The Girl in the Leaning Tower – Chapter 18

Mirella’s Tower

On Sunday morning, Flora and Polly pulled the rope hanging from the bell next to Mirella’s ancient-looking and slightly battered front door. Polly soon heard Mirella on the stairs behind the door. She was smiling as she greeted them. “I saw you coming,” she said brightly. “I was out on the balcony watering my flowers. Polly, Flora, Sofia, won’t you come in?” she greeted them all, not even questioning whether Sofia was present. The tiny entrance foyer held a bench with red cushions, a clothes tree, and a brass umbrella stand.

Mirella led the way up the flight of stairs to the kitchen, which was as white and cheerful as she had described to Polly. A large blue plate with a sunflower on it had been mounted on the wall over a cutting board; other blue-and-yellow ceramic plates and bowls and pots of red geraniums decorated the white shelves, counters, and round kitchen table. Byron was crunching cat food in a corner of the room. He looked up briefly to see who had arrived and then went back to his food. Evidently Sofia had not brought Kinzica. Through an open door, Polly could see the small balcony and so many red and purple blossoms that she wondered where Mirella sat.

“It’s beautiful!” Polly said sincerely.

“Yes,” agreed Mirella. “I love it here. Have a seat, girls; that includes you, Sofia,” she added, gesturing toward the chairs around the table. Polly wondered how often Mirella had even one visitor to use her extra seats.

Polly studied Mirella when she thought the older woman wouldn’t think she was being rude. Mirella’s expression was a mixture of happiness—perhaps at having visitors—and sadness, especially around the eyes, which looked a little puffy to Polly, the way her own did on a morning when she’d had a cry in bed the night before.

A reason for tears was soon clear. “I had a note from signor Varelli. He left it on my kitchen table sometime yesterday.”

“On your kitchen table?” asked Flora in an indignant tone of voice. “He walked right into your home when you weren’t here? Not even our landlord does that. We find stuff taped to our door, but he’s never had the gall to barge right in—at least I don’t think so. If I ever so much as suspected he’d been prowling around!”

“He’s probably too scared you Gypsies would hex him or something,” commented Sofia.

“Gypsies don’t put hexes on people!”

“I wouldn’t mind having signor Varelli scared of me,” commented Mirella. “It is technically his place, not mine, but it always felt like mine. But not so much anymore. Now he wants me out in two weeks.” Before the girls had a chance to express their outrage, she asked, “Do you want to see the other rooms?”

As she stepped aside at the top of a flight of stairs for the girls to enter the living room, Mirella said, “Polly, you can see I meant it about purple being my favorite color!” The wallpaper background was violet, and when Polly examined the embossed design, she saw it depicted peacocks in various poses. Some had their multicolored fantails open. Other birds held their tails closed and long behind them and seemed to strut across the room. A pink fringed throw covered Mirella’s large armchair in front of the window overlooking the street, and similar throws in a half-dozen shades from lightest pink to deepest purple covered the sofa, three more chairs, a small lamp table, and the back of a beautiful harpsichord.

“A harpsichord!” Polly exclaimed. “I didn’t know you played.”

“Just for myself,” said Mirella. “I keep the window closed. I’m not nearly as good as the man who plays Puccini on his piano.”

“It’s so nice in here,” said Flora. “I like it even better than our apartment.”

The bedroom, another flight up, was just as appealing, to Polly’s mind, with a high four-poster bed covered with the pink and purple quilt that Mirella had described when they had first met. Mirella’s mother had been a talented artist. Her embroidered scenes from Pisan history looked almost like miniature oil paintings.

“See the picture of my tower with just three levels done!” Sofia said excitedly. “And there’s Kinzica ringing the bells to save the city!”

The bedroom’s pink walls were decorated with about two-dozen old photographs. The largest was a wedding picture of a handsome young couple. The woman looked almost exactly like Mirella, only younger.

Mirella noticed where Polly was looking. “Those are my parents,” she said. “They were so young and beautiful then. I miss them.”

