Chapter Samples


The Letter

The Letter


3127 Calle Lanza

Venice


21 December 2017


Dear Daniel,


Outside snow floats like angel wings from the heavens, covering the tessellated rooftops of Venice with a feathery mantle. Genesis’ “And Then There Were Three” plays softly in the background and the music transports me back to one of the most magical Christmases of my life. Nearly forty years ago. I wonder if you still remember? 


You once said that you could navigate all the triangulation points in your life from 1978 to 1999 through the music you had discovered and made your own. I hope that the playlist I’m making now might help me to do the same. 


Since Dr Whittington delivered the news my daughter, Jessica, has been inconsolable. She wept on the flight all the way home to Venice.


I know you will never read this letter, as I shall never send it. I am frightened, Daniel. How I long to hear you say, 'Everything’s going to be alright, Claire. Trust me.'


The music ends. Now, only the metronomic click of the clock in the hallway punctuates the silence. Fragmenting time. 


Like you, I have tried to bury the past. To lock it away, unseen and undisturbed deep in a vault where it can do no more harm. 


“Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” I have been afraid to reveal the truth. But, there is so much I need to say. Before it’s too late.


Beside me on my bed is a box. I trail my fingers through the film of dust on its lid. It’s been hidden in the ripostiglio - our storage cellar - for eighteen years. This box contains the archive of my life; the ghosts of the past, laughter, music and tears linger within. 


With trembling hands I lift the lid. 


Like a Russian doll, inside there are more boxes. One purple. One pink. And this one - an Italian shoe box tied with a pale green ribbon. I untie the satin bow and open it. I find a small red diary from 1978, a luggage tag, a cassette tape, a tiny handmade envelope containing a lock of hair, a beautiful watch engraved with the words, ‘For Claire, Love Daniel’, a bundle of letters - orange, brown, grey envelopes - all neatly stacked in date order and tied with a red ribbon. And a photograph.


I’ve always had a memory for the finest details. I once even called myself a ‘memory archivist’. You said that I was more like an anarchist, throwing memories, like grenades, into our lives. 


I’m about to pull the pin on the final one.

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Track One

Track One

Track One

Daydreamer

David Cassidy

https://open.spotify.com/track/5a42aKUmLpLRLE4XrBE8uJ?si=aiaWqRIRQl-KuS9tKf9QCg


Aston Chorley, January 1978


Just in time, panting and breathless, Rachael and I leapt aboard. The guard’s whistle shrieked, doors banged behind us in synchrony and the ten-past five train to Aston Chorley wheezed out of Manchester Piccadilly. 


Ian, Steve and Bobby from the Boy’s school, the sister to Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar  which Rachael and I attended, had beaten us in our daily race from the bus stop. Blazers in a heap, ties stuffed into their trouser pockets and rugby kit bags strewn around the floor, they were already sprawled - feet up - over the British Rail red and grey striped moquette seats. A stench of stale mud, socks, sweat and Brut permeated the carriage. Hunched over a copy of New Musical Express, they were absorbed in a debate about the results of a readers’ poll which was dominated by the Sex Pistols and Bowie - aghast that Pink Floyd hadn’t even made it to the list. Looking up briefly, they nodded and grunted at us in acknowledgment, before returning to compare the merits of The Clash and The Jam.


I rolled my eyes at Rachael who shrugged and unstrapped her black leather briefcase. She took out a copy of Pride and Prejudice, a ring binder neatly sectioned with coloured dividers, a Parker fountain pen and began to make notes for the English essay we’d been set; “Discuss the importance of social class in the novel, especially as it impacts the relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy.” It wasn’t due to be handed in for another two weeks. I had a quick rummage through my shoulder bag to find the remnants of my packed lunch - a bruised apple and a Dairylea and tomato sandwich I’d hastily made that morning - my sketchbook, a pencil case bursting with chalk pastels and a copy of Jackie magazine. I had left my homework at school.


