The man at the next table asked for tap water as though it was a special virtue and in a voice far louder than the one he’d used ordering wine. Self-satisfied twit, Rose thought, as under the table she eased her swollen feet from her shoes.
She’d already asked the waiter for San Pellegrino and her feet ached along with the rest of her, enough to make her despise everyone there. The couple in the window had brought their baby along, its plastic rattle too. A vegetarian restaurant. How typical of Anna to have picked it. Rose couldn’t remember wanting to sink her teeth into a steak quite so much before in her life.
She’d eaten her way through a whole bowlful of flaccid olives, she’d even started to pick at the salt crystals in their little bowl; soon there would be only pepper left to sustain her.
Rose called for some bread but lacked confidence in the waiter. Incy Wincy Spider incessantly, and percussively, climbed the waterspout. She checked her watch. Officially late. Anna, you always had to shout at her. Rose stemmed a wave of sudden panic that maybe she wouldn’t turn up at all. Anna, the one to hide just one of her shoes in the attic, or go missing herself, just at the point that everyone was trying not to miss the bus.
Infuriating of the girl to have suggested somewhere so unpeaceful. Rose longed to be back in Italy, free of this dismal place and the burden she was in it to deliver. It was more than a prophecy, weightier than a hunch; it came with statistics that hung like a bag of nails in her heart and still no sign of Anna, annoying girl that she’d always been.
How ugly the people were. Tap water man had the sort of looks that made her think that his own birth might not have been a pleasant one: eyes close together in a head shaped like a hillock, flock of dark hair taking flight; and his wife neat as a tulip, probably put her pale clothes on fresh from the packet each morning.
The special of the day was haloumi cheese pretending to be chip-shop fish. Chunky chips. Mushy peas. Her stomach made an embarrassingly enthusiastic gurgle. She’d order that, should Anna ever deign to appear. Always missing. Too often missing from Rose’s memories. ‘Mama? What’s wrong?’ She hadn’t noticed her come in and the breath of her made her jump. She’d been busy eavesdropping on tap water couple, who were on the brink of an argument. Anna was a sprite on her feet, scruffy Balinese slippers, too thin; a bit of a mess as usual, all angles like Jimmy, hair roughly scrunched into a band. Rose didn’t mean to cry, hurriedly blotted a couple of tears with the end of her sleeve.
‘You have given me the fright of my life!’ Anna fired at her before they’d caught their breath. ‘Why so urgent?’ ‘I’ll tell you,’ she said.
They pecked each other’s cheeks, left and right, a courtly dance. They almost hugged: they both thought about it then let their arms fall.
As they pulled the chairs back their eyes met for the first time in over a year: Anna’s big and grey, sad always, even when she smiled. Rose’s sadder still because she couldn’t look at Anna without seeing how her future lay, the darkness of the pit that she would fall into.
‘What’s the big mystery?’ Anna’s elbows sharp as she rolled up the sleeves of an oddly shapeless garment, rubbing her long forearms. ‘What are you doing turning up here like this?’
Rose pulled her knitted collar closer around her neck; the sight of Anna almost made her shiver. Anna so wraithlike: as a child she could disappear into thin air. One hot day, all playing hide and seek in the vineyard, they’d lost her for an entire afternoon, shouted themselves hoarse. It was almost dark when she reappeared and she never told them where she’d been.
‘Is everyone all right? Is Massimo OK?’ Rose nodded. ‘Of course Massimo’s all right,’ she said, blowing her nose on the napkin and wondering if a secret part of Anna hoped that he wouldn’t be. ‘He still gets out for a walk every day.’
Massimo, the marauding Roman who’d leapt into Jimmy’s shoes too soon after his death, and dragged them all off across the sea to his lair. It was easy to imagine that they might see him like that. Especially this suspicious daughter winding the loop of her shoulder bag around the back of her chair, in case it should be stolen. Little Anna who came running back and saw how Massimo kissed her when he walked her from Jimmy’s grave. Anna was apologising for being late, something to do with her work. The row on the next table was reaching its crescendo: ‘Life would be a lot easier if you didn’t keep having to go abroad all the bloody time,’ Mr Tap Water’s wife said in a whiney voice, like a child. ‘Stop staring!’ Anna hissed.
Abroad all the bloody time was precisely where Rose wanted to be; she was chilled to the marrow as only the English seaside could make her. She longed to be in the warm folds of her house in Castagnola, the soft earth with its smell of the forest, the river just starting to flow, the leaves falling, Massimo’s pipe smoke, an elegant decay all around. All she’d ever wished was that her girls should marry Italians.
