Morris Duckworth teaches English to the pampered rich of Verona and is not pleased. Living a meager existence in a squalid apartment, he regards his privileged students with envy and disdain, first wreaking revenge by petty theft and then, like all good criminals, graduating to grander larceny. When one of those students, a beautiful but vapid heiress, falls in love with him, Morris can almost smell upward mobility. However, after the girl’s mother—much to his chagrin—unequivocally forbids her from seeing him, he hits upon the perfect scheme: He convinces the besotted girl to run off with him, then sends ransom notes to her family.
Following a frightening logic, Morris’s subversions become deeper and darker. Soon events are spiraling with eerie momentum into a nightmare of deception and violence. As Publishers Weekly observed about the protagonist, “So deft is Parks’s dissection of Morris’s pathology that this taut narrative gains in suspense and surprise and sweeps to a shocking conclusion.”
“As always, Mr. Parks’s principal strength is in his crisp, unsentimental, grimly comic portrayal of characters on the edge . . . Continued evidence of Mr. Parks’s edgy, restless talent.” —The New York Times
“Parks turns up the heat, with wonderfully scary results . . . His move into the suspense field is a triumph.” —Kirkus Reviews
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Morris walked across the square faster than he would have liked. The twilight had a curious liquidity about it that had to do with the freshness after an afternoon's rain and the way first streetlamps stared into the dying daylight. It wasn't a moment to hurry, Morris thought. It was a moment to loll outside a bar sipping a glass of white wine and feeling the space between things, their weight, their presence. It was a moment to watch the shadows sharpening slowly and coolly as daylight bled away and the lamplight strengthened — to watch the colours die on stuccoed walls when the bright neon stabbed out beneath. A magic moment.
But Morris hurried on, across the square and into the maze of narrow streets beyond. He was quite out of breath with hurrying. It was the fourth time across the city in as many hours. Certainly he'd arranged things badly today, he thought. Getting wet like that between Paola's and Patrizia's. His right foot was cold and damp in its shoe and his trousers too were soggy and flapping around the bottoms. Morris stopped a moment to gather his breath, then leaned on the bell. He gave it a good hard ring. At the same time his lips slowly and clearly formed the word 'Drudge'. He repeated it out loud, 'Drudge!' trying to roll the 'r', but it was difficult. He tried again, then switched to 'boring,' where by now he had the rolled 'r' off to absolute perfection. 'Bor-r-rrrring.' He leaned on the bell again. Damn them!
Morris was standing outside a huge arched gate of blackened wood and now the little loudspeaker under a row of bells in the stone wall beside, finally crackled into life.
'Morris.' He drew a breath as one who is preparing to confess. 'The English teacher.' The words, quite seriously, were dust and ashes on Morris's lips.
'Ah, I'll just see if Gregorio's in.'
Of course he was in, dammit! It was time for his lesson. Otherwise the English teacher wouldn't have come, would he? So why didn't she open right away? Suspicious race they were! Morris glanced impatiently at his watch. Ten to six. He was going to have to hurry after this one too.
A sharp buzz snapped open the lock. Morris pushed his way in and, barely glancing at the courtyard where a fountain in delightfully deep shadow splashed over naked fauns, he hurried, faster than he would have liked, up the marble stairs. Always faster than he would have liked. Which meant that when Signora Ferroni opened the door his Italian was less perfect than it might have been from trying to catch his breath. She smiled sympathetically and he felt humiliated. She was dressed in wonderful taste in a soft grey wool dress; her posture was perfectly elegant, her make-up flawless and manners likewise. Could she offer him something to drink? Tea, orange juice? No, she couldn't. Morris, feeling scruffy, refused. He had an acute sensation his hair must be in a terrible mess.
Gregorio arrived, all hair oil and the adolescent's love affair with aftershave, and led him into the sitting room where they sat opposite each other over a glass table under a frescoed ceiling. Morris reached for his books from his leather document case only to discover that that was wet too. He must get some cream or something to treat the leather. It was the only beautiful thing he had. The pages of the book were damp.
