Sirens are wailing in the distance, a rarity in Queenstown, at any hour, day or night. I’m inside my home on the rise, surrounded by mountains and the commanding vista of Lake Wakatipu, about to wash the breakfast dishes, feeling sleep-deprived and out of sorts.
A deep-rooted nightmare ensnared me in the early hours. I’d woken drenched to the skin, the top sheet wound around my neck, tight as a noose.
Outdoors, the uproar is coming closer. I turn off the kitchen tap and listen. There’s an ambulance and two or three police cars heading in this direction. I cover my ears and close my eyes. But I cannot block out the clamour or the memories it evokes. I once stood in another house, on another hillside, in another time. There I looked out to the Mediterranean Sea and across to Mount Vesuvius. In an instant the past roars into view.
I am on the Vomero, overlooking the Bay of Naples. An English-woman with an Italian husband and two children living amid the constant racket erupting from every direction, every dwelling, vehicle, person. The entire population, it seemed to me, behaving as if they swallowed uppers with their espressos. In less time than it took to light a cigarette, ordinary people could turn a humdrum conversation into a full-blown slanging match or an affectionate gesture into an ominous hand signal.
At first these switches unsettled me. Likewise, the compulsion these same people had to dial everything up to full volume. On the whole, Londoners with similar backgrounds to mine disagreed and made up in private, whereas in Naples the locals treated their streets as theatres. Dramas took centre stage. Emotions ran high. Disputes unfolded for anyone within earshot to hear and see.
Openness, however, was not a trait I observed in my in-laws, the Morettis. And not every street show was entertaining.
A week after we arrived I set off for a short walk, leaving Ben to mind our youngsters, Matteo and Francesca, who were engrossed in Carosello, a TV comedy with a cast of puppets. I hadn’t gone far when a police van screeched to a halt at a property opposite my mother-in-law’s villa. Armed police emerged from the vehicle, stormed the house, dragged out three men and threw them one by one into the rear of the van with less care than a butcher would when handling sides of beef. After locking up the trio, an officer pulled a hip flask from his trouser pocket, took a swig and offered the rest to his workmates with such swagger you would have thought he was at a football game celebrating a goal. I remained rooted to the spot, one hand on the front gate, the other over my mouth. Unconcerned, as far as I could tell, that I had witnessed their strongman tactics they fired off a volley of catcalls. I bolted up the driveway, their laughter ringing in my ears.
Altercations between law enforcers and thugs were as common as women peddling religious figurines and protective amulets. A city founded on calamity and superstition doesn’t discriminate. Men, women and children have to work at surviving. I was no different.
Today, safe on the other side of the world, I tug my thoughts away from events that occurred more than thirty years ago and return to the present. Impatient to resume my routine — the act of restoring things to their rightful place calms me — I put the marmalade and bread in the pantry. But as I pop the butter in the fridge, memories of another kitchen pull me back.
In a pan on a wood-burning stove, tomatoes and garlic simmered in olive oil. From a stone jar on the bench I took a wooden spoon worn thin from use and stirred the sauce. Satisfied with the consistency I tipped chicken and Parmesan ravioli into a pot of boiling water. The table was set for six: three generations. I wanted to get through the meal without anyone falling out but nothing was straightforward in this hilltop villa. The boots of Fascists had marched across its flagstones.
Here in Queenstown my heart contracts at the memory of once inhabiting the same space as these thugs, although not at the same time, eliciting a sensation similar to a forearm pressing against a windpipe. I grip the edge of the bench, stare into the sink where I had been about to wash a single plate and knife. The image of the family I have in my mind slowly disperses and I am alone again in this house in the Southern Hemisphere, gazing at a familiar blue lake.
Outside, the wailing intensifies. I move to a larger window. Watch two late-model Toyotas come to a stop as a blur of blue and white zooms by, and another, white with a red cross, sirens blaring, flashing lights spinning, swirls of dust settling on the golden-leaved poplars lining the road, turning them beige.
At the intersection, the sirens shift to a higher pitch.
I return to the bench, pick up a coffeepot and set it over a flickering gas flame.
It soon gives off a rich aroma, conjuring up images of sweet-scented lavender, bread dough at rest, sun-ripened lemons, a serpentine coastline, outdoor markets, gelatos, laughter and tears. I thought the love we had known in London would continue in Naples. I thought families stayed together. I thought we were stronger than we turned out to be.
While I’m on the patio drinking coffee, the telephone rings, jolting me back to the present. It’s Hester, the wife of a doctor who treats me for insomnia. As his secretary, she has access to my medical file. Not that it matters. I haven’t told her husband Patrick what keeps me awake. She and I are members of the same amateur repertory society. I can’t call her a friend, although she has done her best to turn me into one. Entirely my fault it hasn’t happened. I turn down invitations to make up the numbers at dinner parties: socialising with couples who have a divorced or widowed desperado in their circle searching for a replacement pudding-maker has me running for the hills.
‘Julia,’ Hester says, ‘I don’t know where to start. This is rather difficult.’ She’s speaking in a fast, urgent tone.
‘What’s wrong? Is Patrick OK?’ I hope so. He’s a good doctor.
‘Yes, yes, he’s fine.’ She clears her throat. ‘There’s been an accident this side of the Shotover Bridge. According to a witness, a rental car barrelled into a parked ute. It’s thought the driver fell asleep at the wheel. Patrick was called out. He rang me from the crash site.’
‘What has this got to do with me?’
There is a sharp intake of breath. Then she says, ‘An attending police fficer found a wallet among the wreckage.’
Visions of another crash, fire consuming the occupants, flick into my mind. Before the memory of those flames engulfs me, I smother them with a swathe of well-honed strategies and say, ‘Has someone from repertory been hurt?’
‘No, the driver’s a foreigner. I’m calling on a hunch.’ She gives a strange dry little cough. ‘He has serious head injuries. Neither helicopter was available. So the paramedics are taking him through to Dunedin in an ambulance. Julia, I wonder if—’
‘Has Patrick asked for me?’
Occasionally I translated for patients with little or no English: this year holidaymakers from Turin with a sick child, last winter a skier from Lombardy who fractured his tibia on the slopes of Coronet Peak.
Hester has gone quiet. I’m about to repeat what I said when she resumes talking, though now in a low, tense tone. ‘The same officer showed Patrick a black-and-white photograph clipped to a passport.’ She pauses a second time. I’m too apprehensive to ask the question swirling through my mind. ‘It’s a photo of a boy and a woman,’ she says at last, ‘with two names written in pencil on the back.’
My heart clatters against my ribcage. ‘Did Patrick say what they were?’ ‘Should I close the surgery and come to your house, Julia?’
‘Just tell me. Please.’
‘Matteo and Julia. Matteo and Julia Moretti, which is why I felt I had to call. . .’ Her voice tails off.
I’m perspiring. Unsteady on my feet. I tighten my grip on the receiver. ‘Did Patrick mention the birth date on the passport?’ My little boy, my Matteo, will be forty-four, almost middle-aged.
‘Yes.’ There is a rustle of paper. ‘Twenty-first September, 1950.’
I drop the phone, dash inside and snatch my car keys and purse off the bench. Without stopping to consider whether I’m in a fit state to drive, I sprint to the garage, wrench open the door of my car. The ambulance has a half-hour head start. Maybe more.