Authors: Elsbeth Edgar
“Do you know why Mr. Visconti settled here?”
“No one knows that,” replied Miss McInnes sharply. But the shadow of something, a memory or perhaps a scrap of gossip, crossed her face, and Laura was sure she knew more than she was saying.
She tried again. “Someone must have an idea, a suggestion.”
“Not that I’ve heard.” Miss McInnes paused. “Have you read the local history pamphlet?”
“Well, I can’t tell you much more. Mr. Visconti came here from Milan, I believe. He built the house and he lived there. On his own. He kept to himself. No one knew him well. I’m sorry; I can’t really help you with your project.”
“It’s not a project, Miss McInnes.” Laura tried to look as enthusiastic and trustworthy as possible. “I’m just interested because I live there.”
Miss McInnes was not impressed. “Well, that’s all I know. Now you’ll have to go, I’m afraid. I’ve got chutney simmering on the stove, and I have to get back to it.”
There was nothing for Laura to do but say thank you and leave.
As she walked away, thoughts were spinning in her head. She felt sure that Miss McInnes was hiding something, but she also knew from her own experience that making someone talk if they didn’t want to was not easy. It seemed strange, though, that Miss McInnes should be so secretive. Why would she not want to talk about Mr. Visconti?
Still puzzling about Miss McInnes, Laura came over the hill and looked down to the train tracks and Mrs. Murphy’s house. Mrs. Murphy was, as usual,
working in her garden, and Laura watched her thoughtfully. Mrs. Murphy and Miss McInnes had both lived in the town for a very long time, possibly all their lives, and they were about the same age. Despite their differences, they must know each other. Maybe Mrs. Murphy would help her find out what Miss McInnes was hiding. Laura quickened her step, but by the time she reached the white weatherboard house, Mrs. Murphy had gone inside and there was no sign of movement.
Laura turned to continue up the hill, then stopped and took a deep breath. After all, Mrs. Murphy had said she enjoyed talking with her and had given her the tomatoes. Surely she wouldn’t mind if Laura knocked on her door. She pushed the gate open and walked down the path.
It was Leon who answered her knock. Laura shifted uncomfortably, remembering their last conversation.
“Is your grandmother at home?” she asked.
“Yes. She’s always at home.” But Leon did not move or call out to Mrs. Murphy. He just stood there, holding the door ajar, waiting. He looked as though he was protecting someone or something. Laura could see the heavy curtain behind him, concealing the end
of the hallway, and an old wicker stand with a large plant on it.
She wondered if it was a day for people to half-open doors and stare at her, and wished she had not come. “Well, can I speak to her?” she said.
Leon’s eyes narrowed. “Why?”
“Because I want to ask her something.”
Leon hesitated, then stepped aside. Laura could see that he was uneasy about her coming into the house. He pulled back the curtain and led the way down the hall to a room at the end.
It was a sort of sun-room, although very little sun was coming through the louver windows, many of which had shelves stacked in front of them. It was long and narrow, and against the wall there was a large table with two chairs drawn up to one end. Mrs. Murphy was sitting in one of them, shelling peas, and Leon had obviously been sitting in the other, doing homework. His books were spread across the table and, despite the chaos, it looked companionable.
“Hello, Mrs. Murphy,” said Laura, standing stiffly in the doorway.
Leon shifted some boxes from another chair and moved it next to Laura. “She says she has a question for you,” he told his grandmother.
Laura was not at all sure that she wanted to ask the question anymore, particularly with Leon looking so sulky, but there was nothing else she could do now so she plunged in.
“I’ve just been to see Miss McInnes. I wanted to ask her about Mr. Visconti and our house. One of the librarians told me that Miss McInnes might know something about Mr. Visconti but . . . but she didn’t seem very keen to talk to me. I wondered if you could help.” Laura paused, considering how to phrase her request, then continued. “Do you have any suggestions about how I should approach her? I thought maybe you knew her.”
