Monday, February 17, 2014
Story: Arriving in Milan
By Lady Charlotte
At the airport, standing in the passport queue, I see a cleaning woman. She is in marked contrast to the beautifully dressed travelers, surrounded by their expensive luggage, waiting to catch their flights to exotic destinations round the world. The cleaning woman looks weary. She wears a drab, ugly, blue uniform dress. Dusters hang from her pockets. She pushes a trolley loaded with buckets, detergents and mops. The effort causes her to sweat. The uniform clings to her body. A name tag identifies her. I am too far away to read it. I guess that it will not be the name of an Italian, for the cleaner looks foreign. Her skin is dark brown, except for her hands, which are red. Her knees too, I guess, beneath her skirt, must be red. She looks as though she has spent long hours on them, scrubbing floors. What would it be like, I wonder, to be such a woman, so drab amidst such style? I glance at the passport queue, ahead and behind me. Full of tourists, business people, Italian and English. For the Italians, fashion is a religion, and for the English a heresy, but everyone, all the same, is marked by the clothes that they wear. Everyone looks rich. Everyone except for the cleaner. I look back at her. She is gone. I feel a tightness in my stomach, a golden touch of shame. I show my passport. The officer waves me through.
The bus drops me off in the centre of Milan. Of course, there had been no question of taking a taxi. The instructions had been perfectly specific. 'Bring no more money than you will need to pay for a bus.' Now, alone, in a foreign city, I have nothing in my purse, nothing except for an address. I look at it, then study a map. I find my way to the street on the address. I look down it. How expensive it appears! Expensive even by the standards of Milan! The people walking down it, how beautifully they are dressed! I think of the cleaning woman I had seen back at the airport. No Prada for her! How would she feel, to walk down such a street, her uniform hanging drably, streaked with dirt and sweat? In comparison to those around her, what would she feel herself to be?
Maybe I will soon know. I have come to Milan, not as a shopper, but to work.
I stand before the Signora. Already, I dare not think of her by her name. She is elegant, as only an Italian can be. She leans back in her chair. She inspects me. I feel a flush rise to my cheeks. "I will speak to you in English," she says, "but you must reply only in Italian."
"Ma?" I stammer. "Ma, scusi, Signora, non parlo italiano."
The Signora dismisses my objection with a wave of her hand. "You will need only the most basic vocabulary. You are merely a servant, after all."
I flush even more. Now, for the first time, I understand what it is that I am committing to, what my future is to be. I feel a terrible constriction about my heart. And yet I feel a freedom too. I will work, and I will appear drab and tired and plain to all who see me, and no one will value me for anything I have to say - and yet, and yet?
I wake again from my musings. "Signora?"
"Julia." She rolls the syllables around her tongue as though my name were a grape. "That is not a name for a servant, is it?"
I swallow. So even my name is to be taken from me? "Non, Signora."
"Well, we will have to replace it"
The Signora thinks. Then she shrugs with impatience. "In due course, we shall see."
Another long pause. Then the Signora smiles. It seems, there is almost pity in her eyes. "Julia."
"It is still not too late."
"Troppo tardi, Signora?"
"You will not be my only maid here."
I look up, startled. I had never imagined there would another. I cannot keep the look of resentment from my face.
"I also have a servant from the Philippines, illiterate, a woman for whom this job is the greatest opportunity of her life. Unlike you, she has not been to college, she has never had a credit card, she knows nothing of the world. Yet still, if you remain here, she will be your superior. So. I said it was not too late. What is it to be?"
A long silence. Then I speak. "Sono la tua domesticha, Signora."
The Signora nods. "Welcome then. Benvenuto. Benvenuto a la tua vita nuova."
I find it hard to think. I'm so tired. Numb too. My work numbs my brain. I am like a beast. A beast of burden. Once, I was had a life in which I was bright and funny. I read books, bought nice clothes, knew about the world. Now I know nothing, save my duties and my chores. I'm tired, so tired. I would give anything to rest. But there are floors to be scrubbed, always floors. Is this what it's like to be a painter on the Forth Bridge, knowing that the job will never be finished? No sooner are the floors completed than they have to be started on again. It seems as though I am never off all-fours.
I heave the bucket to the top of the stairs. Ahead of me, down the passage, is a mirror. I see myself in it. I pause. The image still looks strange. Is that me? That drudge? How plain she seems! Her hair is greasy, her skin streaked with sweat - for in the Signora's house, the maids are allowed to shower no more than once a week. Her hands are red, her nails chipped - the hands of a working woman. She wears no makeup, no ear rings, no jewellery. Not even a watch. Time, to a servant, is an endless blur.
I take a step closer to the image in the mirror. How ugly her clothes are! A shapeless blue uniform, buttoned all the way up the front, a matching apron, wooden clogs. All, and her bare arms too, are streaked with dirt. Out of the pockets used dusters hang.
I cannot stay to inspect myself. I return to the bucket, sink down onto my knees. Oh, they hurt! I wet the coarse cloth, spray the cleaner on the floor, then start to scrub. My hands too hurt so badly! I am not allowed gloves. When I first came to the Signorna's house, and was introduced to Conchita, the Signora's other maid, she took my hand, and gazed at it in disbelief, it seemed so soft and white to her. "Non e la mano di una domesticha", was her only comment. But now it is.
I inch slowly down the passage, scrubbing as I go. Then I hear footsteps, and a door opens. The Signora! I have to curtsey when she comes across me, then press my face to the wall, but this time she motions me to stay on my knees. I gaze at her shoes.
"Molly," she says.
Even now, the use of this name makes me flush. To have had even my name stripped away from me! "Si Signora?", I answer.
"We have guests tonight. There is shopping that needs to be done. Conchita has the list."
"Si Signora." I glance up at her. She smiles. She knows that I hate to be seen on the streets. It matters nothing to her. The smile fades from her lips. She continues on her way. I return to my scrubbing of the floor.
The story was saved from a now defunct Yahoo group by The Nerdly and looks unfinished. If you are the author or have the rest of this interesting piece please don't hesitate to contact me.