By Judy Darley
I hand the yellow felt-tip to Chiara, half watching as she adds a few dots of colour to the heart of a paper lily: pollen that will never fall free.
“What’s wrong, Julia?” she asks, focused on her task. “You’ve barely spoken since you arrived!”
I shrug, try to smile, but she re-caps the pen, flicks her eyes towards me, insistent.
“Bianca …” I begin, and she snorts.
“Of course, Bianca. What’s her trouble now?” Her own daughters are grown up, married off, safe. My eldest is 15, that most lethal of ages, when everything seems to want to devour her, and she seems hellbent on devouring everything.
“There’s a boy …”
Chiara hoots. “When isn’t there?” She snips the petals of a tulip a little more roughly than intended, tsks and tidies the ragged crepe edges. “Who this time?”
“Not local,” I admit. This is what perturbs me most. The island boys are in a semi-permanent state of arousal, it’s true, but they’re harmless for the most part. The tourists, with their way of flitting in and out of our lives, they worry me. I was once one of them; I remember how wide and uncaring the world beyond our lake island can be – how enticing it can seem.
“Where from?” Chiara asks, frowning. I know she’s never travelled beyond northern Italy, but as a mother she grasps the sense of this threat.
I say softly: “American.”
Chiara makes a whooshing noise, then places one small brown hand over mine. “At least he’s not Australian.”
As though distance is the only concern.
I set aside the clutch of daisies I’ve been threading together and start work on an arrangement of pink roses, wondering if Bianca will even care about the avenues of flowers for the Santa Croce festivities. Last time, she was just ten, younger than her sister Patrizia is now. I recall the paper blooms entrancing her then, and how she danced with her little friends in the glow of coloured bulbs as night fell.
Of course, Francesco was still alive at that time. If he was still with us now, perhaps he’d have stepped in this morning, forbade her from boarding the strangers’ hired boat.
“You want a boat ride? Go fishing with Matteo!” he might have barked.
All I did was remind her to look after her little sister, made sure they each had sunscreen, and waved them off on their way to Carzano’s quayside.
When I first came here, 18 years old and uncertain stepmother to dark-eyed Matteo, the flower-making bemused me. Francesco suggested I join the women in the squat building at the lake edge, where they sat for hours preparing for the next Santa Croce fiesta. Scraps of crepe paper covered the table, drifted down to the floor, as they worked with scissors and lengths of wire, creating bloom after rustling bloom.
“You’ve already won my heart,” he told me. “Win theirs and every heart in the hamlet will follow.”
So I sat with them, amid a sea of baskets and vases stuffed with roses and other blossoms so realistic it seemed strange that the air wasn’t thick with their fragrance.
Gradually I learnt to shape the flower petals, decipher the local language, contribute to their commentary, and ask them for the motivation for devoting so many hours to a pointless, if pretty, exercise.
“We’re working to ward off the sickness and death of all the population of our hamlet,” offered the elderly Patrizia my smallest daughter is named after.
“We do this each month, every season,” another said proudly. “Then, after five years, we have enough for the next Santa Croce festival.”
“But why is the festival is held?” I asked, although I’d read in a guidebook that it’s a pay off for the residents’ survival through a cholera epidemic more than 500 years ago.
The women looked blank for a moment, conferred among themselves, then an answer came back. “Only 240 people live in Carzano, and each family must provide 30,000 paper flowers to decorate their allocated area.” That’s all. They’ve forgotten the rest.
“It’s a dying art, though,” they told me. “None of the younger women are interested in spending their spare time cutting and twisting coloured paper into petals. Except you.”
I smiled, felt positively noble, vowed to teach my own children the traditional skills.
They laughed at that, patted my hands. “If you have daughters, you’ll see, they choose their own paths, however treacherous. You can only watch, or they will run, perhaps slip and fall.”
I’d glimpsed the American boys on their yacht this morning – tall, tanned and seeming years older than the island girls they ushered aboard. As Bianca accepted her place in the arms of the tallest at the bow, Patrizia had hesitated, turned, and on seeing me at the quay, waved. Then she too stepped on board.
I couldn’t be sure why it bothered me so. Perhaps because Bianca, for all her leggy Italian beauty, so reminds me of myself at that age. Perhaps because I still recall the thrill of giving up my life in Britain to marry a man twice my age and move to a lake island where people believe an abundance of paper flowers will keep their families from harm.
As our girls grew older, I told Francesco my wish to relocate them to England, give them the chance to know my parents better, experience city living.
