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THE SUNDAY TIMES TOP TEN BESTSELLING AUTHOR'Wonderful . . . hugely ambitious and atmospheric' KATE MOSSE'Superb storytelling' DINAH JEFFERIESDiscover a brilliant story of intrigue, romance and betrayal in 1930s Italy, from the internationally bestselling author . . . .Italy, 1932 - Mussolini's Italy is growing from strength to strength, but at what cost?One bright autumn morning, architect Isabella Berotti sits at a café in the vibrant centre of Bellina, when a woman she's never met asks her to watch her ten-year-old daughter, just for a moment. Reluctantly, Isabella agrees - and then watches in horror as the woman climbs to the top of the town's clock tower and steps over the edge.This tragic encounter draws vivid memories to the surface, forcing Isabella to probe deeper into the secrets of her own past as she tries to protect the young girl from the authorities. Together with charismatic photographer Roberto Falco, Isabella is about to discover that secrets run deeper, and are more dangerous, than either of them could have possibly imagined . . .From the glittering marble piazzas to the picturesque hillside villages and winding streets of Rome, The Italian Wife will take you on an breath-taking journey. Perfect for fans of Dinah Jefferies, Lucinda Riley and Rosanna Ley.PRAISE FOR KATE FURNIVALL:'A thrilling plot ... Fast-paced with a sinister edge' The Times'A thrilling, compelling read. Wonderful!' Lesley Pearse'Gripping . . . poignant, beautifully written ...will capture the reader' The Sun'Truly captivating' Elle'Perfect escapist reading' Marie Claire'An achingly beautiful epic' New Woman'A rollicking good read' Daily Telegraph
Kate Furnivall didn't set out to be a writer. It sort of grabbed her by the throat when she discovered the story of her grandmother - a White Russian refugee who fled from the Bolsheviks down into China. That extraordinary tale inspired her first book, The Russian Concubine. From then on, she was hooked.
Kate is the author of eight novels, including The Russian Concubine, The White Pearl and The Italian Wife. Her books have been translated into more than twenty languages and have been on the New York Times Bestseller list.
I didn’t know I was going to die that warm October day in Milan. If I’d known, I’d have done things differently. Of course I would. If I’d known, I wouldn’t have died.
But I was nineteen years old and believed I was immortal. I had no idea that life, which seemed so snug and warm in my grasp, could be snatched away at any moment, though I did nothing more than turn my head for a split second to inspect a market stall.
A gunshot rang out. The sound of it ricocheted off the ancient pink stone of the market square, making my ears ring and shoppers scatter in panic across the cobbles. It was market day and I had come to idle away an hour among the stalls, passing the time of day with neighbors and exchanging news with friends. Believing that an hour of life was something I could fritter away without thought.
I picked and prodded at the colorful piles of fruit and vegetables on offer, handling the warm leathery pomegranates as I chose the ripest one and inhaled the musty scent of the skin of deep purple aubergines. All around me stalls overflowed with the vibrant yellows and greens and rich scarlets that are the colors of life.
How could I know I was about to lose mine?
If it had happened in some stinking back alleyway in a rough district of Milan, I’d have understood. I wouldn’t have liked it, but I’d have understood. Or on one of Mussolini’s fast new autostrade where cars race each other, as if desperate to leap into the arms of death. There it would make sense. But not here. Not on the lazy warm cobblestones of my home district. Not with my belly swollen with child and a piece of pecorino cheese salty in my mouth.
“Take a bite, Isabella,” Arturo Cribori called out from behind his cheese stall, waggling his black eyebrows at me suggestively.
He sliced off a tiny triangle of pecorino for me to taste. I smiled at him and laughed.
Thinking back on it now, I listen to that carefree laugh and it makes me want to cry. It was the last laugh of the person I was back then. The laugh of a girl who believed she had everything she needed to make her happy for the rest of her life—a handsome husband, a baby growing inside her, a three-room city apartment with a set of silver spoons in pride of place on the sideboard, a future that stretched ahead of her on rails as shiny as Italy’s new train tracks. It was the laugh of a person who still believed in goodness. I remember that girl dimly. I touch her lustrous raven’s-wing hair and my chest aches for her.
The real reason I had come to the street market was to stroll between the rows of stalls alongside Luigi, showing off my fine husband and the bambino growing inside me, displaying them proudly for all to admire. I paused to taste the cheese, I remember that. I didn’t look out at the houses surrounding the square or spare a glance for the upstairs windows overlooking the stalls. Why should I?
If I had looked up, things might have been different.
I remember looking across at Luigi, seeking him out in the bustling crowd. So many people were milling around the stalls, laughing and arguing, haggling over the price of yellow peppers or the weight of a sack of potatoes, but my husband was easy to spot. He was half a head taller than anyone else and possessed the handsome features of a Roman senator, though in fact he came from generations of farming stock. “I’m a fine stud bull,” he would laugh, and stroke my swollen belly.
Luigi was a powerful presence in his crisp Blackshirt militia uniform. Men stood back for him and women’s eyes followed him like fawns. Not just the young signorinas tossing their dark manes at him, but the black-clad matrons as well and the loudmouthed peasants in the stalls, with bosoms as large and ripe as their melons. They all let their eyes linger on Luigi Berotti. I was proud of him. So proud it almost choked me at times. Stupid, I know, but that’s how it was. Even though he raised a hand to me after he’d taken a grappa too many, I saw no wrong in him.
I know better now.
The first shot came from nowhere, ripping through the market. It sent stallholders ducking behind their wares, and a tethered dog howled. The loud crack of the shot sent a wave of pigeons wheeling up from the campanile into the flat blue Italian sky. I swung around from a salami stall in time to see Luigi’s dark head slide from view. It lurched forward as if he’d spotted a five-hundred-lire note lying on the ground. I screamed. It was a vile sound dragged up from deep inside me and scoured my throat raw.
A man seized my wrist. “Are you hurt?”
It was my father. I should have thanked him, this father showing concern for his only daughter amid the whirlwind of fear that swept through the market. But I didn’t. Wordlessly I dragged my arm free and hurled myself into the huddle of people crouching on the cobbles in front of a stall selling embroidered shawls. Their eyes were huge with panic. Heads whipped back and forth, seeking the hand with the gun. But they didn’t run. Those brave people stayed with the limp figure on the ground. Others ran and I couldn’t blame them. They had families. They had loved ones. They had lives to live. Why should they stay behind to stop my husband from bleeding to death on the cobbles?
Luigi’s dark eyes were frozen open like a doll’s and gazing blindly up at the sun as if he could outstare it. In that tiny fraction of time before the second shot rang out, I saw the slack hang of his full lips that had always been so muscular in seizing mine, and I knew what it meant. I saw scarlet raindrops sparkling on the small hairs of his eyebrows. I saw his strong hand curled up like a claw. And in the center of his big bull chest I saw a hole in his shirt. The blood barely showed against the color of its material, but it made the blackness of the shirt glisten.
I snatched a shawl from the deserted stall. I would stop the bleeding with it. I would stop it and he would live. He must live. My Luigi. My husband. His child kicked fiercely inside me to urge me on.
I called his name to summon him back to me.
