“Angela, don’t run: you know that after you are going to have a sore throat”.
“Ok, mum, I’m coming”.
Mother and daughter went back into the house. The stove gave off a suffocating heat. The little girl took off her shoes and slipped into her heavy cloth slippers.
“Don’t take your sweater off, though…It’s not so warm inside here”.
“All right, mum”. A slight cough shook the little girl’s thin shoulders.
“And this cough? What is it? I told you that you would catch a cold. Come here, my little Angelina, I’ll make you some hot milk”.
“Ok, mum, here I am”. And the little girl huddled back into the flowery armchair while her mother took care of her.
Angela was sixty-eight years old and, by that time, she was old. She kept on saying it since her sixtieth birthday, when, giving up the hair dye with relief, she had let her grey hair grow.
Poor Carlo, disoriented as usual by any kind of changing, had tried to get her to think again by paying her the occasional awkward compliment such as you can still wait a few years to look like a grandmothe’r. However, worsening her poor nerves were the only effect he did get: what did he know about what getting old means for a woman? Men, everybody knows, don’t get old, they lose hair and put on weight around their belly, exactly like her Carlo, who had become a little rounder and bolder, but she was happy like that, because she had always been content in life. What did men know about menopause, hot flushes osteoporosis, hypertension?
Angela had never suffered from hot flashes and her blood pressure, monitored every week at the chemist’s had not changed, from one hundred over twenty- seventy. Who could say, though, what would happen in the future? But poor Carlo, since the last four years, was no longer with her to share the steep slope of decay, taken away from her by a 4X4 who had mown him and his bike down on the lake’s country road.
How many times had she told him that he had no longer the age to act as a young man on his bike. These were her angry thoughts in front of the sealed coffin, where her husband had been mercifully recomposed.
He, at least, had finished suffering and now rested peacefully in his beautiful marble tomb in Botticino. It was up to Angela to go every Saturday and drop a bunch of fresh flowers. In fact, that task and that expense had added to the endless list of her duties. The image of a beautiful bunch of fake flowers had crossed her mind, but she had immediately removed it: what would people say? In summer she tore a few marigolds from the garden beds, but in winter she resigned herself to buy flowers from the nursery, where the dear extinct cost her between seven and eight Euros a week that, at the end of the month, meant a discrete sum. Her heart wept at the thought of squandering her savings and those of poor Carlo, who in life had never been a genius, but used to be at least hard working.
Fortunately she was one who was content, not like her sister-in-law Irma who was out for lunch every Sunday and spent every Saturday afternoon at the shopping centre. She knew very well those like her, who one day act as a cicada and the day after come and ask for a little help with tears in their eyes.
Angela had helped many cicadas: her neighbour who was addicted to playing the lottery, the young married lady living opposite her who had a passion for designer dresses, the fat cousin who had to help her son to settle down. Each of them ringing at her door bell with red cheeks and a handkerchief in their bag. And she wrote in her little note book one thousand to this one, five hundred to that one, seven hundred-fifty to the other, because those poor women could not go to the bank and, therefore, they made an arrangement with her who had never been a cicada, who thought about the future and was content.
Together with her poor Carlo, she had paid for Luisa’s studies, she helped her graduate and bought her a nice terraced house just behind theirs. Everyone knows that having children means making sacrifices and she had done so much for her only daughter. And, today, she repaid her by short visits to her mother. Angela though never made a big deal of that, because she was not one of those people who likes to complain. Luisa came by every evening and paid her a short visit, it seemed she was clocking in and said she was busy and in a hurry. Angela thought that perhaps they should not have insisted so much on making her get a nursing diploma, since she had time to assist everybody except her poor old mother.
“How are you today, mum? What did you do?” These were Luisa’s usual questions. She never asked anything else, she never tried to make a little conversation.
“How do you want me to feel? I’m here”. If her daughter expected to be comforted with an everything is well, heaven forbid. It was too easy to go and pay her a visit for a handful of seconds in order to clear her conscience and then go quietly back home (Angela had wondered whether they had done the right thing by putting the cottage in her name?)
“Why do you say that, mum? Aren’t you feeling well?”
“Do you know what my disease is? It’s old age”.
“But if you are not yet seventy! Nowadays, you could do a lot of things, if you wanted”.
Here she started with the litany of the thousand possibilities. But that evening Angela felt fine and would not have her behave like a teacher towards her.
“Now, Luisa, what do you want me to do at my age? If only your poor father were still here, I would not feel so lonely”. The truth was that poor Carlo had never been a good company, but it was better than nothing.
“You could sometimes go to the elderly centre for a chat, or have a little game of briscola’.
“Where do you want me to go in these conditions?”
“But what conditions, mum? Your blood tests are perfect, you don’t take medications, you are perfectly healthy”.
“Ah, if you only knew…”.
“Tell me what I have to know. What is wrong?”
“Nothing, nothing”. And here Angela dropped a big sigh.
“I’m sorry, mum, but now I really have to go”.
“Of course, you have to go, you have your commitments. Go ahead, go! And don’t worry: it’s right that young people live and old people think about death”.
“Enough! Don’t speak like that! Do you know what you need? A nice holiday!”.
