Last year, in the suffocating heat of the end of July, at the bar the only subject of conversation was the destiny of Martinelli Palace: the usual old men’s chats! While drinking a glass of white wine and a “pirlo”1 , we, historical inhabitants of this area, always like a bit of gossip and Augusto Martinelli’s story was too juicy not to make a novel out of it: at past sixty years old, he had decided to sell the ancestral palace and reach his love in Ukraina.
However, the destination was not convincing. Bepi, owner of the old bar that is now run by an enterprising Chang, kept on saying that Brazil would be better.
Anyway, the matter was much more interesting than the transfer season of Brescia football team. A war had broken out in the Martinelli family: the old bachelor’s mother and aunt did not want to have anything to do with the sale of the house because of a whore!
That evening my drinking partners recalled once more Beatrice’s story (you know, the old woman’s sister) guilty of chasing away Olga, a curvy Ukranian “badante”2 (however don’t you dare calling her badante: for them she was the housekeeper). For what reason? Augusto was caught in the act by aunt Beatrice, rummaging under the girl’s skirt.
It was almost dinner time and the aperitif ritual was celebrated. It was more or less the twenty-seventh of July. We were sitting outside the bar, with a glass in our hand, leaning unstable against one of those high tables that look like three-legged stools.
“A man should have the right to do as he likes!” declared, at a certain moment, the libertarian Sandrino who had once been a worker at OM, labour militant and a communist who never repented even if disappointed. He must have said to himself: “it’s now or never!”
At that moment, I dared speak as a well-informed person and as senior member of the group: am I or not Piero Franceschini, once the local pharmacist? “It’s impossible to do as one likes with those two women”, I peremptorily declared. “Beatrice was left a widower in 1965 and, since she had no children, she came from Naples to Brescia to stay with her older sister who was married to Amedeo. She locked herself in the house like a reclusive nun and I think she never came out anymore. She opened the door just a little bit when I delivered the prescriptions and never said thank you! She could not be bothered to come down to the chemist’s. However, heaven help me if I sent the shop assistant. I had to go personally. Between you and me, that one,
even when she was young, was off her head. Her sister Lucia has always supported her. These Neapolitan women are melodramatic, possessive and, most of all, they like to show off. But Augusto, Donna Lucia’s elder son, I have seen him grow up: he was always near his father, in the shop. A good boy, great worker, even though too submissive.
Donna Lucia, Amedeo Martinelli’s old widow (never mind if she was only a couple of years older than I am and I am eighty-three) always said that the building is an aristocratic residence, but nobody believes that. Once you scrape off the pretentious look, it’s the typical huge house from Brescia, painted with an ugly and dull ochre colour, situated in an alleway near the Contrada Santa Chiara area. Amedeo’s grandfather bought it for a pittance in 1870 from a bankrupt manufacturer and then placed his own luxury carpentry workshop at the ground floor. The firm “Roma” -so called in honour of the new capital of the kingdom- starting from the years after the Second World War, became a flourishing antique shop brought to success by Amedeo who was crazy about old things and had quite a good taste for the classical world. Afterwards, the laboratory was run, more and more sadly, by his elder son Augusto who was the cause of all the trouble.
Pressed with questions from my friends I had to go on with my reflections: “From an economic point of view, Augusto is not indipendent. I think that, at this point, the shop pays very little. Augusto has never had his father’s good nose for business. He likes staying in his workshop, restoring pieces of furniture and he does not sell anything. Paolo, the younger brother left home as soon as he could: he got a good job as a bank clerk, a nice wife and the cottage in San Paolo. Nevertheless, on Sundays, he always goes to his mother’s for lunch, with the whole family”.
“But tell me, isn’t the money that he gets from the apartments’ rental enough for Augusto?”, asked one of the gang.
The subdivision in apartments of the left wing of the building, smaller than the noble part, had been patriarch Amedeo’s will, when, in the 70s, his brother who lived by himself in that wing of the building, died heirless.
“Not at all, answered Sandrino, “everybody knows that the old woman pockets the money”.
“But the house belongs to her sons”.
“Of course, but it’s only a trick to economize on the inheritance tax. When Amedeo died, the old witch swore: “No more money to the estate!” Good for her if, now, Augusto wants to sell”, concluded the worker quivering with proletarian satisfaction.
“You should see what kind of people she took in her house! I mean in the apartments. As far as I know, there are at least two pushers and one pimp”, remarked Bepi who, in all those years, behind the tavern counter, had seen all sorts of shifty fellas.
