«Oh just look at her: isn’t she just like a little doll?»
«Pink is really her colour. Well then, Bettina, are you happy? Do you like the dress that grannie bought for you?»
«Of course, she likes it! It’s perfect for the concert. It’s perfect, right, dear? You’ll look like a princess: you will be the most beautiful.»
«Of course she will be the most beautiful! And then we’ll curl her hair like this, see? She’ll have lot of curls and we’ll tie them up at the back with a satin ribbon.»
«Her blond hair is a treasure. I wonder who she got it from? »
«As a baby you were blonde too: when we went to the beach, people always took you for a little German …»
«Well … maybe. I don’t remember. I was never a pretty child; not like my Bettina, anyhow.»
«Of course, you were a little on the chubby side, but so funny! You always made us laugh with your carryings on».
«How lucky for you and dad: of your two daughters, one was beautiful and intelligent, the other obese but funny!»
«Now now don’t act the victim: we have never made it an issue with you. Go call your father, go, he must this beautiful granddaughter of his.»
Irene stood up awkwardly from the couch and glanced at the silver frames crowded on the coffee table in the living room. From a grainy photograph Irene as a child stared back at her with a phony smile, squeezed into a pathetic two-piece bathing suit and with her usual tangled hair. She looked quickly away as she reached the hall way, at the bottom of a flight of stairs covered with a red runner.
She leaned against the dark wooden railings and, looking up, called out, «Dad, we’re going. Come see your granddaughter».
«I’m coming, just a moment. I am on the phone».
The daughter went back to the living room and selected a milk chocolate from a silver bowl placed on show on the antique dresser.
«It’s no use you dieting, if you snack all day long!» rebuked her mother.
«I gave up dieting a long time ago, and chocolate puts me in a good mood. And that way I can go back to being the funny daughter you all love so much!»
A tall, elderly man, with a slight stoop, came to the door. «I was on the phone with your sister», he said to Irene. «She was telling me about Luca, who got an A in maths.»
His wife, who was busy tending to her granddaughter’s hair, had not bothered to look but let out a little cry of joy: «An A? What a good boy! He’s just like his mother! She was an ace at maths too, do you remember? But now take a look at our Bettina and tell me if she is not adorable».
The man glanced at his granddaughter for a split second. The little girl was standing up straight in the middle of the room, wrapped in a cloud of pink tulle.
«I finally know the reason why I have lived and worked all these years: for a smart boy and a beautiful little girl!», He declared with satisfaction.
Her father’s aphorism was for Irene the signal to leave. «We have to go now, or else I won’t have time to get dinner ready. I’m making “parmigiana”».
«I see you always serve light meals at your table!» Quipped her mother. «At least be careful with your daughter’s diet! I would not want to see her rolling about like you, in a few years.»
«Don’t worry: Bettina only eats plain pasta and chicken breast. I have no intention of making her like me, or like you, seeing as you’re no twig, either».
Her mother ignored the last sentence and leaned towards her granddaughter: «Bye-bye then, dear. Give grannie a kiss. See you tomorrow. Before the show I’m coming to comb your hair». Without saying a word, the child offered her cheek.
«Come along, Bettina, hurry up, I’m going. Bye, see you tomorrow».
Irene dragged the little girl out of the slightly pretentious house. It was late afternoon, but it was already dark. Feeling as if she had been underwater all that time, she breathed in the cold air deeply and felt refreshed. Walking quickly, holding her little daughter by the hand, she got home. She darted into the kitchen and grabbed a knife and shopping board, and began to cut up vegetables for soup. She had never even thought of preparing “parmigiana”.
«So tomorrow is the big day. You’ll be up on stage and singing». While she was cooking, Irene chatted to Bettina, who was sitting at the table and drawing with markers. Concentrated on drawing flowers and butterflies on a green strip of lawn, she seemed not to be paying attention to her mother’s words. «It’s just the stage of the church hall, but you’ll see how exciting it will be to have all those eyes on you. You’ll be beautiful. I’ll be in the audience, I’ll look at you and think that my child is the most beautiful of all. As a child, I was on a stage, too; I still remember it. When I was your age, I wanted to become a ballerina, the kind who stands on her tiptoes. Next year you could take ballet lessons, too. At the very least, in your case, grandma would not object: you would look lovely in a tutu! Well, we still have some time to think about it … Bettina! Move the markers and paper away, I’m want to set the table».
That evening Irene went to bed early, but had trouble getting to sleep: in her head, she was already imagining the following day.
