|Fall 2012 Fiction & Poetry Anthology | Contents | Authors | echapbook.com|
Kat’s first instinct, when she saw the woman step from the bus, was to hide, slide under the table, vanish like a phantom. Or run. But her husband sat next to her in the noisy pavement café, watching the kaleidoscope shapes and shades of the busy Firenze street.
They had noted the UK logo on the tour bus, watched the vehicle come to a stop outside the Hotel Caravaggio, just yards away. Minutes later, a party of middle-aged Brits, in a surge of primary color cottons and new sun hats, stepped off. The tourists stood together, stretching, looking across the wide piazza, gazing at the stunning symmetry of architecture with a bright and determined interest.
“Your countrymen,” Tom said, grinning. “On the lookout for fish and chips and a nice cup of tea.”
The last woman to step from the bus had a frizz of blonde hair, a sunburnt face and wore a sundress in vibrant pink. She carried a beach bag, so wrong for this Italian city: the Vespa gangs would snatch her purse right off the top. The woman removed her sunglasses and squinted at the hotel sign.
Kat felt a sharp tremble of shock and instinctively dropped her head, crouching low in the café chair. That face. Angela.
Don’t see me, please don’t see me.
“You gonna drink that coffee, sweetheart, or just stare into it?” Tom asked. “You look like you’re reading tea leaves.”
Kat lifted the mug, hid her face behind the cup of cooling cappuccino.
“Why don’t you hit the exchange now, Tom? So we don’t run out of cash.”
“We can do it later. Sophie will be here any minute.”
“She’ll be late. She’s shopping.”
He shrugged, pushed his cup away and began to gather up the newspaper. Out of the corner of her eye, Kat saw a blur of pink cotton, too close.
Then a voice, loud, rising on the question: “I don’t believe it. Kat?”
The woman was at their table.
“It is you. Blimey. You look so posh.”
For a moment, Kat considered a blank look, a shake of the head. She could pretend one more time. She had been pretending for nearly twenty years. But — Tom had turned when he heard his wife’s name. Kat looked up and found that when she tried to smile her mouth was trembling,
“Angela,” she said. “What a surprise.”
That same face, twenty years ago, had been sunburnt then, too, freckled, nose peeling. Angela had been fifteen years old, lying on a blanket in the Monument Park, her knickers tangled around one ankle, her breasts, a ghostly white in the shadowy light, pulled free from her bra. Kat, wine-heavy, body sore, wanted only to be away, far away. She had raced to Jed’s motorbike, climbed onto it.
“Let’s go,” she said. “Quick.”
He hadn’t needed persuading. She placed her arms around his waist, held on tight. As the bike engine revved, she heard Angela’s voice behind her, urgent, screaming.
Kat introduced Tom.
“This is Angela Wilson,” she said. “I knew her years ago.”
Her voice sounded odd in her ears, too high, too bright. Tom, always the courteous Texan, jumped to his feet, urging Angela to join them. He pulled out a chair and Angela squashed into it, settling herself.
“You’re on vacation, Angela? A tour?” Tom asked.
“Yeah. My first time, would you believe. Never been abroad before.”
Never bin. The accent was the same.
“So how long you here in Florence?”
“Just one day, one night. Then to Rome. Five city tour. I wanted to see everything.”
Kat took a breath, nudged her husband.
“Currency exchange? While we’ve got time,” she said.
He looked at her, puzzled a moment and then smiled.
“You gals want to chat? Okay. Fine. Back in a minute,” he said.
Kat watched him as he threaded his way through the tourists and crossed the piazza, heading towards the Bank de Change. She felt her breath easing. When he was no longer visible, she turned back to the woman who now regarded her steadily. Angela’s smile had faded. The blue eyes were small stones, cold and unforgiving.
“So you married an American?” Angela said. “Look like one yourself now. Where’d you meet him? You dump that Jed for him?”
Kat ignored the questions, said instead: “How about if I call you later, Angela? At the hotel.”
“Haven’t forgot you know. That night. How could you just take off?”
“Sorry. I have to go.”
Kat stood, placed too many Euros on the table for the tab.
“Not a word. Didn’t even come back to bury your ma,” Angela continued, solid and unmoving in the café chair. “Never did understand that. Nor did my mum. After she took you in and all. She told the Social she’d done her best.”
Kat could hear the voice in her head: After all I’ve done for her.
Just a confusion of snapshots in her memory now. When she thought back to those days it was as if she was seeing through a filtered lens. The last day of school was the only time with clarity. A good student, Kat liked school, always dreaded the long difficult days of summer, and so she was already anxious when she stepped into the dank hall of the council flats, hurried past empty bottles, syringes, all the detritus of despair and neglect. The bulb on the third floor corridor was out again. It was dark.
