The first leg of the journey was fine, but over the Dolomites they blundered into a gathering storm. The lights in the cabin seemed to grow brighter as a premature dusk overtook them. Their plane, a four-engine turbo-prop, which had looked so squat on the ground and risen so ponderously into the air at Frankfurt, suddenly felt as insubstantial as if it were made of balsa wood.
While it juddered onwards through the masses of cumulonimbus, Charlotte concentrated on keeping Imogen's mind, and her own, on other things. Imogen was, in normal circumstances, an easy-going little girl. And Charlotte, having trained herself to keep her own emotions in check – prompted to do so by parents' notable failure in this regard – liked to think that the two of them formed a perfect diptych of even temper wherever they went. Yet now Imogen looked far from calm.
'So do you remember the name of where we're going?' asked Charlotte, quietly putting away the essays she'd been trying to mark.
'Versilia,' said Imogen, after a brief hesitation.
'Where is it again? Near France?'
'That's right. You know the way Italy looks like a boot?'
'Well, Versilia's part of the shin. Right at the top, just round the corner from the Riviera.'
Charlotte delved in the seat pocket in front of her and produced a much-thumbed paperback. 'See what it says in the guide book: "The Riviera della Versilia stretches from Marina di Carrara in the north to Torri di Lago in the south, bordered by the foothills of the Apuan Alps, the waves of the Ligurian Sea breaking on its shore."'
'Yes,' said Imogen again – ever the teacher's child, she loathed to admit she didn't know something. 'And how long has Aunt Linda lived there?'
'Oh, years and years. She met Gianfranco when she was a student at the College of Art, up in Edinburgh.'
'Was he an artist?'
'Gianfranco? No, he was a trainee chef. She had a student job as a waitress in the restaurant where he was working. They got married when she graduated then moved to Viareggio, had all the kids and opened a restaurant called "Il Piroscafo" – it means the steam ship.'
'And you and granny and grandpa used to drive there to visit them?' said Imogen.
'All the way from Durham?'
'All the way.'
'How long did it take?'
'Three days. First day down to Ramsgate. Stay in a B&B. Hovercraft across to Calais. Next day through France to Nice. Slept in the car. Then to Viareggio.'
'Wasn't it boring?'
'Not really. They always made sure I had plenty of books to read.'
'Read? Didn't you get car sick?'
'No. I used to sit in the back on a couple of pillows, with the window a little open next to me.'
'When's the last time you were there?'
'It must be nearly 20 years ago.'
Charlotte smiled as she watched her eight-year-old daughter trying to comprehend so vast a timescale. Imogen knew all about her great-aunt Linda and the Italian relatives – their boisterousness fabled in a thousand tall tales. But she was evidently keen to keep the conversation going as the plane lurched from side to side, so she was pursuing a topic she knew to be close to her mother's heart. Realising this, Charlotte felt a pang of guilt at how absorbed she'd been in work.
'So why did you stop visiting?' Imogen asked. 'Didn't granny want to see her sister?'
'She did, but...' Charlotte sighed. 'Remember how I told you about how Aunt Linda became a Catholic when she got married?'
'Well, she took that very seriously. So she didn't really approve of what happened with granny and grandpa.'
'You mean divorcing?'
Ever since she'd first heard the word, Imogen had deployed it with immense relish, as a badge of maturity. Charlotte could never quite decide whether to feel discomforted by this, or proud of her daughter's intelligence.
'You see, the thing is Aunt Linda and granny were always really close when they were young – well, for obvious reasons. So, it's such a shame the way things went.' Charlotte sighed. 'But it's all water under the bridge now. Anyway, at least they still spoke on the phone.'
Imogen absorbed all this with a sage nod. The plane juddered again.
'But why haven't you seen been to Italy for such a long time?' she asked.
'Well, I was a student for years and years before I finally got my job at the university. I didn't really have the money to travel. But I did write. I kept in touch. Remember we used to send postcards?'
'Yes. So, will it feel funny seeing them all again – your cousins and everyone?'
'It will. Very funny. But I'm looking forward to it. At least, I think I am.'
'It's still sad granny couldn't have seen them, before she died.'
