I’m back in Milan, and have settled in the mansion the opera company hires for me. I’m quite spoilt, really; with a butler, a maid and a cook seeing to all my needs. I’ve sent the gardener to visit his folks – it is almost winter here and there’s not much to do. He’s trimmed the hedges, the lawn is in great shape and he’s even planted a few lemon trees which seem to have taken well to their new surroundings.
They’ve thrown me in at the deep end again. In my absence they brought in a wonderful voice to sing the role of Gilda in Rigoletto. Did you know Rigoletto was the court jester, a hunchback and quite a hit with the ladies? He reminds me so much about Boggel. Anyway, the soprano fell ill (sore throat) and now I’ll have to fix the problem. Fortunately I have sung that role so many times in the past; I won’t have a problem with it.
I must tell you how much I enjoyed the supper at your house. Wasn’t the dancing outrageous? I think Mama laughed up there, where she now stays. In her younger days, she used to dance quite well, and enjoyed a lively waltz. I was quite amazed with your dancing, as well. I know we started off slowly, but when you did that pirouette that upset the coffee table, I started to understand the way you dance. It’s almost a deceptive free-style, shuffling affair which must have taken you years to learn. Here in Milan we have many dances, but I never go. I think the men here are scared to invite a diva to their parties. That used to make me sad.
But now, Servaas, I have you. Oh, I know – not like that … but it’s so wonderful to know you think about me sometimes. It makes me happy.
In your previous letter you suggested that you may come and visit me. Alas!! Oh woe!! We are taking Rigoletto on a tour through Italy, Austria, Germany, then France and finally Norway. Since the other opera houses heard I am singing Gilda, they have been queuing up to book us. Of course this is all very flattering, but that will mean a full program for the next few months. I’ll be returning to Milan every now and then, so I’ll be able to pick up your letters and reply from home.
They have a wonderful tradition here at Alla Scala. I hesitate to tell you this, because you may think it forward of me, but here goes. If a member of the permanent personnel feels him or her attached to somebody, they have a way of telling the others. This is to publicly state that you’re spoken for, understand? Now, you know me. I may not be much to look at, but because I’m so famous, I get fed up with these men who want to be seen with me. They’re not gentlemen, like you are – they have only one aim in mind when going out with ‘a darling of the stage’. They make me sick…
So, what the girls (and some men) do, is to attach a plaque to the one wall in the backstage area. It’ll say, for instance, that Martha Pretorius is involved with Servaas Venter. It doesn’t mean you’re engaged or anything like that, it only tells the other men that you’re not available. It helps a lot.
Now, our tradition is that the man must actually come and fix this plaque to the wall. I know that won’t be possible, so I’ll do it for you. The other bit of the tradition is that the man must have the plaque made. Well, with you in Rolbos, that won’t happen either, will it? So, I’ve had the most beautiful ornate plaque made by one of our best copper smiths in Milan. He’s terribly good but quite expensive. He charged me 2000 Euros! I told him he’s mad; but it is such a fantastic piece of work that I simply had to take it. I must tell you: you are the envy of the men around here! Don’t worry about the money, Servaas. As soon as I get some money out of the inheritance, I’ll be able to pay that scoundrel.
And I must tell you about my catastrophe, as well! Because I’m so thin, I won’t be able to fit into the costume they had made for the other Gilda! So, this morning I had to rush out to have one made for me. The company told me I must wear the other costume, but I look ridiculous in it. Now I’ll have to pay for that as well. After my unexpected flight to Cape Town and back, my savings are now depleted, so I had to plead quite dramatically to get them to accept payment for the costume at the end of November.
Now I’ll have to rush off to rehearsal. Do hold thumbs and don’t forget to think of me? It’s such a reassuring thought that you are out there. I do so cherish the memory of that special night.
Your loving dance partner
Martha sighs as she puts the letter in the envelope.
“Are you done?”
She looks as Roberto walks in. He’s been good to her over the last few years. He got her the job in the bookshop at the Teatro Alla Scala; and he lowered the rent of this little flat she lives in.
