“So, who might your admirer be?” Sipho asked, sitting upon the barstool that was his usual spot as he worked at a bowl of oats and figs, along with a cup of English Breakfast tea. He somehow knew the reason for the elegant barwoman’s demeanour and subtle weakness. Esperanza hadn’t always done anything other than serve wine and cocktails. She was, for a time, a courtesan. She was on hiatus from her usual duty, whilst a short-term part-time server took her place. She couldn’t deny at that time that she felt like something was missing. It was the previous time the place wished luck to the latest courtesan to depart.
Esperanza answered, “Not so much of an admirer as someone I wanted to keep in touch with.” After finishing that, she turned off the electric kettle behind her, to pour the hot water in another porcelain mug, anticipating another upcoming presence, and he was just approaching the bar with the surprisingly high counter. Esperanza wore a short-sleeved, long-skirt lilac dress. Because of the heat and she wouldn’t be going anywhere in the winter, she always tended the bar with short-sleeved dresses, not caring if it was lace or button-down. Just as the barwoman turned around, steeping the tea, she said contently, “Avete dormito bene, Rogelio?”
The young man replied plainly, “Sì. Credo sia la mia recompensa per il duro lavoro.”
Esperanza chuckled, “Your guess is quite right.”
Rogelio turned to Sipho, asking, “How about you? Did you work hard yesterday?”
Monotone, the tan man answered, “Much so that my hand still aches.”
Based on the voice, the young man felt like he did something that Sipho hated. He changed the subject, saying, “Not familiar with that fruit.”
Not looking up, Sipho muttered, “Go ahead and try one.” He set down his spoon. Rogelio then hesitated, but slowly reached out and picked up one of the fig slices, to bite half of. He chewed it slowly, wanting to know its taste. He stated, “That’s good.”
Still not making eye contact, Sipho offered, “I can show you where they are if you want.”
As he steeped his tea, Rogelio responded, “I would like that.”
“If it is no bother, I would like to finish my breakfast first.” His oatmeal was still warm and moist.
Seeing as he was to wait a short while, Rogelio turned to Esperanza, asking, “Can you tell me anything about any other cortigiane?”
“Of course. I see that you already met Mirella. How are you with her?”
“We seem to have made friends.”
“One other well-known mistress is Amalia.”
“And what is she known for?”
“Her spirit. She’s always energetic, wanting to savour the moment. The regulars favour her for that. By the way, she is the one with the reddish-blonde hair. Men to whom I served drinks have told me how seductive she looks and moves.” She chuckled, “They can thank Sipho for that; he gave her and a few others a short series of dance lessons.”
Astounded, Rogelio looked to Sipho, bellowing, “You dance?!”
“I do, but it is not my campo di compentenza.”
Esperanza stated, “Sounds more ironic with each time you say that.”
“Shut up”, Sipho spat.
The barwoman leaned forward to whisper to Rogelio, “He prefers a quiet breakfast, too.”
Bitter as Sipho was when he finished up, he still showed the young man where the figs were always kept in the kitchen. Rogelio sliced up a few to go with his buttered toast.
The tan man wanted to focus more on his passion, which was hard to do as he was to wait on several people that were eating alone. This was a day that he hated just as much. Even though his duty first at the inn was serving dishes, he would get bored easily as this day was a slow day. Still, he worked his position like the ladies would, simply expecting to get paid. The day passed by that day.
And how Sipho looked forward to picking up on his personal work. He lamented having, let alone taking, so little time on what he loved. It was already a thrill to him that he set up his easel, canvas, palette, brushes, and paints. That was something that he wanted more practice on, without making something for people to keep in a drawer and unfold to look at to get themselves engorged. Sipho genuinely loved painting, even in the days when he smeared the paints on his hands and around himself. Though he had grown bored of the same subjects, there was one subject from his culture to sink in. That was the subject that he brushed up on, looking at pictures from a book that he kept, before seeing how well he could mimic. His technique when trying a new subject was that he would see how well he could mimic its structure and pose. Heeding the advice of his young friend, Sipho picked up on his favourite subject, and saw how he would do.
The tan man spent at least an hour and a quarter, filling in the background, as he wanted no blank area. He had the outline of his subject of focus, so an area would be left blank. By mixing the paints for shading, Sipho made sure to capture all possible detail in the image that he was familiar with.
