Helen Kings and Alma Carneggio couldn’t be more different: While Helen makes a living as a single mum and partner in a London law firm, Alma lives a privileged life as the wife of a Milanese industrial aristocrat. Yet, their lives are haunted by the same tragedy: the mysterious death of Luca Carneggio, Alma’s son and Helen’s lover- and the father of Helen’s teenage daughter Emmy.
“Don’t worry about the English girl,” her sister Clara had told her, following Alma’s gaze. “Men always go for the exotic thing, but they always come home to eat.” It had made her laugh at the time. It was true; even as a toddler, Luca had a thing for blonde women. He could even forget the ice cream in his little hand and his father would pinch his cheek and say: “One day, we will find you a blonde woman for sure.” It was not quite what they did in the end.
“Intensely personal, a tour-de force of compelling dialogue, so real as if you are eavesdropping.
Elizabeth Carter Wellington, author of Circus Girl: A Novel
Get a glimpse of the characters and explore the beginning of the novel:
End of August 2001, Vittuone (Milan)
He was found in the early morning hours, his body leaning over the steering wheel, the neck bent sharply, folded like a piece of paper. Two officers, a senior commissario and his apprentice, noticed the tyre tracks in the grass on a routine patrol, and then saw the car wreck. A convertible Fiat 1500, wrapped around a tree trunk. The wide avenidas of Vittuone, leading towards the city of Milan, were framed by well-trimmed pine trees, with an accurate distance of half a kilometre between them. It was a precise hit and the old tree had given in. Its crown touched the ground.
They called for an ambulance and then circled the wreck. The cabin was badly mangled. The apprentice moved closer and finally went down on one knee. It was his first time seeing a dead man. The man’s eyes were closed, so were his lips; his traits seemed relaxed.
“There is almost something peaceful about him,” he said, and it was true. He admired the vintage Rolex on the dead man’s wrist, still resting on the steering wheel, as if he could take it off and shift gear any moment. It had been a warm summer’s night; even now the air was mild with a faint fog lingering over the fields. Maybe the man had been on a date, or a garden party with friends. For a moment, he daydreamed of arriving at a party in such a convertible and with the same watch. Then it struck him that the watch was still ticking, and the thought made his stomach turn. He jerked up and leaned forward, hands on his knees.
The commissario looked to the other side, ignoring the retching sounds of his colleague.
“What could have gone wrong in a life like that… for the one who had it all?” he whispered to himself. Then he took off his hat, as if he were in church, then remembered that he was not and put it back on.
They began to take notes of the position of the car, walked back and forth to measure the distance from the road. With the light growing stronger, the birds woke for their morning concert. A flock of swallows rose to the sky.
And while the wailing of the ambulance grew louder, neither of them noticed the vixen and her cub, emerging on the edge of the field. She stopped; the wreck and the men blocking her way. She sat down and blinked, then led her cub back to shelter, forced to try another path.
Chapter 1: Helen
4 January 2017, London (United Kingdom)
Helen Kings drove her aching toes deeper into the cap of her high heels, so the pain would distract her from her growling stomach. Over a phone call, she had forgotten to eat before leaving the office. Beer is food, she tried to tell herself, but cold beer on an empty stomach gave her cramps. Actually, nowadays her body punished her for every sip – and accepted milk only lactose-free.
“We got our kids a Labradoodle for Christmas.” A shrill woman’s voice forced Helen’s attention back to the phone screen in front of her nose. After a new log house in the mountains, the screen now showed three perfect children, cuddling a curly little puppy. The senior partner who had initially agreed to meet Brenda and Mitch, two attorneys from California who brought in lucrative work, suddenly had to prepare for a hearing, and that’s where Helen came in. On the bright side, this was not an endless dinner, just drinks.
“Awww, that is adorable,” Helen said, pushing her toes a little harder.
“It is, isn’t it? I mean, sure, he is a handful, but the kids are, they are like, so happy!” Brenda said, drawing out the ‘o’ in ‘so’. “Do you have any pets?”
“No, no time for pets. I have a daughter, but I don’t think she’s happy…” Helen said, wondering instantly whether beer on an empty stomach was indeed a bad idea.
After an uneasy pause, Brenda started to giggle hysterically. “Oh my, Helen, you are so funny! And one wouldn’t know you have a daughter, look at that flawless figure!”
Mitch dived even deeper into his Foster’s Extra Cold. Too many landmines in women-weight-conversations.
“Oh, now I’m flattered.” Helen scrambled for the only possible response: “You too!”
“Thanks! But seriously, what is your secret? Superfoods? Workouts?”
“Just no time to eat between work and family…”
Though she was being complimented here, Helen felt her pulse rise. With US colleagues, maintaining professional boundaries was close to impossible. As soon as they sat down, they felt the urge to boast about their husbands, kids and boats, whereas Europeans only looked for a more or less subtle way to mention their diplomas.
“Tell me about it! Although it is all a matter of organisation. Me and my husband, we do a lot of home-office. That helps tremendously! Mitch,” Brenda tried to loop her colleague back into the conversation, “how do you and your wife manage?”
Mitch then went on a real stretch to make his housewife-working husband arrangement sound modern. Of course he was all for women having a career: “It is just that Suzie really likes children and playing the piano and this is the best way for her to do what she really wants.”
Helen let her gaze wander across the room to the counter where the barman handed over one pint after the other – and there he was. Out of nowhere. Leaning on the bar, with that smile; that confident, loving smile; and he looked her right in the eye. As if it had only been yesterday that she had found herself in those eyes, and not in a different life. His gaze still tore her shields down like nothing else. She felt an urge to walk over, but she knew he would vanish as soon as she moved.
“Well, I think the most important thing is that everybody is happy, forget stereotypes. Don’t you think? Helen?” Brenda looked in the same direction towards the counter and then back at Helen, a bit puzzled by her absent-mindedness.
“Yes, definitely.” Helen nodded, trying to cover up her lack of attention with a sympathetic smile. Then Mitch changed topic to their last family vacation to Australia. Brenda frantically agreed that the South especially was amazing. Helen had never been to Australia but she assured them that she would go soon. When she glanced over to the counter again, he was gone. The pub suddenly felt like the loneliest place on earth. After all, wasn’t he the best reminder that things end badly if one stayed where one was unhappy?
“Guys, I will call it a night,” she suddenly heard herself say.
What else could they do but match her toothpaste smile and return her hug? In any case, they were back to their phones before she had even slipped into her coat.
As she stepped out from Clapham Common Tube Station, for the first time that evening, she felt the biting cold. City life around High Holborn was such a hustle; it seemed to have no weather. Men wore the same suit all year long. But here in the calm of Zone 2, the January night crept under your coat and into your bones. Her breath rose in the air like dragon’s smoke.
Helen turned north. She passed a Starbucks, a Boots, a keymaker in a cramped little booth, and the Sainsbury’s with a beggar sitting in the entrance to catch a bit of warmth. Not always the same one, the guild seemed to send them in rolling shifts, alternating between an old man exposing a stub for a foot, and a Romani woman with one of those anesthetised babies lying lifeless in her lap. One block further down was the local library, a run-down building in some sort of Hundertwasser style, with asymmetric windows and round edges, giving that corner the charm of an intellectual outpost. Taking a turn to the right and off the main road, it was a ten-minute walk to Helen and her daughter’s domicile. When people asked their inevitable “Where do you live?” and she said “Clapham Common,” people might well imagine her in one of those Victorian mansions stretching out south alongside Clapham Common Park. Where the local butcher had painted tiles and bacon hanging from the ceiling, pretending to be a part of an eighteenth-century Paris, and where the shop next door seemed to survive on selling one bottle of organic cactus tree oil a day. She liked them to think that, and it worked as long as one had no guests.
Off the main road, Helen hastened her step and stomped her heels, letting any rapist know what he was up against. These were clearly the wrong shoes for running and the streets lay dead at this hour. Sometimes she faked an important call on the way or even arranged for an actual call with a late-working associate. The houses stood narrow and cramped, but it was still real houses with little front yards. At some point, it had probably been a charming area. Today, most of them had dirty drawn curtains; many even broken windows, and the emergency boards and foils to fill the hole often became permanent. The houses keeping up the spirit belonged to relocation firms which had the funds to renovate. Islands of joy in a desolate sea, bright windows and people dining in the alcoves. She passed in front of a house which had a Vote Remain on June 23rd! sign, fixed with a wire to the front gate. The house next to it used a Union Jack as a make-shift curtain. Times were changing, but nobody knew if for better or worse.
A good hundred metres further down, Helen was about to step out of a particularly dark patch, where a dead street lantern was matched with two houses with broken windows, when the branches of a bush ahead of her suddenly creaked and rustled. Helen’s heart skipped a beat. Whatever this was, it was no more than five metres ahead of her. She wanted to run but stood paralysed instead. Before her adrenalin level had a chance to rise enough to fight back, the culprit stepped out into the open. It was a small red fox; he had probably been hunting for food in rubbish bins. He lowered his head and began to cross the street. In the middle of the road, he stopped and locked eyes with Helen. For a few seconds, they stared at each other, both equally tense. She had never seen a fox from so close, with his bushy tail and those piercing yellow eyes, even in the dark. A creature of the wild. Then he disappeared into the hedge on the other side. A dog started barking – maybe he could smell the intruder.
She paced the last metres to her home as fast as she could; enough of the dark and cold. As Helen turned the key, her nose immediately caught the smell of takeaway pizza. For her, the eternal smell of guilt.
Chapter 2: Alma
4 January 2017, Vittuone (Milan)
The library windows faced the park, but this night in early January was so dark, there might have been no world at all. Ever since Alma Carneggio had moved to Vittuone as a young bride, more than forty years ago, the park had not changed. She knew that close to the window, on the terrace, stood a Venus figurine, carrying an amphora over her shoulder, but it would not spill any water until spring. Next came the boxwoods surrounding the flower beds, and finally the pine trees framing the meadow in the back. But tonight clouds covered the moon; the night swallowed everything. Inside, sitting by a secretary desk in the warm cone of light of a Tiffany lamp, it felt to Alma as if she was the only person awake in the world. Sad and superior at the same time.
In her morning coat and slightly hunched, she shifted the photograph from one hand to the other, in the same rhythm in which she shifted in her armchair. Sitting in the same position was difficult after a while. Her hip would start aching and the pain would move up her spine until it resulted in a massive headache. Finding a bearable position had become the dance of her days. She was terrified of the day when painkillers would no longer be able to take her out of her misery. Even now she barely left the house, if it was not for a doctor’s appointment or to renew her perm.
She put the photograph down and inspected the envelope it had come in. Sometimes she carried it with her for a few days. For the pleasure of having a secret, or out of fear. Accepting the letter made her nothing less than a traitor. She felt the softness of its rosé paper and the marks of its journey to her. The upper-left corner of this one was a bit kinked, the sides slightly scuffed. The stamp showed the Tower of London. The return address was always the same. The mother apparently still used her maiden name; the only addition had been a doctorate title many years ago. Every year, she knew what she would find inside. The envelope contained a card and a photograph. Nothing more. The same simple white card with the words ‘Thank you’ in an elegant black print. This was the 17th photograph she held in her hand. The penultimate one. They were not numbered or anything, Alma simply knew. She was sixty-three, so this was the year the girl had turned seventeen.
This one showed the girl in a rain jacket and her blonde hair put back in a ponytail, a backpack over her shoulder. In the background, one could see water, probably the sea. The girl lived in London. That was basically all she knew. Perhaps this one had been taken on a school trip. She looked rather tanned, something she could not have gotten from her mother. And in England, they might need rain jackets even in summer, from what she heard. She looked straight into the camera with a smile that would melt everything. A smile like a resurrection, almost surreal.
Her throat felt dry all of a sudden. The teacup from her afternoon tea was still on her desk; the maids had not yet cleared it up. A lucky oversight. The tea tasted stale, but it calmed down her throat. For distraction and to calm her mind, she lifted the cup into the light. Her late father-in-law had admired the product as well as the Ginoris. An Italian family enterprise, just like the Carneggios were. It was one of the classic series with an orange Chinese temple on white porcelain.
She opened the lower-right drawer in the secretary desk’s font. In a place where other women might have kept love letters from a secret admirer, she kept those cards. She spread out all seventeen photographs in front of her, like a game of tarot. In the first photo, the girl had been lying in her crib, as adorable as any baby. In the second, she was learning to walk, held by the hands of an invisible adult (the grey pants in the background suggested that it was an old man). In the third, she was sitting next to a sandcastle in a sunhat, lifting a shovel up in the air. In the fourth, she was riding on a pony guided by another invisible adult. There was her first day at school; a proud girl in a British school uniform. From then on she turned more and more into a young lady, standing in a park in front of a flower bed, fully aware of being photographed and wanting to please. Glimpses of a happy life and a mother’s pride.
On top of her secretary desk stood a framed photograph, taken on her niece Francesca’s wedding, on the terrace of this house. She held the latest photograph of the girl next to it. At that very wedding she had met the English woman; and only this once. A big family affair held on their property. A few days before the big event, Luca had announced that he would bring a girl from university. That had caused quite a stir; the seating order of the banquet had been made weeks ago.
Luca was, of course, not aware of all the effort which goes into such festivities. Men were never aware of these things, for them it was a given that things at home ran smoothly. And it was her fault; she had raised him like that after all. So Alma took full responsibility for this pre-nuptial chaos. They shook their heads and laughed about naughty Luca, always good for a surprise – and arranged a seat for her at the ‘remote-family-friends-table’, far away from precious Luca. Alma knew a thing or two about etiquette. And in this house, any woman had to make it past her; nobody waltzed in here just like that.
“Don’t worry about the English girl,” her sister Clara had told her, following her gaze. “Men always go for the exotic thing, but they always come home to eat.” It had made her laugh at the time. It was true; even as a toddler, Luca had a thing for blonde women. He could even forget the ice cream in his little hand and his father would pinch his cheek and say: “One day, we will find you a blonde woman for sure.” It was not quite what they did in the end.