The following is an excerpt that captures the moment when Stella arrives in London and walks through the door of the Blue Lion for the first time.
Friday, February 6, 1953
She wanted to like London. She wanted to love the city, but it was loud and dirty and surprisingly ugly, and the few people she’d spoken with so far were distinctly unfriendly. None had any patience for her accent, even though her command of English was excellent, and now the officer in the Customs Office who was inspecting her passport and visa and her offer of employment from Picture Weekly had started to grumble under his breath about foreigners taking work away from decent people and what was the point of even winning the war if the eye-tees were just going to take over anyway.
He waved her on with a grunt, not once having looked her in the eye, and she suppressed the sudden urge to tell him what she thought of small, unpleasant, and entirely forgettable men. It would only make her late, and it would run contrary to her resolve to make the best of every situation in which she found herself.
Instead she smiled brightly, picked up her case, and went in search of the bus Edie had told her to take. To her delight it was a double-decker, just like she’d seen in photographs, but as the top level could only be reached via a set of steep and twisting stairs, she prudently moved to the nearest window and tried to orient herself.
The view from the bus was an unremarkable stretch of drab office blocks on either side, punctuated every so often by temporary walls papered over with advertisements. Perhaps there were ruins behind the flimsy barriers, or the beginnings of new structures to replace the ones flattened by bombs. She had expected the ruins, but not the dreary streets and impassive facades that might be found anywhere.
“Westminster!!” called out the conductor from his spot by the rear door.
The bus swung to the right, and the tedium of the past few minutes was instantly erased by the sight of Westminster Abbey and the Parliament buildings and the tower with its great bell. So different to her eyes, schooled as she’d been in the genius of Palladio and his spiritual ancestors, but pleasing, too, in their steadfast stolidity. She would have to return for a visit as soon as she had a day off.
The bus turned onto a broad avenue, and here the buildings were truly monumental, set square to the road, and far newer than the ancient abbey. The bus stopped, disgorged a handful of men in dark suits, admitted a greater number of the same, and as it pulled back into traffic she caught sight of the open piazza ahead, its lions keeping steadfast watch over a lonely statue left marooned at the top of a nearby column. A long-dead king, she supposed, or one of his generals.
As she moved toward the exit at the back, Stella struggled to keep her footing among the throng of departing passengers. She was just able to keep hold of her suitcase, but in the commotion the little map Edie had drawn up was torn from her grasp. No matter, for she had memorized its every detail.
She crossed over Whitehall, watching carefully for cars, for Edie had warned her to be cautious. Now she crossed Northumberland Avenue and continued along a few more meters to the junction with Northumberland Street. She looked to her left, suddenly nervous that she might have remembered wrongly, but the Blue Lion was there, waiting for her, just as she’d expected and hoped. Not a grand building, nor very beautiful, but she liked it all the same. She liked it very much.
Built of faded red brick, it had worn stone lintels and a classical pediment over the front door that was possibly a little too large for the building. A swinging sign, set at an angle on the corner wall, bore the brightly painted image of a blue lion standing on its hind legs. The same lion appeared on a carved plaque set into the wall by the door, and as Stella drew near she was able to read the date inscribed beneath its worn stone paws: 1560.
The entrance hall was small and low-ceilinged and smelled pleasantly of lemon and beeswax. A coal fire was burning in a modest hearth to her left, with deep-cushioned upholstered chairs arranged at either side. A staircase was straight ahead—she supposed the hotel was too small for a lift—and to her right was an alcove that contained the reception desk. It, along with every vertical plane in the room, was paneled in beautifully polished wood that gleamed under the soft light of the wall sconces.
It seemed a friendly sort of place, and while very different in appearance from her zia Rosa’s home back in Italy, it had the same sort of warmth and unpretentious charm.
“May I help you?”
Only then did Stella notice the man at the desk, his gaze assessing, his smile wintry. How long had he been watching her?
“Good afternoon. I am Stella Donati. Miss Howard is expecting me.”
“Ah, yes. The Italian girl. She wasn’t expecting you until this afternoon.”
“I am early,” she explained, and she smiled at the clerk even though he was far from welcoming. “I caught an earlier train from Folkestone. Is she busy? I do not mind waiting.”
