Francis Meadowes is soaking up the late summer sun in Italy, running a creative writing course at the beautiful Villa Giulia, deep in the remote Umbrian countryside. Recruited by the villa’s owners, Stephanie and Gerry, Francis’s students include snooty, irritating Poppy and her ex-ambassador husband Duncan, eccentric Northern Irishman Liam, quirky, self-styled ‘Hampstead Jewess’ Zoe, bossy Scottish Diana, kooky young American Sasha, mysterious ‘spy’ Tony and restless civil servant Roz.
But what should be a magical week under the Italian sun turns into something far more sinister when one of the group is found dead, and the local police quickly turn to Francis for help. Uncovering betrayal, lies, secrets and old scores to be settled, Francis soon realizes something very dark is lurking beneath the genteel and civilized veneer . . .
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Monday 24 September
'It's not that I particularly dislike her,' read Poppy, 'although I have to say I do. It's more that she dislikes me. Hates me, in fact, and makes no secret of it. It's been the same since we were teenagers, though the sad thing is we were tremendous friends as children.'
A flicker of regret crossed her features, like the shadow of a cloud covering the sun; but almost before that had fully registered, Poppy had pulled herself together. She looked up from her trembling oblong of A4 and round at the attentive group, with that same mischievous, yet undeniably superior smile that had been troubling Francis all week. Not just Francis. All the guests at the villa were finding her irritating, with her grand manner and constant namedropping.
'Tremendous friends,' she repeated with emphasis. 'Games of hoopla. Dressing up. Running into the woods to build dens. We were most ungirly girls, really. The trouble was, of course, the house. Framley Grange. The most beautiful house in Wiltshire, people said. Though growing up, we took it totally for granted. My father had improved it, of course, beyond measure, but it had always been lovely, with the tall, spreading cedars over the great lawn at the front and the surprising wildflower meadow at the back. The twinkling trout stream beyond. The mill house that was now the summer house. The natural pool, far superior to those vulgar blue pools that were to blight the landscape later. Where we could bathe naked, nunga punga as my father used to say, in the argot he'd picked up as a young officer in India during the war. Ah, how we loved Framley! Even before we were old enough to realize how famous or important the constant stream of visitors often were. Cabinet ministers, judges, my father's top brass army colleagues. All lured by my father's legendary dry wit and my mother's generosity of spirit. But then, when we came to understand that it was to be I who was, in the end, to inherit the place, things started to go wrong in our sibling relationship. I could never put a finger on it directly, just little things. Minty would help herself to my party frocks without asking, for example, knowing how much that irritated me. Was I prettier than her? Perhaps I was. Was I cleverer than her? Perhaps I was. Did it seem unfair that I should get the looks and the brains and also the house? But that was life, as my dear father often used to say, shout sometimes. "There's no such thing as fairness in the human condition, whatever the bloody Commies like to think ..."'
When she'd finished, five minutes later, there was the usual short silence. Which Francis, as writing tutor, was honour-bound to break with some comment or remark. He liked, generally, to be as positive as possible, before pointing out, perhaps, a few things that could have been done better.
'That was very strong, Poppy,' he said. 'Very strong,' he repeated, playing for time. 'The point of this exercise, which as you know I jokingly call "Murder Your Darlings", is to be as honest as possible about someone close to you – and you really succeeded in that.'
There were murmurs of agreement from around the table and Poppy beamed back, smugly.
'It's not easy, telling it how it is,' Francis continued, 'so well done. I got a very clear picture of your sister, and your father. And also of this wonderful house you lived in as a child —'
'Still live in,' said Poppy.
'Still live in, great, and you gave us some nice details of that. The cedar trees, the mill house, all very atmospheric. I almost wanted more. Did anyone else think that?'
This was always a good trick, to throw things open to the table. However good, bad or dreadful they were as writers, most of the group were coherent critics.
Liam, the scruffy, middle-aged Northern Irishman, was the first to dive in. 'Not sure I wanted more about the house, though it does sound rather splendid. Like one of those Anglo-Irish mansions the IRA used to enjoy burning out in the Republic.' He chuckled, loudly. 'But the sister, and the father. I got a sense of them, but it wasn't powerful. What did they look like? What did they smell like? I'd have liked a more objective picture, to be fair.'
With each disparaging word, you could see irritation spreading across Poppy's features. Though this whole exercise of writing and then reading out loud was intended to provoke criticism, none of them really liked it when it came, however politely couched it was.
'I agree,' said Zoe, the self-styled 'Hampstead Jewess', adjusting her half-moon specs on the bridge of her nose, then looking down to consult a scrawled page of notes. 'So you were honest, Poppy, almost too honest, I'd say, about how clever you're supposed to be. But there wasn't enough specific detail. You talk about your father's "legendary dry wit". But even if it was legendary, with whom was it legendary? And isn't "dry wit" a bit of a cliché. Wouldn't it be better to see examples of it, Francis? Show not tell, and all that.'
There was no denying Zoe, who would always drag him in to her spiky takedowns. She was usually right, which made it worse.
