It was 5 p.m. when Giuseppe Zaninelli, known as Pino, entered the living room of the old farmhouse he shared with Ernesta, his seventy-five-year-old mother. As was her habit at that time of the day, the elderly teacher was reading the local newspaper with extreme attention.
«Fancy that! Teresina has also passed away! Do you remember Teresina? She lived in our neighbourhood until she got married… She died yesterday» the woman announced with undisguised satisfaction, raising her eyes from the obituary page of the Giornale di Brescia.
Too weary to endure the litany of her memories, Pino took refuge in the kitchen, while his mother, undaunted, kept on surfing the recollection wave: «Teresi, a gorgeous girl to be sure. Too much of a country girl, perhaps. However, she knew pretty well how to make an impression on men. Even your dad, God rest his soul, courted her for a while. Of course, before he met me. Poor girl! Sic transit gloria mundi», she concluded with an epitaph.
Happy to have escaped the memorial for poorTeresi, Pino emerged from the kitchen: «Your tea, mom».
The man put the tray on the table, strained the decaf tea bag and placed it on the china saucer. He thought he’d better make a cup also for himself: in fact the house was freezing. He asked himself how his mother could resist that Siberian climate. Perhaps so many Winters spent in the kitchen, heated only by the Becchi oven, had toughened her up.
It had been an unexpected success for him to convince her, some time before, to buy a couple of electric blankets, one for her and one for him, and to confine the old warming coal-pan to the loft. Their house now had cast-iron radiators, which had been installed thirty years before. But to get them to work, well, that was another story. During the day, the temperature was about 15 °C and during the night… he didn’t even know, because it was Ernesta who controlled the heating. Every morning, as soon as she was out of bed, and every night, before going to sleep, she was on her recon tour of the radiators. And if she found them tampered with or if the temperature had been raised by a bare two degree then Heaven forbid!
Pino sighed, wrapped himself in his old worn-out sweater, cleared his voice, and tried to say the words that in the previous days he had said to himself so many times.
«Mom, I have something to tell you».
Ernesta, holding her steamy cup of tea in mid air, stared at him with that inquisitive look which had haunted the dreams of generations of her pupils.
«What is it, Pino. Are you going to repeat your twenty-degree-at-home theory again? I have told you before: until I pay the bills, we’ll do it my way. Besides, you’re not going to tell me that it’s really cold in here?».
The man thought of his salary. Every month it was deposited in their joint bank account. He withdrew only a bare minimum from it for his personal expenses: some designer clothes, his yearly subscription to The Freshwater Fisherman, and hardly anything else.
Sighing again, he tried to approach the thorny topic weighing on his heart: «Listen, mom, I think that the time has come to find someone who can help. I believe that we should hire somebody, a woman, who can stay here with us and take care of you and of the house».
He had spoken in one single breath. It had been so easy that he was nearly surprised. He hadeven avoided The Words which would have sunk every hope of success.
«You don’t mean a home carer, do you?». Ernesta pronounced the dreaded words with deliberate slowness.
There it was! All that effort not to mention it, and she had just said the words!
«No… Of course not, mom. I’d rather call her a housekeeper… a lady-in-waiting ». While he was talking, he felt that the situation was getting out of hand. How had “a lady-in-waiting” occurred to him?
«Mom», he went on without too much conviction, «every passing day I’m getting busier and busier. You know, I also have a position in the town council…».
Maybe playing the council card could work. After all, she was the one who had pushed him to run for a position in the council.
«Sure! The young master has to attend refresher courses with his female colleagues! Now that he’s a town councillor, the young master has no time left to take care of this poor old woman!». Ernesta’s voice was getting dangerously shrill: «Now that the young master has his own commitments in the town council…».
«Please, mom… you know it’s not like that. I’m only asking you to think about it».
Feeling defeated, he left the room while the old teacher, tears still in her eyes, carried on drinking her lukewarm tea.
