Corbello, Italy, 1947. A woman and a little boy stagger into the ruins of an old house deep in the forest, wild roses overwhelming the crumbling terracotta walls. Since the war, nowhere has been safe. But they both freeze in shock when a voice calls out from the shadows… For young mother Fosca Sentino, accepting refuge from reluctant British war hero Richard – in Tuscany to escape his tragic past – is the only way to keep her little family safe. She once risked everything to spy on Nazi commanders and pass secret information to the resistenza. But after a heartbreaking betrayal, Fosca’s best friend Simonetta disappeared without trace. The whole community was torn apart, and now Fosca and her son are outcasts. Wary of this handsome stranger at first, Fosca slowly starts to feel safe as she watches him play with her son in the overgrown orchard. But her fragile peace is shattered the moment a silver brooch is found in the garden, and she recognises it as Simonetta’s… Fosca has always suspected that another member of the resistenza betrayed her. With Richard by her side, she must find out if Simonetta is still alive, and clear her own name. But how did the brooch end up at the house? And with a traitor hiding in the village, willing to do anything to keep this secret buried, has Fosca put herself and her young son in terrible danger? An absolutely gripping and heartbreaking standalone historical read that explores the incredible courage of ordinary people in extraordinary times. Perfect for fans of Rhys Bowen, The Nightingale, and anyone longing to lose themselves in the mountain landscapes and olive groves of rural Tuscany. Read what everyone’s saying about The Tuscan House : ‘A devastating, beautiful, heartbreaking, compelling and riveting page-turner… I was absolutely shocked by the two big reveals… I did not see them coming!!! If you’re looking for a book with a twist this is definitely for you!!!... absolutely fantastic… will shock and leave you thinking about the story for a long time.’ BookWorm86, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘ Exciting, romantic, irresistible… captured my interest from page one… loved… beautiful… suspenseful… I really enjoyed reading this story.’ Goodreads reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘ Grabbed me and pulled me right in… unforgettable… absolutely loved… addictive. I was captivated… you feel really caught up in the twists and turns.’ On the Shelf Books ‘A beautifully descriptive narrative… haunting story… will remain with you for a long time after you've finished reading. Highly recommend.’ Pink Quill Books, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘ Heartbreaking… beautifully written… My heart ached… kept readers on their toes! ’ Goodreads reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘ Gloriously intriguing… A tale that tugs at the heart strings… I have nothing but praise for this beautifully written tale.’ Goodreads reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘ Outstanding… heartbreaking… the best historical fiction out there.’ Books by Bindu ‘ Will captivate and enthral… exquisite period detail, emotional intensity and heart-pounding intrigue… a stunning page-turner.’ Bookish Jottings ‘ The Tuscan House will delight fans of WWII dramas… a story that should not be missed.’ Goodreads reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Release date: April 7, 2021
Print pages: 350
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
The Tuscan House
I trail her across the piazza where an old man is selling withered potatoes. I pull my scarf over my face and adjust the spectacles I use as one of my disguises. Soon the German soldiers will be crowding into Da Bruno, the little osteria opposite the church. It won’t do to be recognised. Not after last night. I will be the main suspect. But the theft of the revolver in the fuggy atmosphere of the hostelry was worth it. It’s time to make myself scarce in the little town of Corbello. Before disappearing, I need more information about this girl from the osteria.
I’d watched her yesterday as she worked and I mingled with the tedeschi, my ears and eyes ready for anything I could pick up. The one who plays the piano was drunker than usual. Impossible to engage him in useful conversation when all he wanted was to sing and make love. ‘Come for a walk with me, pretty ragazza,’ he’d whispered in his strange Italian, his words spitting in my ears. I’d fluttered my eyelashes and pinched his cheek and promised to meet him later, but of course I didn’t. And I don’t plan to meet him ever again, if I can help it. The stupid oaf should not have left his revolver hanging in its holster on the back of the chair for me.
