Hope Found, Lost, and Found
It was rainy that evening as Polly, Flora, Charles, signor Luigi, and agente Barto, accompanied by Sofia, ate their pasta slowly and waited for signor Varelli to arrive at the small restaurant where he was known to take his supper nearly every night. On the wall above their heads was one of the Case-Torri Contest posters.
There was still no sign of signor Varelli by the time signor Luigi and agente Barto were asking for a second cup of coffee and the dessert plates had been cleared. “Maybe he’s not coming,” said Polly, feeling disappointed and thinking she was stating the obvious. “I’m going to have to go soon. When I called Mme Meringue to tell her I wouldn’t be home for supper, she made a big thing of being back by dark.”
Agente Barto whipped out his cell phone. “Minou, as you know, Polly is here at the restaurant with me and some friends. Our dinner is taking longer than expected, but don’t worry. I’ll see she gets home safely.” He snapped his phone shut. “Voice mail can be useful,” he said. “Your landlady must not be home herself.”
“I think Mme Meringue is watching her television at this hour,” explained Polly, who thought to herself that long after dark, Mme Meringue would probably still be watching television, but Polly didn’t want to risk any trouble with her landlady now.
The group had finally given up and had just asked their server for the bill when the door to the restaurant opened again. At first Polly didn’t turn around; she’d had so many false alarms already this evening. But Flora, whose back also was to the door, had not given up and so turned and spotted their quarry before the men did. It was Sofia who got the words out first: “Here he comes.”
Signor Varelli chatted briefly with the restaurant owner and then started toward a free table in the back. “Hey, signor Varelli,” called out agente Barto as if he’d spotted his best friend. “I was just thinking about you! Have you signed up for the contest?” He gestured toward the flier on the wall. “The word is, if you enter, you’re a shoo-in to win.”
Signor Varelli took in the composition of the table of diners and then looked suspiciously at the announcement. “What are you trying to pull?” he said unpleasantly, looking into each of their faces by turn.
“Pull?” asked agente Barto, the only one of the group to be able to claim more than a nodding acquaintance with signor Varelli. “I hear Mirella’s done a wonderful job decorating your tower. Did you see that the contest winner will have a permanent bronze plaque mounted on the wall? The plaque will explain that the tower has been judged the most outstanding in Pisa.”
Polly thought she could see signor Varelli trying, but failing, not to be tempted.
“Humph,” he said finally. “We’ll have to see. Humph,” he muttered again as he continued on past them.
“He’s taken the bait,” said Sofia a little too enthusiastically.
“Shh!” Flora said impatiently. “He’ll hear you!”
“He’s too lost in a daydream about winning that plaque.” Sofia did speak at a more subdued volume.
“Now all we have to do is organize the contest for real,” said agente Barto, looking a little worried.
“That won’t be a problem.” Signor Luigi sounded confident. “I have someone in mind who does excellent bronze casting. He’ll do a good job on the plaque, and I have some friends at the university who will help us out. No matter they’re in the chemistry department and have no more knowledge of décor than the rest of us: they’ve got academic titles.”
“It’s pretty late for us to be calling on Mirella now,” said Flora. “She told me she gets up with the birds in the summertime. And I’d better get going.”
Sofia said, “I showed up uninvited about this time of evening once and was told it was too late for guests of any sort. Mirella was playing her harpsichord. She’s touchy about anyone hearing her.”
“I don’t have class tomorrow since our teacher has a family commitment. Do you want to meet me at Mirella’s at nine in the morning?” Polly asked Flora and Charles, and of course Sofia.
“I’ll be there,” Charles agreed.
“Me, too,” said Flora.
“Me, too,” added Sofia.
Signor Luigi and agente Barto kindly paid the bill for the young people, even though Polly, Charles, and Flora all tried to insist on paying their own way.
“Feel like walking?” asked signor Luigi. “Or would you rather take a bus?”