The end result had obvious flaws, but Sipho looked closely, regarding what he could work on next time. When he was first criticised in his work, he was in tears. He was just a child then. However, he was talked out of giving up. That was when he comprehended the criticism. To have flaws pointed out was how he would learn from his mistakes, and how he would want to get better. While given love, Sipho grew up being told the hard facts.
Believing that he still had time, Sipho took another sheet of canvas to put on his board and easel. He also took another book, to examine a picture of another subject. He stared at the page with a smile, thinking, “Can’t remember the last time I saw one of these.” It had to be years earlier. Understanding how the shading varies and wondering if lines between boards would be visible, getting the colours wouldn’t be easy. The tan man made sure to capture every detail, persevering in something he couldn’t remember making. That was something taught by both his parents: perseverance. He had been persevering in his work; he had persevered when he felt like his life was destroyed.
That painting wasn’t looked at contently. It only made him think of the one to interest him in the subject, and how he grieved. As those thoughts came back to the tan man, he found that making something even when it reopened an old wound hard to believe. Almost suddenly, another thought came to him. Sipho could have rushed if he wanted to, but he didn’t like that sense of sloppiness. So, he was careful to set the canvas down and store the brushes and paints. He then dashed to his bathroom to wash what paint there was on his hands. He hurried back to his office, to take another book with him to the diner floor.
What a surprise to be delivered to people that had arrived for dinner. It was unscheduled and there was no plan for a number. Even the mistresses working as servers were surprised, seeing the tan man on the stage, playing the grand piano, and skillfully. One of them was close to dropping a plate that she was bringing, until someone tapped her shoulder. The women having plates to give their patrons did so before they took their unscheduled break, to just listen to the somber melody played on the piano by the tan man. He loved his creative outlet more than anything. His choice was based on how he really felt. Sipho wished that he could write his own melodies. To read music had already taken him too long.
The tan man cared only about one thing at the moment. His outlets were the only things he had anymore. What he loved, he hoped that his only friends would have sink in. The only one that he couldn’t share his outlets with was non-existent; a faceless phantom buried in his mind. To make it such a vicious cycle was that same sense of loneliness drawing Sipho toward the dark side of the creative arts. This was something obscure to the others, but getting their attention was enough.
Esperanza, though the last to start hearing it from where she stood behind the bar table with the surprisingly high counter, was the first to feel the pain that Sipho expressed. She, too, had been lonely since she had started working as a barwoman trying to offer as much wisdom as she had been giving drinks. Because she knew that she couldn’t do this forever, she had needed to try harder and harder with time to conceal her despair.
Mirella and Amalia couldn’t comprehend what prompted the tan man to perform unexpectedly, and an emotional melody, but they comprehended the choice. They were just a little younger than Sipho and Esperanza, and they had been mistresses to several men that had bought them formal apparel and several expensive gifts, while those ladies had also lent their ears. They now realized that their lives seemed carefree, but time now caught up with them.
The slow melody went on for around six minutes. When the sound of the last keys chiming died, the silence was suddenly overcome by an applause mixed with wails and sobs. This affected Sipho, as well, for he wiped a tear on the left side of his face as he stood up from the cushioned bench in front of the dusty piano. The break was extended by Mirella and Amalia in a profound conversation built on what had just happened. In fact, everyone in the diner was talking, sharing their opinions on the tan man, who had been known to have more than one talent, and what he played for them. The shame for all the patrons and fellow employees was they would never know where the melody came from, who wrote it, or what truly ran in his mind. Even though Sipho had friends in what stood as a diner, an inn, and a brothel, he had rarely spoken to them of his past. As for Rogelio, who listened to the whole thing, he wondered what it was about, and how such a man could let his talents perish. The young man didn’t know what his talents were. All that he had to show for his life was a menial job at a place that he swore to never set foot in. Lost in his thoughts, Rogelio watched the tan man walk right by, maintaining the expression from since he sat down affront the piano. Rogelio was the last one server to get back to his duty and ask if anyone he tended to wanted anything to follow their dinners. What made him lament this job further was that his pay was too low for him to buy anything for himself.
