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Ebook Miss You (novel) By Kate Eberlen | Epub, Text

Discussion in 'EBook' started by mukul, Dec 7, 2017. Replies: 34 | Views: 45

  1. mukul

    mukul Kazirhut Lover Member

    Aug 5, 2012
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    বন পাথারে
    Bangladesh Bangladesh
    July 2013

    When Doll really likes something she says she’s died and gone to heaven. That’s exactly how it feels lying in my room looking up at the ceiling. There are cherubs festooning garlands around a pale turquoise sky. The chandelier droplets cast tiny rainbows on the walls. The bed is so huge I can stretch my arms and legs out into a star and still not touch the corners, and the sheets are pure white cotton and reassuringly heavy. It’s too warm for a blanket, but with the air conditioning, it has become quite chilly in the night.

    The tiled floor is cold against the soles of my bare feet as I walk to the window and push open the shutters to see rolling hills, smudged with grey-green olive groves, and dark cypress trees spiking the blue sky. In the distance, I can just make out the terracotta roofs of a little town, which I think must be Vinci, where Leonardo was born.

    An infinity pool was one of the features on the website that attracted Doll. As I lower myself into the cool mirror of water and push off into a silent breaststroke, conscious that my fellow guests are still sleeping close by, I feel as if I could swim for ever into the sky. Dragonflies dart across the mercury surface; the air is fragrant with jasmine and the first wafts of coffee from the kitchen.

    The only rule of the Villa Vinciana is that guests, who have come to follow individual artistic pursuits, have to eat meals together. The idea is to give a communal feeling, although on the first day, us new ones don’t really mix with those who’ve been here a while and already formed into friendship groups. A buffet breakfast is laid out on trestle tables beside the eating area: platters of prosciutto and cheese, melon fans, and baskets of tiny pastries filled with jam, custard or marzipan – you can’t tell until you bite – all delicious.

    It’s not all singles. Some people have come with their partners, but they’re the quiet ones because they’re used to seeing each other in the morning. Those of us who arrived in the minibus from Pisa airport last night ask each another cautious questions about why we’re here, careful at this early stage not to intrude or reveal too much. As well as Creative Writing, the Villa Vinciana offers courses on Italian Cuisine, Stone Carving – although that takes place at a converted olive press a few miles away, because of the noise – Yoga, and Art and Culture.

    After breakfast the director of studies, whose name is Lucrezia, outlines the programme and excursions. You can understand her English, but she doesn’t always use the right words. For the artistic participants, mornings are for lonely work, before the sun gets so hot, and when our creativity is very big. Then there is the long lunch, one recreational time, followed by the group seminar at six o’clock. Dinner is a buffet something light. You can eat pizza from the fire.

    Sitting at a little wooden desk in front of my open window, I’m so excited at being in this magical place, I’m dying to email Doll to tell her that the room with a view was totally worth the extra cost, but I haven’t got the password for the Wi-Fi and I’m a little bit afraid of Lucrezia. She seems quite strict. I suppose you have to be to organize forty or so people with all their different needs. Anyway, Doll might be cross if she thinks I’m wasting time describing the place to her, when the whole point is that I’m supposed to be writing my book.

    After an hour, I’m still staring at a blank screen. It just feels a bit strange trying to conjure up life on a council estate in a rundown English seaside town when I’m sitting in a Tuscan palazzo.

    I want to finish my book, but does it actually matter if I do? Sometimes, I think I’m scared of finishing it, because what happens after that? I wonder if every writer has moments like this.

    I decide to explore my surroundings. If I bump into Lucrezia, I can pretend that I’m composing in my head or something. I push back my chair and stand up, slowly, because I don’t want to faint again, not on this hard, ceramic floor. I apply Factor 20 sunscreen to my arms and legs and put on my big straw hat.

    The agriturismo comprises the substantial villa where my room is, a building that looks like a church but doesn’t have a cross on the roof, and a few one-storey outbuildings, which were probably stables before it was all converted into an Artistic Retreat and Cultural Centre. It’s situated on quite a steep hill, which is how the infinity pool works because it’s built out onto a terrace. Just beneath the high stone wall that supports it, there’s a decked area with a canopy where the yoga people are practising. A steep, stony path leads down to another terrace, where there are vines with orange, green and red fruit which I suddenly realize are those tiny, expensive tomatoes you get in Waitrose. Tomatoes on the vine! I’ve never seen a tomato growing before. I’m reaching out to pick one, when a white butterfly lands momentarily on a leaf right beside my hand. I track it as it flutters and lands randomly along the row, until I’m suddenly aware that there’s a guy in a khaki T-shirt and cut-off jeans with a trug over his arm looking at me.


    I lose my footing, and slide on my bottom down the dusty path to the next terrace, stopping my descent with the heels of my palms.

    ‘Are you OK?’ says the voice from the terrace above.

    ‘Fine, thanks . . .’ I’m too embarrassed to look round.

    In fact, my hands are grazed and stinging, but it’s only superficial. I stand straight up and walk on with as much dignity as my damaged pride and flip-flops will allow.


    I can’t see her face properly because she has this big hat on, then she slides away.

    I stand on tiptoe to see over the top of the vine, and she’s sitting on the dusty path, one terrace down. She leaps up quickly, all legs and elbows, and continues walking, unaware of the big patch of clay-brown dust on the back of her white shorts.

    The sun is high in the sky and blindingly bright. It’s almost midday and I should probably have a hat on myself because the heat’s playing tricks with my mind.

    I return to the kitchen with the ciliegini and I’m washing them at the big stainless-steel sink by the window, when the hat walks past, holding her arm at the wrist, her palm turned up, like a child who’s fallen in the playground.

    ‘Goos!’ the chef calls.


    Facciamo la pasta?

    Shall we make the pasta?


    I bought a phrasebook at the airport this morning, with a CD that I played while driving my hire car to the agriturismo. It was a mistake to choose Italian on the satnav with only a couple of hours’ knowledge of the language, but I found the place eventually.

    There are only three of us on the cookery course helping the two chefs prepare lunch. One of my fellow students is a bear of a German with a gut bulging over the strings of his apron; the other an American divorcee in her mid-forties who speaks a different culinary English to mine – eggplant, broil, skillet. Kurt is sweating over the osso buco; Nancy is in the final stages of preparing the vegetarian dish of melanzane farcite; I, as the latecomer, have been put in charge of spaghetti al pomodoro, whose simple ingredients must be prepared and then added just before serving, so I’m at a bit of a loose end, until Chef points at the fresh fruit and demonstrates how he wants it cut up.

    The business of serving forty people spaghetti is hotter work than I imagined, especially in a white chef’s jacket, but it’s more satisfying too, and as I’m doling out the last portions, I become aware of comments from the tables where people are eating.

    ‘So fresh!’

    ‘Pasta cooked just right!’

    ‘Do they sell this olive oil, do you think? I’ve got to take some home!’

    ‘What’s the green bits?’ says a voice that’s like an echo in my head.

    I look up. It’s her. It is her! The butterfly woman!

    She has taken off her hat, but sweat has flattened her short hair around the crown and the fine, damp curls look like a baby’s hair in the bath. She’s peering suspiciously at the last strands of spaghetti.

    ‘Basil,’ I hear myself saying, through the muffling nervousness that has engulfed my brain.

    ‘Does it taste like spinach?’ The voice has that slight twang, not Essex, but not far off.

    ‘Not really.’

    ‘Go on then!’

    My hand is shaking so much as I deposit a portion in the bowl she is proffering, I accidently splash her thumb with tomatoey olive oil.

    ‘I’m so sorry!’ I grab the tea towel that’s draped over my shoulder, but she’s already put her thumb to her mouth to lick it off and in doing so, tipped some of the sauce down the front of her T-shirt.

    ‘Shit,’ she says. ‘That’s two today.’ She turns her hand over to show me a big plaster on her palm. ‘They say bad things come in threes, don’t they?’ she says. ‘Not that anything could really be that bad in a place like this, could it?’

