Samantha Tonge shares an excerpt from her new book, One Summer in Rome.
‘Excuse me! Sorry, was that your bag?’ Mary bent down to set the small case upright and under the glare of its owner, squeezed her way through the crowds. An out-of-breath Jill followed closely, red in the face due to lack of oxygen and the indignant comments of passengers inadvertently pushed out the way. But Mary had precisely thirty minutes left to check in and board. Finally she reached the appropriate desk and handed over her passport and paperwork.
How had this happened? Plain Mary Smith heading for Rome? A wry smile crossed her face. She blamed the travel agency, located right next to the job centre. On finally quitting her waitressing position at The Black Swan pub, she’d been determined to sign on. However, in the window of the shop next door was a stunning poster of the Coliseum. Ten minutes later, Mary found herself heading home with a bagful of Italian holiday brochures. Until the early hours, she flicked through them, each turn of a page increasing her flurry of excitement.
‘We’ve closed,’ said a tight-lipped young woman, after casting a cursory eye over Mary’s details.
‘This flight has had its last call.’
Jill, The Black Swan’s chef, caught up. ‘Huge apologies. You see the traffic …’
The woman raised one eyebrow as if she’d heard it all before.
‘My young friend can run fast,’ said Jill and she gave a beaming smile. ‘All she needs is for you to weigh that luggage.’
The check-in assistant consulted her watch and shook her head, ponytail swishing like a horse’s tail irritated by a fly.
‘Come on, Jill. Let’s go. It doesn’t matter,’ said Mary, feeling like a customer who tried to buy a drink after last orders. ‘I’m not going to beg to go on a trip I’m having doubts about anyway. I should never have handed in my notice.’ Perhaps this was fate’s way of saying … her? Rome? That’s make-believe.
Mary didn’t know whether the tension in her stomach was disappointment or relief.
Jill shook her head and Mary studied the greying curls and wrinkle-free cheeks, filled out by nature’s own Botox – a love of carbs. This friendship represented the closest relationship she’d ever had – apart from Jake.
‘You should have left months ago,’ said Jill. ‘I only stay because the hours suit for looking after Dave. Brenda falsely accused you of undercharging a customer – again. She’s never happy. Why would you want to work again for the landlady from hell?’
Because, Jill, experience has taught me that change could make things worse. Aged eight, she’d been so excited to leave her second set of foster parents. Their biological daughter hated Mary and the bathroom smelt. But the third couple couldn’t get rid of her quick enough when they unexpectedly found themselves expecting a child of their own.
A puzzled look on her face, the assistant leant forward. ‘Don’t you want to go on holiday? Or at the least have a fortnight of the most fabulous ice cream?’
‘Holiday? No. It’s a one-way trip. You’ll be doing me a favour, to be honest. Take the decision out of my hands, because I can’t afford to buy another flight.’ She shrugged. ‘As if I could reinvent myself in the sunshine … I don’t know what I was thinking when I booked my ticket.’
‘Last-minute nerves,’ mouthed Jill, speaking as if she were sharing something taboo.
The check-in assistant stared for a moment. ‘I’m all for reinventions,’ she said, eventually, in much friendlier tones. ‘Take last year, when my boyfriend dumped me. I dyed my hair blonde. Applied for this job. I’m dating an air steward now.’
With supersonic speed she weighed the small navy case. Mary swallowed. So this was really happening? Half-heartedly she took the boarding ticket and muttered her thanks. They left the check-in desk.
‘Right, off you go,’ said Jill. ‘We made it. No regrets now. It’s too late for those.’
Unable to budge, Mary bit her thumbnail. ‘But what if I’m making a mistake? Now that I’m here …’ She gazed at her passport. ‘What was I thinking? People like me don’t—’ ‘Stop right there. Don’t write yourself off. We all have the potential to achieve whatever we want.’
Gently Jill reached out for Mary’s hand and moved it away from her mouth. ‘We’ve been through this – over and over since I picked you up three hours ago. You have nothing to lose …’
‘Just my self-esteem if I fail.’
‘Rome is beautiful …’
‘So is Hackney. Kind of. At night. If you squint.’
‘… and you love pizza …’
‘I hate tiramisu.’
‘… and what could be worse than working for Brenda?’
Jill had got Mary there. Still. This was like a bungee jump except there was no elasticised cord. No safety net. No back-up plan in case things went wrong.
‘I don’t understand. At first you were so cautious about me taking this job.’ Mary stared at the floor.
‘I know I’ve moaned a lot since Jake left. Sorry about that. At least you won’t have to put up with my romantic problems once I’ve taken that flight.’ She gave an extra bright laugh. ‘You’ll probably be glad to see the back of me.’