On a Sunday, there were those who still would go somewhere for a meal after some time at a church. Such was the case of Catenza di Giardini. The courtesans were willing to sit with their patrons who had just left church just to talk, wed or unwed. The owner still hadn’t returned and Sipho wondered if her daughter was eager to see her again. In fact, Sipho had already been considering when he wanted to set up a dance number. The only problem was that he was to run it by his real boss. To him, Tamara de Kyvel was no boss, not seeming to care what the courtesans did; only that they did that for which they were paid. Because the day was cloudy and the co-owner had been tending to the garden even at this time of year, she had finally grown bored and was now pacing around the diner, keeping watch on the servers and the customers. It pleased her enough that everyone making up the bustling crowd was satisfied. Even then, she thought of only expressions on her distaste toward the tan man. Even though he was fluent in Italian, she still gave off the aura of loathing. She also focused on the young man, wondering what to make of him. Because of such a crowd, he really rushed. He actually jogged after writing down each order. It was when he exited the kitchen with platters, he didn’t run, but stride, and with all of them, he was close to dropping a plate and leaving a mess. Noticing it, Sipho insisted that he bring dishes to a few tables that Rogelio was waiting on. That helped calm him down, but Sipho had to remind the young man that rushing to serve would only mean trouble. So, right in the middle of the lunch time, Rogelio took a break. In fact, he headed out the front door of the diner. That had both Sipho and Tamara think at the same time: “Has he never worked before?”
After about twenty minutes, when the crowd was dying down, Rogelio entered the diner again, and the first person to see him was Sipho, who immediately handed a stack that was Rogelio’s cut from the last few tables that he waited on, believing that the pay was rightfully to the young man. Sipho asked as Rogelio slowly accepted the stack, “Stai bene?”
Rogelio answered, “Sì. Needed a break. That’s all.”
With a hand on Rogelio’s shoulder, Sipho responded, “Try not to exhaust yourself.”
The young man then went to clean the tables that had just become available. He muttered, “At least I can make tables presentable. What’s more meaningful than that?” Sipho was knowledgeable in acting, and could sense how bothered Rogelio felt, and the tan man could easily sympathise. However, he had no time to think on that at the moment. He had work to do, as well. He didn’t feel like a servant as he could always find free time, though there wasn’t much. Just like with other things, he had grown bored with waiting tables, but that seemed to be his only use at the diner. This was not what Sipho had asked for. It was not what Rogelio had asked for, either.
As if it wasn’t enough that the young woman got to see the tan man on his lesson, she was in for more surprise when arriving late afternoon. She approached the office, like she always would when waiting, and saw that the chair was occupied by the brunette woman not relying on makeup. With excitement, Sogna strode toward the desk and wrapped her arms around her mother. Looking at her, the first thing Sogna said was, “You’re back early.”
As happy as the Madonna was to see her dear daughter, she wasn’t smiling at all. She replied, “In truth, my trip was very anticlimactic.”
Quizzical, Sogna asked, “Ci hai trovato niente d’interessante?”
The Madonna sighed. “It was not the first time I encountered nothing out of the ordinary, but it was different this time. I had my ship sail southeast only for someone to tell me to bugger off.”
While processing that, Sogna brushed the thick blonde hair on her side behind her ears. She then asked, “So, what is your next plan?”
“Semplice: restock and go back there. If someone tries to send someone from abroad away, that is the easiest sign that they want to keep a secret.”
Suddenly somber, Sogna asked, “Would you hate me for keeping secrets?”
“There is nothing wrong with shame, Morosa! I would not blame you for that kind of secret. There is only one kind of secret that I despise, and I believe you to not be that way.” She then changed the topic. “I know why you are here, and I will inform Sipho.” The Madonna was the one to exit the office and head along the hall, to the diner, where she would meet the tan man and give him permission to take his break from serving.
Barely a minute later, Sipho eagerly entered the office, to fetch the young woman and escort her to behind the stage. A single overhead light in the empty chamber, where they could just hear the muffled chatter from the afternoon patrons, was how Sipho and Sogna could see each other. She sported a cocoa-brown loose-fitting dress with a short skirt, so she could move freely with her dancing. A pair of wool stockings, which she was just removing, was how she had less of a chance of her legs getting stiff outside in the cold.
“How shall we begin, Mentore?”
Flattered as the tan man was by that term, he could see nothing meaningful. He hoped that soon she would be able to dance to him playing, but that not happening was just one thing to slowly break him. To add to that was his desire to see how she would move her muscles but was afraid that she would be too nervous around him even though she was not his heart’s desire and she knew it.
Sipho had seated himself on a kitchen chair, with an electronic piano that was still peculiar to him even though he had learnt to use it a mere year after learning to play the real piano. It was on his lap and set to the mode that he liked. He was done with waltz and other dances couples would do, and wanted to teach her the dancing that he knew best. She was clearly struggling, and he wanted to know if she had the gift for what he could teach. This was not something to bore him at all, what he looked to pass on to someone.
