My name badge read, ‘Charlotte,’ but most of the customers at Pisa Pizza? called me Lottie. I’m not sure when it started but I was pleased that it did. The name took me back to my ‘90s childhood when Top of the Pops was on T.V and life was simple. I suspect, looking back, the customers knew that.
They say that bad things come in threes but I never believed in superstition. These days, I keep an open mind. I was eighteen when my parents died in a car accident on the M25. Taken out by a lorry full of stolen goods. A blur of deep sorrow and unexpected responsibilities followed.
Ditching the plan for university, I threw myself into a job. I worked every hour they could give me at the launderette across the road. It seemed the harder I worked the less grief consumed me. Things ticked along nicely until the manager called me into the office one day.
‘The business is in trouble, Charlotte. We're so sorry.’
It was last one in, first one out.
Orphaned and out of a job, grief took hold. Extended family did their best, as did my friends - though most had moved away. I sought solace in the arms of an ex-boyfriend hoping that romance might cure the pain. Sean was a local bar man and part time Magician. We had a lot of fun until I found him, one day, working his magic on his assistant, Yvetta. Our relationship broke down just before I did.
So, there it was, three bad things in the space of a year. I foresaw a life in which nothing good would ever happen again. Doctor Sharma urged me not to give in. I asked her to prescribe me something: memory loss, a different life. Anything.
‘Look at me,’ she said, leaning forward in her chair. ‘It’s been traumatic, I know, but there is another way. Do you trust me?’
‘Good. There’s a place you can go where there are people you can talk to; you won’t have to go far-’
I rolled my eyes and slumped back in my chair. I told her that I didn't feel like talking to anyone, thank you very much. I just wanted to be left alone.
‘Hmmm,’ she said, sitting back and scribbling something in her notes.
Of course, I smile when I think about it now because what happened after that was exactly what the doctor ordered.
Pisa Pizza? seemed to pop up out of nowhere. A glass fronted Italian cafe, between the Co-op and the Post Office in the High Street. An advert in the window caught my attention.
Need a job? Why wait? Apply within...
Yes, I needed a job - but waitressing? I was looking to avoid people and doubted anyone wanted pizza with a side order of misery. I almost walked away when a large plastic pizza above the door lit up and the first eight bars of funiculi funicula played out. Vaguely amused, I stepped inside.
The smell of fresh coffee hit me first, followed by a waitress.
‘Oh, mio Dio!’ she cried.
‘Oh, I’m so sorry,’ I said, holding my hands out.
‘Va bene. Is fine, my dear!’ she said in an Italian accent, steadying the tray of dishes in her hands. Readjusting a pair of red rimmed glasses on her face, she smiled.
‘Hi. I’m Charlotte Greenwood. I’m here about the job...’ I gestured toward the advert. ‘I don’t have my C.V but-’
‘Is alright. Is O.K.,’ she said, waving my concern away. ‘My name is Bettina Capuzzi,’ she pointed to a name badge perched on her large bosom. ‘Call me Betty. Pleased to meet you, at last!’ she said.
‘At last?’ I asked.
Her face dropped. A customer at a nearby table gave a loud cough and somewhere a plate crashed.
‘Ah! Mi scusi... is my English,’ she said, blushing. ‘Follow me, please.’ She led me through the café: a chintzy homage to the Italian flag. Customers at green plastic tables whispered and smiled as I followed Betty through the café to a door beyond the counter.
A small office housed a desk with nothing on it. Betty reached underneath and searched inside a box. A moment later, she held two uniforms against me.
‘Oh, I only wanted to enquire,’ I said stepping back toward the door.
‘You have a question?’
‘Well...I... are you the Manager?’
‘The Boss?’ she asked with a laugh. ‘Oh no!’ She selected a uniform and placed it in my hands.
I began to hand it back. ‘Ouch!’ I said as something amidst the bundle pricked my finger. Unfolding the clothes, I found a name badge that read, Charlotte.
I gasped. ‘That’s my name!’
‘Ah! Che coincidenza, Lottie!’ exclaimed Betty, throwing her hands into the air.
‘Lottie?’ I asked. ‘How-’
‘Betty!’ came a voice from the cafe.
Betty frowned and added a white apron to the pile of clothes. She ushered me out of the room, back toward the front door.
‘So, we see you tomorrow, 10 a.m, yes?’
‘Va bene. Everything will be fine, my dear. Thank you. Ciao.’ She opened the door, gave me a shove and waved me off with a smile.
I walked up the high street, reflecting on the brisk encounter. No interview? No Boss? And my name...
‘Va bene,’ I said to myself and I felt oddly reassured.
I spent the first shift with Betty. She introduced me to Mario, the cook, and a kitchen assistant named Danni. The café was busy but nothing felt rushed. The customers went crazy for the pizza; couldn’t get enough of it.
‘Our special ingredient!’ said Mario with a wink.
I kept my head down and got on with the job. The shift passed without a hiccup so I returned the next day, the day after that and for the weeks following. It will do for now, I thought.
