English for beginners
Giulia worked as a waitress in a teashop in High Street Kensington from half past eight in the morning to three o'clock in the afternoon. She lived in Bloomsbury, where she shared a room with Margaret in a women's hostel opposite the British Museum.
The teashop occupied three floors in a Victorian building squeezed between modern office blocks in a narrow street off Kensington High Street. The narrow ground floor only had room for the patisserie counter with an old-fashioned till and a couple of bistro tables; the kitchen was located on the first floor, next door to the toilets, while the tearoom was on the second floor.
In the tearoom, the tables were covered by pink cloths with small ceramic vases of fresh flowers and a matching sugar bowl. The chairs and wall seats were upholstered in black leather, well worn and cracked in places. There was a small gap between the tables and when it was busy, Giulia moved around with difficulty, trying to avoid bumping into chairs and upsetting her tray.
The staff consisted of two waitresses, the pastry chef, a kitchen porter and the owner, a young French woman who like to talk to her customers when she wasn’t otherwise engaged. Christine was a resting actress. She had bought the teashop from a couple of compatriots, after having worked on and off as a waitress for many years.
The teashop was frequented by artists and businessmen. Christine knew all her customers and particularly cultivated the friendship of a theatre director who had promised her a small part in his new play.
At four o'clock, Giulia would take the uniform off and let her hair loose from the tight ponytail she had to wear while serving. She then combed her hair and applied a little make-up. Every evening during the week she attended classes at a language school in Oxford Street. The class started at five thirty and Giulia spent her free time before in Covent Garden, walking around the shops and watching the street performers.
If the weather was good, she would walk from her workplace to Marble Arch by crossing Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park. It was a long walk, but it was very pleasant on sunny days.
Her day off was Wednesday, but she worked every Sunday. On weekends Giulia was on her own because Margaret went to see her parents in Manchester. Margaret had invited her to join her, but because Giulia worked on Sundays, it wasn’t practical for her to get away. On Sunday afternoons, she would take the tube to Camden Town to walk around the market or strolled by the canal towards Regents Park.
Margaret was thinking of moving out of the hostel and had asked Giulia if she would share a flat with her. Their accommodation was cheap and central, but they had to share the kitchen and no visitors were allowed past the reception desk.
On a Wednesday afternoon, Giulia accompanied Margaret to view a flat near Russell Square. The flat was in a quaint, pedestrianised alley, on the top floor of a brick building that was over 150 years old. On the ground floor was a pottery shop, its glazed door squeezed to the wooden front door of the flat, which was painted in an eye-catching postbox red.
The landlord was a middle-aged man who owned a local b&b. He arrived 20 minutes late and excused himself several times. He led them up a steep carpeted staircase and showed them round briskly. ‘The first floor is taken by a dental surgery. Every Friday you can leave an envelope with the rent money with the receptionist. This door, here, leads to the flat,’ he explained patting a solid-looking white door. ‘It’s a fire door and provides some security for you girls as the front door is kept open during surgery hours.’
They walked up concreted uncarpeted stairs.
‘The ceilings are bit low, but it’s pretty good flat for the price,’ he said unlocking the flat’s door.
They followed him in the living room, a square room with a small table and four chairs, a gas fireplace, an old-fashioned chintz armchair and a melamine shelving unit with a small portable TV on top of it.
The kitchen was tiny but clean. The bedroom had two twin beds with matching cabinets, a wardrobe and a chest of drawers.
‘Where is the bathroom?’ asked Margaret.
‘The bathroom is upstairs, and it’s shared with one room.’
‘Ah, that explains the price,’ said Margaret bluntly. Giulia admired her nerve; she had been thinking the same thing.
The landlord eyed her warily and said: ‘You won’t find anything at this price in this area. I could have rented this many times over, but I wanted the right tenant, like yourselves, two young girls who work and are no trouble. The room upstairs is rented to a young professional, a very quiet person. I want no trouble here and the rent paid on time.’