I didn’t hear the second shot. All I knew was that my sandal had left a perfect imprint in my husband’s blood on the ground. I was horrified by it. I saw it as I bent forward to kneel at his side and that was when the backache that had nagged at me all day, where the baby was pressing on a nerve, suddenly flared into a white blinding pain. I thought it was my bones cracking with grief.
Before I hit the ground, I was dead.
“Is she breathing?”
I woke. Nothing worked. Not my eyelids. Not my limbs. My tongue lay lifeless on the base of my mouth. I tried to cry out, but the silence in my head remained absolute while pain wrapped itself around my body.
“What in God’s name is the matter with you, nurse? You’re meant to be monitoring her airways.”
“Yes, Dr. Cantini, I’m sorry, I was just checking her . . .”
“Sorry? Where will sorry get you when she’s dead and cold on the slab? Tell me that, nurse.”
The doctor’s voice was loud and curt to the point of rudeness, the voice of a man who believed in the divine right of the medical profession. I knew that tone. He’d used it on me at times. It was the tone he resorted to when trying to hide fear. Dr. Cantini is my father. If my father was afraid, I knew I was in trouble.
Help me, Papa. Hold my hand.
But the words remained ice cold inside my head.
“Isabella, can you hear me?”
My father’s voice sounded close, as if he were leaning over me. I could picture him, his mustache black and bristling, his blue eyes behind his spectacles abandoning any pretense of professional calm. His daughter was dying.
Was he holding my hand? I couldn’t tell. I willed him to be holding my hand, but right now my will was a weak and flimsy thing.
“Isabella, hold on. Don’t let go.” His tone was fierce. “You hear me?”
“She’s lucky,” the nurse commented quietly.
“Lucky! You call this lucky!”
“Yes, Dottore. She was lucky that you were in the market beside her and you restarted her heart when she was shot. You pumped God’s good life-giving air into her lungs. Our blessed Virgin Mary was watching over your daughter today and the good Lord is giving her strength now to stay with us.”
Papa grunted. He was never one to argue against blind faith, though he possessed none himself. He claimed it did more good for his patients than any number of pills and potions.
“So why wasn’t your Virgin Mary watching over her dead husband too?” he muttered sourly.
The sight of my husband’s eyes, blank as a doll’s, came into my mind and sucked the breath out of me.
“Oxygen!” my father bellowed. “Get her oxygen!”
There was a flurry of hospital noises around me and the soft sound of the nurse intoning a prayer for my soul.
“Don’t, Isabella.” I could feel Papa’s hot anger crushing my chest. “Don’t you dare die on me, cara mia.”
Papa, it’s all right. Don’t grieve for me. I love you, but I want to be with Luigi and my baby. Let me go.
But he didn’t listen. Papa never listened. A mask was pressed to my face and oxygen was pumped into my lungs. This was my second chance. A new life. Whether I wanted it or not.
Ten Years Later
The air vibrated to the sound of pigeons and the sun streamed down on the newly constructed buildings in the piazza. To Isabella’s eye some were a little too grand. Italy’s leader, Benito Mussolini, had decreed that this brand-new town of Bellina must display the past glories of ancient Rome in its architecture. He wanted its people to revel in the fact that Italy’s Roman eagle had once dominated the world.
But all those arches. And columns. And marble colonnades. All adorning the Fascist Party headquarters. Did they really need to be quite so massive? Or quite so grandiose? Isabella’s fingers itched to redesign them. She was an architect, but was only one of the many lowly assistants to Dottore Architetto Martino, the chief architect here in Bellina, so what did she know?
Very little, according to Martino.
She sipped her scalding coffee, stretched her bare legs into a patch of autumn sunlight, and looked around at the people crossing the huge piazza. There weren’t many of them and they didn’t linger. A few were idling outside the cream curved façade of the elegant cinema. The film L’Armata Azzurra was showing there today—an Air Force adventure. Mussolini was a great believer in cinemas. Keep the populace entertained and they won’t bother you. That was his theory and Isabella wasn’t going to argue with it. But she suspected that the people of Bellina weren’t quite as docile as Il Duce liked to think they were and that they didn’t like the sense of being watched from the Fascist headquarters, which was raised above the piazza by a dozen sweeping steps. She didn’t like that feeling herself.
Every year Isabella took this day in October off work. She would sit sunk in silence, wearing the sleeveless peach dress that Luigi used to like so much, the breeze raising the small hairs on her skin. During the past week as this day drew nearer she’d started to get jumpy, and by the time this morning dawned, she was wide-eyed and sleepless.
It was ten years to the day. The day that she and Luigi were shot. It had been hot that day and was hot again now. She had taught herself self-control for the rest of the year, but on this one day each October she allowed herself to cry. Not so that anyone could see. Of course not. But deep inside herself. Something split open, she could feel it, and the tears flowed unseen. She cried for Luigi. For her unborn child. For that young easygoing girl she used to be. That October day had ruptured the fabric of her. It was that simple.
She had no idea that a decade later her life was about to be disrupted again.
She was sitting in Gino’s café, the only permitted café in the piazza because Fascists didn’t like people to gather anywhere in large numbers unless they’d organized it themselves. She was sipping coffee—strong and full of bite, just the way Gino knew she liked it—and all around her she could spy touches of her handiwork in the grand municipal buildings that bordered each side of the square. They sparkled in white marble, interspersed with intricate terra-cotta brickwork, their arches and their columns and wide spacious steps dwarfing the people who used them. These buildings were designed to impress. To remind each person who stopped to admire them of the power of the State.
Isabella found it hard to explain—even to herself—exactly why she loved pouring so much of herself into these buildings. All she knew was that it filled with warmth a place within her that was stark and cold. Sitting here in the sunshine, she could laugh at her passion for injecting life and breath into the stone and mortar of this town, and regard the piazza with a sense of quiet satisfaction.
The important thing to remember was this—for that brief moment she was happy and it was that sliver of happiness that made her vulnerable. If she had been in her usual rush, her brow creased in a frown of concentration, her mind churning over her next piece of architectural work and her eyes preoccupied with whatever was taking form within her head, the woman with the wild hair who hurried into the piazza dragging a child behind her would have chosen someone else to approach. And if not, Isabella would have said, No, I’m too busy. Nor would the child have been willing to remain with her, a stranger who had lost her smile somewhere along the way.
So it was that moment of happiness that Isabella blamed for what happened next. But how could she not be happy when she was looking at the tower? It was so beautiful. Of course she was biased because she had designed it herself. It towered the way a tower should, square and tall, surmounted by a great bronze bell, its pale travertino marble shimmering like a shaft of light, sending out a message of dominance to the whole region. It was attached to the Fascist Party headquarters. Oriolo Frezzotti, the architect in charge of the whole project of constructing Mussolini’s six new towns, caught sight of Isabella’s design on one of his lightning visits from Rome and gave Dottore Martino, her immediate superior, no option. Frezzotti had overruled his objections with an extravagant wave of his hand.
“Don’t let it go to your head,” Martino had growled at her.
And to make sure she didn’t get ideas above her station he’d stuck her to work on gutterings and facings for the next few months. But Isabella didn’t mind. She loved her work as an architect, all aspects of it, and from her office window she watched her tower grow block by block.
