There is a house by the sea – an empty house; a derelict hose. Its windows are shuttered and its front door is barred. The tall iron gate is rusted and chained. Ivy and bougainvillea have hidden most of the walls. The gardens are a tangle of vines and brambles; the flowerbeds overgrown with weeds; the fountain silent and dry.
But it was not always so. Once upon a time, children ran down the stairs and frolicked in the gardens; an old lady dozed in her armchair and remembered her youth and a young girl lay awake on her bed and dreamt of her future. Nobody in the near-by village could remember who had lived there or why the house had been vacant for so long; but the very old people spoke of one long, hot summer, many years ago, when some tragedy had struck the family that lived there and the father had locked up the house and forbade any of the family to ever return there. Some say there had been a death in the family. Others say that a severe blow had been dealt to the family pride – but no one can say for sure. The true events have become mysterious through the passage of time. But if the derelict house could speak, it would have an interesting tale to tell …
Nina ran down the wide staircase and hurtled into the waiting carriage where her grandmother was waiting. The older woman smiled indulgently.
“Good morning Grandmama,” said Nina.
“Good morning child. Sit by me and read me some poetry.”
Obediently, Nina picked up the worn book and started to recite Byron in a listless voice. Her grandmother watched her through half-closed eyelids, the familiar words falling between them like the soft petals of almond blossoms. The annual journey to the family’s summer house was always a cause for excitement. But this year, she felt that her granddaughter’s restless more than excited. Nina reminded her so much of herself at that age; which was, perhaps, not altogether a good thing. Marianna Barbaro Pizzani closed her eyes and tried to concentrate on Byron, while reminiscing about a long lost summer.
“Is something troubling you Nina?” she suddenly asked her granddaughter.
“No,” Nina replied as she closed the book and started to finger the ringlets of her long black hair. There was a certain nervousness about her motions that did not go unnoticed but Marianna decided that it would be wise not to pry too deeper.
“It is so hot this year. June has barely started and we are already in the throes of a heat wave. The sea breezes will feel most welcome,” she said.
“Truly Nana,” Nina replied. “I can’t wait to get there …and I can’t wait for Roberto to come back from Rome.” A hint of a smile touched the girl’s lips.
Marianna knew how close Nina was to her twin brother. She had noticed subtle changes in the girl ever since he had left the island to go and study in Rome.
“I heard that this year he is bringing a young friend of his with him.”
“Yes,” Nina agreed.
“Your father told me he comes from a very good Roman family,” Marianna continued determined to probe a little bit deeper.
Nina sighed. “Yes, but is that all that matters?” she asked angrily. “I will have none of it. Help me Nana, please.”
A strained silence seemed to fall between them, broken only by the clip-clop sound of the horses hooves. Then, defiantly, Nina continued, “I will not marry if it’s not for love. No matter what anyone in the family may say. And if you force me, you’ll be sorry.”
With that, Nina turned her back and stuck her head out of the carriage window. The breeze was barely cool and beads of perspiration formed on her upper lick. The countryside was already parched and the few wild flowers that still survived in pockets of shade were fast giving up their struggle. Nina looked at them and a pang of uncertainty clutched at her heart. Would she give up, in the end, like the weeds? It was one thing to talk so openly to her grandmother. But her father would be a totally different story. She pictured his stern face, his well-groomed moustache and his serious eyes - and her heart sank. She turned away from the window and in a low, almost plaintive voice, asked her grandmother, “You will help me Nana, won’t you? You won’t let them make me do something that will break my heart. Please say you won’t.”
Marianna clutched the heavy silver crucifix that hung around her neck, as if willing it to help her say the right words. But what words could she utter? Whatever she chose to say at this moment would only tighten the noose around her neck. Her past had never lain as heavily on her as it did right now. She knew Nina looked to her for direction – her father was too aloof and her mother was too busy with the four younger children and a household to run. Marianna had always been Nina’s rock. But now, when her protégé needed her most, it seemed likely that she would let her down.
Help me, Lord, she prayed silently, help me help this child.
But as the carriage rolled on to its destination, she had a sinking feeling that this year, more than any other year, her past would come to haunt her even more than it did every summer. With an effort, she smiled at Nina and said, in as steady a voice as she could, “Let’s cross each river when we come to it shall we? Let’s just enjoy our time together as we always have.”
Nina seemed content with that. She took her grandmother’s hand in hers and turned her face to the approaching vista of the sea.
Initially, my plan was to turn this first draft into a short novel but I stopped at the end of the first chapter because I was not sure exactly which route to take and because I felt that the story was not that interesting. So, notwithstanding the fact that this is very much an abandoned work in progress, I decided to accept Sue’s challenge and post an unfinished piece of writing in False Start Fridays. It’s not easy to do so, but sometimes you just have to stick your neck out a bit and hope for the best.