“Do you have any brothers and sisters?” Polly asked, wondering why she hadn’t thought more about Mirella’s family before.

“I had a sister, but she’s gone, too. Here we are together in this picture.” Two dark-haired girls close in age looked out of a small, faded color photograph. Mirella was unmistakable as the elder. Both were dainty and smiling. Polly was struck by how completely alone Mirella must feel, lying in bed in this little room with her lost family surrounding her.

Mirella seemed to have felt her thoughts. “I miss them so much, but they’re not really gone. I sense them all with me. And I’ll see them again.”

Mirella’s white dresser was similar to the one in Polly’s room at Mme Meringue’s, but here it looked pleasing rather than stuffy. The top was covered with little silver and glass jars and with a delicate garnet-and-pearl necklace laid out carefully.

“That was a present from my parents on our last Christmas together as a family.”

A white wicker rocker with pink and purple cushions sat in the corner next to the larger of the room’s two windows. Polly looked down to see the street that circled the side of the tower; the street then continued almost straight out from near Mirella’s front door.

“The bathroom is in here.” Mirella flicked on a light and stepped back out so the girls could look in at one of the smallest bathrooms Polly had ever seen. The white tiles gleamed, and the white fixtures, while old, shone brightly enough to have just come from the store. The bar of soap on the sink was purple.

 

They had only begun to sip their tea back in the kitchen when the bell at the front door rang, and then rang several more times, as if someone were trying to pull it off its mounting by yanking the rope. Everyone was silent, and Mirella looked frightened. The ringing stopped, and a man’s voice carried audibly through the heavy door and up the stairs: “I know you’re in there. Open up or I’ll come in anyway!”

Mirella chose opening the door to her visitor herself. She ran down the stairs, as light on her feet as a young girl. Mirella must be in great shape, Polly found herself thinking, with a flight of stairs in between every room in her tower.

Polly heard the front door open, and the gruff man said, “It’s about time!” Did he think Mirella should have been waiting on the other side of her door in case he happened to stop by?

“Won’t you come in, signor Varelli,” Polly heard Mirella say in a polite but rather tight voice.

“I’d say so! As if I need to wait to be invited into my own tower.”

Two sets of footsteps sounded on the stairs, Mirella’s light and quick, signor Varelli’s heavy and slower. Mirella appeared several seconds before her guest.

He had yet to take a step into the kitchen when he spotted Flora and Polly. “Students!” he hollered. “Gypsy students!”

“You remember Polly from America,” Mirella said politely, “and Flora—her friend and mine.”

Signor Varelli ignored the social conventions and said harshly, “I’ve come to be sure you received my message yesterday. I gave you two weeks to find new quarters—under the circumstances, a generous offer—but only if,” his voice underscored the word, “you called no new, untoward attention to yourself and you refrained from tarnishing my reputation in any way. And that includes not running a school out of my tower!”

“At the bar with you, we did discuss the possibility of a school,” said Mirella, her voice under control, “but I will take no action without your approval.”

“No action!” signor Varelli shouted. “What do you call having two students seated right here under my nose at the kitchen table?”

“They are not my students,” Mirella said in a patient tone of voice. “They are my guests.”

“Guests! What would a woman of your age be doing entertaining child Gypsies and foreigners?”

“Only one Gypsy and one foreigner,” said Sofia, prompting signor Varelli to whirl toward Flora.

“Don’t contradict me, young lady!”

“No sir,” Flora said meekly. When signor Varelli turned back toward Mirella, Flora gave a glare that was clearly meant for Sofia.

“Because you have blatantly violated my generous terms, I will now expect you out in three days, not two weeks. And if you are still on the premises in four days’ time, I will have you arrested for trespassing.”

“But I am not running a school!” Mirella said with some desperation in her voice. “The girls just came to visit me. You don’t see any books or papers, do you? How could I be conducting a class?”