Bruno’s osteria offers easy pickings and this new girl might be of help to us in the future. I’ve never seen her in there before. She kept herself busy behind the bar, drying glasses, glancing at the crowd of noisy men from time to time, her expression dispassionate, cold. When one of the soldiers leant against the bar to chat her up, she moved away, turning her back on him to wash a pile of espresso cups in the sink, rolling up her sleeves before plunging her pretty arms in the water. It’s obvious she wants no truck with these men, unlike some local women I have watched, flirting for a hot meal, sitting on the enemy’s knees, whispering in their ears, not stopping the brutes’ wandering hands. And I have seen more than one of these miserable females leave at the end of the evening to wander into the back alley with one of the pigs. I understand hunger drives to desperation but I have seen too much to prostitute myself with the enemy. I hate them. I will live for the rest of my life with what men like them did to me.
The young woman makes for the track leading away from the town centre and I keep close to the walls of the houses, stooping like an old woman as I follow. But I needn’t worry. There is nobody about to notice. Gone is the time when neighbours linger at thresholds or lean on windowsills to pass the time of day. Winter is cruelly bitter this year. Firewood is as scarce as food. Energy is better preserved by staying indoors avoiding trouble, when neighbour is set against neighbour in this treacherous war.
The setting sun bleeds through coppiced beeches as the young woman hurries down the path. I keep to the animal track that runs parallel on slightly higher ground, and as I tread quietly over frosted leaves, I match her pace to conceal my footsteps. Where the trees thicken by boulders she stops abruptly, turning in my direction, and I drop flat against the ground, prostrating my body to be one with the earth as Lupo and the others taught me. Raising my head slightly, peering through dried bracken, I see her collecting pine cones and stuffing them into a cloth bag. When it is full, she continues on her way and I trail her through the forest until she comes to a huddle of old buildings set in a clearing. Next to a tobacco-drying tower stands a single storey stone house and from behind an old trough at the side of the door, she produces a key and lets herself in. After a while, the glow from a lamp glimmers through the glass and I watch as she draws the shutters, a single strip of light casting a beam through a broken slat.
When I understand that she is alone in this house, I slip away, the path lit by a pallid moon. The crackle of a twig in the woods beyond has me reaching for the German’s revolver and I stop behind a beech trunk, blood draining from my veins as the sounds draw near. When a porcupine shuffles by along the path, near enough for me to hear the sound of its bristles knock against each other, my shoulders relax and I stifle nervous laughter.
I am tired now. The straw bed in the cattle shed where I have sheltered these last two nights awaits. Sausage and bread snatched from the plate of a drunk soldier will be my midnight feast.
Tomorrow I shall pay the girl a visit and engage her in talk. If my instincts prove me right, she is a likely candidate for us.
The thin envelope amongst the pile of post on the doormat bore an Italian stamp and, turning it over, Richard Moorhead saw that it had been sent from Corbello in Tuscany. His heart began to race. He slit open the letter with his forefinger. It took him a while to interpret the fancy Italian handwriting and some of the words were beyond him. He’d picked up a fair bit of the lingo working in the field hospital, but he was by no means fluent. Nevertheless, he caught the gist. His presence was requested for a ceremony on Sunday 4 May 1947 in the Town Hall of Corbello at eleven to thank all those who had worked so tirelessly for the town during the war. There would be lunch afterwards. Richard had never known Italians to celebrate anything without food. Even in the midst of war, there had always been a plate of minestrone to share, or a handful of polenta or beans.
The village school in Corbello in Tuscany was where he and his fellow orderlies had set up their field hospital, once the Germans had been flushed out and the allies had reached the defensive Gothic Line. The building was in a bad state when they’d taken it over, its walls pockmarked with bullets and obscene drawings scrawled by German soldiers. The medical team had operated in an old schoolroom on the ground floor, maps of the world stuck to the plaster walls, charts showing how to form the alphabet still displayed on the chalkboard. Someone had drawn horns and a moustache on a framed photo of Mussolini, its glass cracked. They’d had a variety of cases on that first day, ranging from a Tommy with half his belly missing, to a little boy who’d picked up a mine whilst herding goats. Neither of them survived. It had been a time of extremes: life and death in the balance each second of each day. Even when you slept, your dreams were full of death. Some nights there’d been no time to sleep. Some nights he couldn’t. He’d close his eyes, but the day’s events were still there. Men screaming for their mothers, mothers screaming for their children. Small wonder that it trickled back to haunt him even now.