'It's a first draft,' he said emolliently. 'It's an exercise, and there's lots to work with here. Trying to remember specific jokes is obviously more difficult than talking about a "legendary dry wit". But that's what we have to do. As writers. We have to work hard to yes, show not tell, as Chekhov famously said. The point is, I'm holding you all to a very high standard here. I don't imagine Dan Brown would redraft a phrase like that ...'
'"Legendary dry wit,"' repeated Poppy. 'Is that really Dan Brownish ...?'
The scorn in her tone indicated that she saw herself as a cut above the international bestseller.
Scottish Diana, never one to allow discord, now chipped in. 'I thought it was jolly good, Poppy. If I'm allowed an opinion.'
'Of course you're allowed an opinion,' Francis said. Christ, the passive-aggression of this woman knew no bounds. Her accent reminded him of the old joke about Edinburgh ladies of a certain background, gossiping over morning coffee. 'What's it called when two cars run into each other in Morningside? A crèche.'
'It's so hard to be honest about one's feelings for family members,' Diana went on, fixing the group with her large, sincere, if rather troubled blue eyes. 'I mean, I found my father rather tricky to deal with at times, but I don't imagine I would ever want to write about that.'
'Why not?' asked Liam.
'Far too personal.'
Liam chortled. 'What would you want to write about,' he asked, 'as a matter of interest?'
'What do I write about, Liam?' Diana replied. 'What I see in front of me in my daily life. Little quirks of other people. Unusual stories that I overhear in tea shops and restaurants. That sort of thing. But never anything about people I know personally. And nothing too negative. There's enough negativity in the world without us having to read about it all the time, isn't there?'
'That's a point of view, for sure,' said Liam. 'What did you think, Sasha?'
He turned to the young mixed-race American, who lay on the big blue beanbag in a white top and jeans, a fuchsia scarf around her neck, frizzy golden-brown hair framing her pretty, thoughtful face, like some alien goddess dropped into this coterie of geriatrics. She had booked the course on the Internet with apparently little idea what she was letting herself in for, except that it was 'in Italy', a place she had wanted to see, she had told Francis, ever since reading E.M. Forster's A Room With a View.
'I thought it was great,' she said, and laughed boisterously, as she often did just after she'd spoken. 'I'm so in awe of you all, with your stories, and your experiences. I wish I had a tenth as much to write about.'
'You will, dear,' said Zoe. 'All too soon you will.'
'I'm sure you do already,' said Liam. 'You just have to access it.'
'And on that upbeat note,' said Francis, 'let's break for our midmorning coffee.' It was exactly eleven o'clock and he had been saved by the notional bell.
The group shifted themselves at varying speeds. They left the long table under the vine and made their way out into the bright sunshine of the gravelled courtyard. The main bulk of the villa was to their right: pale-blue shuttered windows set in a façade of honey-coloured stone, undressed and wonderfully higgledy-piggledy, if you looked closely. The first door you came to led into a little piano room, where there were also shelves of fluffy toys, for the families who stayed here over the summer; then there was the main front door to the hall, with its worn black and white tile squares; the third door along led into a room with an oblong marble dining table and an open fireplace. At the far end of this was an industrial-sized Gaggia machine, where guests could make their own coffees. Here the writers formed a loose queue, politely offering to help each other with the tricky practicalities of tamping and squirting and frothing. 'Careful, Poppy!' cried Diana, as she turned on the steam wand before she was ready with the jug of milk. 'Or you'll scald yourself!'
'I'm hopeless, aren't I? Never quite got the hang of this bloody thing. And you're always so helpful, thank you.'
Once they had sorted out their cappuccinos and espressos and teas they headed back into the courtyard, to relax on the faded white deckchairs or sun themselves on the upright wooden benches that stood against the wall of the villa. Soon they were joined by the three ladies of the art group, who had been painting al fresco this morning, on the sloping lawn beyond the barnlike dining hall that stood at the far end of the courtyard. From this neatly mown green demesne there were wonderful rural views to wrestle with, out across the Umbrian/Tuscan countryside to the distant blue-grey outline of the Mountains of the Moon. An abandoned chapel, a study in glowing terracotta, lay above woods and sunflower fields on the high ridge to the left. Far away down the valley to the right, where the hills were covered in deep green forest, sat the grey turret of a castle. Fortunately, you couldn't see the battery chicken farm directly below the villa, though if you knew what to listen for, you could hear the awful squealing of the trapped birds first thing in the morning and last thing at night.
Francis was tempted to join in the mid-morning banter, as the writing group let off steam or asked the art group how they were getting on and the art group responded in kind. But then he decided to have five minutes in the sunshine on his own. The teaching was always more intense than he allowed for, especially if he had to keep the peace with such disparate spirits as this lot.
Snooty, self-satisfied Poppy was accompanied on this week by her quiet, dignified, if somewhat portly husband Duncan, who had told the group that he had no work in progress and nothing to write about anyway. 'Yes, you have, darling,' Poppy had cut in. 'Your memoir. His life as a diplomat,' she added, 'which is absolutely fascinating. Culminating in two postings as ambassador.' That she was writing her own memoir of their life together was not supposed to put him off, even though she had already regaled the group with some of the choicest anecdotes: the dinner party in Sierra Leone where no one had turned up, not even the guest of honour; the Bulgarian butler who had turned out to be a hitman; the not-so-discreet wife-swapping among the international diplomatic corps in Saudi Arabia.