The singing contest for the patron’s feast day had been an idea of Don Cesare, the new parish priest, who was hunting for funds to renovate the rectory; and he would certainly collect a tidy sum, what with registration fees and free offers.
At three in the afternoon, half an hour early, Bettina made her entrance in the theatre, accompanied by her mother and father – who had been forcibly removed from watching his matches that Sunday – and her grandparents. They managed to get four seats in the second row, because the first was already occupied by other families armed with camcorders and digital cameras.
«Did you bring anything to take pictures of her?» Her mother whispered to Irene.
«Well who do you take me for? Of course I did». She pulled out a sophisticated next-generation mobile phone from her bag. «Come, Bettina. Stand between your grandparents and I’ll take a picture».
After a photo shoot worthy of a little diva, Irene accompanied her daughter behind the scenes: the theater was getting crowded and the show was about to begin. « Now mind, Bettina, as soon as you get on to the stage smile nicely, and remember to stand up straight with your shoulders. Come on, give me a kiss. You’re beautiful, my beloved.» The little girl allowed her mother to hug her, and diligently went over to the other young competitors.
Weaving her way with difficulty through the crowd of mothers, Irene took her place.
Her mother, who was taking off her mink coat, stared at her with open disapproval. «Well you could have dressed a bit better», she scolded «that jacket makes you look frumpy».
«It’s my daughter who has to be beautiful, not me. Anyway, a fur in a church hall seems a bit out of place».
Her last words were drowned by slushy recorded music that marked the beginning of the show and the entrance of the presenter, an elderly catechist with artistic ambitions.
«Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the first edition of ‘A little voice for San Zenone’ ….»
Irene began to feel her hands sweating. She discarded the bulky jacket and proceeded to follow the performances. Bettina’s would be the third.
While the first child scrambled painfully on the notes of the song Almeno tu nell’universo, Irene heard her mother’s incessant mutterings «Cute enough, this little girl; a little undistinguished, but nice! She must be the electrician’s daughter, the one who lives in the square. Surely they could have dressed her up a bit better … ».
«Mum, please, let me listen».
The end of the first song was greeted by a long applause.
The electrician’s daughter was followed by a stroppy second-grade rapper in a hoody who was also hailed with an enthusiastic applause.
I thought it was love … and instead you were an escort, the words of Fedez’s last hit echoed in the theatre.
«But … did I get that right?» Bettina’s grandmother looked startled.
«Come on, Mum, don’t be shocked: it’s just a funny song».
«I may be old, but I do not think that suits a church hall. And who is that little urchin who is singing?».
«It must be Donatello, the youngest son of the marble cutter. Look, his brother is also over there».
«But wasn’t he in rehab? Or maybe he was in prison? Surely with such an example at home, that poor child is already on the slippery slope, … ». Excited shouting, from the older brother and his gang of gurriers, carried the budding rapper off the stage.
«And now here is the smallest of our little voices», continued the seasoned presenter. «She is only five, but she has talent to spare. I present … Bettinaaa!».
Cell phone in hand, Irene got up to take pictures of her daughter, oblivious to the protests coming from behind her.
Alone on stage, Bettina was not smiling; her shoulders were slightly curved forward and she kept her eyes on the floor.
The pre-recorded base of Una zebra a pois began and the music spread cheerfully over the hall but the little girl remained silent. An embarrassed murmur snaked through the audience. Irene, cheeks burning, sat down and improvised a fake smile. «She is frightened, poor pet» she said in justification. «She is not used to having so many eyes on her».
«No wonder», whispered her mother. «You know what they say? ‘The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree! I remember how uncomfortable I felt during your dance recital: a really embarrassing performance. You could not get a step right! Fortunately, your daughter, at least, is pretty … ».
After two long minutes of silence, the little girl recovered and was able to sing the last sentence, Pois, pois, pois…, redeeming the entire performance with her fragile voice.
From the row behind her, Irene managed to catch a few positive comments: «Oh she is so cute! Poor child, she was just scared.» A standing ovation, and also some Brava! Bis thrown in, accompanied Bettina off stage.
«See? What did I tell you? She is so beautiful that all is forgiven.»
Irene did not pay attention to her mother’s words and went to meet her daughter, who was searching for her with a bewildered look.
«You were very good, my love! And tomorrow we’re going to sign you up for ballet lessons.»
Translation by Silvia Accorrà (edited by Ester Tossi)