Thursday, 6 April 2017

The Spilling of Salt

It didn't bear thinking about in the immediate aftermath; it doesn't bear thinking about now. Still. But I will, for I dislike people leaving me hanging, so it would be ungenerous of me to do the same, particularly when you might have felt invested emotionally, (reading is, I find, emotion-tugging), and so, even though I'm months further on and not as you might rightly surmise in Milan I will for your sake return to that bleak evening.
The sojourn was brief, much briefer than I ever could have imagined, ending in a stuffy interview room in a police station as I made and went over and over my witness statement. Forgive me if I choose to omit bedding down in a cell, as that's not something I really want to remember, though the duty officer was kind if a little over-polite in light of my foreigner status. And the translator (a man younger than me by a good twenty years and immaculately groomed as Italians generally are) provided in case of a communication breach was if anything too eager to be helpful. He almost became my shadow. Every time I fidgeted or stifled a nervous cough, he did too, furtively looking my way as if to say we're in this fine mess together, and yet his mimicking behaviour instead of being reassuring made me ill at ease. He would jump in to translate when I was mid-response, so that I would tail off and he would take over in rapid Italian, whilst the interviewing officer would listen and nod like one of those kitsch dogs whose heads jerk up and down.
So there I was in a disconcerting environment with the feeling my evidence differed to the other witnesses who'd been present and like me held for questioning. They weren't too many that hadn't in some way become involved in the fracas, so mine was an unusual case. I had felt as if I was watching Jeremy Kyle or Jerry Springer and I was the host complacently sitting a whisker away and letting the mayhem unfold.
The scuffle was laughable, really, like a food fight in a public school dinner hall: slices of Ciabatta were flung; oil and balsamic vinegar was flicked into eyes from the dipping bowls; antipasto was smeared into faces; and servers were pelted by olive stones if they tried to intervene. The mood, however, suddenly changed, and the venomous undertone that been there from the beginning under the surface rose, though I can't say if I realised this switch had been thrown at the time of my viewing. It all happened so quickly...
Food became fists flying through the air and landing on someone's cheek or torso; raised argumentative voices became loud grunts as more physical energy was expended; and there was the ripping of clothes as it became advantageous to throttle or wrestle your opponent to the restaurant floor, and once there roll around in a squabbling bear hug. At some point during this, another smaller fraction had broken off and upped the ante, resorting to not fists but forks, and pricking their adversary's skin as if they were sausages; a few even went for the eyeballs as if they were attempting to spear a pickled onion, though I don't think there's much call for those in Milan.
And so you see, it was rather comical to me, as if it were staged like a WWE tag team event and agreed who the eventual winners and losers were going to be, and so I took the injuries to be superficial. Most of them were you know, just scratches and bruises and the like, but some I learned later were more serious: broken ribs, a ruptured spleen and a punctured lung. From my seated vantage, however, it was horseplay: the sort of play men engage in to let off steam, which I've seen break out many a time and then it's all over. The men shake hands and return to nursing their drinks, along with their pumped or smashed egos, or whatever.
How was I to know this was different?
The officer questioning me found it hard to believe I didn't see, as did the over-helpful translator, the trifle that sparked the fight. I definitely don't recall noticing it at the time or later, and even if I had, it would still have been a trifle not worth mentioning. Salt cellars don't hold much significance to me other than to season food and I don't as a rule at the table, but there, the spilling of salt meant betrayal, which led to the first missile of food.

Picture credit: Cafe, Lombardia region (town of Milan), Italy, 1966, Bruno Barbey (Magnum Photos)