Opposite the flat, a matching white door led to more concrete steps, the top landing covered by green patterned lino. A coin-operated public telephone was mounted to the wall between two doors. Somebody had fixed a pen with a piece of blue tack and there was some paper for messages on a metal stool under the phone. The landlord showed them the bathroom, which was outdated but looked clean.
They followed the landlord downstairs and into the waiting room of the surgery. ‘So, girls, what is going to be?’ he asked eagerly.
‘I like it,’ said Giulia.
Margaret gave her a look and said: ‘We will take it if you knock off 50 pounds on the weekly rent. We can pay three weeks in advance as a deposit.’
The landlord didn’t look pleased but smiled at Giulia and asked: ‘I spotted an accent, there, are you Italian?’
‘All right girls, since my wife is Italian too, I will give you the discount, but four weeks in advance, please.’
‘OK,’ said Giulia.
They shook hands and left. In the street Margaret nudged Giulia and said. ‘We got a flat, hurray! We can have parties and invite people now! It’s not a bad deal, but he would have taken three if you’d have let me work on him.’
‘It’s a nice area. I wonder whom we are sharing our bathroom with?’
‘An old man, no doubt. He’ll bang with a broom stick whenever we have visitors.’
The day of the move, Giulia stood on the pavement outside the hostel surrounded by cases and bulging black bin bags, while Margaret tried to hail a taxi. It was a short journey so the taxi driver had to be persuaded to take them. Giulia had only a case and a rucksack, but Margaret had been living in London for two years and had accumulated a lot of things.
The taxi had to stop on the main road as their new street didn’t allow access to vehicles. It took a while to unload their luggage from the taxi and carry it by the door of their new flat. The driver was such in a hurry to pick up his next fare that he helped them with the cases.
Margaret went upstairs to pay the deposit and the rent for the first week, while Giulia minded their possessions, which had blocked the door to the shop. Luckily it was closed.
The surgery receptionist gave Margaret a receipt and the keys of the flat. After several trips, they managed to take up everything. With their possessions in, the living room had shrunk in size.
In the bedroom Giulia and Margaret started to put away their clothes. The empty cases were pushed under the beds. They moved to the living room and soon the flat look more homely with their books, photos and small objects. Giulia looked at her watch. It was three o'clock and they had had nothing to eat since breakfast. She opened the kitchen cupboards and was pleased to find pans, plates and crockery. ‘We have everything we need here, but nothing to eat.’
‘I can go downstairs and ask the receptionist where the nearest supermarket is. Like you I left my food leftovers with the girls at the hostel, I couldn’t risk them making a mess in my bags.’
The surgery’s receptionist told them there was a shopping centre in front of Russell Square station. They found a Safeway supermarket, a laundrette, a cinema, a cobbler, a florist and a burger bar.
‘Let’s have a burger and French fries here and then we can go to the supermarket,’ suggested Margaret.
They ate their burgers perched on stools by the window. They were so hungry that everything tasted so good. They went back to the flat loaded with bags. Margaret filled the fridge and the cupboards, while Giulia investigated a small door near the fireplace, which had been papered to blend in. It was a tiny cupboard containing an ironing board, an iron, a hoover, a broom and a metal bucket with a mop.
‘We really have got everything we need,’ said Giulia feeling pleased.
Giulia and Margaret moved the furniture to suit them and hanged a James Dean poster above the fireplace. The shelves of the melamine unit were soon crammed with books.
As they both worked during the day, they only met late the evening when Giulia came back from her classes. On her day off, Giulia used to spend most of the day in the flat studying. They loved the independence and did not mind having to share the bathroom as it was always free when they needed it.
Giulia bumped into their neighbour on a Saturday evening. Margaret had gone to Manchester to a friend’s wedding. She was carrying a shopping bag up the steep stairs and was so absorbed in her thoughts that she collided against a tall, young man, who was running down in haste.
