by Dorotea Saputo
Chapter one excerpt.
Elicia stared at the words on her screen:
Time is running out!
Her heart rate increased as she realised that her chances were fading away. She’d been waiting for the right time when her parents weren’t arguing or absorbed in their work problems. Those few times she’d come home from school determined to talk to them, they were busy dealing with another of her annoying brother’s requests.
Waiting for the right moment had turned out to be one of those silly things, like trying to put the toothpaste back into the tube and now she had to act. So, first things first, she sent her reply to Beth’s message.
I’ll talk to them this morning.
As she walked down the corridor, her phone beeped again. She put her school bag down and checked the message. It was from Beth; a fingers-crossed emoji.
Why would I need luck? she thought as she walked toward the kitchen. She worked hard; she deserved this.
This year, the school introduced the new GCSE qualification and applied it to the first three subjects. She’d scored 9 both in English Language and Literature and 7 in Maths. In the remaining subjects, still grading according to the old system, she’d received all As.
But she lied to herself; indeed, she needed luck.
When on earth did being an excellent student benefit her when it came to her parents? Her good results had become a routine, and they had stopped noticing, like the man that lives by the railroad, after a time, fails to hear the trains pass.
She took a deep breath and entered the kitchen.
“Morning,” she said, at the same time as her brother pleaded in his high-pitched voice, “Please, Mum. I’m sure I can fix it.”
He held a hairdryer in his hands, the cord wrapped around his neck, and like a puppy, followed his mother’s every step.
She was preparing breakfast, moving up and down the kitchen bench like a robot on rails; a strand of dark hair escaped from her ponytail. “Sorry, sweetheart. What did you say?”
“Good morning,” Elicia repeated.
“I can fix it,” Zack said, overlapping with her.
He turned to her with a puzzled expression in his eyes.
“Go on,” she said, sitting at the table. “Mum said ‘sweetheart’; she means you.” No sourness in her voice but a flat awareness of how things were.
Zack continued, “I said I can fix it, Mum.”
“Please, sit down, Zack,” said his mother. “Breakfast is ready.”
“It doesn’t even smell burnt.”
“Excuse me,” she said with dramatic effect. “I didn’t burn the food, cheeky.” She hadn’t finished her sentence when she rushed to the hob and turned off the heat; using a wooden spoon she scraped the contents from the pot onto a plate.
“No.” Zack slapped his forehead. “I mean the hairdryer; it’s not burnt.” He finally took his place at the table, opposite his father, who hadn’t lifted his eyes from his magazine.
“Pretty please, Mummy. Let me try.”
All his charm condensed into those words.
“You shouldn’t play with electronics,” said her mother to Zack.
“But I fixed that device with the funny buttons, didn’t I? And that was electronic, right?”
“It’s a cassette player, and yes, you did fix it.” She turned, holding a plate of eggs in one hand and a bowl of porridge in the other, finally acknowledging her daughter’s presence.
“Elicia.” Her mother called her name as if she was an old school friend met by chance on a holiday. “Nice of you to greet us.”
And for me, sarcasm on bread, please.
She didn’t dare voice her thoughts; it wasn’t time to spark an argument.
But her father grabbed the occasion to chip in. “Have you forgotten your manners, Elicia?”
She bit her lip, trying to keep her irritation under control. “Actually, I did say ‘good morning’.”
Antonio Barbera wasn’t the type of man who apologises when caught in the wrong, so he kept reading his magazine, which didn’t surprise her a bit.
“Oh. I didn’t hear you,” said her mother instead, as she served the eggs to her father and the porridge to Zack.
Of course, you didn’t. You’re too busy dealing with little Einstein here.
“How many slices, Elicia?” She took a loaf of white bread from the cupboard.
“Two, please,” she answered distractedly, more concerned with the food on her father’s plate. Scrambled eggs. Not such an easy dish when her father was the receiver. The eggs were to be scrambled so that the white and the yolk didn’t entirely mix into an indistinguishably yellow goo; they had to be cooked so that the yellow bits were dry and the white maintained its moistness. He had his way of making eggs, but being allergic to cooking, he expected her mother to make them and complain if they didn’t come out the way he liked them.
On a few occasions, scrambled eggs had triggered messy fights, and now she feared this could become one of those occasions, as the eggs her mother served him made his mouth twitch.
“Too dry?” Elicia’s mother asked, like those waiters who come and check on your meal but aren’t interested in your answer.
She felt relieved, thinking that it was a good day to talk. “Mum, Dad—”
“So, Mum,” Zack cut her off, “what do you say? I promise I’ll be careful.”
“Fine. But no plugging in without supervision. Is that clear?”
“Yay,” he cried out, lifting the hairdryer above his head.
“Clear?” she insisted.
“It’s crystal clear,” Elicia jumped in with a snort.
“Yes, but glass is also clear.”
“How nice it must be being you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing.” She turned away.
The calendar on the fridge still showed the month of June, but time doesn’t freeze just because a page doesn’t get turned, and she didn’t have much time left.
She took her courage in both hands. “Mum, Dad, there’s something I want to—”
This time it wasn’t Zack who cut her off, but the toaster timer and her father’s phone, ringing simultaneously.
Damn. Why now?
Zack’s eyes glowed with joy. “Must be the principal, saying that school finishes earlier this year.”
“You wish.” She hissed out her frustration.
“That’s weird.” Her father frowned, looking at the screen as he pushed his plate away. “Mum?” he said, answering the phone.
“Oh, no. It’s Grandma.” Zack leaned back on his chair and brought his hands to his head in desperation.
“It seems you have to go to school after all.” Elicia sneered.
“Very funny,” he replied, not at all amused.
She tried to imagine what the call was about, but her father wasn’t saying anything.
Grandmother had her routine for contacting them – on Sundays after lunch, Christmas, Easter, and birthdays, and since WhatsApp released the video call function, she had made a habit of also calling a few evenings a week.
“Blessed technology. Thousand times blessed,” she’d shouted with joy the first time she’d made a video call. “I can see my grandchildren now.”
Hearing the excitement in her voice, one could have thought she’d just regained her sight.
That video call had lasted forever, as she’d made her and Zack stand in front of the camera in different positions, like suspects at the police station: front, right side, left side, next to each other so she could establish which traits they had taken from her.
“It’s quite clear to me that Zack has my eyes,” she’d concluded after a long and unsuccessful attempt to find any resemblance with Elicia.
Grandmother was the only one in their father’s family in contact with them, even though they’d never met.
A few weeks before Elicia’s eleventh birthday, her father had proposed that Grandmother come to London.
“You can stay as long as you want, and the kids will love to have you here.”
“Let’s be clear. If I was meant to fly, I’d have wings; but I have legs and as much as they’re in bad shape, I’ll only go where they can take me.”
That closed the subject once and for all.
Never before Grandmother had called so early, and whatever she was saying must have been the reason for her father’s dark expression and nervous pacing.
He had kept quiet throughout the entire call, and just when he said something that could have given a hint, Zack chanted in his ear-piercing voice, “I-can’t-wait-to-dissemble-it. I-can’t-wait-to-dissemble-it.”
“It’s disassemble, you idiot.” She squinted her eyes, expecting her father to explode like a cork from a champagne bottle. He was especially sensitive when it came to his son.
Had he been on the phone with the Prime Minister, he’d have put him on hold and warned Elicia to watch her language. But, as that didn’t happen, she was sure that something was wrong.
He stood back to the window with arms by his side, looking blankly ahead.
“What’s up, Antonio?” Her mother had finally sat at the table with her small pot of yoghurt. “Antonio?” she asked louder.
“Dad?” Zack almost shouted.
“Mum asked, ‘What’s up?’”
He didn’t reply but dropped his phone on the couch and walked back to the table with an empty expression in his eyes.
Even Zack must have felt that something was wrong because he put down the hairdryer and moved it to the side. “Dad, are you okay?”
He placed his hands on the table, looking from Zack to Elicia. When he finally spoke, his voice sounded detached like an announcement in the London Underground. “Your Grandfather died a few hours ago.”
Who? What? Grandfather?
She was taken aback by remembering that she had a Grandfather and by the irony that it didn’t matter anymore.
“Who?” Zack’s question faded away in the general silence.
Elicia watched her mother open-mouthed with a spoon of yoghurt in midair, exchanging looks of understanding with her father, which was strange because it’d been a while since they last understood each other.
Even odder was the look they both gave her.
What did it mean? For a moment, she thought it was a look of worry, but when was the last time they worried about her? More likely, they feared she could make trouble or not respond appropriately under the circumstances.
But what should the appropriate response be? What was she expected to feel for the death of a man she’d never met?
Her grandfather never had a face or a voice, neither defects nor virtues. Worse than all, he didn’t even have a name. Her father always referred to him as ‘the old man’.
Was she supposed to feel sad now, just because they were related? To feel nothing was perfectly acceptable given the situation; anything more would have been fake and insincere.
“The funeral?” Her mother’s question brought Elicia back.
“It’s on Wednesday,” her father replied. “We’ll fly tomorrow and stay at my—”
“For how long?” Elicia jumped in, pushing away her toast.
“A couple of weeks? Until I settle everything. I don’t know, maybe a month or so.”
Elicia sprang to her feet and her chair tipped over.
“A month,” she screamed, “to settle what?” Her wide-open eyes fixed on her father’s.
“You know,” Zack said, “all the bureaucraticy.”
“I wasn’t talking to you,” she barked, this time not interested in correcting him.
Her voice shook as she turned to her father. “I need to be back by the twenty-second, Dad. We’ll be back before then, right? Please, Dad. Tell me—”
“I don’t think so, Elicia. Let’s see.”
Had someone laughed directly in her face, she might have felt less mocked.
Who was he kidding? He wasn’t going to see anything. He hadn’t even taken the time to think; his reply came as fast as a dart.
“Eli, your face is super red,” Zack pointed his finger at her.
She gave him such a withering look that he returned his full attention to his bowl of porridge.
“Honey, listen.” Her mother approached her.
“No, you listen.” She shook her mother’s hand off her shoulder. “I don’t want to go. Why do I need to go? I didn’t even know him.” Her eyes moved between her parents, and when, at last, stopped on her mother, they begged for help. “Why do we all have to go? We could stay here; Dad could go by himself. It’s his family; he was his—”
“Enough.” Her father bashed his fist; cutlery on the table tinkled; Elicia recoiled.
“Your grandfather died,” His voice full of grim determination. “We’re going to his funeral, and you are coming with us. Period.”
How quickly her father had snatched away her dream of spending a few days with Beth, feeling like part of her family.
“Fine.” She pointed a shaky finger at him. “But, you better account for two ceremonies ’cause I’m going to kill myself.” She started for the door massaging her jaw.
“Elicia!” he shouted; she stopped without turning.
“Pick up your chair.”
Only then did she turn and if her eyes could have scarred, her father would have bled.
She did pick up her chair and placed it back with deliberate slowness.
“Sorry Eli; I can’t fix this one,” her brother whispered.
For once, she thought he was right.
In the corridor, she leaned up against the wall and covered her face, waiting to stop shaking.
Her mother appeared from the kitchen, hands clasped so tightly that her fingernails had turned white. “You can stay at home if you like. I’ll talk to the school.”
Each time her mother attempted to extinguish a flame, she ended up fanning a fire instead.
Elicia moved away from the wall and looked deep into her mother’s eyes. She spoke slowly, charging each word with a share of her rage.
“And leave without saying goodbye to Beth?”
“You’re right. Of course, you go,” her mother stammered. “Sorry to mention it.” She picked up her school bag, brushed past her mother and left the house with a slam of the front door.
She marched to the bus stop wondering how her mother could have suggested she stay home.
She’d been friends with Beth since year two when Beth’s parents had moved from Manchester.
The memory of that day came back to her like a cool breeze on a hot day.
She had never liked the kids in her class; they screamed and giggled all the time and she’d often felt like they were laughing at her.
Mostly, she kept to herself, like that day during the lunch break.
She was sitting alone on the far corner of the playground reading her book when she noticed that the new kid was staring at her. “Are you trying to see what animal I look like?”
The new girl had straight brown hair tied up into side ponytails and kept her hands behind her back.
“They call me Elisheep.” She had pointed at her classmates gathered in the centre of the playground.
“Actually, I like your hair,” said the new kid. “It looks like a pussy willow nest for a baby sparrow.”
Elicia imagined a little bird dwelling in her head and giggled. “What’s your name?”
“Beth Elenor Harris.”
“Elicia No-Middle-Name Barbera.”
Beth Elenor Harris laughed, revealing a dark space in her mouth where her tooth was missing. At that moment, Elicia decided that they were going to be best friends.
Elicia couldn’t wait to talk to Beth; the bus was late, and on top of that, it began to rain. She sat on the bench under the bus shelter and tapped her foot nervously.
“Do you mind?” said the woman beside her, looking at Elicia’s foot.
“Sorry,” she said and moved away to send Beth a message.
Her thumbs shook so badly that the message was incomprehensible, and she typed a second one.
I’m Not coming.
Beth wrote back.
What happened? Did they say no?
Didn’t geGT to ask. I’ll tell yoe when I see youj.
This time she didn’t bother to retype and didn’t need to. Beth must have understood how serious the situation was because she had nothing to add – not even an emoji which was her favourite way to express her feelings, except when her feelings were hurt to the point that she couldn’t express them.
The moment Elicia entered the school gate, Beth flooded her with questions and as Elicia progressed through her story, the look on Beth’s face changed from anxiety to sadness and from sadness to despair. Eventually, she burst into tears, and Elicia had to think how to cheer her up.
“I’ll go to a local Lush store and buy you something, with a”—she air-quoted—” Sicilian touch.”
“But you can’t stand that shop.” Beth sobbed.
She’d only entered a Lush store once, under Beth’s insistence, and a minute later, she’d run out with a terrible headache from the overpowering smell of soaps, lotions, creams and beauty products. “I’ll make the sacrifice,” she promised, “plus this will give me a purpose.”
“Is there Lush where you’re going?”
“I’m certain. Aren’t they everywhere?” She returned to the main point, “By the way, what’s your favourite?”
“Hm, let’s see: massage bars, shampoo bars, bubble bombs, face masks and lip scrubs, foot scrub, body scrub—”
“Are you a snake or something?”
That made Beth laugh, which made her feel better.
After school, she sent a message to her mother:
I’m spending the afternoon with Beth!!!
“If she objects, I’ll run away.” She held her phone so that Beth could also see the screen and waited for her mother to reply.
Please don’t be late.
They went to Wimbledon, strolling without a purpose in the on-and-off rain until Beth wanted to check out the Lush store.
Elicia stood several metres away from the entrance because of the overwhelming smell. Later, when she popped into a charity shop, it was Beth who waited outside X-raying the male population between sixteen and twenty-five.
Beth didn’t like charity shops; the idea of touching second-hand clothes disgusted her and the smell of old things made her feel like she wanted to puke. Elicia thought that smell contributed to the magic; she liked to sift through old objects and imagine their history.
Next, they went to Nando’s. The place was bustling, but they managed to grab their favourite table in the corner by the window, where they made new plans for the future, sharing a plate of chicken wings and corn on the cob.
Outside, the rain had stopped, and the daylight dimmed. They headed back to the station. Elicia kept quiet and so did Beth, but as the train approached Parsons Green, Beth grabbed Elicia’s neck and whispered in her ear, “I promise I’ll message you every day and send you pictures from Whitstable.”
Each time Elicia attempted to release herself from the embrace, Beth pulled her closer and came with another reassurance – I’ll call you every day; I’ll miss you like crazy.
Elicia got off the train and watched as Beth’s heart-shaped fingers pressed against the window disappeared in the distance. Walking back home she thought how goodbyes were sadder at train stations than anywhere else; on the platform, farewells are painfully slow and the continuous waving of hands and exchange of promises made them unmistakably real.
“How did it go?” her mother asked her as she entered the kitchen.
“Dinner is almost ready.” Her mother wrapped her fabric scissors in newspaper whilst her father sat at the table, fanning out their passports and boarding passes.
“I’m not hungry. I just need a glass of water.” She started for the fridge.
“Hi, Elicia. Why should I change our seats?” said her father.
“What?” She frowned.
“I was talking to your mother,” he said, and turning to the correct addressee, he continued, “If they allowed me to book them, it means it’s possible.”
“Yes. But, what does it cost you?”
“It’s a matter of principle.”
Elicia couldn’t stand their bold indifference towards her and her father’s stupid attachment to his matters of principle, so she took her glass to her room, determined to be done with her packing as there was no point in avoiding it.
Two hours later, she sat crossed-legged on the floor, still glaring at her suitcase as though it was an open-mouthed monster. Her wardrobe was spread all over the place, making the room look like the scene of a plane wreck.
She was slinging random clothes into the monster’s mouth when she heard a knock on her door.
Zack entered. He wore his new birthday jumper on top of old pyjamas.
“Are you sleeping?” he asked.
“Do you have a more idiotic question?” She read the writing on her brother’s sweater and despaired at the waste of ink employed to print Ten years of being a genius.
He moved closer. “Look, are you really going to kill yourself?”
“Wow! It turns out you do have a more idiotic question.” She slung a t-shirt into the suitcase.
“What do you mean how?”
“I mean, what’s your plan? Poison? Seppuku? Hanging?” He counted the options on his fingers. “I guess you’d need a hook?”
“Are you kidding me?”
He looked up at the ceiling.”Otherwise, how would you secure the rope?”
“Jumping out of the window would be really silly because your room is on the ground floor. Unless you go upstairs, of course, but you’re afraid of heights. So I figure you don’t have that many choices.”
“How considerate of you to worry about my dying options and I’m not afraid of heights.”
“Yes, you are. Anyway, does it hurt?”
“Does what hurt?”
“How am I supposed to know? You imbecile.”
“Maybe living hurts more.” He shrugged his shoulders.
She could see why he was such a star. There was something comforting in his eyes; an ocean that takes in all the rubbish from the world and, when you least expect it, washes up a treasure on the shore.
“What do you want, Zack? Don’t you see I’m busy?”
“Why don’t you want to go? You may like it.”
“I doubt it.”
“Maybe Sicily will like you.”
“Any more nonsense, or are we done here?”
He pressed a finger to the corner of his mouth. “Hm… Let me think.”
“Seriously?” She snapped.
“Okay. Okay. I’m leaving.” He started towards the door, where he hesitated with his hand on the handle.
He turned. “I hope you don’t kill yourself.”
“Oh yeah? Why?”
“You know those things that people leave behind when they die?”
She furrowed, “It’s called an inheritance. What about it?”
“Yeah, that. It’s supposed to make you feel less sad when a person dies, right? Because you get to use something that belonged to them like a bicycle or a collection of board games, maybe a drill or their country house—”
“What’s your point?”
“If you die, nothing you can leave me would make me feel less sad. So please, don’t die.” He left, closing the door gently.
She stared at the closed door, unable to explain why her brother’s words had left her with a sensation of warmth, like a cup of hot chocolate held between hands on a chilly winter’s day.
If dying was not an option, her second-best choice was packing. So she returned her attention to her suitcase, where she threw everything within reach. She was beginning to enjoy it when another knock interrupted her.
“Zack, leave me alone.”
She stood up. “Leave me alone.”
“I’m coming in.”
Her afternoon with Beth had had a calming effect on her, and seeing now her mother tiptoeing around her clothes on the floor and pretending to be cool about the mess in her room made her blood boil. Her frustration was restored in full.
“How are you?” Her stopped on the other side of the suitcase.
“Is it the national day of silly questions?”
“Do you need help packing?” Her mother didn’t give in to the provocation, instead she picked up a pair of jeans from the floor.
“I’m doing brilliantly, don’t you think?” Elicia invited her to have a look around with a gesture of her hand.
“What is going to happen on the twenty-second? Why did you want to be back by then?”
She crossed her arms.”What do you care?”
“I know you might have had a different idea for this summer, Elicia. But, life’s unpredictable, and—”
“Look how very predictable you are, instead. Never on my side.”
She couldn’t forgive her mother for not backing her up this morning. She could have stepped in before her father shouted at her; she could have asked then about the twenty-second.
Her mother sighed. “It’s not a matter of sides. We have to do this as a family.”
“Oh, please.” Elicia threw up her arms. “What kind of family are we? We’ve never spoken to Grandfather.” She moved around like a dog that couldn’t find a spot to rest. “Do you know, I don’t even know his name? Does it look like a family to you?”
“Listen, Elicia … it’s complicated.”
“I’m not stupid, you know. You said, ‘Listen’. So here,”—she opened her arms—”I’m listening.”
Her mother let out a sigh deeper than the one before. “Sometimes, things don’t go the way we want, Elicia. That’s life.”
“For me, nothing ever goes the way I want. And that’s not life; you and dad deciding for me.”
“I’m your mother. It’s my job to make decisions, and I try my best.”
“Oh, right. Like the brilliant idea you had of—”
“Oh my gosh, Elicia.” Exasperated, she hurled the jeans onto the floor. “That was a long time ago. We talked about it. Didn’t you understand? Zack was just too— “
“I understand, Mum,” she cut her off. “But don’t worry a few more years, and you’ll be done with this job.”
“You know that’s not what I meant, Elicia.”
“You aren’t good at it anyway,” she muttered, then looked at the window where the blurred outline of her mother didn’t seem so hurt.
The silence that fell between them could have lasted forever if it hadn’t been for her father’s disrespectful interruption.
He burst into the room without knocking. “All good here?”
She refused to react to another silly question.
“You’re already packed. Good girl Elicia,” he said, looking at the suitcase in the middle of the room and then disappearing behind the door like a meteorite of nonsense.
How could he be so utterly disconnected from reality? Had he already forgotten their fight?
Her mother didn’t seem to have noticed the intrusion. She stood rigid, her eyes fixed on the suitcase and an expression of absence in them.
“I would like to be alone, Mum.”
Her mother nodded and picked up the jeans she’d thrown on the floor. This time, she folded them, legs side-to-side and in half. “Where do you want them?”
Elicia pointed at the suitcase, feeling drained and in need of a respite. “I made a mess of it. I don’t like packing, and I hate those straps. You push them aside, and they fall back in.” She mimicked the movements with her hands. “So, I buried them at the bottom and threw some stuff on top. It’s a real mess.”
“You’re a mess, too?” She frowned.
“Maybe, that too. What I meant is that I also find those straps annoying. But you know? They’re there just in case you need them to hold things together. But you won’t need them if you fill your bag to the brim.”
“I’m so disorganised.”
“Not always.” Her mother smiled, pointing at the wall across the room. “That’s an impressive work of organisation. Nobody can beat that.”
She didn’t need to turn.