The letter in his hand, he went to the French windows in the family home he had just sold, jingling pennies in his pocket, staring at the rain-sodden garden. Where the lawn used to be, a patch that Pa had dutifully dug for the war effort was choked with weeds between stalks of Brussel sprouts sticking up like knobbly fingers. At the bottom of the garden, the remains of an Anderson air raid shelter, its metal frame twisted and rusting, was a reminder of where his parents and younger brother had died. It was ironic that the house stood intact, its only scars a couple of cracked windowpanes in the scullery.
The bare floorboards creaked as he moved away to take a last look at the other rooms downstairs. There was still an acute housing shortage in England, anxious purchasers queuing all night for whatever trickled onto the market. Richard felt he had done his bit by easing the problem: this place was too big for a bachelor and it held too many memories. Next to the breakfast room door, he trailed his fingers down pencil marks where his mother had noted her sons’ heights over the years. The kitchen was cold and the clock, which his father wound ritually at the end of each day, silent. He leant against the Rayburn cast iron range that had once belted out heat, making this room the hub of the house, and his mind wandered back to 1943 when it had all started. Memories, provoked by the letter from Corbello, reeled out like scenes from a film.
‘Bring me up to speed with Cromwell,’ he’d asked the fifth form. Richard had waited for a hand to go up but nobody offered. Instead, sixteen boys glared back. He had grown accustomed to scornful looks. He’d even stopped going to the local pub since the proprietor had begun to show reluctance to serve him. The beer was awful anyway, he’d told himself, watery and weak. Doubtless what they thought of him.
‘Sir?’ A pimply boy sitting at the back of the classroom had eventually stuck up his hand.
‘Yes, Smythe?’ He was captain of the Second XI, a mean bowler, a popular boy.
‘Is there something wrong with you, sir? Like, a wooden leg or a fatal illness?’ Smythe had asked.
Richard had hitched up both trouser legs to display his pasty calves. Sniggers from the boys. ‘The last time I looked, there was nothing untoward about these limbs, Smythe.’
‘Well, why are you not fighting, sir?’
Then others, with the usual bravery of numbers, had started to chip in. ‘Sir. My brother is in the Air Force, sir, and he’s younger than you,’ a boy in the front row piped up.
‘Is it because you’re scared?’ asked another.
‘I’m a pacifist,’ Richard explained. ‘I don’t believe in violence.’
The history of the Civil War was abandoned and Richard had guided the boys in a discussion about the rights and wrongs of war. They were more tolerant than some adults. A woman in town had spat at him recently. She’d told him, disgust on her face, as though she’d stepped in something nasty: ‘My only son was killed at Dunkirk while people like you cower here. Shame on you!’
The grocer had gently scolded her. ‘Now, now, Mrs Hawthorne, that don’t do no good.’ He’d pushed a couple of potatoes into her basket.
But what good were two extra potatoes when you wanted your son back? Richard hadn’t responded to the woman; he could understand her commonplace reaction. Whenever he tried to explain his beliefs, it was always the same reaction: he was a coward, he was letting other people go to war while he led a cushy life as a schoolmaster in a boys’ private school at the end of a leafy Surrey lane.
‘There are plenty of older men who could do your job,’ was another answer when he countered that teachers too were needed for the war effort. ‘Be careful you’re not getting others to wash your dirty underwear.’
The comments stung like wasps. Deep down he’d begun to wonder if they might hold a grain of truth.
At supper that night, his mother, reading his eyes, had said, ‘More grief, son?’
‘I’ve been asked to look for another job. The headmaster called me into his office and said my pacifism was proving awkward for some parents and that it was time to leave. If I’m honest, it’s a blessing, Ma.’
