© BM 2008
Chapter Nine – Episode 13
He left the pub and noticed a newsagent on the other side of the road. He went in and studied the greeting cards. His hands were trembling, and he felt sick. Something bad was abroad, and he did not know what it was or what he could do about it. The woman he had heard screaming was not the woman he knew, not the woman he loved. Nervously, he fumbled through the cards, hardly comprehending what he was looking at. He found one with a lion on the front, and the message ‘Happy Birthday’. He paid the Indian shopkeeper ninety pence, and borrowed a pen from him. He wrote ‘Daina, I know it is not your birthday, but something is clearly wrong. If I can help, talk to me. I love you, Simba.’
He parked his car fifty yards from her house, and walked quietly towards it. There were no lights anywhere. He was not even certain if she was at home, although the Capri was still parked in the driveway. He pushed the little envelope into the letterbox, and drove home.
For three days he heard nothing, and often in those three days he was on the point of calling her. He resisted this temptation, telling himself that she would call when she was ready, and if she did not call, she would never be ready. The three days were very difficult, more than that, they were hell. They seemed to be the three longest days of his life. He was totally unable to concentrate on his work, totally unable to sleep and quite incapable of reasoned thought. He phoned Julie Willis.
“Alex, before you start, please don’t start. I know, and she will call you in her own time. Don’t ask me, I have no idea when her time will be. Don’t do anything, it is not your fault. There are some things she has to work out in her own head, and you should leave her to do it.”
He spent the time playing music, drinking whiskey and waiting for the telephone to ring. It never did, and once every hour he would go and look at it, as if in some strange way, the apparatus had disconnected itself. He made several calls to people he did not need to call, just to check that the damm thing was still working, and when not calling others, he would pick up the handset to make sure that the dial tone was still there. It always was, of course. He waited on the post every morning, quickly shuffling through his mail in search of her familiar handwriting. There was nothing. He could not sleep. He went to bed, and when he did sleep, it was only for an hour or two, and he was awake again.
On the fourth evening, his telephone rang.
“Simba, it’s Daina.”
He was silent. He did not know what to say. “Yes” he said huskily.
“I do not know what you must think of me, but …”
He interrupted her. “I love you, that’s what I think of you.”
She was silent. He was silent also. He did not know what he should say, and was fearful of saying something wrong, the more fearful, because he did not have any idea what he could say that might be wrong.
“I owe you an explanation. Will you come to dinner tomorrow, and I will try to do that.”
“Will you let me in? No, I’m sorry, I should not have said that. Yes, all right.”
She hung up, and he replaced the handset slowly. He was a maelstrom of emotions. What was happening? What was wrong with her?
He parked the BMW in the street, some distance away from her house. He had no idea why he had done so, it just seemed, in some strange way, appropriate. He hesitated before he rang the bell, unsure that he wanted to be there, unsure that he was prepared to hear whatever he might hear.
She opened the door. She was not wearing any make up, not even lipstick, and her face was drawn, and pale, despite the tan she had picked up in the Masai Mara, and there were dark circles under her eyes. She did not hug or kiss him. He felt like a stranger, and a not very welcome one.
“Come in.” She turned and he followed her.
Dinner was a simple meal, and he did not feel like eating, and though she offered a bottle of Chianti, he refused it. He took the dishes into the kitchen, and began to prepare to wash them, a familiar routine,
“No, leave those. Let’s talk.”
He put the dishes in the sink, and drying his hands on the tea towel, turned to face her. She indicated slightly with her head and turned and left the kitchen. They sat in her lounge room, a once familiar room, which had, in the course of less than a week, become an alien place. He said nothing.
“Coffee?” she enquired.
He shook his head.
“All right, I had better get it over with.” She was silent for thirty seconds, as if deciding what she should say, and how to say it. “You know that I was married, and got divorced about six months ago?”
“My husband’s name was, and is, Nicholas, Nick most people called him. He’s English. We met about three years ago when I was working in Paris. We got married in Worthing in a registry office about six months after we met, and later my parents insisted on a church ceremony, at home in Italy. I thought I loved Nick. And I thought he loved me. He was in business, property development, mostly in France. I suppose I was too blind to worry about the business, but he put the business, and this house, in our joint names. In case anything ever happened to him, he said, then I would be OK. I did not know it when we married, but Nick was deeply in debt, and he got so badly into trouble, that he could not face up to things, and left me. Simply ran away. He is in France somewhere. I do not know where. Well, half the business is mine. He has gone, so all the debts have been left to me. We owe half a million pounds.”
Alex drew in his breath sharply. “Christ!”
“There is more. This house is also in my name, and the monthly mortgage repayments are over one thousand pounds a month. I am already four months behind, and I have been threatened with court. It was Nick I was talking to, yelling at, the other night when you came here. He called me. I do not know where he was phoning from. There are other things, but those are the main problems.”
They were both silent for some moments.
“Can I help you?” he asked. “Would you accept my help?”
“Do you want to?”
“Yes. I love you, Francesca, and I do not want to see you unhappy.”
“How can you help? Do you have half a million pounds, in your back pocket, or a spare thousand a month for the mortgage?”
“No, I have very little money. When I got divorced almost every penny I had went to Anne. I had to start again. I have no money, I live from month to month. That is why I take these crap assignments in Africa. They pay the bills and allow for things like Florida and Kenya. I can support you, emotionally and financially until you can get this resolved. I love you and I want to help.”
They talked long into the night, and agreed that Francesca would live at his place full time, and give up her own house. Allow it to be repossessed was a more accurate description. Together, they would tough it out with the bank, the solicitors and anyone else that came along.
And so it was that one week later they hired a medium sized removal van, and moved all her furniture and belongings from Sussex to Surrey. That was the easy part. The difficult part was in the coming weeks, stonewalling solicitors, and bailiffs, and banks and debt collectors. He became the firewall, the barrier between Francesca and her demons, the people who, in her own mind, were out to destroy her. And slowly, very, very slowly, the pressure eased. Maybe they believed him when he said she had returned to Italy, maybe they did not. Many of her pursuers did not know about him, and to those who did, he lied. He helped her pay off smaller debts, like credit cards. In the meantime, their lives went on, and they grew closer together. He had again asked her to marry him, and she had again refused, using her domestic and financial problems as the reason. He would have been willing to face those, but his reason suggested that she was right.
The Capri, modification and all, was sold, to help pay off a bank overdraft of about one thousand pounds, and increasingly Francesca took to driving the BMW. It was not a problem to Alex, as he did not really need it most of the time. At Christmas, they took the car and drove to see her parents in Italy. They stayed for ten days taking in New Year’s Day as well as Christmas. They drove from Calais, sharing the driving along the AutoRoute through Reims, and Dijon and Macon, turning round the corner from Lyon and running up into the French Alps past Chambery, and crossing the frontier at the Col du Petit St Bernard. They arrived at the outskirts of Aosta, with Francesca fast asleep. It was after nine in the evening, and he shook her gently.
“Hey, Signora, we have arrived, but I will need some guidance from here.”
She opened her eyes and breathed deeply. “Can you smell that? It’s fresh air. We are back in the mountains.”
“No, it’s petrol. I filled up while you were asleep.”
She punched his arm, grinning.
Giovanni and Gabriella Paglioni, Francesca’s parents were a fairly conventional couple, who clearly regarded their younger daughter as a deeply unconventional person. Their elder daughter and their son had married and settled down, within thirty miles of Aosta, and had children, in whom their grandparents delighted. Francesca had not only not married an Italian, but she had divorced her husband, and was clearly unable to learn a lesson, because she had taken up with another Englishman. None of this was said, and they were kind and hospitable, as mountain people invariably are. They did not quite understand what he did for a living, but obviously, going off to Africa to enquire about other people’s wars did not immediately strike either of them as a worthwhile occupation for a grown man, and not one they wanted her daughter to be associated with. Neither did they fully understand what Francesca did for a living. Being a photographer suggested a life of taking pictures of weddings and schoolchildren, not guerrillas in Angola.
Alex did not speak Italian, and neither Giovanni nor Gabriella spoke English. Both spoke some French, as might be expected of those living so close to the French frontier, but not enough to make communication much easier. Francesca did the translation, but Alex had the impression that her efforts were sometimes more geared to not upsetting her parents, than to expressing his words accurately. He found it a strain, and was glad when they were alone.
Just before Christmas, Giovanni’s father, who lived in the same village, died. He was in his nineties, but had not been ill, and his passing came as a great shock to everyone. Alex, conscious that he was an outsider, did what he could to give support to Francesca and her parents, but tried not to interfere in the family grief. In a strange way, the bereavement brought him closer to Francesca’s parents, but it was still a relief when it was time to start the long drive home.
They started early, and Francesca slept for a couple of hours, once they were in France, and on the AutoRoute. She woke and stared out of the window.
“Where are we?”
“Just passed Chambery.”
“Do you want me to drive?”
“No, leave it for a while, until we stop for petrol.”
“They like you, you know.”
“Who likes me?”
“My parents. They think you are a good man.”
He was silent.
“I just thought you would like to know that.”
“You do not seem to be convinced.”
“Perhaps I’m not.”
“Firstly, I am not a good man, and I have an ex wife who would testify to that, and secondly,” he stopped.
“Yes, and secondly, what?”
“Secondly, did they like Nick?”
“Yes, they did.”
“What makes them, or you, think that I am different to Nick?”
“I have no idea, I don’t know Nick.”
“What’s your point, Alex?”
“My point is pretty simple. Your mother and father liked Nick. You loved Nick. He treated you badly, and now they do not like him, and you hate him. Perhaps one day your folks and you will feel the same way about me.”
“Are you planning to hurt me, Alex?”
“No, perhaps I am naïve in this big wide world, but all I want to do is to love you, and marry you, and live with you for the rest of my life.”
“Well, there’s nothing wrong with those things.”
“Perhaps not, Daina, but I do not know if those are things you want. Sometimes I am afraid that you will tire of me, and I will be part of your history, just like Nick.”
She was silent, and closed her eyes, and the subject was not discussed again in the long journey.
Some weeks after their return, Francesca told him that she wanted to give up photography.
“Fine,” he said, “ what do you want to do instead?”
“I don’t know.”
Over the next few weeks, they discussed a change in careers, and Alex suggested teaching, with the emphasis on language teaching. They did some research, and during the year, Francesca joined the University of Sussex to do a teacher’s training course. It meant that she did not have to go on overseas assignments, which suited them both. One person away from home at the same time was quite enough.