    Her face breaks into that ridiculously familiar smile that makes me feel we’ve known each other for ever and sends my pulse rate soaring.

    ‘Goos!’ the chef is calling.

    Si, Chef. Vengo!

    I’m coming. Is that right? Or does it have the same other meaning in Italian as it does in English?

    La frutta!’ he says crossly.

    There are strawberries to be hulled and doused with juice from oranges I still have to squeeze. And then there is the clearing-up.

    By the time I emerge from the kitchen again, most of the guests have left the dining area to take their coffee in the small shaded bar at the other end of the site, but my heart leaps when I see the hat still sitting there, alone, scribbling in her notebook.

    Why can’t you ever just launch in?

    Because it’s going to look weird, isn’t it? She obviously doesn’t recognize me and even though it is a complete coincidence, she’s never going to believe that, especially after the flowers. She’ll probably think I’m stalking her.

    She gets up, walks towards me, flip-flops slapping against the decking.

    ‘Very nice,’ she says, handing me her plate. ‘Being totally honest, I prefer it without the basil.’

    ‘I’ll remember that.’

    ‘Did you make it?’

    ‘I’m doing the cookery course. I prepared the fruit as well.’

    ‘The fruit was brilliant,’ she says. ‘Especially the watermelon. Normally, it’s full of pips.’

    ‘There’s a certain way you cut it up.’

    ‘You’ll have to show me. Not that I’m ever likely to buy a whole watermelon in England, am I? You’d get sick of it after a few days, wouldn’t you? Doesn’t taste the same in England anyway, does it? More like cucumber. I’m hopeless at cooking. Can’t even do a barbecue without burning everything!’

    ‘Everyone burns things on a barbecue.’


    I nod and am rewarded with the smile.

    ‘And you’re . . . ?’

    ‘Writing,’ she says. ‘Supposed to be, anyway. I should be getting back to it, otherwise I’ll be in trouble.’

    I can’t think of a way of stopping her from leaving.

    ‘See you later, maybe?’ I say.

    ‘Bound to, aren’t we?’


    Wish I didn’t gabble on when I’m nervous. He’s very polite, but there’s a limit, isn’t there? He’s got one of those faces that changes completely depending on what he’s doing. When he’s listening, it’s serious and intense, but if you make him laugh, he’s like a boy, with nothing to hide. There’s a kind of freckly look, like the actor who was Marius in Les Mis, that’s boyish, but still really sexy. He’s a bit like that. Except taller. He’s very tall.

    Is he with someone here? Or alone? Escaping some traumatic event? His eyes are blue, but they’re kind of gold as well, flickering between fun and anxiety.

    Way out of my league, obviously, with his public-school accent and everything. Anyway. That’s not what I’m here for.

    Completing your first draft.

    New writers often find it difficult to finish their first draft . . .

    The rubric at the top of the course timetable is the same as the website advert that attracted Doll. She was thinking Tuscany because I’d always said I wanted to go back, but she thought I might be lonely on my own, seeing as she couldn’t come with me, what with Elsie and being seven months pregnant again.

    . . . Let us show you the way. The Villa Vinciana, situated in the rolling Tuscan hills above Vinci, where one of the world’s creative geniuses was born, is a haven of tranquil creativity. Each air-conditioned, en-suite room is furnished with a desk for you to work during the day. In the evening, group seminars, led by our expert tutors, will provide opportunities for discussion of literary techniques, expert critique, and supportive feedback.

    Day 1

    Participants will present themselves and their work to the group.

    We meet in the shaded area below the pool where I saw the yoga people this morning. There are only five of us, including Geraldine, the course leader. I calculate that yoga is by far the most popular course because there are at least twenty of them, and before we’ve even started I’m wondering whether I should ask to swap, even though I’ve never fancied yoga before.

    I didn’t get the greatest first impression of two of my fellow students – a middle-aged husband-and-wife combo – on the flight out. It wasn’t the air steward’s fault that the tortilla chips had run out, and, if you’re going on Ryanair, you’d be mad to count on a range of snacks. The third time they called him back, I almost turned round and said, ‘You should’ve eaten at the airport, shouldn’t you?’

    Just as well I didn’t, because it was them I found myself squashed up against in the minibus.

    There’s a bit of a competitive vibe straight away. ‘How long’s your draft?’ type of thing. The middle-aged couple, Graeme and Sue, are both geography teachers. He’s writing an action thriller set on a field trip; she’s writing a romcom about two teachers. She asks us to guess the title from her description. It’s obvious that none of us feels comfortable doing so.

    ‘Why don’t you tell us?’ says Geraldine pleasantly.

    Staffroom Shenanigans!’ says Sue triumphantly.

    ‘That’s so cool!’ says Erica, who’s a very large American woman.

    She’s writing a vampire novel for teens, which, she assures us, is nothing likeTwilight. I’d be happier if she’d said it was exactly like Twilight because I really enjoyed the whole series.

    Now they’re all looking at me. It’s hard to tell Erica’s age, but I think I’m probably the youngest in the group.

    ‘Mine’s not a novel,’ I begin.

    ‘Interesting,’ says Erica.

    I notice Sue and Graeme exchanging knowing looks, as if I’m a naughty schoolgirl who hasn’t read the exam question carefully.

    Geraldine, who I’m sure is a lovely woman, but looks quite like Leo’s wife, with her long hair streaked with grey and her kaftan-type of dress, gives me an encouraging smile.

    ‘It’s called Living with Hope, and it’s kind of about my mother and my sister, who has Asperger syndrome.’

    ‘So it’s an autobiography?’ says Sue, in a bit of a patronizing tone.

    ‘More of a memoir,’ I tell her.

    Graeme laughs into his hand, as if I’m stupid. Maybe there isn’t a distinction? Maybe memoir just sounds better.

    ‘There’s a name for those kind of books, isn’t there?’ says Erica, squeezing her already piggy eyes in her effort to remember.

    Geraldine steps in. ‘Let’s not get too bogged down with categorization.’

    ‘My sister’s called Hope, you see . . .’

    ‘That’s so cool,’ says Erica.

    Geraldine lays out a few ground rules for the course, about how we have to respect each other and try to be positive, all stuff I already know from City Lit. Then she asks us to sit in silence looking at the physical features of our surroundings, and listening to the sounds around us, and write what she calls a global description setting the scene, gradually zooming in on a group of characters.

    The peaceful moment of contemplation is broken by Graeme. ‘“The sun was setting over the Tuscan hills, and the crickets were singing . . .” Is that the sort of thing you’re looking for?’

    ‘You’ve got the idea,’ says Geraldine.

    ‘Well, I’ve done mine then,’ says Graeme, as if there’s a prize for finishing first.

    A slight breeze, charcoal-scented with pizza, rustles the canopy above us.

    I can’t believe I’m hungry again.

    ‘If you complete the exercise in your own time, we’ll read them tomorrow. Then we’ll discuss some techniques to hone your critiquing skills,’ says Geraldine, bringing the session to a close.

    ‘Misery memoir!’ Erica suddenly shrieks.

    Everyone looks at her.

    She points at me. ‘That’s the book you’re writing!’

    ‘No, it’s not,’ I say.

    ‘Yes, that’s what they’re called!’ she insists.

    I’m about to say, ‘There’s nothing miserable about it.’ But I realize that I don’t want her, or any of these other people, knowing anything more. They’re not like my class at City Lit and I don’t want my chapters to be pulled apart by them, however ‘constructively’ they do it. In fact, I’m not prepared to share it with them.

    Back in my room I feel bad, because Doll’s paid so much money, and it was such a thoughtful idea, and I don’t want to let her down.

    I’m still going to enjoy it, I tell her on the phone, because it’s a beautiful place and the infinity pool is great, and there are excursions in the minibus every day. Maybe I’ll join the Culture class, or maybe I’ll just do the culture bit myself.

    Doll says, ‘You do whatever you want! It’s supposed to be a holiday!’

    So that’s a relief.

    ‘Any fit men?’

    ‘I haven’t been here a whole day yet!’