‘Food first, we need to order.’ Rose held up a finger, silencing Anna’s questions. ‘Talk after that.’ The least she could do was to try to feed the poor thing up. Anna made her think of a bedraggled pigeon. Anna bent her head to study the menu and Rose thought at first that she was mistaken by the silver glintings in the looped-up nest of hair, just one or two here and there. She didn’t feel ready to be the mother of a daughter whose hair was going grey.
Anna recommended a salad, typically for one so thin. ‘I wish they wouldn’t employ people like him,’ Rose said as the waiter approached. ‘It could put people off their dinner.’
Anna stared at her. ‘Don’t you care if he hears you?’ Her daughter’s disapproval, sharp as a slap. Rose could feel her cheeks going red already and her bones almost ached to be in front of the fire in Castagnola.
There was that English saying, wasn’t there? A girl’s your daughter for the rest of her life. A boy’s your son until he finds a wife. Rose snorted at the injustice. Anna was stuck, had been since she was a little slip of eighteen, clinging like a barnacle to the underside of this grim seaside town. Rose hated its Victorian pretensions: the fallacy of ornamental piping on facades hiding stacked-up bedsits and rising damp.
These dreary and unfortunate Isles held nothing but bad memories. The dusty smell of the rain and lumpy stew with strings of gristle, the sting of a slipper, slam of a door, a dank room with a carved crucifix on the wall. Her first husband, Jimmy, and three little tots to bear witness to his slow yellowing, until sinew was all that separated skin and bones. He looked like he was being crucified, silently screaming, as the children hung on her arms, her thighs, always someone on her lap, almost bruising her they clung so hard, and his refusal to give in right up to the end, the way his ghost’s hand still pushed away the morphine. England: like a bad dream. The repulsive waiter brought their food, long shoes slapping across the floor, pale and slightly sweaty as though he’d been poaching too long in his own juices.
Anna was wearing dark leggings with a shapeless flappy wool thing and a thin grey T-shirt through which her breasts poked like little mushrooms. At least there wouldn’t be much to miss, Rose thought grimly. ‘What is the dreadful thing you’ve discovered?’ Anna pulled at the sleeves of the thin woolly, reminding Rose how hard she’d always been on her clothes as a child. ‘You’ve found out who your parents were, is that it?’
Rose nodded, pulled at her own more substantial cardigan.
‘And it’s not good news.’
Anna said she knew that much. She’d already spoken to her sister. ‘I know when Tilda’s trying not to cry, I could hear how she kept having to swallow.’ Fresh tears came stinging to Rose’s eyes and she had to dab them again, just to have a thought of Tilda. How carefree she’d been, only last night, dancing around with that putto of hers before Rose had come crashing in and ruined everything with her news. Tilda, so warm and oily from her bath. The naked baby boy on her hip, a regular cherub, the pair of them like Titian’s Madonna and Child. The smooth glow of her skin, all gleaming curves; God preserve. Tilda calling to her, their arms entwined, cherub and all. The sweet baby smell of her skin. ‘Mama’ being whispered in her ear.
Anna was pushing some sprouted things around her plate; there were small ladders at the seams of her flappy jumper, she always had looked like she was falling to bits. Tilda you could put in white and it’d stay white all day, she didn’t come home in rags like Anna.
‘You are too thin,’ Rose said, exasperating her, making her reach up and twist her hair more tightly into its band. Tilda’s child was a regular cherub. He ran towards Rose, gloriously naked from his bath, escaping the towel that had been wrapped around him. ‘Ciccio!’
Tilda laughed, that chuckle of hers, lovely round naked shoulders, copper hair falling in waves about them, some still pinned up, generous body draped in a towel. ‘A real little fatty,’ she said.
The child was ablaze with Titian curls, slippery-naked,
wriggling himself into her arms like a puppy. ‘Ti sei fatto
male quando sei caduto giu del cielo?’
‘Did you hurt yourself when you fell from heaven?’
Tilda translated for her Danny boy, ruffling his hair. ‘Ciccio, fatty, bello . . .’ Rose was unable to stop herself from pinching bits of him like dough and chuckling too, feeling her daughter’s arms enfold her, cherub and all, and then standing for a moment, a trio, and imagining that all around them there had been a heavenly glow. ‘So, what did you find out?’ Anna prompted. ‘Who were they? What’s the big mystery?’ Rose took a gulp of water, wondered if Anna looked like any of her ancestors; she certainly hadn’t inherited much from Rose. For all she knew Rose’s own mother and grandmother were boyish too. That was one of the problems with being an orphan: never being able to look through the telescope from the other end. She thought again of Tilda through the bathroom door, not like Anna at all. Rose had seen as she unwound her towel, Venus, young and plump, emerging, pale-skinned and lovely as a moon.
