The apartment fell silent and still as she pulled the chain across the door. Louisa scanned the room littered with glasses and plates of food, now empty of their mini quiches and finger sandwiches. Only the wilted lettuce used as a garnish was left behind. Lonely and alone.
Pressing her back firmly against the door she breathed in slowly and exhaled long and hard. She reached down and slipped off her shoes. Her feet throbbed as the blood found its way back again into her toes. The tingling a protest to the imprisonment. It had been a long day.
Walking away from the safety of the door she made a concerted effort to ignore the mess and collapsed into the armchair, scanning the coffee table for a clean wine glass. There was none. Grabbing a bottle of Pinot Gris, she took a slow and laboured drink.
‘What?’ she accused Chester who lay on top of the sofa watching her every move, curling his tail with rhythmic disapproval. Wiping the back of her hand across her mouth and closing her eyes she took another sip. This time she found that the wine was actually warm though soothing. She understood how one could self-medicate with alcohol to the point of addiction.
Louisa shut her eyes and sunk back into the wing chair. The memories started to slide in and out of her mind. Marcus lived in all of them. It took some energy to open her eyes as a sob lodged in her throat. She recognised this deep sorrow all too well experiencing a similar heartache when Pappa passed away five years ago. Now Marcus was gone. They were probably both having a vino and arguing over which footy code was superior. League or Soccer. The memory made her smile a little, giving her a brief reprieve to the melancholy that had once again become an unwanted house guest.
Chester stirred from his nap and stretched. Louisa studied him as he tight-roped across the back of the couch.
Lucky bastard, she thought. What a bloody charmed life he had.
‘What am I going to do Chester?’
He gave Louisa his Yoda look and like a Zen Master, left it to her to figure it out.
Frustrated and feeling stuffy, she walked over and opened the French doors. The gentle breeze caressed her. She gazed across the rooftops, mesmerised by expansive blue belt of the Pacific Ocean. Louisa loved this view. Marcus had found the apartment in Randwick. He always made everything better, especially his relaxed and cheery way of handling her mother.
She did not get on with her mother. Full stop. Sara was gruff. Always with a negative point directed at Louisa. Papa endured the same cool treatment. Louisa had adored her father and when he died, he left her alone to deal with her mother. Marcus came into her life shortly after and erased the void. Now alone, her emotional buttons would be exposed to the mercy of her mother. A caustic superpower that Sara achieved with cool, calm precision.
Today of all days she needed a mother’s love. Nothing. Only her biting comment, one of many, on why Louisa had chosen to cater with Australian food.
Hearing her mother’s voice again, Louisa began to seethe and started to collect and stack the glasses and plates with force, not caring if she chipped any of them. The anger churned through her.
‘Goddam it!’ she implored out loud. ‘Why do I let her get to me?’
She gazed over to Chester, her only audience. ‘I’m an intelligent woman, aren’t I? I’ve just passed the Bar Exam for Christ sake!’ Louisa yearned for Marcus to deflect all the emotional baggage she was throwing around.
He knew how to handle Sara. Then this fucking freak accident took him away. Taking away the happiness of sharing her news with him. Louisa sensed that familiar feeling of martyrdom overcome her. Why was she losing all the people that loved her unconditionally?
Opening the fridge, she took out a chilled bottle of the Pinot Gris, stopped and thought better of it. She shouldn’t have drunk the wine before. Instead, she grabbed the mineral water, popped in some lemon slices and poured herself a long cold drink.
Then she spotted it. Sitting next to Chester’s bowl. The old rusty Arnott’s biscuit tin Zia Paola had handed to her earlier in the day. Picking up the container with the sealed envelope spelling out her name in looping letters, she walked into the living room. Sliding down onto the rug, she recalled the earnest look in her Aunt’s eyes. Using her index finger, she sawed the envelope open and slipped out a letter.
I know this is a sad time for you. We will miss Marcus. Bettina told me about your news. Do not be angry with your cousin. A little bambino or bambina! Louisa, please know you are not alone and that you have your family.