Kat pushed her key into the door of the flat and stumbled into the large rug, for some reason rolled up in the hall. She heard a low moaning sound and she stood, confused for a while, unable to locate it. Then she understood. Her mother had rolled herself into the rug, trying to hide. Kat had known the breakdown was coming. The wild mood swings, the purple painted walls of the kitchen, then the slow descent, the dead log sleeping. It had happened before. When the doctor arrived and an ambulance was called, the moaning had stopped. The doctor said he would telephone for help for Kat but Dora, Angela’s mother, appeared from next door and offered to take her in until the Social could be contacted. It was Dora who told her that night that her mother had died.
“We was going to ask the cops to find you,” Angela said now. “But Mum said you’d come back after a bit.”
“Look, Angela, I’ll call you later. Okay?”
“Isn’t your husband coming back here?”
“No,” Kat said, her eyes fixed on the street.
“Didn’t give a bugger, did you?” Angela said. “You knew what was going on. You saw. I know you did.”
She had gone to the park with Angela that night to get away from Dora’s grimy council flat, crowded with children and Dora’s visiting boyfriends, and to escape the haunting image of her mother’s body wrapped in that rug. The social worker, a brusque middle-aged woman, who talked while scribbling notes in a file, had said decisions must be made about Kat’s future; a plan must be made for the funeral. Kat had stared at the woman, her mind blank, not knowing where to begin. How could she decide about a funeral? A future? She was sixteen years old.
The park was the gathering point for the teenagers of the neighborhood. They met in a copse between the wide oaks, drank cheap wine and cider, smoked. Harry, a skinny boy from the next street, was Angela’s most recent crush. But on this night older boys from the estate joined them and then very late, when most of the boys and all of the girls except Angela and Kat, had left, a new boy rode up on a motorcycle. Older, almost a man, Jed lived in the city, and had couriered a package for one of the gang leaders on the estate. His motorbike and black leather clothes, his very presence, spurred the younger boys into showing off with smart talk, sexual bragging. Jed said little but looked from Angela, who was leaning forward, her breasts visible, to Kat, who had drunk too much and could only smile. He chose Kat, finally, pulled her away from the group to a dark spot behind a drooping birch tree and began to touch her. She didn’t say yes, but she didn’t say no either. She remembered the wind picking up, the howling in the trees, scudding clouds across a narrow moon.
She heard the low murmuring of the boys, a strange tribal sound, as she and Jed walked back to the group. Angela was in the center, the boys crowded around her.
“Let’s go,” Kat said to Jed, heading for the motorcycle, wanting only to escape.
“You ever think about it?” Angela asked.
Her face changed then. She looked beyond Kat, into the crowd.
“Here’s your husband,” she said.
Kat turned, fast. Tom was only yards away. A gap in the crowd allowed her a glimpse of a pretty young woman with dark curls, swinging her shopping bags. Sophie. Her daughter waved, spotting her. Too late to run. Too late.
“Look who I found hanging about on the Ponte Vecchio,” Tom said.
Kat picked up her bag, attempted a smile for her daughter.
“Glad you found her,” she said. “We have to go.”
“Hey, what about a drink?” Sophie asked.
“We have to call Jack.”
Their son was river rafting in California with his best friend’s family.
“Mom, it’s the middle of the night there!” Sophie said.
Sophie turned to look curiously at Angela, still sitting stoically at the café table, her eyes flickering from face to face.
“This is Angela,” Tom said. “Your mom’s friend from England.”
“Angela’s just leaving,” Kat said. “She needs to unpack. I’ll call her later.”
Sophie smiled at the woman.
“Hi,” she said, studying her.
Angela, equally open, studied Sophie back.
“Pleased to meet you,” Angela said. “You must be Kat’s daughter.”
Kat felt her heart leap with fear.
“I’ve paid,” Kat said, indicating the notes on top of the check. “Let’s go.”
Angela stood then, slowly.
“Damn shame you’ve got to run,” Tom said. “Never met any of Kat’s friends who knew her when.”
“We were kids together,” Angela said. “Weren’t we, Kat? Oh, I could tell you tales.”
“You’re kidding,” Tom said, delighted.
“About Mom?” Sophie asked, grinning.
“Why don’t you join us for dinner, Angela?” Tom asked. Kat turned quickly to look at her husband.
“Not tonight, Tom.”
He returned her look, puzzled.