    ‘I seeeeee,’ she says.

    He’s on duty at the wood-fired pizza oven, cutting up the huge discs with a pizza wheel.

    There’s a savoury one with tomato sauce, dots of floppy mozzarella and a different herb, which he says is oregano, that gives the typical Italian taste. You get it dried in England, but this is fresh from the villa’s garden. If you like you can have anchovies, or bits of salsiccia, which is a kind of sausage. They put the circles of raw dough on a huge flat shovel and push them into the furnace for only a minute or so, because it’s that hot.

    His face is really pink from standing next to the oven, or maybe from the sun because red-haired people burn easily. He’s friendly, but there’s a limit to how long we can chat with a queue of hungry people behind me.

    I avoid sitting with the writing group, but everyone else seems to have teamed up with their classmates and nobody looks very inclined to budge up and let me sit down with them. The stone carvers who arrived back late are covered in a ghostly dusting of white powder; the yoga group stare aghast at the sausage on top of my pizza because they’re all vegetarians, so I perch at the end of a table on my own, watching him serving. I don’t think he’s here with anyone because he keeps glancing over, and I keep having to pretend that I was just staring into space, composing my book or something.

    After we’ve all had a savoury pizza, we can go up again and get one with fresh fruit and sugar on top. I didn’t know pizza could be sweet.

    ‘It tastes like an apricot Danish!’ I exclaim. Then, feeling like an idiot, ‘Except peach.’

    ‘And Italian?’ he says.

    But in a nice way. Not how Sue or Graeme would say it.

    ‘Do you fancy a coffee when I get off work?’ he asks.

    ‘I can’t drink coffee at night. Maybe I’ll have a soft drink?’ I add quickly.

    ‘Rendezvous in the bar when we’ve cleared up?’


    It’s only when I open the wardrobe door that I catch a view of the back of my shorts reflected in the mirror on the wall. By the time I’ve changed, washed my face, deliberated about putting on make-up, decided against, and squirted myself with duty-free Chanel No5, the bar has packed up and the villa is shrouded in darkness and the profound stillness you only get in the countryside.


    I understand that restaurant kitchens have to be spotlessly clean, but this is a holiday that Nash paid money for, and it seems a bit of a con that the villa only employs two chefs and a kitchen porter, and the people on the cookery course have to do most of the preparation, cooking and clearing-up. By the time I’m through, the cafe’s deserted and the butterfly woman has given up and gone to bed.

    In my room next to the pool, I lie awake listening to the cicadas and the occasional untimely crowing of a cockerel on a distant farm, smiling in the darkness at the thought of her sleeping somewhere nearby.

    I wake from a dreamless sleep to the clatter of cutlery and the buttery-sweet smell of warm croissants.

    As I wander towards the terrace for breakfast, I notice that there’s a minibus waiting on the gravel outside the main door of the house. Her face stares at me through the window as it pulls away. She waves, just as she did from the back of the ambulance, then suddenly frowns, as if she’s just remembered something.

    ‘Where’s the minibus going?’ I ask the course director, Lucrezia.

    ‘A cultural tour of Firenze.’

    ‘And they’re coming back . . . ?’

    ‘Tonight, yes.’


    Outside the railway station where the bus drops us, a guide with a red umbrella is waiting to take the Culture group on a tour. I tell her that I’m going shopping, in case it sounds rude to say that I want to follow my own itinerary.

    In my memory, the other stops on our Interrail holiday are like postcards: the floodlit amphitheatre in Verona against a navy-blue sky; the bay of Naples; the view across the lagoon to San Giorgio, Venice; but that last, carefree day Doll and I spent in Florence, the day before my life changed, I can remember hour by hour, footstep by footstep almost, and, for sentimental reasons, I want to retrace it.

    I take the bus to Fiesole, standing by the open window, feeling the movement of air on my face. When the bus deposits me at its final stop, belching a cloud of diesel as it turns around to return to the city, the square is suddenly peaceful and a whisper of mountain breeze cools my bare arms. In the Roman amphitheatre, I sit on one of the warm stone tiers, my memory so acute I can almost hear my younger self shouting, ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow!’ from the stage.

    I take a photo and send it to Doll with the message. Miss you!

    In the cafe, I sit under a shady vine, drinking sparkling mineral water. I eat spaghetti al pomodoro without basil while gazing at Florence, a miniature city in the distance, like the background of a Leonardo painting.


    The chef is teaching me how to make vitello tonnato, which is a dish I’ve never tried because I’ve always thought it would taste strange. I’m not crazy about veal or tuna, but together? How is that ever going to work? Chef assures me that it will be buono if I follow his recipe carefully.

    First, I have to roast the joints of veal, making sure that they are cooked but not dry. And then they must rest and cool, because the dish is served cold. Next I make a mayonnaise from egg yolks, lemon juice and olive oil, and flavour it with capers, diced very fine, and with a small amount of chopped chervil and chives from the garden. To this I add a few pounded, salted anchovies, and a drained, mashed tin of tuna. Then I slice the cooled veal on the machine and layer it with the flavoured mayonnaise. It doesn’t look promising, but it tastes divine.

    Perfetto!’ says Chef, with a little nod of approval.

    Kurt, who has been on the pasta and desserts, has the kitchen cleaned much more quickly and efficiently than me, and at three o’clock I find myself with a free afternoon ahead.

    The pool is fairly crowded, and as my skin is not designed for sunbathing, I decide to explore the area in my hire car.

    The first sign I see says that Florence is only fifty kilometres away so I take the slip road on to the Fi-Pi-Li motorway and arrive in the unpromising outskirts of the city in less than forty minutes. Signposts direct me to Parking at Piazzale Michelangelo. As the Fiat Panda climbs the zigzag road to the top of the hill, I begin to recognize where I am.

    The heat hits like a blast furnace as I step out of the air-conditioned car into what must be the most beautiful car park in the world. The view of the Duomo against a vivid blue sky is so much like a postcard, it looks unreal. I head to one of the souvenir stalls loaded with football shirts and plastic replicas of Michelangelo’s David, and buy a bottle of Factor 50 and a map, which I don’t really need because I can see exactly the route I ran up from the city through incongruously rural landscape when I was last in this place.

    First, just a little way along the shady main road, I seem to remember that there will be steps leading to the jewel of a church that I spotted from the rooftop pool of our hotel all those years ago.


    There must be a bus to San Miniato al Monte, but people keep telling me different stops, or I don’t understand their directions, so I decide to do what Doll would do if she were here and take a taxi. The road swirls through suburbs that look like those of any other town, then up a wooded hillside dotted with elegant villas standing coolly aloof from the jumble of medieval streets in the centro storico. The taxi drops me at the foot of the stone staircase that leads up to the church. I am the only person mad enough to be climbing steep flights of steps in boiling sunshine. I have to stop twice to get my breath, but I don’t allow myself to look around until I reach the top terrace.

    The view is so shockingly beautiful, my eyes brim with tears, just like they did all those years ago. I don’t know what my problem was then, with my whole life in front of me, and no inkling yet of what was to come. I remember thinking it would be a great place to get married, which is peculiar because I wasn’t one of those girls who pictured themselves in a white dress.

    Inside the church, it’s so dark after the bright sunlight, I can’t see anything at all for a moment. Even when I’ve taken off my hat and raked back my sunglasses, my eyes take a little time to adjust. I walk up the steps to the raised chancel, acutely aware of the irreverent flap of my sandals, and drop a euro coin into the slot machine which floods the apse with golden light.

    Staring at the huge, judgemental face of Christ, I have a powerful urge to say sorry to Him.

    ‘It’s not that I don’t believe in You,’ I tell Him silently. ‘It’s the Church I don’t like, and to be honest, I don’t think You would Yourself, if You were around today.’

    The light goes off with a sudden clunk, punishing me for heretical thoughts.

    But, after the briefest pause, it comes on again, and I spin round.

    The tall guy from the Villa Vinciana is standing beside the machine. In the golden light, his hair is the colour of amber.

