By Kerry Fisher
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Lara’s life looks perfect on the surface — gorgeous doting husband, Massimo; sweet little son, Sandro; and the perfect home. But Lara knows something about Massimo. Something she can’t tell anyone else, or everything he has worked so hard for will be destroyed: his job, their reputation, their son. This secret is keeping Lara a prisoner in her marriage.
Maggie is married to Massimo’s brother, Nico, and lives with him and her troubled stepdaughter. She knows all of Nico’s darkest secrets — or so she thinks. Then one day she discovers a letter in the attic that reveals a shocking secret about Nico’s first wife. Will Maggie set the record straight or keep silent to protect those she loves?
For a family held together by lies, the truth will come at a devastating price.
MAGGIE, Brighton Registry Office, 15 January 2016
The words 'Would everyone be upstanding for the bride?' made me want to look around for the woman in white.
My wedding day took place on a non-descript afternoon in the middle of January, well away from any big deal occasions like Christmas or Valentine's Day. I was thirty-five and I'd never even lived with a man before. Not because I was the last nun in the convent – too late to pull that stunt with my ten-year-old son, Sam, in tow – but because I was addicted to wrong 'uns. The sort of men who would have dads bundling their daughters into basements and throwing burning oil out of the top window.
But I'd never had a dad, just my mum who saw the good in everyone. The broken, the dreamers, the unhinged – Mum just made cheese on toast and let them park their feckless backsides on our couch. When she should have been hightailing it for the broom, she grinned instead and said, 'His heart's in the right place, love, just a bit wild. He'll grow out of it.'
But they never did. And then I met Nico, who didn't need to grow out of anything. After all these years of dredging around in the bargain bucket for the most ridiculous of men, I'd found someone who didn't need fixing. Someone who could get up in the morning, hold down a job, deal with disappointment and frustration without leaving a trail of beer cans, debt and bewilderment in his wake. A bloke who turned up on time, who never smelt of booze or burglaries, who didn't call my son, Sam, 'the kid'. Plus – big bonus – he thought I was amazing or 'incredibile' as he sometimes said when he was rocking his Italian heritage.
And instead of him finding me less incredibile as time wore on, he'd asked me to marry him. Which for a woman in the Parker family was as rare as knowing for certain who your father was.
So as I walked in on Sam's arm, as ready as I'd ever be to take my wedding vows, I should have felt like a mountain climber finally bursting onto a craggy peak after years of standing at the bottom, asking, 'How the hell do I get up there?' Instead I felt more like a failed football manager carrying the weight of the fans' woes upon him.
I tried to catch Francesca's eye as I came down the aisle. I wanted to show her I understood, that it wouldn't be as bad as she feared; that we could make this work. But she refused to look up, her teenage face pointed to the floor, her body locked in a fragile battle between antagonism and anguish.
I wanted to pause, to ask the tiny group of guests to trot off for a minute so I could put my arm round those defiant but defeated shoulders and tell her I was on her side. Once again I wondered if Nico's strategy of getting married, leaving his daughter without any other option but to accept me as a permanent fixture, was the right one.
Too late now.
I squeezed Sam's arm, trying to transmit that I'd made this decision not just for me, but for him. My mum, Beryl, adored Sam, but he was going to need more to make a success of his life than lessons in how to hide from the landlord on rent day.
For the last jolly bars of 'Chapel of Love', I tried to block out everything other than Nico. I wanted to savour this moment, when the man who not only complemented me, but completed me, was prepared to make a leap of faith and marry me. A first in three generations of Parkers.
I looked at the back of his neck, his dark curly hair still scruffy despite his attempts to tame it, and felt a great surge of delight. For one dangerous moment, I considered finishing off the few metres between me and the registrar with a cartwheel. I decided not to push it on my first day as a member of the Farinelli family. Judging by the look on most of their faces, they'd barely done a subdued skip in their whole feather-dusted lives. I clung to the hope that with a bit of patience and luck, we'd merge ourselves and our offspring into something approximating a 'normal' family. Though one man's normal was another man's cuckoo.
Normal 'for us' would have to do.