“Oh, right. We were going to cook in. Well, Angela could join us. Barbeque. Change from hotel food?”
“Okay. Yes,” Kat said, thinking — Get rid of her, call her later and cancel. Anything. Just make her go!
“They call it a villa,” Tom said, as he wrote down the address. “It’s not. It’s a little hacienda, a cottage. But it’s charming. Just off the Piazzi de Pitti. Any cab driver will know.”
Angela took the address, studied it and nodded.
“See you later,” she said.
They watched her as, plastic sandals flopping, bag banging against her side, she headed towards the hotel. Kat weak with relief, leaned into her husband’s arm.
“You okay?” Tom asked.
“Mom, you really did not like that woman,” Sophie said, laughing.
“Hated her,” Kat lied. “She was a bully.”
“She’s in the city of Machiavelli,” Tom said. “She should fit right in. Anyway, we won’t let her scare you.”
“For God’s sake, Tom,” Kat said.
Jed had taken her to the city that night, to sleep on the floor of someone’s squat. The darkest, ugliest place, even the council flat seemed palatial in comparison. Three months later they rented a bed-sit in the basement of an old building and Kat found a job working for an American law office as photocopier, odd jobber. It paid well. Kat and Jed lived together for almost a year, squabbling over money and Jed’s frequent disappearances, until Jed was arrested for assaulting a shopkeeper he had attempted to rob and bail was denied. Two days afterwards, Kat discovered that she was pregnant and one afternoon, as she worked late at the office, Jefferson Chandler, a senior partner in the firm, found her sobbing over the photocopier.
“Hey,” he had said, touching her shoulder. “What’s all this about?”
His kindness surprised her. She had caught him looking at her a few times but many of the men in the office looked at her. In those days, she had the kind of body, the kind of face, that men noticed. She had not intended to seduce him. When she told him about the pregnancy, he invited her to move into his large house in North London. Empty and echoing, he said, since his wife died. She married him six weeks before Sophie was born, and two months before his contract required that he move back to the US.
“You don’t mind?” he’d asked. “It’ll be kinda strange for you. New country and all.”
“No. It will be wonderful,” she said, meaning it. A new life. A respectable, caring father for her child. She never contacted Jed. She never told him of the pregnancy.
And so she found herself in a small beach community within an hour of Los Angeles and a life that was a learning curve. She learned quickly, created a believable persona, an Avatar with manicured nails, perfect teeth, salon-shaped hair. She had always loved to read; now she read with a purpose. She studied things she could talk about in company: books, music. She memorized movie reviews and became known as a movie buff. When Sophie was four, Jefferson, at sixty one, had a stroke, and died within weeks.
Tom, an associate in Jefferson’s law firm, was respectful of the young widow of the man who had been his managing partner. But it was not long before they were lovers, not long before he proposed. He said he would not try to step into Jefferson’s shoes as Sophie’s father, but he would love her daughter, then five years old, as he loved Kat. Two years later their son, Jack, was born. The perfect family, Kat often said to herself. Just perfect.
Now, in the villa off the Piazzi de Pitti, Kat waited until Tom and Sophie were swimming in the small pool and then called the Hotel Caravaggio. There was no reply from Angela Wilson’s room. Kat paced the tiled floor of the lounge and then tried again. She moved restlessly around the place, stood at the window in the bedroom staring at the view of the skyline, dominated from this angle by the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, the outline of the Duomo softened by the late afternoon light. The noise of the traffic, the musical car horns, all the background clamour of the city, resounded outside the villa but Kat, lifting the phone again and again, heard only the futile ringing of a hotel telephone. Finally, she left a message for Angela at the reception desk, pleading illness, promising she would call in the morning. Then she stood, unsure. A fine trembling began at her fingertips. When her husband and daughter emerged from the water, towelling themselves, she was waiting.
“Let’s go out,” Kat said. “Instead.”
“You’ve forgotten Angela?”
“I really, really do not want to spend time with that woman.”
“Come on, she might have changed. She looked a bit — well, sad.”
“I’ve already left a message cancelling. I don’t want her here,” Kat said. The words sound harsher than she intended. “Come on, get dressed. Let’s go.”
“Not me, Mom,” said Sophie, “I promised to Skype Amanda."
“You have to come!”
“No. I don’t,” Sophie said, dark eyes flashing.
Kat leaned back against the wall, closed her eyes.
“I’ve got such a headache,” she said
Tom came to her, lifted her chin to look at her face.
“So, why go out? If she comes, she comes. It won’t be so bad. We’ll protect you.”