She managed to keep her balance, but the shopping bag flew off her hands. He helped her to pick up her purchases then introduced himself. ‘Hi, sorry about the accident, I’m Robert.’
‘I'm Giulia. Don’t worry; I wasn’t looking where I was going.’
‘You must be my new neighbour. Are you Italian?’
‘Yes, from Milan.’
‘I have great admiration for Italian art; I have been in your country many times. I'm an architect. What do you do here in London?’
‘I study English and work in a teashop.’
‘I'd like to speak Italian. I did a course but I lack practice.’
‘I've had some problems with English. It's so different from Italian.’
‘I could help you, if you could help me in exchange,’ Robert offered. ‘Does it matter that I’m American?’
‘No, it’s OK,’ said Giulia. Robert sounded like an interesting person and was very good looking. ‘When are we going to start?’ she blurted, and then bit her tongue hoping she did not sound desperate.
‘First we must get acquainted. What about going out for a walk tomorrow afternoon? I'm a respectable man, with respectable intentions,’ he joked.
‘We could meet after three, where I work, if it’s OK,’ suggested Giulia.
‘OK, leave the address by the phone, I'm going now. I’m meeting a friend and I am late.’
Giulia prepared her dinner and ate with appetite. She then sat on the chintz armchair to watch TV. At ten o'clock she switched it off and took a book from the shelf. It was a simplified version of Pride and Prejudice. She read it with a dictionary on her lap so she could look up the words she didn't understand.
The next day she woke up early. She arrived at the teashop well before the opening time and had breakfast in the kitchen. The cook did not come on a Sunday and his assistant was in a good mood. He had prepared crepes, which they ate drizzled with honey.
That morning there were only a few customers. It had started to rain as soon as Giulia had opened so not many people were about. Giulia hoped the weather would change in the afternoon or her walk with Robert would be ruined.
It stopped raining and the tearoom was crowded at lunchtime. There quite a few elderly men and women as they still served tea in the old-fashioned way, with a hot water jug by the teapot.
Giulia’s replacement arrived early, so ten minutes before three she went into the staff toilet to get changed. She looked at herself in the mirror with critical air and put a bit more makeup on her eyes.
Robert was waiting outside and smiled when he saw her.
‘What are we going to do today?’ She asked.
‘What about a tour of the canals? You can leave from little Venice and reach the zoo and Camden Town by water.’
‘Where is little Venice?’
‘It's by Paddington. It's not quite like Venice, but it’s pretty and the barges are very pretty.’
They took the underground to Paddington. During the journey, Robert told Giulia about his big family and his plans to open an architect studio in Houston. He wanted to build houses in the traditional European style.
Giulia was impressed. She didn’t have much to say about herself, she was an only child and her parents owned a small wine company. She had come to London to study English so she could help her father export wine.
Little Venice was a narrow canal crossed by two brick bridges. Colourful narrowboats and barges were moored along it.
A barge hosted an art gallery. The artist, an older man wearing a kaftan on cropped jeans, showed them round and gave Giulia a postcard with an ink drawing of the canal and his barge.
They waited in line to board the tour boat. The boat moved slowly because of the shallow waters. For a while there was nothing much to see. The embankments had been reinforced by block of concrete, which were covered in ugly graffiti. The view improved when they passed near Regent’s Park and when the boat reached the zoo, Giulia spotted wild animals peering at them through the fence.
They got off at Camden Town and walked towards the Lock market. Robert seemed to know the area as well as Giulia. He bought a wooden incense dish for himself and a small papier mache’ box for Giulia with two Siamese cats painted on its lacquered lid. Later, they shared a cream tea at a teashop overlooking the canal.
From that afternoon, Giulia and Robert would meet once or twice in the evening during the week and spent the weekends together. Sometimes they spoke Italian, sometimes they spoke English.
Margaret was introduced to Robert and often invited him to dinner. Occasionally they all went to see a movie at the cinema opposite Russell Square tube.