“But if all our savings went into your house! Where do you want me to go with my pension? Just to the cemetery, I can go”.
“It’s better if I go, we shall speak again about this. Goodbye, mum”, and she gave her mum a quick kiss on her cheek.
“See you tomorrow. Now I’ll close everything and go to bed”.
“And what about dinner?”.
The woman let out another sigh: “I don’t feel like having dinner”.
The daughter went out through the little gate. The mother watched her for a few seconds with curved shoulders and bowed head, closed the door and turned on the TV on to watch her favourite game show, then opened the fridge and took a saucepan of pasta and beans that she had cooked in the afternoon. Maybe it was a bit heavy for dinner, but thank God, she had a very good digestive system.
It was the next evening that her routine was shaken by an unexpected event. It was already six o’ clock and Luisa had not yet arrived for her daily visit. She was worried, she hated missing her game show and had already ordered a take away four season pizza for seven p.m. Her daughter’s presence would ruin her weekly pizza and TV ritual on her sofa. She was going to forgive her for the missed visit when the doorbell rang.
“Luisa, finally! I was so worried with all that happens nowadays, I already imagined you had been raped in a ditch”.
The daughter smiled tiresome.
“Excuse me, but I had an appointment and did not realise what time it was”.
“Of course: you are always available for everyone except for your poor old mother who worries about her you. And what did you have to do this time? Injections? Dressings? Despite having a daughter who is a nurse, I have to go to the chemist’s to have my blood pressure and cholesterol checked”.
“You misunderstood me. I had a medical appointment”.
“Really? What’s wrong? Are you not feeling well? I told you that you work too much. I never see you!”
“Nothing serious, I hope. A small lump”, and she put her hand on her right breast.
“Certainly, it won’t be anything. Don’t mention it. What would be wrong with you at your age? We, old people must worry. By the way, now that you make me think of it, it’s more than a year since I had a mammogram. Remember me to call the hospital tomorrow. And now go home since I see you are a bit run down”, and Angela went to the door with her daughter, got the usual kiss and, after a few minutes, a steaming pizza.
Luisa’s lump, in spite of her mother’s predictions, turned out to be a rather serious matter.
“You know, Irma, my poor Luisa is the shadow of her former self. Why would such misfortune happen to me! I have not been sleeping for nights”. She vented all her pains on her sister-in-law. “In a couple of weeks, if God wants, she will have the operation and then I hope I can breathe again”.
“And who’s going to take care of Luisa after the operation? She will not be able to stay at home alone…”, insinuated her sister-in-law. “It’s a pity that she is separated from her husband. Not that men are somewhat useful in these situations”.
Angela had not thought about her daughter’s convalescence. That evening, during the usual visit, she cautiously introduced the subject.
“Are you worried, Luisa?”
“Just a little. It will not be a picnic, but I know the surgeon and I am optimist. I want to think that everything will go well”.
“But how long will they keep you in hospital?”
“By now, with the cuts to healthcare, no more than two or three days”.
“And after will you already be fine?”
“Not really, mum. I will be weak and I’ll have drainages”.
“And what will you do?”
“Actually, I was thinking of moving to you for a while”.
Angela did not say anything. Mentally, she cursed the idiot of her son-in-law who had fallen in love with the hairdresser in the shopping centre and had been so stupid to be caught red-handed. She cursed her daughter’s integrity that would never forgive a betrayal. And she cursed herself who had tacitly gloated when Luisa had announced her in tear the separation from her unfaithful husband.
So the day after surgery, bandaged and still dazed by anaesthesia, Luisa went back to her old room. Angela had resigned herself to clear the room from the ironing board and the vacuum cleaner and, in the days before the operation, the daughter had taken some books, a television set, some clothes.
“How do you feel today?”, Angela asked her every morning, with a hopeful light in her eyes.
“Not so well, Mum. I did not sleep all night. Do you mind bringing my breakfast? I cannot get out of bed”.
Angela didn’t reply and went to the kitchen.
“Please mum, not much sugar in my tea. And would you mind adding a little milk, but only a drop, please. If possible, soya milk”, the daughter screamed from upstairs.
Angela trudged up the stairs with the cup of tea in one hand and a pack of biscuits in the other.
“Thank you, mum. Those biscuits, though, are not very healthy. Look at the ingredients: palm oil and hydrogenated fats. Now, you understand, I have to be careful about my health. Could you go to the supermarket and get something else for me? Spelt biscuits, multigrain brioches, things like that”.
Angela avoided rolling her eyes and was patient.
“I’ll wear something decent and I go and buy them for you. By the way, I did not ask you how many days did you get off sick?”
Luisa stretched under the covers, yawning.
“Be quiet, mum. For problems like mine, it’s not a matter of days , but months. Don’t worry, you will have company for a long time”.
Angela left the room with a fixed smile, her shoulders and head bowed, and went down the stairs.
Luisa closed her eyes, abandoning herself to the fragrance of fresh sheets, to the smells and sounds that were so familiar to her. She drifted off to sleep, confident that her mother would take good care of her.
Translation by Paola Roveda (edited by Sabrina Macchi)