Isabella looked at the woman. She didn’t know her or her child. She put her coffee cup down on the table and inspected her, squinting against the sun. The woman was slight and dressed in black shapeless clothes, with a face it would be easy to overlook, except there was an urgency about her that made Isabella pay attention. She wore an anxious expression, her eyes darting around her as she stood beside the café table and stretched her hand out to Isabella, palm upward. For a moment Isabella thought she was begging. But she was mistaken. The woman was offering something. It was a brass crucifix on a chain that was dull and grimy. Isabella shook her head. She didn’t want it.
“No, grazie, no.”
The woman looked a few years younger than Isabella, maybe no more than twenty-five, and the child, a girl, could have been anywhere between eight and ten. Both possessed unkempt black hair and a nervousness that was unsettling to be close to. Isabella wanted them to go away. She looked over at her tower, hoping they’d be gone when she looked back. She was more at ease with buildings than with people. Ten years ago she’d lost her trust in people, but buildings were solid and dependable. You knew where you were with a building. That was why she’d worked so hard to put herself through architectural college after her recovery from the hospital, to give herself something she could depend on.
“Signora,” the woman said, “I have to go somewhere for just a few minutes. It is very important. Will you please watch my child for me while I am gone?” Her eyes flicked a secretive glance at her daughter. “She will be good.”
The child stared at her own feet. She was dressed in a simple blue cotton frock and had sunk her hands deep into its patch pockets. She didn’t seem any keener on this idea than Isabella was.
“Well, I’m not sure . . .” Isabella said uneasily.
She looked for help at the next table, but the man seated there with his pipe didn’t lift his nose out of his newspaper. If it had been any other day she would have said a firm no, and maybe things would have turned out differently for all three of them. But it had to happen on the one day of the year when she was not her usual self.
“Please, signora, per favore?”
The mother placed the crucifix on the metal table, where it clattered noisily.
“I don’t want your crucifix,” Isabella said immediately.
“I will be quick. Very quick.”
Isabella saw sudden tears fill the woman’s eyes, and her pleading face loomed closer as she leaned down to Isabella.
“You are a good person,” the woman told her. “I see it in your face. You are full of resolve. Be kind to me.”
Isabella opened her mouth to object. She didn’t want to be told she was good or full of resolve, not while she was sitting quietly minding her own business over a coffee, but the woman leaned closer and said in a low intimate hiss, “They know who killed your bastard husband.”
Isabella saw the tremor in her own hand as she reached for her cup and heard it rattle in its saucer.
“Who do you mean? Who are ‘they’?”
The woman pulled back and jabbed an accusing finger in the direction of the Party headquarters. “Them.” She spat on the ground in disgust. “Those Fascist murderers.” Her mouth took on a strange shape that Isabella only recognized as a bitter smile when she heard the laugh that came from it. “They will pay for it now.”
“How do you know that my husband died?”
But the black-clad figure was already striding away, almost running down to the far end of the piazza, scattering the pigeons. Isabella stood up, aghast.
“Mamma won’t wait.”
She looked down at the child’s mass of dark curls. She was too thin, all elbows and collarbones.
“What do you mean she won’t wait?”
Her narrow shoulders shrugged; her face didn’t look up. “She told me I must wait here with you.”
Isabella sat down again. She wasn’t certain what had just happened. She didn’t know anything about children. Since the bullet that had nearly killed her ten years earlier, she couldn’t have any bambini of her own and she’d gone out of her way to avoid them, though in Italy she couldn’t help but be surrounded by them much of the time. She tried to keep them at a distance when she could, but this time she had no choice.
“Please, sit down.” She waved a hand toward the chair opposite.
The girl slid into it, taking up no space.
“I’m Isabella Berotti. What’s your name?”
“So, Rosa, do you live in Bellina?”
“Where have you come from?”
Her voice was so slight, Isabella had to prick her ears to hear her.
“Did you come by train with your mother?”
She nodded. Or rather, her curls nodded. She still wasn’t looking up. They reached a brief impasse and Isabella finished her coffee to cover the awkward pause. She felt sorry for the child. Stuck with a woman who could find no words for her. In desperation her gaze returned to the figure of the mother racing across the sunlit piazza toward the Fascist Party headquarters. Isabella couldn’t bring herself to abandon the child and chase after her, but she was shaken by the woman’s words.
“How about something to drink, Rosa, while we wait?”
“No.” But the girl added a polite “Grazie.” It was almost drowned out by the cooing of the pigeons that drifted around the tables.
“An ice cream then?” Isabella called out to Gino before Rosa could refuse again. “A gelato, per favore, Gino.”
When it arrived at the table with a flourish from Gino, the girl gave Isabella a direct look for the first time. Her deep-set brown eyes were as wild as her hair and in a panic. Isabella felt a jolt of dismay for the pale-skinned face.
“I can go,” the girl said quickly. “If you want me to.”
“No, Rosa. Of course not. I want you to stay. Your mother has left you in my care.” Isabella smiled at her.
She didn’t smile back, but the panic in her young eyes seemed to die down a fraction. Isabella had an urge to hold her small angular body, to tell her not to worry so much. She was too young to worry. Isn’t that what Italian mammas do instinctively? Provide hugs and kisses? All Isabella had to offer her was ice cream.
“Eat up,” she encouraged.
The girl took up the spoon and steadily consumed the ice cream with quiet concentration. The warmth of the day was beginning to build and the sun was picking out the fasces, the symbol of Fascism that was carved above the entrance of each of the municipal buildings in the piazza, painting them golden. It was what Luigi had promised her—a golden future for Italy under Fascism. And she had believed him.
Luigi had put a sheen on life that had dazzled her into believing that this was the way forward, that Mussolini could make the impossible become possible. She had been beguiled by the dynamic allure of her strong husband who intended to change the world, not with words—her life was already full to overflowing with words—but with direct action.
Mussolini’s Blackshirts were set to mold Italy into a powerful force once again, with their bare fists if necessary. The idea had excited her young mind. Blinded her to what it meant. She shook her head sharply now and shifted her gaze back to her tower.
“Rosa, do you have any idea what your mother meant when she said, They will pay for it now?”
The child remained silent.
Isabella hunted for another subject of conversation, swapping to an easier one. “Do you like Bellina?”
Rosa frowned and glanced around the beautiful piazza that was the heart of the town. Its pavements were a mosaic of marble, of pinks and grays and unexpected bands of speckled white in geometric designs that gave endless pleasure to the eye of pedestrians. In the center rose a fountain—not one of Rome’s baroque monstrosities, but a simple yet powerful vast globe of black granite with a circle of water jets surrounding it. Bellina had risen from the watery marshes, and this was the symbol of the glorious new world that Fascism was creating for the workers of Italy.
“Do you like Bellina?” Isabella asked again.
But the girl was already back at her ice cream, hunched over it, blocking out all else.
Isabella knew that it must be excruciating to be abandoned with a stranger, so if Rosa wanted silence, that was fine with her. The sun was behind her, throwing soft purple shadows over the mosaic flooring, and Isabella sat back in her chair, remembering a time when she had gone among strangers herself. To Rome. To study architecture, to forge a new life for herself after leaving the hospital and learning to walk again. It was in Rome that she came to realize that Fascism was not the golden path she’d believed it to be. The Blackshirts were not just a revolutionary militia placed at the service of the nation to reestablish order and discipline. They were the vital tool of a dictator hell-bent on violence to impose his will.
