The Flying Carpet 2 moored at the small port of Marino San Vincenzo. As the yacht sailed in Leila was mesmerised by the shimmering sweep of terracotta tiles, baked in the midday sun over slabs of butter-yellow walls that rose along the slope of land. The quaint harbour town seemed to melt into the green hills that piled in the distance. Leila watched as the crew performed their tasks and when the boat had finally docked, she stood apart as preparations to disembark got underway.
A few minutes later she and Mira were ensconced within the cool confines of the waiting luxury vehicle. Eager to get to Villa Almanacarra, Leila had opted not to browse through the picturesque town. Their driver navigated the narrow streets barely avoiding the brown-skinned, smiling vendors and waving passers-by who stood at open doorways, with a deft expertise that stunned even Mira. Leila was riveted as the old-world charm overpowered flourishes of modernity in a juxtaposition of old buildings and bursts of new technology.
Just a breath away and they were driving through the bountiful countryside, richly hued like the famed Tuscan paintings. Tall columns of cypress carved a path through pristine combed fields of vine, while rustic homesteads dotted the lush greenery with gusts of yellow and red.
The sun staggered over the hills dousing the passing scenery in shades of gold as the afternoon grew long. But the glow seemed to emanate from within every tree shrub or vine, as if the disappearing sun had left part of itself within each natural thing. A lump filled in Leila’s throat. The beauty that lay claim to Marco’s land, instilled a melancholy. One borne of a combination of appreciation for this Renaissance land , and a sadness that had no basis but her ache for Marco. Not for the first time did she wish he sat beside her instead of babbling Mira, who made for a sweet companion, but a poor substitute. With each mile they seemed to climb higher, the rolling hills falling into one another.
The scene hardly changed except when they passed ancient castles and crumbling abbeys that stood the test of time. As they drove deeper into the heart of Siena, the fields grew lusher.
When some unique beauty outside her window struck her, she thought again that Marco should have been here with her. “I want to see my home through your eyes,” he’d said. Now, he would never know each new reaction as the land unfolded before her. Being miles away, he could even be in Nigeria for all she knew having not had a word, no call, no message – it was the cold silence that cut deep. The full weight if her innocent coffee with Marshanns sat heavily on her chest. But with each minute that passed, her regret was quickly replaced with anger, anger at Marco for not believing her.
Perhaps noticing Leila’s demeanor at long last, or unable to ignore it any longer, Mira placed a hand over Leila’s. “Disappointment follows us like a shadow sometimes, and though you put on a brave face, and try to keep the hurt inside, it is that pride that may prevent you from getting rid of it. Why don’t you call, mmm?”
It startled Leila, Mira’s ability to say whatever she thought always at the right time sometimes. “No, I couldn’t, and I wouldn’t.” Leila took a deep breath. Anger was the best cure to melancholy, she decided.
Now moving in an easterly direction, the sunset to their backs, the lengthening shadows crept further away from them. Declining an offer to stop, Leila urged the driver to their destination. At long last, about four hours since they left the marina, they approached a long winding road that ended at large iron gates. In decorative calligraphy, Villa Almanacarra was carved into a bold golden plaque along a dramatic curl of wall. Immediately, the automated gates swung open and allowed them through. Cypresses marched their way to an ornate fountain. Breath-taking in its magnitude, it depicted a roman nude surrounded by cherubs decanting pitchers of water at its pointed feet. They drove around the feature and came upon a simple feat of architecture. It was a plain cube-like building, its virtue being its large arched windows and tall Corinthian pillars that propped the arched entrance extending toward them in welcome. On marble steps stood a neat group of people, all forcing hesitant smiles. When Leila’s door was opened and she exited the car finally, she stood, a little unsure. It was the shortest member of the group who approached her. With cheeks round and pink, the blooming smile and open arms left no space for discomfort as the wide woman enveloped her in an all-consuming embrace. Leila found unusual solace in the welcoming hug and allowed herself to think of her grandmother. She would need to phone the Queen as soon as she was settled, she reminded herself as the woman held her at arm’s length, inspecting her from head to toe. “Molto bello!” Her head dipped shyly before she pulled her roughly into her arms again. Then the rest of the group inched closer, hands extended in greeting. “Welcome, to your home here in Tuscany,” interjected a wiry older man, whom she recognised as their superior. In a formal bow, Pasquino introduced himself and the motley crew that rushed forward to meet her, and then ushered her into the abode. Her home, Pasquino had said. She took in the chic décor from the ubiquitous ornate moldings to the elegant amass of antique and contemporary furnishings. It didn’t feel like home, but a beautiful canvas, each piece a part of a whole that told a story that was not yet hers.