'What did you do at the weekend, Gregorio?' — the opening gambit of every Monday lesson: asked it five hundred times today already. He felt weary and trivial.
'I went to the mountain.'
'The mountains. We don't use the singular unless we're referring to a specific mountain.'
'I went to the mountains.'
'How did you get there?'
'What did you have to eat?'
'What was the weather like?'
'How much did it all cost?'
'Did you enjoy yourself?'
'When did you get back?'
Gregorio had been skiing it seems. He'd gone up in his father's Alfa Romeo to Val Gardena where the family had a second or third or perhaps even fourth house and he'd spent the night there with his friend. 'Me and my fr-riend,' he grinned, delighted as Italians always were that the word didn't oblige you to declare whether male or female — as if Morris could give the most piddling of piddling damns whether Gregorio's trip had come complete with sexual experience or not! All the same, he smiled brightly back at his student. The weekend routine was worth a good ten easy minutes when all was said and done, which was 16.6 (recurring) per cent of the whole hour, or exactly two thousand five hundred of the fifteen thousand lire he was going to get paid for this lesson, because he asked the rich ones for more.
They switched to Gregorio's schoolbooks. The final school exams were near at hand and Gregorio's future hung in the balance. He had already been sent back a year once and he must get through this time. Morris was encouraging. They would make it together, he said. Where were they now? Ah yes. Out of the corner of one eye he looked at a fresco behind the cocktail bar where a goddess was twisting herself around a slender tree trunk. To his right a small bronze dryad paraded on a pedestal, arms uplifted and breasts stretched tight in a gesture of triumph. The place must be worth millions, Morris thought — of lire, billions — and this poor lad was sweating over his exams as if they could possibly matter. If he'd had half enough intelligence to pass them he'd have seen how utterly insignificant they were in the shadow of all this wealth.
They read a set passage from The Old Curiosity Shop, where the old man and Nell, homeless and hungry, take shelter in a factory full of monstrous machines and sleep in the ashes of yesterday's coal. Gregorio's well-to-do pink tongue stumbled over the difficult words, as well it might.
The boy's mustard shirt was from Standa, Morris noticed, the Marks & Sparks of Northern Italy. Was there no limit to the economies of the rich? Morris stopped for a moment and studied his watch shamelessly. Five minutes to go. He was trying to hold back what would be a truly thunderous fart.
Finished. Morris slipped his book off the table and down into the document case. The leather really was going to require some attention. It was the only thing that gave him any appearance of being professional, scuttling round from one place to the next through puddles and cobbles as he did. He sat up now, perfectly straight and immobile, placed one hand calmly over the other on the table and smiled, eyebrows lifted interrogatively in what he knew was an attractive expression. Gregorio responded with his usual, elegant, aftershaved blankness, while on a dark canvas behind him Christ had been quite savagely crucified by some fourteenth-century painter. The only whiff of bad taste, Morris thought, but it was probably a family heirloom. Inwardly he began to count if only to see how long it would take the boy to catch on. 'Ten, eleven, twelve ...' Every second stepped up the pressure in groaning intestines and was a breath faster he'd have to hurry back across town again in sodden shoes; but there could be no question whatsoever of leaving first, even if he had to sink to asking the boy what date it was. 'Twenty-two, twenty-three ...' Should he shout thirty-first out loud?
'Ah, I should pay you, it's the end of the month,' Gregorio cried and dashed off to speak to his mother. A maid crossed the room with an armload of brooms and eyed Morris suspiciously. She had heard the word 'pay' perhaps. Morris had no difficulty rewarding her with the frankest of frank smiles, a 'Buona sera, Signora,' and even a small bow of his blond head. They were on the same side after all. But the woman clattered tightlipped into the kitchen. Next thing, Morris thought, she'd be urinating in the corners to show it was her territory. Stupid old cow. They'd probably made her think she was part of the family or something.