Isabella released a soft sound of regret that was lost in the striking of the hour by the brass-faced clock on her tower. She glanced up at it.
Immediately she noticed a figure emerging onto the viewing platform at the top of the tower, and she felt a rush of pride that someone liked the town well enough to climb the two hundred sixty steps to gain a wider view of it.
Even from here she could see it was a woman. She had wild dark hair. With surprise Isabella realized it was Rosa’s mother. Rosa was sitting with her back to the tower, so Isabella opened her mouth to say, Look, there’s your mamma. Wave to her, Rosa, but in the split second it took for the words to travel from her brain to her mouth, she saw the woman in black clamber up onto the parapet.
She teetered there. Her arms spread out sideways, holding her balance on the edge, and a breeze snatched at the folds of her long black dress and tangled the loose strands of her hair. Behind her the empty blue sky seemed to watch and wait in silence. Isabella expected her to shout to Rosa, to cry out across the length of the piazza: Look at me. But she didn’t. She dipped her head, stared down at the people far beneath her, and without any warning leapt off the top. She performed a perfect swallow-dive to the marble steps below.
No sound emerged from Isabella’s mouth. How she kept her scream inside, she didn’t know, but she couldn’t stop herself from jumping to her feet. Rosa looked up, wary of her, but her attention was distracted by a man’s shout behind her and a woman’s high-pitched scream. The child started to turn toward the group that Isabella could see gathering around the steps.
“A dog has bitten someone,” Isabella said quickly, scooping the crucifix into her pocket. “Rosa, I’ve just remembered that I have to collect something from my home.” She reached out, took hold of the girl’s skinny arm, and pulled her to her feet. “You can come with me, it’s not far. We won’t be long.”
She didn’t know if it was because the girl was used to being told what to do or because she had finished her ice cream and was ready for other amusement, but she allowed herself to be marched out of the Piazza del Popolo without a murmur.
Neither of them mentioned her mother.
Isabella rushed Rosa along Via Augustus. The street of small shops with apartments above was quiet at this hour, but in the dusty heat there lingered the smell of arancini and fried onions from someone’s kitchen. Everywhere was coated in a pale layer of building dust that didn’t want to shift but hung in the air. It had a habit of getting between teeth and under fingernails.
Isabella was moving so quickly that she felt her limp grow worse. She was aware of people staring, watching her out of the corner of their eyes, and after all these years she thought she’d be used to it but it still stung. It had taken three years’ hard sweat and seven operations to get her walking again but right now she was more concerned with hurrying Rosa as far away from the Piazza del Popolo as she could.
How do you tell a child her mother has just died?
Isabella was shaken by a deep anger toward the mysterious dark-haired woman who would do this to her daughter. As they approached her home, she eased up on her pace and gently released Rosa’s arm.
“It’s not far,” she assured the child, waving a hand toward the elegant apartment blocks that lay ahead. This was the most stylish and expensive part of town. It was the quarter where the streets were widest and where an abundance of young trees had been planted that would one day transform them into leafy avenues. This was where the top government employees lived. There were forty different designs for the houses and apartment buildings in Bellina, the forty designs repeated over and over again in a set order. It gave the town a symmetry and a sense of being part of a greater orderly scheme that Mussolini wanted the people to value.
The layout of Bellina followed the designs of ancient Rome, with a central forum and the town divided into four quadrants. The roads radiated out from the main piazza on a grid system. This made for efficient movement of people and traffic along the ramrod-straight streets, as well as ease of navigation, so that it was hard to get lost in Bellina. Mussolini intended the people of Italy to know exactly where they were going.
“How old are you, Rosa?”
“Do you have relatives in Rome?”
“Oh, Rosa, I’m sorry.”
The girl flicked her head around to look at Isabella, her large almost-black eyes fixing on her with the knife-sharp curiosity that only a child knows how to summon up. “Why are you sorry?”
“Because it’s sad for someone to lose their father?”
“I didn’t lose him. He died.”
“Do you have brothers or sisters?”
“Aunts or uncles?”
The girl shook her head.
“Just you. And your mother.”
Isabella touched the girl’s curls lightly. They felt warm from the sun, and springy, far more childish and boisterous than the solemn face turned toward her.
“There’s something wrong,” Rosa said warily, “isn’t there?”
She was quick, this child. Quick to pick up on what Isabella was trying to hide, but Isabella was saved from saying more by the appearance of a pair of tall metal gates that she reached for with relief.
“Here we are,” she told Rosa. “This is where I live.”
They walked through the gates into a spacious courtyard that was scorched by the sun and surrounded by modern four-story apartment blocks with long curved balconies and silky-smooth stone exteriors. A yellow-tailed lizard was sunning itself on the stone path, too lazy to move, and Isabella could hear music playing in one of the ground-floor apartments, an aria from Tosca. So Papa was home.
She found herself inspecting the exterior of the apartment through the child’s eyes, seeing the Modernist beauty of it, the stark and stylish plainness that was such a contrast to the suffocating fussiness of the old cities. Isabella loved its clean refreshing lines, but she wasn’t sure what Rosa would make of it. The shutters were half-closed against the brilliance of the cobalt autumn sky. The courtyard consisted of stone pathways around a central dolphin fountain, but there was not a blade of grass yet to be seen. The seeds had been planted, but the town needed time to grow into its own skin. There was just a small olive tree on the left that her father had planted, but its young branches were dry and brittle. It looked no happier here than he was.
“Here we are, Rosa,” she said again cheerily. “Come on in.”
Isabella’s father was sitting in his favorite armchair, a large ruby-colored velvet wing chair that was so old it wrapped itself around him. In his hands, as always, lay a book. Dark, densely carved furniture cluttered the heavy shadows within the room, while on the table beside him stood an open bottle of red wine and a glass. Next to it the gramophone was playing, Tosca spinning hypnotically on the turntable.
“This is Rosa,” Isabella announced.
The girl flashed Dr. Marco Cantini a brief glance before fixing her gaze on the terra-cotta-tiled floor.
“Buongiorno, Rosa.” His eyes crinkled into a large smile of welcome under heavy eyebrows. “To what do we owe this pleasure?”
Rosa’s mouth remained firmly closed in complete silence, the ultimate weapon of a child.
“Sit down, please, Rosa,” Isabella said, and steered her to a seat at the table. She hoped the girl would know better than to touch the gramophone or she would provoke Papa’s wrath. Isabella poured wine into the glass and drank half of it straight down, but she was shocked to see that the hand holding the glass was shaking.
“Papa, I need a word with you.” She glanced pointedly at the child. “In private. Outside in the courtyard, please.”
“Send the girl out there if you want to . . .” He stopped. Looked at her hand. Without further comment he exchanged his reading spectacles for the ones he wore for distance and strode out into the bright sunlight. Isabella was hot from hurrying through the streets and led her father into a cool patch of shade.
