“What time is it?”
“A quarter to nine already”.
“What shall we do? Shall we order?”
“I would say yes. I think we have waited too long for her”.
“Cheng-three cappuccinos and three brioches!”.
The waiter appeared at the small table picked, as each Sunday, by three elderly ladies.
“How would you like the brioches?”
“What do you say, girls? All empty?”
Carla cast a fleeting glance of regret at the piece of shortbread, that, behind the desk window, included a Nutella heart.
The answer was a sigh of resignation: “Of course, empty”.
The Chinese man went off, swallowed by the Sunday crush. He would serve the cappuccinos and the brioches with Oriental phlegm; he knew, by experience, that the customers would stay anchored up until the time of Mass, when, once their body would be set up, they would think to feed their souls.
“What shall we do? Shall we call her?” Emilia retrieved from her bag her smartphone, on which the fat and sulky face of a child of five or six years old stood out.
“Tell me: isn’t my chubby little boy nice?”, she asked with shining eyes, looking at the picture of her glowing grand-son.
After they finished making proper appraisals on the child’s, at least healthy looks, in spite of the daughter-in law’s controversial cooking qualities, the friends got back to their dilemma.
“I would not call her”, said Carla with a dogmatic tone. “We have met for years on Sundays at nine o’ clock for breakfast. If she arrives late, my dear, it means that she is not really interested”.
“Give her a ring, at least”, Laura says. “We all know that Bice is no longer the same recently. Since her mother died”.
“Let’s say that she has always been a little strange”, interrupted Carla who liked punctuality. “We all had our troubles and even if my husband did not come in and out from hospitals and I did not have a mother to take care of, it is not that I have passed better with diverticulitis, dear”.
“Anyway, I would have gone mad with that old tyrant”, said Emilia, finally taking her eyes off her little grand-son to avert the bad luck rosary of her friend. “And then, girls, let’s say it, we begin to have a certain age and memory is no longer what it used to be, she most probably forgot. After all, she’s not very young anymore. How old is she? More than seventy?”
“Of course, she passed seventy, my dear. Remove a layer of foundation and you realize that she is even more than seventy-five”.
“We must say that all that make-up, at our age, is a bit out of place”, and Laura looked at her pink natural nails cut very short.
“If it were only for make-up! But did you see how messy she goes around? I don’t say that we have to dress like grandmothers, but those harlequins are really too much”, and Carla looked at her blue linen dress which pulled a little on her hips but made so a Jacky O style.
“I still think that everything depends on her mother’s death. Bice and she were two hearts in an only soul”, decreed Laura, who dabbled in psychology. “I almost regret pushing her to look for new interests: all that art is not good for her”.
“Of course, you hoped to find another pair of arms for Caritas, but she preferred paint brushes to crochet”.
“Not at all Caritas”, replied Laura stung to the quick. “I only say that, at our age, voluntary work is a great thing. We have a chat, keep away from television for some hours and help other fellows”.
She sighed and went on: “For one like me who has no grand-children, it’s a real blessing”.
“For you, but Bice has got grand-children”, stated Carla, turning her eyes to the piece of shortbread and asking herself if it would not be better to change the order.
“However, I saw Gabri two days ago”, announced Emilia lowering her voice and looking at the other two who were waiting for a bit of pepper on Sunday gossip.
“She too sees her strange . My mother is no longer the same: textual words. Do you know that she does not want to keep the children anymore because, she says, she has to paint?”
A moment of stunned silence followed the revelation.
“Are you serious? But then, this is critical. If a grand-mother does not want to keep her grand-children anymore, there is something wrong”.
“I’ll tell you more”, Emilia said, gratified by the attention of the other two who usually held the conversation. “Gabri has already fixed an appointment with a neurologist because she wants to get to the bottom of the matter”.
“Of course, if things are like that, she did the right thing”.
“But will she go? I mean Bice?”
“Good morning, girls, namasté. Have you been waiting for me for a long time?”. The appearance in Indian cotton and leather sandals interrupted the conspiracy.
“Bice, at last!”.