His father had suggested he joined him as a warden. ‘I had an old biddy sticking up for me the other day,’ he’d said. ‘A man in the shelter started up about me being a bloody conchie. “You leave him alone, he’s a good man,” she told him. If she’d had a rolling pin in her hand, as sure as eggs is eggs, she’d have used it. I was busy emptying waste buckets down a manhole and spreading bug powder while she tore into him. Not the most pleasant job in the world, but somebody’s got to do it. It’s useful work, lad.’
‘I’ll think about it. I heard they need teachers up in London. The children are going wild on the bomb sites with the schools closed.’
‘Will you have to go through a tribunal again?’ his father asked.
‘I shouldn’t think so.’
Richard thought back to the day when he’d had to present his viewpoint before a panel led by a County Court Judge. A stern woman sat on the board, her hair tightly crimped, her mouth pursed like a cat’s bottom as she glared at him over her thick glasses. The judge had been a fair fellow, thank heavens. ‘We are not so much concerned with your views, young man,’ he’d intoned, ‘so much as whether we think they are sound and reasonable.’
After presenting his case, the elderly judge nodding every now and again as Richard spoke, he had been granted conditional exemption. ‘Continue as you were, young Moorhead. Your teaching skills are needed for our young people.’
‘Quakers are looked on reasonably favourably. It’s political activists they don’t like,’ Richard told his parents.
His father had nodded. ‘Not like in the last war when we were dished out white feathers ten a penny.’
Richard watched as his father picked at dry skin around his thumbnail: a telltale sign that he was brooding.
‘I want to prove I’m not a coward,’ Richard continued.
His mother had served up supper. ‘Eat up,’ she said, lifting the lid from a casserole of mutton neck and dumplings. ‘The butcher warned me there’ll be no more where this came from for a while. It’ll be vegetable pie tomorrow or whale meat, worse luck.’
While they’d eaten, they’d listened to the radio. Reception was poor and it squeaked and hissed through the broadcast of Monday Night at Seven.
‘It’s Barbara’s birthday tomorrow, Ma, so I shan’t be in for supper – nothing against your top-hole pies, of course, but I’m whisking her up town as a surprise, taking her dancing.’
His young brother had sniggered. ‘You’d better get hold of some Jerry toecaps for her shoes. I wouldn’t fancy your size tens treading on my plates of meat.’
Richard had smiled at Billy. He was better at tennis than dancing, which was how he’d met Barbara, over the other side of a net in the park. She wasn’t that good at hitting the ball, but she had an infectious laugh and they’d soon abandoned their game and spent the rest of the afternoon chatting.
‘We’ll be back late, so don’t wait up. We’ll go on the bike, with the buses not running,’ he said, getting up to help clear the table.
‘You’d better warn her of your plans, son,’ his mother said. ‘You know what she’s like with her fancy frocks. How will she manage on the back of a motorbike, all dolled up?’
‘Perhaps you’re right. Maybe we’ll take in a film instead. They’re showing The Goose Steps Out, with Will Hay. We could do with a good laugh.’
‘Everyone could do with a laugh right now,’ his mother had agreed.
‘Can I come?’ Billy had piped up.
‘No room for three on the bike. Sorry. Maybe next time,’ Richard had said, thinking he didn’t need a fifteen-year-old gooseberry crowding in on his date with Barbara.
Halfway through the film, while Richard and Barbara had been canoodling in the back row of the Troxy, the air raid sirens started to wail. They’d been tempted to stay put, but the film clicked off abruptly and there’d been a rush for the exit. Usherettes guided the crowd, shining their torches down to show the way. Outside, the warnings continued and searchlights strobed the London skyline searching for planes. A middle-aged warden in a tin hat bearing the letter W called with quiet authority as they emerged from the cinema. ‘This way, ladies and gents. This way.’ He pointed to an Underground sign, an arrow underneath the words AIR RAID SHELTER.