“Do you take me for a fool?” At the sound of fake coughing, he stopped and whirled on Flora again. She had an angry expression on her face, but Polly knew she hadn’t made the noise.

Flora took the blame anyway, which told Polly a lot about her desire to help Mirella. Usually Flora wasn’t the type to take the blame for anybody’s sake. “Sorry,” she said softly. “I swallowed wrong.”

Signor Varelli glared again and then continued. “I will not be hoodwinked. Do you think I haven’t heard you shouting poetry at the top of your lungs over at San Michele in Borgo? ‘Isn’t that your tenant?’ someone asked me just this week when you were up there hollering something about standing and waiting, or whatever foolish lines you were quoting from that idiot Dante you like so much. How do you think I felt? It was the last straw. I will not be made a laughing stock!”

“You were listening,” said Mirella with a little smile. “Just a couple of points: First, Dante is sometimes wrong, but he wasn’t and isn’t a fool by any measure. Second, I wasn’t reciting Dante at the moment you mention; it was Milton—‘They also serve who only stand and wait.’ I wish I could serve by doing more than standing and waiting for people to listen to our great authors,” she added to herself.

“Whatever.” Signor Varelli’s voice was still twice as loud as it needed to be. “Don’t try to change the subject. The point is, why would you need books and paper for teaching when you must have about a hundred books memorized, the way you go on day after day?”

“It’s nice you are a regular, coming to hear Mirella,” Sofia said quietly in a good imitation of an American accent.

Signor Varelli responded by glaring at Polly this time. “Don’t be an idiot. People tell me what she’s up to. I try to avoid the Borgo Stretto completely as much as I can. How do you think it makes me feel?” he asked again. “My valuable and historic tower is inhabited by a woman so crazy she was fired by that hotbed of radical academics, the University of Pisa. Even they wouldn’t put up with her, but you think I should?”

He paused for a moment, during which the others remained silent. “Anyway, I don’t owe you any explanation. Be out in three days or you’ll be doing some explaining yourself—to the law!” He rose, stomped out of the room, and started down the stairs.

“Goodbye, signor Varelli,” Sofia called cheerfully.

As soon as they heard the front door bang closed, Flora said angrily, “Sofia, stupida! You just made things worse for Mirella.”

To Polly’s surprise, Mirella said cheerfully, ”You kept him on his toes, Sofia.” She giggled for a moment, but then her expression sagged and the giggle became a sob. “He wouldn’t have changed his mind no matter what we said or didn’t say. Even after yesterday’s note, I still had a little hope something would work out, but that’s gone. I have to start packing—but how can I bear it? Will you girls help me? I know I couldn’t stand it alone.” Another sob escaped. The tears were flowing freely now. “Where will I go? This is my home. It’s so perfect here.”

“Don’t start packing yet,” Flora said resolutely. One reason we came is to tell you signor Luigi and agente Barto are still trying to figure something out. They’re getting together this morning to talk over ideas.”

“I don’t think anything will work now,” said Mirella. “You heard him. He doesn’t care about facts or human decency. All he knows is I might sully his sterling reputation.”

“Some reputation,” said Flora. “I vote for him as the meanest man in Tuscany. But promise you won’t start packing until signor Luigi and agente Barto or one of us comes back to talk to you. It’ll be by tomorrow, at the latest. Promise me you’ll wait.”

“And try not to worry too much,” Sofia added kindly. “Just because you can’t see a way out doesn’t mean there isn’t one.”

“I’ll wait to pack,” said Mirella. “But it won’t work. I was naïve to think I could just be myself the way I wanted to be as long as no one was employing me and I didn’t break any laws or hurt anyone.”

Polly said, “We’ll stick by you. Please don’t give up. Try to keep busy meanwhile, to keep your mind off it all.”

Mirella nodded, but Polly thought she looked more discouraged than ever.

 

Late that afternoon, the signs went up all over Pisa:

Contest Sign

Tower Home
Three stories of a casa torre

 

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