And then, the song clapped to a close, my desire to swing my hips and snap my fingers faded and the big grown-up thing that was getting married took off. The registrar was lisping her way through the ceremony, asking whether anyone knew of any reason we shouldn't marry. I held my breath at that bit, braced for a shrill teenage voice to ring out around the room, loud enough to reach the hotel bar and cause everyone to leave their pints on the table and scuttle in to see what was going on. I tried to block out all the fidgeting I could feel behind me. I didn't want to second-guess the expressions on his family's faces – the sneery distaste pinching his mother, Anna's snooty features, his older brother, Massimo, standing with a fat grin on his face as though Nico was off doing something silly… again. I had hoped making our love official would tip them into a grudging sense of rejoicing that Nico was happy and settled after all he'd been through. Instead, for all the joy evident in the 'ceremony' room, we could have been gathered for a collective colonoscopy.
I glanced behind me for moral support. My mates from the estate gave me a thumbs-up. I looked away quickly in case they started whooping as though a horse they'd bet on had come up trumps. I'd already seen my soon-to-be mother-in-law eyeing up the cleavages and sequins with disapproval. God knows what Anna thought of my best friend's hat, sitting on her head like a feathery Walnut Whip. Instead, I looked to my mum for encouragement. She didn't disappoint, grinning away, a jolly rhododendron bush in a room full of austere alliums. I replayed her words from earlier. 'Hold your head up high, darlin'. You're the best thing to happen to that family. Give his daughter some stability and love.'
For once in my life, I wanted to surrender to romance, to believe love was sparkly and special and not something that made you look in the mirror and shake your head at your own stupidity.
While I was taking my vows, I kept my eyes on Nico's, cocooning myself in their kindness and warmth, insulating myself from the rest of the room. But Francesca's stares were drilling into my back, making me stumble over the pronunciation of Nico's middle name, Lorenzo. I imagined the whole family rolling their eyes. Nico squeezed my hand, reminding me we'd discussed how tricky this might be, prepared for it. That, as the politicians liked to say, 'we were in it together'. But I still felt the prickle of Francesca's opinions swooping between us, looking for a crack or a crevice in which to park her protest, the fermented fury that two years after her mother had died, Nico had chosen to marry again.
Despite my best efforts at getting to know her, she veered between stonewalling and outright rudeness. Sometimes her face lit up when I suggested a trip to the cinema or dinner out, before closing down again as though any enthusiasm for my ideas would be disloyal to her mother. Coming to our wedding would probably seem like a betrayal with bells on it, so I'd suggested to Nico it might be kinder to give her the choice about whether or not to attend. But Nico was resolute. 'We want to be a family, not an opt-in, opt-out multiple-choice group. We've got to present a united front. In the end, it will make her feel safe.'
But how could your father marrying again be a cause for celebration? For a thirteen-year-old, it must have rammed home the message that her mother's memory was fading further and further into the distance. That her father, the person whose grief had been as acute as her own, had learnt to live without her and now Francesca was stumbling forwards, alone in holding the bereavement standard aloft.
When I heard the shrieking behind me, my heart leapt for a second, thinking Francesca had finally lost control. Even the registrar paused as a scream reverberated round the room. Light footsteps that could only belong to Nico's seven-year-old nephew, Sandro, echoed on the marble floor. The clack of high heels followed him, then the door banged shut.
I resisted turning round, forcing myself to tune into the registrar who was working up to the words I'd dreaded, the bit about in sickness and in health. I couldn't concentrate on what we were promising each other, only that Nico would be saying these words for a second time. Had he for one moment imagined the burden of that vow, the reality he might be forced to face? Had Nico really expected Caitlin, with the toned biceps and sleek hair, to cash in the bit about 'in sickness', to watch her slip away, a little more, week by week? When he thought about having kids, did he ever imagine sitting at a table set for two, talking brightly to a teenage daughter, trying to ignore the third place where Caitlin used to sit, shocking and bold in its emptiness?
His voice caught on those words. I put my hand on his arm to reassure him I was expecting to bulldoze through the next fifty years without so much as a fallen arch. The way he grabbed my hand made me realise his first marriage would shape his second.
Thank God I'd lived long enough not to expect the fairy tale.