    We stare at each other for a couple of seconds, and then we both exclaim, simultaneously, ‘You’re the one!’

    ‘I thought I recognized you from somewhere!’ I cry. ‘You were here, the day I got my A-level results!’

    ‘You were here. And then you spoke to me on the Ponte Vecchio!’ he says.

    ‘You took that photo of me and Doll. We were just looking at it the other day!’

    ‘You told me about the Gelateria dei Neri,’ he says.

    ‘Did I?’

    An image stored deep in my memory suddenly clicks open. We were on our way to catch the overnight train to Paris when I spotted him standing in the queue for the rip-off ice-cream place beside the bridge. I don’t know what possessed me.

    And Doll said, ‘What are you like?’ as we walked on, because usually she was the flirty one.

    ‘Did you go?’ I ask.

    It’s an odd conversation to be having in church.

    ‘Twice,’ he replies.

    The light timer goes off again. He puts another euro coin in.

    We stand beside each other gazing reverently at the solemn face of Christ, and then he says, ‘Do you think it’s still there?’


    ‘The gelateria.’


    The marble terrace is radiantly white after the dim interior of the church.

    My companion strolls over to the balustrade and leans against it, staring distantly at the view. There’s an aura of wistfulness around her.

    ‘That day I was here before,’ she says, quietly. ‘I vowed I’d come back, you know, like you do when you’re eighteen?’

    ‘I promised myself that too,’ I confide. ‘I thought it would be impossible to be unhappy surrounded by such beauty.’

    She turns and gives me a smile that makes me want to throw away caution and tell her how beautiful she is, but the only word that comes out of my mouth is, ‘Ready?’

    The marble is slippery smooth. I offer her my hand as we walk down together, careful not to press too hard on the big plaster covering her palm.

    ‘I fell over yesterday,’ she says, her flip-flops clapping loudly against each step.

    ‘I saw you.’

    ‘It was you hiding in the tomatoes?’

    ‘Yes. I wasn’t hiding, by the way.’

    At the bottom, we both cast a glance back up at the basilica, then, no longer needing my steadying hand, she lets go. We amble along the road, which is now busy with late-afternoon traffic. As we pass the entrance to the campsite, she says, ‘This is where we were. Where did you stay?’

    ‘A hotel. In Piazza Santa Maria Novella. I was with my parents. I’d have preferred to stay in a villa with a view of rolling hills.’

    ‘Like the Villa Vinciana?’

    ‘I suppose so!’

    She smiles that transformative smile of hers, like the sun coming out from behind a cloud, and I can leave it no longer.

    ‘You’re Tess, aren’t you?’

    ‘I am,’ she says. ‘How d’you know my name?’

    ‘Guess . . .’

    Her nose crinkles with concentration.

    ‘You saw it on Lucrezia’s register?’ she suggests, as we start walking down shallow steps that will take us back into the city.


    ‘How many guesses do I get?’

    I pick a number out of the air. ‘Five!’

    ‘You heard me telling someone at breakfast?’

    ‘I wasn’t at breakfast! Three left.’

    ‘You saw it on the front of my notebook?’

    She stops and takes an exercise book out of her shoulder bag, pointing at the panel where she has written, in looping letters. Teresa Mary Costello. If found, please call . . . then puts it back before I have a chance to memorize the mobile number.

    ‘No! Two left!’

    I wish I’d given her more guesses. I should have made it ten, or twenty, or as many as there are steps down to the city, because I don’t want this to end.

    ‘Hang on, how do I know you’re telling the truth?’ she suddenly demands.

    ‘Trust me, I’m a doctor!’

    As if the word has triggered a distant memory, she looks at me with an intense curiosity.

    ‘What’s your name, then?’ she asks.

    I hesitate.

    ‘I’m Gus.’

    We both stop in the shade of a tree.

    ‘Gus?’ she repeats.

    ‘Look, I know it’s a bit strange, but I was at the Stones concert on Saturday, and you passed out, and I am actually a doctor.’

    ‘You’re the Gus who came to see if I was OK and brought me pink and blue flowers?’ she asks, incredulously.

    I nod.

    ‘I’m so sorry but I had to leave them at the hospital because of getting my flight out here. In thirty-four years, I’ve never got a bouquet. And the one time I do, I can’t even . . . wait a minute . . . but they were white roses . . .’ She stops herself and looks earnestly into my eyes. ‘Thank you, Gus. They smelled gorgeous.’

    She believes that it’s a coincidence that we are both here. Which, after all, it is.

    I smile back at her, and then we both look quickly away, returning to the awkwardness of people who have just met. The air between us dances with silent questions.

    ‘So, you’re a Stones fan, are you?’ she finally asks as we start walking again.

    ‘Not especially,’ I say.

    I remember Nash’s phrase.

    ‘It’s one of those bucket-list things, isn’t it?’

    ‘You’re not about to die, are you?’

    ‘I hope not!’ I say. ‘What about you?’

    The crinkly frown.

    ‘I wanted to feel what it was like to be in one big crowd all singing along,’ she finally says.

    ‘Amazing energy, wasn’t it?’

    ‘It was,’ she agrees.

    The sunshine is a little more clement now, and the road down to the city half in shade.

    ‘Why were you unhappy?’ she says. ‘The last time you were here?’

    ‘How d’you know I was?’

    ‘Back there!’ She points up the hill. ‘You said you wanted to live here because it would be impossible to be unhappy. I just thought . . .’

    We walk a couple more paces.

    ‘My brother had died a few months before, in a skiing accident.’

    ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ She touches my arm for just a second, but the tenderness of the gesture lingers on my skin.

    ‘We were all raw with grief, but, in our very English way, trying not to let it spoil the holiday. Ridiculous, really.’

    I’ve spent so much of my life not telling people, but now, with a stranger, the words begin to flow. ‘There’s such a taboo about death, isn’t there?’

    Great chat-up line! I can almost hear Nash screaming at me.

    ‘Did you know that in Italy, families visit their relatives’ graves on Christmas Day?’ Tess says. ‘The flower stalls outside cemeteries do a roaring trade.’

    ‘What a nice idea. I love the way of life here.’

    ‘Me too,’ says Tess.
  2. mukul

    mukul Kazirhut Lover Member

    Aug 5, 2012
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    The Gelateria dei Neri no longer exists. We walk several times up and down the stretch of Via dei Neri where it used to be. My disappointment is less about the ice cream than that something we have in common has gone, our connection unravelling. But as we go on towards Santa Croce, we both spot the queue at the same moment. The Gelateria dei Neri has moved premises, and it’s much bigger now.

    Tess chooses a cone with three flavours: raspberry, melon and mango. After some indecision, I opt for blueberry, mandarin and passionfruit. The flavours capture the sharpness as well as the sweetness of the fruit like no other sorbet I’ve ever tasted. We don’t know each other well enough to offer a lick and after a few moments of mmming appreciatively as we walk back towards the main square, Tess suddenly stops. ‘We forgot the two-flavour rule!’

    ‘What’s the two-flavour rule?’

    ‘If you get three flavours, for some reason, you only end up tasting two of them, so Doll and I worked out it would be better to have two flavours, three times a day, not three flavours twice.’

    She’s right. My first taste of mirtillo was like eating the pure distillation of blueberry, but I cannot now tell the difference between the mandarin and passionfruit.

    ‘Let’s finish these,’ I suggest. ‘Have a glass of water to refresh our palates, then go back.’

    ‘You’re my kind of guy!’ she laughs.

    Do you mean it? Are you feeling what I’m feeling? I keep getting little rushes of excitement, tiny bursts of adrenaline zinging through my limbs, making me light-headed with happiness and nerves all at the same time.

    ‘I never got to see the Uffizi,’ Tess says, as we walk past the entrance to the gallery. ‘There was such a queue, and my friend could only stand so much art in a day.’

    I look at my watch.

    ‘We have time to see one painting.’

    ‘Botticelli’s Primavera?’

    I point. ‘There’s no queue.’