In spite of the drizzle, they walked through the darkening city.
“See you tomorrow,” Flora called as she reached the door leading to her apartment.
As the rest of the group walked on with Polly, agente Barto talked about how fond his son had been of Mme Meringue’s husband, Gustavo. “He won’t admit it, but he still has a soft spot in his heart for Minou, too, and she for him. I just wish she—and I—could motivate my Enrico the way Gustavo could. I don’t have the secret.”
The next morning, Flora and Charles were already standing beside Mirella’s door when Polly arrived. “We’ve had five people glare at us when they walked by, and two women clutched their purses. Did they think I was going to spirit them off their arms?” Flora asked mildly.
“Sorry I’m late.”
“You’re not late. It’s only five of nine. The reactions are just business as usual for me—and for Charles, too, I bet.”
He nodded and then said, “I wonder where Sofia is?”
Flora pulled hard on the bell beside Mirella’s door.
They waited a minute, and Flora pulled the cord again. “Mirella never goes to the Borgo Stretto this early.” Flora sounded a little worried, and Polly felt her heart beat faster. “She promised to wait!”
“She promised not to pack up her house,” said a loud voice. “But she didn’t really promise to wait herself, and she’s not here! I saw her on the train to Lucca. She has two big suitcases with her. She wouldn’t even talk to me. She just kept shaking her head. I think I know where she’s going—it’s where she went for a few days after she was fired—but I’ve got to follow in case that changes. Can’t explain now—I’ll be back! Be at the Bar Allegro at noon. We can go to the station from there.”
Polly, Charles, and Flora walked as fast as they could to signor Luigi’s shop to tell him the news. “Signor Varelli has already called to register for the contest,” he reported. “Wouldn’t he be surprised if he knew he was talking to me. Now try not to worry too much. Sofia could locate someone in the middle of the Amazon.”
“I just feel so sorry for Mirella. She thinks no one wants her. I know how that feels.” Flora sounded bitterer than she usually let herself be.
The three young people were seated at an outdoor table at the Bar Allegro and were part way through their focaccia and acqua minerale when the air positively crackled with energy and Polly sensed the chair next to hers was no longer empty. “She’s checked into a convent guest house,” announced Sofia. “The next train to Lucca is in twenty minutes.”
“Let’s go,” said Charles. “I was going to work this afternoon, but I’ll ask Salime if he can watch my stuff, too. He’s a fan of Mirella’s, just like the rest of us.”
Polly would have enjoyed the leisurely ride on the little green local train to Lucca if she hadn’t been so eager to reach Mirella. Sofia had assured them that Mirella had left her home intact, but taking two big suitcases with her suggested Mirella expected to stay in Lucca for some time. Polly didn’t want Mirella to have to wait a minute longer before having her hope renewed. “Why don’t you go on,” she said to Sofia, “and tell Mirella about signor Varelli and the contest.”
“I want you guys to be with me when I do,” said Sofia. “We need to be able to pick up Mirella’s suitcases and take her and them right back with us before she can give up again. And have you ever seen me carrying suitcases? Now stop worrying so much. Mirella’s in a nice place. She’s a tough lady. She’ll be meditating and reading Emily Dickinson. She always reads Emily when she’s feeling alone because Emily was a recluse and considered a bit odd herself. Now let me tell you about Lucca,” and Sofia launched into a description of the tree-lined wall around the city, the bell tower for San Martino—the city’s cathedral—and the cathedral itself. “That campanile was built more than 100 years before I was born, only it was for defense then, not bells. And wait until you see the cathedral! It was built a little after I came along, and of course it’s not as beautiful as our cathedral, but it has some really cool carvings.”
“You should hire out as a tour guide,” said Flora.
“I will,” said Sofia, adding, “just as soon as the world gets over its hang-up about tour guides having bodies.”
