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ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS
My bag is packed, my flight booked. While my students are all flapping about in a last minute panic about coursework that needs to be handed to their new teacher in the first week of term, I'll be getting to grips with the rush hour in Rome, first day nerves and life in a foreign language.
If they think that because I'll be surrounded by art, culture, high fashion and endless sunshine, I've got the best deal, well, they may be right. At the moment I'm only concerned about where I'm going to live, how different this new school will be from Maybridge and whether my new students like me.
Watch this space
'I've got a new job, Lex. In Rome.'
'You're leaving Maybridge High? The "world's most perfect job"?'
Sarah Gratton had been doing a fine job of convincing her colleagues that she couldn't wait to get on that plane. Actually, that part was true, but it was more escape than adventure and she should have known that her great-grandfather would see right through a smile that was making her face ache.
He might be rising ninety but he walked into town each morning to pick up his newspaper, and his brain was still sharp enough to do The Times crossword in ten minutes flat.
'Tom was so popular, the kids loved him.' Her thumb automatically moved to fiddle with the ring that was no longer there. 'I feel as if everyone blames me for him leaving.'
'He's the one who cheated, Sarah. If you give up the job you love, you lose twice.'
'He didn't cheat.'
Didn't cheat. Didn't lie. Didn't pretend. He was incapable of that. He'd told her that he still loved her, but that he'd fallen in love with someone else.
He'd told her at the beginning of the half term holiday, giving her a whole week before she had to walk into the staff room. Face everyone.
What he hadn't told her was that he'd resigned, taken a job she knew he'd hate at the sports centre in Melchester.
Until then it hadn't been real.
She'd heard the words but hadn't been able to take them in. Had convinced herself that when she turned up in the staff-room on Monday morning everything would be as it should be. Back to normal.
But he hadn't been there.
He'd had time to think it through, to accept that working together in the goldfish bowl of school would be impossible. He was the one who'd sacrificed the job that was his life. That was how much he loved her.
How much he was in love with someone else.
She'd worked really hard to be worthy of that sacrifice. To think of her students when all she wanted to do was to curl up in a corner and bawl her eyes out.
She'd cleaned every trace of him out of her flat so that she wouldn't keep tripping over the memories. Put away photographs. Stopped going to the places where they'd hung out with their friends.
But she couldn't scrub him out of school.
He was an invisible presence in the photographs of the teams he'd coached to glory. In the whiff of steaming boys, the clatter of their boots as they came in from the cricket field. In the sound of a whistle on the sports field that had once linked her to him like an invisible thread, but now went through her like a knife.
'Besides,' she said, 'I'm not losing, I'm catching up on my life. You were the one who was so keen on me taking a gap year, having fun, doing the travel thing before I settled down.'
'You're not eighteen now,' her great-grandfather pointed out. 'And you're not taking a year off to see the world or have fun.'
'I'd feel like a matron amongst the backpackers. This way I get the best of both worlds. Great job. Great location. I only hope I live up to the terrific reference the Head gave me.'
He dismissed her doubts with a wave of his hand. 'Won't the language be a problem?'
'It's an international school. Children of diplomats, UN officials, foreigners living in Rome,' she explained.
Eight hundred miles away from everyone who knew her as half of a couple.
It had been Tom-and-Sarah from the first day she'd started at Maybridge High when, shaking with nerves, she'd managed to throw a cup of coffee over the blond giant who was head of the sports department. Instead of calling her the idiot she clearly was, he'd smiled, and in the gaze of his clear blue eyes the world had steadied.
She'd offered to wash his kit. He'd said he'd settle for a pint, and her world had remained steady until a new supply teacher had arrived one dark morning in January when half the staff were laid low with flu.
It had been like watching an approaching car crash that she was powerless to stop. The sudden silence as a new face had appeared in the staffroom. Tom, the first to step forward to welcome heralways, always so kind with new people. The contact had lasted no more than a second or two but time had seemed to stand still as their eyes met and, as Sarah looked on, she'd felt the scorching heat of the spark that leapt between Tom and Louise, and her world had shifted off its axis.
'I'll soon get to know people,' she said. 'Teaching isn't a job you can do in isolation. And I'll be in Rome,' she stressed. 'One of the most glamorous cities in the world.'
In one bound she'd freed herself from being the most pitied woman in the staffroom and become the most envied.
Not that she'd escaped entirely. She'd done her best to resist the Head's suggestion that she write a blog about her experiences.
'I know it's been a tough few months, but things will look different after a break. I expect you back next year,' he'd told her.
'You don't need me, Headmaster, you need Tom. Call him.'
'And have everyone think I've got you out of the way so that I can bring him back? How would that look?' he'd asked.
Dodgy, obviously, she thought, as the penny had dropped. That was why he wanted her to write the blog. So that it would look as if she was still part of the school.
Glowing references had, it seemed, to be paid for. And it wasn't as if anyone would read it. The staff would be too busy and, as for the kids, well, why would they bother?
Sarah started as Lex took her hand.
'It's not far,' she told him. 'I'll be home for visits so often you'll be sick of me. Half term. The holidays.'
'What for? To see an old man?' His gesture was dismissive. 'Don't waste your time or your money. Enjoy Italy while you have the chance.'
'I'll have plenty of time to see everything.' And she could travel with the money she'd been saving for her wedding, for the big dress. Her share of the deposit they had been saving for a house. One with a garden for the children they would have had one day.
'There's never enough time,' he warned her. 'Your life goes by in a flash. Enjoy every minute of it.'