A little frisson of disapproval dominoed around the congregation – a unanimous Farinelli family frown – as Maggie walked in, barefoot, clutching a single sunflower. If not exactly dancing, she was close to prancing as she made her way down the aisle on the arm of her son, Sam, as though the very beat of 'Chapel of Love' was seeping up into her feet, bringing joy to her limbs.
As Sam did a little shimmy past in his junior-sized top hat and tails, I hoped no one else heard my husband, Massimo, say, 'It's like the circus coming to town.' I couldn't resist a glance at my mother-in-law, Anna, standing there ramrod straight, her pillbox hat perched like a predatory eagle on her head. Her face was a perfect picture of disdain, as though she was having to concentrate on not shouting, 'Will someone switch this racket off?'
With a quiver of hat netting, Anna leaned forward and caught my eye. She was far too polished to pull a face that might be intercepted by anyone else – but I knew the dawn of new daughter-in-law comparisons was gearing up in the starting blocks. I might even have a chance of emerging victorious this time after so many years of 'Caitlin got her figure back very well after Francesca was born. But then, you did have a caesarean, I don't suppose that helped.' Followed by some suggestions on how a scarf could 'help disguise that tummy' and the odd cutting from the Daily Mail entitled 'Drop a dress size in ten days!' left on my kitchen table. I'd also been found lacking in gardening, cooking and what Anna called 'household administration' so I hoped Maggie wouldn't possess a huge array of secret skills to put me to shame.
Maggie didn't give the impression that she cared what people thought of her very much. With the little rose tattoo on her ankle, her bright blue toenails and her corkscrew hair cascading down her back, she looked more like someone celebrating a pagan ritual at a New Moon party than a bride trying to integrate herself into a new family where the obstacles were already piled up against her. She was going to need a whole lot of self-belief to resist Anna's decrees for 'Farinelli family behaviour'.
If I knew Anna, she would have tried every which way to stop Nico marrying Maggie. 'Two years is far too soon, you're still grieving.' 'It's not fair on Francesca. She doesn't need a new mother; she needs a father to focus on her.' 'Do you really want to take on some other man's bastard child?' And she would probably have used those very words. Anything that didn't fit with Anna's world view would be singled out and shot.
But she obviously hadn't managed to put Nico off Maggie. His face was ablaze with emotion, as though he couldn't quite believe this carefree creature had come along to liven up the precise hallways of the Farinelli households. It was astonishing that Maggie was only thirty-five, the same age as me. She wore adulthood so lightly, as though it were a state to be dipped into when absolutely necessary, an interruption to having fun and letting tomorrow take care of itself. With my neat bob, pearly pink nails and the knee-length dresses Massimo loved, I could have passed for ten years her senior.
So despite Anna muttering about the marriage being 'doomed', I didn't feel sorry for Maggie. I felt envious. Envious of that burning intensity of new love. Of their optimism. Of their hopes for the future.
I imagined Nico laughing at her singing to the radio, dropping a kiss onto her head as she sat at the table, tucking her scarf into her coat before she headed off to work. I felt a pang of nostalgia for the days when Massimo would slip into my office and sweep all the carefully documented papers off the desk, the minutiae of the accounts I'd been auditing receding, blocked out by the ferociousness of his kisses. The 'working' dinners where we'd be so absorbed in each other we'd only tear ourselves away when the waiters started sweeping up. I ached for the connection that opened the door to belonging, to feeling part of a family again.
I wished I'd let Dad come to this wedding. Massimo only had his best interests at heart: he didn't want Dad to become confused by all the new faces, but Dad still loved music and this 1960s song was right up his street. Any recognition from him made my day. And I'd have loved to have seen him in his suit again, smart and smiling, like he used to be.
Like we all used to be.
I turned my attention back to Nico and Maggie as they began their vows, catching sight of Francesca's rigid face as I did so. Despite Anna's doom-mongering, I thought Nico marrying again was a good thing for Francesca. Given that my mother died when I was a toddler and now my dear old dad was fading like an ancient Polaroid photo, I'd have been delighted to have had a warm, jolly stepmother to help me along. Maybe if I'd had someone to talk to, rather than protect, I'd have had a different life all together.
