I enter the gallery, I see the back of Ed’s head.
“Lily!” He swivels round, saying my name
as though it is fresh in his mouth. As if I am an acquaintance he hasn’t
seen for a long time instead of the wife he kissed good-bye this
morning. “Guess who walked into the gallery an hour ago?”
As he speaks, a petite woman with a sleek
black bob slides out from behind the pillar. Her hairstyle, apart from
the color, is almost identical to mine. But she’s young. Early twenties,
at a guess. Big, wide, sunny smile with glossy bee-stung lips and a wide
smooth forehead. She’s stunning without being conventionally beautiful.
Her face is the sort that makes you stare. I twist my silver
bracelet—the one I always wear—with inexplicable nervousness.
“Hello, Lily!” she sings. There’s an
unexpected kiss on both my cheeks. Then she stands back. I feel cold
slice through me like a carving knife. “You don’t remember me? It’s
“Hello, Lily!” she sings. There’s an unexpected kiss on both my cheeks.
Then she stands back. I feel cold slice through me like a carving knife.
“You don’t remember me? It’s Carla.”
Carla? Little Carla who used to live in the same block of flats all
those years ago, when Ed and I were first married? Carla, alias The
Italian Girl? Is it really possible that this is the confident young
woman who stands before me now with her immaculate complexion, her
sharp, cat-like eyes accentuated with just the right touch of eyeliner
It has taken me years to achieve a confidence like that.
But of course it’s Carla. She’s a mini-Francesca, minus the long curls.
“How have you been?” I manage to say. “How is your mother?”
This beautiful colt-like creature dips her chin and then tilts her head
to one side as if considering the question. “Mamma, she is very well,
thank you. She is living in Italy. We have been there for some time.”
Ed breaks in. “Carla’s been trying to get hold of us. She wrote to us.”
I breathe steadily, just as I do in court when I need to be careful.
“Really?” I say.
It’s not a lie. Just a question.
“Twice,” says Carla.
She is looking straight at me. Briefly I think back to that first letter
with the Italian stamp, which was sent to our old address last year but
forwarded to us by the current occupants.
My first instinct had been to throw it away like all the other begging
letters we received around that time. People assume, rightly or
wrongly, that if an artist has one big success, he or she is rich. The
reality is that even with the portrait sale and Ed’s trust money and my
salary, we are still not that well off. Our mortgages on both the
gallery and the house are huge. And of course we also have Tom’s
expensive therapy and his unknown future to think of.
I want to help people in need like any other decent person. But if you
give to one, where do you stop? Yet Carla was different. She was right.
In a way, we did owe our success to her.
I would talk to Ed, I decided. But a critic had just written yet another
snide review, questioning why anyone would want to pay so much for a
“brash acrylic work that was worthy of a Montmartre street artist.” My
husband had been hurt. It was all I could do to assure Ed that this
reviewer was wrong. Better to leave Carla’s letter, I decided, until
things were calmer.
Then came the second one, sent to the gallery where Ed had been
exhibiting temporarily before it had been forwarded to our home.
Luckily, I happened to bump into the postman on the way to work.
Recognizing the handwriting and foreign stamp, I slipped it in my
briefcase and opened it in the office. The tone was angrier this time.
More demanding. I sensed Francesca’s hand behind it. If we gave them
some money, I thought, they might ask for more.
So I put it away, pretending to myself that I would deal with it at
“some point.” And then I conveniently forgot about it. It wasn’t the
right thing to do. I can see that now. But if I had written back to
Carla explaining our financial situation, she might not have believed
“We were worried when you left so suddenly all those years ago,” Ed is
saying now. “Why didn’t you tell us you were going?”
His question takes me back to the last time I saw Carla. That awful row
between Tony, Francesca and me. On top of that, I was trying to work out
if Ed and I should stay together.
“Yes,” I say, gritting my teeth, “we were very worried about
you.” Then my eye falls on the painting behind her. It’s hard not to.
There are paintings of Carla as a child all over the room.
“What do you think of your portraits?” I ask. Might as well play devil’s
advocate, I tell myself. Try to draw Carla out. It would also make me
look more innocent in the matter of those unanswered letters.
The young woman in front of me flushes. “They are lovely.” Then she
flushes again. “I do not mean that I am lovely, you understand—”
“Oh, but you are,” breaks in Ed. “Such a beautiful child. We both
thought so, didn’t we, Lily?”
The Valley Voice News | All