The woman had red-painted lips. When she parted them, Luca could see that her teeth were stained golden. Her hair fell to her slender shoulders in chestnut curls, and long lashes framed her sapphire eyes. Her dark brows had been shaped into thin arches and a crater formed in her right cheek when she displayed one of her rare smiles. In those days, Luca knew little of women—little of the world outside his own village—but he knew that she possessed the rare beauty of the female saints in Father Antonio’s picture book. Just as many of these saints had resigned themselves to lives of poverty, the woman seemed to dress in rags. A faded brown skirt hung from her waist to her knees. She wore a grey knitted cardigan that fell loosely over a yellowed blouse, and a pair of tattered black pumps. Whenever she left the boarding house, she placed a man’s fedora atop her head. Her name was Valeria, but she told Luca that all her friends in Paris had called her “Valerie”.
When Luca first arrived at the boarding house after the long journey from his village to Milan, Concetta, the portly landlady dressed in black, showed him to his room. It was a simple space on the second floor, which held little more than a small bed, a chamber pot and a wash basin, and a battered chest in which to store his few belongings. Luca set his suitcase on top of the bed and stared at the crucifix that hung on the floral wallpaper above the bed.
“The men in this house stay on the second floor, and the women stay on the first. I won’t have any of my men or women mingling outside of the common areas. There’s a room for the men to bathe down the hall, and you and the other male boarder must take turns cleaning it. You’re to keep your room tidy and dispose of your own nightsoil. You’re not to bring any female visitors to your room. If you want to meet with ladies, you can do so away from my house. You’ll pay your rent on the first day of every month—I’m a generous Catholic, but this is not a charity…I have a boarding house to run,” Concetta lectured as Luca settled onto the edge of the bed. “If you must smoke, use an ashtray, and dispose of your own litter. If you don’t comply with my rules, I’ll have you pack your suitcase and you can find another place to live. You’ve just missed supper, but if you come downstairs with me, I can give you some bread and tea.”
The next morning, Luca met the other boarders over breakfast in Concetta’s dining room. Everyone around the table, aside from the landlady, had flocked to Milan from some other part of the country. Most had come from impoverished villages in the south, from regions Luca had only ever seen on Father Antonio’s maps. There was Laura, a petite, childless widow with dark hair and raven eyes. After her husband had perished during the Spanish flu, Laura had traveled to Milan from Basilicata against the wishes of her in-laws. “I’m a woman without a husband…I have to make my own way into the world. My in-laws’ village was so lonely without my husband,” Laura explained.
Francesco, a bespectacled man with a receding hairline, had come to Milan from Calabria some thirty years ago, and was currently working as a waiter in an establishment where only rich people could afford to dine. Carmella, a thin girl from Puglia with small hazel eyes, worked long hours in a bakery every Monday to Saturday.
Gemma, a statuesque young lady with coiffed blond hair and rouge painted over her lips and cheeks, had come from Rome to study bookkeeping, though she dreamed of becoming a film star, much to the horror of her banker father. Then there was Valeria, the woman with the piercing blue eyes, who said that she had been born in Florence, and had returned to Italy after a prolonged sojourn in Paris.
Everyone seated at the dining table, excluding Valeria, bowed their heads to give thanks before tucking into their meal of bread, tea, and plum preserves. After breakfast, most of the boarders followed Concetta to Mass while Valeria settled into the living room with a cigarette and a book with a foreign word Marx on its spine.
A few weeks later, when Luca returned from a long day apprenticing at the tailor’s shop, a tall man stood in front of the boarding house. He wore a black beret atop his oval hairless head and a long black jacket over his slender frame.
The man stopped Luca as he attempted to enter the house. “Is Valeria home?” he wanted to know.
“I don’t know, sir. She’s probably out teaching one of her students,” Luca replied.
The man pulled a white envelope from his jacket. “Give this to Valeria. Tell her that I won’t be contacting her again. My wife knows about everything.” The man walked away from the boarding house before Luca could ask for his name.
Luca entered Concetta’s house. He called out for the old woman but got no reply. Luca walked to the back of the house and tapped softly on Valeria’s door. Again, no reply. Luca tried the doorknob, but it was locked. He climbed the stairs to his room where he dozed on the bed, still clutching the white envelope.
Later that night, after Concetta and the other boarders had retired to their rooms, Luca delivered the envelope to Valeria. She answered the door in a ragged blue robe, and beckoned Luca into her room. “I only came to bring you this envelope. A bald man in a hat and a long jacket told me to give it to you,” he stammered.