As the train clickety-clacked over the rails in monotonous rhythm, I gazed out through the murky windows at the rush-hour traffic choking the streets, brake lights scintillating like spinning rosary beads. Domino-shaped tower blocks shrank into the distance, giving way to dark mounds and necklaces of light twinkling like diamonds around the throat of the hills. The train entered the long tunnel beneath the moor, the track running parallel with the canal, and I was engulfed by a familiar sense of suffocation. Like the wings of a canary trapped in a mine, the nearer we got to home, the faster my heart fluttered in my chest. I was dreading the moment I’d have to reveal the results of my History mock ‘O’ level. Rachael had an A star - I’d only got an A minus. I already knew how my mother would react.


‘How did you escape again?’ I found Shandy, our beagle-terrier-mix-up sitting on a bench next to Bill, the elderly guard at Aston Chorley station.

'He’s a bit early today, love. Been ‘ere for about an hour. I’ve given him a biscuit or two,’ he smiled.

‘Oh thank you, Bill. I’m so sorry. At least I know he’s safe with you,’ and I gave him a quick hug. 

‘It’s summat and nowt,’ he muttered and straightened his cap.

‘You’re a naughty dog,’ I bent to kiss Shandy’s nose and ruffled his ears. He licked my face and whipped his tail in uncontrollable delight. ‘Come on. We’d better get going.’ I unwrapped my school scarf and threaded it through his collar. ‘See you tomorrow Rachael,’ I shouted over my shoulder as she headed off to the car park where her mother waited. 

‘Don’t forget to give your mum the letter,’ she called back.

As the tail lights of the train receded Bill watched us over the wooden rail crossing to the opposite side of the tracks. 


On our familiar route home, we met Mrs Mullord with Crackers, her miniature black poodle, who was now as wobbly on his pins as his eighty-year old owner. She was on her way to post a letter. The dog gave me a toothless grin of recognition before growling at Shandy who was attempting to sniff his nether regions. I’d known Mrs Mullord since I was a little girl when she’d invite me to visit her, to play with Crackers and dress him up in a collection of coats and co-ordinating diamante collars and leads. She’d make us both a cup of tea and I’d sit cross-legged on the floor as she fired my imagination with stories of her beloved, long since deceased Arthur and their honeymoon on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

‘I’ll take that for you, if you like, Mrs Mullord? I’m going past the post box anyway.’

'That would be such a help, my dear. Thank you.’ With a wave of her gloved hand she and Crackers shuffled off towards her cottage. 

I stopped again at the village shop to collect the evening paper from Mrs Goodchild who was closing up for the day, posted Mrs Mullord’s letter just before the last collection and passed the phone box - its door was wedged open and a boy smoked inside - before reaching the row of semi-detached properties at the far end of the village where we lived.


My mother was marking school books at the dining room table.‘Mum…I’ve got something to…’ 

‘Not now, Claire, I’m busy,’ she dismissed me with a flick of her wrist. I took the letter out of my blazer pocket. ‘Can you get the tea on.’ 

It was an instruction rather than a request. As Deputy Head of the village primary school I think she sometimes forgot that my dad and I weren’t members of her staff. 

I left the envelope on the table next to her, then went into the kitchen with Shandy who pranced around my heels in anticipation of his pre-dinner treat. I filled the kettle and as it banged and boiled I couldn’t quite make out my mother calling, ‘Did you get any exam results today?’

I carved the cold lamb from yesterday’s roast, slipping some into the dog’s bowl, chopped tomatoes, shredded lettuce, sliced cucumber and arranged the salad on three plates. Then I peeled potatoes and cut them into chips which my dad would cook when he got home from work. Glancing up at the clock on the wall, garish orange with white plastic numerals and a clicking battery, I guessed that he’d be back in an hour. I remembered to get the Branston pickle out of the cupboard before retreating to the sanctity of my bedroom with Shandy, as I did most evenings, to wait for him. 


