The sun had long since set over the Italian horizon before the last of the mourners finally headed back to their homes, leaving behind a mountain of food and a silence in the farmhouse
kitchen that neither the Rossi family nor I could bear to acknowledge.
No one’s eyes strayed to Mum’s much- loved patterned Moroccan shawl draped over the chair next to the stove, or to her collection of thin gold and silver bangles bundled together in a box on the table amid the crockery and cutlery. Early that morning, I had thought I might wear them to her funeral, but when it came to it, I couldn’t.
‘I don’t think I can do this,’ I had sobbed, pulling them off again when it was time to leave for the church, but I wasn’t talking about wearing her jewellery. ‘I’m not ready.’
I had watched Mum’s last breath leave her body and yet somehow, I still couldn’t believe that she was gone. I didn’t want to believe that she was gone. We might have spent more time apart than together, more hours sparring than hugging, but the thought of never seeing her again, never having another spirited cross word, wrenched my heart in two.
I had tried to make myself believe that she was travelling again, off on one of her adventures, but the image of her final moments was imprinted on the inside of my eyelids and that made the pretence impossible.
‘You will never be ready, darling Fliss,’ Nonna had said, her eyes as swollen from crying as mine as she gently took my hand and guided me out the door into the spring sunshine and then to the waiting car. ‘Not for this.’
Nonna’s diminutive figure had been by my side all day. She had led me through the service, walked me to the graveside, and afterwards found me a seat and another plate of food back in the kitchen which had bulged with Rossi relatives all wanting to pay their respects. She was watching me even now, from the far side of the room. I quickly got up and began covering dishes and rearranging chairs, not wanting to worry her further.
‘Fliss,’ said Alessandro, Nonna’s son, the dear man who considered Mum his sister even though they hadn’t shared a single drop of blood. ‘Leave that.’
‘But it needs doing,’ I replied, my voice every bit as hoarse as his. ‘The food needs to be put away, at least.’
There were no dishes to wash. The many friends and relatives had made sure of that. Practically nothing had been left for the family to do aside from grieve for my mother, the woman who had arrived at their door, a pregnant teenager, all alone in the world, almost three decades ago. Without question they had welcomed her in, given her a home and taken her to their hearts and now they mourned her passing every bit as gravely as if she had been one of their very own.
‘It can wait,’ Alessandro kindly said. ‘I need to give you this.’
‘What is it?’ I asked, turning to face him.
‘Una lettera,’ he said, holding out a white envelope.
‘A letter?’ I swallowed. ‘For me?’
I never got mail at the farm. I had no one to write to me in Puglia. Everyone in the world I loved was right here. Except for Mum. I swallowed hard, pushing the thought of her final
‘It’s from your mother.’
My eyes flicked from the envelope to Alessandro’s careworn face and I bit my bottom lip to stop it trembling. I couldn’t have more tears to shed. It surely wasn’t possible for
my body to produce another single one.
‘She wrote me a letter?’ I croaked.
‘You know your mamma,’ he shrugged, the tiniest smile on his lips. ‘She always liked to have the last word.’
I slid the envelope into my skirt pocket and minutes later, having grabbed a coat and lantern from the porch and made sure Nonna was looking the other way, I slipped out of the
house and made my way down to the cherry orchard. It was chilly, even for April, and I turned up the collar of the coat and walked a little faster.
The letter sat heavy in my pocket, almost as heavy as the weight which had settled on my chest the moment Mum had returned to the farm after cutting her last trip short. Footloose
and fancy free, there were few corners of the globe she hadn’t visited and she had planned to be away for months. When she turned up again, just a few weeks later, we knew something was wrong. Just one glimpse at her unusually pale and painfully thin face told us something was seriously amiss. The doctor confirmed our fears and the cancer rampaging through her system had claimed her before any of us had even started to take the diagnosis in.
‘Oh, Mum,’ I sobbed as I came to a stop at the foot of one of the oldest cherry trees on the farm. I rested my back against the trunk and slid down, coming to a bump on the hard ground.
I tugged the envelope out of my pocket and arranged the lantern so I could read what was inside. The writing didn’t look much like Mum’s. It was spidery, obviously scribbled
before her strength had left her and she couldn’t even hold up her head, let alone control a pen. I pushed the image away. I didn’t want to think of her like that. She had always been so vibrant and full of energy, that was what I needed to remember.
Even though the words didn’t look like hers, the tone was unmistakably Mum’s; I could imagine her standing over me and I could hear her voice in my head.
‘This can’t be true,’ I whispered into the evening air as I scanned the page. ‘I can’t believe it.’
‘It is,’ came her swift response, clear as the night sky and carried on the chilly breeze. ‘You must.’
I looked at the letter again.