Three months in and I still hadn’t met the Boss but I was getting to know the customers well. Joan came each day for her morning coffee; Stewart and Samir popped in on Tuesdays for lunch and Rita, who loved to people watch, ate her margherita by the window.
‘Don’t you just love people?’ she would always ask. I would return the smile, if not the enthusiasm, and carry on.
Before long, I knew everyone's favourite dishes and had their coffees ready on arrival. They would call me over and ask how I was. I kept it brief. Still, as the mozzarella bubbled and the coffee brewed, talking to people began to feel good again.
Mario played keyboard on a Friday evening and Betty would sing. One evening, she invited me to have a go. I declined but the customers wouldn’t have it. ‘Lottie, Lottie!’ they chanted and it felt good. Six months later and I was singing every Friday night!
My aunt called me at home one day; concerned as to how I was getting on. I told her I was working at the new restaurant in town: Pisa Pizza?
‘You know, the plastic pizza? Funiculi Funicula...’ I hummed a couple of bars.
She said she’d never heard of it but was pleased to hear me so upbeat.
Not long after that, I finally caught sight of the Boss. Danni walked out of the backroom one lunch time and I glimpsed him, sitting at the desk. More Ray Romano than the Ray Liotta type I’d expected, he gave a friendly smile and waved.
‘Does he ever come into the café?’ I asked Danni.
‘Sometimes. But mostly he just watches.’
Watches? I wasn’t sure I wanted to be watched. She was right, though. From then on, every time the door swung open, there he sat, at that empty desk. Just watching.
His surveillance wasn’t the only oddity. I never saw any staff arrive at or leave the café. They were just there. Danni went into the office one day and when I went to find her she'd disappeared. She reappeared a moment later talking to Rita as if nothing had happened.
Nevertheless, a year came to an end and the café, in all its oddity, made me smile. I even began to imagine opening my own place one day; creating something that would have made my parents proud.
It was around that time that Betty came to me and whispered, ‘The Boss would like to speak with you.’
My stomach turned. Was the business in trouble? Did he know about my ideas?
I walked into the office where he sat, as always, at the desk. He gestured toward the chair opposite. ‘How are you getting on, Lottie?’ He asked.
For the first time, I felt compelled to address that name. ‘My parents used to call me Lottie. They died two years ago.’ My heart thumped at the awful acknowledgement.
‘I’m so sorry about your parents. Would you prefer I call you Charlotte?’
‘Actually, no. It sounds silly but it makes me feel...at home.’
“It doesn’t sound silly,” he said. ‘This place feels like home to you?’
‘Well, about this place...’ I said looking around the empty room. “Is there some secret ingredient in the pizza?”
“It’s no great secret, Lottie-’
‘And I’ve never seen anyone who works here outside of here or anyone I know stopping by. My aunty and my friends – they've never heard of this place. Danni disappears and reappears. It’s like...’
As if reading my mind, he said, ‘Go on. You can ask me.’
The question, though ludicrous, pressed at my lips. ‘Is it...really a pizza café?’ I burst.
‘It’s whatever you need it to be,’ he said.
A cold rush passed through me. ‘It's real though... isn’t it?’ I rubbed the chair arm.
‘Well, reality’s complex,’ he said.
I gripped the desk. ‘But then how? Why?’
‘Because you matter-’
‘Everyone matters. My parents mattered!’ I snapped.
He took a deep breath. ‘I know, Lottie. And we do what we can. Truly.’
I reflected amid the silence.
‘Before I came here, I was ready to give up,’ I said at last.
‘You were watching?’
He nodded. ‘And now?’ he asked.
He smiled. ‘We’re proud of you, Lottie.’
The floodgates opened. I cried until Betty came in and gave me a hug. I cried and told them both about my parents. I cried and recalled my happy childhood days.
Relieved of tears I sat in silence. ‘What do you want to do, Lottie?’ Betty asked.
‘I’ll finish clearing up and then I think I’ll head off.’
She flashed a knowing smile.
I thought a moment and then replied. ‘I’d like to run a place like this. It makes a difference, you know? People. Conversation. I’d like to try.’
Betty and the Boss looked at one another and nodded.
I waited tables at Pisa Pizza? for another year before I said goodbye. I sobbed when the Boss, Betty and all the customers waved from the window. They had become like family to me but I was ready to fly the nest.
Pisa Pizza? closed down after that. Vanished overnight. I miss it, of course.
Nevertheless, five years later, I opened, Lottie’s Pastries – baked with love. Every last Tuesday of the month we hold a bereavement coffee morning. We talk; we raise a little money; we cry. On Friday nights we sing!
I saw Doctor Sharma last week, she asked me how I was getting on.
‘Really well,’ I said. ‘Turns out that talking to people really does help!’
‘Pass it on,’ she whispered, giving me a wink.
So, here it is. When life gets tough and you feel like giving up, please don’t. There’s a place where you can go, with people you can talk to. Do you trust me? Good. I have a feeling that if you need help, you won’t have to go far to find it.