“And so I do,” answered Mrs. Murphy. “We were in the same grade at school. Used to play together in Mr. Gray’s old quarry on Saturday afternoons. You wouldn’t think it, would you, to see her now. We used to make mud pies in the dirt. She didn’t mind getting grubby then.” Mrs. Murphy chuckled. “The cleanliness came later. Although I must admit, her mother was always on the particular side. Used to get awfully cross with her when she came home with stained clothes and mud all over her shoes. So what do you want from her?”
“Information about the house. About Mr. Visconti.”
Mrs. Murphy reached for another handful of peas. “All right, I’ll see what I can do.”
“I know something,” said Leon unexpectedly.
Laura turned to him in surprise. “What?”
“Mr. Visconti is not buried here.”
“What do you mean?”
“There’s no grave for him at the cemetery.”
Laura stared at him. “Maybe he was cremated,” she said crossly. Mr. Visconti belonged to her. Why was Leon so interested?
“He wouldn’t have been cremated back then, would he, Grandma?”
“Unlikely,” said Mrs. Murphy. “Him being Italian and probably Catholic and all.” She swept the empty shells into a plastic bag.
Laura frowned. “Well, how do you know he’s not buried in the cemetery then?” she asked Leon.
Laura’s mouth dropped open. “Why?”
Leon shrugged. “I was just walking past and thought I’d have a look. See what it said on his gravestone, since we’d been talking about him. But it wasn’t there. It wasn’t anywhere.”
“There was some talk about why he lived alone,”
mused Mrs. Murphy. “I don’t recall what it was — I was only a child — but there was some sort of mystery. A tragedy, I think.” She frowned, as though trying to remember more. “Maybe Janet will know.”
“Janet?” Laura asked.
“Janet McInnes. Come back in a few days. I might have some more information then.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Murphy,” said Laura, getting up. “Thank you very much.”
“Don’t thank me yet.” Mrs. Murphy smiled as she settled back into her chair. “Wait until I have something for you. Take Laura out the back door, Leon. It’s friendlier.”
On the back step, Laura and Leon stood watching each other uneasily.
“Well, see you, then,” said Leon.
Laura twisted her finger through her hair, thinking. If she asked Leon over, surely no one would know. How could they? It wasn’t as though any kids from school lived near them. Finally, she said, “You could come and see Mr. Visconti’s house, if you’d like.”
“Whenever you want, one night after school.”
Laura flicked her hair back and turned to leave.
“Maybe I’ll come on Monday,” he called after her.
Well, it is only fair,
thought Laura as she trudged up the hill.
After all, I barged into his house. It wouldn’t be right not to let him into mine. . . .
Laura spent Saturday immersed in her investigations into Mr. Visconti. Early Saturday morning she snatched a brief moment when her father wasn’t working on his article to search the Internet. But while she uncovered a vast amount of information about all sorts of people named Visconti, there was nothing about
Mr. Visconti — nothing that she could find, anyway.
Thwarted, she returned to searching the house. She combed all the empty upstairs rooms and then climbed back into the attic to rummage through the boxes, hoping to find another postcard or maybe even a photograph. All she found, however, was an old button, a tatty brush, and another box of cutlery. In the garden she unearthed some old bottles and a few bits of broken china.
“What have you got there?” asked her mother as Laura curled up on the sofa in the studio with a large shoe box.
“My collection of things about Mr. Visconti,” replied Laura.
Her mother smiled. “It looks like you’ve found quite a lot.”
“No.” Laura shook her head. “The box is mostly empty. Mr. Visconti didn’t leave very much behind.”
“Well, he left the house,” said her mother.
Laura’s brow wrinkled. “But
can’t talk. It can’t tell me about Mr. Visconti.”
“Maybe it can.”
Laura looked skeptical.
While her mother continued chiseling, Laura took out all the articles she had photocopied and glued them into a notebook, making notes as she went along. She soon discovered, however, that most of the notes were questions. Why did Mr. Visconti come to Australia? Why did he build the house? And why did he stay?
