An encounter, travelling by train from Roma to Bologna. Teresa.
Six fit tall, about ninety kilos of Calabrese femininity. Wearing multicoloured bands, and youthful and close-fitting clothes. Long black hair. Heavy make-up to highlight her strong features, typical of Southern women. Around 45 years. I get on the train and see three people who apparently can’t settle the three four big suitcases that they were carrying with them. A man and two women: two sisters. Everything is settled at last, people calm down, now they can go ahead and take place in their seats. The train is about to leave. The man says goodbye and get off. The two sisters sit down. The train leaves. One of the women stands up and goes around singing to herself. The other remains seated, laughs and says to whoever is listening or to herself: “She can’t stand still for a moment” and keep on smiling. Teresa’s singing is going farther and farther… I can imagine her moving way, carriage by carriage. Her sister begins to worry. She asks the lady sitting besides her to make room for her and go in search of the other that can’t be heard any longer. After a few minutes they go back to their place.
Teresa, the singer, wears a pair of black and large sunglasses. Teresa seems to be happy. And sing. “I have to defend myself… I don’t know if I will make iiiiiiiiit.” Her sister tells her to be quiet, because she disturbs the passengers. “Teresa, put on your hearphones.” And Teresa answers: “Mind that it is worse, mind that I could start singing… ” and she laughs. “Teresa put on your hearphones. Teresa!” And Teresa put on her hearphones and as promised begins to sing, at the top of her voice this time. Her flat voice is trembling.
I concentrate on the lyrics, a strange song, always the same tune, never heard it before.
The things she says are meaningful, the song seems to vent her thoughts, thoughts that are meaningful.
Her sister is fed up, but she loves her. She obviously loves her. She caresses her with her eyes, with the sweet smile that surfaces on her lips every time she looks at her. She would like to get angry for that confusion that seems to bother everybody, but she can’t. “These seats are small” Teresa exclaims. “They are not made for one as bulky as me.” And she stands up once again, she walks along the entire length of the train, carriage by carriage, and her voice fades away once again. Until it can no longer be heard. At that moment her sister stands up again. “Excuse me madam, I need to go ahead… ” and goes and catches her. “Where do you gooooo… ” Teresa is back, still singing “Where do you goooo… ” “Where are youuuuu… where are youuuuuu… ”
I let the train rock me while I listen to her, I close my eyes and let the sun kiss me. Teresa doesn’t bother me. I like to listen to her. I like to have her by my side. I like the fact that she exists during this travel that without her would be a bore. She sings her truths, to anyone of us who wants to listen. And if nobody wants to listen, it doesn’t matter, she sings all the same. She is fed up with silence. She is fed up with being quiet. Of lying everyday swallowing her person.
“And if it were out of nostalgia… that I want to go away… I want to go back home… ”
“But no!” she stops singing “I was dead. Now I can speak. Now I am happy.”
The collector approaches to check tickets. To check tickets and restore order. Somebody made a complaint. “The passengers are complaining.” “Love of mine, you are so beautiful… ” Teresa replies. In a whisper, her sister tells her to be quiet. “And who gives a fuck that there is a nun” Teresa screams. “Blessed her wife that can fuck him” she goes on. “Can you give me a little kiss?”
“But madam, I am working” the collector try to answer, embarrassed.
“And who cares” Teresa answers, “for me you can do some extra work. What about a snogging? Mind that I am good at it.”
“Teresa… it’s over” her sister says.
They take her away, and her sister follows her. She looks worried. The collector leads her where she won’t bother anybody. The train is complaining. Now there is silence. We got back to normality, that blessed normality where we all love to live and where we can keep on telling our lies to each other. I miss the truths that Teresa screamed out loud. Teresa, where did they take you?
“I want to make love. I want to spark.” Teresa is back.
“A nervous breakdown” says her sister to anyone who wants to listen. Then she looks at the nun, that has been pretending she couldn’t see nor hear anything since we left. A fat woman, dark-skinned, sweaty and smelling of intense sweet. “Sister, please talk to her” she insists. But the nun says she is sorry, whispers little apologizing words, sweet words that, after all, means leave me alone.
“We are romantic… We are romantic…” sings Teresa. “We come from Roma and go to Verona… ”
“Sister, you can do something for her. Please.” Teresa’s sister insists. “Can you talk to her for a minute? Otherwise she is going to continue for the entire trip… ” And the nun stands up, she moves her big body dressed in grey and sits down in front of Teresa. There’s nobody besides her now, the ladies who sat next to her have chosen to change place. Teresa speaks English, two sentences learnt by heart and then in French, in German. Random sentences. Her sister is laughing. “She speaks a lot of languages” she says again to anyone who wants to listen.