    The ticket office is closing. I thrust a couple of twenty-euro notes at the bewildered attendant, and we run up the stairs to the room where I remember the Botticellis hang.

    ‘Oh my God! The ceilings!’ says Tess, as we dash along the corridor. ‘Nobody even tells you about the ceilings!’

    We find the room containing two of the most famous paintings in the world and a disconsolate attendant who thought he was finished for the day.

    ‘There’s so much going on in this painting, you could look at it all day and still see things,’ says Tess, stepping as close as she can to the Primavera.

    ‘There are five hundred species of plant and over a hundred different flowers,’ I remember.

    ‘You counted them?’

    I laugh. ‘No, I read it!’

    ‘It’s so huge!’ she says. ‘I had no idea it was this big. I’ve got the poster, but it’s only about a metre wide. The colours are not like other paintings, are they? There’s so much green. It’s like a religious painting and a pagan painting all at the same time, don’t you think? If you think of Venus as Our Lady, these gods are like the saints . . . Honestly, you could look at it for a month, couldn’t you? Hey, what’s this?’

    She moves on to The Birth of Venus on the adjacent wall, fascinated by the small bas-relief in front of the picture. ‘This must be for blind people to see the painting with,’ she says. ‘Like a Braille painting. Isn’t that cool?’

    We take turns to close our eyes and feel.

    ‘When blind people imagine the painting this way, do you think their brains make pictures, like our brains do when we’re asleep, even though we have our eyes closed?’ Tess asks.

    With her commentary, I feel as if I am seeing everything for the first time.

    ‘Do you think we’ll ever know what it’s like to be someone else?’ She asks questions that most people of our age have grown too jaded to think about.

    The attendant clears his throat for the umpteenth time.

    ‘I think we know that he wants to go home,’ I whisper.

    We leave the room and walk along the empty gallery to the windows at the far end that overlook the river.

    ‘I suppose that’s what writers try to do.’ Tess continues her theme. ‘Be inside someone else . . .’

    ‘And portrait painters,’ I say.

    ‘Did you know that there’s a passageway full of portraits of artists that runs along the side of the Ponte Vecchio?’ Tess gestures towards the bridge. ‘It’s called the Vasari corridor. I read about it on one of the websites.’

    She points to a row of square windows above the shops that I never noticed before.

    ‘It leads from here to the Palazzo Pitti, so the Florentine lords and ladies didn’t have to mix with the hoi polloi, I suppose.’

    ‘Is it open to the public?’

    ‘I think you have to book months in advance,’ she says.

    ‘I’d love to do that.’

    ‘Me too!’

    Is she thinking, as I am, that there is something going on between us that’s bigger than here, now, today?

    Under the colonnade outside, street artists are sketching tourists.

    ‘Have you ever been tempted?’ I ask Tess, as we stop for a moment to watch.

    ‘No way! When I see myself in the mirror I think I’m OK, but in photos I always look terrible, and the camera never lies, does it? This would be worse!’

    ‘I’d love to draw you.’

    ‘Can you draw?’ She gives me a sceptical look.

    ‘A bit.’

    ‘A man of many talents!’ she says. ‘Cooking, drawing! Gus, you could make a fortune here! What you should do is move to Italy, set up a restaurant and draw people, like Van Gogh did. There was this exhibition of his letters at the Royal Academy. Did you see it? I mean, I don’t think Van Gogh cooked the food, but he painted all the people in the bar. It would make a brilliant TV series, wouldn’t it? You could call it The Art of Italian Cooking, or has there already been one called that?’

    A busker is playing jazz clarinet on the Ponte Vecchio and the cobbles are packed with tourists.

    ‘Let’s do a selfie,’ says Tess. ‘And send it to Doll and see if she guesses who you are!’

    She puts one arm around me, her face close to mine, holds her phone as far away as she can.

    ‘Say cheese!’


    In the photo, our eyes are closed because we’re laughing, so we have to do another one, and as we’re checking it, her arm stays around my back, and when we look up from the screen, our eyes meet and I badly want to kiss her.

    ‘Do you think that’s enough time?’ she says.


    ‘Before our next gelato?’

    I love that she says ‘next’, as if we have a whole evening of eating ice cream ahead of us.

    I freeze.

    ‘What?’ she asks.

    ‘I’m meant to be cooking supper!’

    Tess looks at her watch. ‘I’ve only gone and missed the minibus!’

    ‘OK,’ I say, ‘so, we have a choice: a) we can take a cab up to Piazzale Michelangelo and drive like Italians to arrive back late for supper? or b) we can spend a relaxed evening wandering around the city . . .’

    With phones and cameras clicking all around us, this moment will appear in the background of a thousand Instagram feeds.

    ‘I think we should probably let them know where we are,’ Tess says.

    My momentary disappointment that she hasn’t said b) turns to joy when I realize she has.

    I struggle through a difficult conversation with Lucrezia by pretending to understand less of her broken English than I do, and when I hang up, Tess looks at me anxiously.

    ‘Chef is very crazy,’ I tell her. ‘The Culture group do not enjoy waiting one hour in a bus very hot. Everyone is interesting for our safety . . . however, we pay our money . . .’

    ‘So we can do what we like!’ says Tess. ‘It’s supposed to be a holiday, isn’t it?’

    Apparently, Doll would love to hear that we’re sitting in Piazza Signoria drinking Aperol Spritzes.

    ‘She thinks it tastes better if you’ve paid more,’ Tess says.

    We send Doll another selfie, from the cafe table. And I’m trying to imagine this woman, who is so important to Tess, but I can’t remember at all, and hoping that she likes the look of me as these pictures ping into her inbox.

    ‘You know,’ I say, taking a sip, ‘I think Doll’s right!’

    It’s so easy to make Tess smile, and yet each time it’s like an unexpected gift.

    I keep wanting to say something like, ‘Do you know how gorgeous you are?’ and I have to keep telling myself that I’m thirty-four years old, not a teenager.

    ‘Do you have a pencil?’ I ask her.

    She burrows about in her bag and then produces a stub of one.

    I take a paper napkin from the holder on the table and start sketching.

    She runs her fingers through her fine curls, tries to hold a serious face.

    I’m finding it impossible to capture her. I remember sketching Lucy, seeing her as a doll whose expression never changed, but the essence of Tess’s beauty is in her vitality. It’s why she doesn’t take a good photo. But the camera does lie.

    ‘Stay still!’ I tell her.

    Perhaps it’s my parental tone that makes her suddenly ask, ‘Are you married?’

    ‘No,’ I say, then, not wanting to deceive with a half-truth, ‘I’m divorced. My ex lives in Geneva with my two girls. It’s a long story.’

    ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ says Tess, picking up her neon-orange drink and taking a slurp through her straw.

    ‘What about you?’

    ‘Me? No. It’s quite a short story in that department.’ She leans over the table, trying to see how the sketch is going.

    ‘Is that really how I look?’

    ‘Not exactly.’

    ‘Told you!’ she says. ‘Can I keep it?’

    ‘Of course!’

    ‘I’m going to put it in my notebook,’ she says. ‘Otherwise, knowing me, I’ll be fishing around in my bag for a tissue and I’ll blow my nose on it or something!’

    She puts the napkin carefully between the centre pages.

    ‘What are you writing?’ I ask.

    ‘Kind of a memoir,’ she says. ‘But I seem to have come to a bit of a standstill.’

    ‘Do you have a deadline?’

    ‘Not a real one,’ she says, then excuses herself to go to the toilet.

    I watch her weaving towards the cafe, ducking her head under the yellow parasols.

    I call the waiter over and ask him to recommend a good restaurant, trying to indicate, in a man-to-man kind of way, that I want to impress, but sounding like a dodgy character from The Godfather.

    Una persona molto importante, capisce?’

    When I produce a twenty-euro note, he suddenly remembers the best restaurant in Florence, and makes a personal mobile phone call to reserve a table.

    As Tess walks back towards us, he says, ‘Bellissima, la signorina!’ and winks at me.

