ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rose Tremain is a writer of novels, short stories and screenplays. She lives in Norfolk and London with the biographer Richard Holmes. Her books have been translated into numerous languages, and have won many prizes including the Orange Prize, the Whitbread Novel of the Year, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the
Prix Femina Etranger
, the Dylan Thomas Prize, the Angel Literary Award and the
Book of the Year.
was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and made into a movie;
was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and selected by the
Reading Club. Rose Tremain's most recent collection,
The Darkness of Wallis Simpson
, was shortlisted for both the First National Short Story Award and the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. Three of her novels are currently in development as films.
ALSO BY ROSE TREMAIN
Letter to Sister Benedicta
The Swimming Pool Season
The Way I Found Her
Music & Silence
The Road Home
Short Story Collections
The Colonel's Daughter
The Garden of the Villa Mollini
The Darkness of Wallis Simpson
Journey to the Volcano
For the Romantic Biographer, with loveEVANGELISTA'S FAN
& Other Stories
Salvatore Cavalli, the eldest son of a Piedmontese clockmaker, was celebrating his twenty-seventh birthday in the year 1815 when he learned that the King of Piedmont had decided to remove a large slice of time from the calendar.
This was disturbing news.
For several hours, Salvatore Cavalli's father, Roberto, had not been able to bring himself to pass it onto his son. He found the courage to do so only after he'd drunk several glasses of wine and eaten seventeen chestnuts soaked in brandy at the birthday dinner. Then, Roberto Cavalli wiped his mouth, put an eighteenth chestnut onto his plate, turned to his son, took a breath and said: âSalvatore, I heard today that the King has ordered a number of years to be erased permanently from recorded time. What are we to make of that, do you think?'
Salvatore stared at his father. He wondered whether the clockmaker, a man of such precision in all his dealings, was beginning to show some inconsistency in his thinking. âPapa,' said Salvatore, ânobody can erase time. It's not possible. I think you must have misunderstood.'
But Roberto Cavalli had not misunderstood. With his mouth full with the eighteenth chestnut, he explained to Salvatore and to the assembled birthday guests that the King had been so horrified by the revolution in France and had suffered so miserably in his years of exile during the wars with Napoleon that he now preferred to pretend that none of these events had ever happened. His subjects were ordered to collude with this pretence and to purge their memories and their conversations of all reference to the years 1789 to 1815 inclusive. Punishments for disobeying the edict would be severe. Anyone heard uttering the word Bonaparte would be executed on the spot. The concept of
was decreed dead and had been officially interred in a dry well in the palace grounds. Worse and more difficult, nothing at all that had occurred during this time â
nothing at all
â was to be publicly recognised or discussed.
âSo there it is,' said Roberto. âThe strangest decree ever to come forth, isn't it? And on this day of all days, my poor son. But there's nothing we can do about it. A decree is a decree and all we can hope is that we'll get used to it.'
That night, Salvatore refused to sleep. He stood at a window, counting stars. All twenty-six years of his life had been officially swept away. He existed only in the future â only from this moment of becoming twenty-seven â and all his past was consigned to a void, to a hole in time. He felt outraged. He came from a family whose profession it was to measure time, a family of rational, clever, mathematically-minded people. He found the King's decree absurd, adolescent, unhistorical, unscientific and untenable. He refuted it utterly. His father's cowardly acceptance of it infuriated him. He spoke to the stars, as they paled in the paling of the sky. âI shall have to leave home,' he said, âleave home and leave Italy. Leaving is the only honourable solution left to me.'
Salvatore's proposed departure caused anguish in his family. He was already an accomplished assistant in the clockmaker's workshop. Roberto reminded him that their ancestors had started out as humble glass blowers but that for four generations they had been master craftsmen, rivalled only by the great watchmakers of France and Switzerland. âYou may
leave, Salvatore!' said Roberto. âI forbid it. You are not free to abandon the family firm of Cavalli.'
âI have no other choice,' said Salvatore.
âThink of everything that has been done for you,' said Salvatore's mother, Magnifica, crying into a piece of Bavarian lace, âthe start you've had in lifeÂ .Â .Â .'
Salvatore felt choked. He tried to stroke his mother's hair. âThere
no start, Mamma,' he said. âI have no past. I am a day old.'
âDon't be stupid!' said Roberto, âdon't be pedantic.'
âI'm not being pedantic, I'm following orders. The years 1789 to 1815 have been cancelled.'
âIn public, in public!' whispered Roberto, as if the King might be standing on the other side of the door, listening to the conversation, âonly in public! In private, they still exist. And this house is full of proof of their existence and yours, and these things can't be taken away: your baby curls in a box, your first prayer book, your tutor's reports, the engraving I gave you of the great Galileo Galilei, the first little clock you helped me makeÂ .Â .Â .'
âI can't live only in private, Papa,' said Salvatore, âand anyway, I want to see something of the world.'
âWhy?' asked Roberto. âWhat's wrong with Piedmont?'