Valeria grabbed Luca’s wrist and pulled him into her room, locking the door behind him. She held out her hand for the envelope. Luca watched as Valeria greedily tore into the envelope, revealing a small stack of bills. He noticed that her lips were void of their usual scarlet colouring. Valeria counted the money quickly, nodded her head as though in agreement, and dropped the banknotes onto the desk.
Luca noticed a bamboo flute resting on the windowsill. “Will you play that for me?” he asked.
Valeria smiled. “Since you’ve been so kind as to deliver the money, I’ll play for you. Some of the other boarders would have kept the money for themselves.”
Valeria lifted the flute from its perch on the windowsill. A red knotted string hung from the instrument. She held it out before her with a grin. “My only child,” she said. “Binh gave it to me.” She kissed her lips to the flute and birdsong filled the room.
“Who is Binh?” Luca asked when the piece came to an end.
Valeria opened her eyes and fixed her blue gaze on him. Luca felt his cheeks grow warm as she took him in with her cobalt eyes: his slight frame, the fair skin, his own azure eyes, and the cropped sandy hair. “I knew Binh in Paris,” she finally answered. “He was from Indochina. He was a university student, a poet, an artist…the only man I will ever love. When Binh died, he took my love with him.”
“You can love again…your love never depletes, even when you think someone has taken the last of it,” Luca said gently. It was something that Father Antonio had said many years ago.
Valeria shook her chestnut curls in annoyance. “No! I never could…I’ll never love again.”
It seemed so long ago now. Mama had just pushed out a little girl, a stillborn. The door stood ajar, and Luca peered into the room. The hunchbacked midwife with the lined face was wiping Mama’s brow with a damp rag. Luca’s oldest sister Domenica was swaddling the little girl with a white cloth.
Father Antonio came and baptised the little girl and performed the last rites. Mama wailed as the little girl was laid into the ground. “Anna, your love never depletes,” the priest told Mama. “Your heart still has love to give. You still have your husband and your other children to care for.”
Valeria retuned the bamboo flute to the windowsill and took Luca’s hand in her own chapped fingers, leading him to the small bed in the corner. When they were done, she told him that they had not made love. Binh was the only man she loved. It was possible to simply fulfil your carnal desires with someone else. Sometimes, the world seemed to fall apart without Binh.
Valeria and Luca whispered deep into the night, cramped together in the little bed. She told him that she had been born in Florence, a descendant of the great House of Medici. When Valeria turned six, she entered a girls’ school where she studied calligraphy, piano, flute, needlework, and French. Music came naturally to her, but she detested needlework.
Valeria’s education ended abruptly when she turned seventeen and her parents told her that she would marry a boy from another aristocratic family. The wedding was put on hold when Valeria’s mother was found dead in her bedchamber; some people said that her mother had gone mad. When Valeria’s father promptly moved his mistress into her late mother’s chambers, Valeria shunned her fiancé and gave the boy back his ring. She pawned the jewels she had inherited from her mother, stuffed her flute and a few dresses into a suitcase, and escaped to Paris.
In Paris, Valeria, a descendant of the great House of Medici, found work as a laundress in the home of a wealthy French industrialist. One morning, while Valeria was scrubbing the family’s undergarments, the industrialist’s wife decided that the young Florentine would be better suited to teaching her little girl, Giselle, the languages of both Italian and music.
Giselle had an English governess, a lanky polyglot named Elizabeth. Elizabeth had grown up in genteel poverty, in an aging London house filled with an almost endless supply of books. Elizabeth introduced Valeria to her circle of friends, who had come to Paris from all corners of France and its empire. They were academics, poets, artists, novelists, and musicians—all of them were great intellectuals.
In Paris, she became “Valerie”. All her friends there had called her that. It was in Paris that she met Binh, one of the great minds in Elizabeth’s social circle. On her eighteenth birthday, Valeria left the industrialist’s house and moved into Binh’s apartment. She read all his books and became his lover. Valeria, now known as “Valerie”, denounced her elite upbringing but remained thankful for her fine musical training. Binh encouraged female financial independence, so Valerie taught piano and flute to the wealthy children of Paris.