Fliss, I have something to tell you, something I should have told you years ago but I could
never find the words. I know it will come as a shock and I hope you can forgive me.
I could tell the letter had been hastily written, as if she wanted to commit her confession to paper before she changed her mind . . . or ran out of time.
Do you remember when you told me you didn’t want to travel with me anymore? That you’d seen
enough of the world, and that you wanted to stay at the farm because it was where your
roots were planted?
I did remember saying that, and mostly because of her reaction. Rather than laugh my words off, as I had expected her to in her free- spirited I- refuse- to- be- tethered kind of way, she had been upset. I had always assumed she was disappointed that I wasn’t going to carry on following in her flighty footsteps, but apparently not.
The truth is, I stayed away for so long after that because I was feeling guilty. I know
you will roll your eyes at that because you’ve always said I’m too self- absorbed to feel bad
about anything . . .
I wasn’t rolling my eyes. Far from it.
. . . but I did feel awful and that’s because I have kept something from you Fliss. I have kept something important from you and the Rossis. Your roots shouldn’t be planted here in Puglia because you have family elsewhere. I know I’ve always maintained it’s just the two of us in the world, but it isn’t. It never has been.
When I left the UK in search of your father, I left my family behind. I never got on with my dad, but I think you might. I think you might be a better fit for the family farm than I was too. I think your roots should be there, Fliss, buried in the British Fenland soil, not planted here in Italy where I put them.
I know I’m not in a position to make demands, but I think you should go to the
farm and see it for yourself. It’s called Fenview Farm, and it’s near a town called Wynbridge. Go and find it before you finally settle on your place in the world.
I’m sorry I never told you any of this before and I’m sorry there’s no time now to tell you
more. I hope you can forgive me. I’m not sure I can forgive myself.
With all my love, Mum xxx
I stared at the letter, my hands shaking with more than the cold. Countless times both Mum and Nonna had recounted how she had arrived at the farm pregnant and looking for the boy she had had a holiday romance with. The address he had given her didn’t exist, but the Rossis did and they had taken her in. Their farm became ours. It was where I belonged.
Or at least it was where I had always believed I belonged. I had never given a thought to what Mum’s life had been before Puglia, but now I knew she had grown up on a farm in England that bore the Brown name and she had left it behind, along with her family, and I felt shocked to my very core. She must have fled under one hell of a cloud if it had stopped her going back.
The sudden voice, cutting through the silence, made me jump. I almost dropped the letter and pulled in a lungful of air. I hadn’t realised I was holding my breath.
‘Fliss!’ bawled the voice again.
It was Marco, Alessandro’s son, Nonna’s handsome grandson. The man I thought of as my brother. We had grown up on the farm together. I had been there for him when he lost his mamma and now, he was here for me as I tried to navigate my way through saying goodbye to mine.
‘I’m here!’ I shouted back, making the dogs in the yard bark.
‘I’ll be there in a minute.’
‘It’s time to eat!’
The long day had been punctuated by nothing but crying and eating. In fact, the whole of the last few days had been an exhausting mix of the two. I really didn’t think I could manage to do more of either.
‘Sbrigati,’ came Marco’s demand again.
‘I am hurrying,’ I muttered, trying to slip the letter back into my pocket and only then realising that there was another, slightly smaller, envelope inside the first.
‘What are you doing out here?’ Marco asked, his voice closer as he negotiated the path I had taken through the trees, aided by the torch on his phone. ‘It’s too cold.’
‘I just wanted a minute,’ I sniffed, my eyes quickly scanning the second envelope which had the request ‘please pass on when you arrive’ scribbled on the back.
Mum obviously expected me to deliver her missive, but that wasn’t going to happen. I wouldn’t be going to Fenview Farm or to Wynbridge. I had no need of another family, even if
they were my flesh and blood. My home and my heart were here in Puglia with Nonna, Alessandro and Marco.
‘What have you got there?’ Marco asked.
I shook my head.
‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘It’s none of my business.’
‘It’s fine,’ I told him, pushing the letter further into my pocket, but not wanting to shut him out. ‘It’s a letter. From Mum.’
‘What does it say?’
‘Nothing important,’ I lied, holding out my hand so he could pull me up.
He stared down at me, his eyes searching mine.
‘It really is nothing,’ I swallowed.
Arm- in- arm, we set off back towards the house.
Even though we were all used to Mum being away for months at a time, there was no deluding ourselves that she was coming back. As much as I would have loved to, I couldn’t erase the memory of the last couple of months any more than I could pretend that her letter wasn’t sitting on the nightstand next to my bed.
I felt her absence everywhere. It was the last thing I thought of before I tried to sleep and the first thing I remembered when I woke from the hours spent tossing, turning and dreaming. As the days slowly passed, and even though I tried not to because my life really didn’t need further disruption, I began to think more about the words she had left behind and
the implications they could have if I acted on them.