The doorbell rang an hour later. Angela wore a cotton skirt, too short, and a top that dipped down over her freckled breasts. Her hair, frizzy from the sun, gleamed with something she had used to try to tame it.
Kat took her arm.
“Let me show you round this villa,” she said. “While Tom does all the cooking.”
Out of earshot of the others, in the hallway outside the bedrooms, Kat paused. Angela turned to her, arms folded.
“So?” she said.
“Angela, please. My husband – he doesn’t know anything about my old life. Okay?” Kat said.
Angela regarded her without expression.
“She looks like him, don’t she?”
“Your daughter looks just like that Jed.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Ah, she does,” Angela said, nodding. “She definitely does. Those eyes. You don’t want to know what happened to me? After you took off? I’d really like to know what happened to you.”
“My mother had just died. I needed to get away.”
“Oh, get over yourself. You were glad to be shot of her. You were always glad when they took her way for a bit so you could have the place to yourself.”
Kat stepped back, shocked at the words, knowing they contained a pinch of truth. Maybe as a teenager she had felt relief. It helped to have the burden of her mother carried by someone else for a while. But not when she was a child. No. Then, in a stranger’s house or the children’s home, she would cry herself to sleep every night.
“Please,” she said, quietly. “Please.”
“They raped me you know. You saw. And you just rode off. I saw your back. Holding onto him. Racing away. Left me there.”
“Angela, come on. They were just boys.”
“There was three of them! It was a line-up.”
A snap as the scene focused for Kat. She remembered Angela on the grass, her bra pushed up, her breasts visible, her pants around her ankles. Harry off to the side, his jeans still unfastened, watching. A dark boy, a stranger to Kat, knelt between Angela’s open thighs, while another boy waited his turn, his penis huge in his hands.
“Did you go to the police?” she asked now, a tremble in her voice.
“What? Are you daft? They didn’t care what happened on the Copthorne Estate. You know that. No. God, it hurt, though. And it bled. I was fifteen, Kat. You could have stopped them. That Jed could. You could have asked him.”
This truth lay heavy in the air between them. Kat turned
“Angela, please, let’s just have dinner. Then — maybe we can get together for breakfast tomorrow. Just the two of us. And we can talk.”
“What do I say when he asks me about how I knew you?”
“Just say at school. Something like that.”
“You so smart and me so stupid? That what you mean?” Angela asked.
“Just simple stuff. Tom believes my father and mother died in an accident when I was ten and I went to live with an aunt. Now dead. Okay?”
“Jesus. And a father, too? Proper little family you had,” Angela said. “Bad luck them all dying like that.”
During the meal, Angela did not talk much to Kat at all but focused her attention on Sophie, inquiring about the teenager’s school, whether she liked music, whether she had a boyfriend. She was clumsy and fumbling and Kat saw that Tom was warming to her, sorry for her. Even Sophie smiled, as if making allowances for a slightly dotty aunt. Kat felt as if her entire body was stretched like a high wire, ready to snap. Finally, she touched her head, touched it again and winced as if in pain. Tom noticed, as she knew he would.
“Bad, really bad. I think — well, we better do this again another time. Sorry, Angela.”
Angela looked at her hard for a moment, eyes narrowing. Then she picked up her wine glass, sipped at it.
“What happened to that Jed boy?” she asked. “I heard he went to jail.”
Kat lifted her head.
“Angela, I’m so sorry, but I really must lie down. Did you have a jacket? No, of course not. Too hot. Tom, please call a cab for Angela.”
“I can drive her,” he said.
“No. No. You’ve been drinking.”
“One glass —”
“Taxi, Tom,” Kat snapped. “Please,”
He was on his feet at once, dialled a number, but his eyes were on his wife’s face.
Sophie, seeing an escape opportunity, jumped to her feet.
“Nice to meet you, Angela,” she said, and skipped upstairs to her laptop, her social networks and friends. Angela called goodnight to the young woman, then returned to her wine.
“Yeah,” she continued. “Good looking lad, though, weren’t he?”
“Those eyes,” she said. “Funny color, like dark beer. Remember them?"
She leaned back in her chair.
“I’ll call you in the morning, Angela,” Kat said, standing. “When I feel better.” Get her talking about something else, anything else, until the taxi comes.
“So, what’s your hotel like?”
Angela blinked, confused.
“The place you’re staying?” Kat said. “What’s it like? Does the package give you full board?”
Angela spoke briefly about her holiday package, the meals included, the day trips, but soon returned, relentless as a Rottweiler puppy, to the subject of Jed.
“So, what do you remember about that Jed and the old days?” she asked.