âEverything. A place in which time can be annulled and events denied and history rewritten is not a fit place to be and I pity you and Mamma if you're unable to see this.'
Salvatore felt pleased with this quick and pertinent response, but some days later, lying in the cabin of a ship that reeked of tar, hearing the sea boil all around him and knowing that Piedmont was lost to his sight, he heard the true harshness of his words and, for the first time, regretted them. He thought of Roberto and Magnifica alone with his absence, confused and afraid, and for a while he wished that the ship would turn round and take him back. But it sailed on.
His ultimate destination was England. Rumours had reached Piedmont during the wars that Napoleon had devised two alternative plans for the invasion of England: to fly horses and men and arms over in hot-air balloons; to dig a tunnel, like a mine, held up by wooden planks, under the Channel, through which his army would pass. But his engineers had informed him that balloons were too fragile for the English wind and the earth beneath the Channel too crumbly for a mine, and so the schemes were abandoned and England had never become part of the Emperor's conquered lands.
It was because of this that Salvatore had decided to sail there. He didn't fear the windy climate. He thought that time, in an unconquered place, would be running normally. He had heard that the English were a finicky people, who did most things by the clock, and so he was confident that his skills would be in demand and that he could make his way in London.
He became quickly acclimatised to sea travel. He let Roberto and Magnifica go from his thoughts. The motion of the ships didn't make him sick; it filled him with a strange exaltation and sense of freedom.
At Lisbon, he fell into conversation with the ship's doctor, who spoke four languages and who began to teach him some words of English â earth, soul, city, morning, river, house, heart, bosom, Putney, ironmonger, fog â and proudly recited to him a poem in English about the beauty of London seen from Westminster Bridge which contained all but the last four of these:
Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morningÂ .Â .Â .
From this poem, once the Portuguese doctor had translated it for him, Salvatore formed an image of London as a place bathed in silvery light, a domed place, with silent ships at anchor and all its citizens at rest in the early dawn, watched over by well-oiled and perfectly adjusted clocks.
âI was right to leave Piedmont,' he said to the doctor. âWith the arrival of this new decree, my family skills will no longer be valued there. This follows logically.'
âWell,' said the doctor, âI wish you success and I
you to succeed. From my understanding of the English mind, I would say it has always been curious about contrivances and devices.'
Salvatore found premises in Percy Street. The previous occupant had been a bookbinder who had died quietly while resting from his labours in a leather hammock. Some of his books remained on a dusty shelf above Salvatore's workbench. He removed them to his bedroom (until such time as someone arrived to collect them) and forced himself to read a little from them every night, so that the language would enter him fast, like his mother's old cures for fever and melancholy, and make him strong.
He put up no sign. He had nothing, yet, to sell. And he needed, he believed, to understand the language and to know his way around London before he could start to trade there. He painted his premises green. He hung his precious engraving of Galileo Galilei over the mantel. This was to help him engage his future customers in conversation while they looked at his clocks and watches. He would remind them that it was an Italian, the great Galileo, who, observing very carefully the swinging of a lantern in Pisa Cathedral in the year 1582, had understood that the period of swing of a pendulum is independent of its arc of swing, and so adapted the pendulum to clockmaking via his simple idea of the wheel-cog escapement. He thought this story might be new to them and that it would intrigue and impress them.
Meanwhile, he began on the wheel-work of a range of 15-carat-gold keyless pocket watches, employing the Cavalli pump-winder patented by his grandfather, Domenico, in 1800. It was March and cold in his rooms. The kind of ferocious winds considered too fierce for Napoleon's hot-air balloons screamed at his door. There was no sign of spring anywhere. The silvery light he'd imagined from the poem on the ship didn't seem to fall in London except, now and again, just before dusk, just before the lamps were lit, and then it gleamed wetly on the street for half an hour and was gone.
And nor was London a gently sleeping city. Its very air seemed to hold noise within it, so that even while you slept you breathed it in and woke startled and disturbed. More even than the fiery Piedmontese, the men here seemed enraptured by argument and brawl. In Salvatore's own street, in the grey light that passed for broad daylight, he saw a man pick up a cat from the gutter and hurl this living weapon at the head of another man. The cat's body struck a railing and fell into a basement. The second man pulled out a pistol and shot the first man in the thigh. All down the street, windows opened and people stood staring. The wounded man lay pale and shrieking on the stones, but nobody went to his aid. After a while, he was put onto a cart of potatoes by some ragged boys and taken away.
That night, Salvatore dreamed that he'd lost not only his home but one of his legs as well. He got up and dressed and touched the great Galileo's forehead for luck and walked to Westminster Bridge and stood in the middle of it and tried to see the things spoken of in the poem. And, as it happened, the morning was a fine one, the wind less rowdy than of late. Spread out under a clear sky like this, the city did indeed seem beautiful and serene and Salvatore felt tall, as if he were at the centre of a picture. Then, he realised that from this heart of London, if a person turned very slowly in a 360Â° circle, his eye could come to rest on no less than thirteen public clocks.