The Letter by Polly Botsford
LISP 2nd Half 2021 Short Story Finalist, The Letter by Polly Botsford
What Loretta really wanted was the answer to come to her in her prayers. She was taking her mother, Constanza, on her Sunday outing to their church, St Peter’s, where the souls of London’s Italian diaspora mingle. A letter from the landlord of the lunch shop that she had been running her entire adult life had arrived the previous week. In the space of a few typed lines her rent had doubled and her enterprise had become unaffordable.
Vivere, tucked behind Chancery Lane, served up traditional sandwiches with fillings displayed in aluminium bowls alongside a few Italian favourites. But the office crowd’s tastes had changed, and both Loretta’s menu and her cumbersome individual service could not compete with supermarkets and take away chains. She still carried the letter embossed with a silver crest featuring a bird of prey in her handbag. It posed one simple question for her: so now what?
Familiar faces greeted their arrival as Loretta helped Constanza up the well-worn stone steps of the entrance. They left the warm June air behind as they made their way into the nave of the basilica-style church, the Virgin Mary’s plasterwork eyes peeking at them out of cornices. Though it would be too grand to say that the Bolsonis had their own pew, they did tend to sit in the same aisle each week. Loretta and Constanza were soon squeezed in amongst their cousins and a few children who fidgeted and made demands.
Loretta tried to blot out the human distractions around her by fixing her gaze on the domed ceiling above. She never could explain to her family how much she loved her work at the café. Each day the mood shifted: sometimes boisterous, other times sedate. But it was also that she had created something. Her favourite moment was when two people built a rapport during repeated meetings in the lunchtime queue. She, Loretta, had brought them together, had established a human bond that may since have become rich and rewarding.
Mass was over and everyone gathered at the back of the church where helpers served modest amounts of tea, coffee and iced-pink biscuits. A woman approached Loretta: long legs, long hair, worn naturally. Patrizia was Loretta’s prodigal sister who had left London for Italy as a student and had been there, existing haphazardly, ever since. To live in the mother country gave Patricia special status and mystery among the displaced Italians in London. So much so in fact, that the priest, Father Simone, singled her out in approaching her:
‘Patrizia! How Italian you look!’
Quick as a flash she replied: ‘And you look exactly like a priest!’
His expression, manifested in two rather watery eyes and a mouth that hung open just a little too much, did not waver.
‘Are you staying long this time?’
‘I’m just here to persuade Loretta to come home with me back to Matese after what has happened with Vivere; those bastards - pardon me, Father.’
Loretta’s otherwise olive skin that belied her middle age flushed as she handed Constanza a cup and saucer. The mother retorted before Loretta could say anything: ‘She is home, Patrizia.’
‘But without the café she is free. At her age, she can have a new life, Jack is old enough. Don’t you think?’
Constanza deferred to the priest: ‘Loretta is giving up the café, Father. But I am not sure she wants a new life.’
‘She can’t imagine it because everyone is always bothering her,’ argued Patrizia. ‘She has no time to think clearly.’
Loretta’s pained expression went unnoticed.
‘No one knows her over there - and what would she do all day?’
‘She can live at last. She is stuck in her ways; I don’t blame you, Loretta, this happens to all of us over a long time. Habits can make you think there is only one way to do things,’ she flicked her long hair.
‘Patrizia, you know nothing about habit. You have never done anything long enough to be a habit,’ bit back Constanza.
The priest shifted his feet and Loretta said: ‘I am still looking forward to this year’s church parade. How is the organising coming along?’
Loretta’s home was on a housing association estate: low-rise box houses with thin walls and tight alleyways. Her twenty-year residency was evident in the thick honeysuckle trellised all around the front garden. It was in full bloom then, its finger-like petals unfurled in the warmth of early Summer. She usually found comfort in her vista from the living room window of other houses, rowan trees and hedges, neighbours going about their lives. But later that day as she prepared supper, it tugged at her heart: ashamed of her small life and its unambitious surroundings, her hair as neatly bobbed as her hedge. At the same time, she felt a tremor that it all might disappear. The clenching passed as the water on the hob boiled over.
There were clumping sounds from upstairs as Patrizia was using Jack’s room whilst he was away at college. Eventually, the older sister’s long strides brought her downstairs. She looked out of the living room window, and exclaimed:
‘Look at all the bins!’
‘Oh, Italy has got its rubbish cleared, has it?’
‘But why are they lined up like that in front of everyone’s houses? It’s as if nothing else matters except your rubbish. You could have so much space in Matese, Loretta.’
‘Triz, let’s eat and we can talk about it.’
They sat at the small kitchen table with a view of the sitting room, clean and tidy, no trophies of a life well-travelled, just a small TV, a few photos, a sewing box.
Over their modest supper, Loretta took a good look at Patrizia. Now in her fifties, her sister remained languorous: eyes under hooded lids and long lashes, a lithe figure. Objectively, Loretta could see how Triz made things happen.