Pino had never considerer the idea of hiring a carer before: he had always helped his mother with the housework. When the old woman had declared that her health was too bad to keep on doing the household chores, he had taken them on himself. These turned out to be less heavy than he expected: he viewed the rooms with satisfaction, all neat and tidy after using the Hoover. He liked doing the shopping in the supermarket and cooking delicious dishes, into which he poured his creativity. He had discovered a talent for home economics, even though, like all housewives, he had his little idiosyncrasies: he especially did not get on with the iron, but he had easily solved that problem by soliciting the secret help of a woman neighbour.
After all, many mature spinsters would have been very glad to take care of Pino, a bald and somewhat fat man who conveyed an appeal of maturity and ease. The likelihood is that the aforesaid spinsters would not have been as enthusiastic about taking care of the old teacher, but the province of Brescia is renowned for having plenty of beautiful places, where the earthly journey of many wealthy old people can peacefully come to an end.
But Pino, behaving like a new Beatrice, didn’t notice the women gazing at his upright figure next to that of the hunched Ernesta, while he slid into the front pew of the church to attend high mass on Sunday morning. Nor did he spot their looks of admiration for his new camelhair overcoat which he had bought, as those in the know realised, in a boutique under the porticoes. He even ignored the fact that many mature spinsters had refused to set up direct debits to pay bills, so as not to miss out on their monthly walk to the post office, where his quiet kindness fuelled their chaste dreams.
That was why in the previous local elections the two main parties had fought to enlist the kindly post office clerk to their ranks. The civic list, which was probably left-winged, but, as usual, was too shy to declare it openly, had tried to court him and sent in Giulia Gerarda as an ambassadress for a preliminary meeting. Giulia had been nominated as the mayoral candidate of the civic list because of her reassuring blond appeal. It’s actually a commonplace practice, in the recent political scene of Italy, to enrol in the ranks of the parties a growing contingent of the fair sex, especially if attractive and, above all, of a placid disposition.
However Pino, like many people from Brescia, born and bread in the shadow of their provincialism, felt a natural aversion to anything that even slightly sounded left-wing. Therefore, indifferent to pretty Giulia’s bulging eyes, he had politely refused the invitation to join her in the political contest.
The main opponents of the civic or of the centre-leftist list, or whatever you want to call it, were the Lega Nord secessionists. The decision to recruit Giuseppe Zaninelli in their newly formed electoral list had been taken after a hot debate in the sectional secretariat. In fact everybody knew Pino to be a churchy fellow and many evil tongues had even wagged over his intimacy, since childhood, with poor Father Fausto, may God rest his soul.
Even though he didn’t embody the hard habits of the Lega at all, the one hundred or more votes he was likely to receive made the party leaders’ mouths water, especially in a town where the final results were usually decided on the basis of a handful of preference votes.
So, Salogni Domenico, a sturdy zealot of Umberto Bossi from the very start, and a former highschool classmate of Pino, was charged with recruiting him. With the pretext of organizing the yearly class dinner, he had forced him to take a pirlo at the Central Bar of the square and had put forward his proposal. Before Zaninelli’s hesitation, handsome Domenico had spared no flattery: «Come on, Pino. Don’t play hard to get: if we win, you’ll be nominated councillor for social services. All in all, with your salary and the councillor’s allowance you’ll make big money!».
«Well… actually… I don’t think I am prepared» Pino objected shyly.
«Don’t worry! You shouldn’t be so anxious: once we win the elections, we will tell you what to do!».
«I don’t know… I’ve never been so keen on politics».
«Think about it! It would be just like the old days: still together, still desk-mates! However, this time you needn’t let me see your homework…»
Shaken and moved by these memories, Pino had said he needed time to think. But he had actually refrained from delivering his decision because he wanted to consult with Ernesta.
That very night, when she heard the proposal, the old teacher had urged him to accept without delay: «Of course you have to run, Pino», his mother insisted with him. «Think about our two-piò brolo, poor aunt Celestina’s property? Perhaps, finally it will be classified as a building lot!». In fact, the woman has been asking the town councils for years to rezone her parcel of land from rural to residential. Her request had gone systematically lost among the environmentalist meanderings of the left-wing councils.