The internet at the farm was intermittent at best which was frustrating because, as my thoughts strayed more and more often to what this Fenview Farm and Wynbridge looked like,
it couldn’t maintain a consistent enough connection to satisfy my curiosity.
I had been adamant the day of Mum’s funeral that the Rossis were all the family I needed, and that I wasn’t going to share with them what she had revealed, but my inquisitiveness had slowly got the better of me. Just as Mum had known it would. What sort of farm was it, I wondered, and more to the point, why did she think that I would be a better fit for
it, and her father, than she had been?
Within a fortnight I was fit to burst and couldn’t keep the details of the letter secret any longer. I had made up my mind that I would go. I would take a flight to the UK and find the previously unheard of family and farm for myself. If nothing else, the trip would take me to a place where I wouldn’t constantly be reminded that Mum had left me for good.
‘So,’ I said, carefully laying the letter on the kitchen table after supper one evening. ‘I need to talk to you all. I have something to tell you.’
Grandmother, son and grandson sat in silence but each became increasingly wide- eyed as I read what Mum had written. Their expressions told me that they had absolutely no idea there was a Brown family back in England missing their daughter. When I had finished, I slowly drank my coffee, letting the words settle and sink in.
I knew it would have pained Mum to know that I would have to share her secret. To the Rossis, nothing was more important than family; they were the classic Italian famiglia and she would have worried about lowering herself in their adoring estimation. But she needn’t have. They were shocked, but not unkind.
‘Almost thirty years,’ Alessandro quietly said. ‘She left England almost thirty years ago and she never breathed a word about growing up on a farm or about her family.’
‘I know,’ I nodded.
‘I suppose we all just assumed that she had no one,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘No one who would miss her anyway, but this,’ he said pointing at the letter, ‘suggests otherwise, doesn’t it?’
‘Yes,’ I agreed. ‘I think it does.’
‘Has she been in touch with them at all in all that time?’
‘I don’t think so,’ I swallowed. ‘I don’t even know if she told them she was pregnant before she left, so they might not even know I exist.’
Alessandro ran a hand through his thick salt- and- pepper curls. Marco chewed his thumb- nail and Nonna stared at the letter.
‘How old would that make your grandparents, Fliss?’
‘Pretty old,’ Marco haphazardly calculated before I could answer. ‘Perhaps as old as Nonna. What are you going to do, Fliss?’
‘She’s going to go, of course,’ Nonna firmly answered, finally finding her voice.
‘Yes,’ Alessandro added. ‘Fliss, you must.’
They sounded as though they were all set to try and convince me, but I’d already decided.
‘But we’re Fliss’s family,’ Marco cut in. ‘What was Jennifer thinking, dropping this bombshell from beyond the grave? Why did she wait?’
‘Probably so she didn’t have to deal with all this,’ I answered, with a wry smile.
Marco reached across the table for my hand and squeezed it tight.
‘She shouldn’t have said anything at all,’ he frowned.
‘Yes,’ said Nonna. ‘She should.’
‘I’ll come with you then,’ Marco added, having taken a moment to absorb Nonna’s pronouncement.
‘No,’ I said. ‘You’re needed here. And besides, this is one journey I really feel as though I need to make on my own.’
Alessandro and Nonna exchanged a look, clearly relieved that I didn’t need talking around.
‘Are you going to contact your grandparents before you go?’ Marco asked.
‘I wouldn’t know what to say,’ I shrugged, my heart fluttering at the thought of having to find the words.
‘I suppose it would be difficult to explain in a letter or on the telephone,’ said Alessandro, sucking his bottom lip as he looked down at Mum’s spidery words.
‘And I don’t want to overthink it,’ I told them. ‘Now I’ve made up my mind, I just want to go. I’ll think about what I’m going to say when I get there. It’s the only way to make sure I don’t talk myself out of doing it. One step at a time, you know?’
‘One step at a time,’ Marco repeated.
‘When will you leave?’ Nonna asked, her eyes filled with tears.
‘At the end of the week,’ I told her. ‘I’ll book a flight for Friday.’
She nodded and reached for my other hand, and just like that the course of my life completely changed direction.
A Taste of Home by Heidi Swain, Simon & Schuster, £7.99, publishes on the 29th April 2021
In my Christmas book, Mince Pies and Mistletoe at the Christmas Market, the market itself quickly became central to many of the community celebrations and I have noticed an increasing number of similar markets popping up in towns, and even in villages, around the UK this year. With their seasonal scents, tastes and treats I think they provide the ultimate opportunity for the perfect festive date-night. Not only are there a wide variety of unique gifts on offer, but musical entertainment and plenty of warming food and drink. Not to mention the abundance of dazzling decorations and sparkling lights to get you in the celebratory mood...