Patrizia talked of generalities first: the cousins they all knew who lived close by to her now, the warmth of the Italian sun, her friend Frederico’s fields of artichokes, her painting group, trips into the forests. It sounded, of course, like an eternal summer.
‘A house has come up, nearby. It’s not even €100,000. ‘rico can get you a loan from his friend at the agricultural bank.’
Loretta’s face was blank. ‘How do I pay back the loan?’
‘You’ll rent the place to tourists. The villa needs some work - but we know everyone.’
This was how Patrizia lived her life: a scheme, a plan, a business or even a marriage. A whim became a thing: she would befriend people who would conjure up what was needed at any particular moment. But despite the chimeric quality of Patrizia’s vision, the curtain had been drawn back a fraction in her younger sister’s mind as to the possibilities ahead.
‘Tell me about the house, Triz.’
‘It’s on the edge of town, on a pretty square; there’s a garden. The man died in the attic and the family are fighting.’
Loretta was about to say something but Patrizia ploughed on.
‘This is what puts people off, which is our opportunity; and there’s a pool share with Caustio, your neighbour. He can fix anything. It will be rentals all over the summer and then you can spend the rest of the year doing whatever you please.’
Loretta prepared herself for bed, staring fondly at an action photo of Jack playing hockey on her phone. Her son would love her to move to Italy, she thought: she would be forced to keep some distance from him, and he would have somewhere worth visiting. But Loretta also knew that with Patrizia the life force was too strong, nothing lasted, and everything left behind a history, some scar.
She lay still for a bit, resting her eyes. She must have dozed off because the next thing she knew she was roused by unusual sounds coming from downstairs. Loretta’s first thought was of a fox because she could hear a scratching noise. She waited a few moments, keeping still. It was quiet, then the strange scratching, but also a metallic sound, then a pause, then it started again. Loretta was wide awake now. She sat up and put on her dressing gown. A shadow crossed the floor in front of her as her door was opened. Thank goodness Patrizia revealed herself soon after or the scream that was in Loretta’s throat would have been let out.
She gripped Patrizia: ‘You scared me.’ They both kept their voices low.
‘You have an intruder downstairs. He’s in the kitchen. Is this normal?’
‘Should we try and stop him?’
‘I don’t know. May be stay away.’
‘I need to call the Police.’
Loretta shivered. They listened. The sound was still there, a bit louder, more persistent.
‘What if he comes up here?’
‘Yes, I was thinking that.’
‘I have heard how it goes: they come for the TV, then they get scared and they attack you.’
There were new sounds: a few bangs, a clatter, another bang. They came less intermittently.
Patrizia, in short cotton pyjamas, put on her trainers: ‘I think now we must do something.’
She took hold of a long, hooked rod that Loretta used to open her blinds.
‘Don’t be stupid Triz. You can’t fight him!’
Patrizia ignored her, but, instead of going downstairs, she went to the first floor window, opened it, threw the makeshift weapon out, and, pulling herself onto the sill, disappeared into the night.
Loretta was so shocked it took her a few seconds to react. She rushed over to the square of darkness outside, and managed to catch a glimpse of her sister using makeshift footholds on the drainpipe and lowering herself to the ground. Patrizia then turned and waved her arms. A lamp beamed out a conical-shaped tract of light. She started talking loudly before banging on the front door with the rod. Utterly confused, for a moment Loretta thought she was meant to answer the knocking. But that was ridiculous. She stuck to her spot by the open window.
There was a further knocking on the door, louder, faster, Patrizia hollering. A neighbour’s dog appeared to respond. Then Loretta heard noises from inside: a clamour, footsteps, a door, the sounds of a human’s urgent voice, a stifled cry, more footsteps. She felt a coldness, and Loretta shrank back against the window frame only to catch a glimpse of Patrizia disappear around the outside of the house where there was a side gate. There was a heavy rattling and, to the sister’s horror, a cry out. A heavier door was slammed shut, the scraping again. Finally: silence. It had all passed in a matter of seconds.
‘Triz! Are you okay?’ Loretta called down in a whispered shout. She leaned as far out as she dared but there was no one there. Her heart hammering, she heard another cracking sound from downstairs. To calm down, she breathed in the air. Then there was silence but this time it stretched on. A few moments later, Loretta was relieved to see Patrizia materialise below her, standing outside the front door, appearing to admire a delicate strip of new moon. Then she came to the front garden and called up in a loud whisper:
‘Think so,’ gasped Loretta.
‘Let me back in then.’
‘I can’t go downstairs!’
‘Let me in, Loretta! I am in my nightgown and my hand is cut!’
The same dog barked suddenly, startling Loretta. She turned on all the lights and, shivering, crept down to open the front door.
When Loretta saw Patrizia, she fell into her sister’s arms. Together they ventured to the kitchen, Patrizia holding out her bloodied hand. As they walked in, Loretta gasped at the debris: the back door handle and lock had been ripped open and the floor had become a forest of split timber and glass. The bin had been knocked over and scraps of food and plastic packaging added to the melé; a stench hung over the whole area.