Be kind to your mamma, she loves you very much. I can see you making that brutta face as you read this. Scowling and frowning. I see that look every time you and your mother are together.
Mia cara, your Mamma has great love inside. I know this because I saw things when we were growing up on the farm. I remember a time when she was happy and full of life. This tin will show you too.
Louisa do not be a stranger. Come and visit soon. I will make pasta forno.
Zia Paola xx
Louisa put the letter down. Did she want to know? Did she really care?
She opened the tin and found a small collection of torn and crumbled pages. They were secured with a piece of twine, threaded through a rough hole and tied as a bow. Lifting the bundle, she could see an assortment of other eclectic items that could only be described as personal mementos. Louisa flicked through the little sheets. They appeared to be pages ripped from a diary and by the state of them, torn in a violent way. Although dated in chronological order, the entries jumped across time. A sharp anticipation mixed with intrigue side-stepped her grief.
Louisa reached across and shooed Chester off the pillow, grabbed it and tucked it under her bum.
‘Sorry Princess. My turn.’
11 November 1958
I have a secret. One I cannot tell anyone. I came into the kitchen and Mamma was making food for the men harvesting the oranges. The smell of garlic and basil hung in the air.
I wanted to take Mamma by the hand and hug her hard and tell her that I am in love. That my heart is bursting. It is trying to push through my chest and there are tiny butterflies dancing inside me.
But I cannot. She is a wife and she must obey Pappa. My sister and I must always obey Pappa too. I watch my brothers have so much freedom. They have importance. I do not. I have no voice. No choice. I must do as I am told.
Even having you is a dangerous thing. If Pappa finds you, he will make Roberto read it to him. I know what will happen. I will be beaten. Just as Mama was beating the vitello for frying.
17 December 1958
Today Tommy kissed me softly and it was like tasting Mamma’s honey dumplings. We have now met many times. But we must meet in secret. I came up with the plan. Tommy works in the butcher shop and it is my job to buy the meat each week. Mamma does not write English very well and so I make the list. In the middle, I write my message in code. I write ‘with the usual fruit (10 oz) for Wednesday lunch’, so he knows the day and time I can meet him in the old apple orchard. It is easy. Mamma says that I am a good girl because I am always happy to go. I am sad that I do not tell the truth.
Paola helps me but she does not know my secret. I help her clean out the chicken house and goat pen, and she tells Mamma that I have gone to the library. My family know I like to read. It is an easy lie that is still true. Tommy always borrows the book for me to go home with.
7 January 1959
Today Tommy gave me a gold butterfly brooch. It has little orange flowers sprinkled on the wings. It is beautiful. My little farfalla brooch. Just like the butterflies I love to watch when we lie in the grass, looking up at sky through the old twisted branches of the abandoned apple trees. I always tell Tommy that I wish I was free like a butterfly. He always looks unhappy when I say this.
7 February 1959
Buzzing with happiness, I told Tommy that I was going to the Valentine’s Dance. Mario had asked Pappa if he could take me and I nearly fainted when he said, ‘Yes.’
Tommy was so excited. He told me he was going to have every dance with me. That he didn’t care what anyone thought or said. His bravery filled me with deep love. Then he pulled me in tightly and kissed me with such passion.
14 February 1959
What a perfect night I had until Mario made me go home. I can still smell the mixture of fresh aftershave and sweet hairspray. I saw myself in the mirror, when I gave my coat to Signora Rosa who was gossiping with Mrs Harris who works in the pub. I was pleased that I looked pretty.
Mamma let me wear a little lipstick. ‘Don’t tell Pappa’, she told me secretively. I was so happy, and I blushed with excitement.
Signora Rosa and Mrs Harris said they liked my dress which was a soft rose made of silk. I told them that Mamma made it from an old frock of hers from Italy. Mrs Harris said that Mamma was ‘one clever sheila.’