Below stairs, it was already nearly full. People had staked their places before the latest raid, asleep on grubby blankets or on top of their possessions. A couple of men played cards on an upended suitcase; a woman knitted next to an infant asleep in a cardboard box. There were people huddled between the rails where trains had run in peacetime and others camped on the elevators. Richard and Barbara found a spot to lean against the wall next to a mother seated on an overcoat. A baby slept in her arms and a toddler snivelled beside her. Barbara crouched to wipe his nose and the mother whispered, ‘Thank you, lady. It’s the third night in a row we’ve had to turf ourselves from bed. Albie’s tired and grizzly. I can’t stand it when those sirens start up. Sets me nerves right on edge.’ She pronounced the word like other cockneys, so that it came out as ‘sireens’.
Richard and Barbara had chatted quietly, wondering how long the raid would last. ‘Let’s hope my bike is safe, otherwise it’s a long walk back, Bar.’
She seemed more worried about her laddered stockings. ‘Sylvia lent them to me. She’ll be furious. She’ll have my guts for garters.’
An old man had struck up Vera Lynn’s latest song, his accordion echoing from the sooty tiled walls. A woman started to sing, her voice untrained but compelling. When she reached the line ‘Keep smiling through…’ others joined in. Those who couldn’t sing tapped their fingers, nodding their heads in time.
Barbara snuggled into Richard. ‘That’s the spirit,’ she said, dabbing her eyes. She wasn’t the only one blowing into a handkerchief. Afterwards there was quiet in the cold damp place as people settled down for an uncomfortable night.
As Richard had begun to nod off, his arms round Barbara, there’d been an almighty explosion. The shelter rocked like a ship, the place filled with dust and rubble as part of the ceiling caved in and masses of people scrambled out of the way of falling concrete. For a moment or two there’d been eerie silence and then blind panic as mothers screamed for their children. And then, two men of Richard’s age dressed in khaki uniforms appeared and calmly took control.
‘Form an orderly queue,’ the tall, bespectacled fellow said.
His companion added: ‘No need to panic, folks, but we have to get everybody out of here. If anybody’s hurt, Mr Dodds and I will tend to you as soon as possible, but in the meantime, leave your possessions and follow us.’
Richard had been impressed by the young men; he couldn’t make out if they were from the Red Cross and their uniforms were not regular army.
‘We could do with some strong fellows to help,’ the one called Dodds had announced.
‘Are you all right if I leave you, Bar?’ Richard asked. ‘I want to lend them a hand.’
‘I’ll stay with this lady.’
‘Meet me later by the Shaftesbury Memorial.’
He’d squeezed her hand and pushed his way through the crowd to join the two young men. Only when he’d drawn nearer did he make out the letters QUAKER embroidered on their brassards. Dodds pointed to an elderly man slumped against the wall, his breathing laboured, his face grey. ‘Take Mr Perkins here up the stairs,’ he said quietly to Richard. ‘And then we need to get across to Charing Cross, if possible.’
The frail old man was dazed and Richard had taken him gently in his arms, following Dodds, who was carrying a young woman. They emerged from the Underground steps to a scene from hell, their feet scrunching through glass, ankle deep. A fire crew battled to extinguish flickering, fiery tongues in gutted shopfronts, the sounds of glass cracking and falling bricks mixing with commands as they directed huge jets of water. A trolley bus had landed on its side, its rear end sticking up like an abandoned toy in a gaping hole. Somebody had covered the body of a child with a coat, and Richard stepped over a motionless girl, her pretty face untouched, the lower half of her body severed. He stopped, horrified, helpless, and Dodds had turned to call, ‘Over here, mate. Keep following me. Somebody else will see to her.’
Rats scuttled from holes, finding paths through the blazing embers as flares floated and drifted down like petals from large yellow flowers scattered across the sky.
At Charing Cross, nurses had taken over and Richard followed his fellow Quakers back to the bombed Underground station to fetch more wounded and vulnerable. Lumps of soot blew everywhere, searchlights swirled in the acrid smoke and a bomb had pierced a water pipe, its powerful jet splashing onto the debris like a bizarre fountain. Richard helped a very pregnant woman back to the nurses.