Dr. Marco Cantini was a big man with a barrel chest and a large important-looking head. He kept his gray hair cropped short but his mustache and eyebrows remained so stubbornly jet-black and luxuriant that he rarely had the heart to trim them. He liked to laugh a lot. Sometimes Isabella suspected that his patients came to him more for his laughter than for his pills and potions.
“What is it?” he demanded.
Isabella wanted to say, Hold my hand. Like ten years before. But instead she took a mouthful of the wine she had brought out with her to make the words slide over her ash-dry tongue.
“I saw a woman kill herself today, Papa.”
His hooded eyes didn’t even widen. Her father had seen many dead people in his time as a doctor.
“She jumped off my tower.” Her voice sounded odd, even to herself.
“Off the top of Party headquarters?”
She nodded. “Head first.”
“The woman came up to me in the Piazza del Popolo and asked me to watch her daughter. Rosa, the young girl inside. She promised to return quickly and I believed her, but instead she threw herself off the top of the tower and I dragged Rosa away from the square, so she doesn’t know about it yet, hasn’t realized, and”—her words were breaking up into fragments—“and I understand that I have to tell her . . .” She paused. “But I am so angry at her mother for . . .”
“There is no point in anger at death, Isabella. I learned that a long time ago.”
“But I can’t stop it, Papa.”
They both stared at the bright splash of wine left in the glass in her hand. It was swirling up and around the curved sides as if it were suffering its own private torment.
“I have to take Rosa to the police station . . .” Isabella started.
But her father took a stride toward her. He was tall and always held himself upright as if he believed he belonged up there in the more rarefied atmosphere, but he bent down now to peer closely at her face.
“Are you all right, Isabella?”
“Yes. But I’m worried about Rosa.”
She didn’t tell him that she kept picturing the mother’s dead eyes at the bottom of the tower, wondering if they were like Luigi’s. Outstaring the sun. But it wasn’t the kind of thing Isabella and her father told each other. There was always a gulf between them, however hard they sought to avert their eyes from it. Her father had never forgiven her for marrying one of Mussolini’s Blackshirts. “Thugs,” Dr. Cantini called them, the word ugly in his mouth.
Isabella finished off the wine and swung around to return indoors, but Dr. Cantini put out his hand as though to hold on to her. It only hovered for a moment without touching, then fell to his side. They rarely touched each other, the two of them. They were very un-Italian in that way. He did so much laughing and touching in his work as a doctor that at times it seemed there was none left for his daughter. She understood that. They might not touch often, but they talked. They both liked words.
“Isabella, I am going to telephone Sister Consolata. She will be able to help.”
“I’m not sure that . . .”
His large face thrust even closer. She could see suspicion in the deep lines that ran vertically down his cheeks and she knew he was assessing her, judging her, the way he would a sick patient.
“Do you need a shot of something?” he asked.
She shook her head adamantly. “No.”
A flush crawled up her cheek to her hairline. They both knew that her father could remember a time not so long ago when she would be begging him for a shot of something to ease the pain. She wanted to say, I’m all right now, I’m back in control. Rosa is the one with the problem, not me, Papa. But the words were lost somewhere in the gulf between them, so she hurried out of the courtyard back into the house to find Rosa, and the dimness of the room with its heavy mosquito mesh over the windows washed over her. Rosa was no longer seated on the chair. She was standing on tiptoe in front of Dr. Cantini’s marble clock that rested on a dark mahogany cabinet. She had prized open its glass face and had moved the hands, so that it was now striking twelve noon. The chimes rang out in the silent room like a death knell for her mother.
At the sound of Isabella’s footsteps on the tiles, Rosa turned her head and gazed at her with mournful eyes.
“She’s not coming back for me, is she?” she said.
Roberto Falco had never photographed a dead woman. A dead ox once, yes, before it was spitted and roasted. A dead woman, no. She lay inside his camera, upside down and in miniature—only four inches by five—and he found it impossible to look away. As he stalked around the smashed body on the ground with his Graflex in his hands, winding the shutter cloth on its internal spools and popping up the viewfinder on the back, he was disgusted to find himself relieved that she wouldn’t move. He didn’t want her to spoil the shot.
It was only when he lowered the camera to change the film sheet and looked at the scene with his naked eye that the horror of it gripped his guts and he felt a wave of sorrow for the dead woman. She was spread-eagled on her front. Her head hung down several steps lower than her feet as she lay there in her black garments. Limbs snapped in fifty places. Bones poking up through flesh. Yet the fingers of one hand were curled in a tight fist as though she’d made one last desperate attempt to cling to life before she hit the steps.
There was blood. Of course there was blood. He dragged his eyes from her body, removed the film holder from the camera, and replaced it with another from his leather equipment case with practiced skill. His fingers worked smoothly despite the shakes. He craned back his head, squinting up at the milky-white tower, assessing the exposure he would need—most likely 1/20 second at f/16 and the Schneider wide-angle lens. The tall white building rose sharp and menacing against a backdrop of windswept sky, but as he stared at it the tower seemed to lean over the sad little scene at its foot, watching the people in the square below with satisfaction. Roberto took an instant dislike to it.
What made her do it?
A young woman, judging by the skin of her hands. Yet so eager to embrace death. Why would she do such violence to herself?
There must be someone who knew. Someone, somewhere, whose world would be rocked to its core by this supreme act of selfishness. In death he felt the force of her, and it filled the sun-drenched piazza in a way she could never have done in life. Roberto knelt and brushed his fingers against the unknown woman’s clenched hand, full of regret for a life thrown away.
“Falco! Get away from there,” a man’s voice snapped.
Roberto’s hand recoiled. Abruptly he became aware of people and sounds around him. A crowd had gathered on the steps, voices wailing: a woman sobbing quietly, a man on his knees praying, and others crossing themselves in the presence of death. The click of rosary beads started up.
“Falco! Give me that camera!”
Roberto turned to see a large fleshy man in a well-cut suit advancing on him, chest first, shoulders back, his broad shadow leaping ahead of him as if it couldn’t wait to get its hands on the camera. Signor Antonio Grassi, chairman of the local Fascist Party. Roberto rose to his feet with no intention whatever of giving up his camera. It would be like giving up a limb.
“Chairman Grassi,” he acknowledged with a cool nod of his head. “A tragic incident here on your own doorstep.”
Grassi’s arrogant brown eyes did not even glance at the woman on the steps as he held out his hand.
“Give me that camera,” he ordered again.
“I think not,” Roberto replied softly. This was not the moment for a shouting match over a camera. “The carabinieri need to be informed.”
“I am already here, signor fotografo.”
A uniformed figure, thin as a blade, stepped out from behind Grassi, and Roberto had to suppress a shudder at the sight of the dark blue uniform with silver braid on collar and cuffs, and the distinctive red stripe of the carabinieri police down the side of the trousers. The wide bicorn hat gave his head the look of a cobra as it flares its hood ready to strike.
“Hand over the camera to Chairman Grassi.”
“Colonnello Sepe, it’s not necessary. I am just doing my job as official fotografo of Bellina—taking photographs.”
Behind him police officers were beginning to push back the crowd to the bottom of the wide steps and take up positions like a dark blue wall around the body.
“Signor Falco, you are employed by me,” Chairman Grassi pointed out with irritation, “to record the creation of this new town. Not to take ghoulish pictures of death.” The volume of his voice was rising.
