Howard Colyer

She sat down at a table on the terrace of Cafe Rouge on Greenwich High Road. It was an ugly building. The ugliest for miles, her daughter had said. But she liked the view – left to the station, and right to the church – and she sat watching the people and the traffic until the waitress arrived. And she asked for a double espresso, and the waitress repeated her order, and turned about and vanished through the double doors. And the conversation could not have been shorter, but she was convinced that the waitress came from the south of Italy, and that this was her first job in London. It’s certain, she thought. And her memory fetched up an image of herself thirty-seven years before in Clerkenwell. Which was where she had first worked when she arrived from Naples. She remembered the tea, the rock cakes and the sandwiches – and the French lawyer. Eventually he had taken her away from the cafe, and she had lived with him, and had got pregnant, and they had married. And Hugo had been born the next year, and he was followed by Oscar and Angela. And Angela had left home at the same age as herself, but she had gone to university. Only later had she left England. She had mirrored her mother and moved to Naples. She has gone back, was how her mother described this in her own mind, and to other people – mostly to her husband. And he was apt to point out that she hadn’t gone back, because she had been born in Lewisham. But to his wife this was just a quibble, some piece of exact but futile reasoning which blinded him to what had happened. For her any Italian who lived in Britain, or America, and then returned to Naples was either a failure or a lunatic. And she was ever more convinced of her daughter’s lunacy. But Angela was bright, with a BSc and an MSc in Mathematics, and now she was studying for an MA in Italian Literature. But lunatic was still the word that came to mind as her mother read her letter for the fourth time. Her daughter’s interest in her roots had taken her to Naples, and there she worked as a maths teacher. And some of the children in her class had gangsters for fathers. They belonged to Camorra families. And Angela seemed to delight in spelling this out. And her letter described how she had lost her temper again with one of these boys, and slapped him hard. And being a true gangster’s son he had told his mother. And Mrs Gangster had come to the school and threatened Angela both with some unspecified reprisal, and also with the police – Mrs Gangster had threatened to report Angela for brutality. And this amused Angela – but not her mother. And Angela had defied the woman. She had met the husband, and he was a firm disciplinarian, who had praised authority – at least, in the school – and Angela thought that his wife was just a silly girl who would be put in her place. And so Angela intended to slap the son again whenever it seemed right. And Angela’s mother despaired. Her daughter wanted to live in truth, which meant honesty in all things – such as sparing her mother no sharp or troubling detail. And then the letter went on to describe Angela’s struggle to complete her thesis on Andrea Giovene’s novel, Sansevero. Which seemed to concern Angela more than her contacts with the Camorra. And her mother hated the book. Though her daughter described it as a Neapolitan cultural landmark, she had never before heard of the novel, nor its author. But it was 1,000 pages long. It contained five separate volumes. And her daughter had declared that she would remain in Naples at least until she had written her thesis. For this reason her mother hated Sansevero. And she feared that by the time Angela had earned her MA she would be too accustomed to the city to leave. And over her double espresso she tried to think of some answer – some way of persuading her daughter to leave Naples for London. And she wanted to write and tell her that house prices were falling, and that there was a huge demand for maths teachers in England. She had also continued to renew Angela’s season ticket for Charlton Athletic. There had been a time when all five of them had gone together on a Saturday afternoon to The Valley. And they had sung the club’s anthem – even at home they had sung about the mists rolling in from the Thames. And they had been a family together – in origin French and Italian, but now English. And her sons still lived close by – and like their father they were lawyers. But Angela’s departure was a deep crack in the family, or so she told her husband. Yet she had no words to mend this split. She didn’t know what to say to recall her daughter, and bind them together again. And she couldn’t even persuade her husband of the magnitude of the problem. And she watched a 177 bus go by. It was solid, red and British – and everything else around her seemed equally right and orderly. And she couldn’t evoke in a letter, or on the phone, what she felt and what she suffered. And the waitress brought the bill, and she asked in Italian where she was from – and she had been right. The waitress had come to London from Messina. And she asked the girl if she would ever go back. And the waitress replied in English, Not if I can possibly help it. And in this there was some comfort.

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