The man smoothed his necktie and straightened his shoulders, and some of the chill faded from his expression.
“As it happens, she is away from her desk. Why don’t you wait in her office? It’s just through the door there. I’ll come around and show you through.”
“Thank you, Mr. . . . ?”
“Brooks. Ivor Brooks. I’m the assistant manager here.”
“I am very pleased to meet you.”
He led her into the office, reached by a near-invisible door set into the wooden paneling to the left of the alcove, and indicated with a wave of his hand that she should sit at one of two chairs drawn up before an enormous desk.
“If you’ll wait here until Miss Howard returns.”
She kept her back straight and her hands folded neatly in her lap until he had retreated to the reception desk. Only then did she allow herself to relax and let her mind go blank for a few precious minutes. She would think of nothing, worry about nothing, and rest in the knowledge that she had reached her destination and was, for the moment, safe. Hungry, yes; weary and more than a little anxious, but none of these afflictions would harm her. She knew what suffering felt like, and this did not even come close.
After an interval of no more than ten minutes, she was pulled from her reverie by voices in the entrance hall. A flurry of footsteps sounded, and then Edie was at the door, an apology on her lips before Stella could stand to greet her properly.
“Oh, here you are—at last, at last! I am so sorry to have kept you waiting. I gather your train arrived a little earlier than expected? And I would have sent our doorman to fetch you, but Mick has Wednesdays off. I hope you didn’t have any trouble finding your way here.”
Stella and Edie Howard had never before met, but they had been corresponding with each other for some years, and had even exchanged photographs of themselves a year or so earlier. In the picture Edie had sent, she’d looked serious and rather earnest; in person, she was pretty and engaging and warmly welcoming.
“Please do not apologize. I enjoyed seeing a little of your city.”
“Why don’t we get you something to eat?” Edie suggested. “And then we can get you settled in your room.”
“My case . . . is it all right to leave it here?”
“Certainly. We’ll take it upstairs when we’re done.”
Stella now followed Edie across the hall to the dining room. There were sixteen tables in all, only four of them occupied, and the bountiful array of food being set before the diners was more than she’d seen, let alone imagined, since long before the war.
“We’re in time for afternoon tea,” Edie explained as she led them to a table in the far corner. “We only serve the two meals, breakfast and tea, but they’re quite filling. If you have to miss either because of work, you must let me know and I’ll have Cook set something aside for you.”
A woman about Stella’s age emerged from a set of swinging doors only seconds after they sat down. “Good afternoon, Miss Howard.”
“Good afternoon, Ginny. This is Miss Donati, who has just arrived from Italy. Could you bring out the usual?”
“Right away, Miss Howard. And welcome to England, Miss Donati.”
Ginny came back moments later, setting out a plate of sandwiches cut into triangles, a small loaf that might have been bread or cake, and a basket of craggy buns that, by their tempting aroma, had just emerged from the oven. She returned a second time with a brown-glazed teapot, a jug of milk, and a little cut-glass dish filled with jam. Such a feast would have served Stella’s entire family back in Italy, yet here it was meant for only two people.
“Would you like me to explain what I meant by ‘the usual’ just now?” Edie asked. “Since I expect some of this will be unfamiliar.”
“Yes, please. Unfamiliar but delicious, I am certain.”
“That it is. Well, the sandwiches rather depend on what Cook has on hand. Let me see…hmm…I think there’s salmon, and some egg mayonnaise, and this looks like ham. Or perhaps tongue? It’s rather difficult to tell by just looking. Go on—take as many as you like.”
Stella dutifully took three triangles, one of each type, and at Edie’s prompting also helped herself to one of the buns.
“A scone,” Edie explained, “and best if you split it open and add some jam. No need for a fork and knife. You’re meant to pick it up.”
Stella followed her instructions, careful to not use too much jam, and took a modest bite. It was…she had no words. It tasted of butter and sugar and comfort. She took a second bite, this one embarrassingly greedy.
“Even with butter still on the ration, Cook manages to make these taste heavenly. What do you think? Is it good?”
Stella could only nod, her mouth still full of jam and sultana-studded scone. She would likely have a stomachache if she ate the entire thing, but she was very hungry, after all, and it would be wasteful not to finish.
