Friday, 27 February 2009

La Directrice

Signora Annunziata Rossellini, a Neapolitan woman of undeterminable years, became the owner of the tiny newsagent’s shop on le Boulevard de Banni half a century ago, after the untimely and mysterious death of her husband, Sylvester.

Sylvester Rossellini was a leading “Venditore Della Penna” who took great pride in his reputation as a man who sourced the most exquisite fountain pens the artists, businessmen and academics of Naples had ever seen. It was said that inside each of Signor Rossellini’s magnificent pens there was a bespoke, hand blended concoction of Nero & Azzurro inks, giving a unique tint to anything its owner wrote. It was also claimed, though never proven, that this obsessive vendor pricked his finger using the nib of each pen and added a single droplet of his own blood to the ink mixture; thus sending every writing implement out into the world carrying a small part of his heart and soul within its casing.

An outwardly happy, contented man devoted to his family he was often heard whistling as he walked the short distance from his shop at one end of Via Santo Francesco to his modest home at the other end. Instantly recognisable in his scarlet waistcoat and matching fedora; often weighed down with bouquets of roses for his darling Annunziata, bright red apples for his children, or bones given to him by the local butcher for his spaniel, Eduardo. Unfortunately, this happy façade appears to have been just that; a smokescreen designed to maintain an air of noble fortitude and familial bliss.

It was on this quiet, respectable street one bitter December morning, that a neighbour taking out her dustbins discovered the corpse of Signor Sylvester Rossellini. His mortified remains had laid on the edge of the road overnight, his blood frozen in the gutter, where it had trickled from his dying body. It was thought that he had been struck by a tram, the careless driver too scared to stop and tend to the stricken man, and it was assumed he had cracked his head on the tall, grey kerbstone. It took a more detailed inspection to reveal that the blood had, in fact, leaked from several hundred tiny wounds to the abdomen and chest, almost imperceptible against the blood-red hue of his waistcoat.

Upon calling at the Rossellini family residence the carabiniere found it empty, save for two items. One, an unopened envelope found leaning against the mantelpiece clock. It contained a hand-written note explaining that Annunziata was leaving Sylvester and would be taking the children and Eduardo to live with her mother and father across the street. The note was written in the unmistakable shade of navy blue that could only have come from one of Signor Rossellini’s own pens, not in itself remarkable since the family possessed many of Sylvester’s favourite pens in boxes all around the house.

The second item, discovered in the fireplace directly beneath where the note had been left, was a slightly scorched, brown paper bag containing three shiny red apples. One apple with a single bite having been taken from it before it was dropped into the glowing embers.

The case presented the police with a most perplexing mystery. Had Signor Rossellini come home, read the note and dropped the apples into the fire in dismay, before walking out of the house and into the street where he met his end? But the envelope was unopened. Had he, in fact, come home early and discovered his family in the act of absconding? How did he come to have so many tiny wounds and why did he not attempt to fight off his attacker before he was perforated so thoroughly? Each wound was no bigger than the nib of a fountain pen and, taken in isolation, would have caused no more than a minor pinprick; certainly not enough to kill a man.

When questioned about her husband’s apparent murder, Annunziata became agitated and could not give an accurate account of the previous evening’s events. She claimed that she had left her husband due to his disregard for her profound hypersensitivity to roses. She put it to the interrogating officer that it was Sylvester who had been trying to kill her over the course of many years by bringing flowers into the house in an attempt to bring on a deadly anaphylactic shock, and that the apples and bones he brought home were in fact for himself, rather than gifts for his loved ones. Signora Rossellini also let slip that she found her husband’s obsession with pens both tiresome and childish.

After many hours of interrogation Annunziata cracked. She explained to the police that she had in fact been at her mother and father’s home, watching from behind the lace curtains of the salon window, when Sylvester reached the house. He had, it was claimed, gone inside where he had no doubt discovered his home silent and empty. Signora Rossellini insisted that he had then appeared in the street and had noticed her face at the window. He took a pen from his waistcoat pocket and, in a silent trance, began to violently jab himself in the chest and stomach.