‘Turns out my mother was not a whore from the backstreets of Dublin, after all!’ she said.
‘Why would you think she was?’ Anna’s eyes widened. ‘She was a hard-working farm girl from County Kerry who married a soldier. It’s a pity no one found any pictures. Bernadette and Donal O’Docherty.’
‘They have names!’ Anna reached across the table and shook Rose’s shoulder. ‘How does that feel?’ Rose remembered how hard it was to maintain eye contact with this daughter.
‘It’s a mercy the Sisters of Mercy let us see the files after all the asking,’ she said. Anna’s eyes made her think of a starving child they were so large in her face. ‘But, there’s a terrible thing . . .’
Rose waved a hand irritably around the restaurant, indignant as a teacher in a noisy classroom: ‘I can’t tell you here with all these people.’
Mother, grandmother, both aunts; probably more, the whole family riddled with it. Jimmy’s lot, too: mother and sister.
‘Did someone murder someone? Is that it? Should I start suffering from ancestor shame right away?’ Anna started to giggle.
Rose shook her head, she couldn’t do this right now.
The DNA time bomb would have to wait. ‘Later,’ she said. ‘I want to know how you are. We haven’t spoken for so long.’
‘Hurry up and eat then come back to the flat,’ Anna said.
‘Tell me whatever the big bad secret is when we get there.’ She seemed to bounce a little in her seat. ‘And I can show you what I’ve been working on.’ Anyone would think she suffered from arrested development. Still dresses like a teenager. Such rags! And fingers all inky blue for some reason. Mortuary blue; Rose couldn’t suppress an internal shudder.
‘Natural indigo,’ Anna said, noticing Rose’s gaze and holding her hands above the table and wiggling them as though she were playing an invisible keyboard. ‘Stains everything.’
Ah, yes. It never failed to astonish Rose that Anna had become the artist of the family; that Anna’s hand-dyed rag rugs hung on the walls of galleries in London and Amsterdam. It seemed the world couldn’t get enough of them. The one Anna had made for Rose some years before was pleasant enough and was currently employed as a bath mat, and a very nice bath mat it was too. The baby in the window had possession of the rattle; tap water man was defending his need to travel. Why would anyone want to live with you twelve months of the year anyway? sneered his wife; plates were being crashed about. There was a chicken-kiev-style outpouring of liquid grease when Rose cut into the battered haloumi. ‘So, your parents? Are you going to tell me anything?’ Anna pushed her long fringe behind her ears. Her daughter’s eyes were a storm colour that shifted uneasily between blue and grey; even early on Rose had felt judged; even when she was breastfeeding Anna, the cold, unblinking marble of her baby eye had the power to spook her. Rose’s other children all had brown eyes; it had taken some getting used to. Jimmy had promised to haunt her, and he did.
She told Anna some of what she knew about Bernadette O’Docherty. ‘My mama,’ she said, and immediately felt foolish for saying it.
Rose had been found clinging to Bernadette’s dying body. ‘There was no one else to take me, her own mother already in the grave and my father killed in the war before I was even born.’
Bernadette died alone, in agony probably. ‘The Sisters of Mercy took me when she became too weak to lift me.’ Rose tried to stem a rising tide of anger, or grief, she wasn’t sure which. There, she wanted to say to Anna, give that to your shrink from me: tell him to stick all that in his pipe and smoke it, the next time he decides to conjure up Jung or Freud or whoever while you moan about your childhood and he theorises about me.
It was only a light drizzle when they got outside, just a short walk, Anna said. She took Rose’s arm, waved at the sodium lights on their tall posts with their halos shimmering on the black wet streets all the way up the hill, sighed:
‘It is beautiful here, don’t you think?’ Rose shivered, hoped it wouldn’t be far, her feet couldn’t take it. The porches of the houses had fluted pillars; there were curlicues and garlands. The plasterwork reminded Rose of her first wedding cake, the one she’d cut with Jimmy, a struggle to get the knife through the cold white icing, three tiers. A piece brought out like a prize with tea and silver spoons at the christenings of Leo, Tilda and then finally, though Jimmy’s moods by that time made her feel less than celebratory, Anna.
Rose couldn’t manage to walk these streets and talk at the same time. ‘Better with a brandy,’ she said.