“Do have some gingerbread as well,” Edie urged, cutting a thick slice of the loaf and setting it on Stella’s still-full plate. “We’ve been serving it here at the Blue Lion for generations. Not bread, as you can see, but rather a dark and quite rich cake. Terribly nice with tea. Oh—let me pour you a cup. It should be strong enough by now.”
Before Stella could protest, or think of any reasonably polite reason to decline, her teacup had been filled. “How do you take it?” Edie asked.
“I am not sure,” Stella admitted.
“Then why don’t you try it black? That’s how I like it, and you can always add some milk and sugar if it’s too strong.”
Stella took a tentative sip, then another, and was amazed to discover it was not the insipid drink she’d been steeling against. “I like it very much,” she said, directing a smile over the top of her cup. “At home Zia Rosa gives us chamomile tisanes when we are ill. I have never cared for them, but this…this has a good taste. A strong taste.”
“ ‘Builder’s tea,’ we say when it’s like this.”
“Yes. My nonno Aldo would say it hits you on the head. ‘El pesta sto tè.’ ”
“That it does,” Edie agreed. “Now, tell me—how was your journey? I do hope it was pleasant.”
“It was. Thank you for suggesting that I book a sleeping berth.”
“Not at all. You were traveling on your own, and you certainly wouldn’t have got any rest sitting out in an open carriage. When did you leave?”
“It was yesterday afternoon.” Only a day ago, though her farewells to her family felt far more distant.
“Were you able to go home for a visit before you left? Your last letter said you were hoping to manage it.”
“I was, but only for a few days. They were excited for me, but I think Zia Rosa will worry now that I am so far away.”
Edie reached out, the gesture oddly hesitant, and patted Stella’s arm. Once, twice. “I’m sure you will have a marvelous time, not only here at the hotel but also at work. Just imagine the people you’ll meet there. Perhaps you might be asked to photograph a film star—or even the queen!”
“I am not sure what Mr. Kaczmarek will ask me to do. His letter only said that my photographs were very good and that he thought I would do well at his magazine.”
He had also told her she would be paid the astonishing sum of six pounds and ten shillings at the end of each week, and that he could recommend several economical and safe boarding hotels within walking distance of the magazine’s offices.
She had written back right away to confirm her acceptance of his offer of employment, which by mutual agreement would begin on Wednesday, February 11, and had explained that she would be living at the Blue Lion hotel, which was owned by friends of her family. Her next letter had been to Edie to ask if she might come to live at the hotel as a long-term boarder.
“I hope it is not an inconvenience to you,” Stella now said. “Having me here. Looking around the hotel, and seeing how nice it is, I worry that I will not be paying you enough for my room and meals. Are you certain you only require two and a half pounds each week?”
“Quite certain. I would charge quite a lot more to a stranger coming in off the street, but you are a friend. I’d rather not charge you anything at all, but with things so dear right now every shilling coming in will make a difference.”
Stella smiled, and felt the last of her worries melt away, at least for the day. “I am most grateful, and I promise I will not forget your kindness.”
“Well, for my part I am honored that you thought of me and the Blue Lion. And I do want to say, to let you know, that is, how very fond I was of your parents. I only met them a few times, but my father always spoke of them with real affection. And of course we were terribly grateful that they rated the Blue Lion so highly in their wonderful guidebooks. I am truly sorry that you lost them in such an awful way.”
Stella nodded. Tried to thank her friend, but the words stuck in her throat.
Her parents had not been lost. They had been stolen. They had been murdered. They had been erased from the world by the remorseless machinery of the death camps and the dead-hearted men who ran them.
Her parents had vanished and she would never know the truth of their final hours. Gone, gone, and all she had to remember them, now, was a few battered copies of their once-famed Guide di turistiche Donati. No photographs. No mementos. Nothing apart from their words and her memories.
There was no point in telling Edie any of this, for no one, with the exception of Nina and her family in Mezzo Ciel, seemed to care about what had happened to her during the war. No one wanted to remember.
And so she would use the same careful phrases that she always employed, and she would smile even if it made her feel ill to do so. If she smiled hard enough and long enough, she would be happy again. It was simply a matter of practice and persistence.
“Thank you, Edie. You are very kind. I am sure I will be happy here.”