Polly had only half listened to Sofia’s commentary, but it had helped to pass the half-hour trip. From the station they needed to go through an opening in the city wall to reach the main part of the city. “Okay, Sofia, where do we go from here?” asked Charles.
“The convent is just beyond the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro,” Sofia said and went on to explain how the piazza had kept the shape of the Roman amphitheater that had once been on the spot. “I’m just as glad I don’t remember anything about those times. At least you don’t have gladiators now, not that there’s been a whole lot of other improvement in how people act.”
“We have some good people now, just the way you did in the 12th century,” Charles pointed out.
“I guess you’re right,” agreed Sofia, sounding less than enthusiastic.
The convent doorbell was beside the iron gate in a fence softened by draping vines of pink flowers. A nun opened a second-story window. “Buongiorno,” she called, “un momento.” She was dressed in a long white habit trimmed in black. Polly thought she resembled a movie nun, leaning out of her perfect convent. It was tidy and rectangular, almost like a house drawn by a child but made pretty by the yellow-cream stucco, brown shutters, somewhat battered palms framing the building, and big clay pots holding more pink flowers.
In spite of her eagerness to reach Mirella, Polly felt soothed within the tranquil convent grounds. The nun held the front door for them. “Attenti ai muri”—“Be careful of the walls”—she said. “We can’t repaint often.” She eyed the energetic young people a little nervously but then led her visitors up two flights of carpeted stairs with a polished-wood banister. “Signora, you have guests,” the nun called after rapping on the door to room seven.
Polly heard someone hurry to the door, which opened quickly. “Oh, it’s you!” exclaimed Mirella. Polly thought she looked relieved, as well as pleased. Byron stepped from behind Mirella and gave a friendly meow. Past Mirella, Polly could see a twin bed covered by a blue-plaid spread, a white tile floor, a modern wardrobe and bureau, and a small picture of the Madonna on the wall. After a moment, Mirella told them, “I first hoped you wouldn’t find me, and then I thought I couldn’t stand it if you didn’t. I had faith in our Sofia, but I’m so glad to see you. I’m sorry I put you to all this trouble. Once I got here, I felt like a fool, but then I didn’t have the strength to do anything except sit here and read Emily Dickinson.”
“I’ll leave you now,” said the nun. “If you need anything, please ring the bell in the front hall.”
“I just can’t face getting my hopes up and then having everything fall apart again,” Mirella said after she had been filled in on the contest.
“With signor Luigi and agente Barto involved, you’re bound to have a really good chance,” said Polly.
“They can’t completely rig it because there will be at least a couple of other judges, but they’re friends of signor Luigi’s, and besides, you deserve to win,” said Flora.
“But you haven’t seen the other tower homes,” Mirella observed.
“They’ll make sure your tower wins in some category, even if they don’t award you the very best overall,” Charles assured her.
“Let me get a word in edgewise,” said Sofia. “Mirella, there’s a note on your kitchen table from signor Varelli. It says he has decided to let you stay for three more months—not days, not weeks—if you promise to have your tower in tiptop shape for some special visitors who will be inspecting the tower on July 13. What a creep! He can’t even admit his true purpose.”
“Why didn’t you tell us that on the train?” asked Flora irritably.
“I wanted it to be a surprise,” Sofia said smugly.
“Signor Varelli is not at all a nice man.” Mirella shook her head. “I would feel sorry for him if I possibly could for being such a block of ice. He’s still going to throw me out in three months, and he probably won’t wait that long—just long enough to get his plaque and then decide what new infraction I’ve incurred. He’s pretending to give me three months so I’ll think he’s suddenly being reasonable and then put a lot of effort into spiffing everything up.”
“But it will still give us more time!” argued Flora. “The contest is two weeks away, and we can accomplish a lot in two weeks!”
