The Girl in the Leaning Tower – Chapter 12

Citizens for a Safe Pisa

Polly used her key, opened the front door cautiously, and then closed it softly behind her. She knew she’d have to face Mme Meringue at cena, but she wanted to put as much distance as possible between the scene with agente Barto and the others and whatever her landlady had meant when she’d said, “I’ll talk to you at home, Polly.”

There was nothing wrong with Mme Meringue’s hearing. She came to the door of the living room and said, “Polly dear, can you come in here for a moment?” Then she went back inside the salotto.

Polly remembered to slip out of her shoes. The “dear” was a good sign. The fact that Mme Meringue seemed to have been listening for Polly’s arrival was not.

Buona sera, signora,” said Polly in what she hoped was a natural tone of voice.

“Have a seat over here next to me.” Mme Meringue had changed out of her wet pink outfit into a staid blue housedress. Its appearance was well suited to the tired look of concern on Mme Meringue’s face. Polly took a seat at the end of a not very comfortable couch with cream-colored upholstery. Her landlady was sitting in a matching armchair, her slippered feet on a large ottoman, also matching. It was no surprise to Polly that Mme Meringue needed to get her feet up.

“Polly dear,” she repeated, “I’m very concerned I’m already shirking my duty toward you. I had hoped a smart girl like you would know how to pick her friends—but then I thought to myself, ‘The poor child is here alone in a foreign country. Of course she wanted to make new friends.’ You were vulnerable to any friendly faces that came along. But Gypsies and extracomunitari! I would have thought—but no,” she argued with herself. “I’m being unfair. You’re just a child, and I imagine you don’t have such elements to contend with at home. Haven’t you met any nice people in your school with whom you could socialize after class?”

Froufrou the spaniel was lying beside the ottoman. To judge by his position, he might have been asleep, but his eyes were open and watching Polly. “Woof,” he said sharply, as if to convey that he shared Mme Meringue’s disapproval of Polly’s companions.

“It’s okay, Mme Meringue,” Polly tried to explain. “Flora’s a good musician, and she and her family are nice people. And Charles even works for you. He’s so kind, and he has a hard life, but it’s really interesting about how he’s helping out lots of people back home by selling their crafts.”

“He’s a good boy, but he’s not our type. And no Gypsy, no matter how clever, is suitable company for a respectable girl like you. Now run along and get ready for cena. I’m sorry if I was harsh, but it’s important for you to understand these things. I have a meeting here at the house this evening, so please come right down to the dining room.”

“That was not so bad,” thought Polly. “At least she didn’t make me promise not to see Flora and Charles. Maybe she just assumes I’ll follow her advice. What would she say if she knew about Sofia?”

 

Polly was propped up in bed working on a verb exercise when she heard the doorbell. She got up and crossed in her bare feet to the open bedroom door, and from there she tiptoed over to the stairs and sat down on the top step to listen to what she could hear from two stories below. The sound of the front door opening was followed by Mme Meringue’s voice greeting what Polly soon sorted out to be three guests, a man and two women. They sounded cheerful enough, to judge by their tone of voice, but Polly kept hearing phrases such as, “We have to do something,” and “It’s disgraceful for a city of this caliber.”

Two more people—a man and a woman—arrived, followed then by a man alone. The group seemed to be settling down in the living room. And then Polly heard Mme Meringue say in a clear voice, “I think we might as well get started. We can catch up Suzanna when she gets here.”

It was difficult for Polly to follow Mme Meringue’s opening remarks, and harder still to follow the discussion as the conversation became more animated, but she had no trouble catching the focus of the evening’s session, especially given the number of times when zingari—Gypsies—and extracomunitari appeared in the discourse. Polly thought she heard Mirella’s name a couple of times, but she couldn’t be sure it wasn’t the name of someone attending the meeting.

Once the tardy Suzanna had been greeted and had joined the others in the living room, Polly took the risk of moving down a full flight of stairs, the better to catch what was being said. She excused her eavesdropping in the name of detective work on behalf of her friends. The infraction in manners seemed essential under the circumstances.

One of the men sounded especially vehement in his complaints about the Gypsies. From what Polly could tell given the distance the words had to travel and the challenge of following Italian spoken rapidly and colloquially, he and his wife had had visitors from Canada come to stay with them only to have one of the guests pickpocketed not once but twice. Polly wondered to herself if she were being unfair to think the visitor might have been a bit careless to have the same thing happen twice.

Another person—a woman this time—was most upset by the street merchants, although those working up near the Leaning Tower seemed to be coming in for her special censure. But then Polly heard Mme Meringue’s voice and picked out the word stazione and the name agente Barto.

“Shall I summarize our decisions?” Polly clearly heard Mme Meringue ask. She made the question more a statement of intention than an inquiry. Polly silently moved down to the second-to-last step.

“Yes, please do,” said one of the other women.

“Reviewing our plans will help strengthen our resolve,” contributed a man.

From this close, Polly found she could hear and understand quite readily.

“We the members of Citizens for a Safe Pisa agree that our first step shall be seeking out and encircling any Gypsy children who inflict their regrettable accordion playing on the pedestrians of the Corso Italia. By so doing, we will prevent their tourist victims from depositing coins in their cups.

“Other steps shall be taken in due course. Roberto recommends we take turns on duty at the spots most frequented by the extracomunitari and distribute cards printed in several languages to the tourists who pause to examine their wares. The cards will explain that the extracomunitari are breaking the law and that each euro paid to the extracomunitari takes a euro from the pockets of lawful merchants working hard to earn an honest living.

“Luisa suggests we confront Mirella Marco to stop her recitations of poetry on the steps of San Michele in Borgo. As she gets up to speak, our delegate, too, would rise and begin reading our prepared statement asking pedestrians to move on in the name of a safe and sane Pisa.”

A woman, perhaps Luisa, added, “We could say, ‘Giving your attention to vagrants is giving license to their delusions.’”

A man said, “These are good ideas for the future, but we’ll begin with the Gypsy children. We’ll give our full attention to one success at a time.”

After general agreement about the correctness and excellence of their plan, the committee members began making farewell small talk. Polly climbed back up to her floor, and shortly the group moved to the front hall. Polly heard one woman say, “I still wish you weren’t so protective of your agente Barto, Minou. If he’d just do his job properly, we might not have to face dealing with the extracomunitari ourselves, and they might not have gotten out of hand in the first place.”

“I stand firm,” replied Mme Meringue. “You know that I promised Gustavo I’d help look after agente Barto’s son. We can continue to try to talk reason to agente Barto, but getting him in trouble with his superiors is out. I won’t allow it.”

“All right, Minou,” said a man. “We’ll abide by your wishes.”

As the front door opened, Polly hurried into her room and gently shut her door.

A few moments later, the house was silent.

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