Hearing these simple words, so guilelessly expressed, Charlotte was pierced afresh by the most hideous, disfiguring grief. But she recovered as quickly as she could. Having administered her mother's funeral in a trance of stoicism, she had felt a sudden, irresistible need for Imogen to meet the Italian family at last. Booked at the last moment, their itinerary was complex: Leeds-Bradford to Milan via Frankfurt, then a train from Milan to Genoa and from there on to Viareggio. Her husband had been startled by the abruptness of his wife and child's departure, but he hadn't demurred – indeed he seemed sympathetic. Charlotte knew that the whole thing was far from logical, but she didn't care.
The turbulence abated. No longer agitated, Imogen began reading the guide book. Gazing out the window, Charlotte allowed her thoughts to drift towards their destination and the way it had changed for her over the years. While she had been away from it, the reality of the place – of dusty, pot-holed country roads and faded sea-front hotels – had slipped further and further into memory, until all that remained was a vague impression that grew dimmer with every passing year. Yet, at the same time, she also began to devise an alternative version of it. Versilia, when she first studied then taught 'Twelfth Night', became mixed up in her mind with Illyria.
Illyria, she knew, was an ancient region on the shores of the Adriatic, part of present-day Albania. But it was also a fictional realm, existing outside of time. This confusion persisted, grew more ingrained, and the word 'Versilia', when she read or heard it these days, conjured up images of a pastoral idyll: cypress alleys, orchards of citrus trees, azure water. Now that she and her daughter were going back to the real Versilia, she wondered if it would displace the imagined one which had gained such a strong hold on her.
These rather disconnected musings were interrupted when the storm grew a hand that slapped the underside of the plane's right wing. It heeled over like a waterlogged ship. There were no screams, just the sound of 80 breaths being sharply drawn in. Charlotte clutched Imogen to her as the plane fell sideways then righted itself again.
'Are we going to crash?' Imogen asked in a tremulous voice.
'No. We're not going to crash,' Charlotte told her. 'We're flying through turbulence, that's all.'
'But why is there turbulence? What makes it happen?'
'I don't really know, darling. I think it's to do with changes in air pressure or something.'
Visibly shaken, the cabin crew cleared up the debris. A number of overhead lockers on the port side had burst open, spilling their contents into the aisle. After a few moments, Imogen emerged from the shelter of Charlotte's arms. Pale, her pupils dilated with fear, she whispered, 'Can you tell me a story?'
Back home, proud of her reading skills, Imogen tended to disdain being told stories these days. But anxiety had clearly stripped away some of her precocity. Charlotte frowned, momentarily at a loss. Then, unable to think of anything else, she reached for what was closest to hand.
'Once, off the coast of Illyria, Sebastian and Viola, twin brother and sister, who looked so like each other they could only be told apart by their dress, were separated in a shipwreck. Viola came ashore in a small boat with some of the crew...'
In spite of everything, Imogen looked up at her mother, puzzled. They'd read Lamb's 'Tales from Shakespeare' together several times, so the plot of 'Twelfth Night', with its romance motifs, was familiar to her. Even so, it wasn't quite the kind of story she had expected. But the simple act of telling it seemed to weave a spell of calmness – however frail, however contingent – between them, as the plane laboured towards Milan.
Once she'd finished 'Twelfth Night', Charlotte moved on to 'The Tempest' and 'The Winter's Tale'. This distracted them even during the final descent, which felt like bumping down a broad flight of steps and was fraught with the intimations of further catastrophe until they landed with a shudder at Linate.
They had to wait for half-an-hour before being allowed to get off because a lightning storm was stoking up in the mountains to the north – invisible beyond the grey opacity in which the airport was sealed. Then, after a bus journey made spasmodic by unreliable traffic lights, they arrived with their sodden luggage at Milan Centrale. There they discovered that they had missed their train, but got seats on the next one, to Genoa Brignole via Piacenza.
The meal on the plane having been repeatedly postponed then cancelled altogether, they were both starving. They bought ruinously expensive panzerotti and sat eating them in one of the station's cafes. The décor was all peeling veneers and fluted chrome. Yet Imogen, still shaken, looked wonderingly around, as if entranced by its very banality.
'How are you feeling?' asked Charlotte.
Her mouth full, Imogen extended her hand and tilted it from side to side, in a gesture she had picked up from her father, which meant, 'Not bad.'