    ‘To be honest, after all that ice cream, I’d be just as happy wandering round with a slice of pizza,’ says Tess. ‘It’s a shame to sit in a restaurant, isn’t it, when you’re somewhere like this?’

    My plan to impress her with a good bottle of Chianti and a rare Florentine steak so enormous they charge for it by the kilo vanishes so quickly I can’t think why I even considered trapping her at a candlelit table with a disapproving waiter shaking a linen napkin over her long, bare legs.

    We amble aimlessly together along cobbled streets on the other, less touristy, side of the Arno, where old women dressed in black sit on kitchen chairs outside their doors, chatting to their neighbours. The air is full of the smell and sizzle of frying garlic and the clink and clank of unseen mothers preparing the family supper.

    ‘We never discovered this bit,’ Tess says, as we enter a square with a little park in the centre. She gazes up at the floodlit facade of the church, with the same look of wonder on her face that I saw at the Stones concert at the weekend, and in San Miniato al Monte this afternoon, and half our lives ago.

    ‘I think it’s the student area,’ I tell her.

    There is a tiny merry-go-round for toddlers under the plane trees and a slow procession of young couples with prams, and older women linking arms for the evening passegiata. The air is balmy, the mood mellow.

    We sit down at a table outside a little pizzeria. The waiter lights the candle on our table, brings us a cylindrical pot of grissini, and takes our order.

    ‘Last time I was here, I was going to be a student,’ Tess tells me, breaking a bread stick in half as she stares at the group of young people gathered on the church steps around a guitarist. ‘I had my room booked in hall and my poster of Botticelli’s Primavera all ready to stick on the wall.’

    ‘What happened?’ I ask, as the waiter brings us a quarto of red wine and pizzas twice as large as the boards they are served on.

    ‘When I got home, everything changed.’

    The food remains virtually untouched as she tells me about her mother dying and having to look after her little sister. She pauses after describing her mother’s funeral in a way that’s funny and sad at the same time, and says, ‘You’ll know how it is, with your brother dying young. You never get over it, do you, whatever people say? You get used to it, but the missing never stops.’

    I stare at the flickering candle, wondering if I am as honest as she is. I know that I have to tell her the truth, because this attraction, this connection, whatever it is that draws me to her, will not allow me to dissemble.

    ‘The thing is, I didn’t like my brother much. I didn’t want him to die, obviously, but I couldn’t seem to feel much, except guilt.’

    Tess is quiet for so long I’m convinced that I have ruined everything.

    ‘I think it was probably worse for you, Gus,’ she finally says. ‘Not that it’s a competition or anything. I mean, I wish Mum hadn’t died, but I always knew that she loved me, and she knew that I loved her. But now you’re left with thinking you hated him, and he hated you, because that’s how brothers are – I’ve got two myself – and you never got the chance to become men together, and find out if you could be friends.’

    Would Ross and I ever have been friends? The idea’s never occurred to me.

    ‘Everyone who’s left behind feels guilty,’ says Tess. ‘I loved my mum to bits, but I still tortured myself with all the stuff I could have done to change things. If only I’d recognized the signs, if only I hadn’t been away, if only I hadn’t been so wrapped up in going to bloody university as if that was the most important thing in the world. But you can’t live your life thinking if only, can you? That’s easy to say.’

    I stare down at the table and Tess leans towards me, her face tilted slightly sideways, as if she’s trying to get under my line of sight and make me look up, like you do if you want to get a smile out of a grumpy child.

    ‘Two words?’ she says.

    ‘Another gelato?’


    One minute, we’re chatting away as if we’ve known each other all our lives, the next, silent as if we’ve just met. Both of those are true, I suppose. As we retrace our route, I feel very aware of his physical presence beside me, our hands almost, but not quite, touching.

    ‘So where did you go to medical school?’ I ask him.

    ‘University College.’

    ‘But that’s where I was going!’ I yell, as if he’s snatched something that was mine. ‘Where did you live?’ I ask, more politely.

    He tells me about arriving in hall with his parents, wanting to create a new identity for himself and about meeting his friend Nash, who got the room next door due to a last-minute cancellation.

    ‘Do you think that was my room?’ I ask, as we step onto the Ponte Vecchio again.

    ‘That would be weird, wouldn’t it?’

    The shops are boarded up now, the buskers have gone home. We lean against the wall beneath the arches that support the Vasari corridor where powerful people used to stroll along above and unseen by the common folk.

    ‘Do you think we’d have got on then?’ Gus stares down at the Arno.

    It looks better at night, more romantic. During the day it’s muddy brown, but now it’s oily black with shimmering reflections of the lamps along the riverbank.

    My instinct is probably not, if I’m honest. He was a public-school boy with middle-class parents. He’d have seen me as a chav, and I’d have been chippy, thinking I wasn’t good enough for him, which maybe I’m not. All we had in common then was a love of art and ice cream. Would that have been enough?

    ‘Mum used to say that you can’t step in the same river twice,’ I tell him. ‘And I was never sure what that meant, but maybe it’s that if we’d met then, we wouldn’t have been here together now. You wouldn’t even have been “Gus” without Nash!’

    ‘Like chaos theory.’ He turns to look at me. ‘If a single butterfly flaps its wings on the other side of the planet, it sets in motion a chain of events that could lead to a thunderstorm . . .’

    ‘Or a rainbow,’ I say, because it doesn’t have to be something bad.

    There’s a moment of silence, then we straighten up, our bodies so close and trembly it’s like there’s an electric current zinging between us. He stares into my eyes, then his hands cup my face as if it’s a precious and delicate vase and his lips touch mine for a fraction of a second before drawing away. He looks at me for what feels like forever, and then he kisses me deeply, eyes closed, as if he’s giving himself to me in prayer, and his lips are so gentle and expert that my body is warm candlewax melting onto him.

    He takes my hand as we walk from the bridge, both of us grinning all over our faces.

    The streets are surprisingly empty, the restaurants closed. We arrive at the Gelateria dei Neri just as the proprietor is winding down the shutters for the night. Gus chooses nocciola and lemon, and it’s fior di latte and pear for me. We wend our way back to the Duomo square. The floodlights make the facade of the cathedral look flat, like a giant stage set with nothing behind. There is no one else around and it feels as if the lights are on just for us, as if we’ve been granted a private VIP visit.

    When I say this, Gus kisses me again. I keep my eyes open, because I want to fix an image in my memory of his face with the pastel stripes of the Campanile behind.

    A couple of teenagers on skateboards appear from nowhere, circling us and jeering what I assume is the Italian for ‘Get a room!’ Then they’re gone.

    ‘The hotel where we stayed,’ Gus points. ‘It’s just down there.’


    There’s a moment when I know we’re both thinking the same thing.

    ‘We should probably go back to Vinci . . . ?’ he says, like it’s a question.

    ‘We probably should,’ I say.

    It’s the same taxi journey that I took up to Piazzale Michelangelo six hours ago, but the axis of my life has shifted, my quiet hymn of nostalgia replaced by a crescendo of anticipation that thrills and scares me, in case l accidentally jinx what might be happening by believing it.

    In the car park, as we stand looking at the floodlit Duomo, now distant against the black sky, I suddenly shiver with a kind of presentiment that I must capture every precise detail in my mind because I’ll never see this view again.

    ‘I don’t want to leave!’ My voice wobbles.

    Gus throws a protective arm around me, pulling me close. I love the way my head rests against his shoulder because he’s so tall.

    ‘We can always come back,’ he says.

    ‘Can we?’

    ‘Every day, if you like. Or we can visit other places. We’ve got the car. We can use the Villa Vinciana as our base.’

    ‘A bit like camping,’ I say. ‘Without the stones in your back and the walk to the loo, obviously . . .’

    I can almost hear Doll shouting, ‘What are you like?’

    ‘I want to know more about Hope,’ Gus says, as he starts the car.

    So I tell him about what a funny, obstinate little girl she was, and how I never knew if I was doing right by her, and how living with her made me aware of all the lies everyone tells all the time just to make the world go round, and how difficult she could be, and how musical she was, and that leads me on to Dave.