That’s why the mature clerk found himself a councillor in just a few days, and, in spite of himself, he was forced to give up shopping, cooking and other household tasks.
Actually, he had tried to keep on taking care of his mother and his house for some months, but the task had turned out to be too hard for him. He could have devoted himself to his councillorship with less dedication, as Ernesta wanted him to do. In fact, because of her son’s sudden scruples of conscience, she had not obtained the rezoning of her brolo for building, and had lost her interest in his political career. Even his fellow party members would have preferred a less zealous councillor. Many times, during their meetings, they had reminded him that the council was neither a charity foundation nor a philanthropic society. However, the clerk had taken his administrative office very seriously and had no intention of disregarding his obligations to his electors.
His need for help and support for the house and his mother, who was becoming more and more irritable and capricious also because of her son’s repeated absences, was getting more urgent. A week had passed from the day of their argument, when he had begun to touch the topic, and Pino hadn’t had the nerve to resume the subject any more. Therefore he was extremely surprised when, one night, Ernesta raised the question.
They were finishing their frugal dinner, with parboiled polenta cornmeal and bagoss cheese. Teletutto News was broadcasting a report that featured a brief interview he had given for the inauguration of the “Gianfranco Miglio” farmhouse, a building with eight small apartments for the elderly.
His mother followed the images of the anonymous and rather claustrophobic two-roomed flats with unusual attention, while from the TV her son praised the countless facilities that little old men and women would enjoy in the building which would house them.
«By the way, what about that idea of yours, I mean, the lady-in-waiting? You know, I have been thinking about it… maybe it’s not so bad». Ernesta’s words seemed to hover for a moment in the air, like the coils of smoke from the cornmeal.
Pino needed a while to recover from his dismay.
«Mom, I am glad that you have changed your mind. You’ll see, we’ll be all right. Tomorrow I will call the social worker: I guess you have someone in mind».
«You won’t call anybody», the woman interrupted him. «Let me do it my way. Tomorrow I will telephone my cousin Cesira, who is already experienced. Some months ago she hired a Polish woman for her house, and nothing valuable has been stolen so far!».
Too happy to raise objections, Pino let his mother do it her way.
He didn’t even have to wait twenty-four hours. Now that she was resigned to the inevitable, the old teacher was not a woman to indulge in hesitations. Firmly intent on accelerating matters, she had rounded up a large group of pious ladies to search for the perfect carer.
The following day, home from work, Pino was run over by a triumphant Ernesta: «I’ve found her!».
«The housekeeper! Do you remember Teresina, the woman who died days ago? Luckily, her carer is still looking for another job! She’ll come here tomorrow for an interview. Make sure you’ll be back home at five!», she intimated, looking at him from over her glasses.
When Agneta Kusior rang the bell, Ernesta took a peep at her from the door and breathed a sigh of relief: the Moldavian lady was a little dull woman, with a haggard appearance. The old teacher decided instantly that she was perfect for her and her son. After the customary introductions she observed approvingly her cracked hands, the ordinary dress, the short hair that didn’t conceal white roots. Agnese (this is how she was immediately renamed) was fifty, nearly the same age as Pino but Ernesta was pleased to see that she looked fifteen years older than him.
The councillor was also pleased. He showed the woman the house, the bathroom, her bedroom and the garden, while Ernesta glossed over his son’s enthusiasm, pointing out the spots which were the hardest to clean, the copper pottery which was to be polished every two months, the thermostats which must not be touched for any reason in the world. Eventually Pino, delighted with his mother’s approval and determined to avoid any second thoughts, asked the Moldavian lady her documents to start the paperwork for her employment.
A hard blow was waiting for him. His smile vanished from his lips: the woman had no residence permit.
«How fussy! I won’t spend my money on taxes!» Ernesta reassured him. Then, taking him aside: «Look, it’s okay: anyway, I have no intention of paying a single euro for holidays, severance, and whatever. Besides, if I change my mind, I can fire her any time!».
