I tend to a third view, which is that they must have secretly loathed each other for years and only wanted an excuse to split up. Picture seven decades of frosty silence over the antipasti. First they stayed together for the sake of the five children, then for the sake of the 12 somewhat surprised grandchildren (“There’s really no need to do this for our sake, Nonno e Nonna”), and latterly for the sake of the solitary, oblivious great-grandchild.

The whole story calls to mind the man who took up smoking again after 25 years off cigarettes. “Why did you go back on them?” he was asked, and he replied: “I couldn’t stick it any longer”.

At last, Antonio has valid grounds for divorce, and can be free to get on with the rest of his life… But he must be daft. In all relationships – the happy and the unhappy alike – one party must outlive the other. So it is the fate of each and every one of us to end up alone in our old age, if we haven’t died first. I do apologise for sucking all the joy out of your Sunday morning, reader, but you know it’s true. Antonio has had the amazing good luck to have avoided that fate so far. You’d think he’d have the grace to count his blessings and be thankful. For goodness sake, Antonio, act your age. The rest of you, check your drawers.

Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 29th April 2012