My bedroom was a girl’s dream - at least I thought so at the time. I had chosen all the décor myself. The walls were papered with blowsy peonies, the doors and skirting painted in a matching shade of lilac gloss and faded rose damask curtains hung from floor to ceiling in theatrical swathes. I wasn’t allowed to put up the magazine pull-outs of Starsky and Hutch, John Travolta and the Bay City Rollers which Rachael had on her walls, instead I had a picture of Rossano Brazzi stuck on the mirror above my dressing table with Sellotape. It was a still from Summertime which I’d found in an old copy of Good Housekeeping. Rachael and I had watched the film one rainy afternoon last summer and I had instantly fallen in love. I can still clearly remember that image of Renato, Brazzi’s character, sitting in a café in San Marco, admiring an unworldly and oblivious Jane Hudson from behind. He wore a pale grey suit with a spotted tie, his dark hair brushed away from a handsome tanned face. I thought he was to die for.


I settled myself on the bed, propped up on pillows against the velvet padded headboard, took out my sketchbook and pastels and started to copy the flowery patterns on the wall. I was doing an Art ‘O’ level, which my mother thought was a complete waste of time, but I loved it. On my bedside table was a small pile of art books about Turner, Gainsborough and Monet which my dad thought might inspire me. I was seduced by the colours, textures, and deftness with which they could evoke the light. In the summer holidays I’d set off with Shandy, a picnic which we shared, and my sketchbook to the hills above the reservoir where I’d spend hours making smeary images of the pinky heathers and the clouds which tumbled across the skies. Looking back now, with the benefit of many years’ hindsight, I think I was always predisposed to Romanticism, long before I knew the real meaning of the word, or before I met you.

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Track Two

Track Two


Track Two

Lover Boy

https://open.spotify.com/track/7cWNiTWV2kSqBHtlMsE4zg?si=jgHFdzZATmCGrhce34v_mQ


Rome, April 1978


You were sitting on a discarded Roman column outside the Colosseum when I first saw you, wearing a blue t-shirt with My name is Daniel Vandenburg printed across the front, stone coloured chinos and a camera hung around your neck. In the midday warmth of spring in Rome a thick white cable-knit sweater was knotted loosely over your shoulders. While the other students around you, clad in trainers and faded jeans, grinned and japed for a group photo, you wrote in a notebook.


Rachael and I stood a few metres away from you, surrounded by a group of mangy feral cats that wafted and wound their tails around us in the forlorn hope of food. 


Looking up, as if you knew you were being watched, you pushed your left hand through the mop of dark hair that flopped onto your forehead, and away from your face. It was a gesture that would become as familiar to me as the sound of my own voice. You glanced over towards us, but your eyes were hidden behind dark sunglasses. 


‘He’s cute!’ Rachael nudged me. 


I looked at her. Like a pre-Raphaelite model the delicate features of her pale face framed by rippling titian-red hair, her long legs were encased in tight jeans and a simple white t-shirt clung to her skinny frame. I had always wanted to look like her: to be like her. But I was the diametric opposite. At five foot five, I had grey eyes, a freckled nose and my mousey-blonde hair was cut into a short bob, which kicked up at the edges however much I smoothed it into shape. Boys often said that they thought I was pretty, but usually with their eyes focused on the area below my neck. Just as Mark Morgan had noted, my greatest and simultaneously most embarrassing asset was a curvaceous chest. That day I wore a long cerise-pink floral skirt with a loose white lacy blouse that concealed the bits of me I hated. 


‘Sorry?’ I pretended not to have seen you. Standing next to Rachael it was obvious, at least to me, that you must have noticed her.

‘Over there.’ Rachael nodded in your direction.

'Oh. Him.’ I tried to sound casual.  

‘Claire Verity, you can’t fool me! He’s just your type - the studious, romantic hero. Everywoman’s Darcy.’ She flashed you a broad grin. You quickly looked back down at your notebook.