Gregorio rushed back. Outside his lessons everything was all go obviously. In a big hurry to get out and see his 'f-friend' most probably. And in his hand was a cheque. Of all things. Sixty thousand lire and they paid you with a cheque! What did they want? For him to start paying his taxes or something? Or was he supposed to offer a reduction if they paid him in cash? BANCO NAZIONALE DEL LAVORO. At least five days before they'd clear it, naturally. Morris took the cheque, baring his teeth in a savage smile that left Gregorio not at all crestfallen. Then he was at the door, with the signora mother crying arrivederci over a wailing television.
'Buona sera, Signora.'
Gregorio said: 'By the way, we'll have to miss this Friday because I'm off to Cortina.'
Fifteen thousand lire lost in the frozen alpine snows.
'Never mind. Monday then. Enjoy yourself!' Damn you. And he was scuttling off down the stairs already to where that fountain now played away in a subtle web of spotlight beams, catching a faun's flanks here in a shower of silver, there his stony face, and one beam held the shining drops at the very apex of their parabola. Morris gave it the fart. He felt like spitting. 'Drrrrudge!' God, that 'r' was tough to roll. 'Drrrrudges bear grrrrrudges.' He turned into Via Quattro Spade, Via Mazzini, Vicolo San Nicolò, walking briskly back to the school and the last hour. What did you do at the weekend, how did you get there, who with, what for, where exactly, what did you have to eat, what was the weather like, how much did it all cost, did you enjoy yourself, when did you come back? Monday lessons almost over.
Later, Morris stood at the bus stop on Stradone San Fermo and clenched his teeth tight, as if defying wind and rain, though there was none. It wasn't a night for seeing Massimina, he thought, not with trousers wet and shoes scuffed and his beautiful document case rather the worse for wear and tear. He had sent some flowers earlier in the day, so she could hardly complain, and then he could always ring her when he got home. That should give the impression of the earnest suitor, wiped out after a day's slog and still hanging on the end of the phone to hear all the sweet gossip of his signorina fidanzata. He had made a good start there, Morris thought. It could be the one.
'Hi man, Morris buddy! What you up to?'
The tongue was English — or rather American. On a ramshackle bicycle, displaying no lights, a bearded young man wobbled dangerously across the street, knees splayed out wide to get his feet on the pedals. Morris was annoyed.
'Where d'you live then? Out of town?' Stan was a teacher at the school, from California.
'Montorio?' The American's accent murdered the name. And he had been in Italy twice, three times as long as himself, Morris thought. He felt pleasantly superior. Enough to keep him affable anyway.
'Where the hell's that?'
Morris said it was at the end of the bus line, seven kilometres away.
'Aren't you a bit lonesome out there on your own, man? I could find you a place in the centre if you like. That Susie's got a spare bed in her place. She's looking for somebody to move in. Cheap too. Bouncy girl. Could be fun.'
Stan was trying to be friendly and Morris should have been grateful. The American was grinning in a welcoming sort of way and obviously imagined that Morris was just shy. 'Got to stick together, us immigrants,' he laughed. 'Brits and Merks the same. Otherwise we'll get lost in this place with all these Eyeties.'
Morris kept his peace.
'Bunch of us are going down to Naples for Easter if you're interested. Wanna come?'
'How are you travelling?' Morris asked politely.
'Hitching it, in pairs, then meeting up there. But we've got one too many girls right now, so if you want to tag along ...'
The arrival of the bus spared Morris another refusal. He jumped on, savouring the pleasant lightness of his body as he skipped over the steep steps, punched his ticket, sat down and closed his eyes.
