Io ricordo – I remember
For years afterwards, whenever she thought about that summer in Italy, she remembered the scent first: the fragrant pink bougainvilleas around Lucca’s poolside bar mingling intoxicatingly with the tang of coconut sun oil and cigarette smoke. Back then, she was young and carefree, with a red dress, a devil-may-care attitude and the best tan of her life. The air had shimmered with heat and a million possibilities. Anything might happen.
On the day that everything changed, she had spread her towel on a sunlounger, peeled off her dress and sat down, adjusting the straps of her bikini. Then, just as she was about to lean back and relax, her skin prickled: a sixth sense, maybe. Peering through her sunglasses, she noticed a man in the deep end of the pool, leaning against the side, his broad tanned arms gleaming with tiny water droplets. He seemed to be looking right at her.
Was she imagining it or was he giving her the eye? She propped up her sunglasses to check, the world swinging into sudden brightness. He totally was giving her the eye. What was more, he was bloody gorgeous.
Heat flooded her body as they exchanged a long, loaded look. The clamour of the poolside seemed to vanish as if the world had been muted. All she could hear was the thud of her heart.
Oh, what the hell, she thought recklessly; she was single and on holiday and up for some fun. He might be all of those things too. Without a second thought, she winked at him. Her heart galloped as he grinned back, revealing perfect white teeth. And then he was pulling himself out of the pool, water streaming down his muscular arms: he was tall and athletic, early-twenties at a guess; golden skin and a crooked smile. As he straightened up, she couldn’t help noticing the way his swimming shorts just revealed the tops of his hip bones, and she shivered with sudden desire.
He walked over to her, beads of water still clinging to his body, his eyes never leaving hers. ‘Ciao, bella,’ he said, his voice low and husky.
Her blood drummed through her. Her breath caught in her throat. It felt as if this was the moment she’d been waiting for all summer. She raised an eyebrow flirtatiously and smiled back. ‘Ciao,’ she said.
Mio padre – My father
As a journalist, Anna Morley was used to thinking in headlines; it was second nature to her. Without consciously doing it, even the most ordinary event in her life was transformed into a punchy soundbite etched in large black capitals in her mind.
HACKED OFF! Female journalist, 32, misses bus home.
DANGER ON OUR STREETS! Loose paving slab ‘an accident waiting to happen’, says local resident, 32.
LET THERE BE LIGHT Council slammed over patchy street-lighting. The Herald campaign starts today!
THE HUNGER GAME Starving writer, 32, curses self for not stopping at the corner shop for a tin of beans.
Admittedly, none of the headlines were particularly scintillating. But then neither was her life, to be frank. If she died right now, and needed an epitaph for her grave, the words ‘Same old, same old’ would sum things up perfectly.
But then came the most shocking news story of all, right when she was least expecting it, and afterwards nothing felt ‘same old, same old’ again. It was astonishing how one conversation could change everything.
Clemency House was the care home eight miles out of Sheffield where Anna’s grandmother, Nora, lived. With its strong smell of wee, disinfectant and overcooked cabbage, it was home to an assortment of pensioners in varying states of confusion and decrepitude. It was certainly the last place on earth you would expect to experience an epiphany.
Anna visited her nan on the last Sunday of the month and knew almost all the residents by now. An excited twittering would greet her arrival in the lounge – ‘Ooh, it’s Anna’; ‘Wake up, duck, Anna’s here, look, come to see Nora’; ‘Anna! Cooee!’ – which always made her feel like a minor celebrity as she worked her way through the sea of white hair and support stockings.
‘Hello, Mrs Ransome, that’s a lovely dress you’ve got on today.’
‘Hello, Violet, how’s your great-grandson doing?’
‘Hello, Elsie, I’ve brought you today’s crossword if you want it?’
Nora would rise up from her favourite toffee-coloured wingback chair and offer her soft, powdery cheek for a kiss, then they’d drink stewed tea and chat together for an hour or so, before taking a slow turn around the garden so that Nora could moan in private about whichever resident was getting on her nerves that week. And that was usually that.
This time, however, the pattern changed. It was a windy autumn day with dark clouds shouldering each other across the sky, while inside, the central heating was cranked up to soporific levels. Anna was just about to suggest going out for some fresh air when a storm suddenly broke and rain began sheeting down dramatically, spattering great heavy drops against the windows.
‘Goodness!’ Nora quavered, blinking in alarm, one hand up at her crepey throat. She was dressed as ever in a strange combination of garments, today’s outfit a cream blouse and bobbly green fleece cardigan, her favourite tweed skirt and thick brown tights that pooled in wrinkles around her swollen ankles.
‘Maybe we’ll stay indoors after all,’ Anna said, discreetly checking her watch. Three o’clock. Pete was meant to be coming round for dinner later – ‘a roast’, she’d promised him ambitiously, and she knew for a fact that there wasn’t a single vegetable to be found in her house, let alone anything she could conceivably baste in oil and bung in the oven.
Nora turned and stared at Anna as if seeing her for the first time. Her dementia was an unpredictable beast; some days she seemed perfectly lucid and managed to keep up with a conversation, but other times, a veil of bewilderment would slide over her face and she would spout gibberish. ‘You do look like him, you know,’ she said from out of nowhere.
‘Gino, wasn’t it?’ Her false teeth were slipping, making her words indistinct.
‘Gino?’ Anna echoed. ‘What are you talking about, Nan?’
‘The Italian. You know.’ Her eyes were cloudy and faraway, her gaze wandering from Anna’s face. ‘Your father.’
Anna’s stomach lurched. She must have misheard, surely. ‘My father?’
Nora frowned. ‘Didn’t I just say that? Your poor mum.’ She shook her head, gnarled fingers clenched around the arms of her chair. ‘Nothing but trouble!’
Anna had difficulty breathing for a moment. She opened and shut her mouth, her brain fusing red hot with shocked, urgent questions. ‘Was that his name?’ she asked dazedly. At last, she thought. At last! ‘Gino? Was that his name?’
‘It’s a long way to Tipperary,’ Mrs Ransome started singing in the background, her voice high and reedy. ‘It’s a long way to go.’ Several others joined in, and Anna had to raise her voice.
‘Nan?’ she urged when no answer came. ‘Was my father called Gino?’
Nora blinked. ‘Look at that rain!’ she marvelled. ‘I’d better get my washing in, hadn’t I?’
‘Nan, you don’t have any washing here. We’re in Clemency House, remember?’
‘It’s a long way to Tipperary, to the sweetest girl I knooooow . . .’
‘I did my whites this morning,’ Nora said dreamily. ‘Albert’s shirts and the bed sheets. Meredith’s Sunday school dress with pink ribbons.’
And she was gone, swallowed up by the confusing mists of the past once more. Albert was her husband, long since buried. Anna had no idea who Meredith might be.
‘Nan, listen to me. Do you remember Gino? What did he look like?’
Somebody was clapping out of time, Anna registered dimly. ‘Goodbye, Piccadilly – join in, Nora! – Farewell, Leicester Square . . .’
Nora wasn’t listening; she was in her own parallel version of the world, her head cocked as if hearing distant voices. ‘And the tablecloth! That gravy took some scrubbing to wash out, didn’t it, Susan?’
Anna sagged with dismay. Susan was her grandmother’s long-dead sister with whom she sometimes confused Anna. The subject of Gino was already as distant as Tipperary.
‘And now it’s getting soaked. Come on! Where’s the basket?’
She rose from her seat but Anna caught her thin arm. ‘Sit down,’ she said gently. ‘Mrs Eccles will get the washing in.’
Mrs Eccles often got a mention when her nan went off at a tangent; Anna still wasn’t entirely sure who she was, but chucking her name into the mix now, while Nora was off on one, was worth a try.
‘It’s a long, long way to Tipperary, but my heart’s still theeeeeere!’
Nora stared at her. ‘Ivy Eccles? Are you sure?’
‘Oh yes,’ Anna said reassuringly. ‘But about Gino . . .’
‘Give over! Ivy Eccles has been stone dead for thirty years.
What are you talking about, dear?’
‘Cup of tea anyone?’ One of the careworkers wheeled in a trolley, smiling brightly. ‘Chocolate Bourbon?’
The singing stopped abruptly, replaced by pleased murmurs of anticipation.
‘Lovely,’ Nora said. ‘Yes, please, over here, pet!’ She turned back to Anna, eyes twinkling. ‘Are you going to have one, Susan?’
Later that afternoon, as Anna drove home, her mind was a whirl of blaring new headlines.
WHO’S THE DADDY? A clue at last. DO YOU KNOW GINO? Hunt begins for mystery Italian. DADDY’S GIRL Long-lost daughter reunited with father.
Gino. Her father was called Gino. He was Italian. It felt as if a door had been opened and light was flooding into a dark, closed room after years of nothing.
Her mother had always steadfastly refused to speak a word about Anna’s father. His name wasn’t even on her birth certificate. ‘You don’t have a daddy,’ she’d said kindly when Anna was a little girl and becoming aware that most of the other children in her class had two parents, not just one. ‘You’ve got me, and I’m enough.’
Later, as Anna grew older and discovered that, actually, technically there must have been a daddy involved at some stage in the process, her mother dug her heels in. ‘Don’t talk to me about that waste of space,’ she hissed when Anna plucked up the courage to enquire again. ‘Believe me, love, you’re better off not knowing.’
Growing up in Chesterfield, just the two of them in a poky council house, Anna never felt better off not knowing, not for a minute. She hated not knowing. Was her dad some kind of psychopath? Was he a dangerous criminal? Had he hurt her mother in some way? He must have done something absolutely dreadful if nobody would even speak his name aloud. (She was pretty sure he wasn’t Voldemort, but this last fact did make her wonder.)
Her mum was a midwife and it had occurred fleetingly to Anna that she might have snatched Anna as a baby from a maternity ward somewhere, hence the impenetrable secrecy. Maybe this stuff about her dad being a waste of space was all a smokescreen, because her mum wasn’t even her real mum. But no, she must be, because they both had the same curvy bum and big boobs, and the same laughably small feet. Different colouring, though – her mum had blonde wavy hair and blue eyes with porcelain-pale skin, whereas Anna was dark-haired with brown eyes and an olive complexion.
‘Gino,’ she murmured under her breath as she navigated the roundabout to leave the ring road. An image appeared in her mind of a swarthy man with eyes like glossy brown dates. The Italian, Nan had said, and new questions formed like scrolling tickertape. Did Mum meet him on holiday in Italy, maybe? Had it been a summer fling that ended acrimoniously? Where was her father now?
She flipped open the mirror in her sun visor and peered at her reflection as she waited in a queue of traffic, the cars stop-starting their way towards the city centre. She looked Mediterranean herself, didn’t she? She’d always been the fastest to pick up a tan on girls’ holidays, much to her friends’ envy, and had wondered previously if some small slice of her genetic make-up was Greek or Persian or even Indian.
Now she had an answer, a fact for the very first time. An Italian father, adding an exotic dash to her mother’s solidly Yorkshire stock. It made her feel different: more interesting, more attractive. ‘Mamma mia! ’ she said aloud, turning into her road and backing inelegantly into a parking space.
Excitement and intrigue coursing through her, she ran up the stairs to her flat. Anna had come to Sheffield as a student fourteen years ago, and never left. She’d graduated from uni accommodation through to shared houses in Broomhill and Crookesmoor to her own small first-floor flat near Ecclesall Road. She hadn’t intended to stay long in the flat; just a few months while she saved up enough to do something exciting like live in London or go travelling. But then she landed a job at the local paper, and somehow, six years later, hadn’t moved either job or home. Her dreams of working in the newsroom of one of the nationals, or backpacking to far-flung beaches, remained mere dreams, less likely with every passing year.
Returning to the flat now, she found herself eyeing it anew. It was cramped and cluttered, with persistent damp in one corner of the ceiling where the roof leaked. A plant was in its death throes on top of the TV and a grey sprinkling of dust lined the skirting boards. It definitely looked like a ‘Before’ picture in the ‘Clear Out Your Clutter’ features the newspaper ran every spring. She was totally going to make it amazing and chic one day, though. Definitely. It just hadn’t quite happened yet.
Impulsively she dialled a number on her phone and sank into the ageing red sofa. Her mum picked up after three rings. ‘Hello?’
‘Mum, it’s me. Listen, I saw Nan today and . . .’The words suddenly tangled together in her mouth and she hesitated, unsure how to go on.
‘Is everything all right? Is she okay?’
‘She’s fine.’ Anna swallowed. ‘The thing is, she said . . .’ Again, her voice faltered at the crucial moment. Ask her! Just ask her!
‘This is a terrible line. You keep breaking up. What did she say? Is she having one of her turns? Only nobody’s told me anything about it.’
‘No, she’s fine, it’s just . . .’ She ran a hand through her long hair helplessly, then her eye was caught by a photo on the dusty mantelpiece. Her and her mum on holiday in Rhyl one summer, back when she was about nine, both of them tanned and wearing sunglasses, smiling into the camera. It was one of her favourite photos, conjuring up memories of sandcastles, ice cream, and a ride on a sandy, hairy donkey. They’d gone through a lot together, she and her mum. Could she really do this, now, over the phone?
‘It’s nothing,’ she mumbled. ‘I just thought I’d let you know that she’s fine. Everything’s fine.’
‘Oh good,’ Tracey replied, sounding slightly confused. ‘Great. And you’re all right, are you? Has that cough gone yet?’
‘I’m fine, Mum, yeah. I’d better go. Love to Graham. Bye.’ She ended the call, feeling like a coward. Talk about bottling it. Now she was none the wiser, no further along at all. Abandoning her phone, Anna hunted through the books and folders heaped randomly on her shelves until she found her old school atlas, then leafed through the pages. Italy, Italy, Italy . . . there it was.
She stared at the outline of the country as if it could reveal secrets to her, running a finger down the Alps, tracing a path along the wild eastern coastline. There was a pull in her stomach as she whispered the names of towns and cities to herself. Naples. Florence. Siena. ‘Where are you, Gino?’ she murmured under her breath.
She knew virtually nothing about the place, she realized in shame, other than pizza and Chianti and the Romans. Pathetic. And to think this was the land of her father!
Well, then. High time she started swotting up, wasn’t it?
In all the drama, Anna had completely forgotten about Pete and the roast she was meant to be cooking until the doorbell rang at six o’clock and she jumped, startled out of her daydreams. Oh shit. Dinner.
Pete was not exactly the hunk of burning love Anna had always imagined herself with – it was more of a ‘he’ll do’ arrangement if she was brutally honest, a Cornish pasty of a man rather than pure beef steak. That said, he was a decent bloke who had never cheated on her, ripped her off for thousands of pounds, or turned out to be gay – all of which had happened to her friends. Okay, so he might not be the most dynamic or passionate man in the world – she had wondered in the past if he even knew the word ‘romance’ existed – but he was good enough. They had a laugh together. Not that he was laughing now, mind.
‘What do you mean, you forgot?’ he moaned plaintively as she let him in. ‘All the trimmings, you said. I’ve been looking forward to it since breakfast!’ His whole face drooped with dismay, like a bloodhound having a bad day.
‘Sorry, Pete, I lost track of time. Something really amazing happened, you see,’ she began, then blurted out what her grandmother had let slip, the tiny shining fragment of truth. ‘I’ve not been able to think about anything else all afternoon.’ He gazed around the grubby, food-free kitchen area where no bronzed roast chicken sat waiting to be carved, no thick bread sauce bubbled volcanically on the hob, and no roast potatoes sizzled golden and crunchy in the oven.
‘Shall we go to the pub, then?’ he sighed, one hand on his belly. ‘My stomach thinks my throat’s been cut.’
It was all right for him, Anna thought sourly. Pete knew exactly where he was from, with his china-cat-collecting mum and dad in their spotless semi (aptly named Wits’ End), and his two sisters, married with kids elsewhere in Sheffield, both of whom had lives as thrilling as a pair of socks. He had a family, roots, he was certain of his place in his world. He had no idea how lucky that made him.
‘Pete – here’s me telling you I’m on the verge of tracking down my dad, and all you can talk about is your stomach? Can you not show a bit more interest?’
Her voice came out sharper than she’d intended and a look of bafflement crossed his face. ‘Love, with the greatest respect, you’ve hardly “tracked him down”, finding out his name and nationality,’ he pointed out with his usual annoying pedantry. ‘There’s probably quite a few blokes called Gino from Italy, don’t forget.’
She gritted her teeth. ‘Yeah, you’re dead right there, Pete,’ she replied sarcastically. ‘Might as well give up already.’
He nodded as if that was the end of it. ‘Shall we go, then?’
Oh, what was the point? He didn’t have a clue. ‘I suppose so,’ she muttered, rolling her eyes.
She wondered where her father would be having his Sunday dinner. You could bet your last penny it wouldn’t be in some noisy dive where the toilets didn’t flush properly and the landlord was always trying to look down your top. No way. He – Gino – would be holding court at a large outdoor table on a sunny Tuscan hillside, with olive trees shimmering in the fields below. There would be fat scarlet tomatoes, creamy mozzarella drizzled with olive oil, rustic red wine in a carafe. Bambinos scampering barefoot on the hot dusty ground, a dog lifting its head drowsily and barking at them from time to time . . .
Did he know he had a daughter here in drizzly Sheffield? Had he ever even seen her before?
‘You’re not listening, are you?’ Pete said, sounding exasperated as she locked the flat and they traipsed downstairs. ‘You’ve not heard a single thing I’ve just said.’
She was still in Italy. It was so much nicer there. ‘Sorry, no,’ she confessed. ‘What did you say?’
‘I was asking if you saw the United result. I watched the match at my dad’s, you know he’s just got Sky Sports? Bloody amazing. That new striker is gold, I’m telling you . . .’
‘Great,’ she said, but she was already slipping away, flying back to her father and his sun-drenched life. She had to find him. She simply had to.
Guilt for the roast dinner debacle along with most of a bottle of red wine meant that Anna didn’t protest when Pete pawed at her later that night back at her flat, despite feeling about as amorous as an oven glove. It was an in-out, in-out, breast squeeze, grunt and collapse sort of event, and she felt unsexy and distracted for the entire three minutes.
‘Cor,’ he said afterwards, rolling off her. ‘Reckon that was a seven and a half.’
Anna had thought he was joking the first time he gave their sex sessions marks out of ten, but he was apparently deadly serious. Much to her horror she had then discovered that he actually charted the scores on a spreadsheet on his laptop. Seriously. She hadn’t been snooping but he’d left the page open accidentally one day and the title ‘Sex With Anna’ had leapt out at her. And there it was in black and white: the date, score and a brief description of each act.
A on top, baby oil, light on – that had scored a ten. But A in
strop, too pissed, bit of rush merited a measly six.
‘Oh my God,’ she’d said, aghast, eyes boggling. ‘Pete – what the hell is this?’
‘You don’t mind, do you?’ he’d replied, looking shifty. ‘I thought it was kind of sexy.’
Kind of sexy? A bit nerdy, more like. It was hardly love letters on scented notepaper, or a passion-filled journal. She wished she’d never seen it, that she could erase it from her brain. ‘You’re not going to . . . show it to anyone else, are you?’
‘Course not, babe. This is private. Password protected. For our eyes only.’ He scrolled up the page. ‘Look, you got a ten here. Remember that night? Hell-o, Nurse.’
And hell-o, Doctor Perv, Anna thought with a queasy lurch, but he seemed so boyishly pleased with himself that she didn’t have the heart to argue. From then on though, she couldn’t help wondering – often during the act itself – how he’d describe each sexual encounter. Talk about killing the moment.
‘Pete,’ she said to him now, ‘maybe keep the scoring thing in your head? Like, just in your head? It makes me feel under pressure, like I’m a performing seal or something.’
He reached out and twiddled one of her nipples. It was extremely irritating. ‘I don’t want to have sex with a seal though, babe,’ he said, snuggling up to her. She could feel his warm alcoholic breath on her neck.
‘I know, but . . .’ And don’t call me babe, she wanted to say.
That just made her feel like a pig. A bad-tempered pig who didn’t want to be marked out of ten each time she spread her trotters. ‘I just don’t like it, all right?’ she said after a few moments. ‘Pete?’
But his hand had fallen slack on her chest, and a guttural snoring started up in his throat. Now who was the pig? she thought, turning away from him crossly and putting the pillow over her head.
WOMAN SUFFOCATES CRAP BOYFRIEND spooled a new headline in her brain. But just then he rolled over and flung an arm across her. ‘Night, gorgeous,’ he murmured in his sleep, and she felt herself softening. He loved her really. She knew that. And being with him was a damn sight better than being on her own, surely?
She shut her eyes, hoping she’d dream of Italy. Her quest would continue in the morning, she vowed. Whatever Pete said.
Excerpted from The Skeleton Cupboard by Tanya Byron. Copyright © 2014 by Tanya Byron.
First published 2014 by Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world http://www.panmacmillan.com.
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