“I think I’ll just stay here until the contest,” said Mirella. “The apartment is in good shape. I don’t know what else I’d do, except a little dusting. I’ll be too sad at home knowing how inevitable the end is. I’d kept my spirits high, figuring something would happen to let me stay, even though I didn’t know what. I guess I sort of thought signor Varelli was just hassling me to try to make me keep a lower profile, but now I see he really hates me and will find any excuse to make me move.”
“Mirella,” Sofia said sternly, “do you remember the time you told your class the chief lesson from literature is to hold our heads high and express our special qualities and talents, no matter what, no matter how great the scorn?”
Mirella nodded her head slightly.
“Well I remember, too,” Sofia continued in the same authoritative tone. “And how can you express your true gifts and nature hiding here in this convent room, I’d like to ask you!”
“You’ve always been an inspiration to me, Mirella,” Flora said sincerely. “When I sit playing my accordion and passersby make rude remarks about Gypsies, I think of you proudly reciting on the steps of San Michele in Borgo. That picture of you in my mind makes me sit up straighter and play better in spite of the taunts, or even because of them.”
“I admire you, too, signora,” Charles said shyly, and Mirella began to sit up a little straighter herself.
Polly and Flora took turns carrying one of Mirella’s suitcases while Charles insisted on carrying the other all the way back to the station. Mirella held Byron in a travel case. The cat was heavy, so she kept switching hands, but she wouldn’t allow Charles to relieve her of the burden. “You have a heavy load as it is,” she said. “I had to hire a taxi to take me to the train and then from the Lucca station to the convent. I hated spending the money. You are so kind to help me.”
Sofia kept up a running commentary about the buildings they passed and was disappointed when no one else wanted to stop to visit San Martino’s cathedral. “The luggage and Byron will be okay in the church while we look around,” she urged.
“We’ll come back together soon. How about next Saturday?” Charles asked kindly, and the others agreed.
“I’d like to walk along the city wall, too, and visit Puccini’s birthplace. I’m going to see his opera Madama Butterfly at the end of August,” said Polly.
“Yes, you’ve told us,” said Flora, but not unkindly.
“At least three times,” Sofia added less gently.
They were plenty early to catch the late-afternoon local back to Pisa. But when the time came, they found themselves standing with several other hopeful passengers next to an empty little green train with no engineer. Over the loudspeaker, a woman announced their train as “in partenza,” but it didn’t look in partenza to Polly. Sofia let out a shrill whistle that made the rest of the passengers turn toward their group. The other four hushed her, hoping to discourage a repeat. She didn’t whistle again, but a small dog began barking insistently, throwing in a howl now and then for emphasis. None of the other passengers could find the dog, in spite of a lot of craned necks—not to mention the hisses coming from Byron inside his case—and the level of confusion on the platform rose steadily.
“When did Kinzica show up?” Flora asked softly.
“Just now,” said Sofia. “She missed me.”
“Well, keep her quiet,” Flora retorted.
A young man who turned out to be the conductor hurried toward them and was berated by one of the waiting men for being late. The conductor started to offer excuses but then glanced up and noticed the absence of an engineer. He did a pronounced double take. Much hand waving began among the male passengers together with the conductor, and a half-dozen cell phones appeared.
Ten minutes later, the phones and gestures still had not roused an engineer, so like the other waiting passengers, Mirella, Charles, Flora, Polly, and Sofia resigned themselves to taking the next hour’s local to Pisa.
“On my own, I’d be back there already,” Sofia reminded them.
“Let’s wait inside the station,” Charles suggested. “Maybe we can find a quiet corner. We’ve attracted a bit of attention.”
“Guess whose fault that is,” Flora said snidely. “Big surprise.”
“Maybe there is something I should do to get my tower ready for the contest. What do you think?” Mirella asked as the train was gliding to a stop at Pisa Centrale.
“Nothing!” chorused Polly, Flora, Sofia, and Charles.
“The girls told me all about your tower,” Charles explained.
“You were right: It’s already perfect,” Polly asserted.
Flora nodded. “Just add even more flowers. We’ll get them for you.”