Pino was speechless: the certainty that his mother was perfectly aware of the irregularity of the situation, and that even more for her this was the conditio sine qua non, crossed his mind but he preferred not to go into it. He knew that most of the carers he heard chattering every day, from 3 to 5 p.m., in the square in front of the Town Hall, were illegal immigrants. However, his sense of civic duty rebelled at the idea of breaking the law, even if this was the norm.
Besides, another question worried him: he was a public servant, a councillor, and what’s more, the councillor for social services. Not to mention that his party was the Lega, even though his political faith was recent. Hiring an irregular foreign worker would have been a terrible contradiction!
Even Agnese, who was not brilliant at all, had vaguely got the problem: «Mister Giuseppe, I have four sons in Moldavia, my husband very ill. I am good woman. I work well at home. I take care old grandma».
Hearing these words Pino saw Ernesta turn pale, and his life of the past months flashed before his eyes: the parboiled foods, the washing machine loaded at midnight, the Sunday mornings spent vacuum-cleaning. So, before the Moldavian woman could make matters worse by hurling more embarrassing epithets, he made up his mind.
«Don’t worry, Agnese. You may stay here for now. Then we will see how to solve your problem». While he was pronouncing these words, he glanced at the figure of Alberto da Giussano, impressed on the tea-cups in all his medieval virility, and, for the umpteenth time in his life, he felt a coward.
He had a troubled night, but at about 5 a.m. the answer to his sufferings appeared clear and inescapable to him. Only from that moment on could he sleep.
The following day was Saturday. The post office closed at 11 a.m. and he had all the time he needed to put his decision into effect. He locked himself in the post office bathroom, knotted his necktie emblazoned with the Flower of Life logo, touched the pocket of his camelhair overcoat to make sure he had not forgotten anything, and headed with a stride towards the Town Hall, ready to face his “Caudine Forks”.
Lino Bettoni, the mayor, received him at once: he had had some troubles with his Postepay card and hoped Zaninelli could help him.
«Why, Pino, how are you? How is the teacher? You’ll never know how many times she punished me. But look where I am now! I, who didn’t even pass the eight grade!», This was the first citizen’s welcome. He owned a small construction company and his election, in such a time of crisis, had been manna from heaven for him.
«I am here to resign, both from the council and from the party».
The firm attitude and the closed envelope Pino had taken from his overcoat pocket were clear enough to let Bettoni realize that he was not joking.
«What are you saying, Pino? Isn’t Ernesta doing well?».
«My mother has nothing to do with it. It’s for personal reasons». Pino stopped looking at the mayor, beginning to lose a part of that courage which had sustained him the whole morning.
In another situation, Lino Bettoni would have been very happy to free himself of Zaninelli. From the beginning he had judged him too weak, if not too effeminate, to be a credible Lega member; besides, in only a few months in office he had caused him too many headaches, because of his indiscriminate use of social services. But those were days of scandal for the Lega. Its leaders had been involved in episodes of corruption and bribery, overemphasized by the one-sided leftist press. The whole town would have considered Pino’s resignation as an act of protest, and the opposition would have seized the moment.
«Please, Pino. Don’t make any hasty decisions. Let’s talk about it», the mayor implored.
He didn’t have to struggle very much to convince him: at the end of the day all Pino wanted was someone to whom he could unburden his feelings and before long, he revealed his concerns to Bettoni. Had he ever been in doubt about it before, Zaninelli’s revelations further reinforced the mayor’s conviction that his councillor was a complete idiot.
«Pino, once again I am happy to have wanted you in my team», the building contractor began, measuring his words. He was perfectly aware that, in those few minutes, the survival of his administration in the months to come was going to be decided. «I have always known you as a consistent man. That’s why I respect you and I have wanted you with me». It might have been fine to restate the idea, but now he had to change his register: «Unfortunately, consistency is extremely rare in Italy, and I have learned this to my cost». Now he had to associate Pino with himself: «In confidence, how many legally hired workers do you think I have with me? Of course, I don’t like doing it. However, what can I do when a family man with no documents from Albania or Morocco comes to me asking for a job?». And now, the master touch: «Should I leave him in the middle of the road, adding to the number of thieves and rapists?»