The woman who, in that moment, was making an effort to assume a mortified look, seemed out of place at that table, where the last empty chair was waiting for her. She wore large multicoloured odalisque trousers, and a necklace of beads as colourful that wrapped around a wizened neck. The colourful face, without being tanned, betrayed an age closer to seventy than sixty, while her hair, cut very short, was of an unmistakable blue.
“Bice, but what did you do to your hair?”
“Nice isn’t it? I said to myself: why not? I was hesitant between electric blue and petrol green, but then I thought that blue is more sober”.
“And why did you arrive so late?”, asked Carla without taking her eyes off her friend’s hair.
“You know that when art calls, I have no timetables. I’m kidding. Yesterday evening I did the small hours and this morning I did not hear the alarm”.
“You stayed out late last night?”, said Emilia without masking her curiosity. “Is there anything we should know?”
Bice laughed. “Nothing romantic, unfortunately. I went to an exhibition with La Bottega della Pittura [The Painting Shop] and we came back late. In fact, Laura, I will never thank you enough for persuading me to pick up the brush again”.
“Mrs Beatrice, what shall I bring to you?”
Cheng had re-appeared at the table and was serving cappuccinos and brioches.
“Finally someone calls me by my name! Thank you Cheng! A green tea and that nice shortbread with nutella”. The waiter turned away and Bice looked at him smiling.
“How nice! Since he has managed it, this bar has become a nice little place and even cheaper”. Emilia interrupted the Chinese panegyric to return to subjects that interested her more.
“How is Gabri?” A quick shadow passed over Beatrice’s face. “Fine. She’s a little angry with me for the children’s story”.
“I told her that I am no more willing to keep them every afternoon, but only one day a week”.
“And why this decision? If I had two grand-children, I would eat them every moment with kisses”, said Laura.
“I adore my grand-children, but my daughter and my son-in-law have to grow up and decide to be parents”. She seemed to speak more to herself than to her friends, as she clinked the numerous bracelets that adorned her bony wrists. “They have all the possibilities to work a little less and dedicate themselves to their family, if they want. However, I took my decision. Furthermore, I have a lot of projects and I need time for myself” and she looked up embracing the three women in a smile.
“But, dear, at our age, if we do not do grand-parenting, what is left for us?”
“A lot of things”, answered Beatrice, while the Chinese served her tea and her shortbread. “I adore nutella, it’s even better than sex”.
“But what are you saying?, said Carla with a little smile. “My dear, at our age, sex must only mean gender”.
“Not necessarily! Anyway, let’s change subject because I don’t want to upset your virginal ears. So, who comes with me to the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition?”
“When is it?”
“Until next month. Come on, girls, don’t do grand-mothers”.
“The fact is that I don’t understand much about art”¸ Laura protested weekly.
“But this is the nice part. Come on, we are going to have fun: it’s been such a long time that we have not done something together”.
Emilia looked at her cell phone. “What time have we? Girls, we must lift the anchors since the mass is about to start”.
Bice remained seated. “you will not be offended if today I am not going to be one of the party. Anyway, Don Cesare knows that I became a little sporting as a catholic”.
“A little sporting? I must sign this one”, Laura smiled at her while kissing her cheek.
“Namasté, dear ones. See you next Sunday”.
The three paid their bill and went out of the bar. Bice watched the three shapes getting smaller on the square flooded by the sun and she already had the impression of hearing Carla’s malice on her hair, Emilia’s sour comments and Laura’s banalities on the working-through of a bereavement.
She sighed: it would take time and patience but, at the end, she would succeed in bringing them back to life. Sipping her green tea and enjoying the peace of the bar, which had magically emptied, she glimpsed the thin, lanky figure of Pablo across the square (but was his name really Pablo? Or the nickname was a tribute to his talent?). Sooner or later she would have to decide and go to his shop, maybe just the day after. She had always liked tattoos and maybe the moment had arrived to make one: a little thing, discreet, on her right wrist. Om symbol could be an idea, but she already knew what Pablo, who was a cultured tattoo artist, would draw: the puff of a steam train.*
* Reference to Pirandello’s novel Il treno ha fischiato (The train has whistled)
Translation by Paola Roveda (edited by Amy Scarlett Holt)