As the tan man managed to play the melody without even looking at the keys, he focused on the young woman, who was spirited as he had once been. He watched her move with the melody, the motions that he had been teaching her for some time. The real distraction was how the top and sleeves of her dress made ripples as if folding something into an amateur’s accordion. Typically, whoever performed this style wore less, but that still sounded inappropriate. Still, her motions were convincing and he felt nostalgic, but not in the good way.
At the end of the test that Sipho had given Sogna, he informed her, “I hope that we can do a dress rehearsal, and with others. I meant to ask Madonna… your mother… about assembling a dance number.”
“Well then, I hope as much as you do that she does not deny your request.”
Over the evening, to convince the Madonna to permit him to produce his vision was made harder than it already was. However, there was no sense in them numbing each other’s minds. What sold her was Sipho reminding her that the place had always had the goal of being culturally diverse. That was why the menu had cuisines of origin from Eastern Europe and East Asia. The closest that Sipho had to his local cuisine was a dish with spices. While no melody known in his homeland sounded the same on a piano, he enjoyed learning to play it. Even though his request was granted, something gnawed at him and made him feel anything but cheerful.
A week had passed with Sipho giving the steps on the dance moves to recruited dancers. He had to remind them all, what to always move, which were all the muscles of the upper body. He also made sure that they moved in perfect synchronization. There was but one other mistress who expertly played the piano, who did so as Sipho watched each woman closely, with none other than the talented Sogna taking lead.
What a week those past days were. In was in the middle of the week when the performance would happen. It was minutes after the sunset, the group was on the stage. The door cutting the stage off from the diner was completely open now, and the few patrons having just entered were wondering why the stage of hardwood boards was completely visible, and the piano was moved to the back corner.
Seeing that everything was in order, Sipho was the one to be at the front of the stage, putting up a hand, as a gesture for silence. Slowly, the talking from the crowd dwindled before Sipho turned away to quickly clap twice. Just a second later, five women dressed in clothes very foreign to them entered. While Sogna, standing centre of the group, sported a black, sleeveless, wide medium skirted and open-back dress that seemed lustrous as her blonde hair in curls along with a translucent black-purple cape hooked to a pair of plain gold bracelets, the other four women were each in a white sleeveless dress revealing the neckline and a bit of their cleavage and a few short golden chains ending with a disc from the belt. All of them were ready and focused. These women were glad to have learned dancing.
Sipho and his piano skills wouldn’t be enough for this. So, he had requested that someone beat a drum in a rhythm for him, and she was just as ready. The tan man in his every-day attire sat on the edge of the bench and nodded.
The punches upon the large drum began and the five women separated from each other. Seconds later, Sipho began pressing the keys of the grand piano, and he was reminded of home by the first bar of the melody. He was focused on the task at hand, making sure that he didn’t wait to long for the next note to follow.
Young Sogna was backed up by the four women looking pure, moving with graces as if they themselves were ribbons. They relied on no veils or weighted accessories, as Sipho insisted. The young woman taking the lead showed off what skills her best friend had bestowed upon her, showing how flexible she was. Because of the most used advice being regarded, she had her back arch just like her spine was, and she showed off the movement of her shoulder blades with the arm motions, complemented by the cape, which give her a sense of mystery. The rest made regular turns and just as well as their lead looked sensual with each motion of the back, shoulders, and hips. As skeptic as Sogna was, she swayed her hips very smoothly while making the gestures. With the music timed, one woman on each side mirrored each other’s movements of the hips and arms before getting on their knees. They maintained their positions. Then, the other two followed suit of mirroring each other’s gestures before seeming to freeze. That was Sogna’s cue to spin around and approached the group. She spun a few more times, getting the cape to lift, then made a single gesture with each arm before she seemed to freeze as well.
Then suddenly, the music stopped with a personal choice of finishing note. How glad Sogna and the dancers were to hear complimenting shouts and an applause. Many people stood up, cheering while clapping, and this was to be a happy moment. Sipho and the drummer each approached the front of the stage, to take their big bow, hearing that they were commended as well. This was something that Sipho thought of for the rest of the evening, which led to other thoughts, even when he had his dinner and then his tea and slice of cake. The adolescent had made such an impact on him many times, and he hoped that she wouldn’t forget him.