“It stinks in here!” Teresa exclaims “It stinks!” And the nun looks at her and asks: “Do you speak English?”. “Yes” replies Teresa, “I love you toooooo”, “Io sò beautifull.”
The nun continues to whisper short sentences in English. “You speak Italian you Sister?” asks Teresa “I can’t speak English Sister, I don’t understand… ”
“Ladies and Gentlemen” says Teresa, “please be quiet!”
“What’s your name Sister?” Teresa asks the nun. “Alfonsa?... You are an asshole. Pardon Sister, excusez-moi.” And the nun whispers to her that silence is beautiful, she talks about peace. Nuns don’t scream, they gently spread their words of love. They speak directly to the heart of the poor souls in pain that need to be saved.
“I like sweet people” says Teresa, “like the patisserie that there are the cakes. When I was young I dreamt of becoming a nun, but I would have been a cuckolded nun. I made love with priests when I was fifteen. I was beautiful when I was fifteen. I have been to a nursing home. They were so good. Villa Portuense in Roma. They loved me. I always joke when I feel good Sister. When I feel bad I look like a plant. I feel so sleepy sister, have you got some pill? I have got a ear condition Sister, it is called tinnitus, it’s for this reason that I wear earphones, for not hearing the buzz, sister. Alleluiaaaa… alleluiaaaa. Lead us not to temptation.”
The nun tries to talk to her, to convince her to take off her earphones and be quiet. But Teresa sings, prays, moves, she takes off her eyeglasses and stares at her.
“My little sister came to pick me up and I was paralyzed” she says. And then she asks: “How to pray?” “HailMaryfullofgrace” the three of them start in unison.
“How sweet is Suor Alfonsa. I thought I was annoying her before… And I made her angry on purpose. How sweet is Suor Alfonsa. I had an apparition, I collapsed and had a vision of Padre Pio. They say it doesn’t happen to anybody. I was lucky. There were flowers and birds everywhere. I wanted him to talk to me, but he just smiled. He just smiles, he never says a fucking thing. I want him to talk to me. I don’t want to be in this world of cruel people. I want to die. No ’coz life is so beautiful. Like the back of a pan. I did saw the devil, Suor Alfonsa. But he left me here to suffer. He could let me die. They asked me not to tell anyone about it. Otherwise they would think I am crazy. But I have been crazy since I was in my cradle, since I was born. How good were the nuns in the nursery house, Suor Alfonsa, and they could cook so well. I love to eat.” Suor Alfonsa carries on her mission. She doesn’t seem convinced, but she goes on. She can’t disappoint the whole carriage that is focused on them, that is curious about how Suor Alfonsa will manage to let her be quiet, to take her on the right path.
Teresa has never put her earphones off. She continues to sing. To talk. To be Teresa.
“How good were the nuns of the nursery house Suor Alfonsa. Then two new ones came. And they gave us sleeping pills. They gave me shots. And they raped me. They kicked me in the back. In the teets. They gave me shots in the thigh. They were lesbian. Suor Alfonsa. You are just an asshole.”
“But how can such things happen?” Teresa’s sister asks Suor Alfonsa while the entire carriage holds its breath waiting for the answer. “Please tell me what you think about it, Sister Alfonsa” Teresa’s sister insists. But Sister Alfonsa would rather talk about something else.
“Did I see the Sistine Chapel Sister Alfonsa? Yes, I did see it. Conductoooor I want to see your dick. And Michelangelo’s dome? Conductoooor I want to climb your dome. Your large dome. Conductor!!! I always joke when I feel good Sister. When I feel bad I look like a plant. I wanted to die Suor Alfonsa.”
I arrived in Bologna. Reluctantly I got off and left our Teresa on the train. Sister Alfonsa got off the train too, even more sweaty than when she got on.
When I got off, the train was no longer sad. People got used to Teresa. They laughed freely about her sentences and the lyrics of her songs. About the embarrassment of the conductor who would no longer pass by that carriage. Because Teresa was the hidden truth, the truth of each of us who made the trip with her. The voice of all our little secrets. Of all our little pains. Of the stories that we all have learnt to hide. That we never tell for fear of embarrassing other people. Teresa too had kept silent, who knows for how many years, until she burst out.
Teresa that, without her glasses, reveals a gaze emptied by psychotropic drugs, but still intense, still capable of looking inside anybody in front of her. Teresa that with her trembling voice transforms her truths in songs sometimes terrifying sometimes cheerful, like our lives.
But she is crazy. She had a nervous breakdown. We shouldn’t listen to her.