Roberto let his gaze fix once more on the black smear of life that had been ended on the steps of the Fascist headquarters. He was under no illusion as to why Chairman Grassi wanted no photographs of it. He flipped up the catches on his Graflex and, cursing under his breath, removed the film holder from the back of the camera and held it out at arm’s length to Grassi. The chairman took it from him and ripped it open, exposing the film on both sides to the light.
At that moment a tall man walked briskly through the crowd. He was dressed in a long winter coat and was carrying a medical bag. The doctor had arrived with that ineffable air of distinction that seemed to stick to members of the medical profession closer than their own shadow, but he was too late to be of the slightest use. Roberto’s eyes were drawn to the woman’s mane of untidy hair that still seemed to shimmer with life as the doctor knelt at her side.
He snapped shut his own equipment case and before Chairman Grassi thought to ask for possession of any of the other film holders in there, he moved away. The taste in his mouth was sour, and with a sudden change of direction he headed for the door to the tower.
Roberto stood in silence on top of the tower, his heart beating fast from the climb. Before him stretched the long narrow flatlands of the Pontine plain, bare and bleak, all vegetation uprooted. A few kilometers off to the west glinted the silvery ribbon of the Tyrrhenian Sea, while inland to the east of the plain rose the purple ridge of the Lepini mountains with the ancient trade route of the Appian Way.
A sluggish wind from the sea was stirring the air that hung heavy with dust over the town of Bellina. Though only thirty kilometers south of Rome, it was a barren and godforsaken place in Roberto’s opinion. Flat and lifeless, as well as too hot and humid in summer.
But he had to admire Mussolini’s audacity. His gross arrogance. His sheer strength of will in believing that he could succeed where Roman emperors, popes, and even Napoleon had failed before him. It was a mammoth task—to drain the malarial swamp that was the Pontine Marshes. The trouble was that the dunes along the coast lay at a higher level than the ground at the foot of the Lepini mountains to the east. This meant that the rivers that drained off the mountains had pooled and stagnated on the plain for centuries and turned it into an unhealthy mosquito-ridden marshland. Not only was Mussolini draining the marshes, but he was also replacing them with the construction of six perfect new towns on the reclaimed land. It took breathtaking hubris and yet Il Duce was succeeding against all the odds. Delegations flocked from all over the world to inspect this eighth engineering Wonder of the World, and Roberto was obliged to photograph each one of them who came.
Bellina was the first of the new towns to emerge from the swampy ground. God help the thousands of peasants who were being rounded up from the north, from Veneto, Friuli, and Ferrara, and shunted on trains down here to be cooped up in the little blue farmsteads like experimental mice in glass cages. They would be watched. Every move they made.
Roberto pictured the woman breathing in the dusty air, drawing it deep into her lungs, trying to calm her nerves as she stood on the tower. What made her jump? Had her spirit been torn out of her, the way the heart of the marshes had been torn from the land?
Not long ago this land had seethed with animal life, with wild boar sharpening their tusks on a dense forest of trees. Dangerous brigands used to hole up here for the winter, and shepherds brought their sheep and goats down from the mountains to graze during the winter months, when the mosquitoes were dormant. But for most of the year the swampy plain had been impenetrable because of the vast suffocating clouds of mosquitoes that infested the swamps, as black and vicious as the shadow of death itself.
They were anopheles mosquitoes. One bite and the bastards could pump tertian malaria into your blood and you’d be dead and buried within forty-eight hours. Or if you were really lucky, you’d get one of the slow kinds of malaria that crept up on you as silent and stealthy as a Medici assassin, with bouts of fever and an inexorable poisoning of the liver. The mosquitoes had to go, Mussolini was right about that. Il Duce was intent on dragging Italy to the forefront of modern Europe, hand over fist, whether it wanted it or not, and in his great Battle for Grain there was no room for this black plague.
The parapet of the tower was chest height, and Roberto ran his hand over the warm white marble edge. He pictured it, the woman hauling herself up on top of it, her feet scrabbling to find a toehold. Will it hurt? That thought must have stuck in her head, that question pounding against her skull as she balanced on the edge. Will the fall feel like forever?
Who was she? What had driven her to this?
Roberto flipped open his camera case, slipped a new film holder into the Graflex, and took his time focusing on the spot on the bare white wall where there were definite scuff marks. Then he looked down over the edge of the parapet and immediately wished he hadn’t. The drop was giddying. What kind of desperation did it take to leap off solid stone into nothingness?
An ambulance had pulled up at the base of the steps. Roberto snatched the Leica from his case—it was less unwieldy than the Graflex, though the picture quality was nothing like as sharp—and focused it on the scene below, where the body was being shuffled onto a stretcher. The church bell abruptly started to toll at the far end of the piazza, sounding slow and regretful, as a figure in loose black robes appeared on the steps of the church. It was a priest, standing in front of his plain and angular house of God. Even from this distance Roberto could feel the mood down below change as the priest’s shadow spread its arms in the shape of a cross and stretched out into the square.
“What the hell are you doing up here?”
Roberto swung round to find a burly middle-aged policeman behind him on top of the tower. “Taking photographs, of course. That’s what Chairman Grassi commissions me to do.”
“No one is allowed up here, Colonnello Sepe’s orders.”
The officer was beetroot red in the face, sweating and short of breath from the long climb up the tower steps. He glanced around at the ten-meter-square space with its bell house at the center, as if hoping for a chair to sit on. He removed his bicorn to cool his head but the sun slapped straight down on his bald patch, and the hat was rapidly replaced.
“There’s nothing here to see,” Roberto told him. “No sign of the woman. She’s left no imprint.”
“That’s for Colonnello Sepe to decide, not you.”
Roberto inclined his head. “Of course.” He had no wish to cause trouble.
“So clear off, fotografo.”
“I’m just packing up.”
He started to place the Leica back in his camera box, but to his surprise the policeman stumbled over to the far corner and vomited. He remained bent over, his chest heaving. Roberto abandoned his camera box, strode over, and placed a hand on the uniformed shoulder.
“Are you all right?”
A grunt and a spit of sulfurous bile, and then the man righted himself and wiped the back of his wrist across his mouth. His eyes looked anguished, but he shook off Roberto’s hand.
“I’m all right,” he muttered. “It’s just that I’ve never seen a woman’s body damaged like that before. She’s no older than my own daughter and the thought of anything like that happening . . .”
“Do they know who she is?”
“No identification on her? No purse or . . . ?”
“Nothing.” The policeman shook his head weakly and propped himself against the parapet. “What the hell makes a person do such a thing?”
The question hung in the air high above the steps below.
“A desire to punish,” Roberto said softly, more to himself than to the police officer. “To punish herself or to punish someone else.”
“She’s beyond pain now.”
Roberto felt a need to get away from this place, so he picked up his camera box, hitching its strap over his shoulder, and headed for the steps.
“One thing,” he said briskly. “Tell Sepe to look at her right wrist.”
The policeman suddenly became a policeman again. “Why? What’s on it?”
White. Shiny. The width of a flat knife blade.
“A burn,” he elaborated. “By the look of it, not recent.”