But before I could disappear any further down that path of then and now, my seven-year-old son, Sandro, spotted a spider scuttling under the chair in front of him. Since our cat, Misty, had gone missing a few days earlier, Sandro was even more sensitive and clingy than usual, his pale face carrying the air of someone who'd read the instructions for aircraft evacuation and was just biding his time until the emergency presented itself. The exact opposite to the little I'd seen of Maggie's son, Sam, who looked as though suppressing a mischievous chuckle was a daily challenge. Sandro started to fidget. He nudged me and pointed. I leant down and whispered that it was only a little spider, that it wouldn't hurt him, when it suddenly encountered Beryl's shoe and ran straight back towards him. He screamed, clambering up onto his chair.
Anna was turning round, frowning, no doubt clocking up more ammunition for one of her 'Lara does her best but she really has no control over that child' speeches. Massimo leaned around me, trying to get hold of him but Sandro started running along the empty chairs. I chased along the row after him, grabbing his hand and leading him out of the room, glad of an excuse to leave all that Farinelli expectation and accusation trapped behind me. Though I could still feel the opprobrium snaking under the ornate door I'd tried to close quietly behind me. I held Sandro to me, waiting for his tears to abate.
I forced out a calm tone of, 'It's all right, it wasn't very big.'
'I'm not really crying about the spider, Mummy. I want Misty back.'
'We all do, darling. She'll turn up soon, don't worry.'
I hoped a seven-year-old wouldn't be able to detect the doubt in my voice.
Nico and I managed one blissful night away in a fifteenth-century coaching inn as a 'honeymoon'. We'd decided to take a longer holiday on our own when the kids were used to their new family life, which, judging by Francesca's behaviour a fortnight in, might be at the turn of the next century.
Nico gradually introducing me to Francesca over the previous year hadn't worked. We'd tried to edge towards a family atmosphere, with curry nights in and cinema nights out. I could count on one hand the times when she hadn't made some barbed comment about how Caitlin had been better/thinner/fitter/funnier than me. I could have been the world expert in wing-walking and no doubt Caitlin would have been able to do it on a pogo stick. In the end, Nico had gone for the 'like it or lump it' strategy, though we'd agreed that Sam and I wouldn't move in until the week before we got married, as a way of drawing a definitive line in the sand, when, for better, for worse, we'd have to find a way to get along together.
'Do you mind moving into the house where Caitlin lived?' he asked when he proposed, months before we'd set a date.
I'd waved away his concerns, thinking it seemed churlish to have any reservations about moving from the mouse house of a flat I lived in with my mum and Sam to Nico's Victorian terrace house, with its two bathrooms and four bedrooms. I did try to work out how to say, 'I don't want to sleep in the bed you shared with her, let alone the one she died in,' without sounding like an insensitive cow, but I couldn't.
As though he could see into the crappest, most mean-spirited part of me, Nico said, 'We'll choose a new bed together.' He didn't elaborate and I was ridiculously grateful not to have to wonder which side of the memory foam mattress was Caitlin's.
As it turned out, buying a new bed didn't make me feel at home. Two weeks after our wedding, I was still waking up thinking I'd dozed off in the middle of a photo shoot for a glossy interiors magazine. Grey cushions with a turquoise fleck to bring out the weave of the subtly striped chair. Shabby chic wardrobes with ceramic handles that looked like they'd been handmade in Tuscany. And storage for everything. Even the trays had a special slot in the kitchen, rather than shoved down the side of the fridge to slice at your ankles if you banged the door shut too forcefully.
The lack of clutter in Nico's house made it look as though no one really lived there. The complete opposite to Mum's with the overflow paraphernalia of Sam's bike in the hallway, the houseplants that grew like triffids in the hothouse of the lounge and Sam's hamster taking up more space than all of us put together with increasingly complicated tubes and runs. Whatever situation presented itself – a present to wrap, a fuse to replace, a sunflower to stake – I was quite sure Nico's response would involve the words, 'in that drawer'. Whereas I'd always favoured the lucky dip approach of burrowing under the sink like a dog digging out a rabbit hole. I could only assume Caitlin had operated a ruthless policy of chucking out one thing every time something new came in through the door.
