While sorting through my childhood keepsakes I rediscovered the letter, its rich ivory texture a fitting canvas for the elegantly shaped words. As I held it to my nose and breathed in a hint of perfume, I vividly remembered that one summer that had, for a while, held such promise.
That April, as winter waned, the wind lost her ferocity and no longer drove in waves to angrily pummel our beaches. Instead, she pushed the tourist-laden ferry in to dock at Hugh Town and our quiet island was once again abuzz with camera-wielding strangers.
As much as I loved the first signs of spring, I always felt resentment at the corresponding invasion of visitors from the mainland. My father gently reminded me that they were our livelihood. In addition to his boat charter business, we rented out the cottage that adjoined our own small grey-stone house on St. Mary’s, one of the British islands known as the “Isles of Scilly.”
From the moment I first saw Rosa, I knew that she was unlike any tenant we had ever had before. I saw it in her high, noble cheekbones and shoulder-length auburn hair, in the sadness captured in light brown eyes. I heard it in the compellingly beautiful violin music drifting from her cottage. Whereas most people stayed no more than two weeks, she paid the whole summer’s rent from a thick wad of pounds.
I suspected her to be the reclusive type but, here too, she surprised me. Every day as I rode my bicycle home from school, she would wave and call me over and I would find her table spread with salads, pasta’s and home-baked tarts. I started to look forward to our afternoon lunches and chats. We spoke of my friends or the latest boy I had a crush on, of life on the island, of anything in fact, except Rosa.
My father started to act differently too. I first noticed it when he trimmed his usually unruly beard and ironed shirts that had previously been worn carelessly creased. Catches of crab or crayfish, which would have ended up on our table, were now given to Rosa as gifts and she soon started joining us on our weekend picnics to smaller neighbouring islands. My father, seven years a widower, was obviously smitten by our tenant and, to me, it felt surprisingly right.
That summer wove its magical spell on us all. It was full of long strolls and music, luscious meals, sunlight and laughter…until the rumours started.
In our small community stories spread faster than a wildfire. I heard it at school on the same day my father heard it at the boatshed. Did I know, Clarice whispered, that our tenant was a murderer? By the second period I had been told all the details of how Rosa had killed her husband, a famous Italian conductor, and was now hiding from the law.
My father and I didn’t believe it, but everyone else on the island did and I saw how their eyes and whispers followed Rosa in the street, how they turned their backs to her in the shops and answered her curtly. Worst of all, I watched the summer’s joy leaching from her eyes, replaced by the original, flat sorrow.
Then, on the first day of August, Rosa’s cottage was empty. Only two ivory envelopes remained on the kitchen table. My letter said simply: “The rumours are true. I am so sorry - I never meant to hurt either of you.”
My father’s envelope contained two folded newspaper articles. The first, with the heading “Famous Violinist Slays Conductor Husband,” told the story of how, four years earlier, the pregnant Rosa had shot her husband as he brutally beat her. The second article told of her acquittal on the manslaughter charge and how the trauma of the beating and trial had caused her to miscarry.
As September blew in her gales and the flocks of visitors migrated to less turbulent parts, our lives took on an old familiar pattern. My father, with unruly beard and un-pressed shirt, would depart for the boatshed as I headed to school, returning to eat a sandwich in an empty house.
Neither of us spoke of Rosa or that summer again. Not even when, several months later, a flat parcel arrived with a French stamp and the word “Fragile” elegantly written across its top. That night only the haunting sound of a violin, wailing from the turn-table, broke our deep silence.
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