Signora Rossellini was apparently undisturbed by this sight, since any blood that appeared was entirely disguised by the colour of this poor man’s jolly waistcoat. She said that she dismissed his actions as a foolish gesture, closing the curtains and locking the doors to prevent her husband from entering the house. She alleged that she went to bed at around eleven without giving her husband a second thought. A decision she claimed most vigorously to regret.

This story seemed to satisfy the police and she was allowed to go home, an innocent woman and no longer a suspect in this terrible incident. A verdict of suicide was given and the case was closed.

The local press however, who had been very fond of Signor Rossellini - several of their number being his clients - were not so kind to Annunziata. They ran stories professing to know that she had killed her husband for his vast collection of priceless antique quills and was an evil, murderous temptress who had tried to seduce many of the town’s men and boys while her husband toiled only two hundred yards up the street.

The newspaper stories became more outlandish as time went on until Annunziata could take no more. Leaving her children in the care of her elderly mother and father and humanely disposing of little Eduardo, she left Naples for good. She did not care where she found herself, only that she could be allowed to live out the rest of her days in peace. At first it seemed she would find nowhere she was not recognised as “Donna Diabolica Della Penna”, a moniker given to her by the Neapolitan newspapers.

Her fortunes changed when she overheard a conversation between two elderly sisters, on one of her many aimless train journeys. Annunziata listened intently as they talked of what they would do with their ailing business when they returned home, since neither of them had children and there was nobody to assume control now that they were both too infirm to continue working. Annunziata saw her opportunity and pounced. She began talking to the old ladies and discovered that they owned a small newspaper shop in a busy street. The only newspaper shop for miles around, they were desperate for somebody with intelligence and integrity to manage the day to day affairs of this apparently vital source of local news.

In less than twenty minutes of conversation the two sisters had been convinced that Signora Rossellini was the woman they had been looking for. She was offered the position as they disembarked on the railway station platform and by the time the three women arrived at le Boulevard de Banni they were already referring to her as “la Directrice”.

Though this solved a number of Annunziata’s problems, namely finding a place to live and gainful employment, this was not without its complications. Here was she, a woman internationally reviled by the press, who would now be expected to liaise with newspaper publishing companies, suppliers, even local journalists and photographers. She would not stand a chance of remaining incognito and would be out of work and homeless as soon as the first hawk-eyed paperboy let the cat out of the bag. She had to think of a solution.

There and then Annunziata made a decision that would affect the entire course of her life. Unbeknownst to her new employers she cancelled the shop’s order with all the local and national newspapers, keeping only the supply of children’s literature and special interest publications on her shelves. Donning a heavy disguise and cycling to the next town, she bought all the day’s newspapers, returned home and set to work.

She then set about using the skills she had learned during the many tedious calligraphy lessons her late husband had given at the kitchen table, and began to re-write from scratch every newspaper available in her shop. She was careful to include all the major stories of the day; excluding the many articles that related to herself or Sylvester and expertly replacing them with advertisements for the many brands of Neapolitan fountain pens she now stocked.

The shop was closed for a single day in order for her to get the first batch ready, and since hers was the only newspaper shop in town she could write the events of the previous day as if they were brand new stories and nobody was any the wiser. Her hand written newspapers were a tremendous success, people remarked upon the clarity of the typefaces and the unusual navy blue tint to the newsprint; which Annunziata put down to her ability to source a better supplier of these precious publications.

Her employers were very happy with their new 'Directrice' and treated her like a long lost daughter. So much so, that she inherited the shop when the two sisters both died tragically the same night, after mistakenly drinking glasses of Indian ink instead of their usual bedtime cocoa. Nobody was sure how this had happened, they had maintained the same routine for many years without incident. Regardless the townsfolk rallied around Signora Rossellini and treated her with the utmost respect as she publicly grieved for her elderly employers.

More than fifty years later Signora Rossellini still makes daily tricycle journeys to the next town, wearing a black velvet cloak and dark glasses, where she fills the basket full of newspapers to copy by candlelight each evening. A very well respected and popular local character, she sells as many expensive pens as she does newspapers, and to this day the townsfolk do not realise that they are reading yesterday’s news today.

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