I'd been desperate to move out of Mum's flat. Sam and I had been sharing a sofa bed in her lounge for the last three years since I couldn't afford the rent on my own place any longer. With its fairy lights, patchwork cushions and rainbow-coloured throws, it was like sleeping in a Moroccan Kasbah. Now though, the reality I'd lusted after – not tripping over a football boot when I got up in the night, finding a radiator key within five seconds, having the perfect-sized jug for gravy – just made me feel I was a guest in someone else's home, as though I needed to pass through with minimum disturbance, leaving no trace of my stay.
I started to think it might be better for all of us to move somewhere where the memories of Caitlin would be the ones Nico chose to take with him. Not the ones that crept out unbidden; ghostly images lurking around every corner, squeezing in between us on the uncomfortable French sofas. Some days I'd imagine Caitlin's long, elegant fingers closing round the same door handles as me. Or her opening the bedroom curtains, glancing back to see Nico's dark eyelashes fanning out on the pillow, his lips still twitching with sleep. I'd deliberately reach really high or low so that my fingers wouldn't curl around the thick fabric where hers had been. I could run up some new curtains in no time. Probably should. But it wasn't quite like walking into the house that an ex-wife had vacated after an acrimonious divorce and thinking, 'Right, we'll get rid of her manky old crap,' hiring a skip and flinging in the mismatched plates, followed by her old slow cooker and half-used toiletries. Everything I binned was another little part of her mother Francesca would never get back. Another bit of accepting her dad had moved on, to someone with a different taste in curtains. In crockery. In life.
Nico and I had touched lightly on the idea of moving but had decided not to broach the subject until things settled down with Francesca. I couldn't see it happening for the foreseeable future when even the smallest changes led to a right old ding-dong. Just that morning Francesca had done a dramatic sniff of her school jumper and said, 'This jumper smells funny. What did you wash it in?'
And I'd felt awkward because I was experimenting with having some principles now I wasn't so broke and had swapped the usual washing powder for some eco-friendly stuff. I left out the 'splashing out on my morals' part and went for a mumble about the impact of detergent on the Natterjack toad. The furious response amounted to an amalgamation of 'Mum always used Persil and I couldn't give a shit about toads, newts and especially you,' as though she was hopeful I might accidentally swallow some Spirits of Salt before too long.
'You're quiet,' Nico said, as we all sat down to dinner that evening. He put his hand out to cover mine. 'Are you okay?'
I snatched my hand away. It was the weirdest thing – when Francesca was around, I couldn't touch Nico at all despite my whole body tentacling towards him for reassurance.
Francesca sat there, her eyes watchful, her pupils little pods of hate. It was all I could do to stop myself bursting into noisy tears and shouting, 'Never better. What could possibly be wrong? Your daughter hates me. It's going bloody brilliantly.' It wasn't quite the mealtime scenario I'd conjured up when I told Sam marrying Nico meant we'd be part of a bigger family.
Right on cue, Francesca tossed her long dark hair back and pushed her plate away. 'I don't like spaghetti carbonara.'
Nico shook his head. 'That's not true. You used to eat it all the time.' The 'when your mum was alive' hung in the air like words written in sparklers in the night sky.
'I don't like Maggie's carbonara, then.'
I tried to ease the moment, praying Sam wouldn't take the opportunity to showcase his own fussy eating. 'Next time I cook pasta, perhaps you can help me and we'll see if we can make something you like a bit better.'
Francesca looked at me as though I'd suggested we ran up a quick spaceman's costume and launched ourselves off to Mars. With perfect timing, Sam sneezed at the same time as having a mouthful of water, splattering half-chewed spaghetti onto Francesca's plate. She slammed her chair back and stormed upstairs. There was a five-second delay before the door banging off its hinges made Caitlin's line-up of pastel jugs rattle on the sideboard.
- "A wonderful, poignant, heart breaking, heart warming story of families and secrets, of hidden strength and unexpected friendship. Brilliant! Very highly recommended. Cannot wait for Kerry's next!"—Renita D'Silva, Pushcart Prize-nominated author
- "I loved this! It was absolutely unputdownable and I didn't want it to end"—Jenny Ashcroft, bestselling author of Beneath a Burning Sky
- "Well written and pacey ... a thoroughly enjoyable experience."—Daily Mail on The Island Escape
- On Sale
- Nov 13, 2018
- Page Count
- 352 pages