Servaas in Milan

Teatro Alla Scala, Milano

“They’ve been away a week already. I wonder how they are. Servaas said he’d phone as soon as he’s back in Cape Town, so they must still be in Italy.” Kleinpiet is drawing aeroplanes on the counter top faster than Boggel can wipe them off.

“Milan is a city like no other in the world,” Gertruida lectures them, “and the hub of the fashion industry. It has the stock exchange, the river Po, and the bean bag originated here. It’s been under Spanish and Austrian rule in the past. It’s a culinary paradise.” She scans the faces around her, pausing dramatically. “And the Mafia moved there from Sicily.”

“You mean to tell us there is more crime in Milan than in Upington?” Vetfaan had a sack of mealies stolen from the back of his pickup a few weeks ago and is still upset about it.

“You have no idea, Vetfaan. The Mafia makes our crooks look like amateurs – except for the politicians: they compare well.  The point is this: if Servaas puts a foot wrong over there, he may land himself in big trouble.”

“At least he has old Marco with him.” Precilla looks over to Lucinda for support. “He knows the ropes, doesn’t he? And he speaks Italian, which will help a lot.”

“Si. Papa is well-known in Milan. I’m sure they won’t be away for a long time.” Gertruida isn’t fooled. The note of uncertainty – even anxiety – was too obvious to ignore.

***

“Well, Servaas, here we are in the Via Tomasso Grossi. The teatro is just around the corner.” Old Marco seems to be excited to be back in Italy – and emotion Servaas doesn’t share at all. Having flown in that morning, he is tired and drained. What if he finds out Martha doesn’t even stay in Milan? Maybe she lied about everything?  What if…?

“First we have a coffee, yes? The Café Mercanti is over there. They make a good espresso.” Old Marco has been telling Servaas a lot about Milan and its history. Servaas is mildly impressed, but too preoccupied to pay much attention.  And, of course, he never imagined that so many people can live together in one place. Upington is bad enough, but this…? There are busses and trams and thousands of men and women milling around. Some of them seem in untoward haste, while others saunter around. Being used to Voortrekker Weg, where the lorry from Kalahari Vervoer causes a bit of a hold-up on Tuesdays when it has to turn back to Upington, doesn’t help either. The constant hooting of vehicles and the shouted conversations are a far cry from Rolbos.

“Is it always like this,” he asks when they sit down in the autumn sun outside the café.

“Oh, si! You don’t like, I see. But maybe we find Martha quickly and we can return home.”

Now that scares Servaas even more. The whole process of passing through customs, where suspicious eyes follow your every move, was harrowing. And the flight! It was his first time in an aeroplane – an experience he’d rather forget. The seats are too small, the drinks are too small, and the toilet…well, he’d rather not think about that one. A long-drop is much more logical. At least you know where everything goes.

“Oh, scusi?” Marco calls a waiter over and orders the coffee. “And I wonder if you know the teatro?”

The waiter nods. “Si. I sometimes work there. It is a great honour, because I can see the opera or ballet for free then. And the tips! You won’t believe how much you make there at night. I’ll get your order now.”

***

“I don’t understand it,” Servaas mumbles when then get back on the street, “if that waiter has seen so many operas, he should have heard about Martha.”

“Maybe she has a stage name?” Marco tries to reassure Servaas, but can see he’s not making any progress. “Well, here we are. Piazza della Scala. And there is the teatro, is it not magnificent? Come, we ask. We’ll find out soon.”

The two tired men walk in under the archway, looking for somebody to talk to. Marco’s Italian has helped them a lot to get through the airport and to the theatre, but now there is no-one to talk to. The vaulted roof seems to disappear in the distance – Servaas has never seen anything like that. “It has been renovated recently,” Marco says, “and they’ve done a good job, I think. Look, there is the bookstore – maybe we can ask there.”