At first, I could not see Tommy anywhere. Mario danced with me and he was too close, and his hands were too firm. I did not like it and felt uncomfortable. I was glad when Mario went outside for a cigarette with the other boys. Disgraziato, I fumed. I wanted to hide my shame in the corner and then I felt someone grab my hand. It was Tommy. My heart sang. We danced together until Mario came back and started yelling at Tommy for touching me.
Tommy apologised, smiling at me, then walked away. Mario then demanded that it was time to go home. I peeked over at Tommy and he secretly winked at me.
30 March 1959
I am in despair and my heart is breaking. After the Easter lunch, Pappa told me that Mario has asked to marry me. I stood in the kitchen with the taste of vinegar in my mouth. I did not believe what I heard. Everything stopped. Then Mamma was hugging me laughing and saying, ‘Mario was a good boy.’
I am miserable and quiet. Mamma told Zia that it was because of the sex. I let her think this so I can carry my sadness.
1 April 1959
I met Tommy in the orchard and ran to him, collapsing into his arms and cried for a long time. He held me tight and stroked my hair, cooing as if I was a frightened lamb. He made me feel so safe.
We started to kiss. I wanted to disappear inside his love. The kiss was hungry. I did not care about my virtue. I did not care about anything. All I wanted was Tommy. Forever. To never leave him.
I blush as I write this. But I also smile. We made love all afternoon underneath the old ancient apple branches with the butterflies fluttering all around us. Blessing our union. It was tender. So wonderful.
Once I heard the old women say in hushed voices that it was ‘brutto e orribile’. It wasn’t ugly and horrible; it was like being soaked in sunshine.
Afterwards, I got scared because I was not a virgin anymore. That I have shamed my family. I started to panic, pounding Tommy on the chest as he tried to hold me. He was saying soft caring words, calming me like I was a wild horse.
I don’t want to be Mario’s wife and I don’t want to share his bed. I have lost my innocence and when he discovers this, he will bring me back to my family in disgrace.
7 April 1959
Tomorrow we are going to Canberra to be married. We will meet in the orchard just before sunrise. Tommy has saved money. He says his family will help us.
I am nervous but also very excited. I have to go. In my father’s eye, I will no longer be his little bambina. He will think I am damaged, and I will be discarded like the wormed fruit at harvest.
I have packed a little suitcase with my pink silk dress and the brooch. It is hidden in the cellar.
This is a big secret. I know Mamma and Pappa will be angry and upset. I hope one day they will find it in their hearts to forgive me and accept Tommy.
Dear God, may your perpetual light shine on my love. Please help us. If I do not have Tommy. I will never, EVER love anybody so much again as long as I have breath in my body.
Louisa reached into the box to search for more entries. Nothing. No! No! No! She shook the old caddy tipping out the remaining contents with frenetic energy, sifting through the faded memorabilia looking for other pages. Nothing. Only photographs of young faces and youthful bodies staring up at her. All ghosts from the past.
Deep inside, Louisa discovered a little calico bag, yellowed with age and held by a thin fraying ribbon. Tugging at the knot, she could feel the desperation fill her.
Shit. Placing the lump of fabric in her mouth she started tearing at it. She could hear her mother’s voice reprimanding her to not use her teeth like an animal. Finally, the ribbon came loose, and she pulled out a butterfly brooch and caressed it carefully in her hands.
Defeated, she began to pick up the articles now scattered in front of her and laid them back in the tin. Louisa glanced at the credenza that had belonged to her Nonna and saw it. A framed photo her Nonna had given to her before she had passed away.
Louisa lifted out the photo of her mother standing in a loose cotton floral frock and pregnant with Louisa, wearing the butterfly brooch. She studied her mother’s face. No joy. This had always unnerved her. What woman would not be happy expecting her first baby? But this was her mother. Always distant. Always cold.
Chester’s languid rubbing against her legs interrupted her thoughts, ‘You hungry handsome?’
With tired resignation she returned the frame back, only to clip the edge of the shelf. Louisa winced at the frame’s protest when it hit the wooden floor. She scooped it up and examined it for any damage and noticed a small ivory stained triangle peeking out of the corner of the picture.
