I am about sixteen. I wake up in the middle of night. The sound of distant crunching, faint music and the light spilling into the corridor lure me like the tune of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. I get out of bed. Naz, the canine of miscellaneous origin curled up at the bottom of my bed, opens his sleep-glazed eyes briefly, then closes them again. No cause for alarm. He’s seen this happen before over the years. Many, many times.
At the small kitchen table, my mother is leafing through an out-of-date Il Corriere della Sera or Le Monde which she hasn’t had time to look at sooner. She’s at the office all day and sometimes doesn’t come home until late. She is buttering a row of three of four grissini, trying not to break them, balances a small piece of parmigiano on the pan flute-like construction, then shakes a bottle of Tabasco sauce over it before putting it into her mouth. The sharp scent rushes up my nostrils. Soft music is playing on the radio. While munching, she reaches for a red felt tip pen and marks articles she intends to cut out later.
She is startled. “Oh, tesoro, did I wake you up? I’m so sorry. I’m going to bed in a minute – I was on my way, as a matter of fact, but I suddenly felt hungry.”
The clock on top of the fridge shows half past midnight. Suddenly hungry after midnight. As usual.
I sit at the table, yawning. My eyes wander over the maps that cover practically every inch of the wall. Israel, Italy, Turkey, France, Greece, USA, Germany, Luxembourg. My mother’s way of helping me learn geography. Scraps of paper with quotations. Francis Bacon, Erasmus, Julius Caesar, Shakespeare, Ernest Renan, Trilussa. Her way of helping me learn to think.
I reach out for a grissino and crunch off the tip, lazily. “Are you hungry, too?” she asks, quickly swallowing her mouthful. “Here, help yourself.” She pushes the packet of extra long, thin, Piedmontese-style breadsticks, the butter and cheese closer to me. Then she stands up and opens the fridge door. “What else would you like? Oh, look, we have some fontina – would you like some?”
I shake my head and keep crunching my grissino.
She suddenly gasps and turns up the radio slightly. “Listen, listen. You recognise it, don’t you?”
“Dvořák’s Symphonic Dances.”
She gasps again. “I adore this.” She softly hums along.
I cut myself a piece of cheese.
“Here, don’t you want some Tabasco sauce on it?” Her expression turns pixieish. “It’s very, very hot.” She picks up the small bottle, throws her head back, and shakes some sauce on her tongue. Her eyes narrow. “Mmm… Delicious!”
She’s daring me. Or else she wants confirmation that I’m really her flesh and blood, that she can be proud of me. I want her to be proud of me. I accept the bottle she’s handing me and put Tabasco on my cheese. The sharp chilli and vinegar taste wakes me up.
“Good, isn’t it?”
I nod. I’m like her. My mother’s daughter.
She sits down again and returns to her snack.
“Your Auntie J. and I, when we shared a flat, sometimes, when we had no money and no dinner invitations, we would sit and eat grissini and Tabasco sauce at night. And we would dance the bossa nova or the cha-cha-cha. ”
I’ve heard this before, but I love hearing it again. My mother and her Iranian friend, a stunning-looking woman with ivory skin, black hair and bright blue eyes – Auntie J. to me – and their exploits in early 1960s Rome. Via Veneto till four in the morning, a month’s salary on a pair of soft leather Magli shoes, chasing after singer Domenico Modugno in J.’s Fiat 600 (until he stopped his car, came out and looked around to see the two girls waving at him), dancing in nightclubs on boats moored on the Tiber, coloured lightbulbs strung on the deck. Like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.
Before I came along and made it all abruptly impossible.
“You can dance the bossa nova, can’t you?”
Yes. She taught me on one of the other nights like this one.
“And the cha-cha-cha?”
I wish I could say yes. But it’s 1981. My school friends and I go to discos with bright flashing lights, red laser beams. We dance to Richard Sanderson singing Reality and want to look like Sophie Marceau.
“Come!” My mother goes into the living room and switches on the lights. “Come and stand next to me.”
My face has an uncontrollable grin of anticipation across it. I’m going to bond with her.
“Now look at me. One, two, one-two-three. One, two, one-two-three. Wait!” She kicks off her slippers and sends them flying across the room. Her feet have exceptionally high arches. Nothing between the ball and the heel touches the marble floor.
I park my slippers next to the sofa and follow her example.
She takes me by the hand. “One, two, one-two-three. Now this isn’t ballet school, so sway your hips a little. Like this. Good.”
Good. Well, I can’t sway as gracefully as she. Just like I’ll never get into her 60-centimetre waist silk and satin evening dresses – the ones she wore before I came along – which she is saving for me for when I grow up.
Suddenly, an outraged, astounded face appears in the doorway. Without her glasses, my grandmother’s large, slightly protruding eyes look even larger. This cameo is also part of the routine. She looks at my mother. “Are you crazy? It’s one o’clock in the morning! The child has to go to school tomorrow! Katia, go to bed. And look at you, barefoot on the stone floor. You’ll catch a cold!”
I reply, on cue, “Oh, no, not yet, please!”
“Yes, yes, Mum, you’re absolutely right,” my mother says with a total lack of sincerity. “We’ll both go to bed soon. I promise. Why don’t you come and dance with us?”
My grandmother stands in the doorway for a few seconds. “Well, goodnight, you crazy night owls.”
She vanishes as quietly as she appeared. Such a light step. “She never even wears out her shoes,” my mother often says.
Now that I’ve mastered the basic steps, we come to phase two of the lesson. My mother goes to the bamboo bookcase that holds all our records. She pulls out an Ella Fitzgerald LP, places it on the Philips turntable, lifts the arm, carefully lowers the sapphire stylus on the right track.
You-ouuuuuuuuuu – you!
You’re driving me crazy
One, two, cha-cha-cha. One, two, cha-cha-cha.
We dance together. Ella Fitzgerald speeds up. The words are sung faster and faster, spiralling beyond the possibility of any dance steps, so it becomes a free for all on the marble floor.
It’s half past one. We’re both breathless, suppressing our laughter to avoid waking up my grandmother. “Now go to bed, tesoro,” my mother says, her face suddenly authoritative although the corners of her mouth are still dimpled and her eyes sparkling.
I go to bed. My mother returns to the kitchen. I wonder how long she’ll stay up. I wish I weren’t so sleepy. I wish I didn’t have school tomorrow. On my bed, the dog is snoring. I slip under the blanket, taking care not to push him with my feet.
I fall asleep, smiling, my hand under my pillow, the previous couple of hours tight in my fist. Like a treasure I never want to lose.