'Of course,' she said, on automatic.
'No, I mean really enjoy it.' He regarded her with that thoughtful gaze that his patients would have recognised when he had still been in practice. The one that saw through the 'headaches' to the real problem. 'I prescribe an affair,' he said. 'No falling in love, breaking your heart stuff, mind. Nothing serious,' he warned. 'A just-for-fun romance with some dark-eyed Italian. A memory to make you smile rather than weep. To keep you warm at night when you're old.'
'Lex! You are outrageous.'
He grinned. 'Trust me. I'm a doctor.'
She laughed. 'Outrageous and wonderful and I love you.' They'd always been close. Her parents loved her, did all the parent stuff brilliantly. Her grandparents had spoiled her. But Lex was the one who never had anything better to do than tell her stories and, as he leaned back in his chair, his eyes on some unseen horizon, she knew exactly what he was going to say next.
'Did I ever tell you about the time I was in Italy during the war?'
'Once or twice.' It had been a favourite story when she was a little girl.
How his plane had developed engine trouble and he'd had to bail out. How he'd nearly died of the cold.
It was a story that had grown with the years. With the telling. Embellished, embroidered. She'd never known her great-grandmother, but her grandmother had always claimed that he never spoiled a good story by telling the truth. Her mother had simply rolled her eyes.
'Tell me again,' Sarah urged him. 'Tell me how you were saved by a beautiful Italian girl who found you half-dead in the snow. How she nursed you, hid you for months until the Allies arrived.'
'You know it by heart.'
Maybe she did, but that was the point of a comfort story. Its familiarity.
'Gran always said you made up most of it. That the lovely Lucia was really some tough old bird who hid you in her cow shed for a week,' she said, knowing exactly how to get him going. And off her case.
'Your grandmother knows nothing.' Nearly ninety but still with a wicked twinkle in his eye. 'The house had been grand before the Fascists reduced it to rubble. And Lucia was ' He stopped. 'Pass me my box and I'll show you.'
There was always some new little twist to the story, some detail to be added: a new danger, a risk taken for food or warmth, a small pleasure to be found amongst the hardship. But this was totally unexpected.
'The box,' he repeated.
She'd seen the contents of the old tartan biscuit box a hundred times. There had never been a photograph of Lucia and, as she handed it to him, she half expected it to be a joke of some kind. But there was none of the usual teasing and when he opened the lid, instead of going through ita memory recalled with each medal, photograph, memento collected during a long life, well-livedhe tipped it up, emptying everything on to the table beside him.
It was a small table and papers, coins, trinkets spilled over onto the floor. Sarah knelt to gather them up. Smoothed out the corner of the small sepia photograph of her great-grandma that he had carried with him through the war.
'Leave those,' he said. 'Your nails are longer than mine. See if you can get this out.'
The base of the box was lined with a piece of black card, scuffed by years of wear. Now, as she eased it out, she discovered that it concealed a photograph.
He gave an awkward little shrug.
'Not something to leave lying around where it would upset your great-grandmother.'
It was an old grainy black-and-white photograph of a slender young woman with dark hair, dark eyes, dark brows, a full, sensuous mouth.
Scratched, carefully stuck together where it had obviously been torn into piecespresumably by a very upset great-grandmaspotted with age, her face leapt out of the past.
'She was lovely,' she said, turning to catch a look of such tenderness in his eyes that she felt a lump rise to her throat. 'I can't begin to imagine how hard it must have been.'
It made her emotional hiccup seem pretty feeble in comparison.
'Be glad of that,' he told her, then seemed to drift for a moment, no doubt recalling the hardships. Or maybe it was Lucia's beauty that he remembered.
She was sitting on a crumbling stone wall, her dark hair gleaming in the sun. Behind her were the remains of a house that might well have once been grand, but was now largely rubble.
It had not, after all, been a fairy tale but real and desperate. This woman had risked her life to save a stranger, shown courage it was hard to imagine.
Her full mouth was smiling and her dark almond-shaped eyes betrayed everything she felt for the man taking the photograph. Was this a secret memory that kept him warm at night?
'I should have gone back,' he said, rousing himself. 'When it was all over. But I had a wife, a son at home ' His voice trailed away.
Sarah covered his hand with her own. 'It was wartime, Lex.' He might have been discovered at any moment. Shot. Lucia, too.
'Don't waste your time '
'She risked her life to save me, but when the Allies reached Rome there was no time for anything. Hardly time to say goodbye before I was shipped out. Returned to a wife who had long since given me up for dead.'
'Did you ever try to get in touch?' she asked. 'After the war?'
'I wrote. Sent some money. Asked her to let me know if she needed anything. There was no reply and in the end I thought it best to let it go, thinking that letters, money from an English airman might cause her problems. Embarrassment ' He shook his head. 'Your grandmother was on the way by then, I was working night and day to catch up with my studies.' He shrugged. 'We got on with things.'
Lived with the rushed wartime marriage, vows made when his life was counted in hours rather than years.
'It was a good life,' he said, as if reading her thoughts.
'I know.' She'd turned the photograph over and read out, '"June nineteen forty-four. Isola del Serrone". Is that the village she lived in? I wonder if she's still alive?'
'She'd be in her eighties,' he said doubtfully.
'A stripling lass compared to you.' And with those bones, those eyes, she'd still be beautiful. 'You should try to find her.'
'It shouldn't be that difficult.' She reached for his laptop and searched the internet for the name of the village. 'Let's see. An actress was born there. And a racing driver ' She glanced up. 'How small was this village?'