After a few more seconds' intent chewing, she said, 'They're funny stories, aren't they?'
'The Shakespeare ones. Like...odd.'
'I suppose they are.'
'They're like fairy tales that have gone wrong or something.'
Delighted by this precocious flourish of literary criticism, Charlotte felt herself slipping, helplessly, into tutorial mode.
'That's very true. Come on, let's think of all the ways the late romances are a bit odd – or not very realistic at any rate. How many are there?'
'Potions that make people seem dead.'
'Statues that come to life.'
'Loads of coincidences.'
'People suddenly getting jealous for no good reason.'
Charlotte nodded. 'It's as if the person who wrote them had learned so much about how terribly sad and unforgiving life could be and how things never really work out, so he wanted, towards the end of his own life, to force them to work out for his characters, even if it didn't really make much sense...He wanted to console himself.'
Imogen stared at her, wide-eyed. Charlotte realised she'd gone a bit too far – in more ways than one. Her eyes stinging, she looked away and took a deep breath.
'Come on,' she continued, brightly. 'Let's look at the departures board again. It must be time to leave by now.'
By the time they boarded the Genoa train, they were both exhausted. But then, for no apparent reason, the train failed to depart the station and they were kept awake by uncertainty about what may or may not be going to happen next.
'Did you like visiting Italy when you were little?' asked Imogen.
'I did. The family were always so kind and welcoming. I really loved them. And I was an only child.'
'Like you...So, yes, it was good for me to suddenly have to fend for myself in this big, busy household. You had to be quick at mealtimes to get enough to eat. Then again, dinner was the only time it was quiet. My uncle used to watch us all eating and say, "Siamo in chiesa."'
'What does that mean?'
'It means, "We are in church."'
Imogen smiled, as pleased to have got the joke as she was by the joke itself. Charlotte continued to reminisce, until she realised that her daughter had finally succumbed to sleep. She trailed off, but she was now enmeshed in the past and found it hard not to remember how the visits to Italy had ended.
It had happened when she was 16. She'd noticed for some years that her parents weren't especially happy. Then they began to peel apart, very slowly, a chill atmosphere of discontent imposing itself between them. Indeed the only time there seemed to be any lightness of spirit in either was on the trips to Italy. That final summer they'd set off as normal a few days after school broke up. But once they reached Ramsgate, the bickering intensified until Hugh turned the car round and took them all home. Divorce proceedings began a week later.
The end of her parents' marriage had little visible effect upon Charlotte; within a year-and-a-half she was off to university anyway. As sole witness to her parents' separation, she could see that her father was remote and moody and drank too much. But she could also see that her mother responded to Hugh's remoteness with disproportionate squalls of emotion that flattened both husband and daughter into the far corners of the family home.
Yet for all her outward composure, her parents' eventual divorce did
affect Charlotte. At university, though she had friends, she had no boyfriends. Instead she devoted herself almost wholly to her studies, getting a First and going on to do a PhD in Renaissance literature. Ascending these steps towards an academic career, she felt as if her progress was somehow fraudulent: the side-effect of her reluctance to become entangled in the thorns of real life rather than testimony to her native intelligence. Eventually, however, she met a fellow graduate student whose temperate nature, untouched by melodrama, allayed her fears of commitment.
Was her marriage happy? It was happy enough. She and her husband made sense as a team. They were civil and gentle with one another. And that's what really mattered...wasn't it?
The train finally left the station. Charlotte, lulled by its motion, fell asleep too. And she dreamt, inevitably, of the old car journeys to Versilia. She dreamt of landscapes through which they had passed: England, limpidly green with low hills; France, drier and mostly flat, with mile upon mile of plane trees lining the roads; the Alps, grey and fractured, scowling down at their tiny vehicle and its pygmy occupants. She dreamed also of how, when they finally crunched up the gravel path to Linda and Gianfranco's house, the branches of the fig trees used to brush the roof of the car in welcome and the mimosa shed a festive sprinkling of yellow blossom over it.
So profound was her slumber that when she woke she couldn't remember at first if she was a child on her way to Versilia with her parents or a parent on her way to Versilia with her child. She felt a renewed throb of loss for her mother. Past and present seemed to have become porous – made increasingly so by the coast towards which they were travelling, and the pulses of memory it sent out.