Listless after her long journey and perhaps more after her soul-draining call to her grandmother, Leila walked out onto the gallery just outside her second floor room. The night seemed to hang with a stifling heaviness about her and the drone of mosquitoes thickly filled the air, but a longed-for breeze blew in from the west and seemed to shoo them away.
Her grandmother’s voice still echoed in her head. There had been a buoyancy in Rani’s tone that was difficult to ignore, even over the phone. Excited that it was just days to go before Leila would arrive at Oudh and more so by the preparations being made for the traditional celebration of Marco’s and her marriage, Rani spoke vividly of the ceremony that was being planned. “It will be one to rival all Bollywood movie weddings,” she quipped.
Leila swallowed the need to dissuade her from a lavish affair, knowing that her protests will fall promptly on deaf ears. Rani had claimed it was her prerogative to see the future queen of Oudh married in the requisite lavish splendour.
Leila allowed herself to find comfort in the dip and rise of Rani’s melodious tone. She felt closer to the old woman even though her words stretched the boundaries of Leila’s wishes. A simple affair, it was not to be. And so Leila felt the tension of the past few days ebb as her grandmother described fastidious details, impossible expectations, elaborate traditions and their simple significance. Her heart catapulted at the excitement in Rani’s voice, her obvious delight, something Leila hadn’t known had been missing until then.
“You’re quiet my child, is something the matter,” Rani had said after a brief pause, punctuated more by the enormous distance between the two. “No, no everything is fine.” Leila’s quick response sounded empty.
“Did I tell you that I met your grandpappa for the first time the night before we were to marry?” Rani did not wait for a response, and continued. “I was too young and naive to know about love, well, it wasn’t considered important, as long as the stars lined up and our parents approved, it was a good match. But I did learn about love, I fell madly in love with my husband, he was the right man.” A brief pause and then she said. “I want you to know I appreciate the sacrifice you have made, but if you feel that it is not what you want … I want you to be happy, my dear child. That is most important.” The phone crackled. And Leila wiped away a stray tear.
“He’s a good man? Your Marco?”
Leila nodded into the phone and then said yes.
“Are you afraid you will not love him?” It was furthest from the truth, she wanted to say. She loved him already. What she was afraid of, was that he did not feel the same for her. Had she not ached to hear his voice these two days?
Leila stared out into the blotted darkness now, her eyes becoming accustomed to the shape of the land as a breeze tussled her hair about. Marco, she sighed. Not for the first time, did she wish him at her side to witness the pride she knew he must undoubtedly feel as he surveyed the land that was his, that whispered his name with each roll of hill and row of vine? She stood a while longer against the wrought iron balcony before she went to bed.
It was a wonder that Leila slept at all. But in a manner she felt closer to Marco in his home, in his bed albeit he was thousands of miles away.
Perhaps it was her epiphany of the night before. Her heart lurched with the weight of that knowledge. When did it happen? When did she fall in love with Marco Vincenzi? Was it when she lost herself in the liquid depths of his eyes? Or maybe when he kissed her like she was his oxygen. It was difficult to pinpoint the exact moment. But just as quickly as it had happened, he turned away from her. The fault lay with her and it was a bitter lump in her throat, one that she was reluctant to swallow. She had not given any information to Marshanns. Not that she was sure of. And yet Marco did not believe her.
Arising to birdsong and the bold humming of a catchy tune that drifted in through the arched windows that were flung open, Leila perked and went out through the open balcony to take in the scene. It took her breath away – the dawning sun slanted through the rows and rows of vines beyond a landscaped garden. It filled her with a renewed hope and in that instant she resolved to take Mira’s advice. Call! She told herself firmly.