“Yes, thank you.” There’s a tinge of fear in her voice, but she manages a wobbly smile. “I’ve just finished a letter to somebody in Rolbos. The farm has to be sold, the estate wound up … things like that.”
He knows about Nellie’s death. An inheritance may come in very handy – if he can get his hands on it. Thinking quickly, he decides not to push her too hard on the rent she still owes. Time to change the approach here … After all, he didn’t reach his position in the organisation because he neglected to identify opportunities, did he?
“I was wondering whether you’d like to accompany me to the opera tonight. It’s Rigoletto, like you know.” His voice is playful, inviting.
“Oh.” She hesitates. Rigoletto isn’t her favourite opera at all. “I’m not sure…”
“Come on, you’ll enjoy it. Everybody deceives everybody, and nothing is the way it seems. And the end is sooo tragic. I love it.”
“What about your fiancé, Roberto? Won’t she be suspicious?”
His smirk says it all. “Nah. She knows I have to treat my clients occasionally.”
“I…I don’t think I should go, Roberto. I’m feeling a bit tired after the trip. Maybe some other time.”
He shrugs the way men do when they don’t care. “Up to you. I’ll get someone else. Actually, I just wanted to know whether you have enough supplies.”
“Yes. I checked. I’ve got enough until the weekend – but I’ll need some on Saturday. You will be around, won’t you? I should have money then.”
Hunching his shoulders to get through the doorway, the big man steps out to the street. They’re all the same: make them think they owe you something, and you get them to eat out of your hand. Dropping the rent was a masterstroke – she won’t go anywhere now. And, with her use on cocaine slowly rising, he’s making a packet! Ah, and the talk of an inheritance! A farm to be sold? What a bonus!
Laughing softly, he marches off to his next client.
“That girl is using you, Servaas! You mean to tell me that you’ve sent her all that money? It’s a large chunk of your savings, man! You cannot be serious.”
Servaas bites his lip. Gertruida may be right, and he knows it. But … Martha. That’s the only reason. He doesn’t care what she’s up to, but he’s quite sure she needs the money desperately, and for a good reason. His life is nearing its end – why not help the poor girl?
“Servaas! Wake up you old fool!” Gertruida is shaking him by the shoulders. “If you feel so strongly about it, you must go there and see for yourself. She’s deceiving you, I tell you.”
It’s all the Verdana’s fault, of course. They have family in Milan; family that asked questions. Family that have a close relationship with the Teatro Alla Scala. No lead singer by the name of Martha Pretorius – that’s what they said.
She looks down at the old man, noting the slump in his shoulders that have become so pronounced over the past few days.
“I’m sorry, Servaas. I think I understand, but that doesn’t mean I agree with what she’s doing.“
Servaas sighs. There’s no fool like an old fool. Yep, that’s me. An old fool.
“I’ve got a bit of money in some index fund, Gertruida. It’s been laying there for decades now. Haven’t even looked at it for years.” He sighs again. “I’m going there. If she’s in trouble, I may be able to help. If she’s okay, I’ll come back.”
As Boggel pushes over a beer, he catches Gertruida’s eye. She shrugs, spreads her arms wide and looks around for help.
“I’ll go with,” Old Marco says. “I know Milan. I know people there. We’ll sort out this mess.”
Servaas slumps down on the counter. What started so innocently – he has to fight to convince himself of this – has now become a massive problem. He only had supper with the girl! Well, okay, they danced and all that, but that doesn’t justify the trouble she’s landed him in. If she did lie (and why would she?), that makes her a very bad person indeed. If she’s talking the truth, he may end up looking a bigger fool than he already is. But…he trusts Getruida. She knows everything, doesn’t she? And there’s another thing: it’s not that he thinks he loves the girl or anything – but he does feel responsible. On the other hand – he did feel absolutely alive and thrilled when they danced. Did she lead him on? Or did something stir to life inside him again – something that has been hibernating for so long?
He has to find out.
Synopsis of Rigoletto here: