Authors: Rosanne Dingli
© Rosanne Dingli 2015
The right of Rosanne Dingli to be identified as the author has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved.
Yellow Teapot Books
This book is sold subject to the condition it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired, leased, copied or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s consent in any form other than this current form and without a similar condition being imposed upon subsequent purchasers.
This book is a work of fiction. Any similarity between characters and situations within its pages and places or persons, living or dead, is unintentional and co-incidental.
Designed and typeset by
Cover image and glyphs from
Fiesole near Florence in the Evening
by TS Šimon (1877-1942)
Author portrait by Mark Flower
I am grateful to my group of beta-readers, who helped improve initial drafts of this novel and made insightful suggestions. I also thank Concetta D’Orazio for kind permission to use verses from her writing. Help came from a dozen unexpected directions when I researched details to do with sailing, history, the geography of the Tuscan hills, cooking, and Italian art and music. I thank my family; they endure absentmindedness and more when I am writing, which is often.
La lontananza sai è come il vento
spegne i fuochi piccoli
accende quelli grandi.
Noi siamo duri come questa roccia.
Come questa pietra testardi.
E siamo accomodanti come la spuma del mare.
Queste Pagine: Abbruzzo
You know, distance is like the wind
It puts out small fires
And fans big ones.
We are as hard as this rock.
Stubborn as this stone
And we are as compliant as the sea’s foam.
Queste Pagine: Abbruzzo
Also by Rosanne Dingli
Death in Malta
According to Luke
The Hidden Auditorium
The White Lady of Marsaxlokk
How to Disappear
For more about this author visit
Back in the days of rattling bicycles, ice cream cones, and dog-eared comic books, it was summer here, all the time. Now it was wet and grey. I approached, hesitant in my little rental FIAT. I didn’t know whether I would arrive first. I wanted to be first.
There were dead shrubs in oversized pots Mama placed along the driveway sometime back then, in my childhood; when we were all small. Brown twigs stuck out of them like fingers, darkened by a swift and sudden downpour in the last half-hour. Now fine drizzle blurred my windscreen and dampened my spirits as I drove unsteadily up the winding hills toward the inevitable, the unbearable.
I saw hope in a row of new trees – they resembled the pencil pines of the Melbourne suburb I so recently left, but could have been young cypresses – closer to the house and green, green.
Oh, those grey steps to the front door. We climbed them as children, and descended – down and up, up, down, up, shouting and laughing – before and after so many family events. This one, this gathering here of all of us, was going to fill me with grief. It was still full of unknown prospects of the kind I did not like and always tried to avoid if possible. Not one for conflict, I strived all my life for personal compromise. I rarely battled for something I barely understood, and absolutely never for anything I sensed I could not win.
Uncertainty, conviction about an outcome – and often, not knowing the difference – was what held me back most of my adult life. So catching sight of the house as I sped up and parked the little white car, in the spot where as a child I would have pedalled cautiously along on a battered bike, made me think I was always somewhat reticent in coming forward to claim what was mine.
This occasion was of course no time to assert myself. Still, there was something I wanted. Now Mama was gone, I would have to find out whether it was in the house. Of course, I would have to seek a way to persuade the others it rightfully belonged to me. It would take some doing.
No geraniums, none of the brilliant flowers Mama liked along the driveway. Abandoned, the place appeared abandoned, wild. Decay showed itself at every turn. The glorious attention the house thrived in when we were young had ended. Awnings over the doors to the veranda were ripped and faded. Oh, the marble table out there was lopsided, lame on three curved metal legs, with only two wrought iron chairs left. Pushed in a corner, sodden and torn, lay something like an old beach umbrella. A caper bush grew out of a crack in the paving.
Mama stayed here almost until the end, quite as she had planned, brought all the way to be in this house when infirm, but it was obvious her capacity was greatly diminished. The staff, a faithful couple from Prato, was no longer there. It was a sad feeling. As for claiming what was mine – perhaps it was what we were all assembling for. All four of us clamouring for something with which to confirm the past, and affirm the present. Hah – and make the future more comfortable? Hopefully we did not clamour for the same things – but it was inevitable, in a way.
Knowing we would all arrive on the same day was good from one perspective, but I knew all the old stuff would be raked up, especially by those who thought they had a greater stake. It was silly to hope for the old place in its old glory; as futile as expecting everyone would say and do the right things.
Mama had her hopes for each of us. She knew me well, but I thought not as well as she deciphered the personalities, wishes, and claims of the others, who were more assertive, and demonstrative. As children, they learned how to make their feelings known, without a doubt. As adults, they chugged onward in their individual and combined forces. I often felt left out. Not singled out, but not as powerful as I had to be to counter their united dynamic vigour. This week, I needed to be forceful about something I wanted, and wanted rather badly, and Mama was not there anymore to hear me out.
Someone called from the entry. Someone hidden, huddled inside out of the rain. I recognized the voice, and had to smile. I was not the earliest, then, nor the most eager, to get here. I turned my back to the house first, to summon my thoughts, to gauge my mood, to present a composed face to the others. Self-control they might recognize, even after my recent disasters and troubles. Even after the biggest surprise of my life. It was important to calm down, gather my wits, and carry myself like I arrived with good intentions. The scenery had that effect on me.
The more or less unchanged panorama had accompanied all my childhood woes and joys. Now it struck me, even in drenching rain, with the permanence of some things and the transience of most human deeds and concerns. Even the trees were the same ones I watched as a youngster, steadfast in the summer sun, or whipped sideways in some gale from the northeast in the fierce onset of autumn. I stood on ‘our hill’ and gazed down at the strange slender crenelated tower of the Fiesole cathedral through old eyes, and new eyes, at once. How foolish I was, to think anything about money, or words, or promises, or loans, or inheritance could transcend the longevity of trees and hills and houses. Yes, even houses, some houses, lived on without us, taking with them our stories, our bruised spirits, and our petty debacles.
‘Hello, Paola! Isn’t John with you?’
Reluctance to answer rose in my chest like heartburn. I climbed the wet treacherous stairs cautiously and with more doubt. It was a strong sense of unwillingness to enter a family reunion like no other we had ever had. My sister-in-law’s voice was sophisticated but piercing, and I could detect a desire in her – even though we had not met eye-to-eye for a couple of years – to be hospitable. Harriet was welcoming me to my mother’s house. Another person might have found this ironic, even in the circumstances.
We embraced in the Tuscan way, cordial and cool, warm and distant all at once. Graceful, Mama would have called our embrace and air kisses. Elegant.
‘No – John’s in Queensland, Harriet.’ I was not about to spill stuff about John and me on the forecourt, in the rain. I did not want to muddy my entrance with the unpleasantness that had fouled my departure from Melbourne. ‘But tell me first. How are you and Nigel?’
‘Oh, Paola … you know… the children keep us on our toes.’
I sensed something cool there, apart from the chill resulting from a sharp telephone quarrel we had months before. Something kept Harriet and Nigel out of the first sentence she uttered about themselves. Mentioning the children was innocuous. Always safe.
‘The gardens are looking a bit … ordinary.’
‘In this rain, no wonder.’ She saw it was not what I meant, but we both knew not to discuss the condition of the estate too much.
There were things about which we were not willing to talk yet. Urgent family things, which would inevitably spill out later. Private, personal things, which might bubble to the surface unbidden. Among siblings, siblings and their spouses, siblings and their children, little can remain hidden. Secrets have a habit of displaying themselves, artlessly, like a badly put-together dessert brought to table by a reluctant hostess who knows little about cooking, and less about guests.
I would soon discover, I supposed, the state of Nigel and Harriet’s marriage, the real achievements or otherwise of their children, Lori and Tad. My niece and nephew, if and when they turned up, would demonstrate and remonstrate all they liked, but the true circumstances in which they lived and thrived would soon enough come to the fore.
Besides, I had matters of my own to keep to myself. There was also the issue I was to broach to them all. In truth, what I felt at that moment was the entire catastrophe of my life, a sodden fistful of regret. It had to wait … until later, much later. If I could. If I could hold my tongue. ‘Are Tad and Lori here?’
With perfect hands Harriet brushed imaginary rain from a shoulder. A new ring, I noted, with a tiny diamond, was a bit too loose for her finger, and trembled. Where was her lovely engagement ring?
‘They’ll be late. They’re always running behind.’ She paused. ‘There are times I think stuff like that runs in families.’ Her face changed slightly when she caught my eye. ‘And at other times I shriek with laughter over the randomness of things.’
I smiled, widely, without the liveliness I was tacitly invited to share. Harriet shriek with laughter? She was holding back, and had little cheer herself. Little joyfulness was to be had in the chilly hallway. The faded but familiar frescoes were much more peeled and distressed than I remembered. Mould had added itself to the deterioration. Its damp choky smell seemed to cause the painted wall gods to grimace and shiver. How reassuring they were still there, though, one for each child, wielding their symbolism like family jokes no one else understood.
Ah – those wall gods.
Neptune was mine. I had claimed him long before the others took one each as well. I placed a damp hand on the wall near his leg. He fairly pushed through that faded red cape, gazing out at the viewer, squinting, as if he felt he was but an imperfect copy of the mural at Molina. But he was mine, and so were his watery henchmen in the stylized waves behind him. I often used to wish, as a lonely and dissatisfied child, for that trident. One tine in the eye for each of my siblings, and I would be alone, happy, fulfilled. Vicious thoughts, eventually transforming into the murder mysteries I wrote, which even today, such a long time after the first one was published, still sold well. Everyone thought I was this big literary success. No one knew my sorry little – big – secrets.
Diana the Huntress was of course Brod’s. She was depicted sharply here – before the mould got her – with a quiver faded from once brilliant carmine, and hounds emerging from the ornate architrave of the door to the drawing room. Broderick naturally wanted Neptune. He always wanted what I had, including roller skates that did not fit him, and the set of
annuals he pinched, one by one, from the box beneath my bed. Why he would want to read girls’ stories was at the time unclear to me.
Further along the hall, I saw Apollo was the best preserved of all the frescoes, most likely because of the heavy archway to the garden, or the fact he was Suzanna’s god. On long summer afternoons, Suzanna and I would lie on the cool tiles and watch coloured rays from the stained glass window in the stairwell move along Apollo’s bare torso. Yellow and green and ruby red. We would be called to dinner, and we’d hurry, flicking drops from hastily washed hands at the two boys.
Mars, clad only in a short mantle and metal helmet, faced Apollo across the red and white tiled space, where the central table always bore a tall vase of some variety of flowers from the garden. This was in the past a scratched and gouged table top; the repository for keys, purses, belts, wallets, books, and hotchpotch paraphernalia of our youth and childhood, so it was saddening to see it clear now, except for a thin layer of household dust and a large empty majolica bowl with chips the shape of fingernails in the wide brim.
Nigel’s god, Mars – the reason Suzanna and I never wondered for a minute of our young days about male genitalia – frowned from under his gathered brow and peeling eyebrows. The morning sun got him regularly, so his original dark skin was bleached and pocked, and the powdery tideline of white mould got him at the knees. Someone said he was a less priapic copy of a Pompeiian Mars. His drunken shield lay abandoned underneath the row of our coat hooks, bare now apart from two jackets, where our holiday gear would hang. Nigel’s god, he was, humourless and angry. As furious as Nigel could become when having too many siblings was too much. He was the youngest, taking Mars because he was stuck with the last god.
Where was Nigel? Harriet had left me to myself in the hall, to park my wheeled case and hang up my coat, but I could still hear her thin voice somewhere inside, past the drawing room, whose rugs gave the impression of being damp and had started curling at the edges. I couldn’t pause long enough to see whether what I wanted was in there. Past the dining room, where one of the chairs was missing. Someone had removed the fine lace curtains, leaving only heavy drapes pulled untidily to either side of each tall window in both the reception rooms. Because of the weather, everything seemed bathed in green and blue, in grey and a dull resistant brown in dark corners. I followed Harriet’s voice to the kitchen.
‘Paola!’ Nigel stood at the stove, wooden spoon in hand. ‘Flight okay? Tired?’
Before I could answer, Harriet said something about my old room. Without thinking, I stepped back to face her. ‘Oh – of course I want my old room … why …?’ I saw immediately how my words put her in charge. I bit my lip. Just because they were the ones doing the organizing when Mama was still alive, when they were looking after her, did not mean they were responsible now. Why
me my own room?
‘The ceiling’s leaking. All this rain. We figured the roof space has to be saturated, for water to seep through the bedroom ceilings.’ She imitated my lip biting.
I stared at her shoes, her hands, her hair. ‘It always leaked a bit. Is it very bad?’ I started towards the back stairs.
‘Paola! You’ve hardly said hello. We’ll see about bedrooms later. Brod will be here at seven, and Suzanna’s coming with Lewis.’
Apologetic, I stepped back into the kitchen, which was warm and dry and as welcoming as it was all those years ago. Was it our old range, and could that possibly be the very same cavernous fridge of our childhood?