The policeman snorted. “Women are always burning themselves on the stove.”
Roberto shrugged and ducked into the cool silence within the tower. But as he hurried down the spiral steps, his left thumb could not keep from sweeping over the smooth shiny bar of skin inside his own right wrist.
“What’s that?” Rosa asked.
“It’s machinery. For the pumping station.”
Two haycarts were rumbling down the street toward Isabella and Rosa, slowing all the traffic, but instead of hay the vehicles were carrying massive machine parts. A great long screw hung out over the rear of one cart like an iron tail.
“It must be heavy,” the girl murmured.
“It is,” Isabella assured her. “They come by train and are carted out to the pumping station.”
“They must be strong.”
Each cart was hauled by two well-muscled beasts, and Rosa was staring at their long curved horns.
“Here they use Maremmana cattle instead of draft horses,” Isabella explained. “They can pull from dawn to dusk.”
As the hefty gray animals trundled past, their chests glistening with sweat, Isabella continued to lead the way to the police station. Like the Maremmanas, she was in no hurry. She had no wish to get where she was going. The roads were busy here, the noise of cars filling the air as people ambled along the sidewalks, going about their business at their usual leisurely pace. The houses in this part of town were smaller and more traditional, nudged up tight against each other under terra-cotta roofs and intended for lowly office workers. Splashes of color spilled from their windows. An amber rug was hanging out to air and a vibrant amethyst fuchsia trailed its tendrils from an earthenware window box.
Rosa looked around with interest as she walked at Isabella’s side, as docile as a well-schooled dog—it made Isabella wonder about the girl’s past. It wasn’t that she lacked spirit—she could see it in the dark flashes of her watchful round eyes—but Rosa knew how to keep it curbed. Isabella glanced down at her gleaming curls and at her neat profile that had the beginnings of a patrician nose that promised to be somewhat too large for her delicate face.
She would have to be told. Isabella knew that. She couldn’t let Rosa skip blithely into the police station with no idea why they were there. The words were prepared. I’m so sorry, Rosa, but a terrible thing has happened . . . Yet she could feel a resistance from Rosa, as if she sensed that something bad was about to come out of Isabella’s mouth. When the noise and smell of the carts had died away, Isabella tried again.
“Rosa, there’s something that you—”
“Why do you limp?”
Isabella sighed. “My back is damaged.”
Rosa’s attention was on a group of barefoot children playing a game with pebbles in the gutter.
“I was shot,” Isabella said.
The dark head whipped around. Now Isabella had her attention.
“My husband and I were both shot. But he died. The week before, he’d been in the March on Rome with Mussolini and . . .” Isabella shrugged. As if it meant nothing. “Someone wanted us dead because of that. That’s what the police said anyway.”
Their pace slowed. The child’s feet in scuffed sandals dragged across the paving stones. She stared up, eyes bright with curiosity. “Who did it?” she whispered.
“I don’t know. No one was ever caught.”
Rosa’s face turned away. “Oh,” was all she said.
“Your mother said something to me, Rosa. Something about my husband.”
Isabella looked for a reaction in the girl’s face, but there was none.
“Do you have any idea how your mother knew about my husband?” She asked the question gently, aware that she shouldn’t be asking. Not now. But she needed to know, so still she asked it. “How did she know who I am?”
The girl abruptly stopped walking, her thin blue dress clinging to her legs in the breeze, and stared directly into Isabella’s eyes. “I never know what thoughts are in Mamma’s head. She tells me nothing.” She gave a sharp single shake of her head to underline the word. “Nothing,” she repeated. “So I don’t know.”
A rush of guilt brought a flush to Isabella’s cheeks. How could she be having this conversation with the girl just before she told her that her mother was dead?
“Rosa.” She wrapped an arm around the small bony shoulders. The girl stiffened but didn’t pull away. “Take no notice of me, Rosa. I’m not used to talking with children, so I’m no good at it. I say the wrong things.”
Rosa dipped her chin to her chest. The slender pale triangle of the nape of her neck looked vulnerable in the glare of the sun.
“We’re going to the police station now.” Isabella took Rosa’s hand and started pushing herself along faster. “It’s about your mother.”
Rosa’s small fingers tightened. “Don’t say it,” she whispered in a voice so soft it was whisked away immediately on the wind. She tipped her head back and gazed up at the carved triangular pediment above the meeting hall that they were passing. “Tell me more about the architecture instead.”
Isabella understood. The desire to stave off the bad news that was rolling like thunderclouds toward them. She felt the same herself.
“See those,” she said, pointing at the façade of the building. “They are fluted pilasters copied from the designs of ancient Rome. But see how Frezzotti has combined them cleverly with soaring straight lines in the verticals and abrupt angles to create a building that is modern and exciting. We are creating a city that all Italy can be proud of.”
Rosa smiled and looked up, eager for more.
Isabella was not used to policemen. Or nuns. Or even priests, for that matter. In the airless interview room in the police station, she could see that the blackness of their robes and dark uniforms was crushing Rosa.
Isabella refused to give up her seat next to the girl at the table, despite the fact that Colonnello Sepe clearly wanted her out of the room. The nun was Sister Consolata, and she took Rosa’s face between her two large hands and beamed God-given comfort into her young soul with a warmth and conviction that Isabella envied. Rosa didn’t cry when she was told the truth about her mother. She sat there with lips white as bone, her hands gripping the edge of the table and her shoulders hunched forward as if she’d been punched in the middle of her chest. She said nothing. Not a word. Just a faint rush of air escaped from her lips. Isabella wished the girl would cry.
They had entered the police station and found a waiting committee of priest, nun, and policemen. Isabella held tight to Rosa’s hand, overtaken by an urge to turn around and drag the girl out of there, to flee from the accusations and complications that she could sense hovered in the air, thick as the cigarette smoke.
They were marched down a polished corridor flanked by dark office doors. Isabella could hear the chatter of typewriters behind them, and she glanced to her left when she saw that one of the doors stood open, revealing the figures of two men inside. Part of her hoped that one might be her father. What he could do to help, she had no idea, but she knew his presence would steady her.
“Did you find out anything? Was she pushed?”
The words came to Isabella clearly from inside the room, though they were not spoken loudly, and she recognized the voice of Signor Grassi, the Party chairman.
“No.” The answer was firm. “There was no sign of anyone else up there with her.”
The tall figure who replied had his back to her, and as she passed she caught the impression that he was a younger man with a pair of strong shoulders and a restlessness that made her think he did not want to be in that room.
Was she pushed?
Isabella looked quickly down at Rosa. Had she heard? Had her fingers tightened? The small face gave no sign but stared straight ahead with eyes that were flat and dull. The policeman opened a door at the end of the corridor. The interview room was painted a soulless beige and contained nothing but a metal table in the center and a row of chairs. It felt crowded with all five of them in it and smelled of bad drains—a problem that the new drainage pumps were fighting hard to rectify. A raw young police officer marched them into it, and it was plain to see that despite his crisp uniform and the gun holstered on his hip, he was ill at ease when confronted by an orphaned child and the might of God in a cassock and a wimple. Like the coward he was, he went for the easiest target.
“You,” he snapped at Isabella. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
“My name is Isabella Berotti. I am a friend of Rosa’s.”