He had chosen to live out in Montorio precisely because of its isolation from the rest of the English community. They lived for the most part in an extremely dilapidated section near the centre of town. They had a fixation on living in the centre, feeling part of old Italy, near the art museums and chic shops (otherwise why on earth had they bothered to come?), and seeing as the prices of any property in the nicer areas of the centre were quite exorbitant, they settled very happily for ramshackle and dingy bedsits in the decadent and often foul-smelling area around Ponte Pietra. Morris too would very much have liked to live in the centre, but only in the more elegant, well-to-do areas and certainly not amongst a feckless group of fellow immigrants. He had chosen his flat in Montorio because it was modern and practical and not, by Italian standards, too horrifically furnished. He had removed all the bargain madonnas and supermarket crucifixes on arrival and now the walls were thankfully bare, apart from one or two tasteful prints a rich student had given him, plus the spotlights he had wired up in every corner to make the place bright and very white.
Morris sat down on the high kitchen stool to eat a supper of parmesan and dry bread from off the counter, washed down with a glass of Valpolicella. He fiddled with an old valve radio and listened to a quiz show on the BBC World Service. Reception wasn't very clear tonight and the programme was awful. It made Morris wince with its utter inanity, but he forced himself to listen as a sort of medicine almost. Nothing better than reminding yourself you'd done the right thing leaving the place.
Then, at quarter to ten, he telephoned Massimina. Just before it was too late, in fact, because she would be off to bed any minute. After the rest, the food and a change of socks and shoes, his Italian was near perfect and quite ready to confront the mother should there be any trouble.
Morris had met Massimina in one of the courses he taught at the school, a hopeless student despite her great show of diligence and then the exam that loomed for her at the Liceo. She caught a bus home from the same bus stop as Morris and noticing that she had taken a strong liking to him and that she was pleasant, well-mannered and shy, Morris had got into the habit of offering her a glass of wine in a bar during the half-hour wait they both had. Massimina had a wide, open face, freckled and friendly, and in reply to Morris's detailed questions about her home and family she replied with such a generous account of provincial riches that Morris had taken her out to the cinema on a number of occasions (when there was a film he particularly wanted to see) and every time they said goodbye he held her hands and kissed her carefully on both shy and freckled cheeks. 'Morrees!' she said. 'Morrees, quanto sei dolce!' She was just seventeen and a half, with a slim but generous figure, and she was failing in every subject at the Liceo Classico.
The previous Friday evening Morris had asked her to become his fidanzata.
It was big sister answered the phone, Antonella.
'Was it you sent the flowers?' she asked, rather coldly Morris thought. And then, who else?
'Did she like them?' he demanded, and got the tone just right, he thought. Eager, a trifle breathless. Quite indifferent as to what big sister might think.
But obviously Massimina had liked them, because now she was wrestling the phone from her sister.
'Ti ringrazio tantissimo, tantissimo, sono bellissimi, mai visto fiori così belli.'
Two lessons' worth, Morris thought. The worst of all seasons for roses. But at least they seemed to have done the trick. Morris wasn't actually sure whether he really would marry Massimina, even if her family were to let it go that far. He imagined probably not. He'd have to be crazy. Yet he was tantalized. And it wasn't pure mischievousness, it really wasn't. He wanted to test the water, to see if such a thing was feasible, to see if in the final analysis he might expect to save himself in this way. He had had a growing sensation of late that something was changing inside himself, that new paths of action were opening to him, paths that in the past he would simply never have dreamed of. Even that silly business with the document case, for example. It was as if a fundamental inhibition had finally been removed.
'Scusami cara?' He had lost track of what Massimina was saying.
Her mother wanted to meet him, have a word about it all.
'She says as soon as possible, Morrees. Like tomorrow night. She'd like you to come over to dinner. She's a bit concerned, not having met you and so on.'
He was working late tomorrow, Morris said. Clearly that was the right impression to give. Hard-working man.
'The next night then, or Friday?'
Morris thought quickly. He was going to have to charm the pants off the old battle-axe, obviously. And he could do it. He really could. He was feeling very confident in that department these days. The only thing was, to go when he felt up to it. Not when they wanted.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Juggling the Stars"
Copyright © 2013 Tim Parks.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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