Rose’s Italian wedding cake had been a different affair:
messy, glistening; a pyramid of creamy profiteroles, piled up in a generous heap, caramel-coloured as the sun-baked houses in Castagnola; sticky and sweet as any metaphor for love. She couldn’t wait to be back. Massimo’s was the only shoulder that she allowed herself to cry on. She thought of him collecting pine cones for the hearth, out there in the forest, poking around with the end of his stick, hoping to find a truffle, as likely as a four-leaf clover, but he was the lucky sort, grinning slightly foolishly, wearing his thick knitted scarf the colour of ripe tomatoes. Rose felt a little warmer just thinking of him as Anna led her left into Evrika Street.
‘Is it much further?’ Rose asked, puffing slightly, regretting her inability to lose a couple of stone. ‘Do you not remember that this is my road?’ Anna stalled, a little huffy.
‘Evrika Street, of course!’ Rose’s last visit had not been a success. It had only been for one afternoon; on the way back from Tilda’s then, too, and a small crumb of conversation to go with the cup of tea that Anna plonked down in front of her would not have gone amiss, instead of the reproachful ragtime she bashed out on the piano. The piano practically shook the wall of Anna’s miserable sitting room. Rose remembered sitting with the tea cooling in the cup, saucer on her knees, cushions crackling with resentment, the rain beetling down the windows while Anna played relentlessly on. She was certainly no Oscar Peterson, her daughter.
When she finally stopped – it had taken her several attempts to play the piece right through – Rose had apparently failed to tell her well done.
‘Why didn’t you let me have piano lessons when I was little?’ Rose couldn’t for the life of her remember turning her down. Leo, yes, he’d played, so had Tilda; Anna, not really. Rose had held back a childish urge to mutter ‘Diddums’ as Anna went on about it. As far as Rose was concerned she held all the trump cards herself: being an orphan, clinging to poor Bernadette’s wasted body, that’s what they said; passed to and fro, the bad luck of ending up with an adoptive mother so self-righteously cruel. Then, oh Lord above, Jimmy. The full hand, the whole miserable deck. Piano lessons. What was Anna’s problem? ‘I’m seeing a shrink.’ Anna had said it as though that was perfectly all right and not a slight on her in the least. ‘Every Thursday.’ A shrink! Rose had felt it like a punch to the belly.
‘It’s not an insult! It’s not like the RSPCA being called in about your dog, really it isn’t!’ Anna had tried to make a joke of it, to call her back. But Rose was already stalking off to an earlier train.
Evrika Street. Thank goodness, almost there. Rose was glad of her umbrella, a silky lime-green one, rather elegant, that Massimo had bought for her in Rome. Anna’s hair hung in rats’ tails because she had refused to come under it, said she didn’t care if she got wet.
‘I suppose you’re in touch with your brothers? You’ll know all their news. Leo’s not been well.’ Rain started to bounce from her umbrella. Anna shook water from her fringe as they stopped at her gate.
‘Carla emails me about him.’
Rose didn’t like to be reminded of Carla, Leo’s wife, so possessive that Rose had to telephone her first to book it into her diary whenever she wanted to visit Leo in the hospital. ‘And Cassio, do you hear from him?’
‘Yes,’ said Anna over her shoulder as she rummaged in her bag for keys, ‘he calls me all the time.’ Again, a stab like jealousy. She’d been hoping most of all for siblings of her own when she’d started poking around in Ireland.
‘By the way,’ said Anna as she found her keys, ‘there’s something I didn’t tell you in the restaurant.’ She took a momentously deep breath, put the key in the lock: ‘I’ve got a boyfriend.’ Who, in their right mind, would put up with Anna? The question fell unbidden into her head and Rose was immediately ashamed of herself. Anna threw open the door.
‘He’s a bit nervous about meeting you,’ she whispered over her shoulder and just for a moment Rose thought she was imagining the piano. But this wasn’t playing like Anna’s had been, it didn’t stall and start and bash; it was without anger, and stopped with a cheerful trill as the front door clattered shut.
‘Richard could have been a concert pianist,’ Anna said, her eyes crinkling as he came into the hall. A gangling man, as long in the limb as Anna: he was bending his fingers back at the knuckles, a couple of them cracked and then he held out his hand to her, blushing to the colour of a ripe pomegranate.
‘Mama, this is Richard.’ He was slightly stooped as though apologising for his height.
‘It’s good to meet you,’ he said, a voice that was unusually quiet. For a moment as she looked up at him she saw a flare of light from the bulb in the hall behind his head, like a heavenly aura, and was reminded of the time she’d seen a real halo: it had been shimmering around a neighbour, someone she’d been told to call Auntie Jean. Auntie Jean had forced open the door to the windowless room with the crucifix, found Rose there. She’d been more than a day and a night by that time without food or water, not even a bucket to pee in. Auntie Jean had come to get Rose out, she held her against her comfortable apron, patted her head, tried to keep her.