‘Just shut up, Rachael.’ I stooped on the pretext of stroking one of the cats. My cheeks burnt, my heart thumped. ‘Get a grip, Claire.’ I muttered under my breath. It was absurd to feel like this. You were only a boy sitting on an ancient rock, after all. 


And that was when I fell in love with you.

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Track Three

Track Three

You

Track Three

Downstream

Supertramp

https://open.spotify.com/track/6qt4bkV87LiNFu6sqqfpmr?si=Wt1aEZVsTZWFN6njdtmiXw


Venice, January 2018


It’s a beautiful crisp morning. The low winter sun twinkles on the puddles from last night’s downpour, bouncing shafts of iridescent light across the street. Downstream plays through my Mac and, as the piano chords sparkle and swell, through the misted windows of my mind hazy memories come into sharper focus. I remember when we took a boat on Sunday…and it rained.


Venice, April 1978


‘Claire,’ Rachael gently tapped my arm. ‘Wake up! We’re nearly there.’ 

We’d been squashed into the carriage from Rome for the last few hours. Your arms around me, my head on your chest and, still wearing your white sweater, we had slept all the way. I wriggled free, Rachael slid the narrow window open and together we peered out. I felt the warm evening air light on my face and took a deep breath.  The individual components were indefinable, but the combination was unmistakable. The unique smell of the sea.


‘Guess who I am, Rachael?’ I pretended to film her with a movie camera. ‘I’m an independent type, Cookie.’

‘Easy. Katharine Hepburn. Summertime.’

‘With the divine Rossano Brazzi!’

Rachael rolled her eyes at me as you stirred in your sleep.


The train rattled across the bridge coupling Venice with the mainland. And then she appeared. Like a watercolour sketch, her spindle-shaped campanile, the curve of her elegant domes and haphazard undulating rooftops were finely drawn against the translucent pink-smudged sky. Venice; La Serenissima.

‘It didn’t have a happy ending though, did it?’ Rachael whispered in my ear.

‘Depends what you call happy. Although Renato didn’t get to the train in time she had an unspoilt, eternal love to remember.’

‘But when she got back to Ohio, did she survive on the memory of that love? Or did she starve for the lack of it?’

‘You’re such a cynic, Rachael. It’s just a film.’

The train finally slowed and, brakes screeching, we pulled into Santa Lucia station.  


We floated in a bubble for those two days in Venice. You and I.


In Piazza San Marco, Napoleon’s great drawing room, you photographed everything and everyone; the stately colonnade; the terracotta Campanile tipped with a verdigris tower; the glittering mosaics and gilded bronze horses of St Mark’s basilica; musicians in dinner jackets serenading lunchtime customers at the tables of Florian and Quadri; pigeons, in their hundreds, swooping and nose-diving around tourists clutching packets of bird seed. 


We wandered from Piazza San Marco, through the maze of passages in the Mercerie, through Campo Santo Stefano and up onto the wooden Accademia bridge which, like a meccano construction, straddles the Grand Canal. Below us, liquorice black gondolas, polished as patent leather, gleamed on the greenish water, their boughs, tipped with silver ferri, flashing like swords in the sunshine. They rocked and bobbed against candy-striped mooring posts as vaporetti and motoscafi ploughed gentle furrows through the water. We watched them veer from one side of the canal to the other, disgorging passengers onto the vaporetto pontoons before plying past San Salute, the majestic sentry church at the yawning mouth of the Grand Canal, and out into the Bacino.


After crossing the bridge we turned left, past a cosy neighbourhood café, noisy with chatter and the gush of steaming coffee machines and a row of shops selling coloured glass, hand-printed paper, and Venetian velvet slippers in rich gemstone colours. The narrow calle eventually opened onto a wide fondamenta alongside a canal, bordered by a walled garden overflowing with cascades of early white geraniums and magnolia blossom. 


‘I recognise this! This is where Jane meets the little beggar boy.’

‘Jane? The beggar boy?’ you were mystified.

‘In Summertime.’

'Another film?’

