Chapter 27: Caitlin – December 1977

They’d arranged to meet at the terminal; Caitlin was shocked when she saw Rebecca walking towards her.   She looked very thin and on closer inspection her eyes looked swollen as though she had been crying.  Caitlin hugged her hello, holding her tighter and longer than was normal.  Rebecca knew that she knew something was wrong.

‘Hey let’s get through immigration and get a coffee and croissant.  I’m starving and you look like you could do with a proper meal.’  Rebecca marvelled how easy it was to travel the way Caitlin did.  The first class departure lounge and BA flight a different world to the steerage experience she was accustomed to.  Well hardly accustomed.  She’d only done that twice.

With the miles travelled the distance to Rebecca’s problems receded.  Caitlin was pleased to see the lightening of her friend’s spirits and was determined that Rebecca would have an enjoyable festive holiday in Rome.  She had planned lots of excursions for them to undertake if they felt like it, including a tour around the Vatican on their last day.  Mostly she wanted to spend time with her friend and offer her unconditional support.

The two travellers cleared immigration and took a taxi to the apartment on the Corso d’Italia.  The driver drove through the late morning traffic of Rome at an alarming rate, blasting his horn repeatedly to clear a path through the dense traffic.  The girls gaped in awe at the ever-improving vistas as they neared the centre.  Rebecca had never seen anywhere so astonishingly beautiful.  At last they arrived at the ornate wrought iron gates of an imposing mansion with a final blast of the car horn.  The mansion was built in the Palladian style; the upper floors painted a soft madder red, the ornate window frames picked out in white with wrought iron Juliette balconies at each window studding the facade.  A uniformed concierge greeted the girls at the entrance.  As he guided them into the building Caitlin noticed with a catch her grandfather’s name was still advertising his ownership of the fourth floor apartment.

The concierge knew to expect Caitlin and a friend and the apartment had been made ready for their arrival.  The apartment was set over the entire fourth and fifth floors of the building and the roof terrace above.  The views were amazing; looking directly onto the Villa Borghese surrounded by its extensive park.  The girls traversed the apartment in awe.  Caitlin had no idea that her grandparents had kept an apartment in Rome and the scale of the place was completely unexpected.  Rebecca couldn’t quite believe that her best friend now owned this amazing, seven bedrooms, and five-bath room apartment in the centre of Rome.  The place was vast.  Caitlin wondered what on earth she was going to do with all the property she had inherited.

‘Let’s go and get some lunch and have a look around.’  Caitlin said, ‘It’s a lovely sunny day despite the cold.’  The two walked towards the Via Condotti with some Christmas shopping in mind.  The Borghese Park to their right they sound found themselves at Harry’s Bar.  ‘Perfect!’  Caitlin approved, ‘we’ll have a glass of Prosecco and a bite to eat here.  We’re only about five minute’s walk to Via Condotti after.’

Seated at a window table in the antique panelled restaurant they sat drinking in the atmosphere as they sipped Prosecco and perused the menu.  Caitlin was pleased to observe that Rebecca’s spirits seemed much improved with hardly a shadow passing over her lovely features.  They chose simple American style burgers and side salads and ordered another drink.

‘Have you thought what you’re going to do with the apartment?’ asked Rebecca, ‘It’s stunning, and from what I’ve seen of it so far Rome wouldn’t be a bad place to hang out.’

‘No, indeed’ Caitlin responded, ‘it’s a bit weird that I didn’t know about the apartment.  It’s been in my grandfather’s family for years but when I came to Rome with Mama we stayed at the St Regis.’

‘It couldn’t have been because they didn’t have enough space for you.’  Rebecca remarked wryly.

‘No I think they might have squeezed us in!  Perhaps it was just more convenient to stay in the hotel than to get the apartment opened up for us.’ She speculated.

The two shared views about the apartment as they picked at their lunch and sipped drinks.  Caitlin thought that it might be possible to split the flat into two and sell half.  She felt somehow disloyal to her grandfather’s memory to sell off all the properties and possessions that he had bequeathed to her.  She was aware however that maintenance and upkeep would be astronomical for places that she would barely use.

‘Hey it’s not a problem I would mind having,’ joked Rebecca.  Her face clouded briefly as an unpleasant recollection of her own problems intruded into her thoughts.  ‘But I can see your dilemma Caiti, it would be a shame to lose contact with all that family history but as you say, how much would you use this apartment and the Sorrento and Venice properties?’

‘I’ve almost made up my mind to sell the Venice Palazzo.  My father has arranged for me to meet a property developer there next Thursday.  I’m going to have to fly direct from here leaving you to fly alone to London I’m afraid.’

‘I expect I’ll cope.’  Rebecca insisted on paying the bill and the two ambled out into the sunshine with their minds set on shopping.