When Laura had finished, she thought about what her mother had said and went back to searching the house. The only other things she found, though, were a small box of paints and two thin brushes. She put them with her collection but felt rather discouraged. How did she know that any of these objects belonged to Mr. Visconti? And even if they did, what did they
tell her? Nothing! She pushed the shoe box aside and picked up the novel she was reading, but she could not concentrate. All day her thoughts kept turning back to Mr. Visconti and the house.
Laura woke on Sunday to the sun streaming in her window. It was going to be a glorious day. She bounced into the kitchen and found her father sitting at the table with Samson curled up in his lap.
“It is a true sun day,” he greeted her cheerfully, buttering a piece of toast. “What are you planning to do, Laura?”
“I’m going to sketch the house,” she replied.
It was the little, battered box of paints that had given her the idea. As she had been drifting off to sleep, she had remembered them and wondered if Mr. Visconti had been a painter. And then she had thought that it would be fun to do some paintings of the house. Her mother always said that you got to see something differently when you drew or painted it.
She collected some sheets of paper and a box of
pencils from the studio and went out into the garden to start drawing. It proved much harder than she had imagined, however, and she was almost crying with frustration when her mother came out to see how she was doing.
“It doesn’t look right. It doesn’t look like the house at all,” Laura complained, squinting at the lines on the paper.
Her mother took up a pencil. “Yes, it does. You just need some more shading here and a bit more height with the roof.”
Laura gazed at the transformed picture. “How did you do that?” she marveled. “It looks fantastic.”
“Practice.” Her mother kissed her on the top of her head. “Now you try again.”
When she had finished several views of the house, Laura did some drawings of the garden. She even went back up to the attic to get a bird’s-eye perspective. By the end of the day, she was able to add several sketches to her Mr. Visconti box. She was very proud of them, but as she closed the lid, she thought how little she had really discovered. Mr. Visconti’s story was still as mysterious as ever.
When her alarm rang on Monday morning, Laura switched it off and lay cuddled under her comforter, staring at her Mr. Visconti box, puzzling about what to do next in her investigation. Suddenly, she remembered that Leon Murphy might come over that afternoon. Perhaps he would have some ideas, but did she want to ask him? She rolled over. This was
mystery, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to share it with anyone.
Laura glanced back at the clock. It was almost eight o’clock; she really should be getting up. She stretched, expecting to feel Samson snuggled at the bottom of her bed, but he was not there. There was not even an indentation in her comforter where he usually slept.
She jumped up, deciding that he must already be in the kitchen, waiting for his breakfast, and listened for his outraged mewing as she came down the hall. But the only sounds she heard were the hum of the fridge and the chirping of a bird in the bushes outside. Hoping he wasn’t the cause of the bird’s distress, she flung open the back door, but Samson wasn’t in the garden either. He was nowhere to be seen.
“I’m sure he’ll turn up soon,” mumbled her father
sleepily when she burst into her parents’ bedroom to tell them that Samson was missing. “You know what cats are like. They have their secrets.”
Laura shook him. “Samson
comes for breakfast. He wouldn’t miss it.”
“Maybe he dined on mice during the night,” suggested her mother. “I’m sure he’s fine.”
“But what if he’s not fine? What if he’s lying hurt somewhere, calling for us? What if he’s lost?”
“We’ll look for him when we get up,” said her father. “You need to get ready for school.”
Laura scowled and left the room, but she did not get dressed. She continued searching frantically until it was almost half past eight. It was only when she heard her father stirring that she threw on her uniform and dashed out the door without having eaten breakfast.
Halfway through her first class, Laura was starving. She looked across irritably at Leon, who was sitting on his own as usual, his eyes fixed on his textbook. Laura gnawed her fingernails. Why had she asked him over? What on earth had she been thinking? She jabbed her pen into her notebook, hoping he had forgotten all about it.