Then there was forty-something civil servant Roz, who was looking for a new direction in her writing, and – she cackled, huskily – in life. Her best chance of that here was probably bluff, tanned, fifty-something Tony, who had joked that if he wrote honestly about his life he'd have to shoot the reader (the ladies had privately nicknamed him 'the spy'). And that was it: a group of eight, an excellent number, Francis thought, in that it was big enough to have a range of different perspectives, yet small enough that they didn't spend all morning reading back their various efforts at composition.
The oddest was undoubtedly Liam, the eccentric Irishman, such a caricature of the type that Francis would have ruled him out as a 'realistic character' in any exercise on that subject. During the introductory session yesterday, when Francis had asked them all what they were working on at present, Liam had told them that his memoir was about drugs and politics, but particularly drugs.
'So what is it?' Poppy asked. 'A been-there, done-that, got-the-T-shirt and learned-my-lesson type of memoir?'
Liam laughed. 'So what lesson am I supposed to have learned?'
'The dangers of drugs, I imagine. The harm you can do to yourself.'
'Bollocks to that!' Liam replied. 'I've never done any harm to myself. Quite the opposite. I've expanded my sensibilities.' This had led to a five-minute discourse on the wonders of drugs, how the world would be a better place if they were all legalized immediately; more than that, if ordinary people made a habit of taking them regularly. 'Can you imagine,' Liam said, 'if the politicians, rather than being forced to lie about how they'd never taken this or that illegal substance, admitted that they had of course, at college, or as young people, like anyone else. That they'd enjoyed them. That they continued to enjoy them, like fine wine. If they all got stoned at those conferences abroad, the G7 and Davos and such like, the world would be a better place. Just imagine if all those fellows from the EU just sat out in a sunny field in Switzerland and got wrecked on some Grade A sinsemilla. The problems of Europe would be solved in a jiffy. Dontcha think?'
Poppy had laughed at this, a measured tinkle. 'A most interesting point of view, Liam,' she said.
'It's not a feckin' point of view, Poppy, excuse my French,' he replied. 'It's the obvious truth.' His memoir wasn't so much a memoir about drugs, he went on, but a manifesto for drugs.
'So what do you say to the parents of the eighteen-year-old girl whose life has been cut short by a dodgy ecstasy tab?' Poppy asked.
'It's not an ecstasy tab,' Liam scoffed. 'It's an E. OK. A "pill"' – he drew the quotes with his chubby fingers – 'known as an "E". What I would say to them is this: if only drugs were legalized, they would be properly controlled and there would be no more "dodgy ecstasy tabs". Any more than the whisky and brandy you buy in pubs is likely to have meths in it, as it did during Prohibition. Or the abortions you get in UK hospitals are going to kill you, as they did before David Steel's law. It's the illegality that's the problem, not the drugs themselves.'
Over drinks before dinner last night, Poppy had given Francis her opinion of Liam. 'A most original person,' she'd said, tight-lipped. 'Though it can't be good for that young American girl, listening to all that nonsense about drugs.'
'She's twenty-three,' Francis replied. 'She has an M.Phil from the University of Oregon. I'm sure she knows all about drugs.'
'I just hope he hasn't brought a whole load with him,' Poppy countered.
Why do you 'hope', you bossy creature, Francis thought. 'I'm sure he hasn't,' he replied. 'Customs and all that.'
Now he lay back in the warm sunshine, closed his eyes, and eavesdropped on the chit-chat. To his right, he could hear Duncan talking to Sasha about Ghana, where some of her ancestors had come from and he had once been posted as a First Secretary. To his left, Diana, as an old Villa Giulia hand, was giving advice to newbie Roz about where and how to go, if she wanted to walk to the pretty little nearby town of Civitella this afternoon. It was, she said, her very favourite local walk, though sadly, even with the new hip she'd had put in three years ago, she was unable to do it anymore. 'We're all getting older, that's the trouble. I've been coming here for over twenty years. We were quite sprightly when we started. Hard to believe, but we were.'
When they returned to the table under the vine, it was Liam's turn to shine. 'As I mentioned to you before,' he said, 'I'm a single fellow with no siblings, so I've no immediate family to hate, apart from my ma and da, and they're dead and gone now. So I guess all I'm left with is memories.' He sighed deeply. 'I did this one as a poem.'
'OK,' Francis replied, smiling to conceal a surge of irritation. This was supposed to be a prose exercise and the Irishman knew it. Francis had already begged him to stop doing 'poems', which were hardly poems anyway, more like the modish chopped prose that so often passed for poetry these days. 'Let's hear it.'
Liam gave the group the beam of the creator sharing his work, took a deep, theatrical breath, and began:
There was a long pause, as Liam's bright brown eyes looked slowly round the group, and his right forefinger rose up in an arc towards his nose. Then:
'The official bastard,' he continued in a near-whisper.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Murder You Darlings"
Copyright © 2019 Mark McCrum.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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