Mary lifted her head.
‘You know our friendship means the world to me. These last few months …’ Jill’s voice broke.
‘You’ve been so supportive, listening to me talk through all my worries about Dave. I don’t know how I’d have managed without you …’ her eyes glistened as she smiled ‘… or your particularly uplifting triple chocolate cookies. But I’ve seen such a change in you, these last couple of weeks – until you started having reservations as departure day loomed. Your whole face has upturned as if gravity is having the opposite effect. And you’ve never been so animated as last Tuesday night when you came around to show off that Italy guide book.’ Jill straightened up. ‘So I’m not going to be selfish and persuade you to stay. Now pull yourself together this instant. You can always come back if it doesn’t work out.’
‘But I’ve got no flat. No job,’ she whispered.
‘You’ve got the sofa in my lounge,’ Jill whispered back. ‘I’ll miss you heaps …’ Her voice wavered.
‘But it’s not as much as you’ll be missing if you turn down this chance. Dave is right.’
And with that, Jill delivered the sucker punch. Mary nodded as the words of her friend’s ill husband came to mind. He had acute lymphocytic leukemia. The prognosis wasn’t good. Go for it, Mary. Step out of your comfort zone because there is nothing comfortable about regrets when you’re facing your own personal journey of no return.
Mary stared at her friend and allowed herself to be wrapped in those squidgy arms. Jill always wore the same sandalwood body spray. Mary breathed it in and hoped to retain the memory of that fragrance.
It might be months before she smelt it again.
So, Mary Smith was really going to jack in her London life. Toby and Tilly, the little twins she babysat next door to her flat, in the tower block, had both burst into tears. They called her Mary Berry.
With a wry smile Mary wondered who they’d miss more – her or her biscuits.
This was it. Mary Smith was on the move. Heading across the Channel to work in the exotic-sounding Pizzeria Dolce Vita.
‘Okay, okay, this is the right decision,’ said Mary.
‘It absolutely is,’ said Jill, ‘as long as … just bear in mind …’ She shuffled from foot to foot.
Mary raised an eyebrow.
‘As long as you aren’t doing a geographical.’
‘What do you mean?’
Jill bit her lip. ‘Much as I’m going to miss you, there was another reason I was cautious about this move, at first. Just don’t expect to escape all your inner … your inner …’
‘Issues?’ said Mary and she smiled. ‘Just you wait and see – I’m leaving all of that particular baggage well behind.’ The baggage of being the little girl nobody wanted. Oh, Mary had understood once she got older – prospective adoptive parents wanted a baby, not a shy five-year-old who soon became eight, eleven, fourteen … but those feelings of rejection never left and they made it all the harder when Jake had dumped her.
Mary stood taller. One thing was for sure: she wouldn’t be looking for romance in Rome.
‘That’s what Sarah thought,’ said Jill, softly. Her niece had just got back from Rome. Mary was replacing her as a waitress, at Pizzeria Dolce Vita. ‘She took the job to escape the baggage of her stressful career in the city but the problem wasn’t the job, it was her perfectionist streak – Sarah believing she was never good enough. And it caught up with her big time. Whilst working for Alfonso, she also did evening courses in Italian culture and wine-tasting …’
‘That’s why she had another breakdown and had to come back?’
‘Well, you know what? That’s helped me realise leaving is so the right decision because my problems are nothing like Sarah’s.’ She kissed Jill on the cheek and fingered the black haematite bead bracelet around her slim wrist. One of the heavier crystals from her collection, it bore the power to boost self-confidence.
She pictured a dusky pink sunset behind the Vatican. Comforting bowls of spaghetti. Laughing street entertainers in one of the many piazzas. ‘You don’t need to worry, Jill. This is my fresh start and I’m more than capable of leaving my demons well and truly behind.’ She gave a broad smile. ‘It’s going to be the answer to all my troubles.’
To Rome…with love?
Mary Smith is turning her very ordinary life upside-down! She’s bought herself a one-way ticket to Rome and is ready for a summer she’ll never forget.
Men might be off the cards for waitress Mary, but within hours of arriving at the utterly charming family-run La Dolce Vita pizzeria, she’s already fallen in love with the bustling capital!
Only Dante Rossi, the mysterious (and drop-dead gorgeous) chef seems displeased with her arrival. And in the heat of the kitchen, it doesn’t take long for long-buried secrets to surface and sparks to fly…
Samantha Tonge was formally trained as a linguist. Along with writing, Samantha’s days are spent cycling, willing cakes to rise and avoiding housework. She lives in Cheshire with her lovely family and a cat that thinks it’s a dog.