“They were white, though: this is the point. Because the old lady did not want to have anything to do with black people, Chinese or Pakistanis. Therefore, she took Russians, Ukranians, Romanians… they’re dodgy, but they pay cash!”, remarked cheerfully the same old Sandrino who wanted to rob me of my leading role.
I stopped him just in time by touching his arm. Everyone shut up immediately: Lupus in fabula3, Augusto himself, once he had turned the corner, dragged along the road in the beams of sunlight still burning in the “ora che volge al desio4”.
Tall and hunchbacked with thinning hair and glistening with sweat on his bold head, thick big glasses and ridiculous velvet pants – crumpled and with paint and glue stains, Martinelli showed a sad face, with saggy cheeks. He raised his eyes and came right towards our small group. Everyone quickly looked away and pretended to be immersed in a lively discussion. On the contrary, I felt obliged to join him. “Oh, look who is here, Augusto! Come and join us for the aperitif”.
He suddenly stopped and stared at us gulping several times as if he had to swallow a bitter pill. “Piero”, he finally said to me, “you are in good company. I did not want to disturb you”.
“What’s going on?”, I asked him while moving closer to him. “Did you want to talk to me? Then, let’s go inside for a moment. Excuse me, guys”. They said good bye grumbling.
From the counter, Chang, who was all almond-shaped eyes and discretion, heard and saw everything; with a quick chin move he pointed out the inside room where only a few gloomy video-poker followers were sitting. People who, as everybody knows, mind only their own business.
“This evening you must come home for dinner”, he said, showing the typical impudence of shy people.
I was really amazed and, as a consequence, I took a worried look at my watch. My wife, faithful to Brescia’s dinner time, at seven o’clock sharp, most probably had already set the table.
“I really need your help”, he gasped.
I felt lost: what could I ever do in that situation? I complained: I wondered what his mother would think if I appeared for dinner without being invited! Furtheremore, I had not seen her for years.
“I did invite you, isn’t that enough?”, he then shouted exasperated. Afterwards, being regretful for shouting as a ragman, he hissed, livid with rage: “She called the priest “to make me use my reason”. You must know the story of the building sale, don’t you? My mother, my aunt and the priest: I cannot face up to them by myself. My brother is at the seaside. I thought that maybe you…”.
I felt sorry for him and, I do not deny it, at that point, I was eaten away by curiousity. You must be patient with old people like us: we all to gossip. Then I called my wife and I realized that she was in a good mood. Amen!
As far as he was concerned, Augusto kept on thanking me, in a continuous bawl. “Because, you know, I would not throw them out. The builder who wants to buy the palace – you know, Paolo as a bank clerk has many contacts, people who renovate appartments and then resell them – would let my mother and my aunt use the appartment; only a portion because, to tell the truth, it’s enormous for two old ladies. The builder would even be willing to place another accomodation at their disposal, a new and functional one. My brother agreed with me. But the two of them, nothing! The house is not going to be sold!”
“When you get old”, I dared saying, “it’s hard to accept such drastic changes. We, eighty year olds, don’t have much time left to live. Do you really have to do this thing right now?”
“I must go away. I cannot stand it anymore. Period. Even without Olga. Moreover, I don’t know where she is anymore and she doesn’t answer the phone. But it doesn’t matter: away I must go! Otherwise, I will have no more respect of myself. And, besides that, there is this enterprise…”.
Ah, bless his innocence, he is like a teenager, I thought while I was on my way to Contrada Santa Chiara and took the prodigal son to the final confrontation.
La Contrada is a noble street: it twists and turns under the Castle’s watchful eye. One could be under the illusion that the Carmine5 is several kilometres far away; but, it is there, at a stone’s throw from. I know very well what meant to be a chemist at Carmine in the old days. And I imagine what it means now. This world of ours gets worse and worse.
When we arrived at the widening where Saint George’s church is, we bent down the alley and the huge house, with its gloomy windows of the antique shop, rose before us. The main door opened on a square courtyard that was closed at its end by an ivy-covered wall; on the right, the guests’ stairway that was leading to the family’s spacious house; on the left, the one to the apartments – four cramped two-bedroom flats – rented, as Bepi said, to lodgers whose origins and professions became more and more varied and uncertain as years went by.