As Giulia and Robert became good friends, Margaret started teasing her. Giulia was unsure of how she felt. Robert always behaved correctly and made her feel at ease. She was going back to Italy at the end of the summer and she didn’t believe in long-distance relationship.
Margaret was of a different opinion. ‘Life is short, why don’t you let things take their course and worry later? You think too much, just let yourself go.’
‘I’m not a flirt like you,’ retorted Giulia which made Margaret laugh as she had met a university student in Manchester she really liked and did not know what to do about it.
One evening, Robert came back from work with exciting news. ‘The project is complete so I’m finished here. I called one of my university pals and he’s willing to be my partner in the studio. Things are proceeding faster than I expected.’
‘When are you leaving?’ asked Giulia. She was shocked at how much she was distressed by Robert’s departure. She had known from the start that they would have to part. Had she hidden her real feelings to protect herself?
‘When I'm settled, you can pay me a visit. In my home, there will be always a place for good friends.’
Friends, that’s what they were and what they will ever be. Giulia’s father might not wish to finance another foreign trip and it would take her a long time to save enough money for it.
Giulia returned to Italy two months after Robert’s departure. She had passed her exam and obtained the proficiency certificate. Her father was delighted and soon Giulia started working with the sales manager.
She left home early in the morning, worked and came back home late in the evening. At weekends she went to eat a pizza or watch a movie with her school girlfriends. At Christmas she received a card from Robert. He had finally opened his studio and was inviting her to visit him in the spring or summer.
Giulia thought it was best to leave it at that, Christmas cards and the occasional postcard from Liguria where her family owned a holiday flat. Although she missed London, she had fitted back in her old life and was enjoying her job. Next year she would start travelling to the European wine fairs and she was looking forward to that. She mentioned the invitation to Margaret when she called her to wish her a Happy New Year.
‘Are you mad? You have to go! Think of the great time you’d have.’
‘But isn’t it best this way? Besides it’s quite expensive to fly to the US.’
‘If you go in the low season it won’t cost as much.’
‘What about you, what are you up to?’
‘I got a promotion! I’m now the PA of the managing director. I can afford to rent our flat on my own. Emma is a pain, she has to go. Soon it will be just me, unless you fancy coming back.’
‘Are you going to ask her to leave? Poor Emma.’
‘Don’t worry. She’s is moving in with her boyfriend. I wish him all the luck in the world as he will need it.’
Giulia called the travel agent to book plane tickets to Paris and hotel accommodation for the Spring Wine Fair. It was going to be her first international fair. She couldn’t resist asking for the cheapest fare to Houston. She was told that direct flights were expensive, but if she didn’t mind changing in New York, there was a really good deal for early February. Giulia thanked the woman and hung up. If she added her Christmas money to her savings she could afford to go.
She rang Robert and asked him if it was OK to visit him for a week in February. ‘I know it’s a bit sudden, but I was quoted a good fare and I can just about afford it now.’
‘I’d love to show you around,’ said Robert. ‘I can take some time off as it is not too busy now.’
Giulia managed her connection to Houston without a hitch. She had never spent so many hours on planes and when she got off, her legs felt numb. She collected her case and walked towards the exit, eager to stretch her legs.
Robert was waiting in the arrival area with a pretty blonde. They were laughing and looked very happy together. They soon spotted her and Robert waved.
‘Hi, I'm Susan, Robert told me all about you.’
‘Hello, Susan, nice to meet you.’
‘You must be tired,’ said Robert and took her case. They walked to the underground parking and Robert put Giulia’s case in the boot of an expensive looking convertible.
From her back seat, Giulia struggled to follow Robert and Susan’s conversation, saying very little. When they reached Robert’s apartment and Susan made her feel at home with a coffee and slice of cake, Giulia couldn’t contain her curiosity any longer. ‘Where did you meet?’ she asked trying to sound casual.
‘I've know Rob since he was a little,’ said Susan, ruffling Robert’s hair. ‘I’ve loved him from the first sight. Isn't my little brother awesome?’