He’d scoffed at my suggestion. “Where better to be young than here?” He spread his arms wide to encompass the whole of Monte Isola, Lake Iseo and the Italian sky overhead.
Besides, as he pointed out, what would he do in rainy Britain?
When he died, stripped from us by a latent heart defect, my sister came to the funeral. At the graveside, she murmured to me: “Now you can come home.”
Yet somehow his death fixed me in place, as though staying on Monte Isola honoured his dying wish. I could never leave now.
But my daughters could. They are beholden to no one. I think of them now, on the boat of the American boys, and I imagine them laughing as they plot their escapes. My only solace is that they’re sailing on a lake, with no access to the sea.
Towards the end of the afternoon I help Chiara tidy up; markers recapped, paper scraps swept away.
I spot Matteo at the waterfront tying up his naèt, the flat-bottomed fishing boat his half sisters would have spurned.
“I saw the girls, Julia,” he greets me, “with a load of asini.” He brays loudly, reminding me asini is the word for donkeys.
I smile with him, but he must notice the concern in my eyes. “Want I should go get them?” He puffs up his chest in bravado.
“No, but thanks, I’m just being silly,” I tell him. “Bianca would be so embarrassed!”
“Bianca will be embarrassed whatever you do.” He shrugs and laughs. He married three years ago, has a son tiny enough to hold in his arms. I envy him that.
At his invitation I join his family at a bar overlooking the harbour and we order the caffè ristretto I’ve learnt to love. Matteo’s wife Alessia offers me the baby and I take solace in his warm weight, the softness of his downy skin against my lips. I turn him to the water, point out the storks billowing by overhead, the ducks busy below. In the distance the little private islands are hazy, their rich-man follies indistinct.
I see a white boat heading towards us at speed and stand as I recognise it as the one my girls boarded this morning. “Look, your aunts are on that!” I tell the child, who blinks, no more curious about this than he is about the wind shifting through the poppies’ bright faces.
Matteo stands too, but suddenly, with an urgency that catches at my edges. The wind shudders towards us and I hear voices shrilling from the boat like distress calls.
“Take your son,” I say to Alessia, thrusting the baby towards her. I hurry after Matteo down to the quayside, where two of the boys are making a hash of bringing the boat in. They seem younger now, closer to Bianca’s age than I’d realised.
At first I can’t see my girls, then I spy Patrizia crouching at the bow, the fingers of one hand crammed into her mouth as she used to when she was little. Bianca is there too, sitting down. She’s cradling the head and torso of the tallest American in her lap.
“What happened?” I hear myself shriek. I can see blood on Bianca’s face and arms. “Bianca, what happened?”
“Mama!” she cries, and sounds anxious in a way that grips my heart.
Matteo assists the lads in tying up, then he’s aboard. I watch him bend to look into Patrizia’s face, check she’s okay, before going to her sister. She tells him something quick and garbled, and I see his face go through concern, annoyance, resignation.
“He’ll be fine,” he tells her. “Stupid asino.”
“Matteo?” I call.
“The blood isn’t Bianca’s,” he assures me, and I feel my heart relax a notch. “The Americans swam ashore to one of the islands.”
“We told them not to,” Patrizia puts in, “But they wouldn’t listen!”
My good, clever girl, I mouth to myself.
“You know what these people are like,” Matteo says. “No unexpected visitors allowed. There were guard dogs. The boy has been well chewed, that’s all.”
Matteo helps the boy to stand and he limps ashore. I wonder if they should have taken him to the mainland hospital, but beneath the sheen of blood the wounds don’t look so bad.
“Hope your inoculations are up to date,” I comment. The boy looks at me askance, pale beneath his tan, and I wait for the familiar surprised “You’re English?” but it doesn’t come.
Matteo takes the Americans to find the island’s doctor. Patrizia and Bianca lean into me, one on each side. I hold their warm, lithe bodies in my arms, wanting to keep them there, keep them safe. “You’re okay?” I ask them, but they’re already wriggling away.
“Fine, Mama!” they cry, heedless of my concern. I watch the pair run off together along the island paths – keep my eyes on them until they disappear from view.
Judy Darley is a Bristol-based fiction writer, poet and journalist. Her writing has been published by literary magazines and anthologies, and has been performed on BBC radio, in cafés, in caves, in an artist’s studio, across the UK and in Hong Kong. Her debut short story collection, Remember Me To The Bees, is out now. Find her at www.skylightrain.com and @judydarley.
Photograph by Jon Shave, used under a CC 2.0 license.