‘The baby’s coming. Bleedin’ ’ell,’ she’d moaned. ‘This un’s picked a right time to say ’ello, an’ all…’
Richard had been relieved to hand her over to the medical staff. Delivering babies was something he knew nothing about. At least, not then.
When the trio had finished evacuating the bombed shelter, they shared a brew of tea handed out by the Women’s Voluntary Service.
‘I was brought up a Quaker,’ Richard said, pointing at the men’s badges while they sipped hot sweet tea poured from a huge metal pot. ‘But what uniforms are you wearing?’
‘We’re with the FAU,’ Dodds had said, shaking Richard’s hand. ‘I’m Douglas Dodds, DD to my friends. Thanks for your help tonight.’
‘I’m Richard Moorhead,’ he said, introducing himself. ‘FAU? What’s that?’
‘Friends Ambulance Unit. Resurrected from the last war. I’m surprised you’ve not heard of us if you’re a Friend.’
‘I didn’t go to Quaker school.’
The other man had introduced himself at that point. ‘I’m Percy Hythe. Neither did I, old chap. But I wanted to do something to help and I was lucky enough to find out about this outfit at my tribunal.’
‘I need to find out more,’ Richard said. ‘Listen, I’ve got to find my girlfriend now, but how can I get in touch with you?’
‘A few of us camp in an empty school in Whitechapel, but if you’re interested in the FAU, you need to apply for a place at Manor Farm, up Edgbaston way. That’s where we trained. Get yourself to London again and we’ll fill you in.’
The two men he met that night changed Richard’s life. The purpose of the FAU, they were to tell him, was to relieve suffering caused by war. This had resonated. Six months later he knew how to make a bed with envelope corners, roll up bandages, help a patient use a Nelson inhaler, carry out blood transfusions and stitch up wounds. He would go on to help save lives of countless men, women and children. One year later, he would sleep under canvas in Macedonia in the perfect camouflage of an olive grove, and eventually, he would work twenty-four hours non-stop in an operating theatre overlooking the Bay of Naples.
But it was where he landed up in Tuscany that would cause him to question his beliefs.
Shaking away his memories in the cold, empty house, Richard picked up the keys and took them to the estate agent, before meeting up with Barbara in the pub. He was early and took his pint to a corner table where a mean fire glowed in the grate. He picked up the local Observer. There was a half-page advertisement for Plummers’ department store and Barbara’s pretty face smiled with flirty eyes from a photo announcing the ‘latest in this season’s hats’. The top of her face was fringed by a strip of net attached to a straw hat perched on her head. He couldn’t see the point of this fashion; but he couldn’t see the point of most things at the moment. Since he’d been demobbed from Italy, few things struck a chord. England didn’t seem like a country that had experienced a huge victory: piles of rubble still clogged the roads and queues stretched outside shops, housewives waiting to buy even the most basic of goods. There was no sense that rationing would come to an end soon. During the war, he’d found a purpose for a while. After leaving his post at the school, he’d ended up with the Friends Ambulance Unit and, after training, was sent to join up with the 56th division, part of the Eighth Army. He’d been in the army, but not of the army and that had suited him fine. His duty was to save the wounded, according to the Geneva Convention, no matter what nationality, without having to go against his deeply held beliefs and fight.
‘Hello, darling.’ Barbara’s hand on his shoulder brought him back to 1947 and The Fox and Crown. ‘What a stink of a day it’s been,’ she said, collapsing into the chair opposite him. She undid the buttons on her bolero jacket and peeled off her leather gloves. ‘I could murder a sidecar.’
‘Come again?’ he asked, not up to speed with Barbara’s fads.
‘You know,’ she continued. ‘Lemon, brandy, a dash of Cointreau. It’s all the rage.’
He went to the bar to order and returned with a gin and tonic. ‘No Cointreau, old thing.’