At this point, Bettoni paused for some seconds, just to give the councillor the time to absorb his last words. Then he resumed: «My dear Pino, consistency is a privilege for few people. Now let’s forget this letter. I don’t even want to read it. Go back home, to the carer you have saved from the road, and just tell her not to spread her condition of illegal immigrant around. And please, don’t worry. I have news from Rome that soon the government will vote in new regularisation procedures for people like her. As soon as they pass these laws, it will be fine for us!». Having said that, he tore up Pino’s resignation letter and, patting him on his back, took him to the door: «See you, my friend! Give my regards to your mom. See you on Thursday at the council meeting. And please, no more negative thoughts!».
Not knowing why, Pino found himself outside the Town Hall while the church-bells were chiming midday. The sun was shining but the air was freezing. From the window of his study, the mayor was waving at him.
Bettoni was probably right: Pino was really worrying too much. Maybe he was not saving Agnese from the streets (after all, he could hardly imagine that little skinny woman in her lingerie) but by providing her with a job and a home, it was an act of mercy. And what have documents to do with charity?
Reassured by these thoughts, he went home with an unusual quiet pace and after many months, he enjoyed the pleasure of a walk, without the pressing thought of having to cook, to clean the house, to listen to his mother reproaching him for being left alone.
When he opened the door he was overcome by Ernesta’s voice. From the room nearby, she was exhorting Agnese to use the hot water sparingly. After taking off his overcoat and putting on his old sweater over the cashmere one, he entered the kitchen, where his mother was directing the great operations for lunch. It was only when the carer shyly said hello, that Ernesta realized he was standing there. She interrogated him aggressively: «Why are you so late? Where have you been?».
Still proud of himself for the way he had firmly faced up to the thorny situation, a pleased Pino revealed to his mother the decision he had taken overnight and his discussion with the first citizen.
«You know, mom, I was really determined to resign as councillor, but the mayor wouldn’t hear of it. He repeated that he couldn’t do without me. He appreciated my consistency and my honesty and said these qualities, in his very words were extremely rare in politics». Pino was getting excited and laid on the details: «Bettoni may not be educated, but he is clever, and can understand people’s values».
«It seems he became clever all of a sudden».
Ignoring Ernesta’s irony, and absolutely unwilling to see his role belittled, Pino went on: «In short, after all his insistence, I was not able to resign. The mayor understood my situation and reassured me. Then he revealed some information he got from Rome, which comforted me completely», he concluded with a mysterious air. Then, to the carer: «Do you understand, Agnese?» he said, «you can stay with us. I have settled everything».
The Moldavian looked at him, astonished, and the man doubted that she had really understood, but it did not bothered him. Ernesta kept silent with a sceptical expression on her face that her son couldn’t ignore any more.
«I nearly forgot, mom. As to our brolo, seeing as we were sharing confidences I talked with Bettoni about it and… in short, there are good possibilities».
«Well done, my dear son. At last!». Now the teacher’s eyes were sparkling: «Thank-you, My Lord. Now I can die in peace».
The clerk was deeply moved by his mother’s joy. At the next council he would certainly talk about their brolo with the mayor. After all, what was the use of an uncultivated piece of land? And was it perhaps not more ethical to convert it into a building lot and help the economy grow by providing a small building contractor and his Italian and foreign workers with jobs?
Traslation by Michele Curatolo (edited by Ester Tossi)
 A model of brick oven, made in Forlì and widespread all over North Italy.
Wooden household item placed under the covers of a bed to warm it. In the dialect of Brescia it is called monega (nun).
 A typical Brescian apéritif, very similar to Spritzer.
 Unit of measurement of area. One piò equals 3255,3938 square metres.
 An uncultivated land parcel.
A kind of hard and sharp cheese of Brescia, produced in the Bagolino area.