Binh, a subject of the French Empire, was sent to the front during the war and died defending a colonial system that had oppressed him in the first place. Valerie had wept bitter tears when their friends—who were all opposed to the war—told her that Binh had been killed. When the war ended and the Spanish flu had seemed to subside, Valerie returned to Florence where her father told her that one of her brothers had been killed in battle and that his own mistress had died of the flu. Her other brother had left home one day, and Valerie’s father had never heard from him again. Valerie’s father asked her to return to his house, but she refused. Valerie, once again “Valeria”, wandered around northern and central Italy, attending lectures and teaching music. By the time she reached Milan, both her feet and her heart were sore, and she decided to stay.
Lying in the narrow bed in Concetta’s house, Luca and Valeria fell asleep as the sun rose over Milan.
That evening, Valeria ate little at supper but drank two cups of weak tea. At the end of the meal, she announced that she would go to bed early. After the meal, Luca crept by Valeria’s room. The door stood ajar, and he could see her sweeping the floor with Concetta’s corn broom. Luca went back to his own room and said his prayers before turning out the lamp.
Luca woke from a dreamless sleep to the sound of feet stomping against the ground floor of Concetta’s house. Who could be making so much noise at this time of night? Perhaps Gemma had let her boyfriend and his rowdy friends into the boarding house again. Concetta would surely throw her out this time.
The sound of women screaming was followed by the angry cursing of men. Doors slamming, glass shattering, objects being thrown against walls. Men shouting, saying that someone had been caught, and they were taking her away. Concetta screaming that this was her house, and that they had no right to be there. Luca sat up in the bed and threw his legs over the edge, knocking over the chamber pot. A foul smell hit his nostrils and he cursed as he stepped into the puddle of his own waste. Frantic knocking on the door to his room. Francesco telling him to stay inside his own room, there was nothing that the men could do for the women now.
Luca fumbled through the dark and the chaos seemed to subside as quickly as it had begun. Women sobbing and asking the Virgin Mary to grant mercy over somebody’s soul. Francesco stumbling down the stairs, shouting that the whole country was plunging into madness. What made those men think that they could just come into this house and take whatever they wanted? When Luca rose with the sun the next morning, he wasn’t so sure that it had all just been a dream.
Valeria wasn’t in the dining room at breakfast. Luca poured himself a cup of tea and asked the others if she had slept in.
“She’s gone. She left late yesterday evening. She said that it was time for her to leave Milan,” Concetta said.
“Does anyone know where she went?” Luca wanted to know.
“What do you care? Maybe she took off with one of her dirty friends,” Gemma said, chewing on a mouthful of bread.
“Did anyone hear something last night?” Luca asked.
“Oh, you mean those stray cats fighting again. I heard it,” Laura said.
Gemma shook her head. “I didn’t hear them. I slept like the dead,” she laughed.
A week later, Mussolini’s Blackshirts rolled into Rome. Luca sat in the living room, reading the evening news. Concetta bustled in and sat down before the piano. She dusted the keys with the sleeve of her blouse. The notes swept past Luca and hit the carved ceiling, where they seemed to hang like stars.
“Do you play, Luca?” Concetta asked.
Luca looked up from an advertisement touting tooth powder. “No. I don’t.”
“My daughter used to play. This was her piano. She was a good girl. Beautiful and intelligent. Very talented. She would have made a good wife for a young man, but she died of the flu,” Concetta sighed. “With Valeria gone, I don’t know if anyone will ever play this piano again.”
“I’m sorry you lost your daughter,” Luca said gently. “My mother also lost a daughter a long time ago.”
Concetta looked up at the portrait hanging above the instrument: a girl, perhaps seventeen or eighteen, with almond eyes and rosebud lips. “When I lost my daughter and husband, I just had to hear other voices and footsteps in the house again. When I first opened to boarders, I only took in girls. But then I had to hear male voices, too, so I took in men as well.”
Concetta lifted her ample bottom from the piano bench. “You’re a good boy, Luca,” she said as she left the room.
That week, Luca decided not to attend Mass with the others, feigning a pounding headache. When the others left in their church clothes, he crept down the stairs and stood outside the room that Valeria had once occupied with her books and her flutes, and her memories of a man named Binh. Valeria, the woman with two names, rich chestnuts curls, red-painted lips, and a man’s fedora.
Luca tried the doorknob but found it locked.
Natalie Welsh holds a Master of Arts in Humanities from York University in Toronto, Canada. She is the Founding Editor of Syncopation Literary Journal. Her fiction has appeared in New Sociology: Journal of Critical Praxis. Natalie resides in the Greater Toronto Area where she plays music and writes short stories.