    So then Gus tells me about Lucy, and how she made him feel more secure and helped him stay the course, and how he didn’t tell her about his brother, and that leads him on to Charlotte.

    Gus is concentrating on the motorway, which is two lanes only, with a concrete wall instead of a central reservation, but sometimes it’s easier to talk when you’re not looking at the other person’s face. He takes the slip road off at Empoli Est, and we drive around a deserted town for a while, before he admits that he thinks he’s taken the wrong exit, and now we’re lost. He stops the car in a side street, and tries to switch on the satnav, managing to change it from Italian to some other language, we think maybe Russian, but instead of finding it funny, he is agitated and grabs my hand, staring at me with such intensity, I’m almost frightened.

    ‘Do you hate me now?’ he demands.

    ‘Why would I hate you?’

    ‘Because you’re such an honest person, and I behaved so badly!’

    ‘I don’t hate you,’ I say. Then, ‘I’m not always honest.’

    I tell him about Leo, as we drive around the one-way system again and again, until, eventually, Gus spots the sign to Vinci and we climb up out of the town into hills with no light, on a road with steep, unexpected bends.

    When the headlights catch the hand-painted sign to the Villa Vinciana, a part of me is relieved that we’ve found our way back, but mostly I wish he would drive on past, because the inside of the car feels almost like a confessional, where we can say anything to each other and there is no escape from the truth. But we haven’t quite reached the end of our stories.

    The car bounces down the unmade track, and we swerve into the car park with a spattering of gravel. Gus pulls up the handbrake and switches off the headlights, leaving us in total darkness. The silence seems charged with all the questions we might have asked while driving along but now feel too personal.

    ‘So you became a writer?’ he says.

    ‘Only in my spare time. For years everyone kept saying, when Hope settles, but nobody ever thought it would happen, so when it did, I felt I hadn’t done anything, and that’s when I started writing this book. To give my life a kind of validity. And I suppose part of me thinks that it will be nice for Hope to have a record, if she ever wants to know about her past, although, to be honest, it would be so unlike her . . .’

    There’s a long silence, and I’m wondering whether he has understood the subtext.

    ‘So you became a doctor, after all?’ I ask.

    ‘Yes. I have to keep up payments on our house, so it can be the girls’ home for as long as they want. Although, this last visit, I wasn’t sure they did any more. Which is probably a good thing, like you say. You have to find it in yourself to let people you love be independent of you.’ He laughs ruefully. ‘I just wish it hadn’t happened so soon.’

    ‘Where is your house?’ I ask.

    ‘Portobello Road.’

    ‘Portobello Road?’

    ‘At the top, near the Sun in Splendour.’

    ‘One of those little houses all painted different colours?’

    ‘Yes!’ he says. ‘Do you know Portobello Road?’

  3. mukul

    mukul Kazirhut Lover Member

    Aug 5, 2012
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    My girls had tattoo transfers applied in the shop she manages; she slows down each time she runs past my house; we have had coffee in the same cafe almost every morning for two years, but somehow she has never bumped into me, spilling her latte.

    ‘I had to pass out to get you to notice me, for heaven’s sake!’

    In London there’s so much light you can never see the stars, but here it is so dark, the sky is a black-velvet canopy studded with myriad diamonds.

    ‘Do you think,’ Tess asks, as we stand gazing up at it, ‘that if we all had a kind of tracker device, a tiny light that you could see from space, then everyone’s paths would loop and intertwine as ours have?’

    ‘No. I think this is m . . . mysterious.’

    I was going to say that it is meant to be, but I heard Charlotte’s supercilious voice saying, ‘Are things really meant to be?’ and she has no place here.


    ‘Miraculous?’ I offer instead.

    ‘“Miraculous” is a lovely word,’ says Tess.

    We are both trembling as we kiss because it feels like there is so much more at stake now we know all of each other’s hopes and transgressions.

    Tess tastes of pears and cream and when I close my eyes, her smile stays in my vision like the moment when a rainbow fades, but you still think it is there.

    Not far away, an owl hoots.

    ‘Can I hold your hand?’ Tess asks, as we pick our way across the uneven ground.

    ‘Those bloody flip-flops!’

    ‘I forgot to pack shoes, which is unlike me, but I was in such a rush not to miss my plane.’

    If she had missed it, would we be here now? Would she have taken the next flight? Would we have arrived at San Miniato al Monte at the same moment? The connection between us feels inevitable, and yet so fragile.

    We kiss again on the stone staircase up to her room, and as we break for breath and I tug her up the steps, she loses a flip-flop. We watch it bouncing down, and then we hear footsteps approaching, so we dash along the landing, spilling Tess’s keys, then rattling them incompetently in the old iron lock before finally bursting in, just in time to shut the door decisively behind us before we are discovered. With our backs against the door, we hold our breath like escaped prisoners on the run, until the footsteps pass by.

    In the darkness, my hands find Tess’s hands; my mouth her mouth, my skin her skin. Our desire is so frenzied, it feels as if we are trying to climb inside each other’s bodies, as if we are surrendering ourselves completely to one another, as if it is the last thing we will ever do.

    When I wake up, the room is dimly lit by splinters of sunshine piercing the slats of the shutters. Tess is asleep beside me, dark curls against the white pillow. It is strange to see her features so still and peaceful; almost more intimate to watch her sleeping than to kiss her awake.

    Carefully, I slide out from under the sheet, and pulling on my shorts, tiptoe to the door, letting myself out without a sound.

    The terrace is still silent and deserted, but the breakfast buffet is laid out. I fill my pockets with pastries and fruit. Chef collars me at the coffee machine.

    ‘Mi dispiace,’ I say. ‘Non posso lavorare . . . una cosa molto importante . . .’

    I’m sorry, I can’t work . . . a very important thing.

    It would probably have been better to say it in English.

    Chef looks at the two tiny cups I am filling, then winks at me. ‘Amore!’

    He is Italian. He understands about important things.

    On my way back to the room, I pick up Tess’s flip-flop at the bottom of the stairs.

    I realize I should have taken the key, because I’m going to have to wake her anyway.

    I tap softly on the door.

    ‘Who is it?’

    She sounds anxious. Surely she didn’t think I would sneak out and leave her?

    ‘It’s me!’

    ‘Password!’ she demands, with a nervous giggle in her voice.


    She unlocks the ancient wooden door, then dashes back to bed, pulling the sheet right up to cover her naked body.

    With the espresso cups balanced on the sole of the flip-flop like a miniature breakfast tray, I place one on each side of the bed, then feed Tess a strawberry, and bend to kiss her strawberry-wet mouth. As she smiles up at me, words that have been fizzing like champagne bubbles in my body ever since I stood beside her in the sunshine outside San Miniato al Monte suddenly whoosh to my lips.

    ‘I think I love you!’

    Her response is beautiful, innocent disbelief, like a child on Christmas morning.

    ‘I don’t just think I love you! I do love you! I love you!’ It makes me madly happy to say it. ‘You have the most amazing mind, the most gorgeous body . . .’

    ‘No!’ Suddenly, she holds up her hand and turns away, staring beyond the shuttered window, as if looking at a distant view.


    ‘My breasts aren’t real!’

    ‘I know.’

    She whips round to face me.

    ‘You knew I had breast cancer?’

    You’re writing a memoir and you’re only thirty-four!

    ‘Last night . . .’ I falter. ‘I could feel the scarring . . . and with your family history . . .’

    The heavenly room has become a GP surgery. I try to take her hand, but she snatches it away, then, her eyes fixed on mine, lets the sheet drop.

    In the thin stripes of sunlight falling across her chest, the incision lines are a little pinker and shinier than her natural skin tone. If there is a right thing to say, I don’t know what it is. I long to reassure her that it doesn’t make any difference, but I suspect that might make it sound like it does, so I just refuse to look away.

    ‘They do look real, don’t they?’ she finally asks. ‘Under a T-shirt?’