That silenced him. Even he realized that the child needed every friend she could get right now. It was Sister Consolata who did most of the talking at this stage, and Isabella hoped that her sweet musical voice was bringing comfort to Rosa. The middle-aged nun, her gray eyes cradled in soft folds of freckled flesh, spoke to the girl with a gentle kindness from within the tight jaws of her white linen wimple and her stiff white headdress.
“Sorrow,” she crooned to Rosa, “is a heavy burden for one so young to carry, but our dear Lord is with you; He is our refuge and our strength at all times, my dear. Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. He gives us that promise, Rosa.”
But Rosa said nothing. Her small figure sat silent on the hard chair, her head bowed, her eyes down, cutting them all out of her world. Only her shoulders twitched now and again, a ghost walking cold fingers over her skin. Isabella longed to wrap an arm around her but knew instinctively that the girl wouldn’t welcome it, not here, not in front of these people. The priest—Isabella recognized him as Father Benedict—stood in matching silence, a tall imposing silhouette in flowing robes in front of the window where the light seemed to stream though him. The abrupt arrival of the carabinieri chief of police, Colonnello Sepe, in the interview room altered the atmosphere. It became suddenly more threatening. He took the seat opposite her.
“What’s your full name, Rosa?” he demanded. “What are you doing here in Bellina? Why did your mother go up our tower?”
The child’s lips didn’t move.
“She’s badly shocked, Colonnello. It’s too soon to be questioning her like this.”
“That decision is not yours to make, Signora Berotti.”
The police colonel was a man whose voice was as sharp as his features and whose dark hair, glistening with brilliantine, was cropped into a Julius Caesar style as though to remind people where the power lay. To Isabella’s surprise it was the priest who stepped forward to support her. An odor hung around his cassock, the smell of mothballs and incense. His eyes were the exact color of the ancient Bible clutched in his hand. His high forehead was deeply lined although he wasn’t old, as if the battle for souls had left its mark on his face.
“She’s right,” he said. “Let the girl go with Sister Consolata. You can speak to her tomorrow.”
“I brought her to you, Colonnello,” Isabella added, “because she needs help, not to be treated like a—”
“Silence!” Sepe snapped. “We have to ascertain whether this is the child of the dead woman. I need names. Rosa”—he leaned across the table, his hand slicing through the air between them as if to cut through to the truth—“what is your full name and what is your mother’s name?”
Even Isabella, who knew nothing at all about children, could have told him he wasn’t going to get far with a child using that tone of voice. All it did was make Rosa curl tighter into herself. Her head dropped farther down on her chest, her dark hair hiding her face from his inspection and thwarting his intent to intimidate her.
“We need the truth, girl,” he told her. “Your mother has committed a crime against God. As well as a crime against our town and a crime against Fascism itself. Her blood has tainted us. It defiles the steps of a glorious building that stands as an example to other towns and cities throughout the world. Italy is proud of this town. How dare your mother come here to—”
“Maybe, Colonnello,” Isabella interrupted, “if you tried being kind to young Rosa you would learn more. Offer her something that she needs right now, instead of insults.”
The police colonel’s glance slid across to Isabella and a tense silence spread itself through the room.
“Such as?” he asked coldly.
Rosa’s head jerked up and her eyes fixed on Colonnello Sepe with an unblinking stare. “I want to see Mamma.”
“Madonna mia!” The words burst from Sister Consolata. “But she’s dead.”
“I want to see her. Please. Let me see my mamma.”
“Rosa,” Isabella murmured, “are you sure? It will not be pleasant.”
But Colonnello Sepe had already pushed back his seat and was up on his feet. The faintest of smiles tugged at one corner of his mouth, and Isabella wanted to knock it off his face.
“Request granted,” he announced, and headed for the door.
Rosa jumped to her feet and was at his heels before he had crossed the room. Father Benedict strode forward and carved the sign of the cross into the air behind her.
It didn’t take long, but for Isabella every minute was a minute too long. The hospital morgue lay in a windowless chamber in which harsh lights picked out the details of the female form stretched out on a metal slab. Fingers at strange angles, the gleam of black hair muted by dried blood, a broken body hidden beneath a coarse brown rubberized sheet. In the foul-smelling silence they approached it warily.
Isabella tried not to look at the face, but it was impossible. It drew all eyes to itself, a brutal mask of blood and bone. Someone had mercifully closed the dead woman’s eyes, so there was no doll’s empty gaze this time, but her forehead curved the wrong way like a saucer of blood and the raw ends of cheekbones and jawbone protruded through the blackened skin. Isabella took Rosa’s hand firmly in hers.
“Enough,” she said. “You’ve seen enough.”
Rosa didn’t speak. Didn’t cry. But she was shaking. Her whole body was shaking so hard that Isabella could hear her teeth rattling in her head. On the other side of her, Sister Consolata was intoning a prayer, but it would take far more than a prayer to repair the damage being done in this room.
“So?” Colonnello Sepe stood on the far side of the slab, his sharp eyes watching every breath Rosa took. “Is it her?”
It was her all right. Behind the mask of blood, even Isabella could see that it was the woman who had stood in the sunlit piazza earlier and said, You are a good person. Why hadn’t she invited her to sit down? Why didn’t she have the sense to have offered this troubled woman a sympathetic ear for her problems? All she had done was to give an ice cream to her daughter.
“So?” Colonnello Sepe demanded again.
“Si, she’s my mother.” Rosa squeezed out the words between chattering teeth. “She is Allegra Bianchi. She brought me to Bellina to get rid of me.”
Isabella believed that was the end of it.
She honestly tried to put behind her the woman’s words—They know who killed your bastard husband—and to slot back into her old life, knowing that Rosa was beginning a new one in the care of the nuns. That was what was meant to happen, wasn’t it? You just had to get on with things—like learning to walk again and breathing and doing whatever it is you do to fill each day. She’d done it once before ten years ago; she could do it again.
But it wasn’t that simple. The day that was meant to be a day of sorrow for Luigi had cracked open and allowed the past to flood in. Isabella lay in bed that night, tossing and turning, her legs fighting the bedsheets and her head pounding. Allegra Bianchi’s suicide was a hard thing to live with in the dark. Her words had cut open old wounds.
All night Isabella listened to the wind whipping itself up into a fury and roaring across the flat floodplain from Cisterna to Terracina. It was rattling the shutters, scraping the dry bones of its knuckles over them, making her skin crawl until she could stand it no longer. She kicked off the sheet and gave up on the night.
“What are you doing?”
“Scrubbing.” Isabella was on her hands and knees.
Her father looked down at the soapy brush in her hand and at the spotless kitchen flagstones and walls, and sighed with an exaggerated shudder.
He removed her scrubbing brush and tossed it with disdain under the big enamel sink. “Come, mia figlia, sit and drink coffee with your father.”
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Détails sur le produit
- ASIN : B00LTUC6UC
- Éditeur : Sphere (25 novembre 2014)
- Langue : Anglais
- Taille du fichier : 1232 KB
- Synthèse vocale : Activée
- Confort de lecture : Activé
- X-Ray : Activé
- Word Wise : Activé
- Nombre de pages de l'édition imprimée : 439 pages
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