“Nothing much. Sorry. Don’t want to talk it. Unhappy memories for me. You know that.”
Kat could hear the pleading note in her own voice, a child calling to her mother — please don’t go out, don’t bring men back, don’t drink, don’t —
The taxi beeped outside.
Angela moved slowly to the door, then turned. She spoke in a voice so quiet, so tense with anger that she seemed to vibrate with it.
“You don’t remember your ma going crazy? You don’t remember who took you in? You don’t remember Jed? How you ran away with him while a bunch of boys were raping me? You don’t remember any of that?”
She turned and ran down the stone steps of the villa to the waiting taxi.
Kat watched the taxi pull away, did not look at Tom.
“Tom, could you get me a drink, please? Gin and tonic.”
He seemed to hesitate, then he left the room and seconds later she heard the hard snap of the ice tray, the clinking of cubes and bottle. She could hear the ice tinkling in the glasses as he returned. Kat remained at the window, looking out into the fading light. The bougainvillea, set against a silver sky, looked inky black. A tilted half moon was rising, a cloud crossed it.
“Look at me, Kat.”
She turned. Her husband’s face was closed, tight as a fist. She had seen him angry before, she had seen him irritable. This cold hostility was new.
“I think you better tell me what all that was about,” he said.
“Oh, she’s always been crazy.”
“Just an old boyfriend, nobody really.”
“Is Sophie his child?”
“Angela pretty much spelled it out,” Tom said. “When she said he had eyes like dark beer.”
Kat took a breath, then sat down abruptly on the sofa. Her limbs felt weak and unreliable. Tom remained standing, watched her, unmoving. Kat swallowed a mouthful of her drink.
“Yes. She’s his.”
“You said she was Jefferson’s child.”
“I didn’t actually say that. You assumed it.”
“Did Jefferson know the truth?”
“Jefferson knew Sophie wasn’t his. He never asked who the father was.”
“And the rest? Your mother?”
“My mother was in an out of hospitals most of my childhood. She was schizophrenic. And she drank.”
“Schizophrenic? You didn’t think maybe you should have mentioned that?”
“Of course I did. I’ve worried about it for years.”
“And your father?”
“Never knew him. My mother died when I was sixteen and Angela’s mother, Dora, said I could move in with them. We lived on a council estate. We were — well, poor. Very poor. You would probably call us trailer trash.”
He frowned at that.
“And this Jed?”
“I ran away with Jed. I got pregnant but then Jed went to jail and Jefferson was kind to me. So I married him. The rest — you know.”
“And rape? Angela said something about rape?”
“The night I met Jed. It was a group of us, just kids, just playing around.”
“Angela didn’t think it was playing around. How old was she?”
“Fifteen? Younger than Sophie.”
Younger than Sophie.
Kat looked at him, remembered Angela’s cry, the wind howling, the boys feral, out of control.
“You won’t understand.”
“No. I won’t,” Tom said. “All these goddamn lies. You ever tell the truth about anything?”
“I love you. I never lied about that.”
“Did you love Jefferson?”
Kat thought about this for a moment.
“No. I admired him. He was a good man.”
Kat leaned back on the sofa, closed her eyes. The fabricated headache was now a pounding reality.
“Tom, can we talk about this in the morning? Not now? Please.”
He didn’t reply for a long time.
“Who the hell are you?” he asked at last, and walked out of the room.
She listened to his footsteps on the stairs, waited for the pain that would surely come. How could she have thought it would last? A normal life, a happy family. For someone like her? Two beautiful children. Then the pain did come, mixed with fear. She would have to fight for Tom; she might have to fight for her kids. She would beg if necessary. She settled back onto the chair, aware of an odd lightness in her head. Maybe it was the wine mixed with the gin. A strange weightlessness. Like the first time Tom took her skiing. She had been so clumsy and uncoordinated but loved the crisp air, the clarity of the light, the mountains etched against a clear sky. And the best part, removing the thick jacket and gloves, dropping them to the floor, and then taking off the ski boots.
“I’m so light,” she had said. “I feel as if I could float up to the ceiling.” Tom had laughed.
She sat for a long time, sipping at the drink, thinking back.
Younger than Sophie.
She said the words again, aloud. They had both been younger than Sophie. She reached for the phone. It was late but she had a call to make, an apology, before she could talk again to her husband; before, one day, she must talk to her daughter. She dialled the number of the Hotel Caravaggio and waited a long time for the operator to answer.
“I need to speak to Angela Wilson,” she said, finally. “It’s urgent.”
|© 2012, Mary McCluskey|| Go to top