Augusto climbed the stairs at a brisk pace and slightly opened the door. The smell of past strongly assailed me: floor wax, dampness and old pieces of furniture squeakly clean, like in a church vestry; overall a strong meat sauce rear smell. A lively voice reached us from the immost recesses of the house: at the only sound of her voice, Donna Lucia did not look more than forty years old. “Oh, you must excuse him, Father: Augusto is late. He is always absent-minded these days!”.
Meanwhile, my host was hesitating on the threshold; much less bold, with one hand stuck at a few centimetres from the switch and with the other holding the half-closed house door, up to the moment when, just visible in the large and dark passage, appeared the fat black-dressed woman who had evidently took the attractive Ukranian’s place.
Augusto immediately asked her to add another place for dinner. The woman doubtfully looked him up and down under the weak light that filtered through the shutters, as if to evaluate if she should take orders from him; then, without saying a word, she shrugged her shoulders and went back to the kitchen.
I had already seen enough and would have liked to take French leave. “Listen, Augusto, I don’t really know…”
Right at that moment, the lights turned on in the passage and Donna Lucia appeared: a small woman with a wrinkled face like a nutshell and plenty of jewels. “Oh, you are here. Why are you standing in the dark, my dear son?. Have you taken the doctor with you? What a surprise, how nice!”, she cried with a forced voice. I have not seen you for at least twenty years but, according to your behaviour, we could say that we met last week.
“Donna Lucia”, I began with an eleven years old boy’s falsetto voice that annoyed me, “You always look the same!”. I could not avoid a slight bow while handing her the trayful of pastarelle6 that I felt bound to buy on my way. “Most probably, they are not like the ones from Naples…”. A pathetic old dandy, that’s what I am! But, what can I say, it is the old days’ style.
“You should n’t have, my dear doctor! Please, do make yourself at home! There’s no need for formalities! ’She accompanied us through the rooms full of pieces of furniture. Friendly, coquettish, full of fashionable tact: I knew very well that she was only acting. “You must forgive my sister. Donna Beatrice has a headache and she will have her dinner in her room. You must be understanding with us, old people!”. She was walking upright, on her high-heeled shoes, just leaning on her cane; her blond dyed hair freshly styled by the hairdresser.
We followed her. Augusto was the last of the row and kept his head bowed.
“Do you know Father Cosimo?”, the lady of the house asked in a rethoric way, after crossing the living room’s threshold.
The priest stood up from the sofa and came towards us. He smiled in a repulsive way. “Peace and love, my dear sons. I am happy to share this happy moment. It’s always a blessing when a family gets together and…”.
“Eh, Father, you should not. You are spoiling my party. Dear Augusto, your mother always thinks of you, doesn’t she?
At last my friend raised his eyes from the worn marble floor and fixed his puzzled look first on his mother’s face and then, on the priest’s one; this one kept on nodding as he he stood before a retarded child.
At that moment, I perceived a slight rustling from behind my shoulders together with a sweetish perfume.
“Surprise!”:. Donna Lucia who was the expert director of this comedy, clapped her hands; her son turned around and turned to stone. At the living room’s threshold, a tall blond girl with dimples on her cheeks appeared. “Olga!”, he gasped.
“We have found her, my dear Augusto! She was staying at some relatives’ house in Milan. Thanks to Father’s help, we finally understood each other. Well, I said to myself, in this house, there is place for everybody. She loves you and that is what really matters.
The old devil! I bet she also found the way to have a “badante” free of charge.
“A new Christian family! Best wishes, my dear sons!”
Augusto turned white and turned towards me. “I’m not leaving anymore, Piero. They made a fool out of me once more!”.
One year passed. In Martinelli’s house there’s one more lady acting as a queen. Not in such a large scale as the old lady, of course. But, you know what I’m going to tell you? She has got time on her side.
Winner of the “Muri di storie” [Walls of Stories] contest.
Translation by Paola Roveda (edited by Sabrina Macchi)
1Pirlo: a typical Italian aperitif, usually containing white wine, Campari (or Aperol) and seltzer. It is drunk before dinner with appetizers.
2Badante: italian term used to refer to a full time carer for elderly people.
3Lupus in fabula: Latin expression which means ‘wolf in the tale’ – the person we are talking about is appearing, be careful.
4From Dante’s Purgatory, ‘L’ora che volge al desio’ is the sunset.
5Another area of Brescia.
6Pastarelle: soft biscuits typical of Southern Italy.