‘Oh well,’ she said, lifting the cocktail glass to her lips. ‘Bottoms up, darling!’
She’d left a red lipstick imprint on the rim. The colour of blood. He shook his head to rid himself of the image of a dying soldier in Tuscany, but as she talked about her day, the face of a desperate Italian mother blurred into Barbara’s and his hands began to shake, slopping beer down his shirt.
‘Are you having one of your funny turns again, darling?’ Barbara asked, a frown puckering her powdered forehead. She leant towards him, one manicured hand tapping his sleeve. ‘Can I do anything?’
He shook his head, steadied his breathing. She was sweet but he was used to these panic attacks.
‘It seems to be happening more and more, Dick.’
Soldiers had called him Dick. They had bandied schoolboy comments about him being the dick with more head, playing around with his surname. He’d taken the baiting; he was used to being picked on. More than once he’d been at the wrong end of a pair of fists. But Dick from Bar’s lips sounded wrong. He’d asked her often enough to use his full name. He stood up, his voice raised. ‘Call me Richard, for pity’s sake…’
‘Please, Richard. Calm down.’ She reached for his hand and he attempted a smile, wiping sweat from his brow.
‘Sorry, old thing,’ he said, collapsing back into the chair.
‘Talk to me. You’re… so distant these days. I can’t help you if you don’t tell me what’s going on in your head.’
She moved with a rustle of her wide skirts. The sound was like wind sifting through olive branches and he was back in Italy again. Barbara’s face merged with the face of a terrified Italian woman and, once again, panic rose and his heart rate accelerated.
‘I’m a mess. Not much fun,’ he said, reaching for the remainder of his beer with hands that continued to tremble. ‘You should find somebody else.’
Barbara frowned and bit her ruby red lips. ‘That again. Look, Richard,’ she said, huffing air in exasperation. ‘I waited and waited for you to come back from the war. But… somebody different turned up. I don’t know you anymore.’
He looked up, surprised at her spot-on statement. ‘None of us can ever be the same after those years.’
She quickly glanced away, pulled out her compact case and examined herself in the mirror, turning her face this way and that, pushing back a stray strand of hair and – if he wasn’t mistaken – blinking away a tear, checking it hadn’t smudged her black mascara. Snapping it shut and returning it to her bag, she rose. ‘Oh well, darling. This is pointless and I’m tired of it, quite frankly. We had a good run, and nobody can say I haven’t tried.’ She hooked her handbag over her arm before bending to peck him on the cheek, and in a voice that sounded braver than it was, she said, ‘It’s all a bit beyond me, I’m afraid. But…’ She fiddled with her leather gloves, eyes glistening as she spoke. ‘Please find a doctor who can help you.’
When Richard looked up, she was gone, the sudden draught from the door as it shut behind her, cold on his legs. He drained his beer and walked slowly from the pub along dimly lit streets to his digs, feeling like a heel, but knowing their parting was for the best. And he also felt relief. His feelings for Bar were not the same as before. They were two very different people. He’d written her a poem for her birthday last month and after she’d read it, she’d laughed. ‘Well, I’ve never been described like that before. Write me a story instead,’ she’d said. ‘Or buy me a bottle of Dior. I never could stand poetry at school. Fancy describing me as a chaffinch.’
They’d been dragging along for too long. Two people who didn’t fit. How could he explain to her what he felt inside? It was hard enough understanding it himself.
As he undressed for the night, the Italian airmail envelope rustled in his shirt pocket. Was there any reason why he couldn’t accept an invitation to return to Tuscany in May? It would be approaching half term at the new school where he was presently teaching. A return trip to Corbello might be just the ticket; something to exorcise the ghosts that haunted his days and nights. He’d made plenty of friends amongst the locals and it would be good to look them up and share good food and wine with them. He lit his pipe and opened the window to the night air. Yes, it would be good to set foot on Italian soil again. This time, without the fear of death stalking him round every corner. Maybe it might sort out his head. Like lancing a boil to rid its poison. He didn’t ne
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...