Caitlin saw to it that Rebecca enjoyed the Christmas break far beyond her expectations.  She knew that her best friend would open up when she was ready to so she did not attempt to force any confidence.  Instead she filled the days with possibilities of pleasures.  Rebecca could choose what they did and where they went.  She could also choose to opt out.  Caitlin was happy to see her friend’s pallor disappear and some flesh appear on her etiolated frame for they ate endlessly it seemed.

Some of their conversations were dedicated to the apartment and ideas for its refurbishment.  The furnishings were very traditional and not to Caitlin’s taste although there were some valuable pieces that she may keep or sell to pay for the alterations.  Rebecca mentioned how successfully Suzanne’s house had been transformed by using an architect to design and oversee the project.  Caitlin thought it was a good notion and made a mental note to contact Suzanne as soon as she returned to London.  It was time she paid her a visit anyway.

The two dedicated many hours to shopping, not just to the last minute Christmas things.  Rebecca was constantly reviewing her retail offer so she was interested in any opportunity to discover new labels or pick up new merchandising ideas.  Rome was inspiring for her.  She found that the window display and general layout of the stores tended to be much more sophisticated than in London.  The tendency was for a spare, spacious feel to the retail space.  Rebecca made a mental note of several ideas to try and discovered a couple of new labels that she would like to buy for the new shop.

Christmas Eve was a special day.  They spent the afternoon wandering through the bustling streets, pausing at the Piazza di Spagna to listen to the roving musicians playing and singing carols.  The square and the streets all around were packed with last minute shoppers inspecting the wares of street vendors and stopping to buy roasted chestnuts hot and sweet from the hawkers braziers.  That evening they dined simply in a traditional family trattoria dawdling over the meal so that they could join the throngs who would soon head for the Vatican City to congregate in St Peter’s Square.  If they got their timing right they would get near enough to the big screen to see the Pope presiding over Midnight Mass in St Paul’s Basilica.

The cold night air hit them as they left the warmth of the trattoria.  They made their way quickly towards the river Tiber aiming to cross over at the Ponte Cavour.  St Peter’s Square was a magical sight with the giant Christmas tree in the middle and there was a bustle of expectation from the throng.  It was a bit like a rock concert thought Rebecca irreverently.  Although the service seemed long and tedious to the two non-Catholics the atmosphere was awe-inspiring.  They left the square with a deeper sense of the Christmas message and felt quite spiritual.

Caitlin had organised Christmas day to be full of treats.  She had made up a stocking full of tiny gifts that she hoped would amuse Rebecca.  They would open these after they had breakfasted on smoked salmon, cream cheese and bagel, like a proper New York Jewish lox and a bagel, with bucks fizz.  After breakfast Rebecca could call home. They were then going to go for a walk in the park followed by present opening in front of a roaring log fire.  They would have this in the smallest of the four reception rooms which was the nearest to being a snug though still severely oversized to merit the name.

Rebecca woke to a cry of;

‘Happy Christmas!’ from an excited and effulgent Caitlin.  She sat up in bed to be hugged by her friend.

‘Santa’s been’ she announced, ‘he’s left stockings for us!  Let’s go and open them and have breakfast.’  Rebecca who had not had so much fun in ages caught the spirit of optimism that Caitlin had created.

‘Lovely, let’s go’ Rebecca hugged Caitlin warmly, ‘Merry Christmas.’

The day could not have been bettered.  The weather was glorious.  Chill, with a blue sky and a benevolent sun.  They both spoke to their families during the course of the day and exchanged warm wishes and promises of visits soon.  Christmas dinner at the St Regis was festive in an odd way.  Their fellow dinners were almost all visitors to the city.    The food was excellent and the wine flowed.   The formality broken, people conversed with each other from table to table, exchanging yuletide greetings. By the end of the evening it felt like they were in a one off global family.  Rebecca and Caitlin walked home together arm in arm singing carols off key and laughing tipsily at every silly remark.

On Boxing Day morning the real world came barging back into Rebecca’s mind.  The lovely bubble of happiness that Caitlin had created slipped away.  Thoughts of Dylan and the turmoil of her seesaw feelings for him could not be blocked out any longer.  She howled like a wounded animal and sobbed into her pillows hoping to muffle the sound from Caitlin’s ears.  Caitlin was a light sleeper and heard her friend’s distress.  She lay still letting her friend sob until the storm abated.  She then padded across to Rebecca’s room and went over and sat on her bed.  The whole maelstrom of her feelings and bits of what had happened spilled out of Rebecca as Caitlin listened and soothed.

Caitlin could recognise the signs of an abusive relationship.  It sounded to her that Dylan was systematically controlling her friend through psychological manipulation. Caitlin was horrified by the part that she had played in pushing them together.  She determined to find out what was going on and her instinct told her that Charles may be the key.

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