Lorri is searching for a new life. She finds one down a dark alleyway in Tuscany: mishaps, intrigue, passion and a journey of self-discovery await her...
"What's she like, this woman?" Julian was lighting up one of the Christmas cheroots I had given him. It was becoming difficult to breathe."Have you seen her?"
"Oh, yes, I've seen Veronica," I said. "He was kind enough to show me a photograph. I could see immediately where she was coming from. A jolly good sort, wide cheery grin, big snappy teeth and little frightened eyes, always paid her bills on time, done everything by the book. You know the type: a sensible, practical, likeable, bloody great bore!"
Maudie poured more wine into her glass. "I'm not sure Devon is right for you, Lorri. You need a complete change. I think that place you've got in Tuscany would be ideal."
"Ideal for what? It's a tiny flat down a dark alley."
"Sounds intriguing. Why not go and live there?"
"On my own?" I stared at her, appalled. "I'd have to be some kind of idiot to do something so reckless. No money, a foreign country where I hardly speak a word of the language - I don't know how you can suggest such a thing. I can't even imagine anything so terrible . . . "
It is June and sweltering. I pick the car up at Pisa airport, a brand new cherry-red Fiat Uno, and place my two beloved cats, Billy and Gertie, on the back seat in their VIP box. My small case goes in the boot; all my worldly goods are coming on later in the removals van from Devon.
The car even smells new inside. Get the feel of it, I tell myself, jiggling the gear-stick and flashing the lights, skirt Firenze, head for Siena, take the A1 for Perugia – Roma. Simple. Now, if I can just find my way out of the airport. I ease the car out of the parking lot, through the exit gate, out on to the main road about to enter the great Italian unknown.
Hardly unknown, though, I have done the journey often enough in the past with Richard. Only then I’d been the passenger, happy to sit back and enjoy the scenery, thinking of the things I would do when we arrived. Add sand to the paint to create my special textured finish for the walls, buy acid to clean the ancient floor tiles. He built the bathroom and the kitchen. We worked well together, pausing every now and then with a mug of tea to look round with pleasure at what we were achieving. But that was then. Now I have the present to deal with.
At the toll station I take my ticket and continue on in the direction of Perugia congratulating myself. I’ve got this far. Things are going well. And after an hour and a half of steady driving I think I recognize several landmarks. The group of ochre-coloured houses in a field to my left forms a triangle and I'm certain I’ve seen them before. The house with the turret on the hill; that too looks familiar. And when, after another half-hour, I see the sign for Valdiciana I know I am on the right road. I put my foot down and overtake several cars at a stretch, the indicator light flashing until I am past.
This is the way to drive in Italy. Like the Italians, swoop up their bums, overtake, and streak on ahead. I give a shout of laughter and the cherry-red Fiat flies as if on wings along the Autostrada. Windows open, warm air whipping hair off my face, I am free at last. I’ve given him the slip. He belongs to a life already well behind me and I burst into song. I've done it. Survived the endless doubts and sleepless nights and come to Italy to start a new life on my own.
I adjust the rear-view mirror. Soon I will be climbing the street steps to Vicolo della Mura. From the bedroom window I’ll see the chapel bell across the terracotta roofs to three cypresses sticking up like dark green paintbrushes. And on the roof I might even see the carabinieri through their bedroom window opposite, pale defenceless creatures they look in their Y-fronts. And the church bells, bing-bang-ding-dang, will be clanging up in the piazza; enough to raise the dead and make them laugh.
I laugh, with relief, as I turn off at the Sinalunga sign. Not long now. Ornelia, in the downstairs flat, will be watering her pots of geraniums, Sergio in the upstairs flat, he'll be playing his tango music, which can be heard all the way down the street to Martino’s shop. “Ahhhh,” he’ll shout, sweeping his imaginary partner around the sofa, sliding and bending and stamping his heels, mouth in an oooh of pleasure, and “ahhhh” again as he collides with the lamp. Nothing will have changed. Fortunately, nothing seemed to in Sinalunga.
Keep right at all costs, I repeat, as ten minutes later, light-headed with heat and excitement, I travel up the familiar hill leading to the Centro Storico. (historical center)
But halfway up the hill I hear a bang and the car stops with a shudder. I stare ahead in shocked disbelief. What's happened? Everything had been fine a minute ago. The cats howl; I swivel round to lift their box back on to the seat. I turn the key in the ignition. Dead. Now what? Whatever happens don’t attract attention, I tell myself. The last thing I want is to become a spectacle for everyone to point at. I open the car door and the heat hits me like a furnace. The car isn't in the middle of the road; at least that's something. And as far as I can see, no real damage has been done; although, the bonnet does seem somewhat lower to the ground than it had earlier. Later I am to learn that the whole of the front suspension had dropped out. Then I notice the white car behind, the door dented and scraped.
I stare at it appalled. It's obvious what has happened. In keeping so well to the right I’ve veered into a parked car. I feel sick with disappointment. Why does this have to happen when I am almost home? Trembling, I lift the cat-box and suitcase out of the car and sit on the boiling hot pavement waiting for inspiration.
