|STONES OF THE MADONNA
They lay on a lace doily on top of the tallboy,
three small stones, each one pierced as though
it had been run through with a spear.
She’d polished them until they gleamed like pearls;
they had a smell about them of deep oceans and green fronds.
They had powers.
It’s 1939 and Lily and her American doctor husband James have come to the Amalfi coast in southern Italy in search of a new start. And how could they not be happy in a place where the scenery is stunning, the locals generous and welcoming, where the air is filled with the fragrance of jasmine and the laughter of children?
But escaping the past isn’t so easy.
In the sultry silence of one of the hottest summers for years Lily discovers things about herself that she never knew. She discovers things about James too, things she’d sooner not know. And though the chill and looming shadow of war edges closer and closer, ultimately it is not the war that poses the biggest threat to Lily’s new found contentment…
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He'd gone into the surgery early, before eight, shutting the door behind him quietly, the faintest click, though Lily had heard it of course. She was already awake, had felt the bed dip as he got up, heard the gentle slap of bare feet crossing the tiled floor, shortly afterwards the sound of a spoon scraping against the side of a cup.
Three and a half hours he'd been hidden away. There had been no movement for some time now, his surgery could have been empty, but Lily knew he was still there, sitting hunched with his elbows on his knees, fob watch in hand. Just as she was, he’d be aware that the funeral was due to begin right now. Like her he'd be picturing it: the sombre little chapel up on the hill, the nose-tickling smells of incense, the white robed priest with his bowed head and voice that made Lily think of thick green olive oil. Rays of dusty sunlight would spotlight the coffin. The mourners - oh, and it would be packed to the door - would be hushed, sniffling, their lips moving in silent prayer.
Or instead of praying would it be his name on their lips, il dottore? Would they be cursing him?
Lily longed to go to him, put her arms around him, say it wasn't his fault, how could it be, he hadn't killed the woman.
Not that he would let her comfort him. He would push her away, tell her not to be so stupid, that of course he had, not by what he did but by what he hadn't done. He'd known the woman was critically ill, had promised he would return that night, and yet he'd gone away, no-one knew where, he just disappeared. Gone away and left her to die.
But then, wasn't it Lily's fault he'd gone? And if so, shouldn't she take a share of the blame for the woman's death?
It was stifling in the drawing room. She wished she could open the shutters but didn't dare. There had been a rock thrown through the open window last night, voices shouting, a torrent of angry words she didn't understand though there was no need. James had marched across to the window, his face stern and composed. Would they have seen his expression? If so they'd have assumed he didn't care about what had happened, felt nothing. How wrong they‘d have been. He'd closed the shutters calmly, returned to the book he was reading, flicked the pages with a steady hand. It had been left to her to remove the rock from where it had landed by the fireplace, to brush the pale grey dust that remained behind.
She was frightened.
The stones lay on a lace doily on top of the tallboy, three of them, no bigger than grapes, each one pierced as though it had been run through with a spear. Stones of the Madonna, that was what the locals called them. Lucky stones. When she'd found them she'd been as excited as a child, caught up in everyone's enthusiasm, wrapping them in a silk handkerchief before pocketing them. That same night she’d washed them carefully in spring water, then polished them until they gleamed like pearls. They’d had a smell about them of deep oceans and green fronds.
Now she picked them up, moved them around in her hand. They felt warm, smooth, she could almost feel them pulsating, as though they were alive. No wonder she‘d been tempted to believe they really did have powers.
How could she know that everything was about to go so horribly wrong?