‘This is not just another film. It’s my absolute favourite. It’s David Lean’s homage to Venice.’

‘Perhaps we’ll watch it together sometime.’ You laughed and kissed me.

I wondered how on earth that could ever be possible. Like Jane and Renato, our romance was destined to be an idyllic, but very short-lived one. We had spent every hour possible together since Rome. But I was already dreading the moment when we would finally be separated. It was simply unbearable to imagine.

‘Come over here,’ you sat on the bridge. Holding out your arms to me you looped your Olympus Trip over my neck. ‘Have a go,’ you said. ‘Take a photograph.’


I’d never held a 35mm camera before. On the bridge at Campiello Barbaro I took my first picture: of you.

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Track Four

Track Four

Track Four

You

Randy Edelman

https://open.spotify.com/track/1bDQtbQa1riyqBNu500T3n?si=bbrs7OfPTw2kqoWwWpVFWQ


Venice, February 2018


The days since Christmas have been short and the nights too long. Acqua alta plagues the serene city; like a serpent, the salty marsh water above which she sits, creeps out of her canals, slides down her alleys and threatens to strangle and suck Venice back into the sea.


I have been hiding away, scarcely venturing outside. In the gloom of the fog which swirls around me, I cannot see a future.


Yesterday, when Jessica arrived home from school the apartment was in darkness.

‘Mum! Mum? Where are you?’

The door burst open and, like the arrival of the Angel Gabriel and the holy host, light flooded the room.

She stood in the doorway, hands on her hips, staring at me in silent provocation. In the light her dark hair glowed like a chestnut roasting over an open fire, rippling in waves onto her shoulders. Her lips, usually pink and plump, were clamped together tight as an oyster shell and beneath thick eyebrows, arched in a permanent question mark, her cat-like eyes were oval and daring.

‘What have you done today?’ she crossed her arms, barely able to contain her fury.

I was still in my dressing gown, propped up in bed, with the laptop unopened by my side.

‘I… haven’t…’

‘Did you actually listen to Dr Whittington? When was the last time you even played any music?’

‘I don’t think I can…’

‘Can’t or won’t?’ she exploded, tears filling her eyes. ‘If you won’t do it for yourself, then what about me? You’re all I have. Don’t you even care? You’re so selfish!’

With a defiant toss of her head, she turned and fled to her room.


Half an hour later, Eros Ramazzotti blared from the radio, pots clanged and the enticing scents of garlic and basil wafted down the hallway as Jessica prepared the supper. I smiled wryly. She was so much like I had been at her age. I got up and padded in my slippers to the kitchen. Jessica glanced over her shoulder, then silently passed me a knife and I began chopping tomatoes at her side.


Now, the door to the street slams shut, the lock trundles and Jessica’s footsteps recede along the calle. She is on her way to school. Last night I saw the fear in her eyes. However brave and feisty, she is still a child. My child. She’s right. I know that I must do this, however painful, and whatever it might bring.Good or bad.


I open the windows, push back the shutters and breathe in the sweet smell of vanilla floating up from the bakery. Beyond the mosaic of terracotta roofs, birds swoop against a pale blue sky and creamy sunshine promises an unseasonably warm day. Today heralds the advent of spring.


I dress, pick up my camera and sunglasses and set off towards a far flung part of Venice that I haven’t visited for years. I will test myself.


Strolling down the Via Garibaldi I stop to photograph a fish stall, a boat on the canal piled high with vegetables and a group of old men smoking outside a café. At the end of the street I turn left down a narrow calle bordered on each side by tall ochre-coloured buildings. High above my head, freshly laundered sheets sway from communal lines strung across the alley, casting fluid shapes on the walls and pavement below. I pause again to capture the fleeting patterns and playful shadows with my Nikon.