Author’s note:

Out of deference to Servaas, the visit to the book shop will not be described.  Martha was behind the counter, stacking books. He asked. She broke down. He was shocked. Old Marco said this happens all the time in Italy, Servaas mustn’t be so upset. Servaas asked about the money. She told him about Roberto…and the cocaine.

 

***

“But why? Why lie to your mother? To me? I liked you because you sang so beautifully, not because you are famous?  You could have told me, for goodness’ sakes.”

“Oh, Servaas!” She accepts the offered handkerchief and blows her nose. “Mama would have died if I told her how things are over here. I had the best voice in the music department at Stellenbosch University. Everybody said I had a bright future on stage. Then I…I came here, see? To the big time? I was so sure they’d accept me immediately. But no! When I heard the voices here, I knew I’d never make it. I was good, very good. They were just a lot better. The theatre took pity on me and had me sing in the chorus, sometimes.

“And Roberto – he has contacts everywhere, he got me the job in this book shop. He came backstage one night after a performance and asked who the new girl was. I was thrilled. He took me home that night. I was so stupid, I really was. I thought he liked the way I sang, and he even said so. But at his house he gave me my first sniff of cocaine. He said everybody does it, I mustn’t worry. And that’s where it started. I was hooked. Cocaine made me feel beautiful, made me forget….”  She falls silent for a while, remembering how easy it was for her to fall into the trap. A stupid little girl from a silly little town – she had no chance. “And Mama – she had such high hopes! And once I started lying, I couldn’t come out with the truth, could I? Mama was so proud. She told me so in her letters. No, I lied because I was ashamed of what I did to her dreams.”

Servaas shakes his head. How is it possible that such a beautiful dream could turn into a nightmare?

“And at the funeral – how could I tell you good people what a bad woman I am? I had to keep up the lie, had to lie to all of you – for Mama’s sake. Then, when you invited me, I was so glad. Relieved. The Verdana’s are a known family in Milan. Very influential. Very rich. I was afraid they’d start asking me about La Scala, and figure out my deceit.  So I was glad to escape and come to you. Only…only there, with you, I felt myself again. I did take a little coke before the evening, not much, and when I was in your house, I felt I should have some more. The funny thing was – I realised I didn’t need it. You made me feel comfortable. You made me feel like a woman again. A somebody. Me. Honestly, Servaas, you did something to me no man has ever done – you dressed up, made a wonderful supper, and that old gramophone with the records…”

“Hey! Woman! You’re not lying again, are you?” Old Marco has an extremely direct way of tackling problems. He also knows a bit more about women than Servaas. Martha gives a sad smile, blows her nose again and shakes her head.

“No, Uncle Marco, not this time. You two have travelled halfway across the world to see if you can help me. This time, I think, is my last chance. If I don’t come clean now, I never will.”

“I want to talk to this Roberto. If he no tell me the same, you lose your job here. I know people.” Marco watches her closely as he speaks.  This woman has lied to everybody – she may well be busy with her routine again. “You’ll be finished in Milan.”

“I am finished in Milan, Uncle Marco. I’ve fallen behind in my rent because of my … problem. I know what is next. Roberto will use me for his … other business. The one with women? You know?  And what can a woman like me expect there? I’ll tell you.” For a moment her eyes blaze with helpless fury. “I’m not beautiful. I’m not even presentable. Look at me! I’m an object; use once and discard! A consumable product for drunken men. The next step is more drugs. AIDS. A slow death. I’ve made up my mind, that’s why I wrote that we’re going on tour. I’ll find a place to stay somewhere and hope or the best. There’s nothing else to do.” She delivers the rest of the speech mechanically, as if she’s talking about somebody else.

“You no go anywhere, understand? Wherever you go, my family will find you. Now me and Servaas are going to have a chat with your friend Roberto. You say he took you home that night. Now you tell us where he lives and we go. Then you give me your address, too. Me and Servaas will come talk to you. Afterwards, we talk to you.”

The two men walk out of one of the most famous theatres in the world, well aware that in the entire history of the building, no greater drama has ever played out there. The others were plays.

This one is for real.

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