Any such confusion was quickly dispelled, however, when she noticed the absence of Imogen's weight pressing against her shoulder. Opening her eyes, she saw that her daughter was no longer beside her. The compartment had filled up at Piacenza and the new passengers smiled at her with a bland amiability, which, in her befuddled state, she found slightly unsettling. She tried to ask them if they had seen Imogen, but her Italian wasn't good enough to make them understand the concept of a lost child. Rising, she wrenched open the sliding compartment door and stepped into the corridor.
She made her way unsteadily along it, flinching at the hurtling darkness beyond the open windows. Still half-awake, she hadn't yet grasped the full significance of what was happening. But the realisation was beginning to steal upon her, accompanied by a cold sweat that sprang to her brow. There was no sign of Imogen in the next two compartments. But eventually, having crossed the flexing, concertina-like double doorway between carriages, Charlotte found her in the third. She was standing chattering to a perplexed elderly couple. As Charlotte slid open the door she thought she heard Imogen describing to them that long-ago, aborted final journey. But that was impossible – she had never told her about it. She must have misheard.
When Imogen saw her approaching, she adopted the contrite yet defensive expression she wore on the rare occasions when she was caught doing something wrong.
'Sorry, I just wanted to...' she began.
But Charlotte was too relieved to be angry.
'It's all right,' she replied and took her hand.
They followed the other passengers off at Genoa and, after an interminable wait, boarded the Rome Express which, they were assured, would stop at Viareggio.
This train was packed. The compartments were all full and the corridors clogged with inter-railing students in various states of fatigue and dishevelment. Some of them even slept in the luggage racks, their arms dangling over the edge. Moving along in search of free space, Charlotte and Imogen parted the arms like sub-equatorial explorers. Eventually they had to settle for a single, fold-down seat next to an open window.
Once they were settled, Charlotte told more stories to pass the time. Staying with Shakespeare, at Imogen's request, she moved on to 'Pericles and Cymbeline', though she was unsure if the rather confused account she gave of them was a result of her faulty recollection or the improbabilities of their plots.
In this manner, mother and daughter travelled on. Mountain villages went by, only their lights visible – each one a constellation suspended in space – often with a cross illuminated on a nearby peak. Then they headed south, skirting the coast, passing through Santa Marghàrita, Portofino, Rapallo and Chiavàri, stopping briefly at each.
Imogen sniffed the air.
'It's getting warmer.'
'Do you think I'll
'I don't know, darling. What do you think?'
'It sounds magical.'
Charlotte loved the way she said this with no sense of irony.
'I suppose it is. It's very beautiful, and that can be magical. But people live and work there, just like anywhere else.'
'I wish granny were here.'
Charlotte swallowed hard.
'So do I, darling. So do I.'
Almost from the moment they reached Chiavàri, the air became not just warmer, but more fragrant too. The town itself was so pretty, with its neatly proportioned buildings – their shutters brightly painted, their balconies densely woven with jasmine and bougainvillaea – that it made you want to laugh out loud. Glow-worms flickered in the undergrowth at the edge of the track. In the distance, echoing them, the lights of fishing boats and other vessels lay across the Ligurian Sea.
They skirted La Spezia, with its naval base where Charlotte's eldest cousin had done his national service but gone home each night to have his dinner cooked by Linda. Then they passed through Massa, and headed for Viareggio.
When they entered the fringes of Viareggio, Charlotte broke off her storytelling. To her pleasure, Imogen seemed disappointed. Blinking at the passing suburbs, which looked spectral in the slow dawn light, she protested, but only for a short while – she was very tired.
They picked up their bags and soon the platform surged up and slid past their carriage. Within a few minutes, Charlotte spotted her aunt. Not just her aunt; her mother's twin sister. For a moment, she struggled to breathe, as she had known she would. Drawing closer, was the person she'd just lost, reborn in the burnished autumn of Versilia – exactly as she had looked, before illness, before death. Here was a miraculous outcome worthy of any late romance. Except, of course, that it wasn't; it was just a coincidence.
'What happens next in the story?' Imogen asked, as if reading her thoughts.
Charlotte took her hand.
'I'm not sure,' she replied.