I find a tiny neighbourhood restaurant for lunch with a beamed ceiling, wooden tables laid with plain paper cloths and walls plastered with posters of Molluschi, crostace e anelidi di laguna. In the corner, a group of young men chatter animatedly over steaming cups of espresso. I sit at one of the empty tables and order a Campari spritz and a plate of cicchetti. I look on in amazement as the frail old man next to me devours a bowl of gnocchi in ragu followed by a huge pile of roast veal, which he douses in lemon and black pepper.


A whoosh of hot air, and the kitchen door swings open. Like a ninja warrior the cook, wearing a black apron and matching bandana, bursts through. In his hand is a twitching plastic bag.‘Ciao, Piero! Cosa hai nella borsa?’ The young men greet him. He joins their table and wrestles a wriggling black lobster from the bag. I watch in horror as it unfurls its claws and back, stretching to feel the reach of its limbs, relieved to be free from the sweaty stickiness of its confinement. They poke and prod the animal as it squirms and snaps between the Ninja’s fingers. I feel my heart pound, a raging anger pulses through my veins. I want to run over and snatch it from the assassin’s hands, flee with the creature to the waters edge and let it scramble to safety. But I know I cannot. A wave of sadness drowns me. I watch as the tormented crustacean writhes in its last moments of freedom, before perishing in a pan of boiling water. It is such an unjust and cruel end to life.


I pay for my lunch then walk purposefully towards the island of San Pietro. A neglected part of town rarely visited by tourists, or even by Venetians beyond the sestiere, it is best known for the Palladian church of San Pietro di Castello, once the cathedral of Venice. In the small square opposite the church I erect the tripod, screw my camera onto the mount preparing to record, second by second, the changing light across its gleaming white façade. 


Shaking; Spinning; Sinking.


I drop onto the grass, grateful for the solid ground beneath me. Fatigue engulfs me. I fumble around in my bag, find my headphones and put them on. They cushion my ears, sealing in the sounds and the memories. They have become my comfort blanket now for times when I feel like this. I stretch out, like a languid cat, beneath the cloudless azure sky, close my eyes and breathe in deeply. The sun kisses my skin, the sharp grass pricks the backs of my legs. I press play and Randy Edelman sings that you are one of the few things worth remembering… 


And I am lying next to you, by the reservoir in Frampton, on a blistering summer’s day…


Frampton, July 1978 


‘Don’t be nervous, Claire. They’ll love you. They’re really not that scary.’ 

You kissed me, and with your arm wrapped around my waist, we walked to the car park underneath Euston station where your parents waited for us. They stood in the shadows, in front of a sleek black Mercedes.

‘Hello, Claire.’ Your father shook my hand firmly. ‘I hope you had a pleasant journey?’ 

Tall, silver hair swept away from his face, he wore a checked shirt, beige slacks and asports jacket, even though it was a scorching July day.

‘How nice to meet you,’ your mother added, fixing me with unsmiling eyes. 


Hot and sticky on the leather seats in the back of your father’s car, I held your hand tightly and studied your mother’s reflection in the wing mirror. Her steel grey, immaculately coiffured hair was backcombed and tucked behind ears adorned with pearl earrings. She wore a double strand of pearls around her neck (I guessed that they too were real), a short-sleeved cream silk blouse, a camel coloured cotton Jaeger skirt and a Hermes scarf was draped across her shoulders. Her manicured nails were painted in a sheer gloss and an enormous sapphire and diamond ring sparkled on her wedding finger.


We drove to Sussex mostly in silence. The low hum of the engine and the smoothness of the ride made me feel sleepy. The busy roads lined with grimy inner-city terraces and multi-coloured ethnic grocery stores turned into leafy suburban streets and then became open fields and tall-hedged narrow leafy lanes. Gliding through villages with white wooden houses, smooth green cricket pitches, gardens brimming with foxgloves and roses, and country pubs, we finally arrived in Frampton.


We turned into the driveway hidden behind a carpet of joyful yellow flowers.  Many years later when I planted my own garden I discovered that they are called Hypericum, or Rose of Sharon. But I will always remember them as Frampton blossom. Whenever I see them, I think of you.

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