Richard took Rose’s coat. He shook it a little to dry it, and then Anna’s. He had a rather elegant neck, long and tender like a stem and with a prominent Adam’s apple; he might have swallowed the parson’s nose. Or bitten off more than he could chew, Rose thought, then felt ashamed all over again.
‘You should have called and I would’ve collected you in the car.’ Richard looked at Anna, not quite admonishing. Rose noticed a smile pass between them as he hung their coats on a hook.
Richard played so that her heart ached. ‘Don’t stop,’ she said when he reached a pause in the music. His expressive phrasing made Anna’s shoddy upright sound fit for a queen. Anna had put Rose to sit on the sofa while she went for brandy and glasses, a towel for her hair. ‘I like this one,’ Rose said, smiling and nodding a little, and Anna slotted in beside her among the cushions. They lifted the brandy to their lips while Richard played Chopin. Richard had lit all the candles ready for when they came in, he’d created a lovely dancing light. Even the ones in the piano’s candlelabrum were blazing so Rose feared that he might catch his dark curls alight as he played. The embers of a small fire warmed the grate and one of Anna’s rugs hung from the rail above. It seemed to glow, as though a breeze ruffled its colours, its russets and reds, oranges and ochres and earths, and Rose wasn’t sure if she was imagining it, but then Anna confirmed in a whisper:
‘Can you see what the colours are? In that rug? It’s Castagnola. Castagnola in autumn. I’ve been working on it all year.’
Rose put her arm up and Anna let her head fall to her shoulder while Richard’s playing grew quieter and then reached back up towards a crescendo, phrases repeating themselves, melodies threading in and out of each other, calling, repeating. Anna scooped down into the cushions until her head lay in Rose’s lap.
‘I was thinking about the vineyard.’ Anna’s eyes were closed, her pale eyelids finely veined and mauve like rose petals.
‘I was thinking how much I used to like it there. There was a little hollow two thirds of the way down, it happened to be where two of the vines met so was completely obscured from view. I used to go there with a book.’ Anna slid her feet along the sofa while Rose stroked her hair. ‘I remember the rose bushes in the vineyard, so many different sorts. One bush planted at the end of each line. Why were they planted there? I don’t think I ever knew.’ Rose could see the blue veins at Anna’s temples as she stroked her hair back. ‘It’s tradition,’ she said. ‘The rose before the vine. Some people say they were planted there because they were thorny and discouraged the plough horses from trampling the vines.’
‘Once when I was little I went out with scissors and cut a whole bunch of different roses for you,’ Anna said. ‘They were all very thorny. There were some dark red ones with prickles all along the stems like brambles, and lots of different pinks and oranges; my hands got cut.’ Anna was talking, her head still in her mother’s lap, knees curled up and the lovely music slurring and pattering. ‘Shsh,’ said Rose, gesturing at Richard playing a quiet passage where the notes seemed to grow misty.
Rose thought she would cry; the tune was swooping around the room and Anna’s rug with its burnished colours seemed to blaze.
She thought of Anna at little Cassio’s bath time, funny the things that slip into one’s head. Perhaps it was seeing Tilda bath with her cherub that reminded her. Anna demanding to get into the bath too. Cassio’s little towel with the bunny ears, how cute he looked in it, such a ciccio, just as much a little fatty as Tilda’s boy. And there was Anna, out of the bath and dripping, all skinny, putting it on over her head, how hideous it looked, her front teeth grown big and too much like a rabbit’s for the bunny ears to look anything other than charmless, the whole thing too short to cover her pudenda, twiggy legs dancing around. Cassio crying and saying that she’d stolen his towel. Anna sat up from her lap. ‘Anyway, you were saying. The rose was planted in front of the vine to deter clumsy horses.’
‘Maybe that was it,’ said Rose quietly. ‘Though other people believed that planting the rose there would act as an early warning system. The rose gets the same diseases as the grape but shows symptoms sooner.’ Rose couldn’t bear the poignancy of what she was saying. ‘It isn’t foolproof.’ Sometimes you’d get a hardy one, like herself, like the canary down the mine that goes on singing. It was becoming hard to speak. The pin was almost out; she was like a terrorist, biding her time there in Anna’s lovely room with the soft light and music.
‘Hopefully the rose got ill in time for the vine to be treated and saved,’ she said, her heart beating faster. Anna leapt up from the sofa and draped herself lightly over Richard at the piano. The Nocturne started fading towards its inevitable conclusion. Richard played on, still managing to kiss Anna with the side of his mouth, sliding his eyes away from the keys to meet hers sideways on, but only for a moment.