People are gathering from nowhere. They stare dubiously at the red Fiat, then at me. An old man says something. I smile apprehensively and say, Buongiorno, it being the only Italian word that springs to mind. People move closer. They point at my car, then at the white one behind it. Several people shake their heads and tut-tutter. Then to my alarm the carabinieri draw up in their dark blue car and park alongside the Fiat blocking the traffic, which means even more people will stop and stare at the pink-faced English woman melting with her cat-box and suitcase beside her on the pavement.
One tall, one short, fat carabiniere saunter towards me, not so defenceless now with submachine guns stuck in their belts. I stand up and offer my passport.
“Vicolo della Mura.”
“But that is Italia,” the fat one says, loudly, glancing round at the people, making sure they hear him speaking English.
“I know, I’ve come to live here.”
“But where you live in England?”
“I don’t anymore.”
“Uh?” he turns to his tall companion who is writing in a thick black book. “Non capisco. You must.”
“W-what must I?”
“You must to live in some place in your country.”
Realising there is no point in explaining; I give him the English address even though I no longer live there. I hold out my hand for my passport and at that point the cats howl again and all attention turns to the VIP box at my feet. “Micio, micio,” says a hefty woman, poking her finger through the mesh door. She draws back at the hissing. The carabiniere hands me a document that is incomprehensible. The sun beats down on my head. I sway slightly and hold onto the tall carabiniere’s arm for support and everyone watches avidly. A young woman looks at me from her car, one of a line moving slowly up the hill. I wave frantically, gesture that I need a lift, she nods, I lift the cat-box and suitcase onto the back seat and in less than five minutes we are crossing the Piazza Garibaldi and turning left down the Via Ciro Pinsuti.
News has travelled fast, it seems. The first person I see as I emerge from the car is Lionello Torossi, my elderly neighbour from the end of the street, and who speaks fluent English, German, French and Spanish. He’d already heard of the accident with la straniera, guessed it was me and had come to help. “You have announced your arrival extraordinarily well,” he says, chuckling. “Now everyone knows you are here.”
“Unfortunately, yes,” I say. “I had hoped to arrive quietly and anonymously.”
“My dear young lady, you are too attractive to arrive anywhere anonymously and especially in a place like this. The people are delighted to see you; they want to be entertained. You are their portable theatre.”
Thanking the woman, whose name I didn’t catch, I carry the stricken cats and my suitcase up the street steps, round Ornelia’s pots of geraniums into the alleyway, only to find, to my alarm, my front door open.
“Madonnasanta!” Brandishing a key, Tonina comes hurrying downstairs to meet me. “Signora. Signora Lorri!”
“Tonina. What’s happened?”
“Niente acqua, non c’e il tetto - ” Tonina bursts into an excitable flow of Italian, ‘no water’, ‘no roof’, being the only understandable words. Struggling through the narrow front door, I climb the stone stairs to the bedroom and plant the case on the floor, the cat-box on the bed. I stare at the window, at a man with a funny little hat perched on the roof beaming at me. “ I spik Inlish.”
A man’s voice behind me, from the stairs. And then Tonina, almost hysterical, throwing up her hands as she enters the bedroom. “Madonnina, Sergio vuole parlare dell’acqua.”
“Oh no, no, please…not now…I can’t. I can’t speak to anyone about water or anything else…I’m exhausted.”
“Signora!” Sergio, my upstairs neighbour, hovers outside the bedroom. “Possiamo parlare?”
I forced a smile. “Buongiorno, Sergio. I-I’m very tired. I haven’t slept. No sleep. We talk domani?”
Tonina seems to understand, if not all the words, the intentions behind them. She pushes Sergio firmly back down the stairs with a final “No, no, no!”
But the man with the hat, he is still there. “Me Domenico, I do noo roof, wok in Australia. You Inlish lady? I search for good Inlish wife.”
Tonina rushes at him and bangs the shutters in his face. “Cara Signora Lorri,” she says, clasping her hands to her chest. “Non si preoccupi. Do not worry. I am so sorry because, because of la situazione con Ricardo.”
I collapse on the bed. In the shadowy light I watch Tonina pile clean linen from the chest of drawers onto the mattress. It is impossible to explain right now that sometimes one can feel less sorry being alone than with someone who makes you unhappy. So I nod in agreement and say nothing.
“Ah, la vita.” Tonina sighs with resignation, blows a kiss, and promises to return later with buckets of water.
An acrid stench fills the bedroom. Closing the door, I ease the long-suffering cats from their box, and taking a pillowcase, the nearest thing to hand, wipe urine off their fur and offer biscuits from my pocket. Have I been crazy to come? Hardly any grasp of the language, three years off fifty and with virtually no money? Many would think so. But I do at least own the roof over my head, even if it is half off, and that, after all, had been the main reason for coming. Mike, the counsellor in Devon, had been the other. Imagine you have wings, he’d said, and fly above your fear. And I’d visualized great dusty feathery things attached to my shoulder blades stiff from lack of use. They had lifted me off his grey carpet onto the windowsill; out over Totnes High Street and across the sea with the gulls I flew, soaring into space, zing-zanging with the stars.
The cats are reaching up to sniff the shutters, where I think I just saw Domenico peering at me through the slats. . .
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