‘They’ve taken my handbag.’
Loretta saw also that Jack’s old stereo and her holiday money, such as it was, kept in an old Chinese tea tin, were missing. Loretta didn’t want to know any more, her hands shaking, she went to get a bandage, hurried back into the living room, inviting Patrizia to sit as close to her as she could on the sofa.
‘What did you do out there?’
‘An old trick which living in remote mountains teaches you. I just made enough noise to sound like an army.’
Loretta sighed, sagging with exhaustion: ‘What would have happened if you hadn’t been here?’
‘You would have thought of your own bizarre plan, I am sure.’
‘I never have a plan.’
The smell of the spilled rubbish overpowered Loretta and nausea got hold of her. Patrizia went to heat up some milk in a pan and Loretta gave in to her putting a blanket over her knees. She felt dead tired, heavy-limbed. She glanced about her little home and felt a cool draught from the back entrance that had now been smashed open. Then she closed her eyes to it.
‘It’s a sign,’ she said, defeated. ‘For me to go with you. It must be.’
Patrizia looked surprised: ‘You are going to come back to Italy? To stay?’
She reached long arms around Loretta and they embraced.
They sat together, quiet.
‘I better call the Police.’
They waited, burrowed under the blanket. A car pulled up an hour or so later. Two officers had a look around, took the tea that was offered them as Patrizia explained what had happened.
The younger of the two officers, with spikey blond hair and pocked skin, had a liveliness about him; Loretta could see he was taking everything in, the house, the women, the story. He was open-mouthed at Patrizia’s narrative of her manoeuvres.
As they were leaving, the young officer, whose name was Paul, took Loretta aside and asked to use the bathroom. Loretta showed him the way. By now, her body ached from tiredness. When he emerged, his face was lit up; she felt like an old woman before this spritely male.
‘I’ve been to that lunch place! The one in the pictures on the wall,’ he piped.
She was not expecting that, of all things.
‘Vivere?’ It’s my own place.’
‘Well, what are the chances? Nice place you have. Prefer it to all the Japanese places.’
In the weeks that followed, Patrizia was a frenzy of phone calls and conversations about the villa. Each day Loretta would come back from her café to be told of new developments. For the most part, she felt overwhelmed, unable even to organise for the back door to be replaced or new locks fitted. The more energised Patrizia became, the greater Loretta’s lethargy. This went on until Patrizia’s flight back to Matese; she took all that noise with her.
It was the morning after Loretta’s first night alone. She was getting her café prepared for the morning rush. It was bright sunshine already over the old brick and new glass offices of Chancery Lane but the air was still fresh with the early hour. She made a round of coffees for her staff, a ritual she had started from the very beginning. She extracted the cash float from the safe. Counting the notes and coins, she felt good order return.
As the first suited office workers arrived, their expressions already distracted by what their day would bring, Loretta was swept along with the influx of orders. One face was familiar. It was the young policeman, a helmet under his arm. On seeing Loretta, this time in a smart jacket, her bob pinned on one side, he was taken aback.
‘It’s PC Bollard. Paul. From the burglary?’
‘Yes, I know. Take a seat and I’ll bring you a coffee.’
‘Won’t say no.’
When Loretta returned with a mug, she sat down opposite Paul. Seeing him there at one of her oak tables that she had bought in an East End market a decade or so ago, probably when Paul was still at school, she realised, Loretta suddenly felt choked.
‘Nice place this. Got a nice feel.’
Loretta couldn’t say anything. She gave him a slight smile but her eyes gave her away.
‘Oh yes, fine. It’s just - ’
‘The break-in, isn’t it. Can get to people. Well, I have good news. We think we have your burglars. A group of them living on the canal paths round here.’
On the top deck of the bus on Loretta’s way home, tears finally came. Looking down at the taxis and cyclists manoeuvering around each other, she sobbed, hands clenched. But by the time she was at her stop, her eyes were dry. She got out the landlord’s letter and re-read it with a new acceptance, noting the date of the rent rise, and sketched out a special menu for the last weeks of Vivere. It was in this state of acceptance- not in her prayers - that an answer came.
As Loretta took one of the side streets to her house from the bus stop, she saw that in a row of local shops a grim-looking take away had a poster in the window in highlighter-yellow announcing it was closing down. Loretta had passed this notice before, but it was on this day that stopped before it. Cupping her hands around her eyes, she peered through the dirty window to absorb what was on the inside. She then looked up and down the Victorian-terraced street: a few houses with scaffolding, a smattering of smart cars, a grocer’s and dry cleaners. A café here wouldn’t quite be the bustle of Chancery Lane, and she would have to cater for all sorts, but she had already got an idea for the façade.
‘I’ll call it “Patrizia’s”’, she said to no one in particular.