    ‘They’re much smaller than my original ones. I was always a bit top heavy, to be honest. A swimmer’s build, you know?’

    I nod.

    ‘So, is it OK if I love you?’ I ask.

    She thinks for a moment.

    ‘I suppose it must be,’ she smiles, and sinks back into the pillows, her eyes now sparkling with invitation.

    I lie on the bed beside her, propping myself up on an elbow.

    ‘I love you, Tess.’ I stroke her face. ‘I’ve never said that to anyone and known what it means.’

    ‘I love you, too, Gus. And I have said it to two people, and I did mean it, but that was before yesterday . . . before I found you.’

    I kiss her quickly.

    ‘It’s funny, isn’t it?’ she says. ‘We have dictionaries full of amazing words, and yet the only phrase human beings have come up with to express their singular and infinite passion is three tiny, inadequate syllables?’

    ‘Singular and infinite passion’ is nine syllables, I think.

    She reaches up to me with open arms, and as we kiss lingeringly it feels as if our souls are meeting and making solemn promises. I clasp her very tightly, trying to gather the very essence of her into me, and we begin to make love again, noiselessly – aware of other guests passing our door on their way down to breakfast – speaking without words, staring into each other’s eyes, touching with silent, excruciating tenderness. I love feeling every millimetre of her long, lean body pressed against mine, I love that when she’s close to orgasm she suddenly laughs with the joy of it. I love that we reach beyond the sensual oblivion of pleasure, to a paradise place of pure, ecstatic happiness.

    We both suddenly freeze as we register the sharp, regular tap of heels approaching.

    There is a knock at the door.

    Fused together, we hold our breath.

    ‘Signorina Costello?’ Lucrezia’s stern voice.

    ‘Yes?’ Tess answers guiltily.

    ‘Do you know where is Mister Goos? His car she block the miniboos.’

    Neither of us replies because we’re stuffing the sheet into our mouths to stifle the laughter.


    If there’s one place in the world you should go to on the day you fall in love, it’s Pisa.

    We approach it through a stretch of souvenir market that looks like a hundred other tourist spots. There’s this big fortified wall, so we can’t see anything until we walk through the arch, but then it’s like a vision of brilliant white marble, on flat green lawns, against a cerulean sky. I thought it was just the Leaning Tower, because that’s all you see in the photos, but there’s a cathedral and baptistry and cloisters, a whole amazing square of beauty. The colours are so luminous they look computer generated, and then you think about the people who built it, all those hundreds of years ago, before there was electricity or cranes or anything like that. That must be why it’s called the Campo dei Miracoli. The Field of Miracles.

    The Leaning Tower looks as if it’s peeping round the side of the cathedral. The notice which gives you the history says that when it was first built it was considered such a failure of architecture that nobody wanted to claim it as theirs. So we don’t even know the name of the person who created something that millions of visitors come to see each year.

    There’s a line of tourists taking photographs of their friends striking poses to make it look as if they’re holding the tower up.

    ‘Let’s do one!’

    I stand with my hand in the air and Gus lines up the shot. I’m about to send it to Doll, when he says, ‘Why don’t we take one of all these people from the other side, without the tower in it, and see if she guesses where we are?’

    Which is a great idea, and she doesn’t reply, so that’s probably got her wondering.

    We sit on the grass, like hundreds of others, although the signs say not to.

    A white butterfly flits randomly from one small blade to another. I try to take a photo of it, white against the green grass, white against the blue sky, but it never settles for long enough.

    A couple of backpackers approach us, holding out their camera to request a snap in front of the cathedral. The marble is as white and lacy as a wedding dress, and the tiers are like an intricately iced cake. At the apex of the roof, there is a golden statue of the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus in her arms.

    The couple smile their thanks as I hand them back the camera.

    ‘Do you think people can get married here?’ I pull Gus to his feet to take a selfie of us with the Duomo.

    I honestly don’t mean anything by it.

    ‘Shall we?’ he says.

    We look at the selfie. The cathedral is perfectly framed, and I’ve managed to get all of the golden statue, but only the tops of our heads.

    So we do another one and I’m about to send it to Doll when Gus asks, ‘Tess, did you hear what I just said?’

    I pretend to be concentrating on the message when he gently prises the phone from my hand.

    ‘Will you marry me?’ he says.

    ‘I can’t!’

    ‘Do you want me to go down on one knee?’

    ‘No, please don’t! I like you being tall!’

    And I can’t bear the idea of this moment appearing in the background of other people’s photos.

    ‘We’ve only known each other two days . . .’

    ‘No, Tess,’ he says, very seriously. ‘We met when we were eighteen, but there was this tiny shift in fate and we kept missing each other. I know that sounds cheesy, but I can’t think of another way of putting it. All I know is these last twenty-four hours have felt like a whole lifetime of how life should be. I’ve never been sure of anything, Tess, but I am certain about this.’

    I try to focus on the purity of the white against the clarity of the blue in order to hold back the tears that are blurring my vision. But, when I speak, my voice is steady, because I’m not going to lie, and I’m not going to feel sorry for myself either, because this is actually the best day of my life.

    ‘The thing is,’ I begin. ‘The thing is, they got rid of my breast cancer, but I’ve had a couple of dizzy spells recently, so they want to scan my brain to see if there’s a secondary tumour, and that’s why I’m here in Italy now, because when I get back, that’s what’s happening, and believe me, you do not want to be around for chemotherapy, and the likelihood is I’m going to go bonkers, then die!’

    ‘No,’ he says firmly. ‘There are lots of reasons you could have fainted. It was hot at that concert. You’re still very thin and weak after your op. Look, I’ve got a friend who’s a brilliant oncologist and he will see you straight away. He’ll make sure you have the best treatment. And I will look after you. Whatever happens. I promise I will look after you.’

    I squeeze his hand very hard, trying to impress the reality on him.

    ‘Mum died. She got a scan every year, but she still died.’

    ‘But you may not,’ he says.

    I’m not sure whether he’s talking about probability or whether he’s forbidding it, but I love it that he doesn’t tell me that I’ll be fine if I fight hard enough.

    ‘This is our beginning, Tess,’ he says.

    ‘It’s not that I’ve given up,’ I tell him. ‘But the thing is, the cancer doesn’t actually take any notice of that . . .’

    He smiles at me, his blue-and-gold eyes shining with compassion.

    ‘Marry me!’ he says. ‘Or if you don’t want marriage, just be with me. “Come live with me and be my love!” Let’s move to Italy! What’s to stop us? I’ll put the house on the market! It’ll sell in a day. The girls can visit just as easily. And Hope, too, if she’d like that. I’ll cook good, healthy food. Maybe even start a supper club!’

    ‘Or we could stay in the Portobello Road?’ I say.

    ‘Or we could stay in the Portobello Road,’ he agrees.

    ‘I don’t want it to feel like we’re running away . . .’

    ‘We won’t run away.’

    ‘But we may not have much time,’ I say.

    ‘Nobody knows how much time they have, do they?’ he says.

    I look up at the golden statue of Our Lady, and I suddenly think of how Mum must have felt after her first cancer, with Hope just a baby. And even though the title I’ve given my book is Living with Hope, I’ve never known before why Mum gave my sister that name. I always assumed it was because there was something different about Hope, and Mum was worried about her, but I realize now that she couldn’t have seen that then, not when Hope was a newborn. It’s suddenly radiantly clear to me that ‘hope’ was all about not allowing cancer to cast a shadow over living.

    I’m standing in glorious sunshine on the Field of Miracles and I have this powerful feeling that my mum is close and she’s smiling because I’ve finally got it.

    ‘I’ve found myself a kind man, Mum, a man who understands who I am,’ I tell her silently, as a white butterfly flits around us, like confetti dancing on the air.
  4. mukul

    mukul Kazirhut Lover Member

    Aug 5, 2012
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    বন পাথারে
    Bangladesh Bangladesh
    The End.
  5. kazi mainu

    kazi mainu Senior Member Member

    Nov 10, 2014
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    Bangladesh Bangladesh
    great share. thnx.

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