She pried open the tarnished metal flaps that held the image in place and released a concealed card and folded paper. Both blemished with age.
Turning it over, a handsome young face smiled at her and a wave of goose bumps raised the tiny hairs on her arms as she read,
Thomas Lewis Fitzgerald.
Eternal and everlasting love
Rest in Peace
11 April 1959
With calm trepidation, Louisa sat on the kitchen stool and unfolded the paper.
Dear Sara, it began. Louisa’s curiosity collided with her legal brain as all the pieces tumbled into place.
I want to return these diary pages to you. I am sorry that I took them.
Tomorrow I am leaving for Melbourne. When packing up my things, I found my journal with these pages and Tommy’s funeral card inside.
I knew you and Tommy met in secret because I used to follow him. Tommy was so happy when he spent time with you, always whistling and singing. He cherished you.
I also know how close you were, and your secret has always been and will be, safe with me.
After the funeral, I snuck away and went back to the old orchard and saw you crying and ripping up your diary, tearing pages and letting them fly away. I followed the fragments of paper as they fluttered into the wind to join all those butterflies that were always in the orchard. I wanted to hug you, but I couldn’t. I was only eleven. Instead, I watched in silence as the grief took hold of you.
I had fallen asleep in the grass and when I woke you were gone. Some of the torn pages were on the ground around me. I kept the ones that were not destroyed. I was going to give them back to you but then you got married and had little Louisa.
Sara, I know you and Tommy had planned to elope the morning the delivery truck killed him. The policeman who came to the house told us that Tommy had been found in the ditch, still holding a bunch of wildflowers. Sergeant Willis gave me his knapsack. Inside were his good clothes. Mum was so distraught that she didn’t even notice. She never knew what Tommy was planning. I would have loved to have you as a sister.
This is so hard to write, and I am so sorry if this will make you upset or sad. Whenever I see Louisa with her pale green eyes and her smile with the dimple on her left cheek, I see Tommy and I wonder if … well, I have always just wondered.
Please know that your secret is as safe as Tommy is in heaven. If you are ever in Melbourne please look me up.
All my love,
Louisa sat there. Stunned, quiet and still. It was too clichéd to be true. Her mother had a secret love, who had died tragically. And the possibility that she was not her father’s daughter but another man’s. The shock descended on her, filling the room.
A chill entered from the opened sliding door and caught Louisa’s attention. She viewed the dusk as it settled in. Reaching for the bottle of Pinot Gris, she stopped, her hand suspended. With a sigh, she abandoned her desire to have a drink. Louisa’s thoughts submerged into a foreign pool of muffled words. Then her rational mind, trained as a perceptive barrister, revved into life. Louisa read the last line of the final entry. It all made sense. Everything. Her mother’s coolness and detachment. She didn’t despise her. She loved her. Greatly. Terrified to lose another person she cared for deeply, she chose to close herself off from any affection, protecting herself from heartache. Even her only child. Irrational Italian superstition, Louisa thought as she looked at the young Sara in full bloom. The fate of how her mother would love her had already been set. And she was heading down a similar path.
Seizing the Pinot Gris, Louisa emptied it down the sink. She picked up her phone, dialled and waited.
‘Hello. My name is Louisa Giovanni-Bell and I would like to make an appointment with Doctor Brooks please … Yes, I am. Fourteen weeks.’
Valerie is a secondary English teacher and a writer. She lives in Brisbane, Australia with her husband and daughter, after moving from Sydney three years ago. Valerie is currently completing a Master of Letters in Creative Writing and writing her first novel. She is the daughter of Italian migrants and enjoys writing short stories that have an Italian cultural and family focus. Her dog Mischa and cats, Daisy and Miss Lilly, are her writing companions. Valerie loves reading a wide range of genres. You will always find a novel and notebook filled with ideas and observations, tucked away in her handbag. She believes in a balanced and serene life to nourish the mind and body. Valerie is an advocate for the environment and for living a more sustainable life.