As 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 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 is Carla?
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 it.
“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?”
Copyright © 2017 by Jane Corry. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.