What an honour! I’ve been joined today by an venerable old woman. I’m not sure how old Irena is, but I’m told she’s the oldest resident in the Tuscan mountain village of Santa Zita. She’s brought a letter to her son, Carlo, who’s been pressing her to help him piece together a mystery that’s puzzled him all his life and which he’s come back to the village to solve after living abroad for many years.
Irena’s chaperone is Katharine Johnson, whose first two novels, Lies, Mistakes and Misunderstandings and The Silence were very much enjoyed by yours truly. Here’s the letter:
That wedding photograph I said I didn’t remember – I may as well tell you the truth, I suppose. The bride was Martina. And yes, I was the bridesmaid. And the one of the two girls sitting on the wall of the fountain eating ice cream? Martina and me. We must have been how old – twelve? Thirteen? We were best friends back then. I couldn’t imagine my life without her.
I know that will surprise you – she and I were never close when you were growing up. We never spoke to each other again after the war. At least not properly.
I don’t know why I’m telling you all this. You can laugh but you don’t know what it was like to be with Martina in those days. It’s funny, I remember her saying to me once, “In fifty years time we’ll be sitting here by the fountain and nothing will have changed.” How could either of us have guessed that our lives would change so much?
Sometimes I allow myself a little fantasy – an alternative history in which Martina didn’t do what she did. That she and I could really be sitting there now by the fountain discussing our children and grandchildren. But how could we have had any idea back then how precious and precarious our friendship really was?
You can see how beautiful Martina was. Oh, I know what you’re thinking – how she was a dried-up old prune when you knew her. And that scar was hideous. But life does that to you – war does that to you. In those days I felt very plain in comparison.
Looking at the picture again, I always had that rather square face and thick eyebrows and I was a heavy build as you can see but I didn’t look so bad, did I? And yet next to Martina I always felt plain and plump and I suppose because of that it made me want to be good at something, so I studied harder than anyone. She and Gianni used to call me the Encyclopaedia. They tested me out in facts and dates – they hardly ever managed to catch me out. They both used to copy my school work, which made me feel proud.
We all thought Martina would be famous one day. She dreamed of moving on, being someone. This place was too small for her. She should have been a Hollywood star. She had that innate sense of glamour – and the temperament to match. If the War hadn’t happened, if she’d had different opportunities, she might have been a star.
So many things would have been different.
I don’t know to this day why she married Gianni. I suppose it was because she could. She said she loved him, but I think what attracted her most was that all the other girls loved him.
Gianni and I were wary of each other for a long time. We both knew we were competing for Martina’s attention. But we came to realise that if we both wanted to be with her we’d have to learn to rub along with each other. I grew fond of him.
God knows, he didn’t to deserve to die the way he did.
That’s enough for now. I wish you’d never asked. Why can’t you leave the past where it belongs?
About The Secret
A beautiful village hides a dark story – two girls growing up in wartime Italy share a secret that has devastating consequences reaching right up to the present day. But as one person tries to uncover the truth, another is determined to keep it hidden.
The Secret will be published by Crooked Cat Books on 1st June.
About Katharine Johnson
Katharine Johnson is a journalist with a passion for mysteries, old houses and all things Italian (except tiramisu). She grew up in Bristol and has lived in Italy. She currently lives in Berkshire with her husband, three children and madcap spaniel. She plays netball badly and is a room guide in a stately home.
Letters from Elsewhere is taking a break and will be back towards the end of April.